What Makes a Good Cookbook?

Favorite Cookbooks

I have dozens of cookbooks, but these are my favorites.

I love cookbooks, don’t you?

But unlike most people, I love cookbooks for the stories. I don’t like cookbooks that are restricted to just recipes. I can collect all the recipes I want off the internet. But unless you’re plugged into the blogosphere, its hard to find great cook stories.  I love reading how the beautifully photographed food was inspired or how the writer’s grandmother taught them to make the recipe. Hopefully, there will even be a photo of said grandmother with her hands in a dough bowl smiling up at me.

Give me a cookbook that tells me something about the writer’s cooking experiences or their culture and I’ll read it for hours. A cookbook that is simply recipes can’t hold my attention more than a few minutes. Because the truth is – I won’t actually follow any of the recipes. I’ll look at the ingredients list. Sometimes I’ll read the directions. But mostly, I’ll look at the photos and sidebar items. When I read recipes, I’m constantly making mental adjustments.

Do I have all the ingredients? Probably not. What can I change? What can I add?

I can’t help it. Because I’m dyslexic, the directions just get jumbled up in my head. So photos are important. I like a cookbook with lots of photos of the finished product. Besides, what recipe can’t be improved with a little creativity? Granted, I’ve had some incredible failures. Thankfully, my husband has finally stopped asking me to simply try the recipe once before I attempt to improve it. I guess he’s learned that in order to do that, he’s going to have to read it to me — one step at a time.

Years ago, as a new bride, I happily collected cookbooks for the sake of collecting cookbooks. I felt it a necessary, grown-up activity.  After a couple of years, I realized that all I had was a shelf full of cookbooks that didn’t inspire me to cook a thing and they constantly needed dusting. Rather than using my newly collected cookbooks, I continued to drift back to the ones that I had used since I was a child. Finally, years ago, I took stacks of unused cookbooks to a thrift store. Hopefully, someone else is enjoying them.

Countryside Recipes

Published before I was born, this little treasure is the most important cookbook that I own.

One of my favorite cookbook connects me back to the place where I grew up. Published in 1961, Countryside Recipes was sponsored by the Women’s Society of Christian Service and the Young Adult Group of Providence Rural United Methodist Church. It is filled with recipes from family members and beloved members of the church where I grew up. There have been more recent editions of the cookbook, but that 1961 version is golden. There wasn’t a holiday that went by without numerous recipes made from it. While it doesn’t contain stories or photos it contains something much more important: memories. All I have to do is open my dog-eared, stained, and fragile bound copy and I’m swept back in time to revival potlucks or Young Adult Group dinners. As I read the recipes, the faces of the women who wrote them dance across my mind. These are/were the women who were my mother and grandmother’s closets friends. These are/were the women who helped to shape who I became. These are/were the women who will always be a part of me. My husband knows that if anything ever happens to the house, he should grab the Prov Rural cookbook first as it’s irreplaceable.

A few years ago, I began listening to the Splendid Table. My local National Public Radio station, WKMS, featured the series during lunch (very appropriate timing). Each week, I’d head off in my car at lunchtime and find a cozy corner of a local park or cemetery and listen to host Lynne Rossetto-Kasper interview great chefs. Yep, what drew me in were the stories they told. The show often inspired me to try something new. Then I bought one of the series’ cookbooks. I couldn’t wait to crack it open, but I waited until a rainy afternoon. I settled into my favorite chair with a cup of tea. As anticipated, it was the perfect cookbook for me.  It was filled with stories and recipes. I could hear Lynne saying the words, with her unique cantor and rustic accent. It was like she was speaking directly to me. Always excited to share interesting cookbook stories, I began reading them aloud to my Beloved who shares my love of the Splendid Table. If he walked out of the room, I got up and followed him, continuing to reading aloud. I followed him all around the house, reading in my start/stop/unjumble/restart fashion. Finally, he asked me to stop reading to him, saying that he’d much prefer to read the stories himself. Then he subtly suggested that I find something that we could cook together for dinner. I settled back down in my chair and didn’t move for hours until I ordered all her cookbooks off Amazon. I don’t know who actually made dinner that night, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me.

Breadman

My husband is an awesome cook.

As readers of this blog and followers of our Facebook page know, the real cook in our family is my husband Vince. Each and every day, he’s in our kitchen making dinner. I try to help, but usually, by the time I get home, most of the work is done. All he really needs is someone to clean up his mess. On the weekends when I’m not elbow-deep in produce to preserve, I take over the kitchen and try out new recipes I’ve discovered. Or he’ll gladly attempt anything that I think we should try.

Several of my favorite food bloggers are now beginning to publish cookbooks. And they are awesome! Unexpected new-found food celebrities, these writers are changing how America discovers food trends — without the Food Network. They are real people who love to cook and experiment. I love making food from these cookbooks, then Twitting or Instagramming my efforts, tagging these bloggers. Best part? They respond with likes or comments. Its pretty cool, and I rather doubt that would happen with the megastars of Food Network. When they respond, it makes me feel connected to a foodie community who believes, as I do, that the best food comes from the earth and is made from scratch.

In many ways, this blog is my favorite cookbook. It’s a place where I park my favorites recipes and memories. I’ve filled it with stories about cooks, tossed in a few photos, and I always try to include a recipe. I hope in some small way that you’re enjoying this blog in the same fashion — like a favorite cookbook accept it’s always free.

The recipe below was one that my maternal grandmother contributed to the 1961 Edition of Countryside Recipes. I just have to laugh at the directions–as there are none. She wasn’t one to waste any effort explaining common sense and this recipe demonstrates her at her best. Back then, women knew to pour the mixture into a uncooked pie shell and cook it for 30 minutes at 400 degrees. Nowadays, we have to look it up. It’s a great pie that simple enough for anymore to make.

Egg Custard Pie

My grandmother’s Egg Custard Pie. Simple, easy, and incredibly delicious.

Egg Custard Pie
Mrs. Carroll Gentry
Countryside Recipes Cookbook

1 egg
3/4 c sugar
1 c milk
1 T flour
1 T butter
1/2 t nutmeg

Beat egg, add sugar, butter, flour, nutmeg, and milk. Bake 300-350 degree oven.

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The Endless Days of Summer

This has been the perfect summer.

After last year’s drought, I had decided that the perfect summers of my childhood were over, forever lost to global warming. I still believe that mankind has done more damage to this Earth than it can handle. But this post isn’t about polar bears or melting icecaps.

As I said, this has been the perfect summer. There have been plenty of sunshiny days. I have longed to take one of my great-grandmother’s quilts outside and just lay in the sun watching the big fluffy clouds slowly make their way across the sky. The rain, which was plentiful during early May and June, has dissipated into temporary downpours. The temperatures have been manageable; it’s supposed to be hot in July, just not hell-on-Earth hot.

We’ve reached the endless days of summer where my teacher friends and family have stopped posting on Facebook about their glorious and well-deserved summer breaks and are now trying to spend every last sunshiny day off on adventures with their own children before they head back into their classrooms.

Handfull of Blackberries

Four cups of whole blackberries are enough for our favorite blackberry crumble.

We’ve reached the endless days of summer where I’ve stopped using measuring cups. By now, I’ve learned that my hands can easily hold two cups of berries. Four big handfuls is the perfect amount for preserves. Or two big handfuls are enough for a cobbler. I used to be amazed that my grandmother never used a measuring cup. She instinctively knew how much there was by how it felt in her hands or looked in her mixing bowl. Pinch, dash, teaspoon, quarter-cup, half-cup, or cup, it didn’t matter. She didn’t measure any of it using the tools that Julia Child did. I often quizzed her about it. She couldn’t convince her youngest grandchild that measuring devices weren’t necessary, that when used meant that she had more things to wash. Or rather, I had more things to wash, as she didn’t have a dishwasher. After making preserves for two months now, I completely understand her. Don’t use what isn’t necessary.

We’ve reached the endless days of summer when children have slowed down. Kids who ride their bikes around our neighborhood are making their way lazily down the street, zig-zagging their way to a friend’s house or slowly creeping back home in the twilight. The eagerness they demonstrated in May has disappeared as if they know that soon they’ll be dragged into stores for new sneakers and new notebooks, that their sun-streaked blonde locks will soon be snipped into classic haircuts ready for back-to-school photos.

Endless Days

Life is good when its balanced.

We’ve reached the endless days of summer where everyone, including me, has a tan. I’ve never been a sunworshipper. My fair skin and the sun have always battled one another. But this year, we’ve spent lots of time on our boat, swimming around Blood River. We bought the boat last summer, in the height of Tomatopalooza, my annual tomato-canning festival. Much to the disappointment of my Beloved, we didn’t get to spend much time on the boat. I couldn’t balance canning, blogging, gardening, cleaning, and mowing with boating. This year, I think I’ve done a better job balancing life, and we’ve all been rewarded for it. There are lots of things I ought to be doing, but the time we’ve spent out there has been been better for us than any canned vegetable or gardening achievement. So instead of laying on one of my great-grandmother’s quilts watching the fluffy clouds slowly float by, I’ve watched them from the water, swimming around in a ski jacket.

We’ve reached the endless days of summer where every meal is coming from somebody’s garden or the farmer’s market. Even the offspring, who declared war on “leaves” and vegetables earlier in the spring, had no complaints when breakfast was a BLT on a biscuit. Matter of fact, he ate four biscuits packed in “leaves” and tomatoes with the tiniest sliver of thick-cut bacon. I only cooked four pieces of bacon, but when it was cut into thirds, it appeared that it was a lot more than it actually was – and I wasn’t surprised when there were two tiny pieces of bacon leftover. I knew that we all had packed our biscuits full of lettuce and tomatoes.

Girlfriends

Aren’t we fashionistas with our hats?

We’ve reached the endless days of summer where I don’t care if my preserves are “fair-worthy.” The cabinets are full of potential blue-ribbon winners. The time has come when I’ll shift from making fruit preserves to Tomatopalooza or PickleMania. As I write this post, there is a half-bushel of cucumbers ready to be processed into dill pickles. My last batch of blackberry preserves is on the stove bubbling away. Yesterday, I took two of my dear friends out to the blackberry u-pick. We had a blast. Unlike other trips to the patch, where I slipped into my own thoughts as I picked fruit either on my own or with a crew, yesterday, amongst the bursts of laughter and the secrets shared between girlfriends, we managed to pick just enough berries for preserves and pies.

Blood River

Who needs Kentucky Lake when the Blood River is so beautiful?

We’ve reached the point where the sun seems like it will shine forever. And the fluffy clouds will always drift across the sky. Until the wind shifts and the mercury in my thermostat refuses to rise, I’ll hold close these endless days of summer as long as I can.

When the Blackberries Ripen

Cheyenne's robin eggs

Photo: Cheyenne Medlock
Our niece Cheyenne found a robin’s nest while blackberry picking. To me its a perfect summer photo.

I love measuring the summer by what’s in season.

To me, fruit tells the story of summer. Strawberries introduce us to warm days, followed by blueberries at summer solstice. When the blackberries ripen, summer is at its peak with its long days and heat. Followed by the dripping sweetness of peaches and watermelons until crisp days when the apples begin to fall.

When I was a child I hated picking blackberries. The weeds, the heat, and the total discomfort of chiggers bites meant that I was completely miserable. Being the youngest of the bunch, I loudly proclaimed my discomfort and annoyed everyone. The louder I complained, the more angelic my siblings became. Finally, my mother stopped taking me along on their adventures. I thought I had won the lottery when she made declared me an unfit laborer.

I gladly marched across the road to be babysat by my grandparents or my great aunt and uncle who shook their heads at my rude behavior. I am sure my mother instructed them to keep the good times at a minimum while she and my siblings were off picking blackberries–hoping that I’d realize I was missing out on the fun. But I was strong-willed and determined not to ever pick another blackberry again. So when it was announced there were green beans to snap, weeds to pull, or a basement that needed cleaning out, I would take on whatever challenge they presented like it was the best thing ever.

Thus began my dislike of blackberries. Until I was 40 years old, my inner child declared them – yucky and gross. I avoided them like the plague. Then, a few of summers ago one of the vendors at the farmers market had organic blackberries for sale. I bought a quart thinking I’d surprise my poor, blackberry-deprived husband with his favorite cobbler. You would have thought that I had given him the moon – he was a happy fellow. So happy in fact, that I broke down and tried a bite. I was completely unprepared for the delicious nectar. My taste buds went wild and my Beloved had to pry the cobbler from my hands before I ate the rest of his favorite dessert. Over the next few days, I filled our freezer with blackberries from the farmers market so that I could make a cobbler whenever we wanted.

When I started making preserves, it was the blackberries that I found to be the easiest and the most delicious. The night I made my first perfect batch of preserves, Vince was sound asleep in bed. Sometime after midnight, I woke him up with a spoon in my hand demanding he eat. Bless his heart, I think I scared him with my insistence because he wasn’t exactly sure he wanted to eat whatever I was cramming down his throat. But then, he woke up enough to taste what was on the spoon. He sat straight up and declared my preserves the best he had ever eaten. A perfect recipe was born.

My blackberry preserves are simple – which is why I think they are so good. Its literally 8 cups of fruit to 4 cups of sugar. But not just any fruit or any sugar. I still insist on purchasing those organic blackberries I first found at the farmers market and I use organic sugar. The combination is glorious. And unlike fickle strawberries, blackberries have plenty of pectin. So all you have to do is simply cook them down enough until they set.

Last year, I completely missed the blackberries. I was obsessed with Tomatopalooza when the berries arrived at market. Then the next week, they were gone. When I realized that I had missed the blackberries, my heart was broken as there weren’t any berries in the freezer and only three or four jars of preserves in the pantry. My brother loves my preserves, as does Vince’s Uncle Gene. I love giving them jars of preserves whenever we see them. Obviously, their wives can buy blackberry preserves from the grocery, but its not the same.

Determined not to miss blackberry season again, I’ve been watching the roadsides for wild berries. I’ve discovered that my grandmother’s blackberry bush still produces, so I’ve been texting my brother for ripeness updates. I told Vince that if we missed the berries again this year, I was heading back to the fields and ditches where my mother took us to see if they were still there. Living in Murray, we’re about a week or two ahead of the growing season than that of my beloved Brown Road, where I grew up. Then a few days ago, we saw a sign for a You-Pick Blackberry Patch. We weren’t able to stop, so I declared that we’d go back while we were both off for Independance Day.

For the three days I was giddy with the thoughts of going blackberry picking.

The horrid memories of blackberry picking now forgotten, I focused only on the good memories. The memories of my mother in her summer dresses leading the three of us off for an adventure. Feeling the warmth of her hand in mine as she talked about the secret places she had always gone to find blackberries. In my mind, the now paved roads were once again dirt and gravel. The creeks we crossed were wide and clear. My heart and head were full of her memories.

With our niece Cheyenne home for the holiday and our sweet neighbor Peggy joining us for the adventure, we headed off to look for blackberries. Peggy told us of another you-pick that she visited every year. We headed there first but unfortunately struck out, as their patch was ending their season. All remaining berries had been pre-purchased. So, we headed to where we had seen the sign just days before.

As we drove up the grass path from the highway, we were amazed by the farm. Rows upon rows of blackberries were planted, some of the rows had been there for years. Some were newly planted. A sign was posted on the rusted tin barn barn – “organic farm, do not spray.” We had found the farm where the berries I had once bought at the farmers market where now available as a you-pick farm. We grabbed our buckets and each wandered off to find a row to ourselves.

group photo

Together we picked nearly 18 pounds of blackberries.

Most of the berries weren’t ready yet, but if you looked closely you could find berries perfect for picking. With the morning sun shining on my back and the birds singing, I quickly got to work. With each berry I picked, the world easily slipped away. At one point, I stood and watched each of my fellow pickers advance across their rows. Each deep in their own thoughts and memories. My heart exploded with love for them: the neighbor we adore. The precious niece that has filled my heart with pride and joy. And my dear Beloved who attracts swarms of bugs and chiggers by simply going outdoors – were there because I didn’t want to miss blackberry season.

While we were there, a young mother and her two daughters arrived. As they approached the rows, the mother softly told the girls that they only wanted to pick the berries that were black. Don’t pick the red ones as they aren’t ready yet. Her voice echoing the instructions my mother often gave me decades ago. Their voices carried across the field mingling with the voices of my mother and siblings. Not long into their efforts, the youngest began to complain. None of the berries she could reach were black, her shoes were wet, and a bug had landed on her leg. Her distress refused to be comforted. I understood her and smiled. Sooner than they wanted, they ended picking, and  left the field.

This summer has gone by so quickly. Now that blackberries are beginning to ripen, its as if Mother Nature is saying enjoy these remaining summer days. Because soon they’ll be gone.

My Very Non-Scientific Berry Preserves
You can use blackberries, raspberries, or blueberries with this recipe.

8 cups of blackberries
4 cups or 1 box Sugar in the Raw

In a large saucepan, combine berries and sugar over medium heat. Stir until sugar melts. Bring up heat to achieve a hard boil stirring frequently until mixture thickens to a splatty boil. Check for gel stage by dipping a spoon into the mixture. If the mixture drips off the back of the spoon, continue cooking. If the mixture slips or falls off the back of the spoon – then its done.

Ladle mixture into clean jars, leaving a 1/4 headspace at the top. Remove any air bubbles by stirring the mixture around with a knife or chopstick. Clean the top of the jar put on lid and twist ring until finger tight. Place jars into boiling hot-water bath canner, making sure jars are covered in water. Put on canner lid. Boil for 10 minutes, then turn off heat. Wait 5 minutes, remove lid, wait another 5 minutes, then remove jars from canner, letting cool on counter overnight.