Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Whole Recipe

Cooper and I are putting an addition on our house. Right now we're in the early planning stages, but hopefully by the end of the year, we'll have a much bigger, MUCH fancier kitchen, along with a bunch of other cool changes that will make our lives a little nicer.

On Thursday, we had a meeting with the architect who's designing the addition. She's a neighbor (she also works from home) and she specializes in cool open spaces (note: our house will always be significantly more modest than the condo profiled in the linked article. We also don't have any original Picasso or Matisse drawings to showcase. Unfortunately.)

Anyway. In the days leading up to our meeting, the researcher in me initiated a little observational study: I wanted to know how I really use the space in my house. Especially in the kitchen. The night before the architect came over, Cooper and I stood in the kitchen and on the back deck for about two hours, just talking about how we'd like to use our space.

It was during that conversation that I really noticed (and only because Cooper pointed it out): my kitchen counters have evolved into the equivalent of a fairly organized junk drawer.

In my defense, there's nothing on my counters that I don't use on a regular basis (OK, maybe not the KitchenAid mixer. But it's so pretty. And I'd never, ever use it if I had to store it in a cabinet). Most notably, though, there's a big (but cute) bin of vinegars that I call on for salad dressings, an ever-present container of grape tomatoes (again, for the daily salads), and a small stack of cookbooks.

Now, these are the books I use all the time. The ones that include the recipes that I actually have memorized, but I like to look at, just for comfort. Recipes that I make every other week, or every three weeks, at a minimum. The recipes that always make both Cooper and me happy.

So I keep the books in the kitchen. Not that surprising, really, even if it is a testament to my laziness (the rest of my cookbooks are all together on a bookshelf about 10 feet away from the kitchen). But here's what is interesting, and I was a little surprised: none of these books is a bona fide cookbook.

The three books currently stacked on my counter are: The Apprentice (Jacques Pepin's memoir), French Women for All Seasons (Mireille Guiliano's follow-up to her "don't get fat" story) and On Rue Tatin (Susan Hermann Loomis' story of moving to France and renovating an old house in Normandy - a new addition, and one I will review here soon). These are storybooks, not cookbooks. They're about the lives of the authors, with recipes thrown in to flesh out the story. The food doesn't do the heavy lifting in these texts: the memories do.

In part, I wonder if that doesn't say something about the usability of recipes in cookbooks versus book-books. True, Barefoot specializes in simple recipes, but these recipes are really simple, really basic. Pepin's onion soup involves little more than onions, stock and cheese. Guiliano's quiche formulation provides the perfect base for any quichey ingredients. We have either soup or quiche and salad about once a week. They're that easy - and understandably so. They're the recipes that the authors and their families made every day, not something dreamed up in a restaurant or test kitchen.

At the same time, I can't help but feel that my affection for these books has something to do with the nature of the memoir. I am an unabashed fan of the food memoir, so why shouldn't I prefer food that comes with some backstory? After all, it's a head start for creating my own story. With this rationale, these recipes are even more appealing as random-Tuesday-night dishes: the nights when I feel least like cooking are the nights when food embued with meaning can make the most difference.

And quite often, it does. Breaking into the gruyere crust of a bowl of onion soup never fails to make me smile, even after the busiest and most tiring of days.

So the new kitchen design will make allowances for my cookbooks - probably by including some built-in space dedicated to the books. But I can't help but wonder, will my favorites end up on the counter anyway? I kind of hope so.

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