Monday, May 16, 2011

Trusting a Skinny Chef: Gwyneth Paltrow’s My Father’s Daughter Cookbook

It’s Saturday morning at 6:45am and I just finished eating one (okay, two) of the oatmeal raisin cookies that I made from Gwyneth Paltrow’s new cookbook, My Father’s Daughter: Delicious, Easy Recipes Celebrating Family and Togetherness. I was introduced to the concept of “breakfast dessert” while visiting friends in Montreal a few years ago and, as someone always looking for socially acceptable ways of consuming more sweets, I immediately loved the idea. Then, while visiting Turkey last year, I was served Turkish delight after dessert…a dessert dessert! I think it’s the European way of prolonging every meal and lingering over food and conversation. Paltrow would approve. Her recipes are about preparing food with love for those we love: using wholesome ingredients to pleasurably create scrumptious dishes. So if my mother saw what goes into these oatmeal raisin cookies, even she might approve of having them for breakfast.

The abundance of celebrity cookbooks (Alicia Silverstone, Suzanne Sommers, Eva Longoria, Trisha Yearwood) makes it easy to dismiss Paltrow’s book as just another marketing agent of her media empire, which includes movies, television and the website/blog Indeed, whenever I pick up a cookbook with a modelesque woman on the cover, I immediate assume one of two things: (1) the recipes are “diet” recipes and therefore insipid and uninspired or (2) the cookbook has been ghost-written and has little to do with the person on the cover. My assumption was dead wrong for My Father’s Daughter. The recipes are tested, tasty and truthful. In fact, almost every recipe opens with an anecdotal sentence about Paltrow’s memories of the dish, how she involves her children in its preparation or simply why she loves it so much. Paltrow’s children are central to this book (she claims that she is her children’s mother every bit as much as she is her father’s daughter) and there are lots of practical tips on how to get children involved in making meals. The recipes not only bring people together for eating, but also for cooking. Children, inexperienced chefs and even just taste testers, can join the culinary action.

I’m always irked when a book opens with a section on “how to use this book.” If you can read, you can use a book. Paltrow explains that to each recipe she has attached a variety of symbols: make ahead, quick, vegetarian, vegan, one-pot meal and dress-up meal. Thanks. I think I can figure out for myself that if the prep time is 10 minutes, it’s quick, and that roasted cauliflower is vegetarian. Paltrow also disappoints when she suggests how to “make it vegan” for many meals. Leaving out cheese, or replacing chicken with vegetables, may make a meal free of animal products, but where is the vegetarian protein? Calling a meal vegan that skimps on taste and protein is an easy way out and a disservice to a growing vegan population. Frankly, I would have expected more from Paltrow.

Paltrow does share my compulsion that cooking is about creativity. Anyone can follow a recipe when you have every perfect ingredient laid out to the approved specification. But what happens when the recipe calls for brown rice syrup and you don’t have any? That’s when you have to open your cupboard and think. You might find that honey or maple syrup will suffice. Paltrow’s insistence on a well-stocked pantry insures that you always have enough ingredients to make a recipe work. Indeed, I relied on my pantry to improvise on a few of Paltrow’s recipes when I didn’t have exactly what she called for.

I confess that I hadn’t the chance to try as many recipes as I would have liked. When I bought My Father’s Daughter, I wrote down my must-try recipes, but I got through less than a dozen:

Maple-dijon roasted winter vegetables – If carrot fries sound unappealing, try adding sweet potatoes and ordinary spuds to the mix and dousing them with olive oil, maple syrup and dijon mustard. This recipe was a huge hit with the adults at my Mother’s Day feast, although the adolescents (who ordinarily love sweet potatoes and even carrots) turned away in disgust and asked if there were any veggies without sauce. So much for making vegetables more appealing to kids!

Balsamic and lime dressing - My Father’s Daughter does not contain many salad recipes – such a shame. With a spring book release, prime salad season is upon us. So instead of following a salad recipe, I decided to make my own green salad and try a dressing from Paltrow’s book. It was satisfactory, but not amazing: heavy on the olive oil (as her other dressings appear to be), hinting at a European flavor. For the North American palette, I would suggest less oil, a little more balsamic and a lot more lime.

Penne puttanesca
Penne puttanesca – Puttanesca is one of my favorite words and dishes. I love how the word feels on my tongue and that it comes from the Italian word for whore. I’d never before made it myself, but when I saw the recipe for this fishy dish, I had to try it. It’s so quick and easy that my husband, Scott, and I dubbed it the foodie’s Hamburger Helper. It tastes fine enough, but unfortunately the taste did remind me of Hamburger Helper. Since I bought a tin of sliced anchovies, I didn’t know exactly how many to include when the recipe called for five anchovies, but one tin was not enough. Next time, I’d double the anchovies and cappers to get that really salty, fishy taste.

Omelet – Scott could never make an omelet properly. Due to lack of patience and proper equipment, it always turned out to be scrambled eggs. But using Paltrow’s foolproof method, even in our pathetic oversized frying pan, Scott was able to produce a perfectly cooked, fluffy omelet with sweet pepper filling. Having a prescribed method gave him the confidence to succeed. It’s a perfect example of the advice Paltrow herself gives to “approach a meal like it’s going to be delicious. When you approach a meal with fear that it’s going to be terrible, it probably will be.”

Paltrow quotes Bill Buford (author of the culinary memoir Heat) as saying,”You can divide people into two categories in life: cooks and bakers.” Paltrow declares that she is the former, while I am definitely the latter. So although less than one tenth of her book is devoted to baking, a greater proportion of the recipes I’ve tried involve the oven. Paltrow claims that baking “is scientific – it allows little room for improve.” Clearly she’s never baked with me. Since I can’t eat wheat, I rarely see a recipe that I don’t modify in some way. There’s room for creativity and improv in everything, including Paltrow’s dessert recipes:

Apple crumb muffins
Oatmeal raisin cookies – I made so many substitutions in this recipe, I’m not sure it can even be credited to Paltrow anymore: almonds for walnuts, rice flour for spelt flour and molasses for brown rice syrup. These cookies follow an interesting method; you have to grind the nuts in a food processor to make nut flour and then add this to the other dry ingredients. Not your typical oatmeal cookie, but I wolfed them down.

Spiced apple crumb muffins –My papa helped me make these. They taste every bit as good as they look.

Seasonal crumble – Simply the best crumble recipe available (and I’ve tried a lot). It’s essential to use unrefined brown sugar because conventional brown sugar is just too sweet. Paltrow says you can use any fruit you choose I used raspberries and Courtland apples.

My Father’s Daughter‘s recipes are solid and fulfill the mandate of being delicious, easy and celebrating togetherness. While there is some culinary philosophy that makes me scratch my head, I like that. I read cookbooks as I would any other book, reading page by page and letting the narrative build. Paltrow tells a compelling story, seasoning the recipes with plenty of family photos. By the end of the book, even if we don’t agree with every word she writes, we grow to trust her.

 Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.

1 comment:

  1. I just made the Oatmeal Raisin Cookies and they taste so bad that I googled to see if anyone else had a similar result! I think your were good because of all your alterations :) Maybe the molasses? I made a few substitutions: white flour instead of spelt flour, raw walnuts instead of toasted walnuts and honey/water instead of maple syrup. I just finished mine when making her recipe for roasted sweet potatoes with spices, which were pretty tasty. I also loved the seasonal crumble (made with fresh picked blueberries) despite not having unrefined brown sugar on hand.