“Cooking to Share” – my latest cookbook indulgence

Cooking To Share

Cooking To Share

Those who know me well know that I’m addicted to cookbooks. Even before I wrote about food, I could never resist a title that promised delicious, and (as an adult) often boldly flavored, food. As I grew up, I progressed from the Better Homes and Gardens Jr Cookbook, to Joy of Cooking, to Julia Child, and those first ones were gifts from my mother, who, while she had mixed feelings about cooking, loved a good meal – just preferably one enjoyed in a nice restaurant.

I kept adding to my collection, acquiring many Italian and French titles along the way, and as my culinary horizons broadened, I added Chinese, Mexican, and Thai cookbooks. My collection grew to include vegetarian, barbecue, and American regional titles. My years as a bookstore event coordinator – which allowed me to buy at a substantial discount in addition to receiving the occasional freebie from a publisher, gave my collection another boost.

Then, when I started writing about food…well, let’s just say the floodgates opened and now I have many hundreds of cookbooks, and I still find myself purchasing new titles that I find irresistible – and that’s in addition to the occasional title I get from a publisher’s publicity department. I’m not usually big on fancy restaurateur or celebrity chef cookbooks, but tend to stick to the ones that offer recipes that almost anyone might try at home. Lately, that often means rustic food, since that’s been the trend. The elaborately photographed coffee table cookbooks by the world’s most famous chefs are just not my style, although I may swoon over the food porn photographs.

And now I’ve started noticing more unusual titles. First I read about the out-of-print Mexican Cook Book: Devoted to American Homes (1977) by Josefina Velazquez de Leon, on a favorite blog, The Mija Chronicles. I looked in Amazon, and saw second-hand copies up to $400, but somehow found one for $60 and promptly ordered it. So far I’ve just been browsing through it, enjoying Velazquez’s takes on traditional Mexican dishes that can be made in American kitchens, with some substitutions. Fortunately, we don’t have to substitute as much today as we would have in 1977, since far more international ingredients are found in the supermarket and ethnic groceries.

Cooking to Share

Cooking to Share

My next “unusual” purchase just arrived at my door last week, a new self-published book, Alexandra Stratou’s Cooking To Share Ms. Stratou, who lives in Greece and attended cooking school in Spain, financed her labor of love through a Kickstarter campaign. The book is unique, beautifully conceived and printed, with all sorts of unusual graphic touches such as a partial slipcover and interesting cover and back boards, part fabric-wrapped and part pressed cardboard (for lack of a better word).

In the back, there are perforated recipe cards for the basics, i.e. building blocks called “Essential Recipes,” that you can tear out and use as bookmarks when they are needed for a dish you’re making. Cooking to Share is already in its second printing, and has been featured on some top blogs online (which is how I first heard about it). The lovely photographs by Ioanna Roufopoulou help tell the story, in terms of ingredients, preparation, and picturing family and friends around the table. There’s even a separate little booklet of the author’s reflections, with pretty line drawings, to browse through as dinner cooks, or to come across and appreciate later on.

Ms. Stratou was worried that her family’s next generation would lose access to the dishes they grew up with if someone didn’t preserve the recipes, so she set herself the task. They had been blessed with a beloved long-time cook, Kyria Loula, to whom the book is dedicated along with the author’s grandmother, Giagia Sofia. One taught her about food and the other about family, and both are lovingly eulogized at the end of the book.

The book description on amazon.com says:

“Cooking to Share is a Greek cookbook honouring family, uncompromised tradition, cooking and life. A recipe-book that guides the reader into the kitchen of a modern Greek family revealing their annual traditions, a respect for ingredients, and the important role the food we eat growing up can play in building our sense of identity. An introductory note that builds an atmosphere around each dish precedes each recipe and the book is dotted by the author’s reflections on food and how it relates to life. The design is contemporary but gives the book a warm feel almost like it has already been worn in through time. The open spine allows the book to lay flat on the kitchen counter, the material lining the top of the book pays tribute to the traditional cloth bond book and the photography is brought to life through illustration that whimsically continues off the photographs and into the page. A book that will make you want to build a culture around food in your own home while at the same time provides you with the basic recipes cooked in most Greek homes.”

The book has all the classic Greek recipes one might expect, but is broadened with quirky family favorites, many with a more international touch. I was gratified to see the photograph of baklava showed nicely browned filo dough – I always wonder why so much baklava in the States appears seriously under baked, looking unappealing pale. I was surprised to see the Essential Recipe for meat sauce, used in Moussaka and Pastitsio, is made entirely from beef, rather than lamb or a combination of the two. My family always insisted on lamb, so it’s interesting to note that that’s not actually the case in Greece, or not any more.  And, given the much lighter flavor of U.S. lamb today, one might well consider using beef instead, since the seasonings will carry the flavor anyway. There are wonderful recipes for vegetables, soups, and braised and roasted meats, plus, of course, desserts, including traditional cookies. Knowing that people today eat salads more than in the past, Ms. Stratou has thoughtfully added recipes of her own, including a lovely Green Salad With Red Cabbage and Fruits.

Overall, this is a book you can use for everyday cooking and for holiday cooking throughout the year. A nicely designed two-page spread, the “Mediterranean Seasonal Fruit and Vegetable Guide,” provides an unusual and colorful graphic to cooking with the seasons. (Eat your heart out New York Times.)

Whether you get this book for yourself or for holiday gifts, I urge you to order in plenty of time, before that second printing is exhausted.


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