Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ripple Effect

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).

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Easy Now

Poor aging. Birthday parties aside, this is one process that's hurting for advocates. So I'm stepping up to make the case that it's not so bad. Now, I will admit that I have limited experience with getting older. But after exiting the 18-34 demographic advertisers so adore and finding myself on the other side of two pregnancies, relying on a slightly worn body to wrangle two hefty kiddos day into night, well, I began to feel my age. And sometimes relish it.

Sure, your skin sags with the decades. You amass more things than you can possibly use. You become more responsible, less spontaneous. Your mind works more slowly and you forget stuff. Your wardrobe evokes nostalgia for previous decades. (I speak only for myself, of course. Perhaps you have become less bogged down and more pert, spontaneous, stylish, intelligent, and so on. If so, I would like your secret.)

But there is one thing about getting older that I've come to appreciate. I call it passive practice. This is my term for the kind of practice you do when you're not really thinking about practicing.

It's not the kind of practice I did as a child, clicking open my flute case and screwing together the dank parts a few times a week so as to not get in trouble at my lesson. It's not lugging your tired bones out to the playing field every day regardless of rain, shine, heat or cold to hone plays, ball skills, field sense. No. For better or worse, I don't seem to have much time for that sort of practice these days.

The kind of practice I do now is the kind I don't even realize I'm doing until all of a sudden something that used to be hard is easy. Take biscotti. When I first began making it for holiday gifts several years ago, the process tired me out. There were late, flour-dusted nights, last-minute dashes to the grocery store, recipe failures, at worst, and uneven results, at best. Frequently, as I divvied up the goodies I would find that I didn't have quite enough.

I was remembering those early days last month as I surveyed a neat set of biscotti-filled gift bags ready to be delivered to neighbors and friends. It was afternoon, not midnight. The counters were clean, the cookies were colorful and crisp, and I had enough and then some. Making them hadn't been hard; it was fun. The process required a little forethought, some organization, familiarity with the recipe, a certain touch and quickness with the tools and ingredients. The fruits of experience, ripe at last. Huh, I thought to myself, I guess I've got this process down.

Whenever I find I'm getting to know a recipe well, I think about writer Daniel Duane's common-sense recommendations, which I wrote about last year. With my annual biscotti binge, I'm not exactly following his intensive plan to recipe independence. Making it once a day for two weeks would surely yield faster and perhaps more substantive results. But that would not be an example of passive practice, the results of which are pleasing precisely because of the lack of exertion involved.

If you think about it, I'll bet you can come up with all kinds of things for which this principle applies. For example, I once marveled at the sensitive way a friend helped her young son resolve a problem, and I remember telling her I'd never know what to say in her situation. Now? After spending most of my day talking with toddlers, I find that answers to tough questions often dribble out in pretty good form if I just open my mouth. It's just practice, the kind you have to do, the kind you don't realize you're doing because it's living your life.

The only catch? You have to be getting older to reap the benefits of passive, slow accumulation of skill and wisdom. In this way, it's very inclusive. So the next time you forget your phone number or yank a gray hair, just think about all the things you know how to do well, and be glad you're not twenty anymore.


You can find the recipe for cranberry-pistachio biscotti here. To include and please the aforementioned three year-old, I'm working on my own nut-free version and will post it once I get results that pass the family taste test.