It probably could go without saying — so much has changed in our world over such a short period of time. While the way I work towards writing cookbook reviews hasn’t changed (I do all my cooking at home, and all of the writing too), I’ve taken a pause to think about what purpose my reviews will serve. Without a doubt, I want to continue supporting the people who write and publish books and, I think that during this time, many of us are changing the way we operate our kitchen. Before I went back to work last year, I was an at-home parent who cooked three meals a day and, then, I went back to work. Lunches, no longer made at lunchtime, were packed in the early morning hours before everyone got up and, dinners needed to be uncomplicated so that I could easily make them when I got home after work. Since the “crisis,” I’m back in my old routine of cooking three meals a day and I’m still looking to cookbooks for straightforward recipes.
Throughout the month of March, I’ve been steadily cooking from Susan Spungen’s latest cookbook, Open Kitchen. Her book has bridged the gap from how I was cooking in the “before times” (as Stephen Colbert puts it) to how I’m cooking now. While the philosophy behind her book looks to guide the home cook towards making delicious food to enjoy with family and friends, I think that even during this time when gatherings have been put on pause, Open Kitchen offers home cooks a way to use her concept of “get-ahead cooking” so that putting meals on the table isn’t a chore but something to look forward to. Spungen wants home cooks (and those they cook for) to be able to savour a meal without fussing in the kitchen.
One of the reasons why I find Open Kitchen so useful now is because the recipes rely on fresh ingredients, as well as pantry staples. Going to the grocery store daily or going to multiple stores to source ingredients doesn’t fit our current system, so any cookbooks that allow you to use what you’ve got are essential. Even if you don’t have some of the ingredients, Spungen’s recipes are flexible enough so that you can omit and/or substitute ingredients. For example, when I wanted to try her recipe for Kabocha Candy w/ Yogurt and Toasted Pepitas but only had buttercup squash, Skyr (a thick, Icelandic yogurt), and pistachios I went ahead with the recipe anyways. At first my daughter wasn’t hip to eating the squash and its skin, once she tried it, she was in love — but it was just as Spungen said it would be like: candy. And, substituting buttercup for kabocha isn’t really a stretch — both have a tender and thin skin that can be eaten after it’s roasted and, the combination of flavours and textures here, from sweet and tart to creamy and crunchy, makes this dish something to savour.
The recipes are organized into 6 main chapters: Sauces, Sprinkles, & Stuff, Simple Starters (Meat, Poultry, Fish/Shellfish, Vegetarian), Salads, Vegetables, Starchy Sides, and Desserts. She offers advice on how to stock your pantry and what kitchen equipment to use. And, since this book is about how to cook for gatherings, she offers a variety of menus to suit different occasions. Regardless of the reason who you’re cooking for, what Spungen says in her introduction rings true — by cooking for your loved ones “[you] want [your] friends to feel cared for and considered.” This sentiment is especially key during these times. I think in the coming days, weeks, and months we’ll be building our inner lives in such a way that we find purpose in the small things and acts. And, one of these acts will be nourishing our bodies and souls. Cooking and baking do this for me. Last week, when my daughter and I baked the Plum Buckwheat Bars, I knew we were holding onto the normalcy that cooking together brings. Then, to sit down in the afternoon to enjoy a warm slice of these jammy, crumbly pie bars, felt so comforting.
I really appreciate how Spungen consistently uses her pantry staples in satisfying and interesting ways. When I open a cookbook what I’m looking for are recipes that offer something unique. Even something as ubiquitous as banana bread has been made more special through her use of buckwheat flour and tahini. Speaking of tahini, its an ingredient that Spungen uses to great success in Open Kitchen. The sesame seed and all its related forms have found their way into many of her recipes. Most of us probably have a jar of tahini lurking in the fridge for those times we make hummus but what Spungen does here is to take this humble ingredient and give it new purpose. From the tahini in the gorgeously smooth sauce for the Za’atar Tofu Bowls and in the Black and White Tahini Swirl Cookies to the halvah in the frangipane of the Apple Galette (along with a few recipes I haven’t tried yet) she demonstrates how delicious and versatile this ingredient is. Even though the black tahini would be a special-order ingredient for most people, these cookies can be made entirely from regular tahini — I highly recommend trying this recipe because the cookies are so delicious! They’re at the top of my list for best cookies ever — a combination of shortbread and peanut butter cookie (I baked them in the same shape Spungen used for a similar cookie that appeared in the NY Times Cooking section in December but I used the recipe from Open Kitchen).
After trying almost a dozen recipes, Open Kitchen has become a welcome addition to my cookbook shelf. And, I find there are so many recipes on my list still to try — the Meyer Lemon Gnocchi w/ Spring Vegetables and, the Shaved Rhubarb and Beet Salad w/ Rhubarb Vinaigrette are two notable examples. Lots of “vegetarian (or nearly)” recipes (lots of “Meatless Monday” inspiration) in addition to other more meatier ones. Spungen takes care of everyone! I appreciate how thoughtful Spungen is about what ingredients she uses and which recipes she included in her book, which is why it’s one I’ll keep going back to for recipes and inspiration. (As a side note, with Mother’s Day approaching in a couple of months, Open Kitchen would make a lovely gift too). If you’re curious to see what we’ve been enjoying, then checkout my custom Instagram hashtag #eatworthyopenkitchen or my dedicated Facebook post.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Susan Spungen and Avery Books for providing me with a free, review copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.