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Welcome to Page to Plate, a column about cookbooks, creativity

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 ileanamvalentine@gmail.com.

>>EASY

Spring Green Couscous Cups

Fine sea salt

2 cups Israeli couscous

1 cup frozen or shelled fresh green peas

¾ cup roughly chopped raw pistachios

3 scallions, chopped

1 cup Kale Pesto (recipe below)

2 cups chopped butter lettuce

6 teaspoons lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

Freshly ground black pepper

Lemon wedges, for squeezing

Shaved Parmesan, for garnish

Fill a medium pot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt until it tastes briny like the ocean. When the water returns to a rolling boil, add the couscous and boil until al dente, about 7 minutes. Add the peas and cook for 1 minute longer. Drain the couscous and peas in a colander and run under a stream of cold water to stop the cooking process.

Transfer the couscous and peas to a medium bowl. Add the pistachios, scallions and ½ cup of the pesto and toss until the couscous is well coated.

In a small bowl, toss together the lettuce, 2 teaspoons of the lemon juice and the olive oil.

Add the remaining 4 teaspoons lemon juice to the couscous mixture and taste to adjust for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper.

To assemble, arrange a small handful of butter lettuce in each serving bowl. Place ½ cup of the couscous mixture in each bowl atop the lettuce. Finish with a tablespoon of pesto in each, and serve with lemon wedges and a few shavings of Parmesan.

Serves 6.

Source: "Food With Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings" by Leela Cyd (Clarkson Potter, 2016)



>>EASY

The Best Black and White Cookies

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface

cup unsweetened cocoa powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon coarse sea salt (fleur de sel or Light Grey Celtic would both be great here)

1 stick (4 ounces) plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon coarsely crushed cacao nibs

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. (If your cocoa powder is particularly lumpy, you may need to sift the mixture together.) Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and beat until just incorporated. (The mixture will look a little crumbly, but will gradually come together.) Turn the dough out onto a clean floured work surface. Use your hands to shape the dough into two 8-inch-long logs about 1 inch in diameter. Wrap the dough logs tightly in plastic wrap or parchment and refrigerate for about 4 hours, or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Take the chilled dough logs from the refrigerator and cut them crosswise into ¼-inch discs. Place the discs on the baking sheets, leaving a bit of space between. Bake for about 11 minutes, or until just barely set. (The cookies will set up more as they cool.) Gently transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Place the white chocolate in a small microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 10-second bursts, stirring between each, until melted with just a few bits left (or you can melt it in a double boiler). Spread one half of each cookie with a spoonful of white chocolate and place back on the wire racks. Top each frosted part of the cookie with a pinch of cacao nibs. Let the white chocolate set on the cookies, about 30 minutes in a cool kitchen (or 5 minutes in the refrigerator), before enjoying.

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Source: "Food With Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings" by Leela Cyd (Clarkson Potter, 2016)

>>MODERATE

Pickled Fig, Pistachio

and Ricotta Canapes

For the pickled figs:

12 dried Black Mission Figs, sliced into thin discs

1 cup red wine vinegar

¼ cup sugar

3 sprigs fresh thyme

For the canapes:

1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese

24 of your favorite crackers (I like large, circular wheat crackers)

Olive oil

Sea salt

Honey, for drizzling

½ cup pistachios, lightly crushed

Fresh thyme leaves, for garnish

Make the pickled figs: In a small pot, combine the figs, vinegar, sugar, thyme and ½ cup water and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, cover and let the figs steep for 2 hours or overnight in the fridge.

Assemble the canapes: Spread about 1 heaping teaspoon of ricotta on each cracker. Gingerly place the pickled figs (about 1 or 2 per cracker) atop the ricotta, then top with olive oil, sea salt, a drizzle of honey and a hefty sprinkle of crushed pistachios. Finish with fresh thyme leaves and serve immediately.

Makes about 24 mini tartines.

Source: "Food With Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings" by Leela Cyd (Clarkson Potter, 2016)

>>Easy

Kale Pesto

1 bunch kale, stems removed (about 4 cups roughly chopped leaves)

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup pistachios

¼ cup fresh basil leaves

½ cup olive oil, plus more for the container

¼ cup lemon juice

½ teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for seasoning

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a food processor, combine the kale, garlic, pistachios, basil, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste. Process on high speed until the mixture is smooth. If you need to loosen the texture, add a teaspoon or two of water and continue to process. Add the Parmesan and blend until fully incorporated. Taste for seasonings and add more salt and pepper to taste.

Place in a small bowl or glass jar, cover the top with a thin layer of olive oil, seal and refrigerate for up to 5 days. This pesto freezes well in small containers or plastic bags, and it keeps for up to 1 month.

Makes 1 ¾ cups.

Source: "Food With Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings" by Leela Cyd (Clarkson Potter, 2016)

Welcome to Page to Plate, a column about cookbooks, creativity 07/11/16 [Last modified: Monday, July 11, 2016 11:15am]
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