Cookbook Review - My Kitchen Year

I have a tattoo on my shoulder as a reminder. Lovely, deep red and pink cherry blossoms sprout over the circumference of the cap of my left shoulder, and underneath is text in Latin that basically translated reads, “What nourishes me also destroys me.” I think of it when all I want to do is anything in excess – like eat bread at every meal and all snacks in between. It itches slightly when I’ve sat too long on the sofa pouring over cookbooks, and it’s on my mind when I’m contemplating on whether another glass of wine would be prudent.

I suppose I needed to occasionally remind myself to seek balance in some way. To embrace the things that I love (and that love me back) but to push forward into the uncomfortable at times so I continue to grow – to “even out” perhaps.

When I made the decision to pick up Ruth Reichl’s new cookbook, My Kitchen Year, this fall, I didn’t need to read much of the forward to associate myself with her. As a blooming young foodie back in 2009 I had just subscribed to Gourmet when it unexpectedly and abruptly (for me) folded. I remember wondering what Ruth, who was editor at the time, would do with herself without a magazine to produce.

She wonders the same thing in this gorgeous new cookbook that is really a memoir of her year following the shuttering of Gourmet – along with the recipes that kept her alive. As someone who tends to immerse herself in her work so she’s unaware at times of where work ends and life begins, I quickly identified with Ruth’s initial shock as her world was basically yanked out from underneath her.

“It’s just business,” is something I hear and read often, as a person in her mid-40s and very much keen on being “successful”, and while it’s true – there must be a bottom line, it’s also true that some people put their very souls into their business, and when it’s no longer there, they might begin to wonder how they will identify themselves without it.

Reading about that initial letting go of Gourmet made me wonder if Ruth ever thought that the very thing she loved the most, the thing that fed her and nourished her, could now turn itself into the very thing that destroyed her. I only thought it for a moment, though. I would no longer receive the magazine, but I began following Ruth on Twitter and it became apparent rather quickly that she might be in pain, but we hadn’t seen the last of her.

This new cookbook is the story of what she did the year after she left 4 Times Square in the heart of NYC and returned to the one place that made sense - her kitchen. It became a way for her to heal and recover from the loss of Gourmet and the reader can't help but feel hopeful as she reconnects with simple pleasures and begins to once again appreciate and work with what surrounds her.

May I pause here to interject that some of the best reading of my recent middle age life has been coming to me in the form of cookbooks? Naturally I enjoy reading cookbooks because I love to cook, but there are some amazingly well-written books being produced right now that fulfill me in more ways than just the delicious food they help me put on the table. These books are serious soul-feeders and I can’t get enough of them.

This theme of cookbook as nurturer will continue with my next “review” of David Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food cookbook. Could two food people in the food industry be on more opposite ends of the spectrum? Perhaps – Ruth has many years of wisdom under her belt, has written cookbooks plural, written about food and was a part of turning food into an important part of popular culture, while Danny is a young-gun and spends the majority of his time in a restaurant kitchen – both on the line as well as developing restaurants on both coasts. What links them together is that both of them can identify with food as a means of “salvation”. We'll delve a little deeper into that with the next review.

The recipes in Ruth's cookbook are straightforward and require little fuss - perfect for the home cook who wants to cook well but might not have access to years of technique, special equipment or hard-to-source ingredients. The focus is on sourcing ingredients that are available while they're in their prime and a strong encouragement to simply pay attention to the food.

As a lover of all cuisines Asian, I naturally began dog-earing the surprising number of Asian recipes I found in the book. A traditional Chinese Dumpling recipe is one of those straightforward pieces but she also includes a Gluten-Free Egg-Wrapped Dumpling that is formed and cooked all at once in a skillet. Spicy Korean Rice Sticks with Shrimp and Srirachi Shrimp over Coconut Rice were entries I found I had nearly all the ingredients for already on-hand, and I was overjoyed to find she'd included her recipe for Mapo Tofu which is easily one of my most favorite Chinese dishes. Hers is the recipe I cut my mapo tofu teeth on.

More traditional standards include an Easy Bolognese, the easiest, fuss-free Roast Turkey recipe ever, and the Cake That Cures Everything (it should go without saying that this involves chocolate). More "amplified" recipes, such as Sea Urchin Pasta and Diva Grilled Cheese are really about making an everyday meal more special by adding one or two special ingredients. Do not miss the recipe-less Dry Aged Prime Rib Roast that is two short paragraphs long.

There is a story behind every recipe in this year-long cookbook which is really what real cooking truly is about. Simple meals that feed the soul and end up turning into memories. If there was anything at all to find fault with in the book, it is the minor disadvantage of the book's size and construction - while it reads like a memoir, it's built like a memoir, meaning I found it difficult to keep the book open to source from while cooking. This minor infraction is a small price to pay for a book I know I'll refer to for years to come. Thank you for sharing it with us, Ruth.

I enjoyed Ruth's recipe for French Toast made with custardy brioche bread, scented with orange and a splash of rum this past Christmas Morning. A no-prep, fuss-free recipe with a few special touches that you'll want to make the next weekend you have free.

Ruth Reichl's French Toast

from the cookbook My Kitchen Year

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 loaf brioche (or challah) bread

1 orange  

maple syrup

bourbon or rum

confectioner's sugar

6 eggs

cream or milk

nutmeg

cinnamon

butter

Remove the ends from a solid loaf of brioche bread and slice the loaf into 8 fairly thick slabs, about an inch thick.

Whisk the eggs with a quarter cup of freshly squeezed orange juice, 4 tablespoons of maple syrup, a couple tablespoons of cream or milk, and a bit of grated nutmeg and cinnamon. Toss in a hefty dollop of rum or bourbon as well. 

Melt a tablespoon of butter in a large, heavy pan over medium heat. 

Preheat the oven to 425-degrees.

Beat the egg mixture well, then dip one of the slices of bread into the egg mixture, pressing on it so it absorbs the liquid. Turn it over and dunk it again. Squeeze the bread gently so it doesn't drip, and place it in the pan. Repeat with 3 more slices of bread. Cook for a couple of minutes, until the bottoms are golden; turn and cook on the other side for half a minute or so. Put these slices on a baking pan and repeat with the remaining 4 slices of bread, wiping the pan, if necessary, between batches.

Put the baking pan with the French toast into the oven and bake for about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with a bit of confectioner's sugar, just because it looks so pretty, and serve with more maple syrup.