There’s Joy in Cooking—Even in 2016
New books make sharing food a cause for celebration, not stress
I don’t get many dinner party invitations, but I’ve learned not to take it personally.
“Cooking for people stresses me out,” many friends explain. They are not alone.
Americans, on average, don’t cook much anymore. As Michael Pollan describes in his most recent book, Cooked, we now spend half as much time preparing meals as we did in the mid-1960s: less than 30 minutes per day. And while we have less experience in the kitchen, we idolize chefs, watch people cook on TV and Instagram our pizza. Is it any wonder that cooking for guests feels about as relaxing as hosting Julia Child for supper?
But sharing a meal needn’t require elaborate preparation, let alone professional culinary training. Eating together should be about pleasure, not perfection.
Two new cookbooks bring home this message in different ways.
Leela Cyd’s Food with Friends: The Art of Simple Gatherings makes the case that food can be a delight to the senses and also be simple, casual and fun to prepare.
As Cyd puts it, she has set out to “refine the art of hanging out” by making treats that are decadent and beautiful but never formal. Her gorgeous Think Pink Faloodas, for example—sunset-colored sherbet and fruit layered with tapioca and rice noodles—are pure whimsy: Martha Stewart meets Dr. Seuss.
Cyd is a professional food photographer and stager (clients include Food & Wine, Kinfolk and the New York Times) and her cookbook is about as pretty as they come. This is the kind of book that you could buy just for the photos. But her recipes are more than eye candy. Each that I tested was a winner, and some, like her super simple but addictive Sweet and Salty Pumpkin Seed Clusters, were so good they will be on indefinite rotation at Chez Parson.
Food with Friends is all about making gatherings sparkle without the stress— whether those gatherings are an impromptu picnic, a dinner party or a treat with the kids.
To celebrate the birthday of my daughter’s friend, for example, we made Cyd’s Rhubarb Rose Floats. The girls, second graders, scooped the ice cream into the homemade rhubarb syrup. Then they topped each float with sparkling water and freshly whipped cream. (We skipped the candied rose petals because we didn’t have any, though they would be a lovely addition.) We could have made something more complicated—chocolate cupcakes are my default when it comes to birthdays—but the rhubarb floats were perfect: a joyful indulgence, memorable and easy enough for my sous chefs to help make, which was half the fun. Click here to see Cyd's Sugar Cookies with Edible Flowers recipe.
Anna Thomas’s Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table aims to diminish another source of cooking stress: accommodating special diets. The brilliance of Thomas’s book is her advice to plan meals around a central item that everyone can enjoy—like her vegan Poblano Chiles Stuffed with Quinoa and Corn—then add in less universally enjoyed items like goat cheese or pork, as “extras” or sides for some eaters. (Thomas’s focus is on vegan and vegetarian diets, but her approach works beautifully for cooks who need to accommodate gluten avoidance or food allergies.)
Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore is sure to be a lifesaver for hosts of family meals, especially around the holidays. Thomas includes a variety of menus for special occasions like Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.
But there’s no Tofurky here. Thomas’s emphasis throughout is on wholesome, fresh food with global influences of the sort that will be familiar to readers of American food magazines: curried roasted cauliflower, charred zucchini with lemon and mint, white gazpacho with cucumbers and grapes (see recipe here).
It will be no surprise to her legion of fans that Thomas’s new cookbook brings vegan and vegetarian diners in from the margins. Thomas is the author of the classic The Vegetarian Epicure (Knopf, 1972) and of Love Soup (W.W. Norton, 2009), a James Beard Award–winning compendium of vegetarian soup recipes. (Food trivia: Thomas is also an accomplished screenwriter, filmmaker and teacher of film studies. Credits include the Oscar-nominated El Norte and Frida, both directed by her husband, Gregory Nava.)
Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore puts the focus on how food can bring us together despite our dietary differences. Anyone who has struggled to prepare a meal that makes everyone feel welcome will appreciate this timely and useful book.
Dinner party, anyone?