Tag Archives: Cookbooks

It’s Game Time!!

Anyone else out there love both food and playing games as much as I do? I sure hope so. Because today’s the official release date of my new cookbook, Gourmet Game Night. It’s the ideal book for that niche of humanity that lives in that overlap of the foodie crowd and the gaming crowd. And I’ve launched a companion web site as well, at www.gourmetgamenight.com. Check it out!

The general premise of the cookbook is a simple one. When you’re playing games, there can be a lot going on. Dice, cards, fake money, dominoes, Cranium clay, game pieces in circulation. You want to keep your food on the tidy side so that those accoutrements of playing games don’t get covered in Cheetos dust and pizza grease. And you also don’t want to distract from the game play by having to put down your cards to pick up a knife and fork to eat along the way.

So I dreamed up this world where playing games and eating well go hand in hand. Fingers never get messy, because everything’s served in small dishes, on picks, between mini slices of bread, or are just pop-in-your-mouth fully edible. And the game momentum continues uninterrupted because the food sits to the side on a small plate, ready for one-handed eating while you ruthlessly collect high rents from your Monopoly opponents.

Along with the 80 or so recipes, I also provide lots of tips for hosting game nights, from considering what types of games to play, to favorite small dishes and picks that make mess-free eating a breeze. I have some menu plans in there, too, whether you’re two couples playing hearts or a crowd playing a bunch of different games.

And did you know that there’s an ever-increasing array of games being released with food lovers in mind? From Foodie Fight to Wasabi!, there are plenty of “gastro-games” on tap today, a number of which I profile in the book as well. If you’re looking for a game shop near year, I have a starter list of a dozen or so in the book. On the web site, I hope to continue increasing the listings to help connect game players with great shopping options near them. Is there one in your area that I should add? Let me know!

Though I’ve written (or co-written) a dozen cookbooks before this, Gourmet Game Night stands out as unique among them. It’s perhaps the most personal, growing organically out of realization that the way we host game nights at our house might be a bit out of the norm and maybe others would like to learn some tricks for making great food game-friendly. I found myself interjecting doses of family history in the book’s introduction, memories of playing Tripoley when I was a kid, and carrying a mini cribbage board on backpacking trips.

And the book’s already garnered interest from a number of different types of media outlets. It’s been featured in USA Weekend and Health magazine. I’ve been interviewed by Faith Middleton from Connecticut Public Broadcasting (for future airing, not sure what date) and will be live on Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius the morning of March 3. The book’s been chosen as the March selection for Barnes & Noble’s Food and Drink Book Club! I’m due to be doing an online Q & A with book club folks on March 10.

But I have to say that this review of the book on a gamer’s blog Guilt Free Games warms my heart about as much as anything could. I felt pretty confident that among the foodie crowd there would be a subset of folks who like to play games too. But was it equally true that among the hard-core gaming crowd there would be some interested in eats beyond the usual convenience and fast-food fare? If this review is any indication, the answer is “yes”! He and his wife even ventured to try the wild mushrooms tartlets, happily finding the goat cheese “wasn’t as gross” as he thought it would be (thrilled to help introduce folks to something new!). And I’m glad, too, that my obvious proclivity for more mainstream party games (dominoes, Wise & Otherwise, Balderdash, Scrabble, Blokus) didn’t dissuade this hard-core gamer from appreciating what the book has to offer to game players of all types!

So, are you an avid game-player too? I’d love to hear what your favorite things are to play when you have friends over for a fun unplugged game night at your house. Unwind, reconnect and bring on the fun.

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Quirk Books: a Random Cookbook Collection

At Seattle Bookfest in late October, I found myself chatting with a gentleman at the  Book Club of Washington booth about their organization. “Are you a collector?” he asked me. “No, not really,” I muttered. “Do you have more than 3 books at home?” Sure. Of course. Who doesn’t? Is it that easy to be a collector?

It’s surely not a fair impression, but I’ve always equated “book collector” with someone who buys volumes (often historic or otherwise singular) in pristine condition (or has them restored), then puts them on display in some elegant fashion. I sit at the other end of the spectrum. I have many hundreds of books, but they’re all over the place, some on the floor, many on shelves, some piled on the tops of said shelves. Some are new, some are old. Some are immaculate, some are verging on tattered. But it is, I suppose, a collection. If a random, unorganized, somewhat motley one.

When it comes to adding books to this collection, that’s equally random. Many show up on the doorstep, of course, as did the delicious The Grand Central Baking Book this past week. Which was delightfully frustrating onlyThe Grand Central Baking Book: Breakfast Pastries, Cookies, Pies, and Satisfying Savories from the Pacific Northwest's Celebrated Bakery Cover in that the book did not come with an accompanying piece of that Lemon Crumble Tart on page 126. I also received last week the new Coco book from the artfully-inclined publisher Phaidon. In it, 10 master chefs from around the world (including Alice Waters, Fergus Henderson, Ferran Adrià and Mario Batali) each picked 10 chefs they feel are on the cusp of greatness, contemporary chefs that will be tomorrow’s masters. It’s a luscious, inspiring, diverse volume that is equally cookbook, culinary narrative and travelogue, with wanderlust-inducing destinations to add to the food life list. And it was great to see Seattle’s own Kevin Davis among the chefs profiled, a choice of Mario Batali’s.

Because of the existing overload of books I already own, I don’t scour bookstores–new or used–nearly as much as I used to. Now and then, I will, unable to fully shake the habit. And I usually gravitate to the old, the quirky, the unexpected, the nostalgic. I seem to have a thing for the 1950s given the number of my books–including a Ford Motor Company collection of recipes from drive-worthy destination restaurants and Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts*–that  were published back then.

But as I first started reflecting on my oddball book collection for this post, it just happened that the first few books I reached for had a common theme. So it’s prompted me to start sharing occasional peeks at the books that surround me in this office. Starting today with the animal kingdom.

Take the Wolf in Chef’s Clothing book I picked up somewhere along the line. It was first published in 1950 by the Wilcox & Follett Co. publishers in Chicago. Billed as “the picture cook and drink book for men” (men, those wolves!!), it takes the picture-worth-a-thousand-words ideal to the extreme. Recipes never list quantities such as “2 teaspoons sugar” instead showing a sugar bowl showering its contents into two spoons. Hard to get any simpler than that! Recipes include Welsh Rabbit (rarebit, but who’s counting), C’est la Vie Canape (cream cheese-roquefort stuffed celery stalks) and even Crêpes Suzettes. Picking the book up again, I realize it bears some resemblance to the Look & Cook cookbook series I worked on with Anne Willan. Which itself was inspired in part by another volume in my shelves, La Cuisine Est Un Jeu d’Enfants (Cooking is Child’s Play). My 1965 copy includes both original and translated text, complete with forward by Jean Cocteau!

Another animalistic food book I have is less cookbook, more “food as decorative art” inspiration. L’Artichouette (which seems to be out of print) has this wild bird-like creature on the cover, with radish-slice eyes, that exemplifies the transformations found within–in this case an artichaut (artichoke) into a chouette (owl). Get it? Arti-chouette? (Chouette is also slang for “cool,” so gets extra mileage in the title.) I picked this up in France years ago, in fact it still has the Librairie Gourmande card and facture tucked inside. The introduction references  everything from the grand pièces montées of the 19th century to holiday gingerbread houses as examples of metamorphoses from food to art or structure. I haven’t tackled the carrot-race-car or palm-tree-pineapple, nor any of the creations, to be honest. It’s more a reminder of food as a source of endless artistic creativity. A more recent twist on that theme, Play With Your Food takes it to a different extreme, less manipulating the food by trimming and cutting, more finding the hidden faces, creatures and other features that fruits and vegetables naturally serve up.

Last, a sweet, simple little book that I came across in the vast cookbook collection at Château du Feÿ when I was helping Anne Willan determine how to prioritize the 4,000-plus cookbook library there prior to their move. A few books that ended up in up-for-grabs pile caught my eye, this one included. I mostly loved the title, since I haven’t been to Norway and have not, in fact, eaten anything there. And the determined look on that chef’s face. Inside, most recipes are in that very simple brief-paragraph narrative form, including fylt kaalhode (stuffed cabbage) sursild (sour pickled herrings) and risengrøt (rice porridge).

Motley, indeed, these books I surround myself with. And with my office redo imminent, I’ll be pulling each and every one from its shelf for safe keeping while floor, walls and new furniture are attended to. Seems an ideal time to purge a few from the collection. But my money’s on 99 percent of the books coming back to the new shelves. Old or new. Quirky or not. There’s something to relish in every single one of them.

* I offer links to older books as available, though these often represent reproductions of the original volumes. I think it’s far more fun to have a copy that dates to or near the time of original publication. More authentically nostalgic with its yellowed pages, dog-eared spine, likelihood of having passed through the hands of at least a few cooks and hosts over the years.

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New Book: Memorable Recipes

RBcoverI’m wildly overdue in sharing news of  release of the latest cookbook project I’ve worked on. Delayed in large part because I was up-to-eyeballs in work on the newer book, Gourmet Game Night, which just went to bed this week. Coming up for air and getting caught up!

Memorable Recipes To Share with Family and Friends is a project I worked on with Renée Behnke, president emeritus of Sur La Table. It’s a book I really grew to love over the time working with her on it. And it has been receiving some great press and kudos already, including having been named one of the ten best cookbooks of the summer by NPR.

RBchickThe collection encompasses recipes that ultimately act as something of a memoire for Renée, ranging from family treasures that take her back to her childhood outside Portland, to evocative, exotic dishes that reflect the amazing world travels she has experienced. How many other cookbooks could get away with clam dip,  fried chicken, and peanut butter cream pie, as well as lamb shanks tagine, cheese-stuffed zucchini blossoms and Pakistani vegetable samosas? It’s a diverse and personal  selection;  something is sure to fit most any dinnertime situation.

I tested all the recipes in my home kitchen, an objective perspective to complement her years of cooking these dishes for family and friends. I had many favorites, but a few of them include Tiny Potatoes with Hot Bacon Dressing, Wine Braised Corned Beef, French Potato and Green Bean Salad, Artichoke Risotto with Peas and Mint, and Red Wine Poached Pears with Ricotta Stuffing. Oh, and that fried chicken? It is one of the best recipes I’ve ever tried for that classic!

Though this isn’t an “entertaining” book per se, Renée really is one who

Michel Escoffier in the garden

Michel Escoffier in the garden

makes entertaining look about as easy as rolling out of bed. She shares many of the tips she’s learned after years of throwing dinner parties of all kinds. In fact, reading Joanne Weir’s forward in the book, you’ll get a taste of Renée’s style as Joanne recounts a couple of her more memorable occasions dining with Renee.

When you flip through the book and see the chapter-opener photographs, and many other garden shots — those all come from the glorious garden that she and her husband Carl tend. I can’t even tell you how many different plants are in that large plot, how many varieties of peas, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, herbs, beans, corn…they could set up their own CSA program! On Renée’s web site and linked blog, you can read more about her garden, as well as travels and other delicious things she’s up to.

Thierry's take on deviled eggs

Thierry's take on deviled eggs

I just had the occasion to partake of a phenomenal luncheon–including some time in that garden, eating sweet peas straight from the vine–at her home this past week. The honored guest was Michel Escoffier,  great-great-grandson of Auguste Escoffier and president of the Auguste Escoffier Foundation. Truly one of the rock stars of the culinary world, the elder Escoffier was a trailblazer and mentor of his time. Michel was in Seattle (for his first time ever) before boarding a cruise ship to Alaska. I was thrilled to be asked to join for this intimate afternoon. And, of course, Renée was in prime form. Not even an Escoffier descendant could throw her off her game. This woman knows how to do it!

Rightfully, she didn’t try to toss anything fancy at him, certainly nothing

Me with Michel Escoffier, left, and Thierry Rautureau, right.

Me with Michel Escoffier, left, and Thierry Rautureau, right.

 French. The man’s in town for a few short days, hasn’t been to the city before, surely wants to relax and enjoy the local style and flavors. We early birds started on the deck with a little rosé and some very simple nibbles: carrot and celery sticks, a small dish of perfect Rainier cherries, some wonderful salted nuts. Then Thierry Rautureau, chef/owner of Rover’s, showed up with his contribution: deviled eggs, done up snazzy with a touch of  Moroccan harissa.

Such a perfect start, Dungeness crab cocktail

Such a perfect start, Dungeness crab cocktail

After a tour of the garden, we lingered a bit alongside the regulation-sized croquet court. Michel and Thierry knocked some balls around, as did I for just a bit. Renée figured that her guests were happy where they were, so brought the first course down to us: generous bowls of sweet, perfect Dungeness crab meat with a homemade cocktail sauce. It was simple, elegant and delicious.

We then moved up to the covered outdoor table for the main spread: an American-style picnic menu of fried chicken, baked beans, watermelon-red onion salad, cornbread and a pasta salad with tuna. Outstanding. Though at how many picnics have you been offered Petite Syrah (a California label, completely escaping me which right now) and Leonetti Cabernet Sauvignon? Granted, this wasn’t really your average picnic. But what Renee does so well is meld comfort food with celebrations of all kinds, even the most grand. She once told me how much she enjoys

Such a picnic, when Renee's the host

Such a picnic, when Renee's the host

 watching the faces of her guests showing up for a more formal dinner party in their home, when they realize they’re being serving an amazing brisket for dinner or maybe a big pot of luscious gumbo instead of more uppity beef Wellington. They just naturally relax, the food helping ease any sense of pretension about the evening.

The moral of her story is that gathering people together is the foremost reason for entertaining in Renée’s book. Driving yourself insane with an elaborate menu and finicky touches that complicate the process? No need. Just think: fried chicken and a nice bottle of wine. It can be as easy as that.

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A New Project: Tasty Fun and Games

I’ve had a Blondie comic strip tacked just above my desk for a while now. In it, Dagwood’s playing poker with his pals, shuffling the cards only to have them all fly out of his hands with a P-R-R-R-T (one of those clever comic sound effects). The others decide that Dagwood’s not allowed to shuffle the cards with those greasy-pizza fingers of his ever again.

gameclosetGames are big in this house. The photo here is just a couple shelves of our “game closet,” where most other people would keep their towels and linens. Before seeing that Blondie strip, the germ of an idea for a cookbook full of game-friendly foods had already planted itself in my head. An idea that the strip’s sentiment perfectly echoed. The recipes would feature items that don’t require you putting down your cards to pick up a knife and fork. Plates that won’t take up so much table space that the dinner is competing with the dominoes. Foods that won’t leave traces of sauce or juice or oiliness on your fingers, so you can go about sculpting Cranium clay, rolling dice or–are you listening Dagwood?–shuffling cards without messy mishaps.

The date on that comic strip? May 2, 2002. It’s an idea that’s been growing and developing for a number of years now, finally in full gear. I’m deep into testing and writing of my latest project, Game Night Food, which will be published by Ten Speed Press early next year (the same folks who published the lovely Rover’s cookbook I co-wrote with chef Thierry Rautureau a few years ago).

I  love a lot about my work as a food writer. Okay, not so much the endless hours in front of the computer screen taxing my story-telling skills in crafting an article or essay or other narrative exercise. That’s still hard, though rewarding when it’s all done and submitted.

But what I really love is sitting at my computer and dreaming up recipes, gameplatethen going into my kitchen to test, hone, polish and develop into a delicious, relatively fail-safe candidate for a project such as this. With, in this case, the added creative challenge of preparations and presentations that fulfill the ultimate goal of the book: a game night dinner party that isn’t about having dinner then playing games, but an evening in which dinner and games intermingle perfectly.

What I really, really love is that this book is truly fun and games. Not only is cooking and creating the recipes enjoyable in itself — for this project I’m putting the recipes through real-world rigors as much as possible. Which means gathering friends and family around the table often for work-meets-play Game Nights, to sample the recipes and offer their feedback, while also confirming that they’re game-friendly, tidy and ultimately satisfying as I hope they will be. So far not too many duds thankfully. Some early favorites include mini gameslamb burgers with feta, chilled avocado soup with roasted poblano cream (served in an espresso cup or tall shot glass) and large pasta shells stuffed with kale and ricotta.

I’ll surely be sharing a few more details with you as the project progresses. But in the meantime, do you have any favorite game night stories or scenarios you’d like to share? A great new game you can recommend (my editor turned me on to The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Game, which is a hoot), or a longtime family favorite that never fails to entertain and help you unwind with your friends? Bring on the fun. And may all your game nights be delicious ones!

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Putting Recipes to the Test

They say that the proof is in the pudding. And I say it’s also in the skillet-roasted chicken, the green gazpacho, the risotto with asparagus and peas, the braised lamb shanks with olives and the hazelnut soufflé.

The proof I’m talking about is how well the recipe does its job. Preparation steps and cooking techniques all clearly spelled out? Ingredients all accounted for and in order? Cooking times accurate, descriptions of what “done” means easy to understand, the final product delicious?

Ultimately it’s about how dependable the recipe is. This is one of the key tasks in the work I’ve been doing for over 15 years. Making sure that when I sign off on a recipe and it goes out to the world, that everyone who uses that recipes stands a fighting chance of having good results.

I hate the image of a reader in his/her kitchen having just dutifully followed every step carefully and meeting with some less-than-delicious or -successful outcome, who thinks to themself that they must have done something wrong. Too often, it’s the recipe that did something wrong.  My hope is to be the source of that scenario of frustration as seldom as possible. It’s why I test recipes like mad to work out as many kinks as possible before they get in anyone else’s hands.

Having just done some math in my head (oh…okay, I admit I used a calculator), there are about 1000 recipes in the eleven cookbooks I’ve written and/or tested recipes for in the past dozen or so years. Some recipes were my own (my Homegrown series), many of them collected from a few hundred different restaurants (the Best Places cookbooks), two came from working in close collaboration with a co-author (Rover’s and Memorable Recipes). That number doesn’t count multiple tests of a single recipe, nor the many dozens that were tested but didn’t make the final cut. I’d say that easily doubles (maybe even triples) the figure. Lots and lots of recipe testing.

Recipe testing is one of the most important skills that was packed in my tool kit when I came home from my time at La Varenne in France. I had the phenomenal good fortune of having picked a culinary school whose owner, Anne Willan, was (and still is) a prolific cookbook author. As part of my editorial stagiaire (like internship) duties, I helped with a number of cookbook projects doing recipe research, writing….and testing. I learned that–done right–testing is a really detailed process that takes a lot of careful attention and note-taking. Every minute of sauteing/baking/reducing time is carefully monitored, descriptions of specific techniques scrutinized, tastes along the way to verify the flavors are building as desired. Careful testing cloaks the recipe in confidence of its reliability.

I am going to be on a recipe testing rampage for the next few months. In a near-future couple of posts, I’ll tell you more about the specific projects in question. In the mean time I just wanted to bend your ear about this behind-the-scenes part of the cookbook process that I figure most readers aren’t too aware of.

And I have a question. Do you ever stand in the kitchen in the midst of a recipe and hit a wall, whether it’s a technique not well described, an ingredient you don’t know how to approach, a piece of equipment you don’t have, an expectation by the author that isn’t reasonable in your home kitchen? I’d love to hear any of your recipe-frustration stories. To better understand the challenges that pop up in “real world” situations outside my own home kitchen. And to get a little bit better at making sure my own recipes (a random sample of them are here) avoid those pitfalls.

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A Cookbook Extravaganza

If anyone on your holiday gift list is a food lover, you can make some progress on your shopping with a little visit to the Palace Ballroom in Seattle on December 1. Tom Douglas is hosting his third annual Ultimate Holiday Cookbook Social from 4:00 to 7:00 that afternoon. I’ve been honored to be part of this gathering each year, it’s a fun format that sees a dozen Northwest authors gather, with a tasty sampling from their book. You get to mingle with a bunch of local writers, nibble delicious things while having cookbooks signed and personalized for you and everyone on your holiday list! Such a deal.

For the $20 entry fee (advance purchase highly recommended, it’s been a wm-72-dpi-50sell-out each year), you get samples from each station, a glass of wine and a really fun couple hours with a few hundred other food lovers. I’ll be there with all my Northwest Homegrown Cookbook Seriesbooks, as will be Fran Bigelow with Pure Chocolate, Greg Atkinson with his West Coast Cookbook,  Kathleen Flinn, author of the cooking school memoir The Sharper Your Knife The Less You Cryabout her studies at Le Cordon Bleu and Keith Robbins with Tini Bigs Big Martinis! Among others. Call 206-448-2001 now to get your tickets!

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Marcella Comes to Seattle

It’s so tempting to call Marcella Hazan the “Julia Child of Italy.” The temptation made that much easier because I know so much more about Julia Child’s life than I do about Marcella’s, which I imagine to be true for many other cooks in this country. Reading the New York Times Book Review this weekend taught me far more about her life than I’d known. For instance, like Julia, Marcella did not fall in love with cooking until later in life. “She grew up in a household with a mother and two grandmothers who were ace cooks yet remained a culinary novice,” the Timesreview explains. And again like Julia, her husband was a strong influencer who introduced her to the world of gastronomy and fine dining, Victor Hazan is woven inextricably into the culinary career and life of his wife.

(I can think of two areas where Julia and Marcella are clearly not alike. Julia was a non-native interpreter of French cuisine for the American home cook while Marcella came to the States with a lifelong connection to her native Italian cuisine. And I don’t think any Saturday Night Live cast member ever did a send-up of Marcella the way Dan Aykroyd did Julia!)

To help us all learn more about Marcella, from the early years when she just began to find her footing as a cooking teacher and cookbook author, we can now turn to Amarcord, her memoir being released this week. Amarcord, for those like me who didn’t already know, means “I remember” in the dialect of Emilio-Romagna in the north of Italy. (And it’s also the name of a Fellini film from the early 1970s.) Take a deep breath before reading the subtitle, “Marcella Remembers: The Remarkable Life Story of the Woman Who Started Out Teaching Science in a Small Town in Italy but Ended Up Teaching America How to Cook Italian.” Whew! Could have had a batch of gnocchi whipped up in that time.

She is, no doubt, the Grande Dame of la cucina italiana, I refer often to her The Classic Italian Cookbookwhen I want to get at the nuts and bolts of Italian techniques and traditional dishes.  I and others in the Seattle area have a chance to meet Marcella and Victor Tuesday October 14 at a gathering at ChefShop.com’s brick-and-mortar home on Elliott Avenue. Tickets are available here, and readers of Mon Appétit get a special off of 20% off the ticket price! Just write “mon appetit” in the notes field when you get to the check-out page (they’ll apply the discount when processing the order). Space is limited, so don’t delay in getting a ticket.

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