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Like anyone who regularly uses cookbooks, I’ve often found a vast disconnect between how long I think a recipe will take and how long it will actually take. Add in ingredients you were sure were right there in the fridge but aren’t, the typical household chaos on a weeknight at 5pm, the time it takes to get used to a new recipe, a naturally over-optimistic temperament – and you have a scheduling disaster in the making.
Over the years I’ve learned that if I’m serious about avoiding hunger-induced family meltdown, I have to give scheduling just as much thought as I give the shopping list – that is, I have to at least try and guess what I’m going to need rather than winging it all the time. And if the cookbook gives an estimated prep time, I usually just ignore it because it’s bound to come up short (in my experience, maybe 10% of time estimates are accurate. The rest are too short. Or maybe I’m just slow). Anyway, here’s my time estimation method – maybe some of my tips will help you with yours.
1. Read the ingredients list. It’s the rare ingredients list that doesn’t have some prep embedded in it – anything from “garlic, finely chopped” to the dreaded “tomatoes, blanched, peeled and seeded” or “chilies (toasted, soaked, seeded, and chopped)”. For a list of a dozen or less ingredients where half call for a knife and half for measuring, I’ll give myself some 15 minutes – that’s maybe a little short, but you can usually get a little more chopping done once the onions are in the pan.
2. Skim the instructions, looking for time indications. Obviously, look for the words “about [X] minutes “. Keep a sharp lookout for “hours” – somehow “hours” and the stealthy “overnight” tend to hide until you run into them with 15 minutes left till dinner. Also look for the word “until“. Sometimes an author will give you an “until” cue (“until half the liquid has evaporated” or “until no longer pink”) without any other time indication. Also look for stealth time-words like “chill” and “rest“. Add this to your estimate from the ingredients list.
3. If it’s a new recipe (something you’ve made fewer than 5 times), always always add an additional 15 minutes or more. You’ll need it for finding your place in the recipe, flipping back and forth between recipes, finding the can opener etc etc. Sometimes I just go for broke and round the whole thing up to the nearest half hour.
4. Write down your estimate on the recipe or a sticky note, including idle time like rising times, chilling, marinating, resting etc. ”2 hrs (incl. 1 hr chilling)”; “Overnight + 45 min.”; “2 hrs. (incl. 15 min. rest)
5. Finally, one more thing: How many new recipes are you cooking? If you’re cooking 2 or more new recipes simultaneously, add at least 1/2 hour for each additional recipe. If you have idle time built in to one of the recipes (see above), you can cut that down a bit – but not by too much.
Using these general guidelines, I usually can hit dinner on the mark at 6pm without driving myself too crazy in the process. I can sometimes carry on a conversation with my husband – though sometimes he has to endure a bit of lag time in the dialogue when my circuits are really oversubscribed – and maybe even enjoy a sip of wine or two.
A few more tips for streamlining
- Mise en place. Yeah, you know you’re supposed to do it, but you don’t. It really makes a huge difference. Do, do, do get out all your ingredients first. This really pays off with herbs and spices – can’t tell you how many years of my life I’ve spent hunting for the dried sage. For baking recipes, I get out all the measuring cups and spoons whether or not I think I’ll need them. But you don’t have to pull out every last prep bowl. The goal is once you get in front of your chopping board, not to leave till everything’s prepped. (For this reason I often prep backwards, doing the meat last so I can do everything on one board without worrying about contamination. I’m sure that would horrify many chefs. But it’s what I do.)
- Sharp knives. Makes all the difference in the world. My aim in life is to properly sharpen them once a week, but actually it turns out to be more like once every 3 or 4. If your knives are not in great condition, at least run them over a sharpening steel each day before you start. It takes 15 seconds and saves you an agony with the onion.
- Use a timer. As a true “out of sight, out of mind” cook, I’ve burned any number of things simply because they were in the oven and I forgot about them till they sent up a smoke signal. I still do, unless I use a timer. In general, I can only wing it if I’m prepping just one dish, with one time I have to keep track of and it’s less than 15 minutes. Otherwise, forget it. It’s not without its flaws, but I find this 3-line Maverick kitchen timer to be a big help.
- Clean up as you go. Start with your ingredients on one side of your board. As you prep, move the remainders to the other side, sorted by whether they go back in the fridge or pantry. Once you’ve got your ingredients prepped, spend half a minute just getting stuff off your counter. The one exception is flour. I always leave out the flour, because you always end up needing it for something later.
- Don’t clean up as you go. This is maybe controversial, but I never wash dishes as I cook unless I happen to find myself with idle time in the middle (marinating, chilling, rising etc.) or extra time at the end. Assuming you don’t have a designated dish washer person, just put everything in the sink and leave your hands free for that knife, silicone spatula, or wooden spoon.
- Don’t answer the phone. You may think you can carry on a phone conversation and read a recipe at the same time. You can’t. For some reason it’s easier to talk to someone who’s in the room while you’re testing a recipe than it is to talk to someone over the phone.
Of course, accidents will happen. I spilled my already-mixed flour, baking powder, salt and sugar for okonomiyaki all over the floor yesterday. The week before I spilled a solid 5 pounds of rice everywhere, and I still don’t keep the vacuum in the kitchen. Recipes are fallible, and so are people. But in the end, I always tell people, we can always order pizza. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
So are we good to go? Tie on an apron, put on some music, and – ready, set, cook!
As a family, we have never had much luck with fruit trees. When we moved here as newlyweds 12 years ago, we were in love with apple trees as well as each other, and we planted four out back right away. Two died almost immediately, so we replanted the next year, and the next. When our daughter was born, we planted a couple of pears (I heard that was a tradition somewhere); we also tried peaches and Asian pears. There were voles, and hard frosts, and overeager bears, and in the end, only 3 trees out of well over a dozen survived. Dormant oil, conscientious pruning, organic kaolin powder -nothing seemed to help. Once in a while we get some small pears or some wizened apples. We try not to expect too much.
But the tree in the front yard is another matter. Some 5 or 6 years ago, I noticed the young sapling, looking out of place among the daylilies and echinacea in our neglected bit of dooryard. I had no idea what it was or how it got there, and in one of my periodic efforts in the direction of order, I took the lop cutters to it and tried to get rid of it. It was a bit too stout, though – the trunk almost as wide as my thumb – and I gave up.
But the amputated stump put forth leaves again the following spring, and the next, and sprang another trunk or two, and grew in height. I decided that, whatever else it was, it was now an “ornamental,” and we put away the loppers. After another couple years, pink blossoms followed by green fruit began to appear. The elegant, tapered leaves and the shape of the fruit roused our suspicions. Wouldn’t it be funny, we mused, if it turned out to be a peach! Not that it would be edible even if it were. Anyway, the green fruit dropped to the ground by July, and we thought no more of it.
It took a couple more years for the tree to build up enough steam to carry its load all the way through the summer, and we watched as the fruit fattened and turned yellow. I tasted it mid-August – sour and puckery. Oh well, I thought, at least it looks nice. By mid-fall, though, the remaining fruit had developed a deep rosy blush. Wasps and worms swiftly overtook them, but I picked one anyway and cut away the bad parts. We shared a bite and goggled. It was, in fact, a peach – despite everything- and a good one. Not that we were ever likely to get much of a crop.
This year, a mild spring sun shone on the tree, followed by steady rains and then weeks of June drought. There were what seemed like endless humid days, and wave upon wave of mosquitoes. The tree took it upon itself to fruit abundantly. While the kids went to camp, the fruit grew heavy. When they went back to school, the laden branches bent clear to the ground. Again I tried one while it was still yellow, and that first fruit was as hard and sour as the one the year before.
A month passed without change – and then, just as the days began to shorten, something shifted. A troop of inspector wasps arrived, and when I lifted one of the poor burdened branches, I found flattened, aromatic fruit littering the ground beneath. The chickens had a carnival that night, and so did we.
So began a decadent fortnight: every day, I picked ripe peaches and cleaned up the drops for the chickens. We ate what we could and baked the rest into cobblers, but still, there were so many and they were so perishable, I couldn’t keep up. There was at least a bushel, but I doubt we ended up eating half.
Bit by bit, the branches began to unbend, rising gracefully – and, I thought, gratefully – off the ground, until one day in the second week of October there was but one peach left. It glowed with sunset colors, it was already a little overripe, and everything that crawled or flew circled nearby, waiting for it to drop. But it was mine.
I brought it inside the house, and its fragrance filled the quiet kitchen. I ran my thumb over its slightly wrinkled skin one last time, and halved it with my paring knife. The skin slid off like a silk chemise; the flesh was yellower than a mango, and just as juicy. It was the last peach, and it was as full of life and sweetness as the first peach had been of bitterness, or futility.
I still don’t know how that peach tree arrived in our yard 6 years ago. I suppose one of us was sitting on the porch steps on a summer afternoon, juice dribbling down our chin. I suppose that one of us carelessly tossed a pit away, too lazy to go inside and put it in the compost, or too sticky-fingered to turn the doorknob.
I sometimes feel like apologizing to the tree – for not knowing how it came about, for trying to chop it down, for feeding it with nothing but doubt and surprise all these years.
But the tree doesn’t seem to care whether it’s a mystery, a fluke, or a symbol of forgiveness. It’s nothing more than life itself – unasked for, unremarked upon, yet in the end, more than one might ever think to ask.
The evening we moved to Leverett from the city was a cloudless one. As we turned onto the road where our new, old house waited for us, carillon bells began to peal. My husband looked at the clean white clapboard church through the window of our moving van. ”I never dreamed our escape could be so painless,” said he.
It wasn’t really an escape. We were simply making a common trade: we were leaving a busy, two-income life in a tiny city apartment for a slower, gentler life in the country. And although neither of us was particularly religious, the chiming of the church felt like a blessing.
The church bells, we soon learned, rang out every night at 6 pm. They were one element that would remain the same in a life whose structure soon began to shift from month to month. There was a market crash, and a scramble for employment. There was a first child, and then a second. And there was construction – endless, crazy-making construction. For a week or two we had nothing but a tarp for a roof, and the bells sounded a lot louder than usual.
I liked to imagine that some ancient artisan in a leather apron was hammering out those bell songs in the steeple. In fact, the Leverett carillon is digital – a CD, a stereo, and some powerful speakers. But I didn’t know that (or so much else) at the time. And at any rate, it was as steadfast and as reliable as if it were keeping the time for a medieval village.
Every night the unhurried sound of old hymns came drifting to our house. Sometimes we noticed them, sometimes we didn’t. Whether it was a late bright summer evening or a cold, dark winter evening, the bells rang out just the same.
Dinner was always on its way to the table or almost there. As the notes resounded overhead, I would hustle through the last stages of prep. And sometimes I was too busy, cleaning up spills or rooting furiously through the vegetable drawer for parsley to hear them at all.
But most often it would happen while I was standing at the grill. The smoke rose up blue and lazy as I tested a skirt steak for doneness with my fingertip. In my other hand I held a cold beer. The day’s last clouds followed the sun in its westward descent over the pond. As pleasant as the moment was, it seemed as though I was waiting for something.
And then, after all, it came – as welcome as the crack of an egg, as the clink of ice, as the sizzle and pop of thick-sliced bacon. Long, slow peals fell upon the smoke-laden air as the Leverett bells began to sound.
This, I thought, is life. This, I thought, is peace. The notes will fade, the meal will disappear. Like music and like food, our own lives last only a moment. But what a moment! The ordinary peace of waking life is not a silent peace. It’s full of sound and flavor, full of light and heat. Surely even the plainest hour is worth some celebration – even if it’s only marked by the pouring of a drink, the lifting of a fork, the ringing of a bell.
There is almost nothing I love better than radish butter on toast, on a cool spring morning when the radishes are new.
First you toast the bread, on just one side. How do you toast it on just one side? You use a toaster oven, laying the slice on a piece of foil or a tray, so the down side is protected. The nubbly, nutty, toothy crumb of multi-grain bread suits the purpose better than anything else I can imagine.
While the bread is toasting, you slice very cold unsalted butter as finely as you can, 1/32nd of an inch thick. It’s going to melt, but just barely. If your knife’s not sharp, you can use a peeler. Or grate it on a box cutter.
When the toast is just stiff and barely gilded on its up side, you take it out and wave it around a bit till it’s only just warm to the touch. The butter goes on the untoasted side, where it clings and subsides a little, but doesn’t melt.
Next you salt the butter just enough. (With Maldon salt if you’ve got it and like it, or any other salt if you don’t.)
Then you shingle on the radishes, sliced just as fine as you can so you can see the watery morning light through them. These are two French breakfast radishes I just rooted from their beds. One was imperfect – dented, stained, and crooked – before it met the knife. But when you take that first bite, your eyes closing with your teeth, you see that what seemed broken was actually whole all along.
What makes a good summer cookbook? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for almost a decade. Summer cookbooks are colorful, distracting, diversionary, and above all idiosyncratic – you won’t find any of the books that clone themselves all over the “Best of the Year” lists in December. They’re full of smoke, ice, dirt, and above all, stories – because summer cookbooks are almost always good to read, not just to cook from. They’ve got to be good company by the pool and on the porch. They have to tantalize you with visions of the outdoors, yet be tempting enough to draw you back into the kitchen. It’s that balancing act that makes me love these books, and I hope you will too.
This year brings us a bit of all of summer’s fleeting pleasures: the very best burgers, dressings for a month of salads, homemade fizzy drinks, tart buttermilk, ramekins of cool custard and ice cream sandwiches. For the first time in a while, there’s a terrific showing of books from warm-weather cuisines: Iran, the Philippines, and Kentucky by way of Korea. And for the truly possessed (count me among them), the best book yet on growing summer’s bounty all by yourself and then eating it.
A shortlist of runners-up will follow. But for now, grab a napkin and sink your teeth into 2013′s Top 10 Summer Cookbooks.
The New Persian Kitchen, by Louisa Shafia
$24.99 hardcover (10 Speed, 2013)
I’m not sure why it is that Persian cookbooks till recently have been such intimidating affairs. Is it because some of the most traditional recipes are elaborate or time-consuming? Maybe that’s just a perception, but this second outing by cooking teacher and food writer Louisa Shafia, seeks to change it. Shafia uses powerful traditional ingredients – saffron, pistachios, pomegranates, dried limes – but freely re-invents techniques for fleeter, equally flavorful results. Overall, The New Persian Kitchen‘s is a stunner: a bridge between old and new, fresh and dried, cool and hot, and I can’t get enough of its juxtapositions. [Recipe: pomegranate-walnut lamb kebabs]
Wicked Good Burgers: Fearless Recipes and Uncompromising Techniques for the Ultimate Patty, by Andy Husbands, Chris Hart, and Andrea Pyenson
$22.99 paperback (Fair Winds, 2013)
The mostly Boston-based team that brought us Wicked Good Barbecue is back, now focusing with a laserlike precision on that which comes in buns. We have here not only the beef burger, but the bison, the pork, the salmon, the turkey, even the oyster burger – not to mention the beefy portobello. There’s even a “$100 burger” – that’s Wagyu beef, foie gras, truffle, lobster, and caul fat, in case you’re wondering. If 8 ounces of meaty, grilled perfection doesn’t quite do the job, there’s also recipes for some iconic buns (recipe from Boston’s Flour Bakery), pickles, a rainbow mosaic of fries and frappes, and even homemade mustard – for the very good burger that has died and gone to heaven. [Recipe: Pastrami Burger]
Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen, by Edward Lee
$29.95 hardcover (Artisan, 2013)
You might think that Smoke & Pickles is just about smoked things and pickled things, but you’d be wrong. You might see “Southern” and “Lee” and think you were dealing with an old Dixie family, or at least Matt and Ted. Wrong again. In fact, most assumptions you might make about Edward Lee and his cooking are likely to be wrong, and I suspect he’s used to that. Korean-American Lee, transplanted to Kentucky, works across the commonalities between Southern and Korean cooking – the barbecue, the pickles, the pork, the slaws. His food is tirelessly inventive and refreshingly free of attitude and each recipe comes with practical, non-judgmental cooking tips. Even better are Lee’s own stories of living and learning food, told with heart and humility. A great read and an exciting, complicated marriage of several flavor traditions. [Recipe: Yellow Squash Soup]
The Adobo Road Cookbook: A Filipino Food Journey – From Food Blog, to Food Truck, and Beyond, by Marvin Gapultos
$19.95 paperback (Tuttle, 2013)
Is there a more sorely under-served cuisine in the cookbook market than that of the Philippines? Despite a food-obsessed culture, a wide variety of signature dishes served out of urban food trucks, and a large immigrant population, Filipino recipes make it into print all too rarely.
Blogger and food trucker Marvin Gapultos may not be setting out to be his country’s food ambassador to the U.S. But that’s just what this book accomplishes – with a comprehensive, visual ingredient glossary, equipment index, personal and cultural notes, and dozens of drool-worthy iterations of pork, lemongrass, papaya, mango, adobo flavors, crab and so on. The food shines, in spite of the gritty design ethos. [Recipe: Grilled Pork Skewers]
The Four-Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook: From the Garden to the Table in 120 Recipes, by Barbara Damrosch & Eliot Coleman
$22.95 paperback (Workman, 2013)
Not just one, but two lifetimes of wisdom have gone into the making of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, which is the culminating work of food writer Barbara Damrosch and organic farmer Eliot Coleman. Despite the name, you need be neither a farmer nor a four-season gardener to profit from this book, whose principal attraction is its bone-deep appreciation of how our food is grown and what makes it good to eat. The garden section of the book is all you need to start a vegetable garden of any size. The cookbook section demonstrates a truism: Cooks who garden are masters of the simple recipe with few ingredients – preferring to let their plants speak for themselves. The perfect pick for food lover tending a backyard patch or even a pot of herbs on a windowsill. [Recipe: Custard Stuffed Baked Tomatoes.]
The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflection from a Small Vermont Dairy, by Diane St. Clair
$27.99 hardcover (Andrews McMeel Universal, 2013)
Why is it that buttermilk – cool, tart, refreshing – seems to be in all the foods we like to eat in the summer? It’s in dressings, cool soups, dips, marinades, baked goods. It lends moisture and subtle acidity; it offers a creamy smoothness without the cloying richness of cream itself. In this book we have a comprehensive tour of the buttermilk landscape and its many culinary delights, as captured in a serene New England artisanal dairy farm. One doesn’t often see cookbooks written by the small-scale producers of America’s food treasures -probably because they’re so busy producing the food. It’s a pity, though, because their backstories are often fascinating (and photographable) and their love for what they make is palpable. [Recipe: Fluffy Biscuits]
Vinaigrettes and Other Dressings: 60 Sensational Recipes to Liven Up Greens, Grains, Slaws & Every Kind of Salad, by Michele Anna Jordan
$16.95 hardcover (Harvard Common Press, 2013)
The world seems to have a permanent shortage of salad dressing books, which is part of what makes this minuscule gem from veteran cookbook author Michele Anna Jordan so welcome. Is there a moment when some inventiveness is more called for in the greens department than mid-summer? On the one hand, you’re pleased with yourself for eating so virtuously during swimsuit season. On the other hand, it’s all you can do to mince a shallot. But if you can do that much, then a wide and wonderful world of flavors is just within reach. Vinaigrettes are to salads what scarves are to the fashionable Parisian – colorful, versatile, and infinite in their variety. Yet it’s easy to master a dozen with a minimal effort, as this book so satisfyingly demonstrates. [Recipe: Avocado and Green Peppercorn Cream]
Bakeless Sweets: Pudding, Panna Cotta, Fluff, Icebox Cake & More No-Bake Desserts, by Faith Durand
$29.99 hardcover (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013)
It may well be true that the cherry pie or cobbler cooling on the sill is the iconic American summer dessert. But when it comes right down to it, do you really feel like turning on the oven and get covered in flour on a lazy afternoon when you could be lounging poolside? Bakeless Sweets, from Kitchn editor Faith Durand, is a curiously comprehensive look at the custardy, the creamy, the gelled and the chilled. For those who cannot do without a Unified Theory of Rice Pudding, there are thoughtful overviews on the underlying architecture of these sweets. But the book is also perfectly enjoyable taken one cool and convenient recipe at a time, and its fresh-faced design makes for good hammock reading too. [Recipe: S'mores Pudding Cake]
Cookies & Cream: Hundreds of Ways to Make the Perfect Ice Cream Sandwich, by Tessa Arias
$18.00 hardcover (Running Press, 2013)
I couldn’t tell you why, but last year’s popsicles seem to have given way to ice cream sandwiches. And it’s not just that ice cream truck standard we all grew up with, the Good Humor Bar. Tessa Arias’ charming little book is a psychedelic tour both of ice cream (roasted strawberry! mint bourbon! candy corn!) and of cookies (ginger-lime! chocolate balsamic! salted tequila!) Arias’ suggested combinations, like the “Elvis” – peanut butter ice cream, banana cookie – are pretty hard to refuse. But it’s easy enough to mix and match. Or, if you’re feeling particularly torpid on a midsummer morning – just make the ice cream and call it a day. [Recipe: Lemon-Blueberry Ice Cream Sandwich]
Make Your Own Soda: Syrup recipes for all-natural pop, floats, cocktails, and more, by Anton Nocito with Lynn Marie Hulsman
$14.99 paperback (Clarkson Potter, 2013)
Usually summer cookbook season brings a flotilla of rowdy cocktail books, but this year we’re seeing quieter, more thoughtful books – and not necessarily as much alcohol. This one (by the founder of Brooklyn’s P&H Soda Co.) gives a brief, friendly nod to the gin and rum drinks of summer. The rest is just good clean fun, yet also somehow high-falutin’. Its title may be matter-of-fact, but Make Your Own Soda is an elegant little production with great interior design, a surfeit of interesting soda facts, and pictures so evocative you can almost hear the ice clinking on the rim of the glass. If you leave the book lying suggestively around the house, you may just end up getting that soda siphon you’ve always wanted. (That’s what I’m banking on.) [Recipe: Cherry Lime Rickey]
Do you just love cookbooks and cookbook reviews? Download a copy of CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app, for yourself! It’s updated every week with reviews of the latest and greatest in cookbooks.
My good friend Monica Bhide put up a feature about CookShelf this morning which reminded me of how CookShelf got started, and so I wrote a little story about it for her site – you can read it there, following her post (and enter for a CookShelf giveaway!).
The short version is that it all began at the Roger Smith Cookbook Conference in the middle of February, when a snowstorm almost brought the city to a halt and we all were scrambling around in the slush and kind of wishing we were on a beach somewhere. I had gone with no particular plan other than to see friends, speak on a panel, meet a few new faces. But talking with those friends forced an idea to take form, and before long I was forming what-ifs in my mind…as in what if I developed a cookbook-rating system? What if I wrote an app? What if I worked really really hard and got it out by Mother’s Day?
I’ve learned that those what-ifs tend to lead to unforeseen consequences. Previous what-ifs have included: What if I agreed to run down Central Park South in an evening gown and heels after a horse-drawn carriage while playing a saxophone? What if I tried to make the apple cake my mom made when I was little? What if I tried to write my own personal ad just for fun? The first got me $100 and a really amazing pastrami sandwich. The second led eventually, with many twists and turns, to A Spoonful of Promises. The third led to my husband, two kids, and this whole crazy make-it-up-as-you-go life in New England.
Not all my what-ifs have turned out so great. What if I do a backflip off of the edge of this swimming pool? What if we tried to make our own funnel cake (this at age 6, with my sister)? What if I take this scenic detour to Vermont, the one with all the “Moose Crossing” signs? What if I balance this 4-pound strawberry-rhubarb pie on a spatula while transferring it to the cooling rack?
So far, what have the what-if’s I asked 12 weeks ago in a midtown hotel while the snow fell all around us led to? Well, firstly, 12 weeks of the hardest work I’ve done in my life – early mornings and late nights, with much leaning on the husband that other what-if brought me 15 years ago. Secondly, much greater mental clarity in the evaluation of cookbooks. Thirdly, increased speed and fluency in writing (what happens when you make yourself produce 200 words at a time in 10-minute intervals). And lastly, the CookShelf app itself – this curious, shiny hybrid of authorship and convenience, produced by a person who 12 weeks ago barely knew what an app was - and still doesn’t have a smartphone.
I never really can say, even afterward, whether any particular what-if was a game changer or a goose chase. And there are probably better ways to live your life than chasing down one thing you don’t know after another. There are probably lots of people – and maybe they’re right – who believe Why bother! is a much more sensible reply to life’s conundrums than What if?
But I’m still going to keep asking.