Recently, in my ever consuming perusal of food blogs, I came upon this online Cooking/Book Club called, “Cook the Books”. I loved the idea of combining two of my greatest passions, cooking and reading, and without hesitation, I declared myself in. GWH just shook his head at me in exactly the same way that I would shake mine at him if I were crazy enough to be up at three o’clock in the morning when he went fishing.
“Cooking the Books” is hosted by Rachel of the Crispy Cook, Deb of Kahakai Kitchen and Jo of Food Junkie, not Junk Food. The premise of the club is to read the chosen book, to cook something inspired by the book and then to write a review and post your recipe on your blog. The current title is The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister.
I was trying to decide how to review this book without sounding too much like I was gushing. As I was trying to put into words how the book made me feel, my mantra of the moment came to mind – write from the heart, right from the heart – and it certainly seemed to me that Erica Bauermeister has done just that in this first novel.
I love the idea that good food is intricately intertwined with our emotions, that it can be healing and that cooking for someone is an act of love. To me, this book is reminiscent of Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquival, not as fanciful, perhaps, but equally as provocative and charming.
The book is set at a restaurant called Lillian’s that becomes The School of Essential Ingredients every Monday night when the restaurant is closed. The classes are taught by the restaurant’s owner, Lillian. Lillian has the uncanny ability to know just which ingredients are essential to her students although there are no recipes used in her classes.
As I read the book searching for inspiration for that perfect recipe, I changed my mind several times. Each time a new character’s story was introduced to me, I decided that I had found my recipe. There was something about each one that spoke to me; that I could relate to.
The book starts out with Lillian as a little girl. She instinctively learns to cook to fill the void left by a physically absent father and an emotionally absent mother. Abuelita, a woman who befriends Lillian and becomes her cooking mentor, says to her, “Sometimes, nina, our greatest gifts grow from what we are not given.” I love that line for so many different reasons.
Claire is the young mother whose life has melted into that of her husband’s and her children’s so that she, as a singular ingredient, is lost. “She became the frame for the picture that was her son and daughter” In the first cooking class, they cook crab; specifically, they kill and dismember the crab. The author then describes the birth of Claire’s first child and that first moment when she realizes that her life will never be the same again. “She kept thinking the waves would slow or break for a moment, but they didn’t, one after another until there was nowhere left to go but in, to dive down and hope for air on the other side, but there was no air, no way out, just a desperate reaching and grasping until finally she felt something deep inside her – not physical, not emotional, simply her – break into pieces. And into the arms of that cracked apart person that had been Claire, they placed a baby and a love came out of her, through the pieces, that she didn’t even know was possible.” Who would have thought that the description of the crab’s demise could be such a beautiful metaphor for childbirth, but it was.
Crab is my favorite seafood and we have caught our own many times. I didn’t even have to read this chapter to know that I was making crab!
Carl is the solid, steady, family guy. An insurance salesman who has been married to Helen for many years. “Flour is like the guy in the movie who you don’t realize is sexy until the very end…..Butter is so much more alluring. But the thing is, flour is what holds a cake together.” Helen finds the temptation of “beurre” irresistible and, at forty one, has an affair. She comes to realize that the “flour” is her essential ingredient and decides to stay in her marriage. Carl forgives Helen because he just can’t imagine a life without her. Their fortitude is rewarded as they both choose the “white cake” as their dessert in the dinner that is their lives and to all those that watch, their satisfaction of a meal enjoyed is very evident. “A white cake is the opposite of fireworks and fanfare – it’s subtle, the difference in texture between the cake and the frosting as they cross your tongue. It’s a little harder to accomplish…but I have to say, when it works, it is sublime.”
Antonia is a kitchen designer who comes from the old country where everything, including cooking and food, is steeped in tradition and the kitchen is the heart of every home. She finds herself working on a kitchen with a fireplace that reminds her of her grandmother’s kitchen. This brings to surface a longing for home. “Antonia had grown up in a stone house lived in by generations of families whose feet had worn dips into its limestone steps, where the smells of cooking had seeped into the walls like a marinade.” and “Over the course of the day, the heat from the fireplace would stretch across the kitchen toward the warmth of the stove until the room filled with the smells of wood smoke and meat that had simmered for hours. Even as a little girl, Antonia knew that when the two sides of the kitchen met, it was time for dinner.” I love the pictures that these words evoke. When the class makes Pumpkin Ravioli, with hazelnuts and shallots spiced with a little nutmeg, it is like patina on Antonia’s tongue and in this dish, she finds a little taste of home and happiness.
This chapter had me looking for a hearty pasta dish with complicated spices where one bite transported you to an exotic old-world country where even the recipes are ancient. Ah, Tuscany.
Tom’s story is a love story; a tragic, beautiful love story. He falls in love with and marries, Charlie, a vibrant, feisty woman who loves to cook and lives life to the fullest, in and out of the kitchen. After they have enjoyed an amazing, sensuous dinner that she has cooked for them, she says to Tom, “I’ve met guys who see sex like dessert – the prize you get after you eat all the vegetables that make the women happy. I guess I see it a little differently….I think sex should be like dinner. And this is how I like to eat.” Charlie becomes terminally ill with cancer and Tom watches as her life slowly seeps from her body. “Promise me you’ll keep cooking when I’m gone…not just eat, cook.” Fate leads him to Lillian’s and it is only there, at the School of Essential Ingredients that Tom begins to learn to truly appreciate the gift that is Charlie’s legacy. “They’ll eat it, he said, and then it will be gone. That’s what makes it a gift, Lillian replied.”
After this chapter, I was so making a sexy red sauce!
Chloe is a young girl in search of the approval that she has never received from anyone – her mother, her father, her co-workers, or her boyfriend. Lillian gives her a job in the restaurant and allows her to attend the The School of Essential Ingredients. It is there, as she learns to cook, that she begins to feel safe. “On a tortilla, with a bit of crumbled white queso fresco, it was both satisfying and invigorating, full of textures and adventures, like childhood held in your hand.” This safe place allows her to gain the approval of the most important, person of all, herself. “That’s a good tomato – you don’t need to mix it with anything.”
Tortillas, tomatoes, cilantro, peppers… I am always up for a little Mexican food. Would this be the inspiration for my recipe?
An older woman who struggles to hold on to her memories as they become more and more elusive, Isabelle finds kindness and patience in Lillian and in her fellow students. “Isabelle had always thought of her mind as a garden, a magical place to play as a child…Every year the garden grew larger, the paths longer and more complicated. Meadows of memories….She had always considered that one of the luxuries of growing older would be the chance to wander through the garden that had grown when she wasn’t looking. She would sit on the bench and let her mind take every path, tend every moment she hadn’t paid attention to, appreciate the juxtaposition of one memory against another. But now that she was older and had time, she found more often than not she was lost…” Isabelle shows up for cooking class one night only to discover that it is the wrong night. Lillian graciously seats her in the restaurant and proceeds to serve her a wonderful meal as if it was meant just for her. The exquisite food sparks her taste buds and her memories and we are taken on a meandering tour of the paths of Isabelle’s “garden”. Tom joins her for dessert, at Lillian’s prompting, and they each contemplate lost memories. At which point Lillian says to Tom, “I am starting to think that maybe memories are like this dessert. I eat it, and it becomes a part of me, whether I remember it later or not.”
The idea that memories are brought on by familiar tastes and smells had me in search of my own memory triggers to give me inspiration for my recipe. Cinnamon, cabbage, oregano, molasses all evoked a certain nostalgia in me. Hmmm, what would it be?
Ian’s mother gives him a gift certificate to The School of Essential Ingredients as a birthday gift. He remarks to his sister that this is an odd gift coming from a woman who was so preoccupied by her art that she barely had time to cook for them as they were growing up. He soon discovers that she has given him this gift because she recognizes that he could be as passionate about cooking as she is about painting. “When I paint, it brings me joy. I wanted you to have that too.” Ian is smitten with Antonia from the moment that he sees her. Finally he works up the courage to ask her to dinner and for dessert he decides to make her a tiramisu; a dish created in deep contrast to Ian’s analytical, logical mind and in tribute to Antonia’s creative energy. “The texture was warm, creamy and soft, like lips parting beneath his own, taste utterly lacking in precision, luxurious and urgent, mysterious and comforting.”
Tiramisu, anyone? I have made this dish before but this time I would make it better; with a deeper understanding of the complexities.
As I contemplated all the different cooking possibilities that presented themselves throughout the course of this book, I tried to really connect to what my “essential ingredients” were. On this particular evening that I decided to cook for this review, I was making dinner for just my husband and I. I didn’t know what it would be until the last minute. At one point I thought that I would make something that involved a roue paste because I thought it would be symbolic of the fact that I was grateful to have both “flour” and “butter”. The following is the sauce that I made for my husband, GWH.
Red Wine Reduction Sauce
6 sprigs fresh thyme
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup green onion tops, chopped
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp beef bouillon powder
2 tbsp olive oil
1 bottle good red wine
Add thyme, garlic, green onion tops, Dijon mustard, beef bouillon powder and olive oil to a heavy bottomed pot. Slowly add the bottle of wine and simmer, stirring occasionally, for approximately an hour or until sauce begins to thicken. When it has reached its desired consistency, drain the sauce in a small sieve to remove the stems.
I served the sauce over a strip loin steak, alongside skewered baby potatoes, peppers and sweet onions.
“…time will change the taste into something smooth – the difference between polyester and velvet.”
Notes: You always need to bring a little of yourself to the “sauce” so I added a little thyme from my own herb garden which gave it the distinct taste of my individuality. The garlic was a nod to the things that we enjoy together and the green onion tops were a compromise as this is the part of the onion that I often throw out, much to the chagrin of my husband. Without trying them, how would you know if you like them or not? I have discovered that I really do enjoy them. The Dijon mustard adds a little bit of mystery (it’s french, you know!) that helps the sauce to grow into something a little more complex and the bouillon adds a little salt to balance it. The wine is a very integral part of the sauce and I chose to use a precious bottle of our wedding wine. I was counting on the wine to bind the sauce with all the emotions – love, happiness, contentment – that we felt on our wedding day. Lastly, make sure that you “drain” all the unwanted, unnecessary, negative components of the sauce so that you are left with all that is good to make a deep, richly satisfying sauce. So, I know you are wondering, did he like the sauce? Did he appreciate all that went in to it? Yes, the results were amazing! …and the sauce was good too.