November 30, 2010 / 11:04 AM / 8 years ago

World Chefs: A deep-dive into NY Times recipe archive

BOSTON (Reuters Life!) - At 932 pages, “The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Classic Recipes for a New Century,” could logically be subtitled “all the recipes that are fit to print”

Amanda Hesser is seen in an undated handout photo. REUTERS/Sarah Shatz/Handout

Award-winning food writer Amanda Hesser conceived the book as an update to Craig Claiborne’s classic “The New York Times Cookbook,” which has sold nearly 3 million copies since 1961.

But Hesser, who worked in bakeries in Italy, France and Germany, quickly suspected she might have bitten off more than she could chew in diving into the huge recipe archive.

“At first I was trying to distill the recipes from essentially the 1950s forward. But what I didn’t realize was that the New York Times had been writing about food since the 1850s,” she said.

After more than five years of cooking, the huge tome — 4.6 pounds — has hit bookstores just in time for the holiday season.

“For a cook it was this great playground of recipes where you found all of these old favorites but there are also likely to be new discoveries,” Hesser said.

The book includes dishes by cooks ranging from Claiborne and Julia Child to Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver as well as many more obscure offerings as well.

Hesser also put out a call to readers for their favorite recipes from the Times. The clear winner, from thousands of responses, was purple plum torte, first published in 1983.

Some of the oldest recipes, submitted by readers, anticipated items that would become popular decades later such as Granita, the shaved ice dessert popular in higher-end Italian restaurants in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“The New York Times published a recipe, and a great recipe, for raspberry granita in 1895,” Hesser said. “It’s a reminder that what goes around comes around in the food world, kind of like fashion. Trends go in and out, and we revisit things, and we re-interpret them. I hope to celebrate that in the book.”

Another discovery was a Spanish braised beef dish called Fricco — a hearty offering that anticipated the simplicity of Hesser’s Times colleague Mark Bittman, known for his weekly column “The Minimalist” and series of cookbooks.

“It’s just layers of beef, and potatoes, and onions, and a little bit of cream. It’s European country cooking: very few ingredients and a lot of time.”

Hesser, who played herself in the popular 2009 movie “Julie and Julia,” said she wanted to unearth hidden gems and translate the recipe writing in a way that would make them accessible to the modern cook.

Many early recipes gave few details to help the home cook.

“I took the sense of the old recipe and wrote it with an ingredient list and instructions so anyone can make it.”

Hesser and her associate Merrill Stubbs, founders of the blog, usually cooked two nights after work, and again on weekends, working their way through about ten to 20 recipes each week in the author’s New York kitchen.

“We would meet, she would have done the shopping and then we would cook all night, and then sit down usually at 10:30 or 11 for dinner,” Hesser said. “It was folded into our regular lives. And we felt like that’s the way that people would use this book.”

The book is organized to aid navigation. Within chapters such as soups, beef dishes or desserts, the recipes are listed chronologically. Hesser offers commentary on most recipes and a short history of how certain trends evolved.

Suggested food pairings are provided. The book concludes with groupings of recipes: Thanksgiving dishes, for example, or Spanish foods. Even a Super Bowl party menu is offered.

“I wanted it to be a book that you would turn to on a weeknight, but also to find that classic that would be completely unapologetic in its thoroughness,” Hesser said.

“Some things are forgotten about and slip under the radar, and eventually somebody digs up that recipe or that dish and revives it. That’s the beauty of cooking, that everything can be revisited and reinterpreted and be made to feel new again.”

Recipe: Spanish Fricco (beef, potato and onion stew):

2 pounds boneless beef shoulder

4 large white potatoes

1 1/2 large yellow onions

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 tbsp unsalted butter

4 bay leaves

1/4 cup heavy cream or creme fraiche.

1. Heat oven to 350F. Cut the beef into 1/2-inch thick slices. Using a meat mallet, flatten each slice between sheets of wax paper to 1/4 inch thick.

2. Peel the potatoes and cut into 1/4 inch slices. Cut the onions into 1/8 inch thick slices.

3. Have ready two Dutch ovens or heavy pots, one that’s large enough to hold all the ingredients and a larger one that will hold the first pot comfortably. Cover the bottom of the smaller pot with one quarter of the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Dot with 1 tbsp butter. Add a bay leaf and cover with one third of the beef and one third of the onions. Season again. Repeat this two more times. Cover with the remaining potatoes, season once more, and add the reaming bay leaf. Using your palms, press down the ingredients to compress the mixture. Pour in the cream.

4. Cover the pot, set it inside the larger pot, and fill the larger pot with enough boiling water to come halfway up the smaller pot. Transfer to the oven and bake until a knife inserted in the layers slips right through, 1.5 to 2 hours. Lift the smaller pot from the larger pot to make serving easier.

Serves six. Published April 1, 1877. Recipe signed “Emilia.” Hesser suggests spooning the dish over toasted country bread that’s been rubbed with garlic and brushed with olive oil. Follow with a salad of bitter greens, like puntarelle with anchovies.

Reporting by Ros Krasny; Editing by Patricia Reaney

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