“Stand facing the stove.”
That was the first instruction Irma Rombauer gave to home cooks in the original “Joy of Cooking” in 1931, and I often find myself repeating it like a silent mantra when I begin to cook.
Rombauer understood that success in the kitchen does not depend on fancy appliances and tools or specialized culinary training, but rather on basic skills and techniques observed from a young age at the elbow of a passionate cook.
If you didn’t have that experience growing up, the next best thing is to line a couple of kitchen shelves with books that pass on the warmth and wisdom of the grande dames (and a few great gents) of American home cooking.
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The cookbooks that have earned classic status, in terms of awards and number of reprintings, go far beyond the ingredient lists, bare-bones directions and glossy photographs that largely define the genre today.
A great cookbook is rich in context and insight into ingredients and techniques. It never gives a “how” without a “why.” It guides you on a journey, step by step. It has a voice that pulls you in and makes you care about the little details that make all the difference.
“Stand facing the stove.”
Because if you don’t — if you stand sideways to the stove because you are dealing with a pet, a child, a phone — things will end badly.
Besides the luxuriant long descriptions that precede each section (“About cooking fish,” “About cake fillings”), there are chapters called “Know your Ingredients” and “Cooking Methods and Techniques” that are worth the price of the book alone.
“Joy of Cooking” also gives pages and pages of suggested menus for every type of meal or occasion from a picnic to an afternoon tea to formal dinner parties to a wedding buffet, more than 50 in all. I would like to try every one of them.
Also very handy for busy families are 43 recipes for main dishes that freeze well.
Rombauer’s infectious personality shines in the long chapter on entertaining. Here she is talking about cocktail parties: “The cocktail party is an estimable but endangered social institution. Its demise may be blamed on factors as various as the regrettable decline of the art of conversation and flirtation and the growing acceptance that dinner by itself is sufficient diversion for an evening. We steadfastly defend the cocktail party, however, as an American invention and an uncomplicated and extremely pleasant means of entertaining.”
The great thing about “Joy” is, its joy extends to all food experiences, not just showing off for guests. On the topic of family meals, Rombauer writes, “Never forget that your family is really the most important assembly you ever entertain.”
“Joy of Cooking” is one of the few general purpose cookbooks that devotes nearly as many pages to baking as cooking. Rombauer adored baking, and American women for generations have made her brownies, toffee bars and, my personal favorite, Mexican wedding cakes.
Among the savory dishes in “Joy,” one of my favorites for winter is the beef stew. It is a preparation every home cook should know, and after you follow the detailed instructions a couple of times, you’ll be able to do it without looking at the recipe.
There are two keys to a superior stew, the book points out. One, use good beef such as a chuck roast and cut it up yourself. Packaged cubes labeled “stew meat” could be anything.
Two, be patient and take the time to sear the meat really well in small batches. If you throw all the meat in the pan at once, it cools the oil down too much and makes it impossible to brown the meat evenly. But if you take the time to get each piece dark brown all the way around, you’ll be rewarded with rich, deep flavor in the end.
So get out your tongs, and stand facing the stove.
Note: My copy of “Joy of Cooking” is the 75th anniversary edition published in 2004. I strongly recommend buying hardbound cookbooks rather than paperback copies, which are harder to keep open to a given page and do not last as long. A new 2006 hardcover is listed for $22 on Amazon.com, but there are used copies, too.
Beef Stew, adapted from “Joy of Cooking”
2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons bacon fat
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 small rib celery, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 bay leaves
2-3 cups chicken stock, red wine or beer
2 carrots, cut into chunks
3 potatoes, cut into chunks
2 parsnips, cut into chunks, optional
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/2 tablespoon flour
Chopped parsley for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Season the beef cubes with 1/2 teaspoon each of the thyme, salt and pepper; place in a paper bag with flour, shake to coat.
Heat the bacon fat in a Dutch oven over medium high heat.
Add the meat in two or three batches so that none of the pieces are touching. Use tongs to turn the meat so each cube is browned on all sides. Remove the cooked meat and place in a bowl.
Add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic to the pot, reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring often, until the onions are soft but not browned. Add the bay leaves and then remaining 1/2 teaspoon each of the thyme, salt and pepper. Add enough stock, wine or beer to cover the meat at least halfway.
Place in the oven and cook 1 hour. Remove the pot, add the chunks of carrots, potatoes and parsnips (optional). Return to oven and cook 1 more hour. Add additional salt and pepper to taste if needed. Thicken the sauce by rubbing 1/2 tablespoon butter and 1/2 tablespoon flour together into a paste and dropping it in small balls into the hot stew and stirring.
Garnish with chopped parsley.