When Gourmet magazine closed in 2009 after 68 years, it was a blow to many, particularly for its editor, Ruth Reichl, who had been at the helm for 10 years. Reichl fell into a difficult period. "My Kitchen Year" chronicles four seasons recovering. Some may scoff at a public baring of one's trials, but as we all know, pain shared is pain halved. And who hasn't baked themselves a consolation muffin at one time or another?
It's an idiosyncratic volume, a hybrid of cookbook and personal narrative, interspersed with the haiku-like tweets
Reichl is known (and sometimes mocked) for: "Fall. Orange leaves go swirling past the window. Butternut soup. Smooth. Hot. Savory." Oddly organized recipes have ingredients formatted like a shopping list (discombobulating if you like them in strict order of use). But the results are often worthwhile.
There is almost nothing to a steak sandwich, just technique: Salt and rest the steak, toss it on a hot grill, slice it crosswise. I tried it on half a baguette as suggested, and then again on half a baguette with the insides torn out, and then finally I just tossed the bread altogether and gorged on the meat.
Pork and tomatillo stew is one of those forgiving braises that happily marries acids — tomatoes, tomatillos, beer, oranges, lime — into a heady, thick brew. An "easy" Vietnamese caramelized pork calls for tenderloin sliced very thin, but the meat never did crisp as Reichl suggests. Still, it was fast and satisfying, and a hit with cucumbers marinated in rice vinegar. Sriracha shrimp is one of those stir-fries that's revolutionized by a little hot sauce in the marinade and coconut milk in the rice. The whole thing cooks fast and tastes like more work than it is.
"Food cart" curry chicken is unassuming with onions, garlic, curry powder. A mashed potato technique calls for thin slices of Yukon Golds simmered for half an hour in watered-down buttermilk. My slices didn't fully soften, though liberal brown butter made them irresistible.
Anchovies feature prominently in both kale and spinach, adding a dense throb of umami to the greens and pairing well with generous helpings of garlic (not exciting for the kids). A quarter pound of grated Parmesan (a lot!) and breadcrumbs add texture and a strong savory note to the kale.
Many recipes are devoted to sweet comfort food. "New York" corn muffins brought back the Greek-diner muffins of my youth, grilled, spongy, and buttery. This version yields a dense but flavorful muffin studded with whole kernels. Apple crisp is blanketed with a simple streusel mixture, and takes only five minutes to assemble. It looks dreadful, but it will be gone in another five minutes. Soft uncooperative dough makes nervous work for a cranberry-pecan crostata, but ends up tender-crusted despite needing manhandling in the pan. A lemon panna cotta without gelatin appears to set at first, then separates on chilling into a fatty layer on top of lemony liquid.
"My Kitchen Year" isn't the kind of book you turn to as a reference. There's no particular organization (other than seasons) and it won't give you a single-subject education or a balanced diet. But it offers a series of anecdotes and private pleasures. And pleasure shared is pleasure doubled.
My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life
By Ruth Reichl
Random House, 136 pp., $35
T. Susan Chang can be reached at email@example.com.