“We’re romantics when it comes to cooking at home. Unapologetically sentimental and downright enthusiastic.”
We’ve talked about the similarity between cookbooks and poetry collections on North Sea Scullery before, but reading The Short Stack Cookbook really does get us thinking on that kinship again – particularly because of the Short Stack Editions that inspired this fine new book.
Short Stack Editions resemble poetry chapbooks – like volumes from Kettillonia, or Happenstance maybe. Each slim handbound collection picks an ingredient – tomatoes, brown sugar, ginger, avocados, for example – and treats them to a proper day in the sun. You can buy the Editions in this country from The Bookseller Crow. I’ve resisted though, because I know that a kind of collector madness would kick in and I’d want them all.
Which is one reason why The Short Stack Cookbook is such a cool thing. It takes the philosophy of the pamphlets and gives us a whole almanac of Short Stack ideology. So, alphabetised, there are sections on individual ingredients from Apples to Winter Squash & lots in between – like Butter, Honey, Rice Sourdough Bread, Wild Shrimp – waypoints on what the authors call the “trail maps” of cooking. It really works, and springing from a really memorable introduction to the book, fires an intelligent manifesto for “ingredient-driven cooking.”
Ingredient focus is of course not new to cookbooks (“although the extreme fetishization and documentation of them might be”) but it’s done with such style and passion here. Each ingredient section has up to ten or so recipes, and it’s a bit like Top Trumps as you range across them – you have your Spanish Rice Soubise & I’ll have my Heuvos Haminados. And you do range because, I think, the idea is to inspire confidence, the sense that if you can understand an ingredient, get to know it, you can experiment, celebrate and have freedom as find techniques – so the book takes in lots of different cuisines, always on the central pulse that getting the ingredients right is step one.
The book, and the Editions, are avowedly designed to reclaim a way of looking at food & recipes from an earlier time, a pre-internet era where there wasn’t a choice of 10 Thousand recipes for Fish Pie. A time of “well-tested, dependable recipes created by professionals.”
And the Short Stack Edition professionals – who are a collaborative team for this book too – are cherished:
“We’d pay them for every one of their books that we print, forever and ever, and keep their issues in perpetual circulation.”
This utilitarianism reflects to some extent the point of the Cookbook – what the authors call “a framework for exploring the current state of American home cooking.” There’s something here about returning to veracity, about using the ingredient as a fixed point in debates and issues around food and cooking – we can argue the toss about lots of things, but the tomato is still the tomato. Short Stack Cookbook might be named for the small pamphlets that have heralded it, but it’s about some pretty big ideas.
So far so fine, but is it any good?
Well, yes. It is. It’s very good actually. And it’s good in the first place because like the design of the Editions, it really is a beautiful book to see and hold – it’s a really good gift book in that regard. It has a 50s/60s vibe that links well to the sense of positive nostalgia central to the themes of the writing. There are supervivid tinty dish pictures that are like the ones in your Nan’s old cookbooks – in a good way – and blazing patterns, teacloths and backgrounds straight from The Jetsons or Mad Men. It really is gorgeous.
And it’s great fun to cook from. As the authors say, it’s a deliberate mix of simpler dishes and more complicated stuff. As an amateur though I definitely found some of the things I tested a bit difficult – or at least not easy. But some of the recipes aren’t difficult in themselves as such – they’re involved, something like those knots we got tied up in thinking about Diana Henry’s excellent Simple. They just need more time, better ingredients, even better ingredients and more care.
We were incredibly chuffed with how our Salt & Szechuan Pepper-Roasted Chicken turned out – a crunchy spicy slow-cooked bird – and with our Japanese Potato Salad. The Salad was made twice – because the rice wine vinegar is a measurement to get spot on – and indeed the quality of the vinegar is probably a hell of a lot more important than we reckoned.
There’s also a brilliant recipe for Salted Apple Jam – which makes 2 cups from a whole load of apples, but it’s absolutely worth it. The resulting jam is addictive on anything – pancakes, granola or a spoon straight out of the jar, off the floor. Another fine one is the Kale Salad with Turmeric Cauliflower; Spiced Cashew & Pumpkin Seeds. You could just make these spiced cashews on their own, and add them to just about anything – with garam masala, thyme sprigs and cayenne, they’re just particularly eatable. We could munch any variation of cashews to a band playing, but nonetheless.
Another thing I really like about the book is the section at the end called Ingredient Yields + Tips. Some cookbooks just assume readers know all this stuff, but lots of us don’t; I still have to check the instructions every time I use a Knorr Gravy Pot. No, learning more and more is always welcome, and particularly when it’s done like this, written so well; why send us to a different book to check stuff anyway? Each of the ingredients are given sourcing and storing tips, yields & conversations and – hurray! – flavor buddies. The back of the book is also home to biographies of the authors and Short Stack contributors.
The Short Stack Cookbook is a superbly designed, lovely-looking book, challenging and comforting in its writing and recipes at the same time. It’s a book to make a homecook like me think, and very like Jessica Koslow’s mind-bending Everything I Want To Eat, a kind of adventure on a shelf, goading me to give the old tested dishes a rest once in a while. Cookbooks like these should have the subtitle “You don’t have to make meatballs every day …”
Of course, it’s not always possible to have the headspace or time or the ingredients down the Spar to accommodate the talent and ambition of books like this, but it’s fun and motivating to own them and to learn and be encouraged by their generosity of know-how and unabashed love of cooking and food.