'The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook' is a big hit with our columnnist

It started innocently enough: A friend brought a kale salad from "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" to a vegetarian dinner party, and I could have eaten thirds, it was so good. I mean, I like kale and all, but when does it ever inspire chocolate-like cravings?

Then I happened to notice the cookbook on the library display shelf. I checked it out and brought it home. Fortuitously, it contained a raspberry-scone recipe, and I needed to make raspberry scones for a column. Whoa. My son and I could have eaten the entire batch in one sitting.

Thanks to our library's generous renewal policy, I had this cookbook on my kitchen counter for more than two months, but finally I was forced to give it up (sniffle). I've buried my family under Smitten Kitchen dishes: Big Cluster Maple Granola. Wild Rice Gratin with Kale, Caramelized Onions and Baby Swiss. Sesame-Spiced Turkey Meatballs and Smashed Chickpea Salad. Whole Lemon Bars. (See recipes.) Plus peach pancakes, a Southwest-style egg frittata, an Asian slaw, a cauliflower pasta dish and a riff on St. Louis gooey butter cake. I'm lusting to make peach dumplings with bourbon sauce when I can just get the time.

I fear I have an addiction.

I confess I don't read as many food blogs as a food writer probably should, so I wasn't previously familiar with Deb Perelman in her native habitat of smittenkitchen.com, which she has run since 2006, when food blogs were in their infancy. The blog is still what she considers her "real job" -- in fact, she needed two whole years to complete the cookbook because of it.

"The book was, to me, a side project that I was working on after I had up what I wanted on the site."

Perhaps her loyalty to the site stems from her unusual success. Let's face it: Food blogs are a dime a dozen, but how many of them yield a decent living?

How does hers?

"I think I got lucky," she demurs. When she started it, she held a day job and ran the site in the evenings and on weekends until she eventually made enough money from ads to quit the day job.

And she lives in New York City, so that tells you how many ads the site had to sell.

More surreal is the fact that she learned to cook by reading cookbooks, messing around in the kitchen and watching the Food Network -- no formal training. In her cookbook intro, however, she concedes that there is one thing that sets her apart from your average home cook: "obsessiveness."

"It's not enough for me to go to a restaurant and have a chicken dish that was mostly good but possibly in need of more acid," she writes. "I have to go home and read about chicken for an hour. I have to figure out where I am most likely to find the best chicken that afternoon and then I have to buy that chicken and go home and weigh all the ingredients and make note of what size the potatoes were and exactly how far into the cooking time I turned them and the texture of the salt and the brand of the vermouth and tweak it and make it again and again until the chicken is just as I had hoped it would be on the day I first ordered it."

In other words, she's got the qualities of a good recipe developer/tester -- someone who leaves nothing in the written recipe to chance. Not to mention a sense of humor, which probably also grabs her a reader or two.

Besides devotion to her website, there was a second reason her cookbook was two years in the making: She had a baby.

At 32 weeks pregnant (according to the cookbook's acknowledgements section), she "waddled" into her agent's office, and by the time she waddled out, she was cooking up a book. The book is dedicated to "Jacob Henry, the best thing I ever baked," and includes photos of him two years after that pregnant meeting.

But the long cookbook-writing process and simultaneous devotion to the blog do not mean that the cookbook recipes were blog discards. Especially in the case of the Whole Lemon Bars, Ms. Perelman often found it exasperating to have to keep her mouth shut about cookbook recipes she was developing. She was accustomed to instant gratification: Discover something delicious, then stick it up on the blog and share it with the world. With the book, she had to wait. And wait.

Those lemon bars were in some ways the hardest to keep secret. Imagine the ease of making divine lemon bars without the hassle of zesting and juicing the darn lemons! She couldn't wait to share her discovery.

One thing the book lacks is preaching. She's not the type to instruct readers to use five different types of sea salt or buy only organic free-range eggs.

"While I agree with the values behind" such things as organic produce and free-range meats -- and she buys many of those things herself, particularly meat -- "it doesn't feel right to me to preach. It's very alienating. I don't know why you'd want to make an enemy of your readers.

"I feel like you should be able to buy the groceries you can afford, where you like to shop, and cook well" no matter what.

So... when is the next book coming out?

Well, about that: There is no next book. Not now, anyhow.

"I'm not done with the first book yet," she said, noting she's planning a fall publicity tour in the U.K. And her top priority at this point is to "repopulate the site with fresh recipes and ideas" because it fell by the wayside a tad during the book mania.

"Two new recipes a week is my ideal pace" for the blog, she said. "If I could write a book every several years, that would be great."

Her fans will just have to wait awhile.

Or check the blog.

Big cluster maple granola

PG tested

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

  • 1 cup unsweetened shredded or flaked coconut

  • 1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

  • 1/4 cup toasted wheat germ

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

  • 1/2 cup maple syrup (or 2/3 cup if a sweeter granola is preferred)

  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

  • 1 large egg white

11/2 cups dried cherries or another dried fruit, diced if large pieces

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Combine all ingredients but the egg white and dried fruit in a large bowl, tossing to coat evenly.

Whisk the egg white in a small bowl until frothy. Stir into the granola mixture, distributing it throughout. Spread it in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet.

Bake for 45 to 55 minutes. About halfway through the baking time, use a large spatula to turn over sections of the granola carefully, breaking them up as little as possible. Rotate the pan if granola is baking unevenly. When it is evenly browned and feels dry to the touch, transfer the pan from the oven to the cooling rack.

Cool completely. Then break up granola into whatever size clusters delight you. Sprinkle in dried fruit.

Granola keeps at room temperature in an airtight container for 2 weeks or even longer in the freezer. Makes about 7 cups.

-- "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" by Deb Perelman (Knopf, 2012)

Wild rice gratin with kale, caramelized onions and baby Swiss

PG tested

For the wild rice

  • 5 cups cooked wild rice (from 12/3 cups uncooked)

For caramelized onions

  • 1 tablespoon butter

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

  • 2 large sweet onions, halved and thinly sliced

  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 4 cups stemmed, ribboned kale leaves

To assemble

  • 2 cups coarsely grated Emmentaler or another Swiss cheese, divided

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

  • 3/4 cup chicken or vegetable broth

  • 1 cup fine, dry breadcrumbs

  • Table salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

Cook the rice according to package directions.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Caramelize the onions: Heat the butter and olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions, sprinkle with salt and a little pepper, and cook until tender and sweet, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Add the kale ribbons and cook until they wilt a bit, about 5 minutes. Stir together the onion-kale mixture, wild rice and 1 cup grated cheese in a large bowl. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if needed.

Assemble the gratin: Use 1 tablespoon butter to generously coat a 2-quart baking dish. Spread the wild-rice mixture into prepared gratin and pour broth over it. Sprinkle remaining cheese over gratin. Toss breadcrumbs with 1 tablespoon melted butter and salt and pepper to taste; sprinkle over cheese.

Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a little bubbly and beginning to brown on top. Serves 10 to 12 as a side dish.

-- "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" by Deb Perelman (Knopf, 2012)

Sesame-spiced turkey meatballs and smashed chickpea salad

PG tested

For the meatballs

  • 1 pound ground turkey

  • 2/3 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from 1 to 2 slices sandwich bread)

  • 1/4 cup water

  • 1 teaspoon table salt

  • 1 large egg

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

  • 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper

  • Pinch of cayenne pepper, or 1/4 teaspoon Aleppo red pepper flakes

  • 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted

  • Olive oil, to coat pan

For the chickpea salad

  • 1 3/4 cups cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed

  • Handful of pitted, halves, and very thinly sliced green olives

  • 1/2 teaspoon ground sumac, plus more for garnish

  • Chopped fresh parsley

  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

  • 1 small garlic clove, minced

  • Pinch of cayenne pepper

  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt

  • Olive oil

Form meatballs: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine all of the meatball ingredients in a medium bowl with a fork, breaking up the clumps of meat until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Form turkey mixture into 11/2-inch, or golf ball-sized, meatballs and arrange them on a tray.

Cook meatballs: Heat a generous slick of olive oil in a large ovenproof saute pan with a lid. Brown the meatballs in batches, being careful not to crowd the pan or nudge them before they are nicely browned. These meatballs are soft, so use a gentle hand. Transfer the meatballs to a paper-towel-lined tray and continue cooking in more batches until they are all browned.

Discard the oil and wipe all but a thin layer from the pan. Return all of the meatballs to the pan and transfer to preheated oven. Bake until a thermometer reads an internal temperature of 160 to 165 degrees, or about 10 to 15 minutes.

Make chickpea salad: Mix all salad ingredients except olive oil in a small to mid-sized bowl. Very lightly smash the chickpea mixture with the back of a fork or a potato masher. You're not looking for a hummus-like puree but something closer to a coarse chop, with a few smaller bits to hold it together. Dress the chickpeas with a drizzle of olive oil and stir to combine. Adjust seasoning to taste. Serve with meatballs.

Serves 4.

-- "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" by Deb Perelman (Knopf, 2012)

Whole lemon bars

PG tested

For the crust

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1/3 cup sugar

  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks, plus extra for greasing pan

For the filling

  • 1 small-to-medium-sized lemon

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar

  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks

  • 4 large eggs

  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch

  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt

Place a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut 2 12-inch lengths of parchment paper and trim each to fit the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan. Press the first sheet into the bottom and up the sides of your pan in one direction, then use the second sheet to line the rest of the pan, running it perpendicular to the first sheet. Lightly butter exposed parts of parchment or coat them with nonstick cooking spray. Set pan aside.

Make the crust: Blend the flour, sugar, and salt together in the work bowl of a food processor. Add butter and pulse until mixture is powdery, but if firmly pinched, will hold the pinched shape. Turn the dough crumbs into the prepared baking pan and press the dough evenly across the bottom and about 1/2 inch up the sides. Prick the dough all over with a fork and bake for 20 minutes or until lightly browned. Should any parts bubble up, gently prick them with a fork. Remove from oven but leave the oven on.

Make your filling: Cut lemon in half. If the white part of the skin is 1/4 inch thick at its widest part, continue on to the next step. But if any part is thicker than 1/4 inch, place half the lemon cut-side-down on cutting board and remove the skin and pith from the entire half in downward parts and discard. The second half can be used as-is.

Cut lemon halves into thin rings and discard any seeds. Toss lemon rounds -- lemon flesh and peel -- in the bowl of your food processor, add the sugar and run the machine until the lemon is thoroughly pureed, about 2 minutes. Add the butter and again run the machine until the mixture is smooth, scraping down the sides of the work bowl as needed. Add the eggs, cornstarch and salt and pulse the machine in short bursts until the mixture is evenly combined.

Pour the lemon mixture over the crust and bake it for 35 to 40 minutes or until the filling is set. You can test this by bumping the pan a little; it should only jiggle slightly. The bars will probably be beginning to brown on the top just a bit.

Let the pan cool completely on rack or in the fridge. Gently cut around the outside of the parchment paper to make sure no sides have stuck, then gently use the parchment "sling" to transfer bars from pan to cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.

-- "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" by Deb Perelman (Knopf, 2012)

Rebecca Sodergren: pgfoodevents@hotmail.com or on Twitter @pgfoodevents. First Published October 3, 2013 4:00 AM


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