On September 21, 2015 the library's cookbook club met for dinner with Melissa Clark's In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite: 150 Recipes & Stories About the Food You Love.
Our group grew in size from 13 the month before to 19 for our second meeting. More members in attendance means more dishes to sample, and with 150 recipes in this book, 19 only scratched the surface of what it has to offer.
I chose this book because I've cooked many recipes which my family and I really enjoyed, like the Garlicky Steamed Mussels with Corn and Sherry on (p. 103) and the Rhubarb "Big Crumb" Coffee Cake (p. 354). The book is filled with 150 stories that accompany the recipes. I believe I had just finished reading the memoir A Homemade Life: Stories & Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Mollie Wizenberg when I came across In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, and so I gobbled up all the stories of how Melissa's recipes came to be.
Cookbook club members let me know before our meeting what they will cook and bring that evening. I do this to avoid duplicate recipes. Interestingly, multiple people wanted to make the Crunchy Noodle Kugel (p. 300) and one of our favorite dishes of the night, the Red Lentil Soup with Lemon (p.73) was only chosen because the kugel was already taken!
After most of our first course is eaten, we always go around the room and everyone talks about the dish they prepared and what they thought of the recipes in the book. Reviews were mixed. Some felt there wasn't enough detail in the instructions, even for an experienced cook. Some didn't care for the stories, while others loved the stories.
Club Rating: 3.5
"I wanted to make everything, her stories were wonderful! -D.H.
"I liked the variety and breadth of the recipes, but they are a little thin on details (such as whether butter should be softened)." -M.H.
"While the recipes sound good, they don't turn out very well. I made two recipes, once then twice--very disappointing results." -A. W.
"There were several recipes that sounded good. Did not think it needed the stories, would prefer pictures instead." -O.H.
"I leafed through the one on reserve (at the library) and the recipes looked really good. I loved her descriptions before each recipe." -J.K.
10 said they would recommend the cookbook to a friend, while 8 did not. I think these numbers show how split we were as a group in our feelings about the book.
The book is organized into 12 chapters with a bibliography of referenced cookbooks and an index at the end. What's unique about this cookbook, is similar to what made last month's cookbook unique. It deviates from the standard cookbook chapter organization of breakfast, appetizer, pasta, meat, fish, etc. and instead takes a more literary approach with chapter headings like "Waffling toward Dinner" or "My Sweet Tooth and Me". One club member remarked that there is a whole chapter devoted to recipes with cheese. Another similarity to last month's cookbook which was Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, is Melissa's focus on cooking seasonally. She has a chapter titled "The Farmers' Market and Me" and she makes many references in her stories throughout the book about shopping at her local farmers' market.
For those in the club that liked the stories in the book, they often play out like this. Each story leads up to a recipe or a recipe and then a variation on that recipe. The story tells the reader how the recipe came to be. The farmers' market is where Melissa first heard of the fish porgy, and she goes on to tell the reader how she was then introduced to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch chart, which gives porgy the green light for eaters concerned about the sustainability of our oceans. The story follows by introducing us to her recipe Porgy with Fennel Frond Pesto (p. 86). One story we all agreed provided a good laugh was for her Scallop Pan Roast (p. 115). While trying to re-create a dish she ate at a restaurant in NYC, her dad suggests she add gin, rather than a squeeze of lemon which would curdle the cream. "Everything tastes better with a little gin," he said. And while we didn't get to try the Scallop Pan Roast at our club meeting, we'll take his word on it or there's also an entire chapter on "Lessons in Imbibing."
13 of our members had never heard of Melissa Clark before opening up this month's cookbook selection. While those who had heard of her, knew Melissa from her post as the New York Times weekly food columnist for "A Good Appetite", which she's been writing since 2007. Her book, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite is based off of the column, which probably explains the more literary feel to it and the title.
The book is devoid of photos, which some club members expressed a disatisfaction for this omission. I have seen another cookbook by Melissa, Cook This Now: 120 Easy & Delectable Dishes You Can't Wait to Make, which was published in 2011 after In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite, and it has the same literary style with stories prefacing each recipe. Even the typeface is the same, the only difference being that Cook This Now has a small selection of full page color photos of a handful of dishes. I wonder if these photos were added because readers asked for photos?
Either way, I find the photos v. no photos cookbook debate to be a rather interesting one. Cookbooks from my grandmother's day didn't have any photos. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a bestseller published in 1961 that doesn't have any photos, although Julia Child has carefully crafted instructions that I think are better than any insight a photo might provide. I took to a quick Google search and came across the popular culture site Pop Sugar and their Internet poll, "Do You Buy Cookbooks That Don't Have Pictures?". 68% of respondents said no, they want to see what a dish looks like before they make it. Kind of like judging a book by it's cover, we are judging a recipe by it's photo.
Melissa's book may lack photos, but she does shares many details about her life through the personal stories prefacing each recipe. As a kid, every summer her parent’s would swap their house in Brooklyn for a house in France. There her parent’s spent the summer visiting all the Michelin Star restaurants, spending the summer in search of yet another good meal.
As an young adult, Melissa knew she wanted to write and tried to figure out how she could merge her love of writing with cooking. Not knowing how, other than inspiration from MFK Fischer, she went to graduate school for an MFA. While in graduate school at Columbia University she started a catering company out of her tiny kitchen apartment in a fifth floor walkup. She names a recipe Shrimp for a Small Kitchen (p. 109) in honor of that time.
In 1993, Melissa noticed the expanding opportunities to write content for the Web. Since the mid-90's, the rise of the Internet foodie was really what helped Melissa merge her two loves of writing and cooking.
Melissa is also the author of 32 cookbooks, many which she has co-authored.
If you’d never heard of Melissa before, you may remember a few days before the Fourth of July 2015, there was a brief media blitz over a green pea guacamole tweeted by New York Times . The author of the recipe and the tweet was none other than Melissa Clark. So many were adamant that guacamole should not have a pea anywhere near it, including President Obama who tweeted @POTUS “respect the nyt, but not buying peas in guac. onions, garlic, hot peppers. classic.” I have not yet tried this, but I will never underestimate the love for guacamole.
Melissa lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
anya's potato and onion tortilla p. 31
garlicky-sesame cured broccoli salad p. 66
coconut fish stew p. 116
roasted chicken thighs with peaches, basil, and ginger p. 130
spiced chipotle honey chicken breasts with sweet potatoes p. 145
crisp chicken schnitzel with lemony spring herb salad p. 160
peas, bacon, and cheese, easy stovetop, a la jamie oliver p. 228
crunchy noodle kugel p. 302
my mother's lemon pot roast p. 317
shrimp and roasted sweet potato hash stuffing p.324
lemon curd squares with rosemary p. 334
salted maple thumbprints p. 335
honey-glazed pear upside down cake p. 366
whiskey-soaked dark chocolate bundt cake p. 369
chocolate coconut sorbet p. 383
twenty ingredient pie p. 408
peanut butter pie p.410
The table is set for the second meeting of the Cookbook Club. Gourds and flowers from Four Town Farm in Seekonk, Mass.
Time to eat!
A lovely feast awaits.
I need a bigger plate.
I'll have one of everything, please.