50 Best Cookbooks of All Time

A16 cookbookA few years ago The Guardian published a listing of the 50 best cookbooks of all time, many of which were James Beard award winners, so of course I was intrigued. It’s a bit embarrassing, I admit .. but my bedtime reading is usually in a cookbook or the latest Food & Wine magazine. I’ve acquired several of the cookbooks on the list, and one of my favorites is A16 Food + Wine.

gnocchiWe traveled to San Francisco with our BFFs a few days before Christmas, and were fortunate enough to be able to book a table at the A16 restaurant. Having enjoyed several recipes from the cookbook, I was super excited to dine there. Our dinner and dining experience was fabulous! All 4 of us ordered different dishes and rather than sharing a bottle of wine, we asked our server for her pairing recommendations. pizzaShe was extremely knowledgeable, and knew exactly which wines to select (and she didn’t just choose the expensive ones!). Check out these photos of my gnocchi and Curt’s pizza. YUM! What I love about their dishes is the simplicity and use of fresh ingredients.

When we returned home from Christmas travels, I was anxious to crack open my cookbook again and made this pasta dish for New Year’s Day.

BucatiniBucatini with Oven-Dried Tomatoes, Garlic, Chiles and Bottarga
Pair with Cagnulari (Sardinia) Serves 4 as a main course, or 6 as a first course

Kosher salt
Extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, smashed with the side of a knife
1/4 teaspoon dried chile flakes
2 cups oven-dried tomatoes (recipe to follow), each tomato cut into thirds
12 ounces bucatini
1-ounce piece bottarga for grating (sadly my go-to Italian market, Claros, was out of bottarga so I settled for grating parmigiano reggiano cheese on top)

bucatini recipeBring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.

Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and chile flakes and sweat, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes, or until the garlic has softened. Stir in the tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, or until the tomatoes have plumped up. Taste saucefor seasoning and add salt if needed, keeping in mind that the tomatoes are seasoned and the bottarga is salty, so you need to proceed cautiously.

pastaAdd the pasta to the boiling water and cook for about 1 minute less than specified on the package. Drain the pasta, reserving about 1 cup of the cooking water, and return the pasta to the large pot over medium heat. Add the sauce to the pasta along with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and toss well, adding some of the reserved pasta water if needed to loose the sauce. If the sauce is too loose, turn the heat up to medium-high and cook down the sauce with the pasta. It should be loose enough to barely pool at the bottom of the pot, but not too watery. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

Serve the pasta in a warmed large bowl, family style. Grate the bottarga over the top to finish and serve immediately.

dried tomatoesOven-Dried Tomatoes
Makes 2 cups

1 1/2 pounds kosher salt
15 San Marzano tomatoes (if you can’t find San Marzanos, use ripe Roma tomatoes in their place)
About 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Spread the sale on a 13-by-18-inch rimmed baking sheet, creating a layer 1/2 inch thick. Core the tomatoes and halve them lengthwise. Arrange the halves, skin side down, in rows on the salt layer. Bake for 6 hours, or until the tomatoes are completely dried and look like sun-dried tomatoes. (If you have a convection oven, turn the fan on; the tomatoes should be dry in about 3 hours.)

Remove the tomatoes from the sale (the salt can be reused for another batch) and pack them into a container with a tight-fitting lid. Pour in olive oil, cover, and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Italy, part 2

PeperonataTo begin our culinary indulgences that evening, I found a recipe in one of my favorite Italian cookbooks, the award winning “A16 Food + Wine” by Nate Appleman & Shelley Lindgren.  A16 is an acclaimed restaurant in San Francisco, named after the highway that cuts across southern Italy.

Bruschetta with Ricotta and Peperonata
6 bruschette (or a baguette)
1 1/2 cups fresh ricotta, drained if necessary and at room temperature
Kosher salt
2 cups peperonata (recipe to follow)
Extra virgin olive oil

Taste the ricotta.  If it seems bland, mix in a pinch of salt.  Divide the ricotta evenly among the bruschette, and then top with spoonfuls of peperonata.  Note – since I had a lot going on with this dinner, rather than making individual bruschettes, I sliced a baguette in half lengthwise, then cut into lengths that fit in my Calphalon panini press and toasted until golden, then cut into 1 1/2 inch bite-sized strips.  This worked well as a “ricotta and peperonata delivery device!”

Although they are not as sweet as red and yellow bell peppers, Gypsy peppers are perfect for making this bright, versatile condiment, particularly in the late summer when this medium-sized, tapered variety has turned from green to shades of yellow or red.  If you cannot find Gypsy peppers, use a combination of red, orange and yellow bell peppers.  Stay away from green bell peppers as their grassy flavor will overwhelm the more nuanced character of the others.  This recipe makes about 6 cups.

2 1/2 pounds Gypsy or red, orange and yellow bell peppers
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons capers, soaked and rinsed in water
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 red onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1/2 fennel bulb, cored and diced
1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Roast the peppers: cut off the stems, then cut lengthwise, removing the seeds and membranes.  Pre-heat the broiler.  Press peppers to flatten, then place on a half sheet pan and slide under the broiler.  Broil until skins are charred, then remove from oven and place peppers in a bowl; cover tightly with plastic wrap – this creates steam, which will loosen the skins –  rest until cool enough to handle.  Remove skins (they should slide right off). Tear the peppers into roughly equal pieces about 1/2 inch wide.

PeperonataIn a large pot, heat the 1/2 cup olive oil over medium heat.  Dab the capers dry with a paper towel, and add them to the hot oil.  Fry the capers for about 1 minute, or until they bloom and become crispy.  Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes, or until the paste turns from bright red to brick red.  Stir in the onion, fennel, chile flakes, and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until the onion and fennel are tender.

Deglaze the pan with the vinegar, dislodging any browned bits from the pan bottom, and stir in the peppers.  Cook for a few minutes, taste for the seasoning, and adjust with more salt or vinegar if needed.  At this point, the peppers can be served warm or at room temperature.  Or, let cool completely and store in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

For our salad course, I decided to keep it simple, and selected another of my favorite recipes from A16, a cucumber salad with fresh ricotta cheese.

Cucumber Salad with Ricotta, Almonds and Bottarga
3 small to medium Persian cucumbers or 1 1/2 English (hothouse) cucumbers
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, or as needed
2 cups fresh ricotta, drained if necessary
1/4 cup whole natural almonds, toasted and coarsley chopped
1-ounce piece bottarga for grating

Slice off a piece of cucumber and taste it.  If the skin is bitter, peel the cucumbers. Otherwise, keep the peel.  Halve the cucumbers lengthwise and remove the seeds with a spoon.  Cut the cucumber halves crosswise. (If you are using an English cucumber, you will need to cut the halves crosswise into 2 or 3 pieces before quartering them.) Quarter each half lengthwise, then cut again into narrow, fingerlike wedges. They should be about 4 inches long. In a bowl, toss the cucumber wedges with 1/4 teaspoon salt, the olive oil, and the lemon juice. Taste for seasoning and add more salt or lemon juice if needed. Set aside.

Taste the ricotta. If it tastes bland, mix in a pinch of salt. Place an equal amount of the ricotta, about 1/3 cup, in the center of 6 plates. Divide the cucumber wedges among the plates, arranging them around the ricotta. Sprinkle the almonds over the ricotta and cucumbers. Using a Microplane or other fine-rasp grater, grate a generous amount of bottarga over each salad. Serve immediately.

During our first trip to Napa Valley, Curt and I were so fortunate to dine at Ad Hoc, one of Thomas Keller’s restaurants. After we polished off our main course, our waiter appeared with a cheese board and this was my first introduction to the idea of serving an after-dinner cheese course. It was such a treat!  So, after our oso bucco plates were cleared, we all enjoyed a few tasty bites of proscuitto from my favorite local Italian market, Claro’s, and some yummy cheeses.

zabaglioneSelecting our dessert course was difficult .. so many delicious options! I came across a recipe on Better Homes & Gardens webpage that sounded amazing, albeit somewhat decadent, and it was decided .. Layered Chocolate Zabaglione Cream Cakes.

There are 3 components to this dessert: chocolate cake, white chocolate cream frosting and white chocolate zabaglione sauce. Curt (my hubby) found a Ruffoni zabaglione pot on eBay that still had the wedding gift tag on it .. I sure like the way the copper causes the eggs to set up properly.

Layered Chocolate Zabaglione Cream Cakes
Makes 12 servings

1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate
6 eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup sifted cake flour
White Chocolate Cream Frosting (recipe below)
White Chocolate Zabaglione Sauce (recipe below)
Fresh berries (optional but makes for a beautiful presentation!)
White and/or bittersweet chocolate curls or shavings

Grease a 15 x 10 x 1-inch baking pan. Line bottom with parchment paper or waxed paper; grease paper and set aside. In a small saucepan combine butter and bittersweet chocolate. Heat and stir over low heat until melted; set aside to cool. Allow eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs slightly. Add sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon; beat with an electric mixer on high speed for 10 minutes. Sift about one-third of the flour over egg mixture. Gently fold in flour. Repeat sifting and folding in one-third of the flour at a time. Gently fold in melted chocolate mixture. Spread batter in prepared pan.

cakeBake in the preheated oven for 18 to 20 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Remove cake from pan and peel off paper. Cool cake completely on a wire rack. Cut cake into 24 squares or 2- to 2-1/4-inch circles.

Just before serving, place a cake square or circle on each of the dessert plates. On each cake square or circle, spread about 3 tablespoons White Chocolate Cream Frosting. Top each with a second cake square or circle. Spoon White Chocolate Zabaglione Sauce over cakes, allowing some to flow down sides. If desired, garnish with fresh berries and chocolate curls.

White Chocolate Cream Frosting
3/4 cup whipping cream
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon white chocolate liqueur or clear creme de cacao (found this at Bev Mo)

In a large mixing bowl, beat whipping cream, powdered sugar and liqueur on high speed of an electric mixer until stiff peaks form (tips stand straight). Use immediately.

White Chocolate Zabaglione Sauce
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup white chocolate liqueur or clear creme de cacao
1/4 cup granulated sugar
Dash salt
1/2 cup whipping cream

In the top of a double boiler, beat egg yolks with white chocolate liqueur or clear creme de cacao, sugar and dash salt. Place over boiling water (upper pan shouldn’t touch the water). Beat on medium speed of an electric mixer until mixture nearly triples in volume and temperature reaches 145 degrees, and maintains that temp for 3 1/2 minutes (about 15 minutes total). Remove from heat. Place pan in a larger bowl of ice water and continue beating until zabaglione has cooled.

zabaglioneIn a small bowl, beat 1/2 cup whipping cream on medium speed until soft peaks form (tips curl). By hand, fold about one-fourth of the whipped cream into zabaglione to lighten; fold in remaining whipped cream.