cookbook club: The New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes

Savory French toast

Cookbooks and kitchens are the heart of many great adventures. Last week our spring cookbook club, Classic to Modern, ended our journey with a return to the present. Over the course of 4 books in 8 weeks, we time traveled from the days of Edna Lewis to Sam Sifton’s contemporary approach to creating delicious meals. In between, we traveled via our pantries and spice cabinets to Paris in the 2020s and to India by way of Brooklynin the 1980s. 

Our final book of this season was The New York Times Cooking: No-Recipe Recipes by Sam Sifton. This newly released game-changer brought our journey from classic to modern to a fitting close. To make it even more special, Sam joined us live (via Zoom) for an intimate Q&A to cap off our last session.  What a perfect way to close a perfectly wonderful program!

Our conversation wandered from Sam’s inspiration for writing so many non-recipes (flavorful ingredients and an eclectic selection of condiments, for starters), to The New York Times’ policy of crediting recipe sources(breaking new ground in food journalism). We learned how no-recipe recipes are tested (by “a band of irregulars” who test them in their homes across the country). 

We capped it off the evening with a story that truly brought us full circle. One of Sam’s earliest childhood memories of dining out was a visit to Gage and Tollner. Edna Lewis was the chef there at the time. He was lucky enough to try her famous she-crab soup (I’m so jealous). Maybe it influenced the trajectory of his career. I’d like to think so!

about the book

Even before I saw the publisher’s proof of this book, I had a feeling it was going to be something oddly special. A book that would stir memories of historic cooking books as clearly as it reveals our contemporary relationship with cooking at home. So, of course, it had to be placed in the context of “classic to modern.” I chose the other books around it to represent important voices and eras of cookbook writing. 

I definitely expected some controversy… and at least some stretching of unused muscles for some cooks. I was excited to see how people responded to lists of ingredients with no amounts or proportions. More so, to the instructions written in the voice of a trusted friend telling you how to prepare their favorite easy meal, but without getting into much detail. 

Spoiler alert: we pretty much all loved it! 

The how and why we got there varied as much as we did in kitchen confidence, experience, and tastes. Even a determined sceptic was won over. All it took was an open-minded romp, lured by a sense of adventure, compelled by the need for easy flavorful dishes for a camping trip. 

the cooking part…

The menu I selected, like all the others was meant to fill a day or a weekend. With this one I skipped desserts. Although there’s a little something for your sweet tooth in this book, it’s limited. Considering baking and pastry are precise arts, this is not a big surprise.

Breakfast

Savory French Toast with Cherry Tomatoes and Basil

Lunch

Speedy Fish Chowder
Kale Salad

Dinner

Chicken with Caramelized Onions and Croutons
Seared Lamb Chops with Butter-Braised Potatoes
savory French toast

This was my favorite recipe in this book so far (so far!). I first cooked it in the winter when basil was not as easy to come by. Fresh thyme is a great substitute. I used olive bread to play into the savory Mediterranean theme. Because the instructions were not terribly specific, I just cooked the tomatoes at the same time as the French toast in the same pan. What I ended up with was a magical caramelized mind-blowing version of the Barcelona staple, pan con tomate.

Sam was surprised I presented this as a breakfast recipe – which surprised me. I don’t feel like that happens often. Or maybe it does and that’s what makes him and his writing so charming and approachable. 

kale salad with cranberries, pecans, and blue cheese

You’d think, reading that, that the recipe is basically in the title. But it’s so much more. Candied spiced pecans so simple you’ll make them every time. The perfect balance of texture, temperature, flavor, and sensation. This was – hands down – the group’s favorite.

speedy fish chowder

Of all the recipes, this is the one Sam considers the sleeper. He never expected it to be so well received. I think the recipe’s appeal lies in its flexibility. Any seafood, with or without bacon, choose your seasoning, choose your dairy (or non-dairy), choose your vegetables. Some (like me) started super classic. New England-style. Others went Northern European, adding smoked fish and dill. The interpretation that was most intriguing used coconut milk for cream, shellfish for fish, and fresh ginger and curry for flavor. We all felt like we were using the same (non) recipe despite vastly different outcomes.

chicken with caramelized onions and croutons

My second favorite recipe from this menu – now permanently in my repertoire. I used the same bread as in the French toast. I made olive oil sauteed croutons. For the chicken, I followed the instructions as exactly as one could, in all their simplicity. I served it over arugula dressed with fresh lemon juice and Maldon salt. The flavorful chicken and the crunchy-chewy pillows of roast chicken jus-soaked croutons… Swoon.  

Most people were apprehensive of the simplicity. Herbs were used. Spice blends were used. Croutons were substituted with other things or left out. Again, same (non) recipe. Same satisfaction that can only come from truly engaging with the meal as you prepare it. I think that is the real magic of this book.

lots of play and experimenting

The simplicity of this book encouraged serious exploration. And fun! Soft boiled egg on anchovy toast was big with this group. Crispy pork sandwiches with spicy mayo and scallions made the aforementioned camping trip a huge success. As did the seared scallops with parsley salad. The craziest win? Peanut butter, sriracha, and pickle sandwiches! 

And for those of us who like a little something sweet?

The hot fudge sauce recipe will make a special dessert from your favorite store-bought ice cream any night. 

in closing, as always…

I want to thank Kitchen Arts & Letters bookstore and the 92nd Street Y in NYC. Their beloved live program, Talks & Tastes, had to go virtual and they made it happen in the best possible way. 

And now… registration for the Summer Garden of Vegetables cookbook club is underway!

Our next adventure takes us on explorations of our neighborhood farmers’ markets with a fresh perspective. And we’ll also journey to a few other world cultures through their gardens and markets! Meats and seafood will be included, but the star will be the beautiful colors, textures, and flavors of vegetables from around the world. 

The first of four session will be on Wednesday, May 26. We meet on Zoom at 7 PM Eastern time (4 PM Pacific). Sessions are every other week, the last will be on July 7. Registration is through the 92nd Street Y. The price includes all four cookbooks shipped directly from Kitchen Arts & Letters (if you already have one of them, you’ll get a store credit for another book of your choice).

I hope you’ll consider joining me, and invite a friend or two!

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