I'm sure you know the story of the hungry beggar who arrives in a miserly village with nothing but a kettle. He drops an ordinary stone in the kettle, adds some water and calls it "stone soup".
"It's delicious!" he cries to the gathering crowd. "Now if only I had an onion ..."
One by one, the villagers part with their produce — and their miserly ways. Before long, the pretend soup has become a real one: savory, aromatic and generous enough to feed the entire town.
It's a good story for lean times like these. Fact is, the miracle of dinner is an ordinary one — and these three books make it easy to conjure up mouthwatering meals from the most unmagical of ingredients.
Tasty, by Roy Finamore, hardcover, 448 pages
If there's a prize for Creating a Sensation with the Fewest Ingredients, I think it has to go to Tasty, by Roy Finamore. Marinate a cheap steak in beer and molasses! Watermelon and red onion — chilled in gin! In recipe after recipe, familiar friends from the supermarket rub shoulders in intriguing new ways. I've only had this book for two years and it's already sporting the frayed jacket and smudged Post-its that are a cookbook's badge of honor. And I swear, with every recipe I make from this book, I cook a little smarter.
'The Art Of Simple Food'
The Art of Simple Food, by Alice Waters, hardcover, 416 pages
OK, now I'm going where many have gone before. Yeah, I'm gonna talk about Alice Waters' latest book. In fact, I like to read a little passage of Alice Waters every night before bedtime while listening to public radio and tucking a little sprig of chervil under my pillow. NPR cliche aside, there's no denying the facts: In The Art of Simple Food, Waters does more with celery, carrot, onions and parsley than anybody else I can name. Like the beggar in "Stone Soup," she reintroduces people to simple ingredients as if they're treasures hidden in plain sight — and at the end, there's always a meal that turns out to be more than the sum of its parsnips. If you don't believe me, check out her recipe for A Simple Vegetable Soup (posted below).
So, whether you're a fat cat, a social butterfly or a lone wolf at a table for one, there's no reason not to eat well even in times like these. With these three books — and the mad cooking skills you'll have once you've read them — the table's set in style every night, even if you have to start with just a kettle full of water and one plain stone. T. Susan Chang is an NPR contributor and cookbook reviewer.
Perfect Vegetables, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated magazine, hardcover, 352 pages
Speaking of smarter, sometimes I hate the editors of Cook's Illustrated, because they're always right. But that doesn't stop me from constantly using their books. Perfect Vegetables is my vegetable Wikipedia — the source I turn to when I'm stupidly standing over a cutting board holding a bulb of kohlrabi. Name any item from the produce aisle, and Cook's Illustrated has grilled it, steamed it, baked it, roasted it or done whatever it takes to wheedle out its vegetable essence. Show me a cook who spends eight hours a day testing 12 batches of zucchini, and I'll show you someone who has no time for boring.
Recipe: Alice Waters' Simple Vegetable Soup
This recipe was adapted from The Art Of Simple Food, By Alice Waters.
The simple soup I make most often starts with a base of softened onions to which one or two vegetables are added. The soup is moistened with broth or water and simmered until the vegetables are tender.
First, onions are gently cooked in butter or oil until soft and flavorful. A heavy-bottomed pot makes all the difference for this: It disperses the heat evenly, making it easier to cook vegetables slowly without browning. The amount of fat is important, too. You want enough butter or oil to really coat the onions. After 15 minutes or so of slow cooking, the onions will be transformed into a very soft, translucent, sweet base for the soup.
Next, add a vegetable, such as carrots, sliced uniformly for even cooking. (Otherwise you will have underdone and overdone vegetables in your soup.) Salt generously (enough for the vegetables to taste good on their own) and continue cooking for a few minutes. This preliminary seasoning and cooking infuses the fat with the perfume and flavor of the vegetables. (The fat disperses the flavor throughout the soup.) This is an important technique, not just for soup but for cooking in general: building and developing flavor at each step before moving on.
Now add broth or water, bring to a boil, and reduce to a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are tender but not falling apart. The soup will not taste finished until the vegetables have cooked through and given their flavor to the broth. Keep tasting. It is wonderful to discover how the flavors change and develop as the soup cooks. Does it need more salt? If you're unsure, season a small spoonful and see if it tastes better with more. This is the only way you can find out.
Many, many vegetables will make a great soup when you follow this formula. The only variable is the length of time they take to cook. The best way to keep track is tasting as you go. Some favorite vegetable soups that jump to mind are: turnip and turnip greens; corn, potato and leek; butternut squash; and onion.
A vegetable soup made this way, with a flavorful stock rather than water, and served as a rustic "brothy" soup, will be delicious. (In fact, if the broth is rich enough, I sometimes skip any precooking in butter and add both onions and vegetables directly to the simmering broth.) If the soup is made with water instead of broth, and pureed to a uniform texture, the result will be a more delicate soup dominated by the pure flavor of the vegetables themselves. This is especially desirable for soups made from such sweet, tender vegetables as fava beans, peas or corn. I puree such soups through a food mill, but you can also use a blender, which generates finer purees. Do be careful when using a blender to puree hot soup: Always make sure the lid has an open vent hole to let the steam escape so the whole lot doesn't explode.
Various garnishes and enrichments can be added when you serve the soup. Many cooks finish a pureed soup by spooning in a dollop of cream or stirring in a lump of butter, and a last-minute addition of herbs and spices or a squeeze of lemon can be enlivening. But use discretion; a garnish can overcomplicate or overpower the flavor of the soup itself.
Excerpted from The Art Of Simple Food by Alice Waters. Copyright Alice Waters. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House, Inc.