Dear Laurie Colwin,
You are everything I want to be in a writer. Thank you for your book, Home Cooking. As I was reading it I couldn't help circling inventive words and jotting exclamation points in the margins at your turns of phrase. I wish I could craft opening lines like this one:
As a child, while my sister busied herself mooshing the chocolate candies to see which had the best centres, I was happily licking the salt off the pretzels and leaving their sticky bodies on the rug.And I wish I had the guts to use your words to tell some people that I think your stuffing tastes like sawdust flavoured with sage and it has the consistency of lumpy library paste. I think they might take notice!
You have a wonderful way of making me feel at home. It's almost like being invited into your kitchen and drinking tea while you chat and cook for me. You insist that you are just a plain old cook. I started to feel as though you could be my friend when you admitted that you were not an adventurous fish cooker. Thank you for confessing that you do not have (nor want) a frying basket, a charlotte mold, a terrine, a toaster, a juicer, or a microwave. You encouraged me with your simple ideas and instructions.
But you also made me want to try new foods and recipes. Your tales of kitchen horrors and bad ideas hit home the idea that I should always try everything even if it turns out to be a dud. You included some fantastic recipes that I want to try, such as creamed spinach with jalapeño, baked chicken with garlic and apples, and West Indian black cake. Your yam cakes with preserved black beans intrigued me with their interesting components that somehow work together.
Your book was published in 1988, when I was a pig-tailed reader of Nancy Drew mysteries. Thank you for mentioning her, my girlhood hero. I am glad you love chicken salad as much as she did. I am amazed that you were advocating organic food and free range eggs more than twenty years ago. It's clear you loved fresh, tasty food and I love you for it.
I think we could have been buddies. Like you, I am shy around big groups of people and so I like to stay in the kitchen, behind the scenes. I like to concentrate on one or two friends at a party, and so washing the dishes together helps me integrate and be helpful at the same time. For the socially timid, the kitchen is the place to be, you said. I appreciate your coaching for reticent people.
If I could leave my real job, I would love to be a cook and writer like you.
Yours very sincerely,
Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen was the September Kitchen Reader pick, chosen by me, Laurie Colwin's new best friend. (Sadly, she died suddenly in 1992. She wrote another book of cooking essays, five novels, and three collections of short stories.)
Preserved (or fermented) black beans are small, soft, and squishy and can be bought at Asian groceries. They are pungent and delicious added to a stir fry with the garlic and ginger. Colwin adds, They are wonderful with sautéed eggplant for a pasta sauce, and excellent sprinkled on top of a homemade pizza. They are extremely salty, so don't add too many.
Sweet Potato Pancakes with Preserved Black Beans
adapted from Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
makes 9 pancakes
2 medium (450 g) sweet potatoes
6 T (or more or less) plain flour
1 green onion (scallion), chopped
1/4 t (or more) red pepper flakes
2 t preserved black beans with ginger
Peel and grate the sweet potatoes.
Combine the sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the eggs and mix well.
Add the flour a tablespoon at a time and mix to make a coherent batter. You may need more or less flour to make a sticky batter that stays together in clumps.
Add the green onion, red pepper flakes, and preserved black beans and stir.
Heat the olive oil in a pan. Use a spatula to press the batter into small pancakes in the pan.
Cook over medium low heat, flipping once, until golden and cooked through, about 5 minutes per side.
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