Cookbook Capers

I don’t buy many new cookbooks these days. After giving away at least half of my massive collection before moving six years ago, I have been careful to not replace them all. But like so many others, I am drawn to the cookbook sections of bookstores...checking for new titles, looking at photos, absorbing new trends and ideas. Sometimes, I am rethinking my own dining habits or perhaps I find a book that convinces me to think about that.

Last week, while wondering the shelves of McIntyre’s Fine Books, down in Fearrington Village outside Chapel Hill, I found Mark Bittman’s latest, The Food Matters Cookbook, 500 Revolutionary Recipes for Better Living. The Food Matter Cookbook It fit the bill for me as I have increasingly moved toward lowering my animal protein consumption and cooking lots more local vegetables and whole grains. That trend for me has been evolving for some time, but has been encouraged by both the availability of great produce, the need to lower our environmental impact, and current articles about reducing heart disease and inflammation as one ages.  I have sought out recipes from many ethnic and online sources and as usual adapted old standards. And quite simply, even using the traditional American model of “meat and three”, it is easy to decrease the amount of meat or poultry and “beef up” the veggie and whole grain portions.

But who can’t benefit from a little inspiration. I love Mark Bittman’s approach, his sensibilities, and his new book is a treasure trove of just the kind of recipes I like to make: simple, high flavor and healthy. Having just purchased his book on Friday, I put it to work for two consecutive dinners.

The weather here this weekend brought us our first frost and thoughts turned to stews and root vegetables.  We were going to a UNC exhibition basketball game Friday night, a short walk from our home, so a one dish meal was in order. I pulled out my favorite Cuisinart deep electric fry pan, allowing me to sauté then slow cook in the same pan, and got to work.

I love chicken chili and Bittman’s White Chili with Chicken and White Root Vegetables looked like a great twist on some of my favorite flavors: cumin, chili, lime and celery root (oh my!). Of course I did not have all the ingredients, but got the gist of it so I substituted carrots and sweet potatoes for the turnips and white potatoes missing from my pantry. I dashed a bit of hot sauce in at the end for accent since my substitutions were a bit sweeter than the original recipe, and let it all simmer in the cooker while we went to the game.  It was a big hit and I enjoyed leftovers for lunch the next day.Of course it in not entirely white, but I like those orange autumn accents inthe stew.

The next night we had just purchased a wonderful tin of Galician sardines and happened to have a fresh local cauliflower in the vegetable bin.  The cookbook’s index is really a gem and my husband quickly found “Ma-Ma’s Pasta ‘Milanese’” under the “sardines” heading.  While the recipe offers a seemingly odd combination of ingredients, we have found Bittman worthy of our trust and we were game. Besides, surely it was no coincidence that we had all those ingredients on hand? I don’t even remember the last time I bought sardines.  The recipe reminded me of the Sicilian style “Macaroni and Gravy” that is in my cookbook, Book of Feasts.  The flavors of sweet and salty with a bit of texture took it out of the realm of the lighter, fresh summertime tomato sauces that we have been preparing for months. We set it on the stove to simmer, each of us expecting the other to turn it off while we went to the movies. When we returned and opened the front door, the scent of caramelizing tomatoes and onion greeted us. Oops! Did we ruin our dinner?

Fortunately, we had not. In fact, I think the deepening of the long simmered flavors made the sauce especially rich and satisfying. We served it over brown rice spaghetti with a watercress and goat cheese salad with fig balsamic vinaigrette on the side. I am hoarding a bit to spread on toast or a sandwich for lunch, thinking it would make a lovely brushchetta topping, not unlike caponata.

On Sunday we gave the cookbook a rest while I sautéed some tiny whole potatoes with a local buffalo  smoked kielbasa, onion and caraway and a side of braised red cabbage with red wine and apples, another feast of fall flavors.

I can’t wait to get back to Food Matters Cookbook for dinner ideas tonight. There are 498 more recipes in the book. There is no question it will become a well worn family favorite.

See Recipe for White Chili

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