Thursday, September 30, 2010

Martha Stewart vs. Laurie Colwin

Reading Laurie Colwin's two food books, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking, is like having a comfortable chat with your best friend. I read Home Cooking a few years ago and knew straight away that this was writing I liked a lot. Here was a woman who understood that grilling is a pain in the ass and that girls don't read Nancy Drew because they want a strong female role model but because they want to vicariously don sheath dresses with pumps and lunch in tea rooms.

It took me a while to get my hands on More Home Cooking because no library near me has it and I finally broke down and bought it. Like its predecessor, it's a collection of essays about food with recipes interspersed. She offers a fresh point of view--an essay about the liberation of cooking in a rented house, for example. Did you ever attempt to cook a meal in a rented house and discover that your only kitchen implements were a battered aluminum pot, two spoons, a lemon juicer, a chipped enamel strainer, a toast rack, a flour sifter with a wooden crank, and an electric griddle that was past its prime during the Eisenhower administration? And didn't you manage spectacular results? These are the things Laurie Colwin understands. She recognizes that one might thirst for elegance, but one also does not want to make a fuss. She gives a recipe for a cake that takes "four seconds" to prepare but then she tells you that making a proper chicken sandwich takes several hours. (You have to roast the chicken. You have to bake the right loaf of bread. You have to make your own mayonnaise.) She explains that the seemingly innocent turkey comes pre-stuffed with holiday angst.

Laurie Colwin presents cooking as a way to make people happy or nourish those who are suffering from a delicate condition such as jet lag. She wants food to be delicious but she doesn't want us to slave in the kitchen for it. She also shares her favorite cookbooks and I can't wait to track some of them down. I haven't yet tried any of the recipes in More Home Cooking, but if Laurie Colwin says they are delicious, I will take her word for it. Laurie Colwin is a sort of anti-Martha. She's funny, she's friendly, and if you have to substitute potatoes for parsnips or you omit the raisins because you hate them, well don't worry about it. Reading More Home Cooking is also very sad when you realize that Laurie Colwin died suddenly at the age of 48, shortly before this book was published. Its last line is: "I assure you that if you keep it simple, everything will turn out just fine."

A very different cookbook is Dinner at Home: 52 Quick Meals to Cook for Family and Friends by Martha Stewart. Martha is not very funny and not very friendly. If you think you can get away with substituting brandy for Cointreau, you can think again. Dinner at Home has several nice features. It's beautifully photographed. It's organized by season. It's presented as complete menus, a concept I find irresistible. Every menu comes with a time line, telling you what to prepare first and how to proceed. These are not the sort of meals you prepare for a family every night, but perhaps once a week when you have the day off and have time to really cook. The word "quick" in the title is deceptive. No single dish takes long to prepare, but I know from bitter experience that pulling together an entire menu takes at least an hour and a half and will use every bowl and pan you own.

The first menu I tried was the "Pancetta Cheeseburgers, Balsamic Mushrooms, Tomato, Basil, and White Bean Salad." It was only after I bought all the ingredients and started preparing this meal that I realized I was making tarted up bacon cheeseburgers. Martha's version calls for pancetta and fontina cheese. Please do not ever put pancetta on a hamburger. It is a ridiculous affectation and I can tell you with confidence that a burger topped with pancetta and fontina tastes no better than one topped with ordinary bacon and humble American cheese.

We tried several other menus and everything tasted good. My family enjoyed being served complete meals with side dishes and dessert rather than my usual dinner fare which Seamus labels generically "Casserole Surprise." (Or "Puke in a Pan" if he is feeling grumpy.) A particular hit were the cheese flautas--corn tortillas spread with a cilantro-pumpkin seed pesto, stuffed with grated cheese, rolled and fried. Since this is Martha, you have to buy "pepitas" which I assumed are pumpkin seeds, although she never enlightens you. I chose the tamari roasted pumpkin seeds from Integral Yoga and that pesto really had a zing. Almost every recipe calls for something special that you can't find at a regular supermarket.

I plan to return the book to the library today and last night we finished our spate of Martha meals with "Pasta Shards with Fresh Herbs, Poached Eggs with Brown Butter, Arugula and Avocado Salad, Tiramisu." Poached eggs and pasta, how easy is that? Not so easy, it turns out. By the time dinner was ready, my kitchen looked like I'd been conducting a cooking class for trolls. First the tiramisu, which I decided to make at the last minute, while I was at Target. Does Target carry mascarpone cheese? Does Target carry lady fingers? No and no. Martha says: "The Italian form of ladyfingers (called savoiardi) are only slightly sweet and fairly dry, so they are the best choice for this recipe." What kind of degraded society am I living in where I can't find mascarpone and savoiardi at my local Target? I decided to substitute cream cheese and little sugar cookie sticks, which worked out fine by the way--although I had dirtied a mixer bowl, a loaf pan, a casserole dish and a shallow bowl for dipping the cookies and I hadn't even started the dinner.

I had to make the brown butter which involved cooking some butter until it turned brown. ("What is that, moose saliva?" Brigid asked.) Setting the butter aside, I started a pot boiling for the pasta and another for the poached eggs. Slipping the eggs into the simmering water, I felt like I was making progress now. It became apparent that my kids had never seen poached eggs before. This was shocking to me. When I was growing up, you ate poached eggs on Sunday and that was the way it was. How could I have been so remiss in not passing this tradition on to my children? Anyway, eggs done, (Martha says, "...trim away rough edges with kitchen shears.") I transferred them to two platters lined with paper towels.

There was the problem of the pasta. For this recipe you are supposed to take lasagna noodles and break them into pieces. I only had the "no boil" variety of lasagna, and after consulting my facebook friends, decided that I had better not risk boiling it, so I went with regular ziti instead. In the photograph, the poached eggs look so lovely nestled in the lasagna bits, it killed me to use ziti. Trust Martha to invent a recipe for "pasta shards." Not unlike the shards from her stone cold heart.

Anyway, it was time to pay attention to the salad. The first step was to "combine oil and pine nuts in a medium skillet and cook over medium heat, tossing occasionally until nuts are golden brown..." Oh arse, I'd forgotten to buy the pine nuts. We could just skip the nuts. Moving on, it was now well after 7:00pm and we were starving. I tossed the arugula into a bowl, I shredded a carrot over it. I diced some red onion and threw that in too. My avocado had mysteriously frozen in the vegetable bin. I don't know, my fridge freezes vegetables sometimes. It's very annoying. I tossed the avocado in the trash. It was time to drain the pasta and then drizzle it with oil and hot pepper flakes and snip fresh herbs over it. That done, I put the finishing touch on the salad, which was to use a vegetable peeler and shave bits of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese over it. I was supposed to make the dressing too, which involved the oil from the toasted pine nuts so I substituted something from a bottle.

At last, dinner was ready. All that remained was to gently reheat the poached eggs in the brown butter, only now the fragile eggs were stuck to the paper towels. I loaded each plate with pasta and salad. I coaxed the poached eggs, (not without breaking some yolks) two at a time into the brown butter and swirled them for a minute and scooped them out onto each person's pasta. My kids thought pasta and eggs was a crazy combination, but it turned out to be delicious.

The dish count:
1 mixer bowl + 1 beater + 1 spatula + 1 measuring cup
1 shallow dish, for dipping cookies into espresso, 1 espresso pot
1 loaf pan, which turned out to be the wrong size, forcing me to also use 1 small square casserole dish.
1 skillet for the brown butter
1 pan for the pasta
1 pan for the eggs + 1 slotted spoon + two small platters lined with paper towels (for 8 eggs)
1 large bowl for the salad
1 knife, 1 pair kitchen shears
1 vegetable peeler washed and used three times: to shred chocolate for the tiramisu, to shred the carrot, to shred the cheese for the salad
1 cutting board
assorted serving spoons

All for fucking pasta and eggs and salad.


  1. Yes, I'm no fan of the Martha recipes--I'm more of a taste of home gal, no muss, no mess. But I'm a HUGE fan of your book reviews and as always, thought this one was FUN to read!

  2. One of my biggest hopes in life is that my family never figures out that there are other households in the country enjoying meals that require trips to fancy food stores and eggs trimmed with kitchen shears.

    I think you should write a book about cooking from a cookbook. I would totally buy that.

  3. I really liked this post, Aileen. I've reserved a few Colwin books at the library and can't wait to get my hands on them. Martha Stewart, on the other hand, can lick the light and flakey rustic bread brumbs off the unswept floor beneath my rarely manicured feet. Dog hair, in golden autumnal shades, gratis, of course. (danielle)

  4. I live Laurie Colwin, but not as much as other food writers, I guess some things we just don't connect on as much. Martha is good for general inspiration, but I'd have an apoplexy following a recipe like that. Here is a simple, hearty noodle dish that's amazing:

    Boil a half of a medium pot of water, with a good tbsp of Better Than Boullion. Add spaghettini. The noodles will thicken the pasta water, and chicken broth will add a lovely golden color.

    Add sliced mushrooms, green onions, thinly sliced peppers, whatever, right on top of the pasta. Serve in big bowls, sprinkled with hot sauce and fresh lemon juice. Top with fried or poached egg, and let the yolk run all over the veggies.

    Go to heaven. Takes ten minutes.