There are different ways to fall in love with a cookbook. Sometimes it happens slowly, as one recipe after another is tasted and proves itself. Sometimes it happens from a distance, as the book is hard to find, or always wrapped in plastic on the shelf at the bookstore (Thailand: The Cookbook, I pine for you). Sometimes the love happens in your arms but before a single recipe has been cooked. The Homemade Kitchen is Alana Chernila’s (of Eating From the Ground Up) second book, and though we’ve only been together a week the feelings are strong.
Alana’s first book, The Homemade Pantry, is about making many common items you would buy packaged from scratch. The book is arranged by aisle in the grocery store, and includes basics like yogurt and ricotta, condiments and spice mixes, and introductions to basic processes like fermenting and canning. Besides the empowerment you achieve by making things you previously bought, the outcomes are truly above and beyond anything from the store. The ricotta cheese recipe is truly life-changing. The end product is creamier and more velvety than I knew was possible, and a completely different food from the stiff and vaguely grainy options I’ve bought before. Car snack 3 (the nutty granola bar) is a chocolate=y bar full of oats and nuts with a salty top that is everything I’ve ever wanted in a granola bar and never been able to buy. Each recipe has two names: ‘potato chips or the strangest thing in the garden,’ ‘macaroni and cheese or what holds us together,’ ‘chicken nuggets or at least it’s protein.’ These titles lead into honest stories about becoming a young parent, moving home to Western MA to start a family, and defining herself as a cook and writer. This cookbook is just about as good as having a great friend in the kitchen to tell you stories and praise your food.
The Homemade Kitchen is much in the same vein. Alana works with each recipe to instill confidence in the kitchen, but also as one shops and makes choices about food. What we eat is increasingly a political statement, and her push is to know what you’re eating but also have the freedom to choose what is right for you to eat. What we eat is a choice, and one that we make multiple times a day, every day. In the introduction Alana reflects on home cooking and says ‘Not only do I get to eat what I’ve made, I also get to delight in my ability to create it.’ This is exactly what keeps me returning to the kitchen to try new recipes or put together a dinner puzzle from forgotten fridge items. I have to eat every day, and yes I could easily rely on someone else for my subsistence, but I get so much more joy from doing it myself.
The book is grouped into chapters under positive phrases. ‘Be a beginner’ is about never being afraid to learn new things and the very basics of the kitchen like cooking an egg and roasting vegetables. ‘Be active’ is about fermentation, ‘use your scraps’ is recipes that make something out of food scraps, ‘be helpful’ are dishes to pass along to someone in their time of need. Each of these chapters starts with a short essay, and my favorite is the beginning of the chapter ‘do your best, and then let go.’ Alana writes about the challenges of the organic label. There is a lot of good that comes from it of course, but also expense and elitism. Wanting to ensure your food is as pure as possible is a goal for many, the reality is for most of us we can’t know the life of every item we eat: ‘In the end, my priorities are as complicated and in flux as the food system that feeds me. I do the best I can, and then I let go.’ As Alana also says, labels are important, but they can be hard to live by for everyone. The reminder that we shouldn’t judge others’ eating habits is an important one, and our system and the choices we can make within it are increasingly complicated. As the rest of the book echoes, eat what feels right to you.
I haven’t made any recipes from The Homemade Kitchen yet. I’m most excited to try out some of the bigger projects, like making tofu and feta cheese. The preserved lemon hummus, braised lamb shanks, a muffin formula with many adaptations, and fettuccine with preserved lemon and roasted garlic are also jumping off the page to me. (Can you tell I have a jar of preserved lemons in the fridge I bought for one recipe and need helping using the rest of?) The photos in the book are lovely, but my favorite is this one for fettuccine with preserved lemon and roasted garlic. Just a bite left on the plate, but you still get a feel for exactly what the dish is (and how delightful it was to eat). This is the kind of cookbook you turn to when you need to figure out a dinner out of things you already have on hand, or want to host a crowd without lots of stress or money. The recipes and stories will be a mainstay in my kitchen, and I’m sure of that before the cooking even happens (sometimes you just know).