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Publication Wed Jun 19 2013

Middlewest: Easy on the Eyes, Inspiring to the Tastebuds

MiddleWest

I'm a sucker for pretty recipe books. I don't buy all of the ones I think I want, but I do check out a lot of cookbooks from the library. Enough of them that my favorite librarian asks me to tell her if I think a book is worth a read.

I also am a sucker for things that are attractively designed and locally made. So when I heard that David Tamarkin (formerly a food writer and restaurant reviewer for Time Out Chicago) was spearheading the creation of Middlewest, I was intrigued. And since I assumed that I'd never get the chance to peruse one in person at a book store before purchasing, and since the annual subscription price was only $18, I figured I would take the plunge and splurge on some oversized recipe cards that I assumed would be attractive and inspirational if nothing else.

RecipeCards

The attractive envelope arrived recently and I was thrilled with the spare design of the envelope and delighted to slowly unwind the string from the flap closure. When I pulled out the oversized cards and saw the images taken by Erica Gannett, the fantastic card stock, and high-quality printing (I'm also the gal who smells every brand new book she buys.), I'd decided the low cost was worth it for 10 individual recipes.

I tend to expect great things from cookbooks. I've read so many of them, and I read them from cover to cover usually. But, despite having written a cookbook, I very rarely follow a recipe word for word. Even when I'm making something I've never made before I use recipes as a wireframe of structure to substitute ingredients, alter cooking techniques, and ignore while I'm cooking. I earnestly feel that doing this has made me a better cook. It's hard to pay attention to what your food is doing if you're constantly rereading the recipe to see if you add the garlic at step 2 or 3.

Pea Pate

But I set out intending to buy the items needed for one simple recipe, execute exactly, and then share how it went. Sadly, I was unable to find the fresh tarragon called for in the Pea Paté when I went shopping. And I wasn't willing to travel to another store to find one fresh herb. So I did what I usually do and decided to substitute something. I chose dill because I thought it would go well with the fresh spring peas I'd purchased from the market.

Substitution tip: If you're unsure if you'll have success substituting one thing for another, try to conjure up the smell of the item you don't have and think of words to describe that smell. Then look at what you have that may be similar and try to find something that may have a similar smell. For example, fresh tarragon smells to me like a mix between gentle grass and a light anise or licorice. I looked at my other fresh herb options and chose dill because it has a similar fresh, grassy scent and is bright and springlike (unlike sage, which reminds me of fall or winter cooking, for example). But I knew I'd want something to punch up the anise flavor a bit and purchased a fennel bulb. This way the two main scents in the tarragon are replaced with other similar scents.

Other than substituting some fresh fennel and dill for the tarragon, I followed the recipe as written. I sliced off a 1/2" slice of the bulb and cubed it to be the same size as the shallots I had chopped, and sauteed it in the pain with the shallots.

And I think the success of this recipe is in the combination of flavors I wouldn't have originally thought to put together: peas + anise. And because there are only seven ingredients to this recipe, with one of them being the crostini or crackers to spread it on, it is something that is easy enough to recall when you're at the store and remember you need a quick and tasty appetizer to take to a party.

In addition to being able to use this as a spread, I think it would also taste delicious if you combine it with a handful of parmesan cheese, the juice of half a lemon and an extra tablespoon or two of olive oil and toss it with cooked spaghetti. And while I used fresh peas because they're in season and delicious still, frozen peas will do nicely.

I normally consider it a success if I use even one recipe from a cooking magazine I've purchased. But I honestly think I will adapt or riff on more than half of the recipes in this collection of 10, which makes it worth the subscription price -- and there is still one more set of recipes to come. The recipes I'm likely to try first are the Strawberry-Basil Icebox Cake (which requires no baking at all), the Spring Chicken redolent of fresh herbs and preserved lemons (the recipe for these are included and trust me when I say that you won't regret preserving lemons), and the lamb hand pies.

I would consider myself a fairly experienced home cook. I'm rarely intimidated by a recipe or cooking technique, even if I'm not good at it, I'll just do my best. The main thing I like about these recipes is their simplicity of steps and brevity of ingredient lists, and yet they have intriguing taste combinations. Peas and fennel is one example. But a pesto made with asparagus and pistachio is another. And I suspect that this pesto would be just as good on pasta as it would be spooned over a simple baked white fish fillet.

I'm happy with my purchase, and I think many others who enjoy cooking will enjoy making these recipes and find them attractive and worth the investment. But I can't say that this collection is flawless. The "literary supplement" that comes with the cards seems disconnected from the recipes, doesn't add anything to them, and has a few badly placed jumps in text that made it hard to follow. I also wish the listing of the recipes enclosed in the set was printed in the envelope they came in. In several years when I've collected a couple of hundred cards (and I am hoping this endeavor continues for years), I'll be able to find the need to locate an oversized box to keep them in my kitchen. Until then, when I have just a couple of envelopes on the shelf with my other cookbooks, I'm going to have to open each folder to see which one contains a specific recipe. So I'll be hand-writing the recipe index on the back of the envelope, because my handwriting isn't neat enough to justify going on the front. Thankfully the envelopes are very durable so they'll last for years without falling apart.

I'm grateful that there is even a tasty cocktail recipe in the mix. Lauren Viera consulted on "The Breakfast Club." A gin-based cocktail with three ingredients should be easy enough for even the most nervous home bartender to try. Gin, grenadine and lemon juice make up a lightly sweet and refreshing tipple without a lot of fuss. I recently made my own grenadine, and since summer is gin weather, I suspect I'll be drinking several of these in my back yard over the next few months.

 
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Lisa / June 20, 2013 7:52 AM

Middlewest is available for purchase at Blue Sky Bakery, 3720 N. Lincoln Avenue.

alan lake / June 27, 2013 10:26 AM

If you're not already aware of it, sounds like you'd be a perfect candidate for the Flavor Bible. An intuitive cook's well, bible. No recipes, just ingredient pairings that range from common to unique. Probably my most recommended food book of the last decade.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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