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What the Cookbooks You Collect Say About You

And two fabulous recipes you're going to want to try this week!

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A collection of old cookbooks in a kitchen scene
Linda Xiao (Food Stylist: Brett Regot; Prop Stylist: Maeve Sheridan)
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We all have one — that cookbook covered with food stains, with a few yellowing pages falling out. For me, it’s The Silver Palate Cookbook. The recipe for Our Favorite Vinaigrette is almost illegible, covered with splotches of olive oil and drips of balsamic vinegar.

If you let the book open on its own, it would fall to the Chicken Marabella page — my go-to entertaining dish in the 1980s. Judging from a query I posed to my peers, everyone was serving Chicken Marbella back then. The recipe called for prunes, green olives, capers and other ingredients not usually associated with poultry.

Cookbooks reveal us. They are narratives of who we were during a particular time in life, both cultural and personal texts. While I was preparing The Silver Palate’s Pasta Primavera Gregory, a ridiculously labor-intensive dish with 17 ingredients that required endless chopping, some of my peers were checking out Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, trying their hands at the exotic sounding Blackened Red Fish.

Despite our cultural differences, several titles emerge as touchstones for boomers. The Silver Palate Cookbook, published in 1982 by authors Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, included recipes and tips from their Manhattan gourmet food shop. It was followed by their Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook in 1985 and The New Basics Cookbook in 1989. All were bestsellers.

My friend Inara De Leon points to The Tassajara Bread Book as the go-to book for her 1970s hippie college crowd. The hand-drawn cover portrayed a plate with bread on it, encircled by two golden flowers. The author, Edward Brown, then a young Zen student, writes in his introduction, “A recipe doesn’t belong to anyone. Given to me, I give it to you. Only a guide, only a skeletal framework. You must fill in the flesh according to your nature and desire. Your life, your love will bring these words into full creation.”

If you’re not feeling groovy after reading that, you never will. Inara was also a fan of the original Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas. True to form, the cover was a hand-drawn pen and ink picture of a woman in a flowered dress, a wreath of flowers in her hair, looking lovingly down at a beet. Thomas was still a film student at UCLA when she wrote the first edition in 1972. Many of us began exploring vegetarianism at the time. The Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen was originally self-published in 1974 by the staff of the Ithaca, New York, Moosewood Restaurant. The spiral bound book, also hand-illustrated by the author, was another bible for veggie cooks.

Another friend, Emily Tucker, became a vegetarian when she was in high school. She fondly remembers making Brazilian Black Bean Soup from the first Moosewood Cookbook (there are now several) and the Savory Cheese and Onion Pie from The Vegetarian Epicure. Back when we were young in the ’60s, ’70s and even the ’80s, few of us were worried about the fat content of recipes. Today, I’m struck by the liberal measures of cream, butter and cheese used. No wonder they were so delicious! The Moosewood series and The Vegetarian Epicure have been updated with some leaner versions of the original recipes.

While embracing the new, many of us novice chefs fell back on the classics our mothers relied on. My backstop was The Joy of Cooking. Other friends turned to The Better Homes and Garden Cookbook and The Betty Crocker Cookbook.

Today I have a cooking app on my laptop that stores my recipes. It can convert recipes depending on how many people I’m serving, suggest substitutions for ingredients not currently in my pantry and organize recipes from hundreds of diverse sources by type of dish, origin, ingredient and other filters.

And yet ... I don’t use it that much. Besides not wanting to spill food on my devices, electronic recipes just don’t have the same soul as those stained pages with hand-scribbled notes in the margins. Here are two of my favorite recipes from memory lane.

Chicken Marabella from The Silver Palate Cookbook

Serves 10

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1 cup pitted prunes

1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives

1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice

6 bay leaves

1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed

1/4 cup dried oregano

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

4 chickens (2 1/2 pounds each), quartered

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley or fresh cilantro, finely chopped

Combine the olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers and juice, bay leaves, garlic, oregano and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken and stir to coat. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Arrange the chicken in a single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans and spoon the marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle the chicken pieces with the brown sugar and pour the white wine around them.

Bake, basting frequently with the pan juices, until the thigh pieces yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice when pricked with a fork, 50 minutes to 1 hour. With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken, prunes, olives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of the pan juices and sprinkle generously with the parsley or cilantro. Pass the remaining pan juices in a sauceboat.

Brazilian Black Bean Soup from The Moosewood Cookbook 

Serves 6-8 

2 cups dry black beans, soaked

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cups onions, chopped (about 1.5 large onions)

10 medium garlic cloves, crushed

2 tablespoons cumin

2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 medium carrot, diced

1 medium bell pepper, diced

1 1/2 cups orange juice (squeeze your own, and then add the chunks of orange to the soup for extra texture and sweetness)

Black pepper to taste

Cayenne to taste

Optional: 2 diced tomatoes, sour cream, cilantro, salsa

Soak beans in plenty of water for at least 4 hours (preferably overnight; I pressure-cook, but a couple cans are OK in a pinch). Place the soaked beans in a kettle or Dutch oven with 4 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer until tender (about 1.25 hours).

Heat olive oil in a medium-sized skillet. Add chopped onion, 5 crushed cloves garlic, cumin, salt and carrot. Sauté over medium heat until the carrot is just tender. Add remaining garlic and the bell pepper. Sauté until everything is very tender (10 to 15 mins). Add the sautéed mixture to the beans, scraping in every last morsel.

Stir in orange juice, black pepper and cayenne to taste, and optional tomatoes. Purée all or some of the soup in a blender and return to kettle. Simmer over very low heat 10 to 15 minutes more. Serve topped with an artful arrangement of sour cream, cilantro and salsa.

What's your all-time favorite cookbook? Let us know in the comments below.

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