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In Mother's Kitchen

Celebrated Women Chefs Share Beloved Family Recipes
By Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes
(Rizzoli, April 2005)

In Mother's Kitchen

hen we are far from home we often long for our mothers’ kitchens. Everything smells delicious there and the company is always good. We agree with Lisa Holmes and Ann Cooper when they say that “the kitchen is the heart of the home.” And so we share their concern over the statistic that only 15 percent of American children sit down to a family meal on a regular basis. It was this fact that sparked the concept for their second collaboration In Mother’s Kitchen.

“As chefs we feared the loss of our nation’s great culinary heritage, and as women with deep family and cultural ties we couldn’t imagine a world in which the kitchen would no longer be the heart of the home,” the authors said.

With an impressive list of contributing chefs like Traci des Jardins, Lidia Bastianich, Zarela Martinez and Sherry Yard, the authors have attempted to create a cookbook that preserves this heritage and can be passed down to future generations, just as a mother's treasured recipes would be.

For each contributor there is a short biography, a piece written by the chef herself, and one or two family photos. The personal memories that these women share, along with the often candid snapshots, give the book an intimate feel, and it is a pleasure to read their stories. Though we love the concept of the book, we can’t understand its organization. We found the division into chapters such as "Mothers and Grandmothers," "Daughters" and "Families" unnecessary and confusing; the relationship at the heart of each recipe is already explained in that recipe’s introduction. The chapter entitled “Indulgences: Special extravagances to sweeten our days” is obviously dedicated to desserts, but most of the other chapters also contain dessert recipes. Cakes, cookies and pies are not included under "Desserts" in the index and have to be looked up separately. We would have appreciated an index by course for easy reference.

All of the recipes are relatively simple and for the most part require ingredients that can be found in any grocery store. They are, as the introduction states, "based on flavor and a realness, or an earthiness, that cannot be found among the plates of show food found at so many restaurants." Unfortunately, this simplicity can be deceptive. Gale Gand, the executive pastry chef and partner in Chicago’s Tru has included her mother Myrna’s recipe for short ribs, a stew with a base of beef stock and tomatoes. The recipe calls for eight small onions, but doesn’t tell us if we should blanch them to remove the skins and, if so, how to do it.

There aren’t instructions on how the six medium carrots should be cut, if the potatoes should be peeled, if the excess flour that the ribs are rolled in should be shaken off or how hot the oil should be when the ribs are added for browning. At the end of the suggested two and a half hours the short ribs weren’t near ready. It was absolutely necessary for the fat to be skimmed off the top of the stew (though a provision for this step isn’t made in the recipe) and an additional two hours were needed to let the liquid reduce.

We made these decisions ourselves, but fear a beginner could easily become lost. The ribs were good that night, but were literally lip smacking when we sat down to eat them the next evening. Too bad the book makes no mention of how good the stew is when it is reheated.

As with most of the recipes in this book the simple ingredients and rich flavors brought us right back to mother’s kitchen. But we were lucky in that our mothers had the time and ability to cook and the patience to teach us. Reading the personal histories of professional women cooks and making their recipes does help us to better connect to our culinary heritage. But this book isn’t for the novice cook. It would have been nice if it could have served as a sort of substitute for mom, guiding us with thorough and careful instruction and helping us learn not just how to follow a recipe, but how to cook.

Reviewed by Maya Levy

(Updated: 12/02/08 SB)

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