At first I had trouble understanding “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food From My Frontier,” by the wildly popular blogger Ree Drummond (thepioneerwoman.com). Frontier cooking, I thought. That must mean wild dandelion greens stewed over a campfire, with maybe some goat butter and freshly butchered bison steaks. Imagine my surprise when I opened the book and saw chicken Parmesan and pasta salad.
The first thing you should know about this book is that there’s nothing “frontier” about it. The second thing is that there’s not much that is new (indeed, many of the recipes can be found on the blog itself). After leafing all the way through in a vain search for a recipe I hadn’t seen before, I gave up and simply looked for recipes that looked tasty. Here I had far greater success.
Drummond has a solid sense of flavor combinations. Chipotle steak salad is simply flank steak marinated in Worcestershire sauce, chipotle, honey, cumin, and oregano. But it grills up appealingly, with enough contrast in every bite to hold your interest. A buttery stir-fry of shrimp, zucchini, corn, and grape tomatoes springs to life with a touch of basil and lemon.
Many recipes are hard to resist for two powerful reasons: butter and cream. Cauliflower soup is swimming in a stick of butter, a cup of half-and-half, and a cup of sour cream, and that doesn’t count two cups of milk in the simmer. You could as easily call it Dairy Soup. Along the same lines, pasta with tomato cream sauce gets a cup of heavy cream per three-quarters of a box of pasta.
Whiskey-mustard meatballs prove that you can pack a lot of mustard into beef and pork without overpowering them if you balance it with other strong flavors. They’re simmered in beef broth and — you guessed it — cream. But don’t listen to Drummond when she suggests shaping the meat with rounded teaspoons. It’ll take you all day and the meatballs will be tinier than hers; use her alternative, an ice cream scoop.
The mysterious “rounded teaspoons” appear as well in malted milk chocolate-chip cookies, with an estimated yield of 18. Staring dubiously at a mountain of cookie dough, I used rounded tablespoons, and my yield was 48. This was no misfortune, as the cookies are crisp, very malty, and almost toothache-sweet.
There were only a couple of disappointments. After seven hours in the pot, spicy Dr. Pepper pulled pork emerges very tender, but with a sweet, vaguely spicy, dimensionless flavor that’s not quite worth dosing your family with soda for. On the other hand, a prosciutto-mushroom-gruyere “Cowgirl Quiche,” comes out lick-the-plate good, but plagued with technical issues: the sliced mushrooms don’t roast to golden-brown, the custard dribbles onto the oven floor, the pie crust has so little water you have to work it extra to make it cohere.
This is surprising, as Drummond is generally attentive to detail. Each recipe proceeds in step-by-step photographs, which usually fill in any gaps in the instructions. Also liberally strewn through the book are pictures of her towheaded children, cows, and puppies, captioned with remarks like “Cutie patootie!” “Yawwwwwwn . . . grooooan . . . where’s my coffee?” “Hold me?” and “Moo.” This can be viewed as a plus or a minus, depending on how you feel about other people’s Facebook albums, and sharing in general.
I wouldn’t recommend that you give this to any friends you have who really do live a frontier or DIY lifestyle. They’ll just laugh at you and go back to their latest canning project. It’s not a bad choice for new graduates or casual entertainers. But advise them not to eat this cream-and-butter-filled food every day unless they’re planning to round up a few head of cattle and clear some brush first.