Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The best cookbooks are (practically) free

Despite its mostly well-deserved reputation as a seat of snobbery and high-end retail chains, Georgetown offers a few delightful surprises for the Economical Epicurean--that is, on the rare occasion she can escape her overworked thesaurus and wretched iBook long enough to take a leisurely lunch break. One such surprise is Baked & Wired, her latest frenemy, who once forced her to order not one but four cookies and eat them all in the same brief sitting. Thanks, Baked & Wired, for introducing four new cookie varieties that the Economical Epicurean just HAD to try immediately. Including a small coffee, the check came to about $10. Economical, indeed.

By the way, though I disdain the cupcake fad of late, I would like to add that Baked & Wired beats the frou-frou Georgetown Cupcake at its own game -- and never has that inexplicable line out the door.

ANYWAY, this post is supposed to be about cookbooks, not cupcakes, which brings me to my next great Georgetown discovery, Bartleby Books, on 29th Street near the Canal. What drew me in was a used copy of Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book in the display window. Inside, the store is musty and cramped, full of first editions and other rare treats. Behind the cash register hangs a collection of old maps, including a small 1650 rendering of North America, with California an island hovering to the left of the continent. At $1,300, it is something the Economical Epicurean can only dream of hanging in her house. Alas, used cookbooks are a much more practical pursuit! In addition to the rather ironically titled but nonetheless very helpful How to Cook Without a Book (great for amateur cooks like me who are still shaky with certain techniques), I came across a mint condition copy of Deborah Madison's famous Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. With its hardcover, 700+ pages, and beautiful photography, this book retails at $40, but Bartleby was peddling it for $10. I snatched it up real fast.

The lone employee at Bartleby explained that some serious epicurean had just donated his or her entire cookbook collection. In the pile where I spotted Vegetarian Cooking, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables and Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia also beckoned to me, though on this rare occasion the Economical triumphed over the Epicurean.

Probably half the cookbooks in my own collection came from used bookstores or book sales. I'm not sure how people can bear to give these up, but thanks to their poor judgment I've acquired dirt-cheap copies of The Silver Palate, The Silver Palate Good Times, a New York Times cookbook from the Craig Claiborne years, Barbara Kafka's Food for Friends, Marian Burros's Cooking for Comfort, and Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, as well as a few other less notable titles.

One of my favorite finds has been Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans Volume II: Our Cultural Heritage, compiled in 1981 by staff and parents of the city's Ursuline Academy and dedicated to the nuns who ran it. I bought it for 50 cents at a Friends of the Library book sale in Rockville a few years ago. Spiral bound and slightly stained, it is classified not by course but, somewhat archaically, by cuisines special to each major ethnic group of New Orleans, such as the "Creole," "Acadians," "Germans," "Black People of New Orleans," and "Oriental and Polynesian." At the beginning of every section is a brief (but certainly lengthy for a cookbook) history of the particular group's role in New Orleans' culinary heritage. Though these histories occasionally take on a patronizing, essentialist tone -- "As the Black cook prepares it, it is unforgettable" -- the recipes themselves are short, simple, and all derived from local (i.e., authentic) sources. Below, my slightly modified and renamed version of Shrimp Creole, which is much easier than you would expect. If you want to spring for fresh shrimp, great -- but Trader Joe's frozen does the trick.

Recipe: Nun-on-the-Run Shrimp Creole
Adapted from Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans Volume II: Our Cultural Heritage.
Serves 4.

1 lb. shrimp, cleaned
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 T (half a stick) butter
1 green pepper, chopped
1 T flour
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 c water
1/4 t dried thyme
2 T fresh chopped parsley
1 t salt
1/2 t ground pepper
dash of tabasco
1/2 t lemon juice
1 bay leaf

In large saucepan, saute onion, garlic, and green pepper in butter for 8 minutes over medium heat. Blend in flour for one minute. Add shrimp, tomato sauce, water, thyme, parsley, salt, pepper, Tabasco, lemon juice, and bay leaf. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve over rice.


Mike said...

Nun on the Run... did't Paul McCartney record that?

Sara M. said...

i think the next post should be devoted to hobo cuisine, in light of the ongoing greatest depression. COPS was a good start, but you could do so much more in that vein.

DEO said...

Hobo cuisine?? You mean like squirrels and hard-boiled eggs? I will get on that...