Summer Reading, Summer Eating
Judy Bart Kancigor
They call it summer reading, but if you’re like me, you don’t need a season to open a book. Some credit Oprah with starting the phenomenon, but, according to Rachel Jacobsohn, author of “The Reading Group Handbook,” there are approximately 500,000 book clubs in the United States, double the number since 1994. And those that combine great books with great dining come away doubly nourished by sharing ideas as they break bread together.
Enter “The Book Club Cookbook” (Penguin, $15.95), which pairs 100 popular book club selections with the recipes they inspire. Authors Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp sent thousands of surveys to book clubs across the nation to find out what they are reading and how they dine, and the response was overwhelming.
“When we started hearing the same book titles over and over from many different clubs, we knew those titles would make our list,” said Krupp. “We also tried to balance the list by genre. We included fiction, non-fiction, history, memoir, even short stories. We included books highly recommended by African-American book clubs not found on other lists. Some L.A. Asian professionals read only books with Asian themes. Women of the West in Boulder, Colorado, read only books with an American Western woman protagonist or author.”
The books are arranged alphabetically, and each section includes a brief synopsis – just enough to whet your appetite but not give away the story – a profile of a book club reading that book, and a recipe to pair with the selection: Greek Rice Pudding and Tzatziki for “Middlesex,” Death by Chocolate for “The Da Vinci Code,” Honey Cake for “The Secret Life of Bees.” In many cases the book’s author contributes a recipe or comment.
“The most elaborate and elegant dinner we heard about was served by The Dallas Gourmet Book Club for their discussion of ‘Personal History’ by Katherine Graham,” noted Gelman. “It included champagne, wine, and Caviar Pie. The group even printed a menu to look like headline news in The Washington Post.”
The oldest club Gelman and Krupp found, the Wednesday Club of Fort Smith, Arkansas, has been meeting for 106 years! “It started as a literary society dedicated to self-improvement of the members,” said Krupp. “Just recently the women decided to stop referring to each other as ‘Mrs.’ and to start using first names. They read only nonfiction and serve dessert and coffee or tea with silver and linen napkins.”
The cookbook’s web site (http://www.bookclubcookbook.com) is an invaluable resource for readers. Want to speak personally to an author to ask those burning questions that only the author could answer? The "Invite an Author" page enables you to contact such luminaries as Chris Bohjalian, Jackie Mitchard and Kathryn Harrison for a phone discussion during your meeting. And sign up for their newsletter “Book Bytes” for reading suggestions and coordinating menu ideas. You’ll get monthly invitations to enter drawings for free books as well.
The book club I belong to meets every month for dinner and discussion, with the menu inspired by the book we have read. I have to admit that on more than one occasion we have selected a book based on the cuisine involved. Our group has certainly had our thirty minutes of fame: fifteen when Cooking Pleasures magazine visited and featured us in their February 2004 issue, and another fifteen when we landed in “The Book Club Cookbook” with a recipe for Chicken Biryani, which we enjoyed while discussing A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I even included a version of the recipe in my family cookbook, “Cooking Jewish.”
My cousin, Marylyn Lamstein, belongs to a book club that has been meeting for 13 years. “We usually have a light brunch, but every June we invite the husbands for a full-blown lunch. It’s always at my house because I have the room for it, and I never make the same thing twice.”
Last month the menu included Green Bean and Beet Salad, Three-Cheese Baked Penne with Broccoli, Mushroom Rollups Florentine with Béchamel Sauce and Asparagus Mushroom Pudding, an intriguing savory take on the classic bread pudding (recipe below). Marylyn also made a Chocolate Turtle Pie for dessert.
“I do allow the others to bring desserts too,” she noted. “One man makes baklava – that’s his admission ticket!”
The yearly event used to be a potluck, but now that her children are grown with families of their own, they’ve taken over the family entertaining and Marylyn doesn’t get to do it as much as she used to. “I used to do the Jewish holidays, Mother’s Day, etc.,” she said, “but now most of the holidays have been taken away from me, so I love doing the June book club lunch.”
When it comes to finding new recipes, Marylyn is never at a loss, because her son and daughter-in-law are acclaimed New York kosher caterers. “I baby-sit for them on weekends when they’re working,” she said, “and after the kids go to sleep I like to look through their vast collection of recipes.”
Jonathan and Jill Lamstein (more about them in a future column) own and operate three catering companies. “Josh’s Place (http://www.joshsplace.com) does low-key parties at home or at a synagogue,” Marylyn told me. “Above and Beyond does high-end charity events as well as weddings and bar mitzvahs, and their new operation is Flavors, which caters to reform and conservative synagogues.”
Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family” and can be found on the web at http://www.cookingjewish.com.
ELAINE OGDEN’S GREEK RICE PUDDING
From “The Book Club Cookbook” by Judy Gelman and Vicki Levy Krupp
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons uncooked short-grain rice
1/4 cup water
3 cups whole milk
4 large eggs
1/3 to 1/2 cup sugar, depending on taste
4 tablespoons butter
Ground cinnamon for topping (about 1 1/2 tablespoons)
1. Combine the rice and water in a heavy-bottomed 3-quart saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until water is almost gone. Add 2 cups of the milk. Stir well. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until rice is very soft, about 1 hour. Take care not to let the mixture burn on the bottom.
2. Meanwhile, beat the eggs with an electric mixer on high speed until they are light yellow and thick, about 10 minutes. Add the sugar. Beat 5 more minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the milk and beat well.
3. Add 1/2 cup of the milk to the rice mixture, stir to combine, and remove from heat. While beating the egg mixture slowly, add the rice mixture, one large spoonful at a time, until it is all combined. It is very important to do this gradually so that the eggs do not curdle.
4. Return the pudding to the saucepan over very low heat and add the butter. Stir continuously to keep the eggs from curdling. Continue to cook until thick, about 20 minutes (the rice grains will rise to the top as the pudding thickens). Remove from heat and pour into dessert cups. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Allow pudding to cool before refrigerating. The pudding is also delicious warm but allow it to cool and thicken a bit.
Yield: 8 servings
Note: Odgen suggests using a flat-edged spatula to keep the bottom of the pan clean while stirring the mixture and emphasizes the importance of continuous stirring to prevent the mixture from burning on the bottom and to keep the eggs from curdling.
From “Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family”
FOR THE CHICKEN:
2 tablespoons corn oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 4 cloves)
2 large tomatoes, seeded and diced, or 2 cans (15 ounces each) diced tomatoes, drained
2 teaspoons garam masala (see note)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt
1 1/2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breasts, rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 1-inch
FOR THE RICE:
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
4 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon kosher (coarse) salt
1 teaspoon corn oil
2 cups basmati rice
FOR THE GARNISH:
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1. Prepare the chicken: Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until they are beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the ginger, garlic, and tomatoes, and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the garam masala, coriander, cumin, cayenne powder, and salt. Add the chicken and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through but still tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, prepare the rice: Bring 3½ cups water to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Add the cumin seeds, bay leaves, salt, and oil. Stir in the rice. Cover, reduce the heat, and simmer until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Combine the chicken and rice (discard the bay leaves) in a large serving bowl, and toss to mix. Garnish with the raisins, cilantro, and mint. Serve hot.
Serves 6 to 8
Note: Garam masala is a mixture of dry-roasted, ground spices. There are many variations, but most include cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and other spices.
ASPARAGUS MUSHROOM PUDDING
From Above and Beyond Catering, http://www.joshsplace.com
1 leek, white part, finely chopped (1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
2 pounds fresh asparagus (36 to 40 spears), cut into 1-inch pieces
12 ounces sliced white mushrooms (2 cups)
4 cups milk
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons fresh basil
1 pound loaf crusty bread, cubed
16 ounces soft goat cheese log, sliced
1. Spray skillet; cook leek and garlic until soft, 8 minutes. Add asparagus and mushrooms. Cook until tender, 4 minutes. Set aside.
2. Whisk milk, eggs, mustard and basil. Set aside.
3. Coat a 13 X 9-inch baking dish with vegetable spray. Spread half the bread cubes. Spoon asparagus mixture over top. Dot with cheese slices, then cover with remaining bread cubes.. Pour egg mixture over all. Press down to submerge bread. Cover and chill 2 hours or overnight.
4. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
5. Bake until center is set, 45 minutes.