Come springtime, my attention turns to cookbooks. Not the ones on my counter, though. When I look at my old cookbooks, I'm reminded of all of the stewing and braising and roasting I did during the winter, and that's dead to me now. I want new food. I want a fresh start, without splatters on the pages.
No cookbook screams "spring" louder than Béatrice Peltre's La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life (Roost Books, 2011). The title comes from her blog of the same name, and there, as well as in the pages of this book, Peltre's photography is stunning. Her photos of food evoke a sense that Peltre's world is much simpler and more charming than yours or mine. And her recipes, headed by lovely little anecdotes about her family and life in France, deliver on their promise — simple, delightful food that's easy to make.
You get a whole different vibe from The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts (Ten Speed Press, 2011) by Frédéric Morin, David McMillan and Meredith Erickson. It's as if pirates had wrested Peltre's book out of her hands, torn out all the pages and then put them back marked up and out of order. The "Joe Beef" of the title is a much-praised restaurant in Montreal named after a bartender and union organizer who kept the city's waterfront tightly in his grip in the late 19th century. The two chefs, Morin and MacMillan, take a similiar approach to French cuisine. They have a firm grasp of it, but everything they do in this book (and in their restaurant) skirts around the rules or subverts expectations of just what that cuisine might be. They include recipes like the one for Éclair Velveeta, a concotion of Velveeta cheese, foie gras and bacon on a split éclair shell, and one for lentils cooked like baked beans (which is excellent, by the way). The book is part history, part memoir, part how-to and full of inspiring recipes, both crazy and not-so crazy.
A book I find myself turning to over and over again is Melissa Clark's Cook This Now: 120 Easy and Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make (Hyperion, 2011). Author of the weekly New York Times column "A Good Appetite," Clark has 32 cookbooks under her belt. When writers first started arranging the recipes in their books by season, it took me a while to get used to it. Now I'm a convert and find it both logical and useful. Skipping right to the spring section, I can follow month by month and find recipes with ingredients that are actually growing and available at farmers markets. For instance, May's recipes include two for asparagus, two for rhubarb and one each containing ramps and green garlic, all ingredients out of season the rest of the year. The early warm-up of 2012 may have accelerated the growing season, but these recipes still make the decision process leading up to dinner a whole lot easier.
Ian Knauer has written for Gourmet, Bon Appétit and Men's Health. His cookbook, The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), follows the seasons, as Clark's does, but he breaks them down even further, with chapters including recipes for early summer or late fall, for instance. There's an emphasis on produce (as opposed to meat-based) recipes, with more radish recipes than you would expect, and an intriguing one for potato nachos that's the author's favorite (see recipe). The food is great, but in addition, you'll want to buy this book for its crystal-clear, vivid prose.
It seems like I go to the grocery store every day, and I really don't need someone to tell me how to shop. However, Bi-Rite Market's Eat Good Food: A Grocer's Guide to Shopping, Cooking, and Creating Community Through Food (Ten Speed, 2011), by Sam Mogannam and Dabney Gough, is brimming with information and recipes. Mogannam is the owner of Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco, and his book is arranged by grocery department. For instance, in the deli section, you'll find advice on making a good sandwich and a recipe for a BLT&E with harissa mayo (the ‘E' stands for the addition of a poached egg). This book is more than a cookbook or a food primer; it's a detailed guide to individual ingredients, and it has a great resource list in the back.
So I'm off to the market now to shop for Velveeta and ramps. Like the green shoots pushing up in my garden every day, ideas for new things to cook and eat are uncurling from the pages of my stack of new books, every time I open one up.
From The Farm by Ian Knauer. Serves 6.
4 pounds of medium waxy potatoes
1 1/2 quarts of vegetable oil
8 ounces of grated sharp yellow cheddar cheese (2 cups)
8 ounces of grated mozzarella cheese (2 cups)
4 ounces of crumbled queso fresco, ricotta salata or feta cheese (1 cup )
6 ounces of sour cream (2/3 cup)
2 large ripe tomatoes, cored
1/2 white onion, chopped
2 tablespoons of fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon of black pepper
1/2 cup of fresh cilantro leaves
Place the potatoes in a large pot with 1 tablespoon of salt and cover with 2 inches of cold water. Bring to a boil and cook until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and let cool to room temperature. Using the palm of your hand, gently press down on each potato to lightly crush and expose the flesh while keeping the shape intact.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven to 400 degrees. Fry the potatoes in batches, returning the oil to 400 degrees between batches, until some of the exposed flesh is browned, 6 to 8 minutes per batch. Transfer the potatoes to paper towels to drain before placing them on an ovenproof serving platter.
Scatter the cheeses over the potatoes. Dollop the sour cream over them and place the platter in the oven until the cheese melts, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, chop the tomatoes, then combine with the onion, lime juice, 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and the pepper. Season with more salt to taste. Scatter the tomato salsa over the nachos, top with the cilantro and serve.
Copyright © 2012 by Ian Knauer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co. All rights reserved.