Friday, January 9, 2009

My favorite cookbook you've never heard of

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You know how sometimes you find a random item on sale at a random store, and you buy it because you think, well, it looks interesting, I have a little cash in my pocket, why not? And then it turns out to be something you treasure for years?

This has happened to me with shoes (ah, the tapestry-topped boots I bought at Botticelli in Rockefeller Center in 1988, on a whim, and wore to holes); with clothing (oh, hot-pink-and-wine silk skirt and tunic that saw me through more than a decade, I wish I had you in my closet right now!); and, more recently, with this cookbook.

I was in Palo Alto about eight years back, killing time between meetings, so I stopped at the mall. Which mall? Don't know. Some mall. A big one. With a bookstore, not a big chain, as I recall, something more local. As I thumbed through the stacks on the remainders table, this book, The Cafe Pongo Cookbook: More Than 220 Recipes from the Hudson Valley by Valerie Nehez, caught my eye. Looked homey. The few recipes I glanced at looked fine. It was on sale. So I bought it.

I think I have made more recipes from this book than from any other cookbook I've ever owned, and that includes Julia Child, Martha Stewart, The Joy of Cooking, and many other mega-hits.

There's something about the way Nehez writes that really grabs me. I think it's because she's telling the story, through these recipes, of her largely accidental entry into the restaurant and catering business, which sounds so appealing - the life I wish I had had, maybe. Also, being a native New Yorker who spent a lot of time upstate, I have a soft spot for the Hudson Valley. In fact, last summer when we were passing through the area on our way to Vermont, my nine-year-old son almost convinced me to detour through Tivoli so we could stop at one of the restaurants begat by Cafe Pongo (which, sadly, no longer exists).

I changed the way I cook steak because of this book - cast-iron skillet heated to smoking, kosher salt in the skillet, five minutes on the first side, two minutes on the second side. And the corn-and-scallion pancakes are a summertime staple. The marinated red onions, soaked in a sweet-sour spiced vinegar, add zip to any sandwich and are almost always sitting on the top shelf of my refrigerator in an old pasta sauce jar.

I think the book is out of print, but if you come across it - snap it up. And Valerie Nehez, wherever you are, thank you.

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