Thursday, January 26, 2012

Trust Me!

I did not go to cooking school on purpose. But that’s a story I’ll save for another day. When people find out that I have a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu Paris, they always ooh and aah and comment about what a great cook I must be. For a long time I’d always answer with an apology and try to explain that I went to Paris to learn to bake bread and make pastries, and that although I did graduate and I do have a diploma, it is for pastry, not for cooking. I’d go on and on trying to explain the difference and the poor soul who was just making conversation would make a mental note to never do that again.

When I came home from Paris, I outfitted my kitchen with every baking utensil and gadget I could afford. My cooking utensils, on the other hand, left much to be desired. Most of them were hand-me-downs from my parents. I salvaged battered pots and plastic utensils with strange melted bits hanging off them on their way to Goodwill. But I was working in a fine restaurant (The Occidental Grill, if you must know), and all my friends were either chefs or friends from college who didn’t cook at all. So most of my meals were eaten at the restaurant during service, at restaurants where my chef friends had friends, or at restaurants convenient to the homes and workplaces of my college friends. Somehow I managed to cook nothing at home other than pancakes for at least a year after graduating from cooking school.

Then one day I got brave, and I invited some friends (not chefs!) to dinner. I found a recipe in a food magazine (probably Bon Appetit) for Country Captain Chicken. I followed the instructions to the letter, and the meal was remarkably good. So good that I could hardly believe I’d made it (even though I spent my days making fancy desserts in a professional kitchen). Everyone loved it and told me what an excellent cook I was and all I could think was that I really wasn’t an excellent cook, I was just really, really good at following directions.

Once I realized just how good I was at following directions, I got really brave. Today I’ll make anything. And rarely the same thing twice. And along the way I really did learn to cook. I learned to trust recipes, but also to trust my instincts, and rely on my experience when something seems to be going wrong. Often, at the end of a long day, when the kids need bathing, and the laundry needs folding, and there’s a deadline looming, I don’t feel all that motivated to get creative. Fortunately there are so many amazing chefs out there making superb food, and sharing the recipes, that all I have to do is follow the directions. Life is short, and I really hate a bad meal, particularly one I’ve spent my own time making.

Which is a long-winded way of saying – you can trust the recipes in Washington Food Artisans. They are delicious, they come from creative and brilliant chefs, and they’ve been tested many times.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Washington Food Artisans advance copy has arrived!

My editor brought me my advance copy of Washington Food Artisans today. It’s absolutely beautiful, if I don’t say so myself. It’s hardcover, with no dust jacket, so the cover is printed on the actual book. The paper inside is beautiful – thick and smooth, and it even smells wonderful! The photos are vivid, and the layout is gorgeous. Oh, and my name is on the front cover! And on the spine!

When it goes on sale on April 24, it will have been 2 ½ years since I started the project. And what a difference those years make. My kids have grown and matured, and they need me for very different reasons these days. I’ve met so many interesting people, and learned so much both from them, and from a whole lot of old-fashioned research.

I’ve always loved to do my shopping at the farmers market, and that hasn’t changed. But working on the book has changed the way I cook, and not at all in the way I thought it would, and I’m sure you can’t guess either.

You’d think that after all that recipe-testing I’d be feeling very confident in the kitchen, and just throw things together and produce fabulous food. In actual fact, I do feel confident in the kitchen, but I cook almost entirely from recipes that I follow to a fault.

I am a cookbook fanatic, and have been for more than 20 years. At this point I probably own about 400 of them. Now that I know exactly how much effort was put into each one of them, I’m even more motivated to try the recipes exactly as they were written. My food is more flavorful as a result, and almost every meal feels a bit like a celebration. No matter how long and complicated a recipe, I’m not afraid to try it. I’ve learned to prep my ingredients in the morning, after I’ve dropped the kids at school, so that the actual cooking process is as quick as I can make it.

I figure I’ve got a few hundred years’ worth of recipes on my bookshelves, so I try to avoid searching for recipes on the web. A friend told me about a website called Eat Your Books, which I adore, and use often. You enter the names of your cookbooks, and then when you want a recipe, rather than search the web, you search your own books.

Obviously, after all this cooking, I don’t need to follow a recipe, but I love to. I love to try new combinations of ingredients and new techniques. Most often, I read a recipe and it sounds delicious and I want to eat it, and so I make it. I only make something more than once if I absolutely loved it, because the list of recipes I want to make is very, very long. But I already have more than a handful of favorites from Washington Food Artisans. When I opened the book today, my first thought was remarkably pedestrian. I thought, “how convenient, to have all these wonderful recipes printed and bound together in one place. Now I can recycle all those dog-eared food-splattered printouts I’ve been keeping in a pile on my kitchen shelf.“ And then I remembered to go nuts because it was finally, really, magnificently, an actual book, in my hands!