One day during my junior year (2003) at Florida State University, I was browsing the bookshelves at our campus bookstore. This was in the days when Kindles and Nooks didn’t exist, and if we wanted to read, we actually bought something that had paper and a binding that housed typed words and we flipped pages. I think they’re called books. Anyway, as I browsed, a volume called Cooking For Mr. Latte caught my eye. It had a white cover with a charming illustration, and this book changed my life.
I have always loved cooking. I have always loved writing. I never, in a million years, actually thought it was possible to combine the two. After I finished reading Cooking For Mr. Latte, probably thirty-six hours later, I marveled at how deftly and seamlessly Amanda Hesser had crafted a cookbook, dating manual, and narrative that actually never felt at all like one or the other. I loved the chapter about her Maryland grandmother who says “turrible,” because my own Virginian granny pronounced it that same way. I owe my love of baking and cooking to my granny, and this book brought back a flood of nostalgia for her kitchen that, now that she is gone, both stings and salves.
The book, a compilation of her Food Diary columns, centers around her courtship with Tad Friend, a writer for the New Yorker, and it begins with the first date (blind) and ends with their wedding. Although it is mostly amusing, it touches upon those moments in our lives (fights with a lover, the 9/11 terrorist attacks) in which food becomes much more than sustenance. Here in the South, especially, food is life, both celebrated and mourned. When I heard of my granny’s death, I opened my cupboard, searching for the four squares of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate necessary to make her signature funereal dish: Bereavement Pie.
From this book, I learned about truffles, Champagne, how to eat well on an airplane (the secret is a baguette and proscuitto), the venerable (and seriously intimidating) Jeffery Steingarten, Meyer lemons, and the delights of lamb. I discovered beets, crème fraiche, homemade mayonnaise, and Asian five-spice powder. I have about a handful of go-to recipes, dishes I have made countless times, which I can attribute to this book. Seven words looped over and over in my brain for weeks after reading this book: I want to be a food writer.
Now, this isn’t exactly some success story where I now reveal that I’m the Times’ newest food editor. That is never going to happen to this college English instructor, but I can say that Cooking For Mr. Latte created, nurtured, and solidified my passion for food. When a small newspaper in the tiny Montana town I lived in asked me to write a food column, I got my chance. Our readership was small, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that I wrote about food. After I moved away from Montana, I began this blog, Mixing in Mobile. Hesser, in one chapter, recounts a meeting with Julia Child and how much Julia influenced her cooking. I adore Julia, and I have all of her episodes on DVD, but as far as influence, Amanda is my Julia.
While living in a small town in Montana in 2005 and re-reading the book for the umpteenth time, I glimpsed the email address, Lattebook@aol.com, on the back cover. I just had to email Amanda Hesser and tell her what her book meant to me, as well as discuss our mutual favorite restaurants/food shops in the Boston area. In her response, she thanked me for the message and asked how I was coping without Cambridge’s Formaggio Kitchen. She also wrote that she was currently pregnant with twins and sitting at her kitchen table having breakfast with Tad, (a.k.a. Mr. Latte). I, then a newlywed, remember feeling thrilled at the success of this relationship I had rooted for from page one, and then I marveled at how this book had entrenched itself so deeply in my heart. What follow are a few of my favorite dishes inspired by Cooking for Mr. Latte, one of my favorite food-stained and battered books on my kitchen shelves to this day.
Beet Salad with Goat Cheese and Blood Orange VinaigretteServes 6
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte
This is one of my absolute favorite salads. I got the inspiration for this salad in her chapter for airplane food, minus the beets and plus asparagus. While I have never brought it with me on a plane, there's always my next flight. I am fully aware how passé the beet salad is, but I love beets, and I love goat cheese, and I can't deny this salad a place at my table. We'll just call it ironic. I'm also not much for "fussy" food, but when preparing this for a dinner party, I like to create little stacks of beets. It’s quite easy if you have a toothpick handy, and the murmurs of appreciation from your guests are worth the extra five minutes.
6 large beets, scrubbed, trimmed and rubbed with olive oil
a handful of arugula, washed
4 oz goat cheese
juice from ½ of a blood orange
juice from ½ of a lemon
¼ cup of olive oil
minced herbs of your choice (basil, tarragon, thyme, oregano, etc.)
1 shallot, minced
Dijon mustard to taste
salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and wrap the beets in tinfoil. Place the tinfoil packet on a sheet pan to catch any drips and roast the beets in the oven for an hour. While the beets are roasting, prepare the dressing. Whisk the juices together with the herbs, shallot and a dollop of Dijon mustard. Whisk in the olive oil gradually and season with salt and pepper.
When the beets are are cool, rub them with a paper towel under the faucet to skin them.
Slice each beet in four slices. If you need to, trim a little bit from the bottom of each beet so it can stand on a plate. If you use a serrated knife, you get pretty little grooves in the surface of the beet. To assemble each stack, place a beet bottom on a plate, top with a few arugula leaves, some knobs of goat cheese, and another beet slice. Repeat until the top, and put a toothpick in the middle. Drizzle each serving with the vinaigrette. Don’t forget to warn your guests about the toothpick.
Garlic Rosemary Lamb Chops
Adapted from Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte
For me, lamb wins out over beef any day of the week. This is a simple preparation, but the garlic and rosemary both highlight and soften the intense flavor of the lamb. In Montana, where lamb was quite inexpensive, I probably prepared this recipe at least three times a month.
3 lbs loin lamb chops
1/3 cup chopped rosemary
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 /2 cup olive oil
UPDATED: Amanda has a new blog: Lemon Baby, where she still blogs about her culinary adventures. Check it out by going to lemonbaby.co!