Friday, March 23, 2012

On my family table

A few weeks ago I decided to purge the cookbook collection and made several towering stacks of  books I might be willing to part with. Couldn't just toss them, though. Each book was going to get a chance. I'd cook a few recipes and then decide whether to jettison the book or keep it. 
I started with Around My Family Table by John Besh. I'd only recently bought the book and already wished I hadn't. Besh is a handsome chef who lives in Louisiana with his wife and their four young sons, whom Besh often calls "lads." Although Besh is a busy professional with numerous restaurants, he is deeply concerned about the decline of everyday home cooking. The subititle of his large, handsome book: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking.

No need to explain what rubbed me the wrong way when I can simply quote:

"For eight years we have raised our own Charolais cattle on rolling, grassy pastures north of New Orleans. It's the beef we have at our house. Of course, a big freezer is the only way to afford and keep good beef. . ."

"If you have difficulty finding a shoulder, use venison shanks instead." 

"Keeping it simple and delicious means deliberate strategies for planning ahead. I make intensely flavored broths, then freeze them in ice cube trays and empty the cubes into Ziploc bags."

"With meat from the neck of our Mangalitsa pigs, ground and seasoned with crushed peppers and cane syrup, sometimes I'll make sausage patties that fit perfectly on a biscuit, the way Jack likes it."

"Shredding the potatoes for these super-crunchy 'nests' is made easy with a clever device called a Benriner Turnning Slicer, or use a heavier Japanese mandoline. . ."

"I am almost never around on weeknights."

Done quoting now.

I'm happy to report that while the text and photographs rubbed me the wrong way, the recipes have been mostly terrific.

lemon ice box pie. Sounds quaint, grandmotherly, humble and delectable, and I loved the actual pie even more than the name. Beat together 3 egg yolks, a can of sweetened condensed milk, lemon zest, lemon juice and pinch of salt. Beat egg whites until stiff, fold into lemon mixture, pour this lovely tangy foam into a graham cracker crust. Freeze and cross your fingers about salmonella. Thaw briefly before serving. I could have eaten the entire pie in one sitting. That is not an exaggeration. The recipe is here; I would serve the whipped cream on the side, not spread on top. Grade: A.

potato dumplings. Orbs of seasoned mashed potato stuffed with bacon and chives then poached and topped with butter and crunchy bread crumbs. Devastating. My silly family said they preferred plain mashed potatoes, but they are unreliable. Grade: A.

lentil soup. I'll let Besh make his case: "I've added cream to this recipe, which I've never seen before in a lentil soup. It gives the soup such a succulent texture." It really went against the grain to put cream in lentil soup, which is supposed to be sludgy, healthy, and dark brown. But why? I don't know. I've always just thought of it that way, as hippie penance food. The first night I couldn't see the payoff of all that cream, but the second night, the soup came into its rich, luxurious own. Don't know about "succulent texture." Grade: A.

angel biscuits. Yeasted. You make and shape the night before serving for breakfast. Tasted like a cross between a buttery croissant and a biscuit. Recipe is here. Grade A.

olive oil roasted cauliflower. As it sounds. Grade: B+.

gingersnaps. Ordinary. You can probably do just as well with the recipe on the back of the brown sugar box. Grade: B.

herb roasted chicken. As it sounds. Grade: B.

carbonara with sweet peas and ham. I've made better. Grade: B-.

sugar snap pea salad with pecans. Excited about this because sugar snap peas sounded like they'd make a crunchy, sweet salad. Didn't quite work, though. Grade: C.

I would keep Besh's book based on the number of excellent recipes it contains, but in the last few weeks my desire to purge the collection has abated. My house will never be a decorator showcase. The cookbooks can stay. They can all stay.


  1. Hippie penance. That's awesome.

  2. With that description, I'm surprised that you are not eyeing cows as the next "backyard pet"

    And, I wonder what they eat on the weeknights he is "never home". My kids like to eat every night...

  3. That book rubbed me the wrong way, too, so I never bought it. Perhaps my loss.

    By the way, I ate at Cafe Rehoboth again the other weekend and it was even better than before. You should really try it next time you're in the south bay...

  4. Oh no, is John Besh somebody else I'm going to have to care about? I don't have room in my brain for all of these lifestyle chefs.

  5. Never had lemon ice box pie before? I grew up on it. It is very southern, and it is difficult not to eat the entire pie! I don't even want to think about the calories in it. I have the same difficulty with getting rid of cookbooks. I enjoy reading them even if I don't cook from them. I understand the dilemma completely!

  6. excuse me I have to go flip the Costco London broil I have going on the grill that I know my kid won't eat and not because I don't make sure it fits on her biscuit.

  7. Oh! Thank goodness you didn't part with any! You had me worried there for a minute.

  8. I'm so glad you're keeping them all. That's what I always do, with cookbooks and other books.

  9. My husband loves this guy (from his PBS cooking show) hence I was gifted this book for Christmas. We have been married for almost nine years and I was and still am a mostly vegetarian who dabbles occasionally in ocean dwelling creatures. You would think that might be a hint that this wasn't the best gift for ME. Unfortunately, life got away from me and it never made it back to Amazon. Now I am really sorry. Especially if ice box pie is the high point.

  10. I bought that book too but haven't made any of the recipes. The ones you mention sound great. I make a recipe of his for pureed cauliflower, which I found online, and it is so DELICIOUS I make it a lot, so I guess I'll kind of like him forever.

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