I am so happy that I live in the same universe as Max and Eli Sussman. They first appeared in this blog with their inaugural cookbook, Freshman in the Kitchen, and now, in two more cookbooks, continue to chronicle their adventures with food. And what an adventure they are having! In 2012, when This Is a Cookbook was published, Max (the nonbearded one) was the chef de cuisine at Roberta’s in Brooklyn (a restaurant that recently came out with an interesting new cookbook) and Eli (the bearded one) was a line cook at Mile End Delicatessen (a little bit of Montreal in Brooklyn, that also has a great cookbook). Max now hosts a supper club, Eli has moved up to being the chef at Mile End, and the two continue to cook, eat, and write about it (and I believe are plotting their own restaurant).
As with their first book Freshman in the Kitchen, Max and Eli in their second book, This is a Cookbook are targeting the novice cook, but now the novice cook who has graduated from (or otherwise left) college, and who has a tiny apartment in a big city and lots of very cool friends. Even though this is not a demographic into which I fall, I found much to like in This is a Cookbook. The food in this cookbook has a very high taste to trouble ratio. The food ranges from the pedestrian but still good (“Fried Egg Sandwich”, page 133) to the unusual but still good (“Fried Grape Salad”, page 39). There are a few things I don’t like about this book, to wit: the overabundance of recipes with meat, especially pork, the many photographs of attractive young people, and the pages which are printed white on black, which wastes ink when I try to copy them directly. These are, however, minor quibbles. I like this cookbook, I like the recipes in this cookbook, and I even like Max and Eli’s juvenile yet exuberant 20-something sense of humor.
The “Beet and Yogurt Salad” is is about as simple a combination as one can make: just cooked, diced beets mixed with yogurt, lemon juice, and dill, with, of course, salt and pepper. But good salad, like good prose, does not need complicating; this salad is perfect as is. I used what I thought were chioggia beets, hoping that they would have the good beet characteristics of yellow beets and not the bad beet characteristics of red beets. I am not sure, though, that chioggia is the type of beets I used. Once cooked, instead of being candy-striped, they were pale yellow with faint darker yellow stripes. Then, after I made the salad and it sat in the refrigerator overnight, the beets turned a tantalizing pale pink. Whatever kind of beets these were, they did indeed have the good beet properties, with a pleasant taste and the inability to turn everything else pink.
I had never heard of fried grapes until I encountered this cookbook, but there are enough Google hits for “fried grapes” that I doubt Max and Eli invented this treatment for grapes, but they certainly know what to do with fried grapes: “Fried Grape Salad with Hazelnuts and Blue Cheese” (page 39). The title describes the salad exactly, with a couple of omissions. The grapes, hazelnuts, and blue cheese are mixed with arugula (a good choice) and dressed with a simple white wine vinegar vinaigrette. The flavors went together perfectly. I do not usually like nuts in my salads as the crunch is too distracting, but here the hazelnuts worked perfectly.
“Linguine with Anchovies, Parsley, and Walnuts” (page 70) is a standard impromptu pasta dish. In addition to the anchovies, parsley, and walnuts, you need garlic, red pepper flakes, and half a lemon. Stuff like this is always good, but I think the main credit that Max and Eli get here is just for reminding us of dishes like this. I used more garlic than Max and Eli, and think that even more would have been better.
In these enlightened days, many of us recoil in terror from starch on starch, but this reaction could use some rethinking, as starch on starch can be very good. Furthermore, I do not think that potato is the demon that the Atkins South Beach anti-carb gang holds it to be. Thus I did not shy from making “Onion, Gruyère, and Potato Tart” (page 28), and, as it turned out, my guests did not shy from eating it. This tart is, Max and Eli style, quite simple: a prebaked tart crust with layers of caramelized onions and fried fingerling potato slices, moistened with a tiny bit of cream and topped with cheese. This was also a very handsome tart, but since I seem to have forgotten to take a picture of it, you must take my word for this. [Go to the recipe.]
I failed to properly communicate with the entire table when I served “Roasted Root Vegetables with Romesco Sauce” (page 113). I did not manage to get across the message that the red sauce was supposed to go on top of the roasted vegetables, as the far end of the table was clueless about what to do with the red sauce, and for the most part ignored it. This was too bad for them, as roasted root vegetables are of limited excitement, but with added romesco sauce, the limits disappear. The sauce is a Spanish sauce with, among other ingredients, red bell peppers, nuts, garlic, and vinegar, a sauce that I found very tasty. Alan thought it was too vinegary, but conceded that on roasted root vegetables vinegary was a good quality. Now all the roasted vegetables are gone, but I still have a lot of sauce. It may end up on pasta.
Max’s and Eli’s approach to cooking and cookbook writing is evolving, which is as it should be. Freshman in the Kitchen, had a lot of basic, even “comfort”, food. The second book, This is a Cookbook, was full of all the edgy, somewhat weird recipes that they were discovering and developing. In their third cookbook, Best Cookbook Ever, they are a little more aware of other people. Despite being avid carnivores, their chapter “Just Add Bacon” is full of vegetarian recipes (I suspect one of the brothers might have acquired a vegetarian girlfriend). Healthy cooking is the focus of the chapter “Tasty Choices Before Tasteless Decisions”. And indeed, the hedonistic lifestyle Max and Eli claim to embrace might be taking its toll: the very first chapter of this book is entitled “Hangover Cures”. They manage to joke about their fondness for pork, asking parenthetically, after referring to “a Jewish house of worship called a synagogue”: “Did you know you’d learn so much about Judaism from this pork-filled cookbook?” With one exception, I liked everything I made from this cookbook, and intend to try more recipes. My only problem with this cookbook is the short dessert section, which has nothing I want to cook or even to eat.
“Seared Halloumi with Spinach and Zucchini” (page 81) appears in the chapter “Just Because You Don’t Have Any Friends Doesn’t Mean You Can’t Make Dinner” (abbreviated JBYDHFDMYCMD). The amount of food in this recipe was actually just right for the two of us, Danny and me. Halloumi is one of those cheeses that can be fried, just like paneer, and is also one of those cheeses for which the unscrupulous who do not care about taste can substitute tofu. The fried halloumi and fried zucchini rounds sit on a bed of cooked spinach. This was good, easy, and even healthy (except for those with an irrational fear of olive oil).
If I make “Pearl Couscous Salad with Pomegranate Syrup” (page 32) again, I will incorporate some changes. To begin with, Max and Eli have us making our own pomegranate molasses by boiling down a pint of pomegranate juice with a teaspoon of sugar. Just using pomegranate molasses from the store would have been cheaper, easier, and would have tasted as good, if not better. I also would have liked less couscous and more non-couscous ingredients. The recipe called for half a cauliflower; I should have just used it all as I am not sure what will become of the unused half. Still, imperfect as this salad was, my guests liked it a lot.
“Green Bean and Egg Salad” (page 133) is another very simple combination from Max and Eli that works really well. Green beans are briefly fried in oil, then mixed with mustard, capers, and hard boiled eggs. I used the thin haricots verts which I like much better than big tough overgrown beans, thinking that they were much more suited to the brief cooking. I chopped the eggs up instead of halving them. This salad might have been easier to eat had I cut the beans into several pieces each, but it was prettier with the whole beans. [Go to the recipe.]
The recipe “Spicy, Salty Roasted Chickpeas” (page 49) did not work for me, although I think I know why, and it is my fault. The idea is that cooked chickpeas are coated with olive oil and spices and popped in the oven until they are “crispy”. The recipe says just to use canned chickpeas, but since I think dried and cooked at home chickpeas taste much better than canned chickpeas and are not that much more trouble, I cooked my own chickpeas. I then coated the chickpeas with oil and spices, and roasted until the chickpeas had a little crunch. These made rather tasty little nibbles. I offered some to Danny when he came home, which was a mistake. By then the chickpeas had cooled off and hardened again to be a hard as they were when they were still in the dried chickpea bin at Whole Foods Market. The mistake, I think, was cooking my own chickpeas; perhaps canned chickpeas are so cooked to death that nothing can harden them again. Although the spice mixture was tasty, it was not that tasty, so I did not bother to retry the recipe with canned chickpeas.
Wasabi is one of those ingredients that makes anything (well, maybe not desserts) taste better. Max and Eli’s “Carrot-Wasabi Soup” is an otherwise unremarkable carrot ginger soup, but with the added wasabi it gets an edge on all those other carrot ginger soups. The carrots are tossed in olive oil and roasted first, which I think brings out more flavor. You then throw the carrots in the blender with water and flavorings: rice vinegar, mirin, sesame oil, and wasabi. I like that this soup makes its own broth; too many soups are just flavored chicken (or, in our house, fake chicken) broth.
“Rigatoni Paprikash” (page 42) is from the vegetarian style chapter, “Just Add Bacon”, but as written is not actually vegetarian because it calls for chicken broth (not a problem; fake chicken broth works). This is based on a chicken paprikash recipe from Zingerman’s, where Max once worked. The sauce here is red bell peppers with paprika, sour cream, cheddar cheese, kale, and about a dozen other ingredients. Instead of chicken, rigatoni is added to the sauce, with chicken as an optional add-in. I used only a little bit of pasta and a fake chicken product that Whole Foods Market has recently started carrying. This dish was very good (and would no doubt be even better with real chicken).
Max and Eli give us a pretty standard recipe for “Focaccia” (page 151). The only innovation here is that instead of topping their bread with rosemary, they work in into the dough. I did this in the food processor, so the rosemary became chopped up. I liked this better than rosemary on top, which falls off and is not distributed as evenly. It is always heartening to watch the younger set tearing into a tray of focaccia, as was the case when I put this bread on the table.
Adapted from Max and Eli Sussman, This is a Cookbook
1¼ cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup (4 ounces) butter
¼ cup cold water
½ pound fingerling potatoes
4 teaspoons cream
1 cup (4 ounces) grated cheese (cheddar, gruyère, or your choice)
To make the crust, add the flour and salt to the bowl of your food processor. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the food processor. Pulse until the biggest pieces of butter are the size of peas. Add the water and pulse until the dough comes together. You may need more water; Max and Eli used less. Form the dough into a disc, and let it rest for half an hour. You may also put it in the refrigerator, and proceed when convenient.
Preheat the oven to 375º. Roll out the dough on a floured surface to a big enough circle to fit into a 10-inch tart pan with enough dough to double up the crust on the sides. Then fit the dough into the tart pan, trim the edges, and fold over the dough to double the sides. Prick the dough with a fork, line the pie with parchment paper filled with pie weights (and for pie weights I use dried beans). Cook just until the crust starts to brown.
For the filling, halve and thinly slice the onions. Cook the onions in olive oil over medium heat until they are browning; this could take up to half an hour depending on how high you keep your burner. Slice the potatoes (without peeling) and in another pan, use a little bit of olive oil to cook the potatoes until they are cooked and brown. Add salt and pepper to taste to the onions and potatoes. When the crust is sufficiently prebaked, line it first with onions, then distribute the potatoes over the onions. Pour the cream over the onions, and top with the grated cheese. Bake until the cheese is melted and bubbling, about 20 minutes.
Green Bean and Egg Salad
Adapted from Max and Eli Sussman, Best Cookbook Ever
1 pound thin French green beans
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons capers packed in brine
4 hard boiled eggs
Rinse and examine the beans. Cut off any stems that need cutting off. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, and add the beans. Cook over high heat for a few minutes, then turn the beans over and cook a few more minutes. Remove from the heat. The beans should be barely cooked, yet brown in spots. Add the mustard and capers, and stir so that the beans are covered with mustard. Cut up the hard boiled eggs: halves, slices, or cubes, your choice. Mix together.