My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life is a wonderful cookbook-cum-memoir by Ruth Reichl (it's pronounced RYE-shul, in case you've ever wondered - I looked it up :) Fans of Gourmet magazine will recall with sadness when parent company, Condé Nast abruptly pulled the plug on the magazine back in 2009. But our shock and dismay are but a pale shadow of what Reichl, who had happily reigned as Editor in Chief for a decade, felt when she was unceremoniously told to clean out her desk.
What followed was a difficult year in which she wrestled with feelings of shock, grief, failure, guilt and confusion. “I did what I always do when I’m confused, lonely, or frightened,” she says, “I disappeared into the kitchen.”
The result, My Kitchen Year is the silver lining of her soul searching - a treasure trove of bright, comforting, homey, and elegant foods that kept the darkness at bay when it threatened to engulf her.
I devoured the book in two days, finding myself marking almost every recipe for future reference. At a certain point, I stopped inserting post-it-notes and committed to the wiser course of simply keeping the book open on my cookbook stand and flipping through it regularly. From shirred eggs to grilled cheese with shallots to congee to spicy Tuscan kale to potatoes au gratin to food cart curry chicken to linzer torte to chocolate cake, each recipe whet my appetite for more.
I've been a fan of Reichl's writing ever since I first read her memoir, "Tender at the Bone" back when we lived a few blocks' walk from both Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard in North Berkeley, shortly before our older son was born. It's all a bit hazy, to be honest (my mother-in-law calls the first decade or so of parenthood, "The Lost Years," which strikes me as wonderfully apt) but I do remember feeling that I'd found a kindred spirit in Reichl's honesty, compassion and deep love of food.
"My Kitchen Year" is a pleasure on every level – the short, descriptive vignettes (taken from her Twitter feed), the casual, evocative photographs by Mikkel Vang, the poetic and insightful prose and, of course, the recipes. The book also gets extra points for being written and photographed here in my beloved and beautiful Hudson Valley :)
Early in the book, Reichl includes a "Note on the Recipes" that lists the foods that she considers staples – things like capers, mayonnaise, soy sauce and many more. She then breaks the ingredients for each recipe out into "staples" versus the things you'll likely need to make a trip to the store for which she puts under "shopping list". Although I found this distinction a little distracting at first, it grew on me as I went along. Here's one of the (many) recipes I earmarked. It's one of the most humble recipes in the book but Reichl's preparation manages to elevate a simple grilled cheese sandwich into something both decadent and sophisticated that doubles as a hearty homage to the allium family.
The Diva Of Grilled Cheese
From "My Kitchen Year" By Ruth Reichl
Makes 1 sandwich
1/4 lb cheddar cheese
2 slices sturdy sourdough bread
1 onion (any color)
1 clove garlic (minced)
1. Gather a group of shallots, leeks, scallions and an onion – as many members of the allium family as you have on hand – and chop them into a small heap. Add a minced clove of garlic. Grate a few generous handfuls of the best cheddar you can afford. (Montgomery is particularly appealing), set a little aside, and gently combine the rest with the onion mixture.
2. Butter one side of thickly sliced bread and heap as much of the mixture as possible between the slices. Spread a thin layer of mayonnaise on the outside of the bread (this will keep it from scorching on the griddle). Press the reserved grated cheese to the outside of the bread, where it will create a wonderfully crisp and shaggy crust, giving your sandwich an entirely new dimension.
3. Fry on a heated griddle or in a skillet about 4 minutes a side, until the cheese is softly melted.
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