I really used to like restaurant cookbooks. I reasoned that since I would probably never eat at whatever well known restaurant was putting out a cookbook, I would just have to have the restaurant experience through the cookbook recipes. But then I noticed that often, very few of the restaurant recipes would appeal to me. They would either be too meaty, or too complicated, or would just be all about presentation, not taste. Plus, most restaurant chefs can cook, but cannot necessarily write, so restaurant cookbooks are often filled with either really bad writing or really sterile writing from a ghost writer. There are, of course, exceptions, but the point is that I do not automatically get any cookbook from a lauded restaurant. The restaurant cookbook in this post, Family Table: Favorite Staff Meals from Our Restaurants to Your Home by Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner, was not a cookbook that I had any interest in, especially since two previous books by Danny Meyer and Michael Romano, Union Square Cafe Cookbook and Second Helpings from Union Square Cafe had left me rather cold. But when I saw Family Table at the library, I checked it oiut, having nothing to lose. Pairing Family Table with The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm was actually kind of random; The Perfect Peach just happened to be in my stack of recent cookbooks. As it turned out, I can think of two ways to pair these cookbooks. They are both about families: the restaurant families of the Meyer-Romano restaurants, or the peach farming Masumoto family. These two cookbooks are also on two ends of a spectrum: The Perfect Peach is all heart, whereas Family Table has as much of a heartbeat as Dick Cheney.
The “family meal” is a tradition in some restaurants, and one that Michael Romano, culinary director for Union Square Hospitality Group, instituted in the restaurants of Union Square Hospitality Group. Twice a day, before lunch and dinner, the restaurant staff will sit down to have a meal together. The meal is prepared by the lesser sous-chefs; it is not necessarily restaurant food. The rules for the food at these meals: “It couldn’t be fancy or complicated, but it did have to be full of flavor.” The cookbook Family Table is full of recipes purportedly from these “family” meals. The good news is: this book delivers. There are quite a few uncomplicated, flavorful recipes; not only that, but there is plenty for the vegetarian in this book. I tried eight recipes; all were good and four were really good. The bad news about this book is that it seems to have been written by a robot: a robot that was programmed to write a book with heart-warming stories about the members of the restaurant family, but a robot that failed to convey any human component in any of its subjects. The program to produce the recipe headnotes is also lacking: the headnotes rarely inform or inspire, but are the printed version of the barks of dogs. However, if I want my heart to be warmed, I read novels or memoirs; what I want in a cookbook is good recipes, which this book has.
“Smoked Fish and Chopped Egg Salad” (page 118) is just an egg salad with smoked fish added, a simple idea, but not one that it had occurred to me to try before. The egg salad itself is not a minimalist one: there are sesame seeds in the mayonnaise, as well as cucumbers, shallots, dill and capers. I used slightly more fish than called for. The fish I used was smoked mackerel, but any flaky smoked fish should work. I misread the recipe and used sesame seeds instead of sesame oil, but I am not sure that I would have liked the strong taste of sesame oil (even though only a tiny bit is used). This was one of the recipes from this book that I particularly liked. [Go to the recipe.]
“Roasted Broccoli and Fennel Salad with Pickled Onion Vinaigrette” (page 56) was another recipe that I liked a lot, perhaps because it was so vinegary, a taste I find exciting. For texture I prefer the lightly roasted vegetables in this salad to raw vegetables; the problem comes when appearance is considered. Just prepared, the salad was bright and green, as in the photo, but by the next day it turned to a dull fatigue green. The salad still tasted fine, so if prepared ahead of time, serve the salad by candlelight.
Another vinegary salad was the “Asian Red Cabbage Slaw” (page 48). This is a slaw with standard ingredients: cabbage, carrots, celery, and scallions, with the Asian accents coming from soy sauce, sesame oil, cilantro, basil, and sriracha. The recipe suggests optional fish sauce which I did not use. Unlike the broccoli salad, this one retained its beautiful color, although the basil faded a little.
I have yet to find something completely satisfying to do with soba noodles, although I do like these noodles. My problem with soba noodle recipes is that the noodles end up too gummy. Despite rinsing the cooked noodles thoroughly, they still ended up somewhat gummy in “Soba Salad with Miso Dressing” (page 84). This salad consists of noodles with carrots, scallions, and radishes in a very gingery miso dressing. My miso had been around fir a while. I think the dressing might have been better with more and newer miso. This was my least favorite of the four salads I tried, but it was still good.
I was quite successful in vegetarianizing “Michael Romano’s Secret-Ingredient Soup” (page 32) by simply using a vegetarian sausage. The recipe calls for Italian sausage, but since Whole Foods Market was out of Tofurkey Italian sausage, I tried a Mexican chipotle vegetarian sausage. This sausage was quite spicy, so I omitted the Aleppo pepper. In addition to the sausage, the soup has onions, leeks, garlic, carrots, and kale. The “secret ingredient” is a small amount of cornmeal for thickening. To go with the Mexican vegetarian sausage, I used cornmeal for tortillas, treated with limewater. This soup was substantial, healthy, easy, and exciting.
I prepared “Zucchini and Mushroom Frittata” (page 249) for the benefit of any guests on a low carb kick. After cooking zucchini, mushrooms, scallions, and garlic together on the stovetop, they are put in a baking dish (I used a pie plate), and eggs beaten with cheese are poured on top. This is then cooked in the oven. The end result could be described as a crustless quiche. Usually I would make a dish like this in a cast iron frying pan, cooking it at least partially on the stovetop. I liked just dumping it all in a pie plate and cooking it in the oven; since I cooked it the day before, this method of preparation led to a much nicer presentation when I finally served it.
The essential components of the sauce for “Coconut Curry Pasta” (page 93) are mushrooms, coconut milk, and curry powder. This turns out to be surprisingly non-saucy as the pasta absorbs most of the liquid, but, when hot, the pasta is moist and not sticky. I separated some of the pasta and added fish sauce (not in the ingredient list), since I have this idea that fish sauce goes with coconut milk, which it certainly did in this instance.
“Roasted Cauliflower with Yogurt and Vegetable Sauce” (page 224) is an Indian influenced cauliflower preparation. I do not think that this dish looks terribly appetizing in the photo, but it not only tasted quite good, but looked a lot better heated up. (I forgot to take the picture right away, so pulled it out of the refrigerator to do so.) I used the last of some thick strained yogurt in the sauce. This worked, but I think that the plain yogurt in the ingredient list would have made a more satisfactory sauce. This was still quite delicious, and just the sort of food I like.
I cannot think of enough good things to say about The Perfect Peach, by Marcy, Nikiko, and David Mas Masumoto. This book is full of peach recipes from Marcy and Nikiko and essays on peach farming, mostly from Mas. The family stories, in both the recipe headnotes and the essays, introduce to a very human family, full of love for each other and for their farm, but not without flaws. This family works hard, but they know how to enjoy themselves, as seen in this video promoting the book. There is a recipe for just about anything possible to do with a peach. Marcy’s recipes are more conventional, Nikiko’s a bit more innovative, but there is nothing too crazy. For more about the Masumotos and their farm, visit their website.
“Peach Jam” (page 137) is a very standard peach jam recipe from Marcy. This is, in jam world, a “low sugar” recipe: 3½ cups of mashed peaches to 2 cups of sugar, which does not sound very low sugar to me. When making this jam, I felt like I was making candy. I only made half a batch of this jam, and did not attempt to preserve it in jars, but just left it in the refrigerator. This jam was not subtle, just peaches and sugar with a little bit of lemon juice, but fine as far as jam goes. It is a good mix-in for Greek yogurt.
The peach jam is used to make a peach vinaigrette for the “Spinach Salad with Peaches and Peach Vinaigrette” (page 68). The vinaigrette consists of the jam, with orange juice, lemon juice, and a little bit of oil. There’s no vinegar in this vinaigrette, which is fairly wimpy and not too zippy. The salad was fine, with spinach, red onion, peaches, and sunflower seeds.
“Peach Gazpacho” (page 51) is a great recipe from Nikiko. It’s like a tomato based gazpacho, but with peaches instead of tomatoes. I used fewer a lower ratio of peach to non-peach ingredients, partly because I don’ live on a peach farm, but also because I wanted the non-peach flavors (garlic, vinegar, cucumber, and cilantro) to be more than faint wisps. The introduction to this recipe highlights the difference between the two cookbooks of this post. Nikiko writes of shutting herself up in the kitchen until she came up with an exciting peach recipe, and then rushing out to meet her mother with this soup. There are no such thrilling, personality-driven stories of recipe discovery in Family Table. [Go to the recipe.]
I am not sure that my “Peach-Date Bars” (page 109) came out quite like they were supposed to come out. My bars were rather flimsy; Danny cautioned our guests to use a spoon to eat them. I was able to manage eating these bars with my fingers, and the peach date combination was excellent. In fact, I think that these were better than straight date bars, so the peaches made a significant contribution.
Fish and Egg Salad
Adapted from Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner, Family Table
6 eggs, hard boiled
5-8 ounces flakable smoked fish (whitefish, trout, mackerel,…)
2 celery stalks
½ seedless cucumber
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed
Juice of ½ lemon
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds, toasted
1 tablespoon black sesame seeds
2 teaspoons sesame oil (optional)
Peel and chop the eggs, and flake the fish. Either by hand or in the food processor, chop the celery, shallot, and cucumber. Chop up the dill and parsley, ending up with between 1 and 4 tablespoons each of chopped herbs, depending on how much you like dill and parsley. If the capers are big, yopu might like to roughly chop them. Now mix everything together, with salt and pepper to taste. I like lots of pepper; how much salt depends on how salty your fish is.
Adapted from Marcy, Nikiko, and David Mas Masumoto, The Perfect Peach
3¼ pounds juicy peaches, peeled, pitted, and quartered
1 seedless cucumber, chopped into chunks
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons best olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
Handful of fresh cilantro
Pulse everything in the food processor. Leave it chunky. Thin with about 1/2 cup water. Serve cold.