Sorting Cookbooks

This photo represents about half my cookbook collection. None of these made the first cut represented by what is visible on bookshelves in my writing room. What the heck am I doing?

Going through them is not the same as sorting them. As I make and look through each pile, I have thoughts about how to use them. The categories are beginning to appear.

Mostly vegetarian

There about three dozen books devoted to vegetarianism or with mostly vegetarian recipes. I categorize myself as mostly ovo-lacto vegetarian and my spouse is vegan, so these are of particular interest. There are also books with instructions for how to prepare almost any vegetable imaginable. The best of these will be keepers and the others will be sold, donated or given away.

Culinary reference books

By this I mean books related to cooking yet are not comprised mostly of recipes. For example, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is in this stack. So is Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor by Hervé This. Some of these will go into my main library as reading material. A few may go on the cookbook shelf to be built for the dining room.

Souvenirs and memorabilia

When I was in Texas, I bought a souvenir cookbook with recipes from Texans. When I was in Georgia, I got a similar volume written by Georgians. There is a book about cooking potatoes presented as a gift. I’m not sure how many of these memories remain important. Once I have a pile, I’ll have to go through them and decide.

Books of yearning

Some books, by their title or cover or introduction beg to be examined more closely. Eating Cuban by Beverly Cox and Martin Jacobs is one of them. The Greens Cook Book by Deborah Madison is another. I yearn to spend an afternoon with books like these to dream about culinary invention.

Community cookbooks by geography

The City of Solon near where I live makes a cottage industry of community cookbooks. There is one for the one-room school house and one for the PTA, along with several others. A new one gets published regularly. Our home cuisine is so different from these recipes, I’m not sure of their relevance to our kitchen garden. The most interesting cookbook is titled The Solon PTA Cook Book with “Favorite Bohemian and American recipes.” The advertisements all have two and three digit telephone numbers which were phased out by 1920. No one currently living would have submitted a recipe, so that opens it up for use in my writing. On the back page of the cookbook, readers are admonished, “Aw shucks Mom. Put that cook book away and bring the family up to Lowell’s Cafe for a delicious steak, chicken or fish dinner.” Lowell’s Cafe is now part of history.

Community cookbooks by broader geography

Community cookbooks that were published outside Iowa can be first to go. It seems unlikely I will write about Mont Clair, New Jersey, for example. The question is where do I draw the line? A community cookbook from Ely or Mechanicsville might be keep-able. Most of the ones I have from Cedar Rapids and Iowa City are likely not. If I was a part of a community that wrote a cookbook, like the American Trucking Association maintenance council, I may look through it before disposition.

Appliance cookbooks

When we buy major appliances like refrigerators, ranges, and countertop appliances there is often a cookbook inside it. I have a stack of these. I don’t plan to keep any of them. Too much to read in too little time.

We have company coming over the weekend, so whatever I get done needs finishing by tomorrow. As I go through them all, the last thing I feel like is cooking something. Good thing there are leftovers in the refrigerator.

Kitchen Garden

Do We Need Cookbooks?

Not for recipes on how to prepare your pet dog or cat. It comes from the PET milk company.

Clearing space to put large format signs and maps piled on top of boxes of cookbooks was a start. I had the project of reducing the number of my cookbooks in mind for a while. It began with a question. How many cookbooks does a home cook need? Not as many as I currently have.

The end result will be a shelving unit in the dining area with the consolidated collection nearer to the kitchen. The goal is to review hundreds of cookbooks one last time, reduce them to as few as 20, and sell the rest at a garage sale, donate them to the library, or give them away. The project forces me to think about what cookbooks mean in my kitchen garden.

According to author Nichole Burke, “The kitchen garden is a small-scale version of the vegetable garden that enables you to experience the magic of growing and enjoying some of your own homegrown herbs, greens, and vegetables, but that gives you the convenience of requiring just a few minutes or hours of your time each week.”

My idea of a kitchen garden is different. I seek to incorporate what goes on in the kitchen more closely with the garden so they become one coherent whole. I began a couple of years ago and each season the two entities are closer to integration. As a result, more of what our household eats comes from the garden.

My garden is larger than what Burke suggests. In addition to patches gleaned for daily meals as she suggests, there are rows designed to grow and preserve vegetables for winter. Examples are peppers, tomatoes, garlic, onions and broccoli. Cookbooks are useful as a way to help determine which vegetables should be grown in larger quantities for preservation and storage.

The Inspired Vegetarian by Louise Pickford is a themed cookbook. The theme is eating vegetarian meals and it is designed to provide examples of a variety of vegetarian dishes for adoption in a home kitchen. It seems unlikely I would follow her recipes exactly, yet when she presents the idea of a vegetable cassoulet, for example, I know what that is and can take it as a starting point to create a version that fits into the world view and produce of my kitchen garden. The recipes may encourage me to grow different vegetables so I can prepare dishes we like.

Big decisions are easy. I’ll keep Joy of Cooking, Julia Child and company’s The Art of French Cooking, and Larousse Traditional French Cooking. There will be one or two “American” cookbooks even if there is not really an American cuisine outside fast food. The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion is essential, along with one or two other baking references. These alone would be enough for endless meals.

When on long-term work assignments in South Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas I spend idle hours watching Food Network. I expect to keep volumes by Anthony Bourdain, Mario Batali, Rick Bayless and Giada Di Laurentiis. Also in the mix will be Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet), Ming Tsai, Martin Yan and José Andrés. Celebrity chef cookbooks have accessible recipes. I expect them to be a third of the final collection.

Another section of retained cookbooks will be those created by a community of which I was a part. My collection includes cookbooks from the hospital where I was born, the church where I was baptized, and other coherent groups to which I belonged as I proceeded through life. I read The Iowa Writers’ Workshop Cookbook edited by Connie Brothers over the weekend. It is an example of why certain communities shouldn’t produce a cookbook. I mean, some of the recipes seemed like outrageous inside jokes. I did enjoy seeking out authors with whom I interacted or saw at events in Iowa City in the cookbook. Most of the workshop mainstays provided recipes a person could actually use.

Another main use of cookbooks is in my writing. I intend to write about a trip I took to New Orleans. I read Lucy Hanley’s book New Orleans: Cookin’ in the Big Easy, which provides simple recipes of classic New Orleans dishes along with a list of local restaurants. The recipes and images evoked memories in a way that will be useful to my writing. While I spent only a few days there in 1981, the cookbook helps me remember. The same holds true for other regional or city-specific cookbooks.

With the rise of internet search engines, one questions whether cookbooks are needed at all. When I’m looking for ways to use radicchio, for example, it is easier to do an internet search than pore through a number of general purpose cookbooks searching for recipes. At the same time, there is something about having a book.

For now, I’ll be keeping some cookbooks.

Kitchen Garden

Cook’s Journey

Soup Ingredients

After dinner I put a two-pound bag of Great Northern beans in a pot to soak. The next morning, I drained and rinsed them, and covered with water to soak some more. At noon there was one more rinse, then I covered the beans with canned vegetable broth and turned on the heat.

In a separate pan I placed one large, chopped onion, the rest of the fresh celery from the garden plus three stalks from the store, and five thinly sliced medium carrots. Adding six bay leaves and some salt, I covered the mixture with more vegetable broth and turned on the heat.

Once both pots were boiling, I turned the temperature down to simmer. When the beans were cooked through, I strained the mirepoix mixture, reserved the liquid, and added the cooked vegetables to the beans. The soup simmered until dinner time. It was delicious.

There is no recipe for this bean soup. The ingredients are timeless. The process harks back to the oldest times. Times when how to cook was embedded in oral tradition and mass-produced cook books and the internet did not exist.

I made this soup many times. This time it was an epiphany representing the direction ahead for my kitchen garden.

Kitchen Garden

TikTok Cooking

Pasta with cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil, red chili flakes, salt and pepper inspired by social media posts on TikTok.

Between order by mail book clubs, online retailers, book stores, yard sales, and thrift stores, I acquired hundreds of cookbooks. With the rise of the internet I don’t need any of them.

The attraction of browsing hundreds of cookbooks may serve some writing project, but it is not how we live now. It’s not how we cook. What matters more is producing local food, with fresh and local ingredients as an expression of character and personality, rather than that of the scion of a family kitchen disconnected from here and now.

Cookbooks Galore by Paul Deaton, Aug. 5, 2013.

The brilliance of the TikTok cooking method is it reduces common dishes to a couple of minutes of video, freeing creative energy as we work in the kitchen. The recipe that produced the dish in the photo was not really a recipe but a technique of using available ingredients in the height of gardening season. The proof is TikTok pasta met expectations as a dish: in its flavors, as a way to use excess produce, and in its ease of preparation.

When my end of days arrives, I can’t take any cookbooks with me. With TikTok cooking, no worries. I can recycle my cookbooks now to others who might use them.

God’s in his heaven— All’s right with the world!

Kitchen Garden

Greens Day

New cherry tomato support system.

When I left the house, I planned to weed the onion patch. I didn’t make it there. Instead, I harvested four tubs of greens, replanted under the row cover, and set up the new tomato support system for cherry tomatoes.

I grow indeterminate cherry tomatoes, which means the vines grow and grow until they get much higher than the four foot cages and begin to snake around the garden. I ran out of cages this year so I tried something different, a post and lattice method of supporting tomatoes. I like it because there is less hardware. It should make it easier to manage the vines. Time will tell if the new method is successful. If it works, I may use it for all the tomatoes and phase out the cages.

Spring greens, before insects arrive in large numbers, are the best. Saturday I started a batch of vegetable broth to which I added kohlrabi greens, collards, four kinds of kale, wilted spinach, Fordhook chard, and mustard. It produced a flavorful broth which I’ll water bath can in quart jars this morning. In addition, I made vegetable soup, using the best of the greens.

I harvested cilantro, dill, chives and basil. Each of these herbs has a specific use in the kitchen. One of my experiments was to grow chervil, which is classic French cooking as part of the fines herbes that includes tarragon, chives and parsley in addition to chervil. Next year I must grow tarragon. I’m developing applications for chervil and would appreciate comments about how readers use it.

I grow cilantro for a couple of main purposes, mostly to use fresh on tacos. If I have it, it will go into any Mexican-style dish. It’s the tacos.

I don’t know if the weeds are too far gone in the onion patch. When the sun rises, I plan to give it another go. Here’s hoping I don’t get distracted again.

Kitchen Garden

Vegetable Broth 2022

Winterbor kale, May 2022.

Someone asked me how I make vegetable broth when I posted this photo on Instagram. I wrote an exceedingly long explanation that may not really answer much. The method is centered around using the abundance of garden greens. Here’s how I explained it, although ask me again and the explanation might vary from the simple mirepoix, bay leaves and greens seasoned with salt.

I get out a big stock pot and evaluate how much I want to make depending on available greens. Usually one large onion, a pound of carrots, half a dozen stalks of celery and three bay leaves. Two large onions seems too much, but IDK. I know it’s controversial but I season the broth with salt at the beginning of the cooking. I want the flavor to be ready when I use it. I used to leave salt out completely but changed my thinking on that. Then I pile in whatever greens are available. I like turnip greens best, but they are not ready yet so I cleaned up the refrigerator, using bok choy, kale, collards, and tatsoi yesterday. Next I fill with tap water so the greens are covered and crank up the heat until it is boiling. Once it comes to a boil, I turn the heat to low and cook at least until the onions are transparent, often longer. Couple hours, for sure. Stir often. I use mostly cruciferous vegetable greens, yet would not be averse to adding wilted lettuce to the mix. If I have leeks, I’d add them too. I also put vegetable scraps in the freezer for broth and soup, yet in the spring I keep it simple with mirepoix, and cruciferous vegetable greens. I want to end summer with 3-4 dozen quart jars of broth made using the water bath canning process. No worries about electricity disruption. Thanks for asking.

Facebook post, May 28, 2022.

A bit rambling, perhaps, yet one could make a batch of vegetable broth based on this narrative.

Kitchen Garden

Sunday Cooking in Place

We Are The Revolution by Massimo Bottura.

My spouse remains at her sister’s home, helping her move, unpack and settle in. Sunday in Big Grove the weather was sub-optimal for gardening. With temperatures in the 40s and 50s, intermittent rain, and ground too wet to work, I stayed busy indoors all morning. It was in the afternoon things changed.

The greenhouse is filled with seedlings and once the weather breaks there is a lot to get planted. For now I wait for better conditions. That’s where I found myself, as we find ourselves so often, longing for something that isn’t. It can get the best of us on wistful Sunday afternoons alone.

I moped for a while, then reheated a container of leftover creamed vegetables and chick peas for lunch. At some point I sat in the living room and picked up my mobile device to watch videos. I started with President Biden’s speech at the White House Correspondents dinner Saturday night. Next, I watched Trevor Noah’s remarks there. There was some humor tinged with remorse at what our politics have become.

Around 2 p.m. I went to my writing place and turned everything off, including my desktop. In a roundabout way, I got back to videos.

I watched Iowa Press where the guest was State Auditor Rob Sand. Being auditor isn’t a flashy job, yet Sand has made something of his position. What he didn’t do was let O. Kay Henderson trap him into the conventional news narrative about the Iowa Democratic caucuses. Here’s the transcript:

Henderson: Your party, the Iowa Democratic Party, is going to have to make a case to the Democratic National Committee that Iowa’s Caucuses should remain first. What case would you make?

Sand: That experience matters in doing this. I talked to a reporter who has been a national reporter for a long time during the caucuses last time and I remember he has traveled all over the country. And he’s like, you know what, you guys actually are, you’re really good at this. I mean, I go to New Hampshire a lot and they’ve got experience with it too, but the quality of the questions that are asked of the person who wants to be the next leader of the free world in the state of Iowa are just head and shoulders above any other state.

Henderson: But that’s not the issue. The issue is participation. The caucuses prevent people from participating because of the mode of the voting and also it has got this weird caucus math.

Sand: Yeah. We can continue to make reforms. I think that’s fine. We can make the changes. But Iowa culturally has that attentive population that is good I think at asking those questions and filling that role and I think it would be a mistake for us to not be going first.

Iowa Press, April 29, 2022.

I appreciate Sand sticking to his talking point on the caucuses, even If I disagree Iowa should be first.

The afternoon waned. The main work of the day finished, I picked up my mobile device again and watched a couple of Massimo Bottura’s homemade videos from the pandemic. “This is not Master Class cooking,” he said. “It is home cooking.”

Then I came upon the video linked above, in which Bottura talks about the relationship between art and food. “My kitchen is not a book of recipes, a list of ingredients, or a demonstration of techniques,” he said. “But a way of understanding my terrain.” That gets to the heart of what I am trying to accomplish in my kitchen garden. It was unsettling.

I’d been planning to make pizza for a few days and after 3 p.m. I began making the dough. It begins with a scant cup of hot water taken from the tap. I put my finger in it to make sure it is not hot enough to kill the active dry yeast. I pour it in a bowl and add a teaspoon of yeast, a teaspoon of sugar, a dash of salt and a tablespoon of all purpose flour and mix it together. I add flour, knead it into a ball and put it in an oiled, covered bowl to rise in an oven at the lowest possible setting. It takes about an hour.

Pizza sauce is different each time I make it. My current go-to is a 15 ounce can of Kirkland organic tomato sauce. It is seasoned, yet I add. Sunday the mixture was a teaspoon each of granulated garlic, onion powder, home-grown oregano, and basil. It was a rich, dark red color. About half was reserved for pasta later in the week.

When the dough had risen, I punched it down and kneaded again. I put the ball on a piece of parchment paper laid across the wooden paddle and formed the dough. I learned if the edges remain mostly untouched they will bake to be thick. I’ve been enjoying that the last several pies.

Toppings are a “what’s in the refrigerator moment.” It was capers, spring onions and part of a fresh red bell pepper. Toppings are almost never the same and depend on what’s available. Pizzas are the best once basil comes in from the garden.

I topped it with mozzarella cheese and slid it into the 500 degree oven on the ceramic floor tiles I placed on the bottom shelf. Eight minutes later, dinner was ready.

I don’t know if what I wrote is a recipe. It wasn’t intended to be. Engagement in food preparation was a way of dealing with one solitary afternoon. It’s the same way writing about it from our quiet house this morning is. There are days when we yearn to be with people and others we crave solitude. While we are never truly separate from society, gaining introspection for a while helps us function better in the broader world. Naming what this is is not necessary. It’s expressing a dominion over something that doesn’t need it. Call it what you will, but I’ll use the phrase “cooking in place.” It made the best of what could have been a lonesome afternoon.

Living in Society

Simple Fare in an Iowa Life

Dinner on April 6, 2022: Casserole with eggs, onions, celery, garlic, Parmesan, thyme and leftover rice, served with peas and carrots.

On Wednesday I loaded the automobile with obsolete and not working electronics to recycle at the county landfill. Three televisions, a wall-mount telephone, a non-working videocassette player, a laptop computer, and miscellaneous small items fell into bins there after I paid a $66 fee. There were also two computer towers, one of which was the one my spouse bought in 1996 when we dialed up the internet for the first time as a family. The other was a locally made machine built in the last millennium. I scrubbed the hard drives clean before recycling them.

Last week I took three big bags of clothing to Goodwill. One was scraps for recycling. The other two could be tagged and resold. I didn’t ask for a receipt. It felt good to be rid of some of the detritus of a modern life in Iowa. There will be more purging of unused stuff from our home this year.

Temperatures returned to near freezing so I have to bring seedlings indoors again. I don’t know what’s up with the lingering cold, rain and snow making it impossible to get into the garden. My onion starts are to arrive next week and I haven’t turned a spade in the garden yet. I find other things to do yet there is a certain stress lingering in the background because of the delayed season.

My impression of the political scene after candidates filed to get on the ballot is Democrats are teed up to take a shellacking in November. We have good people running for office yet there is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for politics. Likewise, a certain laziness permeates recent events in which I participated. I’m not seeing any fire in the belly to win an election among regular Democrats like me. Republicans in control of the state legislature and governor’s office are driving the narrative and making their points. They are highly motivated to tear down the long-standing culture of the state and replace it with something I don’t recognize. Democrats have been forced to play defense.

At a Zoom political event last night, I changed my political donation strategy while listening to Christina Bohannan and Elle Wyant speak. I budgeted $100 per month in donations and switched them around to candidates I believe will have the best prospects of being elected in November. In the big races, U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor my $100 per month split three or four ways will be of negligible impact. Even my state senator’s race will be a big money campaign. The only political fund raising phone calls I received this cycle were from Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn, U.S. Senate candidate Michael Franken, and county attorney candidate Rachel Zimmermann Smith. Even with the small number of requests, my $100 per month doesn’t go far. I’ll revisit the strategy after the June 7 primary.

I’ve been keeping the thermostat at 58 degrees while my spouse is away helping her sister. This morning I donned three layers to retain body heat. I have also been making non-vegan vegetarian dishes while she is away. It’s not fancy food, just simple fare in an Iowa life.

Home Life

Unexpected Spring Break

Red beans and rice, Midwestern-style.

Home alone, I made a spicy dish for dinner: red beans and rice. There is no recipe, yet it was everything to which decades of kitchen and garden work led me. Supper was life, as good as it gets. The process of anticipation, planning, and pulling items from the freezer, ice box and pantry culminated in deliciousness. The meal was why we pay attention to flavor rather than the names of dishes or ingredients.

I didn’t know I needed spring break, yet here we are. The combination of my spouse helping her sister move to a new home, 45 mile per hour winds and cold temperatures for two days, and a form of isolated winter exhaustion led me here. Break will continue until I see my doctor later this week. I already have my blood test results and the key numbers improved from six months ago. I noted Earth Hour last night and feel rested and ready to get into the garden and yard. The winds subsided overnight.

Saturday I spent five hours participating in the county Democratic convention via Zoom. I don’t like virtual events, yet they are efficient. I’d rather be talking to political friends and acquaintances in person. The upside of a virtual convention is when it is over, there is no need to use an automobile to get home. A couple of notes.

1984 was my first Johnson County Democratic convention. Most people were nice, although I was frustrated with the process. The county convention revisited decisions made at the precinct caucuses and walked away from what voters said they wanted in favor of special interests. That burned me on politics for a while. Since then we spent six years in Indiana. When we returned to Iowa, I was not active in politics for ten years, until 2004. The virtual event was reasonably organized, yet kinda sucked. What’s a person to do? An old Polish proverb applies, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Age is not treating some of my long-term cohorts well, at least from the images presented on Zoom. There are a number of new people, likely more than half. I’d rather step back from organized politics. I volunteered to be a delegate to the district and state conventions to make sure enough people were available to fill 74 slots. The district convention is at a nearby high school across the lakes. When it was time to ratify the slate, all slots weren’t filled. People don’t seem that engaged in politics this year, even if they should be. That may be bias created by the virtual format, yet I’m seeing the same thing in every segment of local culture.

There were ten platform amendments submitted at the convention. The platform is irrelevant, mostly because Democratic candidates for office don’t support every plank, even if they acknowledge a platform exists. Why does the county party spend time on it? The answer, I guess, is it is a way of life for party members who want a shared experience in articulating their beliefs. As a writer, I get plenty of that from elsewhere. As long as we keep the platform’s irrelevance to formal policy in mind, and don’t expect candidates to fully support it, let platformers platform.

I’m preparing to write about my senior year in college when I lived in a small house on Gilbert Court in Iowa City. Artist Pat Dooley rented it from a local businessman and managed the many residents who came and went during that six month period. It was a small, decrepit three-bedroom structure built on a stone foundation. According to Google maps, it has now been demolished.

Dooley was part of a group of writers and artists loosely referred to as “Actualists.” He did the cover art for The Actualist Anthology edited by Morty Sklar and Darrell Gray. Gray overnighted with us for a brief period before leaving Iowa for California. Many Actualists visited our house at Dooley’s invitation, where we socialized in the common room. Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, Dave Morice, Sheila Heldenbrand, John Sjoberg and Steve Toth stopped by more than once, as best I can recall.

By 1974, I finished required coursework for a major in English and needed to fill out the total number of required hours. My coursework during that final undergraduate semester included French conversation, separate classes in ancient and modern art, Harry Oster’s American Folk Literature, and early modern philosophy. I hadn’t prepared for a career during university, although the Oscar Mayer Company, for whom I worked two summers, called to offer me a job as a foreman in the Davenport meat packing plant. I declined.

There are a couple of additional days before I must get to work in earnest. Spring break, while unexpected, is not over.

Kitchen Garden

A Recipe Can Lead to Disaster

My recipe book.

We have plenty of recipes in our household. When I’m cooking, I rarely follow any of them. No worries. The end product has always been edible.

Every cook understands following a recipe exactly can be a disaster. A recipe functions like a tool in the kitchen, not a computer algorithm. Recipes are also the starting point for developing one’s own cuisine, not the end result. Cuisine is about actual dishes created and eaten from a kitchen, not some abstraction of design.

An example is the recipe for lemon chicken my maternal grandmother prepared from time to time. I asked her to write it down. Somewhat reluctantly, she did: on the back of an envelope, in front of me, from memory. There was an omission. Lemon was not listed in the ingredients. I had watched her prepare the dish and saw her squeeze the lemon. The interplay of memory with cooking is an underappreciated aspect, and little to do with written or printed recipes.

When baking, I follow ingredient amounts in a recipe carefully because the science is more specific. Even so, actual temperature in the oven, what kind of baking dish is used, humidity, and elevation above sea level all play a role and can create variations in the end product. Learning how to cope with variations is part of being a cook.

Variation on a recipe is expected and usually welcome. Chef Jacques Pépin explains it better than I in this short video. As he might say, “Happy cooking.”