Friday Takeaway: Caroline Pam

  • Kitchen Garden Jim Gipe Photographer—© Jim Gipe 2016

  • Bookcase at Caroline Pam’s house

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Moving is an exercise in memory. The objects we’ve acquired are re-evaluated for relevance in a sort of editing process called packing — and lots of things don’t make the cut. But when I tried to cull my cookbooks, I found I couldn’t bear to let any of them go. 

The story of my life is contained in these books. Each one is like a journal entry capturing a fleeting obsession, notes from a journey, a professional foray. They contain inklings of the person I once was and the aspirations and interests that have led me to where I am now.

It took me two weeks to decide where to put them, but once the cookbook shelf was set up in the dining room, it finally felt like home. 

The most important volume in the lot — my bulging recipe binder — doesn’t even fit on a shelf and resumed its place on top of the case. The binder dates from a cooking class I took in 2001 when I first started getting interested in food. The six-week class covered basic techniques and knife skills and filled my evenings after work as a 25-year-old newspaper editor at the New York Observer.

In the second session, I learned to make compound butter with minced garlic and herbs slipped under the skin of a chicken before roasting. A few weeks later, I served that aromatic chicken with crackling skin to a dozen friends who gathered in my apartment in Brooklyn for a memorable dinner days after 9/11 to cope with the shock and horror of what had just happened. 

Another set of photocopied recipes in the binder dates back to 1996 from my junior year abroad in Paris. Back then, I was a literature student soaking up French culture. I was permanently changed by the piles of purple artichokes, feathered pheasants and wedges of oozing Camembert displayed every morning in the markets. My continued fascination with farmers markets made me the foodie farmer I am today.

That year in Paris, I was lucky to connect with a real Frenchwoman who welcomed me and a few of my American friends into her home kitchen to learn some classic recipes. Each week we’d shop in the market and prepare a different menu of, say, navarin d’agneau (lamb stew), gratin dauphinois (sliced potatoes baked with cream and gruyere) and crème caramel — many of those dishes remain favorites in my kitchen today. After class, we’d walk home with our handiwork, pick up a baguette and bottle of wine on the way and share a rich meal together in my tiny apartment. 

There are so many prized recipes stuffed between those covers —  like my favorite tomato-and-mozzarella tart with pesto crust photocopied from the archives at Saveur during my brief stint as an intern at the magazine. And the beet sorbet recipe I copied from “Vegetables with a Difference” for my Beet Box, a five-course beet-tasting menu I created for the final project for my degree at the French Culinary Institute when I had finally decided to pursue cooking seriously. My classmates at FCI called me “The Book” because I had become such a cookbook nerd, copying recipes from books I scoured at my day job at Kitchen Arts & Letters, the mecca for books on food and wine.

And then, there are all the books I bought with my KAL employee discount… Edna Lewis’s “The Taste of Country Cooking,” where I first learned about foraging for wild edibles and eating with the seasons. Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking” remains my essential food-science reference. And in the “River Café Cookbook Green,” the simple, seasonal Italian approach to vegetables like broccoli rabe and barlotti beans sent me off to a farm in Tuscany to try my hand at growing them. It almost starts to make sense how a city girl like me ended up as a farmer. 

Many of the books in the case speak more to my husband Tim’s culinary obsessions. On the shelf, which he labeled “Favorites” with a retro embossing labeler, sit Andy Ricker’s “Pok Pok” and Travis Lett’s “Gjelina.” He favors Kenji Lopez-Alt’s flavor-driven approach to food science in “The Food Lab” and loves the strong personality of David Chang’s “Momofuku” and Peter Meehan’s “Power Vegetables.” I reap the benefits of these books daily, since Tim does most of the cooking in our household nowadays. 

One book that was notably missing when we unpacked is Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Jerusalem.” Somehow we always seem to lend this one out, so we buy a new one every year since it holds the essential falafel recipe that we crave during cucumber and tomato season.

And I’m making room on the shelf labeled “Kids” for local author and cookbook editor Deanna Cook’s “Baking Class” when my daughter Lily unwraps it during Hanukkah. Lily, who is almost 10, loves whipping up quesadillas, popcorn, and pudding from Cook’s earlier book, “Cooking Class,” and has a growing collection of recipes filling up a binder of her own. 

Caroline Pam owns and operates Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland with her husband, Tim Wilcox. The farm grows organic vegetables, makes award-winning sriracha and salsa and hosts an annual hot pepper festival, Chilifest.