After Sunday, Wednesday is my favorite day of the week. Sunday is generally my big cooking day, and Wednesday is my big reading day—since that’s when The New York Times publishes its Dining & Wine section.
I read it (digitally) from start to finish, usually in the morning over coffee, but depending upon how busy I am I may read the section over the course of my day, enjoying the restaurant review over breakfast, combing through the recipes at lunch, later reading and forwarding my boyfriend the wine reviews.
I get a lot of ideas from the NYT Dining section. It’s an endless source of inspiration for my savory cooking, and I get all drooly every time I look at slideshows of holiday cookies and cakes. The photos are amazing, but the writing is the thing; each of the writers brings their own taste and brand of humor to the table, with just the slightest hint of snobbery (this is The Times, after all).
David Tanis and Melissa Clark write a lot about the experience of cooking in a New York kitchen, and as a resident you can sympathize with their lack of space and need for simplicity. Pete Wells has taken over as chief food critic, but he won’t be starting till the new year. Eric Asimov, the wine critic, has been covering for Sam Sifton, who gave up the job over a month ago (going out with a bang – he reviewed Per Se. Nice work, Sam!). Sifton replaced Frank Bruni, who wrote one of the best restaurant reviews I’ve read, as well as a fantastic memoir that I read this year, called Born Round (a must read for anyone who grew up with an insatiable appetite for all things delicious). Julia Moskin and Kim Severson are regular contributors, as is Amanda Hesser, who wrote The Essential New York Times Cookbook, published last year (I think I had that on my Amazon wishlist. If not, Santa – take note). Martha Rose Shulman and Tara Parker Pope also contribute recipes, though the Recipes for Health column they both write is generally featured in the Health section.
Perhaps the one food writer that’s influenced me most in the last few years is Mark Bittman, who quit writing the Minimalist column but still continues to write for The Times. I am prone to complicating recipes, acting on my big ideas without thinking them through, but Bittman consistently reminds me to keep it simple, focusing on getting maximum flavor from a few ingredients, generally ones that are very fresh and in season. Bittman is all about making the act of cooking as easy and un-intimidating as possible, which makes his writing a refreshing change from the likes of Martha Stewart and a host of other well-known chefs and recipe writers who like to say, “Oh, it’s so easy!” but never quite succeed in making a recipe or process simple and straightforward. He possesses the practicality of Alton Brown without all the machinery and overt snobbery, and can whip hundreds of impressive meals together faster (and likely better) than Rachael Ray. Mark Bittman taught me not to be afraid of making pie crust and preparing bulgur as part of a savory breakfast, and most recently, to boldly and fearlessly prepare a prime rib roast and yorkshire pudding for a major American holiday.
Bittman hasn’t written anything new for this week, but his latest piece on cookies is a good read for the novice baker. Once you’ve got the master cookie recipe down, there are endless variations. Also, there’s a picture of Pecan Pie bars. I want!
David Tanis had a delicious looking recipe for a dish I’ve been working up the courage (and budget) to prepare for ages: Fish Stew.
But the best feature of the Dining section today focuses on the memories of holiday meals past, appropriately titled “The Gifts? I Forget. But the meal!”. It’s an interactive piece, featuring Frank Bruni, Sam Sifton, and Julia Moskin, among others. It’s impossible to read without thinking of your own holiday favorites and those truly memorable dishes.
And that got me thinking about the foods that make a holiday a holiday. The traditions behind those dishes, the flavors and aromas we look forward to each year, the labor that goes into making these specialties, and the presentation that demands “oohs” and “aahs” from everyone at the table. These are the foods that defines our holidays, and sometimes they define the people who make them.
What are the must-have dishes at your holiday gathering?