With new `Joy,' fare isn't dazzling, but it's welcome

New `Joy of Cooking' fare doesn't wow, but it's welcome

October 25, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Recently, I cooked from the new, 75th-anniversary edition of Joy of Cooking. It felt familiar, like I was spending kitchen time with a warm, knowing friend.

I made beef brisket, broiled tomatoes and hamburgers topped with a gravy made with soy sauce, green onions and port. My wife made two apple pies, one with a shortening crust, the other with butter.

This was not dazzling fare, the glittering concoctions that appear on TV food shows. Instead they were flavorful meals, welcome suppers.

Moreover, the "conversation" that every cook has with a cookbook, the mental back and forth on ingredients and techniques, had a pleasing tone. It was smart, sensible and confident.

It probably helped that the authors, Joy of Cooking scion Ethan Becker and editor Maggie Green, share some of my prejudices. Microwave cooking, for instance, leaves the authors cold. "At the risk of being put down as unadventurous or just plain not with it," they write, "we still prefer conventional techniques over those of microwave cookery." Yes!

The "personality" of the book also rings true. The general knowledge passages, titled "About" (as in "About Potatoes"), provide a wealth of information in a style that is both economical and celebratory.

Even veteran cooks need encouragement, and this edition of Joy gives good counsel. A passage reminds us that the crucial component of home entertaining is to "just be yourself," then goes over the dinner-party essentials.

Family meals are touted as the "most important" appointment on a cook's calendar, and the difficult business of how to find time to prepare them is approached head-on. "On the weekend, we cook one or two dishes that take time, say roast turkey or a large cut of beef, and then after their first appearance as a meal, convert the leftovers ... into soups, sandwiches, casseroles and pasta sauce throughout the week."

It is the same advice, minus the mention of pasta sauce, that my mother gave me, eons ago, when I began feeding myself.

But instead of scolding - guilt can be as constant a part of the kitchen experience as chopped onions - there is assurance. The passage, for example, on how to make pie dough, a prospect many find threatening, is among the best-organized and calm treatments of the procedure you can find.

Becker, whose mother and grandmother, Marion Rombauer Becker and Irma S. Rombauer, put together the first edition of the cookbook in 1931, told me the "Joy of Cooking family" was much happier with this book than with the last revision, in 1997. That edition tapped some 300 chefs and food writers to rewrite the older versions of the cookbook.

"A lot of good material got cut from that [1997] book at the last second," Becker, 61, told me in a long telephone conversation from his home in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains.

"We were stunned in 1997," said Becker's wife, Susan. "That was not a true Joy of Cooking. It was not Irma's or Marion's voice."

The couple are especially proud of the book's index, which they put together using home computers. In addition to listing individual dishes, it also groups them by cuisine. Bean burritos, for example, appear both under "B" and under "Mexican/Tex-Mex" cuisine. There is also a listing for Joy classics, which includes some 35 recipes, from blender borscht to yellow cucumber pickles, with a gin cocktail somewhere in the middle.

"A book is only as good as its index," Susan Becker said. "You may have the secret to the meaning of life in your book, but unless it is listed under "M" in the index nobody is going to know."

I thought the index could benefit from larger type. When I was cooking, anxiously paging through the index, I missed the larger headlines used in former editions. I also missed the multiple ribbons, used as page markers. These allow you to easily flip back and forth between the recipe for beef brisket and the brisket rub. The new Joy comes with only one ribbon.

I also had some trouble both finding and agreeing with the recommended cooking temperatures for meat and poultry. When I did track down the temperature chart in the back of the book (which I would mark with a ribbon if an extra were available), I thought the numbers looked high. If you wait until your turkey registers the recommended 180 degrees, for example, the breast is likely to be dry as toast.

But when I spoke with Green by phone from her home near Cincinnati, she talked me through this difficulty. The trick, she said, outlined in the "About Poultry" section, is to cook the bird until a thermometer inserted in the inner thigh registers 165 degrees. The bird will finish cooking out of the oven as it stands, reaching a final temperature of 180, yet keeping the meat moist, she said.

My conversation with Green, a mother of three young children as well as a trained chef, convinced me she knew her way around the kitchen.

She, like the cookbook she edited, treats home cooking as a vital part of life - a part that can, and should, generate delight.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

Becker Burgers

Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds lean ground chuck

2 tablespoons olive oil

black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons port

several drops hot-pepper sauce

Form meat into 4 equal-size burgers about 3/4 -inch thick.

Heat the olive oil in heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add the burgers and cook for 2 minutes. Turn and cook the other side for 4 minutes for medium rare.

Sprinkle generously with pepper. Add the soy sauce, port and hot-pepper sauce.

Remove the skillet from the heat, cover and let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serve as an open-faced sandwich over whole-wheat toast with pan juices poured over the burgers.

From "Joy of Cooking," 2006

Per serving: 275 calories, 34 grams protein, 14 grams fat, 4 grams saturated fat, 1 gram carbohydrate, 0 grams fiber, 88 milligrams cholesterol, 732 milligrams sodium

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