clutching cookbooks

finding friendship in recipes with Nikaela

The adage “we read to know we’re not alone” is not generally understood to be about reading cookbooks.  It references that particular transporting magic of literature, whereby we “meet” other minds through the power of language and imagination.  It refers to fictional characters that teach us about ourselves and authors who we can only know through the words they wrote a hundred years ago.  It may even reference finding God in sacred texts.  But almost certainly it does not bring to mind finding friendship in recipes.

Over the past five years I have read cookbooks, and certain ones in particular, as if my life depended on it.  Home with a new baby, little direction and little experience in the kitchen I turned to cookbooks written by a famous stranger to meet a need for excitement, pleasure, productivity and companionship.

I found the book “Plenty More” under my pillow shortly after my second son was born, a gift from my husband who was working long hours as a junior lawyer.  I remember so clearly opening that book in bed with a baby asleep beside me, feeling as if its pages would save me.  I would wake up the next day and cook.  I would learn to make mayonnaise and strain yogurt, I would find rose water at the Middle Eastern market, I would add cupsful rather than tablespoons of fresh herbs to things.  I would preserve lemons and pickle beets and rice would come out of the oven dotted with curry leaves. My imagination was captured.  Yotam Ottolenghi’s sense of abundance and variety had captured it.  Our small and scrappy kitchen would come vibrantly to life.  Our life would be a feast.

These years later, the book is stained and worn and I have written notes on most of its pages.  It sits on the shelf between my other Ottolenghi books.  I don’t have to open it to make my favorite recipes but I do anyway, for the comforting sight of it there, open on the counter.  I like being with it.  Friends have gathered around our dining room table moaning over wine braised shallots, my husband rolls his eyes at another mung bean salad and my children can distinguish cumin from cardamom.  It is fair to say that that book changed our home.

In his “short note about ingredients” in the introduction, Ottolenghi writes that “unless otherwise specified […] pepper is freshly ground, eggs are large, parsley is flat-leaf and olive oil is extra virgin.” It reads like a mantra.  Here is my own: Unless otherwise specified, you’ll find me in the kitchen, drinking beer and cooking with my pal Yotam.  I did not expect to emerge from these years of being at home with my young children clutching cookbooks to my heart, but I have.

Thank you Nikaela Marie for your lovely words and such a special recipe