Laurie Colwin: Cornbread and Prosciutto Stuffing (and Giveaway)

Laurie Colwin: Prosciutto and Cornbread Stuffing

Let’s play a drinking game: Find a restaurant or cookbook review and take a shot every time these words come up: delicious, exquisite, velvety (for soups), pillowy (for gnocchi), complex, simple, seasonal. Drunk yet? Certain food words and phrases get more than their fair share of column space—so much so that, despite being guilty many times over, I still cringe when another squash soup is described as “autumn in a bowl.”

That’s why, although I’m usually focused on food in fiction (and the authors who ate it), I have a special respect for those writers who make food their lifelong subject. It’s easy to polish the perfect dinner party scene in a novel when there’s only one to write. But describing dish after dish, new “modern American small plates restaurant” after restaurant, and turning each into its own reason for being? That’s what separates the laymen from the legends. For many, that legend is M.F.K Fischer. For me, it’s Laurie Colwin.

A fiction writer herself (of both short stories and novels), Colwin’s essays on food for Gourmet are what gained her celeb status—and a passionately devoted readership. After her early death at 48, the magazine received hundreds of letters expressing their grief. When she took over as editor, Ruth Reichl remembered, “Every writer that came in said that he or she wanted to be the next Laurie Colwin.”

Colwin’s one-liners made her the Dorothy Parker of food (“Grilling is like sunbathing. Everyone knows it is bad for you but no one ever stops doing it.”) She would never call a soup velvety; instead, she’d describe the desultory chive sitting in it. But more than her wit, readers loved Laurie for ‘fessing up to all our guiltiest kitchen thoughts, without fear or shame. After throwing dozens of dinner parties in her tiny Manhattan apartment, she’d been there: from cooking five courses on a hot pot to secretly wishing your dinner guests shut up and just ate meat already. Every unglamorous food frustration you’ve had? Laurie understood.

Home Cooking, a collection of Colwin’s essays, was released in digital form for the first time this month and I’ve been revisiting them as preparation for the kind of big dinner that always comes this time of year. (Spoiler: I have a copy to give away!) As with any contemporary book of food essays, there are recipes, and they’re simple, seasonal and (yes, I’m saying it) delicious.

But it’s the moral support, the tableside pep talk, that makes it a kitchen essential. “No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present.” Colwin is one of those kitchen guardian angels, peering over your shoulder when your sauce splits or your soufflé falls flat, telling you not to worry—and gently reminding you that, in a pinch, there’s always takeout.Laurie Colwin: Cornbread Prosciutto Stuffing Recipecolwin5 colwin3

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Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Hunter S. Thompson: Huevos Rancheros

Every day begins with breakfast, and every breakfast begins with a profound dilemma: Sweet or savory? For the reliably indecisive (myself included), reading a brunch menu is like watching two heavyweights sweat it out in the ring. Pancakes vs. omelets. French toast vs. hash browns. Doughnuts vs. bacon. Our brains weren’t equipped to handle decisions of this magnitude before noon.

Leave it to Hunter S. Thompson to figure out the two optimal solutions to this problem. One: Never get up before noon. Two: Order everything on the menu.

“Breakfast is a personal ritual that can only be properly observed alone, and in a spirit of genuine excess,” Thompson wrote in The Great Shark Hunt . He goes on to list his preferred meal: “four Bloody Marys, two grapefruits, a pot of coffee, Rangoon crêpes, a half-pound of either sausage, bacon, or corned-beef hash with diced chilies, a Spanish omelette or eggs Benedict, a quart of milk, a chopped lemon for random seasoning, and something like a slice of key lime pie, two margaritas and six lines of the best cocaine for dessert.”

Thompson’s penchant for excess was legendary—but how much of the legend was of his own making? Few question his extravagance where alcohol was concerned; those who partied with him recall downing round after round of his signature Biffs (a mix of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Irish whisky). But according to Thompson’s friends and family, his wild breakfast adventure was largely exaggerated. Instead, he usually ate like the rest of us: one dish at a time.

“He had some very specific ideas about what breakfast should be, and there were maybe four different ones that he liked,” Thompson’s wife Sandy said. “One was a Spanish omelet with bacon. One was mayonnaise and peanut butter on top of toast with bacon on the top. There was some sort of a spinach thing. There was huevos rancheros.” Thompson himself reported a more moderate approach to breakfast elsewhere in The Great Shark Hunt, saying, “I was on the verge of ordering huevos rancheros with a double side of bacon, but … I settled for grapefruit and coffee.” Other friends also remember his grapefruit addiction, but more often it was paired with “six Heinekens and a bottle of gin” instead of the coffee.

Thompson may have misreported his breakfast menu, but he was accurate about his favorite time to eat it: as late as possible. Juan, his son, remembered, “He’d be eating bacon and eggs and reading the paper, and I’d be finishing my dinner or doing my homework before bed. My friends at school thought that was funny.” They might not have thought so if they had run into Thompson enjoying his meal the way he preferred: “in the warmth of a hot sun, and preferably stone naked.”

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E. L. Konigsburg: Cranberry Cinnamon Noodle Kugel

E.L. Konigsburg: Noodle Kugel

When you’re 12, no one understands you like a book. When I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for the first time, in the summer before middle school, I was amazed to find a character who not only got me, she was me: oldest child, only girl, and routinely “subject to a lot of injustice.” Reading about Claudia Kinkaid was a brush with the familiar in an entirely unexpected place—a 30-year-old paperback, written by a woman old enough to be my grandmother (speaking of people who definitely didn’t get me).

When I learned of E.L. Konigsburg’s death, a year ago this month, I returned to my bookshelf to visit Claudia, re-reading the scenes I loved 15 years ago: ducking in the bathroom stalls, bathing in the fountain, ordering the mac and cheese at the automat. When Claudia meets the mysterious and well-off Mrs. Frankweiler, she’s dismayed that the menu is so familiar, so pedestrian. “Why it’s nothing but macaroni and cheese.” “You see,” Mrs. Frankweiler responds, “under the fancy trappings I’m just a plain lady.”

While my 12-year-old self might have sided with Claudia’s culinary snobbery, Konigsburg in the kitchen was more of a Frankweiler, relishing in the comfort of the familiar despite her fame. A regular patron of New York’s automats, she also would invite friends to grab a late-night meal at Denny’s; her editor Ginee Seo remembered her getting all dolled up just to slide into one of their faux leather booths. When cooking at home, she took a cue from her title character, with her favorite recipe for special occasions: lokchen kugel, a sweet version of Claudia’s savory mac and cheese.

Everyone’s family recipe for kugel is the best one; it’s the type of dish that always has a secret, and a story to tell. Some swear by topping the noodles with cherry pie filling before baking, or sneaking chocolate chips into the batter. Konigsburg’s version (as published in the fascinating collection Write Out of the Oven) calls for a can of pineapple—the kind of throwback recipe that recalls the days when automats flourished in Manhattan, and the ten pennies you pulled from a fountain could buy you your next meal.

Noodle Kugel Recipe

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Unlike my first encounter with Claudia, Konigsburg’s recipe didn’t elicit any nods of recognition from me; I had barely heard of kugel, much less tasted it, and immediately had so many questions. Is it a dessert? Is it a side? Why is it sweet? The combination of noodles, sugar, pineapple and cheese didn’t ring any bells (except maybe alarm bells)? But for the many families who grew up with a variation of the dish, kugel is a staple: a regular feature of holiday dinners, Shabbat meals, and (when made with with potatoes or matzah) a Passover must-have.

Having no family recipe to draw from, I decided to start my own tradition, using Konigsburg’s recipe as the foundation but substituting mascarpone for the sour cream and cranberries for the pineapple. As I mixed the cheeses together, I recalled a dish my mother used to make: a mass of noodles, tomato sauce and cheese thrown together, in a lazy approximation of lasagna’s neat layers. It was a mess—the kind of dish that might get some sideways glances at a potluck—but at our table, no one blinked. Instead, we had seconds. Books might help us discover ourselves in unusual places but when it comes to food, nobody gets you like your family.

(Adapted from Write Out of the Oven)

8 ounces flat egg noodles
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup mascarpone
1 pound cottage cheese
3 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup dried cranberries
2 cups rolled oats
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 teaspoons cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. add noodles, reduce heat to a simmer, and let cook 5 to 7 minutes, until just al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. In a large bowl, stir together butter, mascarpone, cottage cheese, eggs, sugar, and cranberries. Add noodles and toss to coat. Pour mixture into 9×13 baking dish.

3. In a small bowl, mix oats, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Sprinkle over the noodle mixture and bake 1 hour, or until kugel has set and edges are golden. Let stand 10 minutes, then serve.

Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Cheesecake

Stephen King: Cranberry Orange Swirl Cheesecake

This week, the internet has been embroiled in debate about “literary elitism,” but that same highbrow disdain for lowbrow tastes isn’t just confined to the world of words. Whether it’s a bodice-ripping romance or a doughnut dripping with sugary glaze, certain books and dishes are repeatedly (and unfairly) condemned to a lower status on our shared cultural hierarchy. It’s time to redeem the “guilty pleasure.”

For many readers, Stephen King (subject of yet another internet debate) is one of those authors we regard with divided hearts: someone we love to read, but only when no one else is watching. We don’t discuss The Shining in book club or self-consciously read our first edition of It on the subway, hoping someone will notice. It seems natural that King himself would dismiss the entire idea of “high” versus “low.” But, as it turns out, even he buys into the guilty pleasure principle—at least where food is concerned.

After his wife, Tabitha, lost her senses of taste and smell, King became the de facto cook of the house, learning to bake his own bread and devising his own signature dish (baked salmon with brown sugar glaze). But despite his kitchen credentials, King is still sheepish about some of his go-to meals. “My eating habits are horrible,” he wrote on Twitter, as if to anticipate his culinary critics. “Favorite restaurant is Waffle House. How sad is that.”

The same bashfulness appears in King’s quick defense of the microwave: “If you’re sneering, it’s because you think the only things you can do with the microwave are make popcorn and nuke the living shit out of Stouffer’s frozen dinners.” King’s alternative, coating a trout fillet with lemon, olive oil and basil before zapping it for a few minutes, is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s microwaved, yes, but much more virtuous than the helmet-size bowl of cheesy pasta I make on lazy nights, telling myself I am, technically, “cooking.”

King’s favorite food, about which he clearly feels no embarrassment, has the reputation for being the ultimate indulgence: a “monster slice of cheesecake.” Although two slices is his preferred dessert (according to a menu of his ideal meal), King’s taste for cheesecake isn’t limited to post-dinner; he also will have a piece before sitting down to write. “Cheesecake is brain food,” he says, a joking justification for a dessert that doesn’t need any excuse.

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

Cranberry orange cheesecake recipe

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Alice Munro: Rosemary Bread Pudding

Alice Munro - Rosemary Bread Pudding

Last week, when Alice Munro found out she had won the Nobel Prize in literature, she was in bed. The prize committee had tried to reach her earlier by phone but ended up just leaving a voicemail, so it was Munro’s daughter who, hearing the announcement, ran to wake up her mom. That somehow seems fitting for Munro, whose stories revolve around intimate moments of domesticity. If Hemingway is a moveable feast, Munro is breakfast in bed.

Her writing is not only steeped in the household world; it also was created there. Munro’s desk is her dining room table, where she’s penned most of her work over the past few decades. As her interviewer at The Paris Review notes, “The dining room is lined floor to ceiling with books; on one side a small table holds a manual typewriter.” When she cooks in the neighboring kitchen, her work is never far away. Is it any wonder the two are connected in her stories, as in life?

Besides writing, cooking was the other constant in Munro’s own domestic drama. In her mostly autobiographical collection The View from Castle Rockshe recalls packing her father’s lunch in the morning, a regular chore: “three thick sandwiches of fried meat and ketchup. The meat was cottage roll ends or baloney, the cheapest meat you could buy.” Later, when she was married, Munro’s stories would continue to take a back seat to food prep. She told the Review, “I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework.”

Although Munro still cooks (one of her interviewers watched her prepare a meal, which made ample use of the Canadian countryside’s fresh herbs), she now often chooses to leave the kitchen to others. She regularly asks reporters to meet at her favorite restaurant in the nearby town of Gogerich, Ontario—Bailey’s Fine Dining—where she has a usual table (corner) and a usual drink (white wine, sauvignon blanc preferred, multiple pours encouraged).

Until just a few days before the award announcement, Haruki Murakami, known for his hulking postmodern novels, was said to be the front-runner for the Nobel. It’s hard to imagine a writer further than Munro. Her subjects are often described as “quiet” or “domestic” and (given that they’re short stories) “small.”

Munro herself sometimes doubted their impact; she told the New Yorker last year, “For years and years I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel.” But the major recognition of her work helps us all remember what a “small” story can do—how an intimate revelation at the dining room table can hold as much truth as an epic; how a perfect fried baloney sandwich can sometimes hit the spot more than any six-course meal.

Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Rosemary Bread Pudding Recipe

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Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

Thomas Pynchon: Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos

As a Californian living in New York City, I’ve learned there are two things that lead to inevitable disappointment: walking without an umbrella in the summer, and Mexican food. I know you’re trying, New York. It’s cute. But whenever I bring East Coast friends to visit the hole-in-the-wall taco shop of my childhood, the scales fall from their eyes. It’s like they’re finally seeing the world in living color, when all they’ve ever known was that weird “Kelvin” filter on Instagram.

I can only imagine that Thomas Pynchon felt the same way when he first tried the real deal in his late 20s. Growing up on Long Island and studying at Cornell, Pynchon fled New York for the West Coast in 1960. After spending a few years in Seattle working for Boeing, he headed south toward California and Mexico … where he famously went silent, gaining a reputation as a literary recluse, refusing to have his picture taken or to speak with the media. What was he doing out there? We may never know entirely. But one thing’s for sure: He was eating.

Mexican food slowly began appearing in Pynchon’s novels, starting in The Crying of Lot 49 and cropping up in nearly every book since: the San Gabriel taco stand in Gravity’s Rainbow, Tajo Carajo in Vineland, and the delightful Lupita’s in Against the Day, where customers “fill their lunch pails or paper sacks with chicken tortas, venison tamales, Lupita’s widely-known brain tacos, [and] bottles of home-brewed beer.”

Over time, Pynchon’s descriptions of food become more lavish, loving, even tinged with danger. Inherent Vice features a whopping meal that includes “enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tostadas, and tamales for two called El Atomico, whose entry on the menu carried a footnote disclaiming legal responsibility.” Following the same trend, I can only expect Pynchon’s new book, Bleeding Edge, will feature a crime scene involving an unusually spicy torta.

Why was Mexican food so pervasive in Pynchon’s work? Let’s just say he had done plenty of “research” on the subject. In his friends’ memories, he was always seeking his next meal, “wearing an old red hunting-jacket and sunglasses, doting on Mexican food at a taco stand.” Throughout the late 60s and 70s, Pynchon became a regular at El Tarasco in Manhattan Beach (it’s still open today, if you want to follow in his culinary footsteps). Neighbors would frequently spot him chowing down—the notorious hermit, lured into public by a burrito.

It’s easy to think of food in simple nutritional terms: energy in, energy out. But that doesn’t account for its remarkable ability to revive us in other ways. We each have certain dishes that make us feel more like ourselves. Richard Fariña, Pynchon’s close friend from college, recalls the two of them buying tacos and beer in California, “Pynchon coming to life with the tacos, not having had any Mexican food in a couple of weeks.” On mornings when you’re not yet ready to face the day, head to the kitchen and see what inspires you. Sometimes, all it takes to re-enter the world is a really good meal.

Beer-Braised Chicken Tacos RecipeSlow Cooker Braised Chicken Tacos

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Jamaica Kincaid: Cheddar-Leek Corn Pudding

Jamaica Kincaid: Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding

I’ve always been encouraged by late bloomers, since I long harbored the secret, desperate hope I might be one of them. I read Jamaica Kincaid’s short story “Girl” in a seventh-grade English class, at an age when I could already feel the potential endings of my own story narrowing down to a handful of plots. Others seemed to have already found their own talents by then: had spent years on the soccer field or in the art studio, drafting a rough outline of their futures. I still remember a classmate telling me I should forget about being a journalist, since I hadn’t written a single article for the school paper yet. For aspiring late bloomers, middle school is the absolute worst.

Cooking seemed like yet another talent you had to discover young to possess. Kincaid’s “Girl” only added to that idea. It’s full of kitchen wisdom, passed down early: “Cook pumpkin fritters in very hot sweet oil,” “soak salt fish overnight before you cook it.” Considering the main things I learned about cooking as a kid were 1) knives are sharp and 2) stirring is fun, I didn’t think I had the detailed instructions that made a fledgling chef. But, as it turns out, they worked just fine—even for Jamaica Kincaid herself.

Unlike the character in her story, Kincaid didn’t master the techniques to cook fritters or salt fish. Her job at family dinner time was the same one I had growing up: setting the table, the lamest of all kitchen tasks (besides “making placecards,” the other chore that inevitably got assigned to me). It wasn’t until Kincaid became a mother herself that she started to take an interest in food, first exploring her garden and then returning to the kitchen, this time in a more active role.

“My husband gave me a hoe, a rake, a spade, and some flower seeds,” she writes in My Garden, an entire book detailing her midlife conversion to domesticity. A neighbor taught her “what the new shoots of peonies look like,” she writes: “That was how I came to recognize a maple, but not that its Latin name is Acer; Latin names came later, with resistance.” She discovered Edna Lewis’ seminal cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking, and began devouring the recipes, passing on favorites like corn pudding and fried chicken to her own children.

Latin, I’m afraid, isn’t a talent that I’ve also picked up in adulthood. Yet as a relative latecomer to cooking, I’ve realized we have more control over how our stories unfold than we might think. Whenever people tell me they’re “not a chef” or even (perish the thought) “not a reader,” I remember how our talents are interconnected, our abilities and our confidence in them reinforcing one another, until we believe we truly can do anything. “Gardening is a form of reading,” Kincaid writes. “So is actually cooking.”

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Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding Recipe

Cheddar Leek Corn Pudding Recipe

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Nora Ephron: Frozen Key Lime Pie

My first Nora Ephron experience was watching When Harry Met Sally backwards. It was the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, that week when cable channels run marathons of the film, back to back, all day long. On holiday from school, with nothing better to do, I randomly flipped on the TV to the last scene, when Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan finally end up together and everyone sings “Auld Lang Syne.” I stumbled upon another scene later that day, on a different showing: the epic fight over the wagon wheel coffee table. Finally, I caught it at the beginning and watched the whole thing. Seeing it that way was pleasingly disorienting — Nora Ephron meets Harold Pinter.

Ephron might not fit the mold of other writers on this blog—Crazy Salad doesn’t occupy the same place as Crime and Punishment, nor should it—but she was in a class of her own when it came to pure food joy.” I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose,” she said. “And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”  She wasn’t shy to share her culinary opinions, either, particularly in the Great Egg White Controversy of 2007. Her recipe for egg salad began: “Boil 18 eggs, peel them, send six of the egg whites to friends in California who persist in thinking that egg whites matter in any way.”

It’s no surprise, then, that food made its presence felt in Ephron’s fiction writing too. Her 1983 novel Heartburn is maybe the best example, seamlessly integrating recipes into the plot. Now the novel/memoir-with-recipes genre seems ubiquitous—everyone from Kim Severson to Ruth Reichl has one—but Ephron did it first, and best. She knew that cooking and storytelling share a common thread: The words draw people in, and the food draws people together. Some books are best enjoyed in solitude, but not Nora’s. They beg to be shared, the best passages read aloud to anyone around to hear them.

I got the news that Ephron had died right before boarding a plane for California, where I grew up. Back in my family’s kitchen, I started squeezing the juice for her Frozen Key Lime Pie. Although I had read many of her recipes over the years, this is the first one I was attempting. Finally, I thought, I’d have what she was having.

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Salman Rushdie: Lamb Korma

You can’t escape food when reading Salman Rushdie. Start looking and suddenly it’s everywhere: Pyarelal’s saffron pulao in Shalimar the Clown, Sisodia’s feast in The Satanic Verses, the grandmother’s pantry in Midnight’s Children.

It’s the same with the real Rushdie; he’s a man surrounded by food. His marriage to Top Chef and cookbook author Padma Lakshmi is an obvious connection. But so is his involvement with At Vermilion, the Manhattan restaurant that once offered a tasting menu devoted to his work (complete with autographed novel to take home, goodie bag style). You think you’re reading an article about the fatwa and boom —out of the blue, it links to the author’s recipe for curry. Food just follows him.

Why Rushdie decided to give Parade magazine his korma recipe, I’ll never know (it doesn’t quite jibe with other articles on offer: “Fire Up the Griddle! Pancakes for Every Meal of the Day”). But his description of the family history behind the dish (it’s his son’s favorite as well) reminds me why food plays such a crucial role in his novels: Community comes together over a good meal.

Korma was a favorite dish in Midnight’s Children, too, but in a less heartwarming, more threatening context. “This, whatsitsname, is a very heavy pot,” that grandmother says, “and if just once I catch you in here, whatsitsname, I’ll push your head into it, add some dahi, and make, whatsitsname, a korma.” I decided to go with Rushdie’s version of the recipe instead – more lamb, less dismemberment.

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