My dad has always been a stickler for family dinners at the table. When I was little, the routine was comforting. Dinner (always served with a big green salad and homemade vinaigrette) was part of what marked our nights at Dad’s house. By high school though, I would sit and glare at the crystal clock on the mantle, imagining all the fun my friends were having without me as they ate Intermezzo salads on Telegraph avenue or met up early to dine on poppyseed cake at Cafe Roma before heading to a party. In my heart of hearts, I still liked the comfort of routine – but on Friday nights I would bribe Dan to switch chores with me, rushing through my meal in my eagerness to be out the door.
Despite this steadfast dinner routine, my dad is a wildly inconsistent cook. This is not to say he is a bad cook – quite the opposite. He is such a good cook that he almost never makes the same exact meal twice. He starts in a very predictable way – meat and onions, sometimes garlic. But he spices things by instinct, rarely measuring and often experimenting. You never know quite what you’ll get – just that it will probably be good.
So it was really not until my stepmom came into our lives that we had the experience of a nightly dinner that actually tasted the same, week after week.
My stepmom loves a good recipe. And if she finds one that she likes, she will keep it with her. Forever. She has a kitchen binder full of recipes, most of them 3 or 4 decades old. Her cookbooks are tried and true, and date from a time when cookbooks were collections of recipes and recipes alone. She is devoted to those dog-eared and browning pages, with no glossy food photographs or travelogues to sexy them up. She brought some of her favorite foods in to our young lives to stay – AkMak crackers, pickled herring, barely-sweetened short cakes, unsweetened whipped cream. The stir-fry that she made almost weekly was perfectly consistent – from the carefully measured marinade to the selection of veggies to the well-seasoned wok that she cooked it in. At least once a week, on her cooking night, we were treated to a precise combination of ingredients that soon tasted as familiar and as comforting as our dad’s deliciously unpredictable meals.
So it was with some surprise that I heard her announcement several years ago that my dear friend Ann’s new recipe collection, The Little Saigon Cookbook, was her favorite cookbook. Favorite? Really? What about the 1970s tomes on whole grains and legumes? That high-carb 1982 thing with the terrific chili recipe, the recipe that she looked up each and every time she made it? All those ancient Sunset clippings? No. This book rose straight to the top of her list, and there it has stayed. And every time it comes up (it is one of those books that, once you have it, does come up) she repeats her declaration: that is my favorite cookbook.
So it might be Ann’s cookbook that we’re talking about, but I’m dedicating this second book giveaway to my stepmom, who first showed me that a recipe could be more than an idea or a vague guideline: it could be a steadfast and consistent truth, a taste that bore repeating.
And the recipes in this book bear repeating. Boy do they! They are open to interpretation, they can be expanded on or tweaked, but they create flavor combinations that you will definitely want to return to. This is a book about Vietnamese cooking in Southern California’s Little Saigon, home to the largest population of Vietnamese people outside Vietnam. Ann grew up in Little Saigon, and she set out to record the recipes that she had grown up with – many of which existed only through oral history. The book has all kinds of recipes – wonderful French-inspired Vietnamese creations (crepes, puff pastries), marinated meats that burst with lemongrass and garlic and the zing of Thai bird chiles, several delectable varieties of Pho. It also has a terrific primer on Vietnamese ingredients and cooking techniques, and is laced with stories from Ann’s family and the other families that make up the Little Saigon community. Like the last book, I hope it is one you will turn to time and again.
So, I want to know: what is one recipe that you always make exactly as written? Do you hard-boil your eggs the same way each time, measure precise amounts of ingredients for vinaigrette, or always use the exact same flour in your pancakes? Where do you value consistency in your kitchen?
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