Food Column January 3, 2020

Confession: I liked the name of this cookbook so much that I decided to write about it. First column of a new decade, lots to talk about, including trends (both successful and otherwise)—but doesn’t “Cooking for Good Times” sound propitious?

Named one of the best cookbooks of the year by the New York Times Book Review, this book provides a game plan and a repertoire of super-delicious recipes. Author and Chicago chef Paul Kahan shows us how to cook amazing food at home while everyone, including the cook, is hanging out in the kitchen. He shares his secrets for low-stress cooking for family and friends, including the following advice:

• There is no particular order food needs to be served in, and no set menu you need to create or follow;

• There is no special wine you need to serve;

• Food can absolutely go straight from the oven to a trivet on the table;

• You want to make as much as possible in advance;

• You will be most successful if you have a small collection of can’t-miss dishes (along with small changes you can make to them).

Kahan settles on 12 basic actions (roast some roots, make some grains, braise a pork shoulder, melt some cheese, make a simple dessert) and then offers half a dozen customizations for each core recipe. A good way, indeed, to make dishes seem new. He also suggests wine and beer options, so you don’t fuss over beverage options. The intent of this book is to make hosting more relaxing, fun and delicious—and it succeeds.

He also includes things to eat while cooking: Spanish smoked oysters with crackers, for example. Kahan lives in Presque Isle, Wisconsin, where he has a cabin at the very top of the state. His Chicago restaurant, avec, showcases both Mediterranean flavors as well as specialties of the Midwest. He says he likes to escape to his cabin, where he can spend time “surrounded by the quiet of unspoiled wilderness.”

An award-winning chef and cookbook author, Kahan is obviously no stranger to good food and drink. He shares his home cooking secrets and techniques from the restaurant in equal measure. Consider his recipe for marinated olives: “We started making these out of necessity at avec—we were getting so slammed that we needed something to drop on the table with the bread.” To be sure, these olives, served with warm bread, are perfect with a glass of wine or beer while one waits for dinner. Use the bread to soak up some of the flavored oil, add a wedge of cheese, and you might not even need dinner!

I am often surprised by the number of people for whom entertaining is a chore. Not with this book. Hosting can quickly become relaxing—as well as fun and delicious. He doesn’t want his recipes followed with military precision. His modus operandi is “there are no rules,” so if you want to put together a whole meal out of the first two chapters (“Make some food to eat while you cook” and “Add some cured meats and grilled sausages”), “feel free,” he advises.

In fairness, there are a couple of recipes not for the beginning home cook. His deluxe focaccia is a little challenging, but the recipe that follows it, for pita out of pizza dough, is remarkably simple—and worth the effort. Regular readers of this column probably have their own tried-and-true recipes for making bread, but, as Kahan suggests, this is about having fun in the kitchen—so if you want, make your own bread—or have someone bring some.

The dessert section is rather limited but once again, you can ask for help in the form of a contribution to the dinner, or try making his posset and/or his simple olive oil cake. I know that the cake is a true winner, and the toppings for it allow for many variations.

If you like simple yet delicious food, and want to learn to share it with friends and family, this is the book for you. What’s fun about Kahan’s ideas is that you can mix and match, move here and there, just fool around…which is exactly what he wants. Here are a few recipes from “Cooking for Good Times”—a great way to start 2020!

Panzanella With Hearty Greens, Honey Roasted Squash and Pear

2 cups torn and toasted bread

1 recipe apple cider vinaigrette

1 recipe honey roasted squash

½ cup thinly sliced red onion

1 cup sliced pear (you choose what kind)

2 cups hearty greens such as kale, sturdy spinach or dandelion greens, cut into bite-sized pieces

½ cup shaved Parmigiano cheese

1 tsp kosher salt

6 cranks black pepper

Make the toasted bread:

½ loaf day-old good bread

1 TBSP each: butter and olive oil

½ tsp each: minced garlic, herbes de Provence or thyme leaves, and kosher salt

Tear the crust off the bread and set it aside; tear the inside into rough, shaggy, one-inch pieces, then tear up the crust and measure (should be 2 cups) out into a salad bowl. In a small saucepan, melt the butter with the oil, garlic, herbes de Provence, and salt; mix well, then pour over the bread and toss, squeezing the bread to absorb all the oil and butter. Spread the mixture on a rimmed baking sheet in a single layer and toast for 10 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven; shake the pan and continue toasting until bread is golden brown and crispy, but not hard. Return the bread to the salad bowl.

Make the vinaigrette:

2 TBSP apple cider vinegar

¼ cup olive oil

2 tsp minced shallot

1 tsp each: Dijon mustard and fresh thyme leaves

½ tsp each: honey and kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a small jar and shake to combine; this recipe makes more than what you will need for this particular salad.

Make the honey roasted squash:

½ lb winter squash (butternut, delicata, or acorn)

1 TBSP each: olive oil and honey

½ tsp each: kosher salt and fresh thyme leaves

¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper

Cut off the ends of the squash and slice it in half lengthwise; remove the seeds and cut it into ¼-inch slices. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss all the ingredients together until evenly coated; place in a preheated 350°F oven for 8 minutes, until the squash starts to sizzle. Stir the squash and roast another 5 minutes, until the squash is golden brown and tender, but not falling apart. Remove and let cool.

Put it together and serve:

Toss the bread pieces with a quarter of the vinaigrette and let them sit for a few minutes to soften slightly; add the squash, onion, pear, greens, cheese and salt and pepper and give the salad a good but gentle toss, being careful not to break up the squash too much. Taste and add more vinaigrette if desired, or serve the dressing on the side.

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