Why, one may ask, would someone who has been cooking family meals for fifty years buy beginner cookbooks? Fellow cookbook addicts would not ask such a question, but in case anyone not in that category is reading this, there is a simple answer. Cookbooks for beginners should have simple, tasty recipes, and these are the sort of recipes that any cook can appreciate. There are also more specific reasons that I purchased the three particular books featured in this post. Freshman in the Kitchen: From Clueless Cook to Creative Chef is by local boys, Max and Eli Sussman, with a local publisher, and since we are all supposed to buy local these days, I had no choice but to get this one. When I picked up Sam Stern’s book, Virgin to Veteran: How to Get Cooking with Confidence, from the shelf at Barnes and Noble, it was just so interesting that I couldn’t put it down. I had to get Mollie Katzen’s Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen since Mollie is still on my list of cookbook authors whose books I buy before I even open them.
Max and Eli Sussman learned to cook in their family’s kitchen, honed their skills cooking for the campers at a Jewish summer camp, and are now trying to make their mark on the New York City food scene. They are charming, good-looking young men with a healthy taste for trayf, who share their enthusiasm for cooking and eating in this book. Their book begins with the obligatory and thankfully short how-to-get-started section, and then Max and Eli start cooking. Their recipes are simple (cooking crepes might be the most difficult technique), clearly presented, and reliably, if not excitingly, good. There is a lot for the clueless cook here, such as “Spicy Mayonnaise” (page 152), with two ingredients: ½ cup mayonnaise and 1-2 teaspoons sriracha sauce. As for the creative chef, Max and Eli do not, as do the authors of the other two books considered in this post, offer suggestions in their recipes for “changing it up” (Sam Stern) or “getting creative” (Mollie Katzen). Since I do not think the Sussman brothers want their readers to be slaves to the recipes, I will assume that they accord their readers more respect than the other two authors. Perhaps Max and Eli assume that after the clueless cook has tried a few recipes, that no longer clueless cook can figure out how to start altering recipes without being patronizingly told possible variations. (I would add a lot more sriracha to ½ cup of mayonnaise.)
The “Mushroom Barley Soup” (page 59) and the “Minestrone Soup” (page 142) are not complicated and not innovative, but are basic versions of these soups that should be in any cook’s repertoire. I would have preferred a less tomatoey base for the minestrone soup; the next time I make it I will probably use only one small can of tomatoes, not two. Both soups call for a vegetable stock. In a handy sidebar the Sussmans explain the difference between stock and broth, and recommend using a store-bought concentrate, advice with which I concur. (“Better than Bullion” is my recommendation; all sorts of varieties are available.)
I have yet to find the perfect sesame peanut noodle recipe, but the recipe in this book (page 89) comes close. At this point in my cooking life, I would prefer more sauce and less vegetables, but I have been making this Sussman version for five years; I like it and everyone to whom I serve it likes it.
The recipe for “Nana’s Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes” (page 57) is one of my favorites. The recipe itself is not that special; similar recipes appear in all sorts of other cookbooks. But there is a reason for the ubiquity of a recipe like this: on a cold winter night, it is hard to beat a hot starchy cheesy food, together with a green salad and some of that minestrone soup if you’re really hungry.
One of the more imaginatively flavored recipes is “Toasted Coconut and Lime Biscotti” (page 164), which comes to us from Max’s sojourn in Chile. It’s an egg only, no dairy biscotti. With bigger chunks of nuts, biscotti tend to disintegrate when sliced, but these cookies stay in one piece when sliced. The lime flavor was very faint, so if I make these cookies again, I will probably use the zest from two, not one, limes.
There is more than an ocean that separates Sam Stern and his book, Virgin to Veteran, from the Sussmans and their book. Sam is described in his Wikipedia article as a British celebrity chef. Although only 22, this is his sixth book. His target audience appears to be young people starting to cook, as reflected in the title of this book. I am afraid, though, that Sam has forgotten what it is like to be a virgin in the kitchen. Recalling my own children’s first fumbling efforts in the kitchen, I know that if they had then attempted a random recipe from this book, after three hours my kitchen would have been a total mess, and there would have been a less than 50% probability of anything edible emerging.
The ADD layout of this book must be part of the attempt to appeal to a younger audience. On any page there are lots of different type sizes, multiple fonts, and often lots of sidebars. Unlike, however, the ADD layout of Lynn Rossetto Kaspar’s The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper, which just gave me a headache, I rather like the effect in this book. All the other stuff happening on a page never detracts from the actual main recipe, and once you star looking at the other stuff, you may discover hidden gems. Once I figured this out, I went on a treasure hunt through the 80 pages devoted to meat, trying to find buried treasure.
Sam uses the verb “to bang” (as in “bang the fish bits onto plates”) way too much. Maybe if I were British I wouldn’t notice as much. But certainly if I were British I would find many of the recipes, such as Bakewell tart and ploughman’s salad, less interesting. But even allowing for a trans-Atlantic cultural shift, Sam’s food is a lot more adventurous than that in Freshman in the Kitchen (but then Max and Eli aren’t trying to be adventurous: that’s for subsequent cookbooks from them). Over all, I liked this cookbook. I only tried three recipes, but I intend to try more.
“Bakewell Tart” (page 250) is a pretty standard English dessert, with a layer of jam covered by an almond filling. If I make this again, I will use at least twice as much jam, as it was barely noticeable. The tart shell was an eggy pie dough, and not that easy to manipulate, so beginners, beware. I brought this tart to a neighborhood gathering where most people ignored it. This was consistent with an observation I made some time ago: if you want people to devour the dessert you bring to a potluck, then bring something chocolate.
“Zucchini Feta Fritters” (page 38) were delicious, but then I expected them to be. The recipe is almost identical to one from Nigella Lawson in Forever Summer (retitled Nigella Fresh), and, no doubt, almost identical to a number of other recipes in other cookbooks. Sam uses dill where Nigella uses parsley, and Sam’s batter ends up thicker than Nigella’s. As a result, Sam’s fritters are more three-dimensional, whereas Nigella’s are more pancake-like. No matter whose recipe, this greasy food is well worth the calories.
My prize find in Virgin to Veteran was “Ploughman’s Style Bean and Celery Salad” (page 33). Ploughman’s lunch is a staple of British pub cuisine, consisting, in its most basic form, of cheddar cheese, bread, pickled onions, and beer, and ploughman’s salad is a salady take off on this, often with apple. Sam’s ploughman’s salad has the cheddar, also apple, kidney beans, and celery. Instead of Sam’s raisins, I used dried cherries, and for pea shoots I used red clover (which I found in a little bag at Whole Foods Market). I call my version “The Dainty Plowman’s Salad” (Americanizing the spelling) since I cut my components into small pieces, and for the dainty appearance of the red clover sprouts. This salad turned out to be surprisingly robust, and was good for leftovers for several days.
Mollie Katzen needs no introduction, being one of the most sold cookbook authors of all time. Get Cooking is supposedly the first volume in a beginner cookbook series by Mollie Katzen; after four years, no other volumes in this series have appeared, so perhaps this project has been aborted (which is not a bad idea). Mollie ventures forth from her vegetarian cookbook niche and includes meat recipes, in accord with her own diet. The recipes are, as proclaimed on the cover, simple, but also, as not mentioned on the cover, boring. It took a bit of searching for me to find recipes I even wanted to try, although the ones I did try were, for the most part, good enough. The photographs, credited to Mollie herself, were described by one Amazon reviewer as “ghastly”. This is perhaps a little unfair; the photos themselves are not necessarily ghastly, but rather the low budget way in which they are reproduced in the book: the images are sometimes blurry and the colors washed out. Mollie’s tone is a bit patronizing. As kitchen guides, Max and Eli Sussman are like your cool big brothers, whereas Mollie Katzen is like your annoying aunt who doesn’t realize that you are no longer ten years old.
“Mushroom Popover Pie” (page 112) seemed like such a good idea. I have always liked “Dutch Baby”, a giant puffy pancake, especially with apples, so a savory version with mushrooms sounded very appealing. But somehow or another this dish didn’t quite work. The pancake did not puff up as much as I had hoped. On comparing recipes, the amount of flour and milk in Mollie’s recipe is more than that usually required for a Dutch baby, less than that required for popovers. So without doing serious recipe testing (which is not going to happen), I’m not sure what the ideal ingredient amounts should be. A more serious problem is that this dish was not that amazingly good. Maybe a sauce, some sort of mushroom gravy, say, might have helped.
Still on my continued quest for a good Brussels sprouts recipe. I made Mollie’s “Braised Brussels Sprouts in Mustard Sauce” (page 210). I can’t blame my lackluster response to this dish on Mollie: these are Brussels sprouts, after all. The taste experience was first a big jolt of mustard, and then…Brussels sprouts. What I’m looking for (and did not find here, or anywhere else for that matter) is some way of cooking Brussels sprouts that actually makes them taste good, that complements their taste somehow.
My favorite recipe that I tried from this cookbook was what Mollie names “Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crunchy Things” (page 242). This recipe has three ingredients: peanut butter, chocolate chips, and dry healthy type cereal. I fond that Mollie’s ingredient amounts did not quite work for me, but ideal amounts are no doubt dependent not only on personal taste, but on the type of peanut butter and the type of cereal used, and probably even the type of chocolate. I like using a good dark chocolate instead of the chocolate chips that Mollie calls for; this is usually a better chocolate.
“Peppy Pepitas” (page 228) are pumpkin seeds cooked in a little oil with cumin, hot pepper, and salt, with a little lime juice added at the end. Danny, who eats raw pumpkin seeds as regular component of his “stay healthy” diet, marveled at how much better these gussied up pumpkin seeds were.
So if you want to get someone just starting out in the kitchen a beginning cookbook, which of these three would be best? My answer should be clear: Max and Eli Sussman’s Freshman in the Kitchen. Under their tutelage, a novice cook can develop a solid repertoire of dishes that everyone should know how to cook, and have his interest whetted for more.
Adapted from Max and Eli Sussman, Freshman in the Kitchen
3 tablespoons butter
2-2½ pounds starchy potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons salt
8 ounces cheddar cheese, grated
¾ cup milk, heated
Preheat the oven to 375º. Butter one large pan (13 inches x 9inches) or two smaller pans. Break the rest of the butter up into little pieces.
Combine the potatoes, onion, garlic, flour, salt, as much pepper as you want, and half the cheese. Scrape it into the pan(s) and dot with the remaining butter. Pour the milk over the potatoes, then top with the remaining cheese. Cover; if using foil and there is any danger of cheese sticking to it, butter the foil. Bake for 15-20 minutes, then remove the foil and bake until the potatoes are soft and golden on top, perhaps another 30-40 minutes.
The Dainty Plowman’s Salad
Adapted from Sam Stern, Virgin to Veteran
½ cup cooked red kidney beans (ideally, cooked by you, but canned if you must)
3 celery stalks, strings removed and sliced
¼ cup dried cherries
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, and cut into small cubes
3 ounces cheddar cheese, cut into small cubes
2 ounces (approximately) red clover sprouts, or other dainty sprout
2 teaspoons mustard
¼ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white wine or white balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons walnut oil
Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch
Adapted from Mollie Katzen, Get Cooking
½ cup peanut butter
3 ounces dark chocolate, cut into chocolate chip size chunks
1¼ cups dry non-sugary cereal (I use Uncle Sam, regular)
Put the peanut butter in a small pan and begin to melt it. When about half of it is in a puddle about the unmelted other half, remove the pan from the heat, and stir the peanut butter until smooth. Add the chocolate and cereal. The idea is to have the peanut butter just hot enough to melt some but not all of the chocolate, and be liquid enough to be mixable. Drop blobs of this mixture onto parchment paper, and wait for the blobs to solidify. Use the refrigerator if you are in a hurry.
You can easily adjust these amounts. For one part (by volume) peanut butter, use a little more than one part chocolate, and a little more than two parts cereal.