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July 4th, 2009:

The Well-Read Cook’s Book: Still more party food

roasted potatoes with parsley pesto
Roasted red potatoes
The Well-Read Cook’s Book was a gift from my friend Sally a few years ago. I forget just when. I am fairly sure it came in a box with other gifts, and that remembering just when it arrived will not give me much idea of which birthday it was meant to honor; Sally and I have a habit of sending gifts at random to go with whatever the past range of missed birthdays, anniversaries and other major holidays may have been. One of the more recent gifts I sent had to cover at least 18 months of neglect.

I am pretty sure I was living in Lake Oswego when the book came. Definitely still in Oregon.

Anyway, The Well-Read Cook’s Book is hard to categorize. It’s a charmingly illustrated book, and in the preface author Jean Gilbert recounts her influences: childhood in Texas, the regional popularity of Mexican food, local specialties enjoyed in her global travels, and the sheer joy of eating and cooking. The book expresses joie de vivre. I had spent time admiring the recipes but just never got around to using it until now. I thought it would be great for a party.

PotatoesNPestoIn the preface Gilbert spends some time extolling the virtues of garlic, so it is fitting that I was drawn to the recipe for roasted potatoes with parsley pesto. I learned to make pesto a little over 10 years ago during the preparations for a friend’s wedding, and have always used fresh basil as the base, so I was curious to see how parsley would do instead. In fact, for a little while I was tempted to substitute basil for parsley, but I decided that would not be in keeping with the spirit of discovering the recipes as they are provided. And it’s a good thing, because the recipe calls for a full head of garlic, and I think the relative bitterness of the parsley is necessary to balance out its power.

Pesto is incredibly easy to make. You throw a bunch of parsley (minus the big stems) into a food processor with a head of garlic (cloves peeled), 1 cup of freshly grated parmesan, a couple of tablespoons of dried basil, half a cup of pine nuts, about half a teaspoon of salt, and a cup and a half of olive oil. At this point I think the guests would have been happy if I had just poured the mixture into a bowl and handed out spoons, but I kept to the instructions and tossed it with about two pounds of small roasted red potatoes. (Gilbert tells you to prepare the roasting pan with half a cup of olive oil, but that would have been too much; I tossed them with less than half that amount and they were still swimming in it, so use your judgment there.) This would be phenomenal if served while still a little warm; it was a huge hit at room temperature, and kept its flavor wonderfully for the few days thereafter that the leftovers lasted.

Verdict: Success. I will make the pesto again soon, this coming week in fact, to pair with pasta (it would also go nicely with chicken, now that I think about it). I may wait to try the potato version until there’s a fresh crop of red roasting potatoes in the Greenmarket, and I feel like turning on the oven again.

The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook: More party food

roasted eggplant spread, parmesan croutons
Roasted eggplant spread

It was probably not my smartest move to kick off the project by making nine recipes from five cookbooks in two days. But I was hosting a party and thought it would be good to try out a range of appetizers and nibbles, particularly since we don’t have enough room for a sit-down dinner for the number of people I invited.

I was looking for things I could cook ahead and serve without warming up, since our apartment gets RedPeppersvery warm in the summer and I didn’t want to add to it with a freshly heated oven. I had a feeling The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook would have good options; the Long Island shop closed before I moved to this part of the country but the book’s pictures suggest food you could bring home in cartons, turn into a pretty china dish, and offer to your weekend houseguests with wine and cheese. The eggplant spread looked like it would be as delicious at room temperature as it was when warm.

The recipe was very easy to prepare. You peel and dice an eggplant, dice red bell pepper and red onion, and mince some garlic. peeling eggplant to roastToss these with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes. When the chunks have cooled a bit, throw them into a food processor with a bit of tomato paste and pulse them until the consistency looks right: well blended but with some chunks.

I wanted to offer something interesting for dipping into the spread, and thought the parmesan croutons would fit the bill. Since they’re not cubes but individual slices of baguette, I took to calling them toasts instead of croutons, not that it really matters. Preparing these was easy too: slice a baguette diagonally into inch-thick slices, brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, top with freshly grated parmesan, and toast in a 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes. EggplantMixtureI think next time I make them I’ll slice the bread a bit thinner, which will mean a shorter cooking time; an inch-thick slice of bread is a bit hefty to bite into even if you haven’t dipped it into eggplant spread or hummus.

Both the eggplant spread and the toasts tasted great. The guests polished off about half the eggplant spread during the evening. More of the toast was left; people were pairing the dips with plain untoasted baguette and veggies as well. I wasn’t terribly surprised that the spread went over well; I’ve cooked from this book before and enjoyed everything I’ve tried. Ina Garten’s recipes focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients, with just enough preparation to build flavor and texture without overcomplicating matters.EggplantMixtRoasted

Verdict: Success. Both recipes were easy and delicious.I may hold off on making them again until the fall, though, since I try to avoid using the oven during the hottest months. But I will make them again, and want to try other unfamiliar recipes from the book as well.ParmesanToasts