Well, y'know, is this my favorite thing, or what? I have been enjoying two books by very smart women who have written, edited and thought about food and cooking for many years. Both have cooked beautiful food, for family and friends, and sometimes customers, all to excellent effect and exerting great influence. In their newest books they have explained, interpreted, expounded and provided recipes.
You cannot help but know something of Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, author-with-others of influential cookbooks, organizer of school food and gardening programs, patroness of eating local movements, and general world symbol of the "New American Cuisine".
But unless you explore the publishing history of the cookbooks you cherish, you may or may not have heard of Judith Jones. Jones, with Knopf since 1957, has edited many of the food classics-and known their writers- from Edna Lewis, to Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Julia Child, to Lidia Bastianich, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, Marcella Hazan, Marion Cunningham, Irene Kao, et al, along with her impressive purely literary editing work. She been author, and co-author too- of the LL. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook, among others. Her fascination with good food developed during her post war stint, as a young woman in Paris, a time and place to which every reading food lover wishes to teleport.
Jones has a unique voice and has had an interesting life. Eager to try new things and cook real food, she is a believer in mastering the fundamental techniques of a cuisine, and adapting them to the best and freshest and most interesting local food available. She takes trouble with her food, but does not confuse care and effort with the sort of chef-y cooking which demands exotic ingredients and special, costly purchases for one-time use. And though she is widowed and lives alone, sets her table most every night, and cooks real food for herself. Among the recipes at the end of her excellent The Tenth Muse is a group of recipes for one.
One recipe I especially love is her Sauce Gribiche, for lamb or other cold meats. You see my own here, not beautiful, but delicious. This sauce validates my long held view that vinegar and/or capers are just the thing to brighten up such leftovers, and make a treat out of necessity. It seems a nearly perfect application of that idea, and I can tell you that, as a bonus, it is also very good on cauliflower, and asparagus. You just mix the ingredients together: 1/2 tsp salt, 1 Tbsp dijon mustard,1 Tbsp wine vinegar, 3 Tbsps olive oil, 2 cornichons, 1 tbsp parsley and 1 hardboiled egg- all chopped small, and freshly ground black pepper.
Ms. Waters needs no introduction. I have enjoyed all her previous cookbooks, but I admit, more in the nature of inspiration than in recipe-following. I don't live in California, so many of the specific, wonderful, fresh local ingredients in those recipes have been unavailable to me, here in Western Pennsylvania. I think she would probably have advised me to use what is good and beautiful locally, and in that way, I do think I've taken many of her ideas to heart.
Her newest book The Art of Simple Food seems to me to be her most personal , and it also deals with the basic techniques with which to make use of those good local ingredients. There are chapters for the fundamentals of various sorts of food preparation, with sample, teaching recipes, and a back section with many more recipes- all very do-able, and alluring. Like all Water's prior books, it is nicely designed, and pleasant to touch. The jacket-less cover is a lovely, silky creamy sort of cardboard- very nice to handle. I have admired the various covers for her previous books, done by David Lance Goines, and his beautiful Chez Panisse anniversary posters. This book- not his work- is also attractive, as you can see. I love the typography.
Some folks have said that Ms. Waters is not really so much about cooking, as about shopping. Shopping for the perfect organically grown, rosy plum, the incredibly fresh micro-greens, the free-range, heritage farm-bred game bird, and so on. Pretty much any one who wants to can do this sort of shopping in their own way, though it cannot be denied that the wealthy, and people who live in certain climates do have a certain advantage. There is, of course, much more to it than that. This lovely food should , she demonstrates, be cooked in a way which enhances and does not ruin it. This is a tightrope well worth walking, and requires care, experience, and attention.
Much as I admire, and generally agree with these tenets, I do think that Ms. Waters and some other folks with similar points to make, sometimes seem to neglect, a bit, an important aspect of the tradition of good home cooking. This principle has resulted in some of the greatest culinary classics, and informs the work of the everyday, inspired home cook. I mean the genius of making something out of nothing...the use of that which is available, if non-ideal... the slightly soft carrot in the bottom of the bin, the left-over cooked vegetables, or the boiled beef from the soup. With the application of imagination and experience, our mothers and grandmothers made stupendously good food this way, and we should not forget how to do it. Sure, shop for the best, the local, the perfect when you can. But "Waste not, want not" is an environmentally sound adage, too. I'm just saying.