The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook
by Christopher Kimball
1998. 400+ recipes. 410 pages.
- Shepherd's Pie
-Chicken and Dumplings
It sounds more like the first line of a memoir than that of a cookbook: "The yellow farmhouse described in this book still exists, located just off the main road in a small town in Vermont." In fact TheYellow Farmhouse Cookbook is as much about memory as cooking. Author Christopher Kimball, part urbanite, part country boy, spent his youthful summers in this corner of Vermont helping with farmwork and hanging out in front of the country store. And now, a generation later, he lives in the same community with his wife and children when not in Boston where he is the editor-in-chief of the magazine Cook's Illustrated.
For Kimball the yellow farmhouse is a symbol of a way of life ("where the past is still the present") and a way of cooking ("simple ingredients simply prepared"). The yellow farmhouse is where Marie Briggs, "the town's de facto baker", lived when Kimball was growing up. Many of the dishes in this book are inspired by the kind of cooking he tucked into at Marie Briggs' table after a morning of baling hay with farmhands whose names really were Onie and Herbie. The headings in the table reveal the down-home focus: The Soup Pot, Covered Dish Suppers, Macaroni and Noodles (Kimball notes,"As far as I can remember, nobody on the farm ever used the word 'pasta'"), The Dairy, and The Cookie Jar.
"I make no claims of authenticity for these recipes..." Kimball writes. His purpose is to capture "the spirit of farmhouse cooking". For example, the Lentil Potato Salad with its distinctive tarragon accent is probably not a dish that ever was set down on Marie Brigg's table, but it does have an unfussy, straightforward appeal. Still, it seems a bit of a stretch to include recipes like this one or his chicken with jalapeno and cilantro in his loose definition of farmhouse cooking.
With the Yellow Farmhouse I've enjoyed setting aside my usual cooking repertoire and delving into dishes more akin to the1890's than the 1990's. My husband's praise for the Shepherd's Pie (hearty but not heavy) was, "I think this is what used to be called 'a real manhandler.'" The Chicken with Dumplings was delicious even though my dumplings, a little dense and gluey, were not, I'm sure, up to Marie Briggs' standards.
If you've seen Cook's Illustrated or Kimball's first book Cook's Bible (see cookbook archives for Cook's Bible review) you'll be familiar with Kimball's ongoing quest "to find the best method for preparing a particular dish" whether it's the fluffiest baked potato, the flakiest pie crust, or the loftiest bread loaf. Throughout the book are engaging accounts of the how's and why's of his trial-and-error paths to perfection. Ever since I made his incredibly tender roast chicken from The Cook's Bible , I no longer feel doomed to failure in the meat-cooking department. I had the same kind of delirious triumph with succulent, perfectly cooked meat when I made theYellow Farmhouse's Pork Chops with Cabbage and Apples. His unorthodox method of cooking the chops (brief browning, then baking at a low temperature) is an good example of how he is willing to experiment "outside the box" to achieves the desired results.
Kimball is so meticulous in his testing methods that it comes as a total shock when I try something that doesn't work (a rare occurrence). I swear I faithfully followed the instructions for Sour Cream Frosting. Still, I had to do some quick improvising to keep the chocolate from dispersing into tiny dots rather than blending in smoothly with the other ingredients. The finished frosting was downright photogenic with its smooth, glossy looks. But it tasted downright weird, as if I had, on some eccentric whim, decided to add a few generous splashes of vinegar to it.
In Cook's Bible, Kimball tested cookware that was, for the most part, high-end and high-priced. In the Yellow Farmhouse he tests the kind of tools "a country cook is likely to have in the kitchen", concentrating on thrifty basics. Kimball spends three pages on the history and virtues of the humble cast iron skillet. "After a year of constant cooking in cast iron, I prefer it to any of the expensive cookware for sautéing, browning, or stewing." (Since reading this, I have renewed appreciation for my own old cast iron skillet and have deleted the eighty-five dollar All-Clad skillet from my Christmas wish list.)
The fact that the Yellow Farmhouse is a blend of cookbook and memoir is one of its charms and its weaknesses. Each section of the book opens with a heartfelt reminiscence of his beloved Vermont: depicting the old country store (it's still the town's social hub); relishing family rituals such as pressing cider or plunging into the local swimming hole; recounting stories about long-gone farm neighbors; describing annual Old Home Day at his church or the annual Ox Roast (which does not involve a single ox). Kimball's love of this part of the world- both its community and its surrounding landscape- is palpable, as is his urgency to get it down in writing, perhaps as a record for his children's children, before it disappears. But this narrative might be stronger if it were in a separate book, unbroken by recipes as it is here. The ongoing switch back and forth from Kimball, the unhurried front-porch raconteur, to Kimball, the exacting culinary sleuth and worldly cook, is a bit of a clash. Nonetheless, The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook is richer for Kimball's stories of the place and the people that inspired him to write it in the first place.