The theme of this post is cooking for other people: a book by a convent cook, a book of recipes from firefighters (although here the theme should be cooking for each other), and a cookbook by Jacqueline Onassis’s cook. Recipes for the masses, such as those in the convent and firehouse cookbooks, are by necessity conventional, but still a little excitement can creep in unobserved in the dark corners. Cooking for Jackie O (aka “Madam”) has its own issues: how interesting can it be to plate a scoop of no fat cottage cheese? Fortunately, Jackie’s children needed to eat, so Marta Sgubin gives us some recipes capable of nourishment in her book.
There are cookbooks that I am embarrassed to have, and feel obligated to explain how they came into my possession; Cooking for Madam: Recipes and Reminiscences from the Home of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis by Marta Sgubin is such a book. I found this book at the now nonexistent remainder bookstore Afterwords, but it is also true that I am not totally immune to Kennedy Fascination. Marta first came to Jackie as a baby sitter (or, in Jackie O-speak, “governess”), and when the children got too old to be baby sat (or governed), Marta, by then a loyal family retainer, morphed into a cook. The book is filled with stories and pictures of Marta, her employer, and her employer’s family and friends. This is not a book by a disgruntled former servant who tells all the dirty secrets, but one that is approved of by the family in question. Marta is evidently still on quite good terms with the Schlossbergs and their children. There is plenty in this book for the Kennedy-phile, and the same material also provides fodder for the Kennedy-phobe. There are not, however, plenty of recipes of the type that I am interested in. There is a lot of meat, a lot of trayf seafood, and a lot of perfectly standard recipes that could be found in any general cookbook. I did manage to find an interesting tomato tart, and I still plan to attempt Marta’s floating island recipe, which, we learn, was John’s favorite.
“Watercress Soup” (page 40) was an unexceptional purée of watercress, scallions, and potatoes, with a gratuitous cup of cream added. I would have enjoyed the soup just as much without the cream, but if I were preparing this soup for someone who needed fattening up, I would definitely add the cream. Marta calls for the white parts only on four bunches of scallions. I could not see wasting that much green scallion, so I used three bunches, white and green. I did not peel the potatoes, nor did Marta suggest doing so, and I think the peels gave the soup some nice texture after being blended. So this was a fine soup, but nothing that new.
Selection of the recipe for “Rosemary Potatoes” (page 137) is evidence of how desperate I was for recipes that I could cook from this book. These are simply potatoes roasted with butter and rosemary. Marta uses six pounds of potatoes to serve twelve people. This is a lot of potato per person. I used about two pounds of potatoes for ten people, and there were lots of potatoes left over. Marta might have needed such a quantity of potatoes as she used a melon baller to scoop out little potato balls. I suspect this would leave a lot of wasted unused potato, but Jackie O (unlike, perhaps, her first husband’s potato famine era ancestors) could afford to waste potatoes.
I decided it would not be fair to Marta and her cookbook if I did not attempt one of her more elaborate recipes. “Uncle Teddy’s Favorite Lobster Salad” was out of the question for obvious reasons, and “Truffle Soup”, supposedly one of Jackie’s favorites, was not something I was prepared to make. Thus I settled on “Tomato and Ricotta Tart” (page 47), which was really not as much work as Marta implied. Good tomatoes are, however, necessary for this recipe. You start by cooking down three pounds of tomatoes with some onion to make tomato paste. This took me two hours, instead of the one hour stated in the recipe. The resulting paste was, however, way way better than anything from a can or tube. After that, you just spread the tomato paste in a prebaked tart shell, top with slices of tomato and ricotta cheese, and run it under the broiler. I approved of the tomato on tomato theme, and quite enjoyed this tart. Danny liked the tart well enough, but only because it reminded him of English muffin pizza. [Go to the recipe.]
In most firehouses, meals are prepared and eaten by the firefighters themselves. Firehouse Food: Cooking with San Francisco’s Firefighters, by George Dolese and Steve Siegelman is a collection of recipes from the firefighters of San Francisco. According to one of these firefighters, quoted in the introduction: “What we do is nothing like institutional cooking. It’s good home cooking, made with a lot of care, scaled up to feed a bunch of people.” This is an excellent description of the contents of this book, although the recipes are scaled back down for home cooks. The only catch is that “good home cooking” is not all that exciting, and is based on the sort of recipes that everyone already has. I did not find a lot that was new to cook in this cookbook, but did find competent renditions and one big improvement of some standard recipes.
“Mixed Greens with Pears and Dried Cranberries” (page 52) consisted of lettuce, pear, red onion, cranberries, goat cheese, and almonds, with a simple oil and vinegar dressing. My version would have been better if I had remembered the goat cheese and almonds, but my guests still ate all the salad, leaving the bowl empty, which does not always happen with my lettuce salads.
The firehouse cole slaw variation, “Coleslaw with Pineapple and Dried Cherries” (page 163) was quite good. It was a simple cole slaw, with half a head of red cabbage and half a head of green cabbage, and pineapple, green onions (I used scallions), cherries, and almonds. The dressing was a mix of mayonnaise and red wine vinegar. The red wine vinegar was not the best idea, because after I added the dressing, the bright salad colors became muddied. White wine vinegar or white balsamic vinegar would have worked better, at least with regard to appearance. As always, I salted my cabbage, although this was not called for in the recipe.
“Pasta Puttanesca” (page 130) has always been one of my favorite pasta dishes, although I have not made it much lately, what with people in my house going in and out of strict vegetarian mode. The firehouse version in this cookbook had lots of olives (one cup for one pound of pasta), which is fine with me, but a curiously small amount of capers (two teaspoons). I increased the capers and also the anchovies: the recipe called for a 2 ounce can, but my jar happened to be 3.5 ounces. The recipe called for a large can of whole tomatoes, I used a large can of diced tomatoes, but I think that a large can of crushed tomatoes would have worked best. This is a recipe with which is it hard to go wrong: different ingredient proportions or different sauce textures can give slightly different results, but they are all good.
I think it is usually just silly for a cookbook to have a chocolate chip recipe; why would someone use any recipe other than the one on the bag of chocolate chips? Obviously, every baker will tinker with the amounts of sugars, decide on whether to add nuts or not, cook longer or shorter, hotter or colder, make big cookies or tiny ones. Nevertheless, some cookbook authors feel obligated to write up their own particular variation. The “San Francisco Chocolate Chip Cookies” (page 212) are distinguished mainly by using less egg: one egg to two cups of flour. They also use a more modest amount of sugar than some other chocolate chip cookie recipes. To make these “San Francisco” cookies, we are supposed to use Guittard chocolate chips, which are made in San Francisco. I made these because I was curious to see if less egg had any obvious effect; all I observed was a stiffer dough; the cookies themselves had the taste and texture of any other chocolate chip cookie. This is not bad, as chocolate chip cookies are about as close to the Platonic ideal of “cookie” as we cave dwellers can get.
“Strawberry Shortcake for a Crowd” (page 195) is not shortcake at all, but more of a sponge cake. I wish cookbook authors would use words correctly. That said, there is something to be said for layering strawberries and cream with a sponge cake instead of a shortcake. The cake absorbs the strawberry syrup better, does not fall apart, and the whole dessert is lighter, which is more welcome in the summer. In fact, I may never make strawberry shortcake again, instead opting for this strawberry sponge cake. [Go to the recipe.]
On my first pass through The Convent Cook: Divine Meals for Families Large and Small by Maria Tisdall, I was less than inspired. The book is arranged month by month, and on first glance, each month had a variety of meat recipes, some boring side vegetables, and a conventional dessert. It was clear that the Sisters of the Saint Walburga Monastery in New Jersey did not care for spicy food, liked their meat, and were not very adventurous: both couscous and peanut butter pie were new foods for them. On my second pass through the book, I bookmarked a roasted vegetable dish amid the pot roast and pork chops of February, a macaroni and cheese variation that Maria cooks for Lent, a zucchini torte as an alternative to chicken or meatloaf in May. However, once I started cooking these recipes, I became much more appreciative of Maria Tisdale. The four dishes I tried were all good, and, in an understated way, interesting. The Sisters are quite lucky to have found Maria; as well as providing them with their comfort food, she nudges their culinary horizons out bit by bit.
“Green Bean Salad” (page 116) is a simple summer salad with cooked green beans, tomatoes, onions, and herbs with an oil and vinegar dressing. My red onions must be a lot bigger than Maria’s, because I used less than half the amount of onion she seemed to call for, and my salad was still quite oniony. I also cut the amount of olive oil in half. Maria tops her salad with a bit of cheese; I skipped the cheese. The final salad was colorful and tasty, although not spectacular.
“Lenten Macaroni and Cheese” (page 48) consisted of macaroni, tomato sauce, and cheese (I used 8 ounces of each) with a little bit of finely chopped onion and garlic sautéed in butter. This was surprisingly good, and a dish that I will remember when I need a quick and easy pasta dish that children might eat. My only complaint with this dish is that it was a bit dry; I should have added some of the water in which the macaroni was cooked.
My favorite nun recipe was “Oven-Roasted Marinated Vegetables” (page 32). I did not have great hopes for this recipe, with its roasted zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, and onions, since a previous attempt at roasting these summery ingredients had just yielded a pan of limp and wimpy vegetables. But somehow Maria’s recipe worked and the final result was very ratatouille-like. Chunking instead of slicing the vegetables left with them with some integrity after roasting, but the real key to this recipe’s success was the jar of sun dried tomatoes: fresh or canned tomatoes would have led to mushier vegetables, and the flavor of sun dried tomatoes cannot be beat. I especially enjoyed leftovers on top of Jackie O’s rosemary potatoes. [Go to the recipe.]
The dish that our guests seemed to like the most was “Zucchini Torte” (page 81). I was attracted to this recipe since it seemed similar to one of my favorites, Yotam Ottolenghi’s cauliflower cake, as indeed it was. The recipe is for a quick bread packed with enough zucchini and cheese that its bread-like aspects are overwhelmed. I served this torte with sriracha mayonnaise. Maria suggests garnishing with fresh fruit, which I cannot imagine.
Of the three books featured in this post, I found the most to like in The Convent Cook. Perhaps it is no accident that it is only Maria Tisdall, not the firefighters and not Marta Sgubin, who is professionally trained.
Tomato Tomato Tart
Adapted from Marta Sgubin and Nancy Nicholas, Cooking for Madam
2 cups flour
11 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely chopped
3 pounds fresh tomatoes
1⁄4 cup fresh basil leaves
1 large tomato (about 1 pound), sliced
8 ounces ricotta, preferably homemade, sliced
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Put the flour, salt, and butter, cut into chunks, in the bowl of your food processor and pulse until the butter is less than pea sized. Add the water and pulse until the dough comes together. You may have to add more water; I usually do. This can all be done by hand also. Flatten the dough into a disc, and, if you have time, let it rest for an hour or so. It will stiffen up in the refrigerator, so I prefer to leave the dough resting on the kitchen counter.
Preheat the oven to 450º. Roll out the dough on a well floured counter to a circle that will fit into a 10 inch tart pan with plenty of overlap. Fit the crust into the pan, trim the edges (save the trimmings), and if you have left lots of overlap, fold in the crust to double the sides. Prick the bottom of the crust all over with a fork, line with parchment paper, and fill with pie weights (for which I use dried beans and rice, which can be used over and over again). Bake until the crust starts to brown. Remove the parchment paper and pie weights and bake until the bottom crust is baked. If the crust cracks, patch with the saved trimmings. Beat the egg, or just the egg white, and brush on the crust, and bake a few more minutes.
Meanwhile, make the tomato paste. Heat some olive oil (maybe two tablespoons) is a large skillet, and cook the onion until soft. Peel and dice the tomatoes, then add to the skillet. Cook over low to medium heat, stirring occasionally, until you are left with a thick paste. This could take a couple of hours. Cut the basil into ribbons and stir it in. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Spread the tomato paste in the bottom of the prebaked tart shell. Arrange the sliced tomato and ricotta on top. Drizzle the butter over the tomatoes and cheese. Run under the broiler until the tomatoes sizzle and the butter and cheese start to brown. You may need to protect the crust with a ring of aluminum foil to keep it from browning (or burning) too much.
Strawberry Sponge Cake
Adapted from George Dolese and Steve Siegelman, Firehouse Food
1 pound strawberries
6 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons sugar
3 eggs, separated
1⁄4 cup water
3⁄4 cup sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
3⁄4 cup flour, preferably unbleached cake flour
1⁄8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
For the strawberries, stem and quarter the strawberries, which I do with three parallel slices. You might opt for two perpendicular slices. Dissolve the sugar in the water, and add the strawberries. Let them soak in the syrup for at least 2 hours, stirring occasionally.
For the the cake, preheat the oven to 350º. Lightly butter a 9 inch cake pan, line with parchment paper, and butter the parchment paper.
Beat the egg yolks until fluffy and thick. Add the water and beat some more, again until fluffy and thick. Beat in the vanilla and salt. Gradually add ½ cup of sugar, while beating. Sift the flour over the egg yolks, and gently fold in. Using clean beaters, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar. When they get foamy, continue beating while gradually adding the remaining ¼ cup of sugar. Beat until stiff, then fold the egg whites into the rest of the cake batter. Scrape into the prepared pan, then bake until done, about 30 minutes. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.
Whip the cream with the sugar, trying to achieve that elusive state between stiff and not too stiff.
When the cake layers have cooled, assemble the cake. Cut the cake in half lengthwise. Strain the strawberries, saving the syrup. Place the bottom half of the cake on a plate. Dribble half the strawberry syrup over top, spread on half the whipped cream, and top with half the strawberries. Put the top half of the cake back on, and repeat: syrup, whipped cream, and strawberries. Ideally, let the cake sit in the refrigerator for an hour or more before eating, so that the syrup has a chance to permeate the cake.
Oven Roasted Summer Vegetables
Adapted from Maria Tisdall, The Convent Cook
1 8 ounce jar sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1⁄2 teaspoon sweet paprika
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound zucchini
1 pound yellow squash
1 green bell pepper
1 red bell pepper
Preheat the oven to 350º. Line a large baking sheet or roasting pan with parchment paper.
Drain the tomatoes, saving the oil. Chop the tomatoes. Combine the oil with the salt, pepper, oregano, paprika, and garlic. Quarter the zucchini and squash lengthwise, then cut into chunks. Cut the onions and bell peppers into similar sized pieces. Mix the tomatoes, oil, and vegetables all together, and spread out on the parchment lined baking sheet (or pan). Roast in the oven until the vegetables are tender and brown in spots, stirring occasionally.