How many lonely cookbooks do you have? You know, the ones in pristine condition, with spotless pages and stiff spines? The ones that look on with envy as their grease-kissed, dog-eared, and (my favorite) steam-rippled brethren get taken down from the shelf and spattered time after time. I feel for those neglected ones. They remind me of animals at the pound who keep getting overlooked as fuzzier or younger or better-named companions parade out the door to start a new life with loving owners.
But compassion has its limits. In our small space, cookbooks have to earn their keep. If they don't, they're out. (Steve jokes that one day I'll decide that he's no longer useful and toss him out during a clutter-clearing frenzy. This is not entirely unrealistic, given the increasing, at times blinding, zeal with which I battle the encroachment of stuff on our precious few square feet.)
With this in mind, I've found a good way to keep our menus fresh while getting better acquainted with the neglected tomes. Actually, two good ways. And they both involve collaborating with other cooks, a welcome bonus.
In late fall, a cookbook bonding opportunity arose when my mother-in-law, sister-and-law, and I formed a small soup-cooking society. Our muse is Betty Rosbottom, neighbor to Gramma and author of a cookbook called Sunday Soups. We prepare one soup each week from the book and email each other about how it went. This has been a great chance to learn from other cooks by swapping tips and substitution ideas, and it's forced me to engage with recipes I would otherwise have ignored due to my tendency to gravitate toward certain flavors and ingredients. Perhaps most important of all, it has opened a channel, albeit via email, for the kind of small talk about cooking and life that goes on when we're all together at holiday time.
The second arrangement was born when Steve and I realized that in our determination to accustom the boys to family dinner, we were losing out on time to connect and converse with one another, just the two of us. (Family dinner conversation with a two year-old and a three year-old consists largely of: (a) requests for more milk, (b) every request's accompanying reminder to say please, (c) threats to take plates away in the futile quest for basic zoo-animal-level awareness of manners to be displayed, (d) attempts to get Gabe to tell us what he did in school today, (e) Gabe's standard reply, "I can't tell that right now because I'm [insert currently accurate participle here].")
As life stands right now, the only opportunity for sustained adult conversation (to the extent that we are still capable of it) comes after the boys are asleep. Remembering the lavish feasts we used to cook together, sipping wine and listening to music amidst sizzling and warmth and good smells, I proposed that we attempt to recapture those halcyon days by instituting a weekend date-night-in. An added challenge: a rule stipulating that every course must come from the same cookbook.
It's been fun and educational to work within a particular chef's approach to recipe writing and food preparation. I enjoy paging through our cookbooks (it is not unheard-of for this to happen at the playground on Saturday morning), dwelling on whole sections I would otherwise ignore. We choose the courses, divide tasks, get as much done ahead as we can, and do a quick burst of cooking once the boys are asleep. If all goes smoothly, by 9 p.m. we sit down to a multi-course meal we've both had a hand in creating.*
On the menu for tonight: thinly sliced apples, buttered, spiced, sugared, layered, covered, and weighted in ramekins, baked in a low oven for four hours. Not your typical Saturday activity in our household, but one habit I'm hoping will take hold.
I dream of a cookbook collection swollen with steam-rippled pages. Neglected recipe stats at all time lows. Romance rekindled. Distances bridged. I can't promise world peace, but if these apples turn out as well as I hope, there might be a chance, at least in our little corner.
* One tip if you decide to try the one-cookbook date night: This approach works well with a comprehensive, hefty cookbook. So far, we've enjoyed using Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan (twice), Essentials of Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan, and Simple Pleasures by Alfred Portale. It might be interesting to try a blog or other cooking web site some time (at risk of losing that cohesive experience of one chef's sensibility).