I read cookbooks cover to cover. They are my preferred form of “chick lit.” I prefer a bellowing, copper-pot-whapping Julia Child to a shoe-addicted Carrie Bradshaw. I am a sucker for the neat and tidy fantasy of a day that begins with “tri-berry muffins” and closes with a single portion cheese soufflé. I’m a sucker for glossy images of heirloom tomatoes or, for goodness’ sake, a large oven-baked pancake that can be sliced like a pie!
Recently I plucked Judith Jones’s The Pleasures of Cooking For One off the bookshelf. As the senior editor and vice president of Alfred A. Knopf, she worked with Julia Child and James Beard on their legendary cookbooks. She also co-authored several cookbooks with her late husband, Evan Jones, and after he passed away, wrote a memoir called The Tenth Muse. The Pleasures of Cooking For One was published in 2009.
When Jones’s husband died, she encountered new challenges inherent in solo cooking, and the possibility of giving up home cooking altogether. Soon, she realized the relevance of her situation to unprecedented numbers of Americans living alone today:
“Fifty-one percent of the population in the New York metropolitan area lives alone. Yet no one seems to cater to their needs. Supermarkets do everything they can to make us buy more than we need, and the food industry has for more than a century been selling the idea that it is demeaning for women to cook and a waste of time when they can buy ready-made products instead” (vii).
And… voilà — the inspiration for recipes catering to a developing nation of loners. She gets us pampered urbanites as excited about being resourceful with food as we are about dining out for brunch! And she appeals to our sense of creativity, which, you know, we like — spreading the philosophy that home cooking is not about individual meals, but about using our creativity to plan, save, and repurpose. Recipes for modest portion sizes are accompanied by tips on how to avoid buying gargantuan quantities of raw ingredients, how to think about cooking as “one dish leading to another” (4). It almost sounds like recycling! Pretty hip. She has a whimsical, savvy, and hearty approach to cooking that is actually focused on eating what you cook — all of it — with equal emphasis on creativity and frugality. This is the mark of an authentic, experienced cook, and I have to say, her groundedness cramps the style of celebrity chefs and their carefully crafted branding.
Notwithstanding the occasional name drop (such as “Potatoes for Julia”) practical food is the focus (Child, that is, to the left is a replica of her kitchen on display at the American History Museum in Washington, D.C.) But the chick lit aspect is there — in the first chapter “On Cooking Through The Week,” I’m transported to a cosy kitchen with a New England, cottage feel. It’s a far cry from Manhattan, Jimmy Choos, or Prada bags, but you can’t help but feel modern, enlightened, resourceful, dare I say, classy, when you improvise chicken breast with herbed butter for dinner, broiled over a bed of root vegetables. On day two, you’ll just shred the leftovers, steam some vegetables, throw together a light cream sauce, grate some cheese, pull out your individual sized gratin dish, and make “Chicken Divan.” On day three, maybe you’ll throw it back to 19th century New England with some “Minced Chicken on Toast.”
Frugal, whimsical, high-low, yes. Is it sexy? Eh. In a section on “The Nine Lives of a Turkey,” Jones refers to the maxim, “having a good country ham in the refrigerator is like owning a good black dress — you are ready for anything” (22).
Whatever it lacks in glamour it makes up for in practicality. The concept speaks to huge segments of the population — young, urban professionals, older people who find themselves newly accustomed to the single life, or families who have trouble navigating the huge quantities of food at the store. We are encouraged to go all out with cooking, but in a responsible way.
Jones’s passion for cooking implies her tenacious desire to keep on keepin’ it classy, despite life’s changes or challenges. This zest for life, represented by Jones’s willingness to dig deep in her kitchen cabinets, is what makes this book so charming and spirited. I think the chapter titled “The Magic of Eggs — And the Seduction of Cheese” says it all. Well, I’m up to the challenge, Ms. Jones (two people here, but still large quantities of food), thank you for the inspiration. If you are reading this entry, thanks for stopping by, and I hope you’ll check out the book for yourself. It’s worth it, no matter the size of your household. In the meantime, I’d like to pay a tribute “the magic of eggs” when it comes to making resourceful meals at home:
Omelet For Two
Oven proof sauté pan
1 potato, diced
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
Milk or cream
Salt and pepper
Fry Up The Filling
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and chop bacon. Sauté bacon until brown and crispy; drain. Wipe the sauté pan clean. Add a dab of butter, the diced potato and onion and cook until the onion starts to brown and the potato starts to tenderize but still has some firmness (about 10 minutes).
Whisk The Eggs
While this is happening, beat together eggs, 2 tablespoons of milk or cream, 1 teaspoon of salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Stir in 1/4 cup scallions and 4 oz of grated cheddar.
Let The Magic Happen
When the onion and potato are ready, add the bacon back to the sauté pan and pour in the egg mixture. Put the pan in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes. You want the eggs to puff up and be almost fully cooked in the center. Sprinkle the top with extra cheddar if you want. It’s magic.
[Images: cover of book, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Child, nathanmac87’s photostream; recipe adapted from Ina Garten.]