Four Fall Cookbooks I Love - No. 157
Bold flavors, new stories, interesting desserts, plus Aunt Molly’s Brunswick Stew
FOR SOMEONE WHO WRITES COOKBOOKS for a living, you might say I look at other people’s new cookbooks in peculiar ways.
I have this checklist in my head, not intended to be there but formed by years of cooking, baking, and writing about food. If I’m going to collect another cookbook, it needs to check off the boxes on my list.
The cover. From the wording of the title to the image or illustration, I’m drawn to a cover that welcomes me like a beautiful front door. It should make me curiously hungry and stop me in my tracks.
The index. I flip straight to the back and see if there are recipes I’ve been searching for. It’s fascinating to search an index for material, and you can feel like a detective at times looking for a recipe that’s hard to come by. Or looking to see what ingredient the author is really taken with, as Vishwesh Bhatt is with okra, and unlike how charging to the back of a novel spoils the ending, heading to the index is more insightful.
The introduction. I want to find out why the author needed to write this book. Where’s the passion? The urgency? The story? All four books I share today have a solid introduction. They’ve also got beautiful covers, and I found some interesting things in the indexes as well…
My gut. What is it about this book—the recipes, the voice—that piques my curiosity to know more? Ever since I was old enough to cook, I’ve been reading cookbooks at night, in the morning, and now as my career. The best cookbooks have knowledge, insight, and beautiful writing, along with tested recipes and dazzling photos or illustrations. And I’m going to go so far as to say a really, really great cookbook doesn’t even need four-color photography. The words and recipes alone can make it classic. Think Joy of Cooking. Think Marcella Hazan. I know we live in a visual world, but what about our minds? Can’t we let our minds paint a picture of that recipe and when we make it for our friends and family, can’t it then come alive with color?
Anne Byrn: Between the Layers is a reader-supported publication. I write this newsletter because I enjoy it, and I also write it for a living. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Perhaps the strongest sign a cookbook will wind up on my shelf is that I simply want to cook or bake from it.
As my mother used to say, ‘’I can taste that recipe just by looking at it.’’ And I felt that way looking at Brian Noyes’ The Red Truck Farmhouse Cookbook.
The Red Truck Bakery is a quaint slice of regional America set on the edge of Virginia’s picturesque Shenandoah Valley, only an hour west of Washington DC. I usually don’t recommend detours but if you are driving through Virginia, go see this adorable bakery with its historic buildings and vintage red truck. I was there the weekend before the Fourth of July a year ago, and people were grabbing struesel berry pies and Meyer lemon cakes to take to holiday parties, and everything in the case was homespun but with polish. It looked as if your grandmother had taken fancy cooking classes in France. Even the details were thought out, the itty bitty details like if you buy an apple crumb pie it comes in a real metal pie pan —not disposable—so you can continue to bake pies in this pan at home. Who does this today? Brian Noyes does. He’s the chef owner and author of this new book, and he was the art director of The Washington Post for 25 years. The book tells his story of the restoration of his 170-year-old nearby farmhouse through recipes and delightful name dropping. It also shares cozy soups and brunch recipes, as well as what to make for dinner like the Brunswick stew I share today along with mushroom lasagna, a meatloaf with a maple and chili sauce glaze that sounds so good, and chicken thighs baked in peanut butter with apple cider. And best of all, it has his lethal Lexington Bourbon Cake recipe! Brian didn’t share that in his first cookbook. We’ve got it now!
Sometimes you read cookbooks to expand your mind.
The title tells me this is a book about Puerto Rican cooking, but clearly there is more to the story. The author, Illyanna Maisonet, says it’s more Diasporican, with the emphasis on the ‘’diaspora’’ for people who left Puerto Rico behind. You don’t have to sit in front of the news long to realize Puerto Rico is a place plagued by devastating hurricanes and an exodus of U.S. businesses nearly 25 years ago that left the economy in shambles. The author’s grandparents came to Sacramento when her mother (Mami) was just three years of age. They were in search of a better life as immigrants have been throughout history. ‘’How I became a cook is not a romantic story,’’ she begins.
‘’I learned how to cook Puerto Rican food from my grandmother, Margarita Galindez Maisonet. Margarita was born in 1938 in a campo of Manatí, on the northern coast of the island not too far from Hacienda La Esperanza, a former sugarcane plantation. When Margarita was nine years old and in the third grade, she was sent to live with her Titi Emilia. That was the end of Margarita’s formal education. That was also the end of seeing her biological mother for several decades.’’
We learn that Margarita (Nana) went to work as a “domestic” back when as Illyanna says, people didn’t apologize for deep-frying because ‘’it was a way of life.’’ Listen to the story and then the recipes unfold—beans, stews, dumplings and frituras, those fried empanadillas and tostones, foods that satiate hunger. On the cover of the book are arepas de coco, puffy fritters filled with seafood salad. There are persimmon cookies, flan with cream cheese, and pineapple upside-down cake based on cake mix and a coconut soda pop. It is a stark and delightful mix of island basics, a blend of Spanish and Cuban, African and American, as is Puerto Rico, and in spite of the sadness, the recipes bring joy. If you have a connection to Puerto Rico, you will honor this book. Or if you are just curious about its story, Diasporican will inform you.
Brown in the South. How India meets Mississippi.
‘’I want people to see me as I see myself: an immigrant, a son of immigrants, who chose to make the South his home, and in doing so became a Southern chef.’’
Vishwesh Bhatt is heading from Oxford, Mississippi, to Fairhope, Alabama, on book tour and talking to me as he drives. This tireless chef and author describes moving to the South with his family from the western Indian state of Gujarat when he was 19. His father was a professor and offered a teaching position in Texas. Vishwesh attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington and headed to Oxford for grad school years later. That’s when he found the City Grocery and asked owner John Currence for a cooking job ‘’for beer money.’’ A friendship formed, and Currence would back him in a restaurant called Snackbar, where he is executive chef. What’s interesting, says Vishwesh, is that the food of the South and India have much in common. His father knew local farmers as he does now, and he understands how big gatherings of people come to the table joyous in the South as there were always a lot of people eating and talking at his childhood table. ‘’They both are styles of cooking where the ingredient is the star.’’ I Am From Here facilitates that by organizing its contents by the ingredient, from rice, peas and beans, to okra, red and green tomatoes, sweet potatoes, other veg, shrimp, fish, chicken, and in between, a few sweets are sprinkled in like peanut pie, sweet potato pound cake, and rice pudding. The flavors are bold and the recipes say: make me. I’ve flagged the grilled pork tenderloin with tandoori spices and the smashed new potatoes with lime and cilantro.
Baking cake in a fresh French way
Last Thursday paid subscribers received Aleksandra’s recipe for yogurt cake—Gâteau au Yaourt—and I glazed it with a syrup of citrus. And I explained her story and how Aleksandra was raised living in Paris and New York City because her mother was a career journalist covering Europe. Aleksandra developed a lifelong love of French cakes but a desire to organize them in a way that simplifies and explains so those of us who haven’t lived her life can bring these delightful, classic recipes into our kitchens. What is intriguing about this book, in addition to explaining the legacy of cake baking in France, is that it is illustrated. No color photos. Aleksandra explained to me that this was intentional because food photography can date a book and she wanted this project to be timeless. I’ve already baked her yogurt cake and am on to the savory cakes of ham and Gruyere I can slice with drinks on the porch as we soak in this crisp fall air. And when I take a sip and a bite, I’ll toast an author who didn’t give in to trends, was counter to TikTok, and brings us recipes that are Instagram ready as long as we bake them and take our own photos. Cookbooks are made for using and keeping, and Aleksandra’s Gâteau reminds us of that.
What cookbooks are you cooking and baking from this fall? What do you look for in a cookbook before you buy it?
This Thursday for Paid Subscribers
Chocolate Muffins. Wait, double chocolate muffins. You’re going to love them, and especially when they’re warm! And I’ll share five other ideas for fall baking and announce the winner of September’s cookbook giveaway! How did you like the new series Cake in Other Places about baking in France? Next installment comes in November.
Have a great week!
- xo, Anne
THE RECIPE: (from The Red Truck Bakery Farmhouse Cookbook, by Brian Noyes)
Aunt Molly’s Brunswick Stew
The states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia each lay claim to originating and naming Brunswick stew, sometimes made back in the day with rabbit or even squirrel meat. My grandmother in Hendersonville, North Carolina, made a hearty chicken Brunswick stew (I always thought hers originated in Brunswick County, North Carolina), but she never wrote down her recipe. I told my ninety-seven-year-old Aunt Molly from Enfield, on the other side of the state, that I was searching for a version that came close to my grandmother’s, and she described how she used to make Brunswick stew for her church. Hers comes close to what I grew up with (although I’ve added ketchup, as my grandmother did), with hearty chunks of ham—nearly mandatory for her region near Smithfield, North Carolina, home of the famous Smithfield hams made from peanut-fed hogs. However, since Smithfield, Virginia, also takes credit for Smithfield hams and for peanut-fed Smithfield hogs, I’ll just move right on to the recipe before I get the locals upset. Food history ain’t easy.
Makes 6 servings
FOR THE CHICKEN:
1 whole chicken (about 3 pounds), giblets removed
1 tablespoon kosher salt
FOR THE STEW:
1 (8-ounce) ham slice, skin removed and discarded, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 (14.5-ounce) can peeled whole tomatoes, chopped, with their juices
1 (15-ounce) can corn, drained
10 ounces frozen lima beans
10 ounces frozen sliced okra
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon ground thyme
1 cup ketchup
1. Cook the chicken: Place the chicken breastside down in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot. Add the salt and enough water to cover the chicken completely. Bring to a boil, skimming off any foam. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 1 hour, using tongs to turn the chicken breast-side up halfway through. Continue to skim off any foam as needed while it cooks.
2. Transfer the chicken to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet, leaving the broth inside the pot. Let the chicken cool; discard the skin, bones, and cartilage. (Return any juices that have collected in the baking sheet back to the pot with the broth.) Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and coarsely chop the meat. You should have 2½ to 3 cups. Skim or remove any stray bits left in the broth.
3. Make the stew: To the pot of broth, add the chopped chicken, ham, onion, bell pepper, parsley, tomatoes and their juices, corn, lima beans, okra, salt, black pepper, bay leaf, thyme, and ketchup. Cover and simmer over low heat for 2 hours, stirring often, until slightly thickened.
4. Discard the bay leaf. Taste the stew, adjust the seasoning as needed, and serve. The stew can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
Thank you for introducing me to four books I had not heard of. Those of us who like to cook like to explore. :)
As someone who has been collecting cookbooks for many years and is trying to limit the number to bring into my home, I find the way I go about selecting them has changed over the years. It used to be primarily baking books, but now I find myself gravitating to cookbooks that introduce me to cultures and cuisines that I’m not familiar with. I tend to rely on a visceral reaction when I open the book to guide me, but generally I am looking for copious head notes and writing with a strong voice and photos that transport. Having said all this, ‘Gateau’ is one of the few baking books on my list that I’m considering shelling out money to buy.