Measured Extravagance

2000-11-12 - 5:58 p.m.

I put together a spinach dip before heading over to B.'s to watch football today: 1 cup sour cream, 1 package of spinach, two large dollops of horseradish, two tablespoons of minced red onion, and several shakes of black pepper, mixed and then poured into a hollowed-out loaf of round bread. B. had shepherd's pie ready when I got there, and we whiled away the afternoon swearing at the telly (our team lost) and drinking good beer.

We haven't had too many perfect autumn days here in Nashville this year - they've been summer, or they've been winter, or they've been grey and damp and dreary. But today was alive and sunny and sharp and full of glorious colors and smells, and I wore my new College of William and Mary sweatshirt (with that lovely smooth-inside-of-new-sweatshirt feel not yet washed out of it), and I'd started out the day with brunch at the Loveless Cafe and Motel buffet south of town with a pair of old friends from Detroit. The sausage gravy didn't agree with my internal plumbing, as it turned out, but it tasted mighty good going down. :-)

Back to my intended topic du jour: cookbooks. I put a couple into my "donate to library" stack this weekend, and plan to dispose of some more before the year's out: when I'm truly honest with myself, I do most of my cooking out of two cookbooks and the Internet, specifically How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham, and keyword searches on Google. What happens is that I'll decide I have a craving for something like spinach dip and I'll look it up in Bittman or Cunningham. If I'm not sure their version is the ticket, or if I have time to nose around, I'll then check a couple of other cookbooks to see variations on the recipe. If I'm short on time, or at work trying to figure out to buy on my way home, I do the on-line search. I then take whatever I liked best from all of the recipes, combine with whatever's actually available in the fridge at the moment of truth, and voila! a "new" recipe for spinach dip. I'm not sure I've ever cooked a recipe from Bittman exactly as specified, but I'm quite fond of it because it's good at presenting possibilities to me -- that's how I figured out what I could leave out of from all three recipes consulted, and that horseradish would give this afternoon's dip the heatless kick that I wanted in it. It definitely ranks be one of my top choices as a present to a college student or newlywed -- I find it friendlier and more no-nonsense than The Joy of Cooking, although I have to say I find the latter's line drawings of skinning a rabbit and their detailed instructions on constructing a wedding cake quite amusing - in the same way that I savor the books of the Two Fat Ladies without any intention of cooking from their recipes.

Another reason to weed out my cookbook collection is because I treated myself to a copy of Madeleine Kamman's The New Making of a Cook several years ago, and have yet to make any inroads into the belly of the beast, alluring though its contents be. Finally, I don't refer to it all that often anymore, but Marina and John Bear's How to Repair Food is a staple of my culinary reference library. Their suggestions have not always worked, but it has come in useful from time to time, and the book has helped strengthen my culinary coping skills in general - as with the Bittman tome, the book provides a springboard: I use it to get started and to steer myself back towards a tried-and-tested direction when I'm not sure what comes next.

(Yes, one might say the same of certain religious and philosophical manuals, but that's a musing best left to some other autumn evening.)

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