I've been searching for a way to convey my profound enthusiasm for THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK (W.W. Norton; $40.00; ISBN: 978-0-393-06103-1), but the book's heft, scope and sheer readability have until recently, given me writer's bloc. Amanda Hesser, a Times food editor and columnist, spent six years pouring through 150 years of recipes in the paper's archives, testing her way through 1,400 recipes before settling on the final selection of 1,000 recipes. This could have been a dull-dog of curatorial scholarship. Instead, Ms. Hesser has given us one of the best cookbooks of 2010, an entertaining, valuable and irreplaceable repository for some of the best recipes from the likes of James Beard, Maida Heatter, Craig Claiborne, Nigella Lawson, Eric Ripert, Lidia Bastianich, Rose Levy Bernabaum, Julia Child, Mark Bittman, Lindsey Shere, Marcella Hazan, David Chang, Thomas Keller, Dorie Greenspan, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, and Jamie Oliver. And this is just for starters. As the premier food section in the country, The New York Times food department has sought out and nurtured the work of so many significant and outstanding culinary talents. This new cookbook celebrates the best in food and can now be enjoyed over and over again by home cooks everywhere.
For nearly four decades, I was a witness to this culinary excellence. My kitchen overflowed with recipes clipped from the Times' food pages. The paper’s food section influenced my cooking, my love of cookbooks, as well as my thoughts about food and entertaining. My refrigerator still sports a thick sheaf of Times recipes. I remember the impact of Mark Bittman's feature on Jim Lahey's famous No-Knead Bread, which Hesser writes, "is easily the most famous recipe ever to run in the Times. Le Cirque's Spaghetti Primavera, spawned a trend (mostly bad), which was widely imitated in restaurants all over the country in the 1970s. There were recipes that readers loved, such as Teddie's Apple Cake or David Eyre's Pancake. The paper was famous for picking culinary talent and printing their latest recipes. Hesser got readers involved by asking them for their favorite recipes from the paper. The response was enormous and Hesser got busy testing and retesting recipes for the book.
I often remark about headers on recipes. I think they set the tone for a recipe, offer insight and certainly are a reflection of the writer's personality. Hesser's voice shines in THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK. She is at turns funny, puckish, tongue-in-cheek, providing plenty of good, sensible advice. "I'm not going to lie--this pizza is a project," she writes about Franny's Clam Pizza. "And by the time it's done, it's like childbirth: you won't regret the effort." Or "I included this cheese ball for its kitsch value," she justifies about The Spice Boys' Cheese Ball, which "looks like a tropical sea creature with a fuchsia skin and glowing greens scales." Of Crisp Potato Crowns she bluntly states, "The original recipe came with a forgettable salad, so I've forgotten it." Not however, before rescuing the part she liked best. These are just a few examples. Generously cheerful, Hesser is rarely out of sorts, so I was surprised and more than a bit impressed when she lets it rip in a recipe for Caramelized Bacon "The craft of recipe writing isn't a hot topic, even in food circles...That said, the current trend toward pared-down, robotic instructions is abominable. Recipes should be more like a letter from your mother--somewhere between an instruction manual and a personal note. A good recipe will guide you with specifics and help you understand what the results should be. Which is why I like this recipe by Patricia Marx, a novelist, so much." Through nearly 900 pages, Hesser kept this reader rapt and attentive.
The first recipe I made was out of necessity. Portland's awful summer produced a bumper crop of green tomatoes in my garden and by this book's publication date, I had to do something with them. The recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes is a marvel of simplicity. Dusted lightly with flour with only sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, they had the taste of "good jammy lemons, tart but not painfully so." They were delicious. I turned to the frying pan yet again when I prepared Latkes for Hanukkah. These tasty, crunchy and almost pretty potato pancakes gave me everything I want in this traditional holiday treat. She relates that Mimi Sheraton in her original recipe said applesauce was fine, but she was rather grumpy over the addition of sour cream, a habit I couldn't abandon, even for the fearsome Ms. Sheraton. Of course there are many recipes far more complex (or not) than the two I've sampled thus far.
There are however, many more on my list, beginning with Chicken Canzanese, a recipe from Ed Giobbi (a talented and highly regarded amateur cook who often contributed recipes to the food pages of the Times during Craig Claiborne's era). I slobbered over this recipe, which is one of those magical one-pot meals where everything goes in at once, and is pretty much done in 30-minutes. Its original source led Hesser on an amusing, unexpected, and ultimately fruitless search for its creator. Her investigation inspired her to sum it up: "One thing is clear, though: a good recipe has a thousand fathers, but a bad one is an orphan." She includes two versions of the classic Boeuf Bourguignon, both intriguing. Calamari Ripieni looks like a swell version of stuffed squid and a good candidate for Christmas Eve. And how lovely to find a Calzone (or Pizza) Dough recipe that makes a manageable portion (almost every recipe I've read yields far more than I want at once). And if I get a good bill of health from my next visit to the doctor, I'm definitely throwing caution to the wind and make The Most Voluptuous Cauliflower ("Any recipe that contains butter, cream, Gruyere, mascarpone, and Parmesan had better be voluptuous!"). I've been making Monte's Ham for years. It feeds a small army of guests, who are always grateful you prepared it for them. Maida's Blueberry Crumb Cake is a favored recipe from this beloved dessert icon, both are worth returning to over and over again. The book is stuffed with recipes that have become classics.
Ms. Hesser delivers plenty of reasons to consider this book essential, including an index in each chapter's beginning listing recipes for that category, a section time-line offering fascinating historical information about each category (i.e., for the Beef, Veal, Lamb and Pork chapter she writes that in 2002, “Michael Pollan buys a steer. Things don’t end well for the steer or us.”), as well as plenty of cooking notes with excellent tips and ideas as well as serving suggestions from accompanying dishes and desserts to beverages. This hefty cookbook is well illustrated with vintage black and white photos from the Times' food pages of the past.
Who would have thought a cookbook from the Gray Lady weighing in at just under five pounds would be charming? Yet that is exactly what Amanda Hesser has accomplished here. The book currently is one of the bestselling cookbooks of this holiday season and has been selected by most food writers as one of the best cookbook of the year. This may be the most important cookbook to be published under the the Times imprimatur since Craig Claiborne's classic work. For my money, THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK attains instant classic status. Big snaps to Ms. Hesser and the folks who helped her deliver this wonderful cookbook to us.
Full disclosure: I previewed this book without having seen a word of it last summer. I got it all wrong. It wasn’t a reworking of Craig Claiborne’s classic cookbook of 1961, or any other number of mistakes I wrote, prompting Amanda Hesser to write me the gentlest of correction letters. Red-faced, I fixed the glaring errors.