Concord Grape Pie

In the spring of 1991, my reputation as a pie baker was born, emerging out of a strawberry-rhubarb pie I made for my roommate, Carol.

Until that point, Carol believed that pie crusts were available only in the freezer section of  your local supermarket. Though her parents were both French, living in Wisconsin had apparently sapped away every vestige of their culinary heritage, leaving them only with the knowledge of how to brew coffee and cook sausage. I, on the other hand, took great pride in my crusts and my recipe, taken straight from the back of the Crisco can.

The strawberry-rhubarb pie, made from ingredients picked up at the legendary Madison Farmers’ Market, was apparently a revelation to Carol. It seemed a bit on the watery side to me, but she talked about it non-stop for nearly a week. “That was the best pie I’ve ever had,” she said. Twin Peaks was running at the time; she sounded like Agent Cooper at the counter of the R & R Diner.

So thrilled was she that she gave me this copy of Farm Journal’s Complete Pie Cookbook as a birthday present that year.

Written in 1965, this book chronicles a lifestyle that was already under siege by the agricultural industrial complex the moment it hit the shelves. I know this; I was born on a farm in 1965, and by the time I was in kindergarten my life was considered so exotic that it was turned into a field trip for my class. Thus a herd of five-year-olds was shepherded from the safety of suburbia to our farm, just a few miles outside the “city” of Cleveland, Tennessee. They looked at cows. They wisely ran in fear from the chickens. They stepped in little piles of manure dotting the fields and probably littered the freshly mopped floors of their homes with fecal matter within hours.

But I digress. I love the way that Farm Journal’s Pie Cookbook evokes a fantasy farm life, where green fields stretch out into the summer evening while swallows twitter overhead. Some samples:

“Peach pie is a reward tired and hungry men who have worked late in the field trying to finish a job really appreciate,” one farm woman says.  

Early summer mornings,  when the air’s still dewy, farm children gather ripe, juicy berries for Mother’s superb pies.

We certainly had moments like this on our farm. But we also had these:

Farm women think canning beans in August is about as much fun as a colonoscopy, but they know that both things need to be done.

Farmers are the kind of people for whom “vacation” means waiting till the next day to fix the tractor.

The book also contains recipes for pies that never appeared on our table–not surprising, given regional differences in American cuisine. Of course, I was drawn first to these more exotic pies (at least to me)–elderberry, currant, mulberry. One of these, Concord Grape Pie, has become a fall favorite. The filling reminded me of the juice and jams Mammaw made a few times from the grapes in our orchard. Just imagine the best homemade grape jam you’ve ever had, a grape jam with rich earthy undertones that’s not overly sweet–then you’ll have an idea of how this pie tastes.

Greed prevented us from getting a better photo. 
By the time I thought to get the camera, this was all that was left.

When the grapes come in this fall (September and October), you have only a few weeks to make this pie. It’s like those farms in 1965–their time on this earth is, sadly, too short.  

Concord Grape Pie

Unbaked 9″ pie shell
4 1/2 c. Concord grapes
1 c. sugar, or less to taste
1/4 c. flour
2 – 3 tsp. lemon juice
1/8 tsp. salt

Wash grapes and remove skins by pinching at end opposite stems. Reserve skins.

Place pulp in saucepan and bring to a boil; cook a few minutes until pulp is soft. Put through strainer or food mill, while pulp is hot, to remove seeds.

Mix strained pulp with skins. Stir in sugar, flour, lemon juice and salt.

Place grape mixture in pastry-lined pie pan. Cover with crust, cut vents, dust sugar on top, and flute edges. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and cook an additional 50 – 60 minutes.

Roasted Persimmon Salsa

In addition to the loss of our beloved Louise, June has been a trying month for The Newlyfeds. That’s primarily because my work takes me traveling across the country to Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church. There’s generally not much to report food-wise on these trips, unless you fantasize about hotel banquet meals.

Perhaps this overabundance of salad topped with chicken breast, combined with our current explorations of Durham’s taqueria scene, has led me to explore spicier food–along with the prodding of my dear neighbor, Melissa. During one cat-sitting stint for us, she looked over my cookbook collection and upon our return declared, “Your cookbooks seem kind of outdated for someone who writes about food.”

I tried to explain that a) I liked to collect older cookbooks and b) we were too cheap to buy new ones. She raised her eyebrows, looking at me just as my mother did about 40 years ago when I tried to tell her that it was Cindy Riden’s idea to “decorate” my bedroom furniture in magic marker and crayon.

“You can buy used cookbooks on Amazon for practically nothing,” she said. “Come over to my house and look over some of mine. You can even borrow them.”

That’s how I ended up with her copies of Rick Bayless’s Mexico: One Plate at a Time and Mexican Kitchen–two thorough, engaging books that have set me off on a new journey through Mexico’s foodways. Melissa was finally able to pry the books out of my greedy, grasping fingers after several weeks, but fortunately Fred stepped in and bought me copies for my 45th birthday on June 16, along with the newer Salsas that Cook.

I’ve especially enjoyed the salsas, which have introduced me to the technique of roasting garlic and peppers in a skillet to bring out their flavors, then adding to roasted tomatoes.

Inspired by these and by the purchase of some persimmons on a trip to Atlanta, I came up with the recipe below. It’s reminiscent of peach or mango salsa, but not treacly as those can be. Instead, it offers just a hint of sweetness followed by a considerable kick.

If you’ve never tried persimmons, they’re common in the South though not always easily found in the store. The trees grew wild on our farm in Tennessee. These wild ones must be very ripe before they’re eaten; unripe, the taste resembles lemon infused with chalk. The ones you’ll find in stores are a little more forgiving, tasting a bit like a not too sweet apricot with hints of orange. For this recipe, use the ripest ones you can find, or let them ripen on your counter for a few days–the sweeter persimmons help balance the acidity of the tomatoes.

Roasted Persimmon Salsa
2 whole unpeeled, very ripe persimmons (available in most stores)
2 whole unpeeled tomatoes
1-2 whole jalapeno peppers
3 whole cloves unpeeled garlic
Salt to taste
Chopped onion and fresh chopped cilantro for garnish

Set oven rack about 6 inches below broiler and turn broiler on high. Place persimmons and tomatoes on baking sheet with rim. Roast in oven about 6 minutes on each side until blackened in spots. Remove and let cool on sheet.

Meanwhile, place garlic and jalapenos in ungreased skillet on medium high heat. Roast on stove top until blackened in spots, about 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Remove stems from jalapenos and peel garlic. Chop in food processor or blender a few seconds, until minced. Cut out tops of persimmons and tomatoes and discard; peel if desired. Add to jalapenos and garlic in food processor or blender, along with juice. Chop coarsely and salt to taste. Garnish with onion and cilantro if desired.

Possibly the Worst Recipe Ever

I’ve lately rediscovered the Treasury of Tennessee Treatsa cookbook put out by grandmother’s church, Keith Memorial United Methodist in Athens, TN. It was first issued in 1957, and my copy is the revised version from 1962. It is so battered that the index, long detached from the binding, is stuffed into random pages throughout. The two pages of pecan pie recipes look like a Jackson Pollock painting.

The book is a testament to small-town life of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when time-honored but time-consuming ways of cooking were slowly giving way to modern convenience foods. There are many gems here–black bottom pie, dozens of lovely cakes, wild goose with apple and sweet potato stuffing, quail pie, chili, stew. But you can also see how cooks like my grandmother were being seduced by the siren song of convenience foods, luring them down some dark paths lined with canned asparagus and cream of mushroom soup.  

The recipe below represents the worst excesses of the era. It’s hard to imagine a combination more hideous than marshmallows, jarred pimento cheese, and Maraschino cherries. But the cooks of Athens, TN, must have been fascinated by the exotic wonder of this salad–which contains real whipped cream only, I am sure, because Cool Whip was not invented until 1966.

I have serious doubts that anyone from Los Angeles ever made this. My guess is that it was some Southern cook’s way of getting back at a snooty California relative.

Los Angeles Salad

1 1/2 lb. marshmallows
Small can crushed pineapple
10 Maraschino cherries
1 4-oz. glass pimiento cheese
1 cup whipping cream

Mix cheese and whole can of pineapple. Add cherries and juice, and marshmallows, cut in small pieces. Whip cream. Add to mixture. Place in ice tray four or five hours. Serve with mayonnaise.


We have received some gorgeous shrimp from our CSF, which much to our dismay made its final delivery for the season on Thursday.

I especially love the green tints in the tails. Fairy wings must look like that.

The bounty of shrimp has led to a recent cooking extravaganza. In preparing them, I’ve referred to an old and dear favorite of Southern cooks, Charleston Receipts, for ideas. My copy, the 1973 edition, was snatched from the jowls of death while I was in college, grabbed from a pile of cookbooks a family friend was tossing out.

It’s easy to see why a suburban housewife would not want this filthy thing lurking on her tidy shelves. The cover isn’t even physically attached anymore. Still–how could someone throw away a book with 28 “receipts” featuring shrimp?

I’m quite fortunate to have help whenever we cook shrimp. Louise waits patiently in this exact position throughout the process, ready to clean up any stray bits that might happen to fall on the floor.

(Note: Those hideous Birkenstocks with socks are reserved solely for the home. I am more embarrassed than Tiger Woods at this unexpected revelation of my secret life.) 

Neither of these recipes comes from Charleston Receipts, exactly, but some of those dishes served as inspiration. You’ll note these two dishes are very similar–we had fresh jalapenos to use up!

Shrimp with Black Eyed Peas

This dish was actually better the next day.

Serves 4 as a main dish supper or 6 as a pre-dinner soup

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium jalapeno, minced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. black-eyed peas
6 cups or more water
2 medium bay leaves
Kosher salt to taste
1 1/2 c. crushed tomatoes (canned)
1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. half and half or milk
24 medium shrimp with tails

Heat olive oil in large pot over medium high heat. Saute onion and jalapeno in oil until onion is translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add peas with enough water to cover them by an inch or two. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low (but high enough to keep liquid at a simmer). Add bay leaves, salt, and tomatoes. Cook, covered, for about 45 minutes or until peas are tender, stirring occasionally. Add water as needed to keep peas covered. (Bring to a boil again if you add water, then reduce heat back to low.) Once peas are tender, whisk together flour and cream until flour has completely dissolved and no lumps remain. Add to peas and mix thoroughly. Add shrimp. Cover and cook for a few minutes until shrimp has turned pink, stirring frequently to keep sauce from sticking. Serve with rice or cornbread.

Shrimp with Black Beans and Rice

Serves 2

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. chopped onion
1 jalapeno, minced
3 -4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
1 1/2 c. water (approximate)
1/2 c. dry brown rice
Salt to taste
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 c. crushed tomatoes
1 can black beans
Half and half or cream

Heat olive oil in large pot over medium high heat. Saute onion and jalapeno in oil until onion is translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add cumin and coriander and stir. Add water, rice, salt, bay leaf, and tomatoes. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to a simmer; cover and cook until rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Add beans and cream and cook until beans are heated, a few minutes. Add shrimp. Cover and cook until shrimp is pink, 4 – 5 minutes. Serve with cornbread.

Goat Kidneys

I seem to be the only person in Durham–or perhaps the nation–who is excited about the goat kidneys I found at the Durham Farmers’ Market a couple of weeks ago through Meadow Lane Beef farm. The near-universal response to the news that we’d tried them was a wrinking of the face, followed by an “Euw!” or an “Ugh!” or the occasional polite “Oh.”

The horror, though, was inevitably followed by curiosity: “So . . . what did they taste like?”
Fred described the flavor as “what you wished a giblet tasted like.” I said they were a cross between liver and a chicken thigh. The texture closely resembled that of liver, just firmer and with no tendency to crumble.

Unable to find a recipe for goat kidney even on my overburdened cookbook shelves, I turned to James Beard’s recipes for lamb kidney in his American Cookery.

Beard sure does love his offal. True, he devotes only a small section of the book’s 850 or so pages to the subject–but then again, he doesn’t even offer a recipe for cheesecake. Describing cakes, cookies, and other typical confections, he shows about as much enthusiasm as someone about to clean a bathtub: “This is a popular cake for church picnics.” “This cookie has an unusual flavor that is not unpleasant.” But when it comes to lamb’s tongues, he speaks as he would of a long-lost love or a beloved, recently departed parent:

There was never a time, it seems to me, when there were not some pickled lamb’s tongues on the shelf of our family larder. They were used for a quick snack, for a cold supper, for sandwiches, or for picnics. And how tender and delicious they were . . . . I fear that lamb’s tongues are lost to most people today, who won’t take the trouble to prepare them and don’t know what eating pleasure they are missing.

His descriptions of lamb’s kidneys were equally rhapsodic, so Fred and I eagerly anticipated trying the goat.

The kidneys were very easy to prepare. First, I removed the little tube in the kidney and the white gristle-y parts. Then I soaked them in milk for about an hour.

I brushed them with olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper, and broiled about 5 minutes, turning once. The most important thing, it seems, is not to overcook them.

They were not as rare as James Beard suggested, but that was fine with us on our first try.

The verdict? We’ll try them again. And if anyone knows where we can get lamb’s tongues, please let me know.

Return to Moosewood: Vegetable Curry

Efforts to claw my way out of the cooking rut are beginning to succeed, as my old friends, the Moosewood Collective, lent a very helpful hand earlier this week.

I became acquainted with Moosewood during my six-month vegetarian period, which lasted from the fall of 1987 to one day in the spring of 1988, when a Krystal oasis wafted its heady onion-burger scent across a concrete desert of strip malls and lured me back into the dark world of flesh eating, never to return.
Moosewood Restaurant, in Ithaca, NY, was an early vegetarian mecca. Their first two books, The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, introduced me to exotic new dishes such as Welsh rarebit and lentil soup. In 1990, they put out Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, featuring menus focused on foods from a specific region (India, the Caribbean, the American South, New England, etc.)

But the timing was off for me. By the time I got Sundays at Moosewood as a present sometime in the early 1990s, I was living in Madison, WI, where I was quickly wearying of earnest, Birkenstock-clad, dredlock-sprouting vegans and vegetarians. I’d had enough of middle-class white grad students appropriating select tidbits of other cultures in the name of “diversity,” especially when they failed to realized that a hairstyle that looked wonderful on people with thick, curly hair was going to turn into a smelly, matted rat’s nest on them. I was over Moosewood. I didn’t need their sanitized versions of “ethnic” vegetarianism anymore.

So the book sat on my shelf virtually untouched until last week. But having grown up a bit, and becoming more patient with others (even white people with dredlocks) and myself–and being nearly desperate for some new vegetable recipes–I opened up Sundays at Moosewood again.

I was pleasantly surprised. Without meat, of course, many of the recipes aren’t going to resemble what you’d find in the region from which they came. (Vegetarian Brunswick stew? Please.)* Still, Sundays at Moosewood offers a good place to start sampling different cuisines and try out fresh flavors.

*I should note that Fred loves the vegetarian Brunswick stew at Whole Foods. He claims it’s wonderful if you add barbecued pork.

I turned to the section on India first. Each section of the book has a different author, and only two have names that suggest they grew up eating the foods they write about. Linda Dickinson, the author of the section on India, is one of them, and my reservations about the book came surging back when I read her introduction. Her first exposure to Indian food came in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when her roommate made an Indian dinner. I have a sneaking suspicion that she was an enthusiastic participant in the post-Beatles India fad of the 1960s and fear that she still favors flowing batik skirts with Tevas.

Still, Linda, bless her heart, has done a heck of a lot more than I ever will to understand Indian food. I did not actually use one of her recipes but cobbled together the one below from the techniques she suggested. Most important is to heat the spices in the butter first to bring out the flavors.

This dish is probably as “authentic” as vegetarian Brunswick stew–I didn’t even make my own spice mix. But until I decide to get my own Indian cookbook, the wildly complex food of India is probably beyond my ken. This will do for now. Thanks, Linda.

Vegetable Curry

2 tbsp. butter, melted
2 tbsp. muchi curry powder (available at Whole Foods)
1/2 c. minced onion
4 small to medium red potatoes, diced, cooked until just tender
3 carrots, minced
1 Mediterranean squash, diced (zucchini and chayote squash would work nicely as well)
3 small cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
Milk and sour cream (yogurt would be more appropriate for an Indian dish, but we didn’t have any)

Melt butter in large skillet over medium high heat. Add curry powder and heat until spice becomes aromatic, about 20 – 30 seconds. Add onions and saute for 1 – 2 minutes. Add garlic and stir. Add carrots and squash. Stir, cover, and saute about 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Stir in potatoes until well-coated. Salt and pepper to taste. Add milk and sour cream until dish is desired consistency. (I use roughly 1/4 c. milk and 3/4 c. sour cream.) Can serve over rice if desired.

Focaccia Results, and Happy Birthday Rocco

I am pleased to report that 4-H and Lidia did not let me down in yesterday’s focaccia attempt, even though I misspelled Lidia’s name. Neither did my Cuisinart–a valuable ally who was not present during my youthful struggles with yeast breads, nor during later misguided attempts to make bread without “cheating” (i.e., doing things in an easier and more efficient way).

I hope that Rocco, whose actualy birthday is today and in whose honor this bread was made, will be pleased with these results.

Here is the recipe, modified slightly from Lidia’s Italy–a beautifully illustrated collection of Italian recipes that I highly recommend.

Onion-Tomato Focaccia

Makes 1 large round; serves 10 or more as a side dish


2 packets active dry yeast (I used outdated rapid rise)
2 1/4 cups warm water or as needed
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for handling the dough
2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil for bread bowl


1 large onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced (about 2 c.)
2 c. tomatoes, diced (original calls for cherry tomatoes, halved)
1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
1 tsp. coarse salt (kosher or sea)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Dissolve yeast in 1/4 c. warm water and let it sit for several minutes, until it begins to bubble. Put flour and salt in food-processing bowl. Stir together yeast and 2 c. lukewarm water in spouted measuring cup. With processor running continuously, blend flour and salt briefly, then pour in all the liquid through the feed tube and process for about 30 seconds. A soft, moist dough should gather on the blade, with some sticking to the sides of the bowl. Add more flour, 1 tbsp. at a time, if dough is too sticky and has not come off sides at all; add more water in small amounts if it’s too dry.

[NOTE: I misread the recipe and added the yeast directly into the 2 c. lukewarm water, then poured into the food processor before it bubbled. But luckily focaccia is a forgiving dough.]

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I used a clean, non-fuzzy kitchen towel), scraping bowl and blade clean. Knead by hand for a minutes, using as little flour as possible, until dough forms a smooth round, still soft and a bit sticky. Coat a big bowl with olive oil, drop in dough, and turn to oil it all over. Seal bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 20 – 30 minutes (1 hour if using regular yeast).

After the dough has risen, it should look like this:

While dough is rising, toss together onions, tomatoes, 4 tbsp. of the olive oil, and 1/2 tsp. salt in small bowl and let them marinate.

Coat a large shallow baking dish or pan, bottom and sides, with 2 tbsp. or more olive oil. Deflate risen dough and lay it in the pan. Gently press and stretch it into an evenly flat round (or square, as you see below) that fills the pan. If dough is resistant, let it relax a few minutes.

Lift the marinated tomato and onion out of the bowl with a slotted spoon, draining off juices. (Lidia failed to mention you are to reserve these, so I ate them.) Scatter vegetables all over focaccia. Lightly press in with your fingertips to create dimples in the soft dough. Drizzle the marinating oil that you did not eat over the top, or if you did eat it, olive oil works quite well. It will look like this:

Let the focaccia rise, uncovered, for about 20 minutes. Set a baking stone, if you have one, on center rack in oven and heat to 425. Just before baking, gently dimple the dough again with your fingertips, and sprinkle another 1/2 tsp. coarse salt all over.

Puzzle over why Lidia ever expected you to slide this enormous square thing onto your round, medium-sized pizza stone, which perhaps is different from a baking stone but you aren’t sure. Decide that Lidia probably left out a sentence or made a typo, and anyway you have only 5 hours till your dinner party and can’t afford the disaster that will surely occur if a transfer is attempted. Set pan on top of the pizza stone in the oven and cross fingers. Bake focaccia for 20 minutes, rotate pan back to front for even cooking, and bake 10 – 15 minutes (or more) until bread is golden brown and onions and tomatoes are nicely carmelized.

Remove from pan and top with remaining olive oil and crumbled oregano. Let cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Give thanks for wonderful bread and friends. Wonder if Martha White would let you enter this in the next 4-H breadbaking contest.

1981 Breadbaking Champion Attempts Focaccia

In the spring of 1981, I was crowned the Tennessee 4-H District III breadbaking champion and traveled to Knoxville for the state competition that summer. Several key facts about the event should be noted.

a) The contest coincided with Prince Charles and Diana’s wedding–a great disappointment to a 16-year-old who had been waiting to see the dress for months.

b) When I did see the dress, I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created, and I could not imagine that those puffy sleeves would ever, ever look dated.

c) Contestants in the breadbaking competition were judged on 1) a project book, which recorded all breadbaking activities over the course of your 4-H career; 2) an oral exam by state extension agents and representatives of the Martha White Flour company (sponsor of the event); and 3) no baking whatsoever.

d) I did not win.

e) Had we baked, I certainly would not have won.

In sum, I was a breadbaking champion who was more interested in the intricacies of Princess Di’s dress than in the chemical interactions that were making my loaves so tough.

Despite this, on an impulse that can only be called “stupidity,” I volunteered to make bread for a dinner party that starts in about 7 hours. I was intrigued because one of the guests is allergic to all oils except olive, does not eat dairy, eggs, chocolate, and a host of other things, and wrote the book I just finished. And so I am attempting Lydia Bastianich’s recipe for onion-tomato focaccia from Lydia’s Italy. Results will be posted.

I bake this in honor of my friend Rocco Marinaccio, who is having his 50th birthday bash in the Berkshires today and who gave us Lydia’s Italy for our wedding. Happy birthday, honey, and I’m sorry I can’t be there!

We’re Famous!

Or at least linked, and to a blog by someone who doesn’t even know us. 30threads, a new site from Ginny from the Blog, included The Newlyfeds in their latest report on Durham’s food blogs. Food Network, here we come.

I was also pleased to discover that 30threads also offers endless potential for procrastination, with links to 30 of the most interesting threads in local blogs. I killed half an hour in between writing these two paragraphs–imagine the possibilities when you’re really trying to accomplish something.
But back to food. On Tuesday we received our CSA (community-sponsored agriculture) delivery, and it allayed some fears that I’d been developing about our choice of a farm. Well, actually “choice” is too strong a word. I waited until the last minute (see note on procrastination, above) and so had to go with the only farm that still had space. Except that it didn’t actually have space–something we discovered after we mailed our check, and e-mailed, and heard nothing, and called, and heard nothing, and called, and were finally told that they never got our check and that there was no space anyway.

In late June, however, we got a somewhat garbled message from the farmer offering us a share for the remaining half of the season because someone had dropped out. Driven by a desperate need for vegetables instilled by our new weight watching habits, we acted like a high school wallflower who’s just been asked to the prom by the star quarterback. We couldn’t return the call fast enough, and my mid-June we got our first delivery.

After four deliveries, I am beginning to understand why our farm, Snow Creek Organics, did not bother to call us back. They’re too busy farming. Here’s what was in this week’s delivery:

The items we recognized immediately were Swiss chard (in the back), tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and okra. The green items on the left that resemble miniature watermelons are squash (I’m afraid I didn’t get the variety) and the yellow items atop the red pepper are lemon cucumbers. The flowers weren’t part of the delivery; they’re the ones Fred always buys for me at the Duke Mobile Farmers Market, our pick-up site (for the vegetables, that is).

I love that Snow Creek gives us oddball varieties to try. The lemon cucumbers were a delight, with a fresh, clean cucumber taste–although with no hint of lemon. The seeds were large but would be easy to remove using the same process as that for cantaloupe. And the slices would look beautiful in a salad with tomatoes. Unfortunately, we ate them so quickly we didn’t have a chance to find out.

We also made a great discovery about the chard stems. I’d thought they weren’t usable, but my 1946 edition of The Joy of Cooking claimed that you could cook them like asparagus. After tasting one raw, I was skeptical: It was awful–bitter, with no redeeming qualities I could identify.

All the more reason to put Irma Rombauer to the test. And it appears that she, like my mother, is always right. Once cooked, the stems lost their bitterness. They don’t taste the least bit like asparagus, but roasting them with garlic, oil, onions, balsamic vinegar, and salt made for a delicious dish.

Roasted Onion and Swiss Chard Stems (serves 2)

Preheat oven to 350. Remove leaves from 10 -12 stems of Swiss chard. (Leaves can be cooked like spinach or other greens.) Cut off about 1/4 inch from the bottom and cut chard into 1″ pieces. Quarter a large onion, lengthwise, then slice. Mince 3-4 large cloves of garlic. Toss all ingredients in a large bowl with 1 tbsp. olive oil, several generous splashes of balsamic vinegar (roughly 1/4 – 1/2 cup) and salt to taste. Spread on jelly roll pan or cookie sheet and bake for 20 -30 minutes.

Buy this book!

In an attempt to use whatever remains of my birthday powers, I’d like to make a short plug for an unjustly forgotten cookbook: Great Food without Fuss, edited by Frances McCullough and Barbara Witt. Amazon does not even supply a cover photo, so I will:

You may not think you need this book, but you do. When I received it as a gift over ten years ago, I though its premise was the stupidest idea I’d ever heard. The authors have taken recipes from famous cooks (James Beard, Julia Child, and Deborah Madison, among others) that are relatively easy to make, and they’ve slapped them together into their own book. Who does that sort of thing? Isn’t it stealing?
As is all too often the case, I was wrong. Here’s the reason.

These are my cookbooks. Now, if you were to peruse these shelves you’d probably unearth–eventually–most of the recipes in Great Food without Fuss. But I certainly hadn’t bothered to do that by the time this little book took its place among the giants piled up here. (If you look carefully you can see it on the top shelf, nearly in the center, sandwiched between the two volumes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Lidia’s Italy.) So this book has served as kind of index for me, a wonderful compilation of go-to recipes that I might never have discovered otherwise.

The recipes are indeed simple, and their strength lies in using fresh ingredients, for the most part. The Pasta with Vodka is the best version of this dish I’ve ever had. The recipe for Shredded Brussels Sprouts–chopped brussels sprouts, butter, and lime–is so simple and perfect that I was astonished I’d never come up with it myself. And how else would I have discovered James Beard’s ridiculously easy Cream Biscuits, in which you just stir whipping cream into a mix of flour, leavening, and sugar? Other favorites are Pasta with Gorgonzola, Julia Child’s Roasted Onions with Sage, Cape Scallops Sauteed with Garlic and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, and Beef Braised in Coffee.
Only one recipe, Pork Slices with Prunes, has ever steered me wrong, and I really should have known better anyway.
I think the strongest testament I can offer is the the torn, grease-splattered back cover

and the greatly abused page containing the recipe for Pasta with Vodka.

Perhaps if we all buy a copy, they’ll put it back into print.