How to Roast a Lamb

The next installment of my cookbook challenge is not a vintage cookbook. This time, I focus on How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking by Michael Psilakis, published in 2009.

“Life, love, and learning; food, family, and friends. These are the things that I hope to share, from my table to yours. Like the ingredients of each of the recipes in this book, to me, they are intertwined – one cannot exist without the others.”

Those words from page 13 of How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking provide the essence of Michael Psilakis’ philosophy of food and the core of his cookbook. But this is far more than just a cookbook. It’s more of a celebration of the author’s Greek heritage and a love letter to his parents who instilled in him a lifelong passion for sharing the joys of food with others.

chef michael psilakis and tommy henselI met Michael Psilakis in the spring of 2010 when I was covering an event at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago. I attended a cooking demo and as a gift received an autographed copy of How to Roast a Lamb which had been published just a year before in 2009. I remember thinking that it was a lovely, “coffee table” type of book with a gorgeous cover and beautiful photos. I promptly put it on my bookshelf and, quite frankly, forgot all about it until it popped up as the third installment of my current cookbook challenge.

In 2009 when he published this cookbook, Psilakis had already achieved some of the culinary world’s highest honors. At that time, he was taking the New York restaurant scene by storm with his lauded restaurant Anthos and with his interpretation of a traditional Greek tavern, Kefi. Over the past decade, he has continued to elevate Greek cooking in the culinary world and now runs a restaurant group including two locations of MP Taverna as well as Kefi.

Little, Brown published How to Roast a Lamb in 2009 and it went on to win a number of awards. They then published his second cookbook Live to Eat: Cooking the Mediterranean Way in 2017. Both cookbooks focus not only on food, but on the stories behind the food.

 “Food is our most elemental and basic need. Like the air we breathe, we need it to survive. And yet for me, and so many others, food is also a vehicle for communication.”

That quote on page 224 explains the power of this cookbook – the honest, sincere, and complex stories that stand behind his passion for cooking.

Each chapter opens with a story explaining some aspect of Psilakis’ childhood and how food was the center of his family experience. Each chapter then follows with recipes that connect with the beautiful stories he tells about his life growing up in a tightly-knit, traditional Greek family.  The writing is sincere and emotional. I will fully admit to being hyper-emotional, and I teared up more than once reading some of the more intimate stories and feeling the depth of his love and respect for his parents. I found myself frequently thinking back on my own childhood and wishing I could go back and express more clearly to my parents just how much their love and support meant to me. Psilakis had the good fortune to be able to share those things before his father passed in 2007, even if he was not able to share this cookbook.

As for the recipes, they first appeared a bit daunting to me as I paged through the book. Once I started to read more closely, however, I realized that very few of them are beyond my own skill sets. Psilakis explains the processes of preparation clearly and succinctly, often suggesting substitutions and additions that can make dishes more versatile.

The only exceptions to the “relatively simple to prepare” recipes are the chapters Big Party Cooking and Anthos – The New World. The first of those chapters focuses on cooking for huge numbers of people and the recipes are vast and complex. You know you are in trouble when the first recipe starts with the instruction, “Decapitate the lamb.”

The other chapter contains some of his most celebrated dishes from the elevated restaurant Anthos. He warns readers that those recipes are complicated and require great skill and often equipment that is rarely found in a standard home kitchen. Still, he suggests that readers start with other recipes and then try out at least one of the Anthos dishes as a challenge.

Chef Michael PsilakisAt the end of the book, Psilakis offers a two-page summary that groups recipes by type. Since the book is put together by theme – summer cooking, seafood, game, etc. – each chapter has appetizers, salads, soups, and main courses. This two-page summary helps to group things together so that you can easily find all of the salads or soups or whatever without having to page through the entire book.

One of my favorite portions of the book is the final chapter, The Aegean Pantry. Here is where Psilakis offers recipes for many of the sauces, confits, and dressings that are integral to so many recipes throughout the cookbook.

After having this cookbook sit on my shelf for nearly nine years, I regret not having read it earlier! Some of the recipes are my favorites when dining at Greek restaurants, and now I have the recipes to make them at home.

You will find my video review below, including the (in)famous random number generation portion that will reveal just what recipe I will be challenged to prepare!

My next post will be my assessment of my cooking challenge!

Epicuriously Yours,
Tommy

PS You can get a sneak preview of the randomly chosen recipe at 9:50 into the video.

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Crab Meat in Timbales

Welcome back to my cookbook challenge.

As promised in my prior blog post, I am posting the video of my attempt to prepare Crab Meat in Timbales from page 15 of Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners by Elizabeth O. Hiller.

As you will see, I clearly need to practice my “Swedish Timbale” technique.

I paired the recipe with one of my favorite sparkling wines, a 2016 W. Donaldson Sonoma Rosé available from my favorite wine club – Naked Wines. Wayne Donaldson is the former head winemaker for Domaine Chandon, so you can be assured that his sparkling wine is superb.

If you’re interested in picking up a set of the timbale irons I used in this demo, you can find them on Amazon.

Until next time, I am as always . . .

Epicuriously Yours,
Tommy

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52 Sunday Dinners

“To the modern wide-awake, twentieth-century woman, efficiency in household matters is quite as much a problem as efficiency in business is to the captains of industry.”

Thus begins the Introduction to Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners.

This is the second installment of my cookbook challenge and the oldest of all the vintage cookbooks I inherited from my grandmother. This book is titled Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners by Elizabeth O. Hiller, published in 1913 by the N.K. Fairbank Company. At that time, the book sold for $1.00. According to the US Inflation Calculator, that equates to just under $26.00 in 2019 funds so clearly this was a cookbook aimed at a somewhat more affluent household of the time.

I am including my YouTube video review of the cookbook at the end of this post.

My copy of this cookbook is falling to pieces. Both the front and back covers have detached from the book, and it has clearly seen some use. The book is inscribed by my great grandmother, Lillian W. Bollin and dated 1918. She was born in 1863 in Richmond, VA, so at this point would have been in her mid-fifties and living in Columbia, SC.

The author, Elizabeth O. Hiller, was a prolific cookbook author and well-known culinary figure. Among other things, she wrote recipes for the Chicago Tribune and early in her career lost out to Fanny Farmer to be a columnist for Women’s Home Journal. If she has won, I imagine we would know more about her. If you look up her list of publications, however, you will see that she was a busy writer. You can get more information about her at her Wikipedia bio.

Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners is a fascinating cookbook for a number of reasons. First, the recipes are complex and use expensive ingredients – indicating again that the market was a more affluent household. Second, the structure of the cookbook is not just a collection of recipes, rather it is a collection of 52 full meal plans, each geared towards a different Sunday of the year. Finally, it is both a cookbook and what we would call an “advertorial” for a product called Cottolene.

I would love to know how many readers have ever heard of Cottolene. I know that I had no clue what it was until I started to read the cookbook and then did a great deal of online research. In 1868, the N. K. Fairbank company premiered a product made from a combination of cottonseed oil and beef suet. This product, called Cottolene, was touted as a healthy alternative to lard. The product was the end result of what had previously been waste products in two major industries – cotton and meatpacking. From 1868 until 1911, Cottolene was essentially the only product of its type on the market.

In 1911, however, a company called Proctor and Gamble created a product called Crisco (I bet you recognize that one). Crisco was 100% cottonseed oil. What ensued then was a competition to see which product would win over the hearts (and stomachs) of American’s housewives.

Both companies did traditional advertising, but also utilized the “advertorial” concept similar to the one from Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners. They would find a noted cook and/or recipe writer, have them compile a cookbook, then include information about the product. That information generally included testimonials from well-known cooks as well as testimonials from doctors, touting the health benefits of the product over those of lard and butter.

Obviously, Crisco won that PR battle because it’s still here while Cottolene has faded into the annals of culinary history.

In an online article, Alice Ross does a great job of exploring the history of both Cottolene and Crisco and what she terms the “mysterious disappearance of lard.” You can also get information about Cottolene and Crisco on their respective Wikipedia pages.

The advertising campaign for Cottolene was fascinating.  I invited you to use your favorite search engine to find images of early 20th century Cottolene advertising. I think you will be entertained by what you find. I will include a few images at the end of this post as well.

According to the Introduction of the book:

The eternal feminine question is, “What shall we have for dinner to-day?”

Fifty-Two Sunday Dinners, as you see, is clearly a product of the time. In 1913, the assumption was that women stayed home to take care of the family while husbands went out and worked to support the family. If you can get past some of these types of references in the cookbook, however, you will find an extraordinarily well-crafted series of recipes. The title gives a clue as to the layout of the book. Rather than being a simple collection of recipes, the book is divided into 52 sections each containing a full menu designed for a specific Sunday of the year. The assumption is that Sunday dinners are generally more elaborate than the rest of the week.

For instance, as I am writing this review the next Sunday will be the 1st Sunday of August. In the cookbook, that menu consists of the following:

  • Nova Scotia Canapés
  • Pan Broiled Fillets of Beef – Sultana Sauce
  • Carlsbad Potatoes
  • Peas and Onions French Style
  • Lettuce, Peppergrass and Onion Salad
  • Peach Ice Cream
  • Cocoanut Cake
  • Coffee

A very complete meal – and that’s one of the least complicated of the meals in the book.

The author aligns ingredients and recipes to be as seasonal as possible. In the Introduction, the publishers note:

While climatic conditions differ somewhat in various sections of the country, we have tried to approximate the general average, so that the suggestions might be as valuable to the housewife in New England as to the housewife in the West or South, or vice versa.

From the ingredient lists, it seems clear that refrigerated transport was available up to a point. Many winter recipes include oysters, which would obviously have to be shipped quickly and on ice to get to the Midwest safely. Beyond that, most of the ingredients seem to be focused on what can be found locally and seasonally. During spring and summer months, many menus include dandelion greens along with instructions how to harvest and clean them.

Overall, I found this cookbook to be one of the best I have read in a quite a long while. There are very few recipes repeated, so in the course of reading this cookbook you will find over 300 intriguing options. I also love the ‘meal planning’ aspect of this book. The idea of putting together full meal plans makes it easy to just lift a section and create a fantastic meal for six hungry people at any time. The meals are not simple to prepare, nor are they for the novice cook. Some of the techniques are time-consuming and intricate, but the results are sure to be superb.

If you’re interested in this cookbook, you don’t have to search for an actual vintage copy. I found out that the book was republished in its entirety in 1981 with the same cover art and all of the vintage Cottolene information intact! So check out Amazon for a more recent copy.

As promised in my introduction to the cookbook challenge, I used a random number generator to pick a page from the cookbook. The page chosen was page 15, containing the following recipes:

  • Consommé Duchess
  • Imperial Sticks
  • Crab Meat in Timbale Cases
  • Swedish Timbales

My next post will be a video of my cooking one (or more) of the recipes from that page. Until then, please enjoy the video review below.

Epicuriously Yours,
Tommy

A vintage ad for Cottolene

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