The first cookbook I remember buying for myself was Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World, which, come to think of it, I lent to a friend and don't remember where it ended up. No matter. My cookbook collection has grown. A lot.
A recent survey of the bookcase in my home office, the stacks in the living room, the dining table and my purse showed I'm up to 104 cookbooks. That's approximate — another one may be hiding in my nightstand.
You may be thinking that's too many cookbooks. My husband agrees with you. Especially on moving day. Or you may want to come over and peruse my little library. I hope you're hungry for more cookbooks because my collection will continue to grow as I review them in a new cookbooks column called Page to Plate.
For me, cookbooks inspire in a way that online recipes usually don't. Though both approaches have a place in my kitchen, Googling a recipe that uses up odd ends in your fridge or a new ingredient is such a utilitarian process. Is it fun? Not really. That's what cookbooks bring to the table. A good one transports you by evoking a sense of place or perspective; it teaches you technique, flavor combinations, about the author, the cuisine. It's a richer, fuller experience. Cookbooks offers context. A story.
In this new column, I'll write about those stories worth diving into (or not) and what they can offer you. Reviews will alternate between focusing on one cookbook and discussing multiple cookbooks on a similar theme. Look for reviews in the Taste section every other week. Join me as cookbooks take over my world, and maybe yours, too.
Food With Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings
By Leela Cyd
Clarkson Potter, 2016
I was in college when I decided to start making food for friends.
Desserts were an easy path to entertaining. One time, I made a dense chocolate cake for a friend's 21st birthday, dusting it generously with powdered sugar around a cutout of her initial, K. I was proud.
Then she blew out the candles. Sugar clouds erupted, lightly sweetening the air around a gaggle of girls laughing and trying to wipe the powdered sugar off their black dresses. The photos still make me laugh, but I could have used some help with the actual cooking.
Leela Cyd's cookbook, Food With Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings, is a guide to the sophisticated yet fun food I was aiming for then — and now.
Cyd is a food, travel and lifestyle photographer who has shot photos for several cookbooks, including her own, and food magazines. Perhaps her home base in Southern California informs her sunny approach to food. Travel has been part of her life from a young age, and that is reflected in her mix of recipes. As a kid, she traveled with her photographer dad. By age 16, she had been to Spain, Morocco, Laos, Myanmar and South India.
Recipes in her book are organized into six categories: Breakfast & Brunch, Teatime, Happy Hour, Potlucks & Picnics, Desserts and the thoughtful Tiny Takeaways. The Happy Hour chapter focuses on more substantial bites than the similar-sounding Teatime chapter, and it considers steps for making recipes ahead of time so you're ready for impromptu visits from friends.
It seems Cyd considers the presentation of food to be as important as flavor, as the photos and food styling in the book make for gorgeous, inviting dishes.
And she has a lot of fun with the dessert recipes.
Think Pink Faloodas are totally whimsical and inspired by her trips to India; mango semifreddo studded with a layer of ladyfingers and pistachios makes for a tall, stunning slice. In the Teatime chapter, you'll find instructions for making orange blossom sprinkles and arranging them to create an ombre effect. I've seen many recipes floating around the Internet for a homemade version of Magic Shell chocolate coating on ice cream; Cyd stands out by spiking hers with whiskey and black pepper. Her caramel recipe calls for a shot of scotch.
Let's start with lunch
During my first foray into Cyd's book, I was hungry for lunch, so I tested the Spring Green Couscous Cups from the Potlucks & Picnics section.
This also called for a subrecipe, Kale Pesto, so I got to test two. The kale pesto was easy to make and used pistachios instead of pine nuts, a move I'd already grown to love in my own pesto recipe. But the kale? I hadn't tried that before. The resulting pesto was bright, and I kept going back for more "tastes."
While mixing the couscous salad, I tasted a small spoonful and thought it needed a splash of something. I instinctively reached for olive oil, but listened to Cyd's instruction to add lemon juice. It loosened up the salad and perked it right up in a way that olive oil can't.
There is a slight problem with the Spring Green Couscous Cups recipe. They are called "couscous cups," and the enticing picture accompanying the recipe indeed shows butter lettuce leaves cradling scoops of the couscous salad. But the ingredients only call for chopped butter lettuce, never whole leaves, and the final instructions have you serve the couscous on top of the chopped lettuce in a bowl. I plan on making the salad again several times this summer, but there's a disconnect between where you're headed and where you end up.
The note on Cyd's so-called Best Black and White Cookies persuaded me to try them: "The only problem with traditional black and white cookies you find in New York delis," she declares, is "everything." I have to agree. For me, the most interesting part of those big, instantly recognizable cookies is the Seinfeld episode about them. Her reinterpretation of the classic is a fresh take featuring petite chocolate shortbread slice-and-bake cookies slathered with white chocolate and a smattering of crushed cacao nibs. It's a fabulous and welcome upgrade.
Next, I tried the Pickled Fig, Pistachio and Ricotta Canapes, for which I think I found the exact multigrain cracker pictured in the book, though next time a smaller cracker might be easier to eat. The resulting savory snack was a cinch to put together but looks elegant. It'd be just right for a happy hour at home or a stepped-up snack for an afternoon Netflix binge.
Degree of difficulty
Cyd's recipe instructions are clear and easy to follow, but this isn't the first cookbook I'd recommend to someone just dipping their toes into cooking and in need of the basics. Cyd goes beyond that. I've grown up eating empanadas but I've never had anything like her version stuffed with rainbow chard and currants with a vibrant pistachio dipping sauce on the side. Who's going to paint egg white onto sugar cookies to adhere delicate edible flowers? Only someone who has already developed a desire to cook and a love of entertaining.
Her use of ingredients like tahini with chocolate feels current in a post-Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook world. She calls for sesame seeds in her salty everything cookies, which are pumped up with rye and quinoa flours and inspired by whole-grain baker Kim Boyce. There's purple cauliflower hummus. Rosewater appears in a rhubarb float, in a chamomile eton mess, and later in a flan with candied petals.
This is the kind of book I'd love to spend a weekend cooking and baking from with my sister or a close friend. It'd be a welcome gift for any of yours who love trying new recipes — these are beautiful, creative and celebratory.
Ileana Morales Valentine can be reached at [email protected]