Keeping It Simple

Local connections

There are three new cookbooks out right now with local connections. Ina Garten, a k a the Barefoot Contessa, has come out with her ninth book, called “Make It Ahead.” The folks of Edible School Gardens have published the “Delicious Nutritious FoodBook,” compiled and written by Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz. And the kitchens of Martha Stewart Living have come out with “One Pot.”

Let us first explore the Ina-verse of “Make It Ahead” (Clarkson Potter, $35). Basically, this woman can do no wrong. I have yet to try a Barefoot Contessa recipe that didn’t work. Same goes for any of my friends, whether they are experienced cooks or not.

The recipes are foolproof, fairly simple, and you can find the ingredients just as easily in Hamtramck, Mich., as you can in New York City. The concept and promise of “making it ahead” is a good one. Whether you just want to simplify a weeknight meal or prepare a grander feast for company without being at the stove when they arrive, this book covers all the bases, from prepping to cooking to baking ahead.

The recipes are presented as if you were going to serve them immediately but then offer steps for simplifying the meal in advance, such as chopping slaw ingredients a day ahead, preparing the dressing, and tossing it together just before serving. There are a number of recipes I have earmarked to try that sound delicious, such as leek and artichoke bread pudding, pear and parsnip gratin, twice-baked sweet potatoes, garlic and herb roasted shrimp, and the salty oatmeal and chocolate chunk cookies.

I couldn’t resist trying two of the recipes this past weekend, the Spanish tapas peppers and roasted cauliflower snowflakes. Both were excellent and easy to prepare. However, I must say about the cauliflower, if I had a restaurant, this would be on my menu as a side dish all year round.

Another aspect of the Barefoot Contessa books that is very appealing is the warmth and enthusiasm of Ina herself. She talks about life, surprises, discoveries, travel, her friends, and her husband, Jeffrey, with humor and graciousness. She gives credit for recipes where due, whether they are inspired by a person or place or restaurant. One of the more touching additions is the two pages dedicated to the late Lee Bailey, the author of several cozy cookbooks.
To sum up, how can you resist a book that begins with a recipe for whole-wheat peanut butter dog biscuits and ends with a picture of chocolate cake with mocha frosting?

“FoodBook”

The “Delicious Nutritious FoodBook” (Edible School Gardens, $13.99) is a wonderful educational primer for parents and children to encourage better eating habits from the beginning. The book itself looks like an issue of Edible East End, which makes sense because many of the editors helped with it. It is well designed and beautifully laid out. There are recipes from many local chefs, like Joe Realmuto, Bryan Futerman, Jason Weiner, and Noah Schwartz. There are also recipes from the children of local schools and their parents.

It is peppered with quotes and maxims and helpful tidbits from Michael Pollan to Dr. Seuss to A.A. Milne. The contents go from breakfast through greens, grains, rainbow colors, beans, meat, fish, and fruit. Most of the recipes are basic and encourage ways to involve children in the making of a meal, from the straightforward (smoothies) to learning how to chop vegetables and cook grains, meat, and fish.

Learning how to grow vegetables, how to shop, and how to plan meals takes up a good portion of the book, but it is all explained in an accessible way, with beautiful photography to illustrate. I love the anecdotes sprinkled throughout, like the story of Hannah, a fifth grader from Greenport who won a salad dressing recipe contest and now sells her dressings at farmers markets on the North Fork. There are also a lot of Mark Bittman recipes and tips, such as “101 things to do with such and such ingredients.”

From the simple mango chicken skewers from Sen restaurant in Sag Harbor to the more involved duck cassoulet from Orient Inn, this book has something for kids to do themselves and for parents to introduce to their children in the way of more elaborate international dishes. My only criticisms are: I wish there were a recipe index at the back, and there is a measurement error on the Liquid/Dry Measurements page — a gallon is 16 cups, not 15.

As Julia Child said many years ago, “You learn to cook so that you don’t have to be a slave to recipes. You get what’s in season and you know what to do with it.” This book should be available in every school, at every farm stand, and in every household with wee ones. It is a template for teaching good eating habits to our children from the beginning, when it matters most.

“One Pot”

Martha Stewart Living’s “One Pot” cookbook (Clarkson Potter, $26) is a great concept. Each chapter deals with a specific cooking vessel and what you can make in it. This covers everything from Dutch ovens, skillets, slow cookers, roasting pans, and pressure cookers to stockpots and saucepans, with each container getting its own chapter. Sadly, this automatically subtracted two out of six chapters for me, as I do not own a pressure cooker or slow cooker. If you have a better-equipped kitchen than I, then this book could be useful.

The inclusion at the beginning of each recipe of what is called “active time” and “total time” was a bit confusing for me. What this means isn’t explained, so I assumed active time is the time it takes to prep ingredients, in which case it is misleading. As experienced as I am, there is no way I can peel and mince onions, wash, peel, and chop carrots, dice 1 1/4 pounds chicken, slice green beans and herbs, and assemble dumpling dough in 20 minutes. So I think we should assume the active time refers to the beginning stages of cooking, not the mise-en-place beforehand.

Some of the recipes look delicious, and some are offered four ways, such as macaroni and cheese and pork stew. The macaroni and cheese variations include bacon and Gouda or mushrooms and fontina; both sound worth trying. Roasted tilefish on top of potatoes with capers also sounds easy and quick. The lentil soup with cauliflower and cheese looks tempting for a cold winter afternoon.

Since the premise of this book is based on the various types of cooking equipment and how they can be used to make a one-pot meal, it is important to discuss quality of cooking equipment. When it comes to cast-iron skillets, you can find Lodge skillets anywhere, and they are cheap. The key is to season them and keep them seasoned. You also shouldn’t cook anything acidic in them as this creates an off flavor from a chemical reaction between acid and iron. While this is discussed in the book, there is also a picture of chicken braised with lemons in a cast-iron skillet. Don’t do this!

When using a cookie sheet for roasting, it is very important that you have a heavy, sturdy one that won’t buckle or warp in the oven. As I said before, I don’t have a slow cooker or pressure cooker, so I can offer no advice on these. I would simply recommend buying the best quality you can afford.

Every household should have a Dutch oven; these are cast-iron enameled pots with lids. Le Creuset and Staub are the best brands and are frightfully expensive but worth it. I am still using my grandmother’s!

Which brings us to some interesting information, and I suggest you fasten your seat belt, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. Throughout the “One Pot” cookbook, the cookware used is the Martha Stewart Collection for Macy’s. It looks attractive, so I researched it online. The first article to come up was a recall by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission on close to a million enameled cookware items made for the Martha Stewart Collection for Macy’s between 2007 and 2011. They were made in China and have chipped, causing burns and cuts.

Please invest in reliable, sturdy, reputable cooking equipment, especially when you are cooking with and for your children.