The Next Book: The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook

It’s no secret that I’m a complete fool for Cook’s Illustrated.  I learned how to cook from this magazine and it is my single favorite source for reliable recipes.  Yes, their meticulous approach often results in recipes that ask you to do things that are unorthodox, inscrutable, and sometimes seem ridiculous.  Right now I am looking at a recipe from the book for Ultimate Banana Bread and if you think they’re going to let you just mush some bananas and fold them into a batter, you have no idea who you’re dealing with.  Listen to this: “Looking for a way to add banana flavor without moisture, we placed our bananas in a glass bowl and microwaved them for a few minutes, then transferred the fruit to a sieve to drain.  We simmered the exuded banana liquid in a saucepan until it was reduced, then incorporated it into the batter.”  Yes, we’re in exuded-banana-liquid territory.

And yet it is almost always worth it.

The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook represents 20 years of Cook’s Illustrated magazine.  In the press release I received (yes, I am big-time enough to get a cookbook press release.  Can my IPO be far behind?  I am, after all, far more profitable than Groupon) I learned about the process that went into selecting the 2,000 recipes that ended up in the book.  Chris Kimball says “Our editors removed older versions of recipes that we had updated in later issues.  They did not print recipes that our board of editors did not think lived up to our standards.  They omitted recipes that did not make sense within this particular collection.  At the same time, we wanted home cooks to find almost any recipe of note that one would expect in a large American cookbook.”  Still, I like to think of it as the Greatest Hits of the last 20 years.

I will be reviewing some recipes that are new to me but unlike my usual process I can tell you right now that this book is worth buying.  Why?  Because I was able to identify 51 recipes that I already know are amazing.  And I’m not talking about just really good dishes, I mean life altering ones.  How many cookbooks do you currently own that you can say have even 20 good recipes in them?

I was sent a free promotional copy of this book and I tell you this to impress you with my influence in the cookbook publishing world more than anything but trust me, this will not cause me to abandon my semi-professional objectivity.  I cannot be bought for $25.96.  Maybe $35 but certainly not less than 30 bucks.

While I get cooking on new recipes, you can try some of the 51 I have loved for years:

Shrimp Tempura, page 6 (it’s in the appetizer section but we eat this as a main course)
Tomato Mozzarella Tart, page 21
Creamy Avocado Ranch Dressing, page 28 (also great as a dip)
Herbed Baked Goat Cheese Salad, page 41
Chicken Canzanese, page 106
French Pork and White Bean Casserole, page 109
Chicken Tikka Masala, 130
Stir Fried Thai-Style Beef with Chiles and Shallots, page 146
Pad Thai, page 156
Pasta with Tomato, Bacon and Onion, page 176
Pasta with Sauteed Mushrooms and Thyme, page 186
Baked Ziti, page 217
No Fuss Risotto with Parmesan and Herbs, page 227
Ultimate Green Bean Casserole, page 251
Aligot, page 282 (this is why God invented potatoes)
Potato Roesti, 291 (or maybe this is)
Spanakopita, 303 (my vegetarian daughter’s favorite thing I make)
Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Cutlets, 311
Latin-Style Chicken and Rice, 345
Enchiladas Verde, 351
Steak Frites, 379
Ground Beef Tacos, 395 (one of my all-time favorite Cook’s recipes)
Swedish Meatballs, 397
Spicy Mexican Shredded Pork Tostadas (Tinga)
Pan-Seared Sesame-Crusted Tuna Steaks, 452
Garlicky Shrimp with Buttered Bread Crumbs, 456
Grilled Chicken Fajitas, 465
Grill-Roasted Beer Can Chicken, 478
Grilled Argentinian Steak with Chimichurri Sauce, 494
Grilled Marinated Flank Steak, 499
Grilled Shrimp Skewers, 526
Spanish Tortilla with Roasted Red Peppers and Peas, 541
Breakfast Strata with Spinach and Gruyere, 350
Yeasted Waffles, 555
Oven-Fried Bacon, 557 (perfectly cooked bacon every time)
Blueberry Scones, 562
Quick Cheese Bread, 583
Sticky Buns with Pecans, 590
Grilled Tomato and Cheese Pizza, 611
Focaccia with Kalamata Olives and Thyme, 621
Chocolate Chunk Oatmeal Cookies with Pecans and Dried Cherries, 630
Thin and Crispy Oatmeal Cookies, 631
Strawberry Cream Cake, 671
Lemon Bundt Cake, 690
Hot Fudge Pudding Cake, 697 (my all-time favorite dessert)
Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake, 703
Chocolate Cream Pie, 725
Baked Raspberry Tart, 733
Blueberry Buckle, 753
Sherbet, 791
Hot Cocoa, 806

Grateful for the Cooking of Others

Some of you know that my husband, Charles Gerlach, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a bike race on October 1st when he collided with another cyclist (wearing his helmet as he always does). He was rushed to a nearby hospital with an excellent trauma center and went almost immediately into the OR.

In the 10 days since, he has made remarkable progress due to his health, determination, and the excellent care he is receiving. It will be a very long recovery but I feel confident that we will be successful and have our brilliant, kind, super- dad/husband/athlete/friend/neighbor back.

In the meantime, I am so grateful to live in an extraordinary neighborhood where people have rallied around to walk dogs, mow lawns, drive strong-willed teenagers to school, and cook for me. It touches me every time someone takes the time out of their own busy lives to make us a meal and further demonstrates the power of food as an expression of caring, love, and humanity. Thank you all so, so much.

I have also been so comforted by how many people — both old and dear friends and people I’ve never met — have let me know we’re in their thoughts and prayers.  You may think it is a small thing but I can assure you, it means so much.

I will be back to cooking and posting soon, I promise! I’ve got lots of posts ready to go so even though I don’t have my #1 fan to cook for right now, you’ll be hearing from me.

So stay tuned and always wear your helmet. Yes, even on the bike path! Don’t make me pull over and scold you because I will do it!

Come See Me in Person – I’m Real!

You might have thought Kate Cooks the Books was just a clever algorithm and a Heidi Klum-replica robot created by a team of MIT students and run out of an off-shore media lab in the Caspian Sea.  Or maybe you thought that behind all of the cooking, blogging, photography and rapier wit was a highly-trained beagle being developed by Microsoft for purposes best left unexamined. 

No, I’m an actual person.  And I’d love to meet you so think about coming to see me at one of my upcoming free (and remember: you get what you pay for) public appearances:

Saturday, October 1, 1:30-3:00 p.m.

Vernon Area Public Library District
300 Olde Half Day Road
Lincolnshire, IL 60069
(If you come to this one there just might, might, be home-made treats waiting for you.)

Saturday, October 15, 1:00-2:30 p.m.

Fremont Public Library
1170 North Midlothian
Mundelein, IL 60060
(This one will feature book give-aways courtesy of the Lake Forest Book Store)


Fall 2011 Cookbooks

I’ve been looking at lots of soon-to-be-released cookbooks and here are the one that are making me hungry (why do I always do this before lunch???):

As I may have mentioned one or two or 50 times, Cook’s Illustrated taught me how to cook and this book brings together 2,000 “landmark” recipes from the magazine’s 20-year history. It will almost certainly be added to my shelf.

Another retrospective collection, this one from a chef that even Anthony Bourdain calls “the master.” I adore Jacques because 1. he is French, 2. I met him once and he was delightful, 3. His memoir is one of my all-time favorites, and 4. his recipes tend to work.

This was such an influential book for so many people, including my bff Mo. She has been making the breadsticks from this book as long as I’ve known her (and that’s longer than I’ve known my spouse). This revision will introduce the book to a whole new audience and bring a welcome reminder to the rest of us to cook from it again.

If for no other reason, I want to buy this book to endorse a woman who handed the inflated Mario Batali his butt on a platter on Iron Chef. She also has some other distinctions including a little something called a Michelin star for her restaurant Annisa.

I am so drawn to this book despite the fact that I fear I would be signing up for a Thomas-Keller-style culinary beating. As in: this is a cookbook from the proprietor of a high-concept, impossible-to-get-into restaurant, who claims to have re-interpreted his recipes for the “home cook” but who has possibly never met a home cook and envisions her as someone who lives across the street from both Balducci’s and D’Artagnan and just completed a successful IPO. When Grant Achaz and Keller and Daniel Boloud endorse something you know you’re not in for 30-minute meals.

Which brings us to someone who does, more or less, promise 30-minute meals. I have never cooked a Jamie Oliver recipe and I’m always highly skeptical of a cuisine that is primarily defined by its speed. But I would try this book just because I so believe in and support Mr. Oliver’s crusade to upgrade the slop we feed to our children via the public school system. Plus how can you resist a muppet with a British accent?


For starters I made some crostini with chopped up artichoke hearts (canned) and parmesan…

And guess what? My mom made deviled eggs (yes, that mom. And you said she couldn’t cook, shame on you!).

We had a lovely grill-roasted pork roast (from the May/June 2011 issue of Cook’s Illustrated)

Asparagus with Bernaise Sauce…

And cheese muffins (also Cook’s Illustrated, September, 2007).

Dessert. Well, dessert ended up being a Life Lesson. That tiresome one about making lemonade out of lemons.

I used Dorie Greenspan’s recipe for waffles from Around My French Table and I must tell you that there’s nothing wrong with the recipe. It’s brilliant. It was the fact that waffle irons come in many shapes and sizes and, even though Dorie warned me, I did not not put enough batter into the waffle maker. The result was that my waffles never fully browned and they stuck to the waffle maker like hair extensions on a Real Housewife.

Thus the invention of Waffles Hache!


Hey, if they served this to you at Alinea you’d be freaking out over it. And it would all be made of foam and smells.

It was delicious, especially Dorie’s chocolate sauce which I think will be my new beverage of choice. And you know what would be even better than the whipped cream I served? Maple ice cream.

Making these also made me realize how unfair it is that we have narrowly defined waffles as a breakfast food. If we all thought more about serving waffles for dessert the world would be a better place.

It was a lovely Easter. Until the bunnies got into the wine:

Then all the animals went completely berserk:

Come see me at the Lake Forest Book Store!

Yep, I will be LIVE, in person, at the Lake Forest Book Store talking about some of my favorite cookbooks and recipes and answering your (not too difficult, please!) questions! 

(Wouldn’t it be funny if I turned out to be a 10-year-old Icelandic boy and this whole thing was made up? Well, come and see!)

After our exhilarating Q&A, we’ll have lunch next door at Southgate Cafe, featuring recipes from one of the books.  So come, meet me, support a great independent book store, (maybe shop for a great book for that special mother in your life) and eat!

When: Friday, May 6th, 10:30 a.m.

Where: The Lake Forest Book Store, 680 N. Western Avenue, Lake Forest, IL, 847-234-4420

Cost: $35 (tax and tip included).  Luncheon reservations required:, or or call Maggie at 847-234-8800

Hope to see all of you there!

The Next Cookbook is…


I don’t recall the exact moment I first came under the magical spell of the talented Sandra Lee but I think it might have been around the time (2004?) of what I like to call her fabulous Hannukah Treif Cake: a luscious store-bought angel food cake adorned with blue-tinted canned frosting, marshmallows inexplicably stuffed into the center, and non-edible plastic pearls securing its perimeter.  

Of course none of us can go to that much trouble every day, which is why I love cookbooks like this one.  With its creative use of processed and pre-prepared ingredients, they challenge the very notion of “recipe.”  Who says “cooking” has involve anything but heat and the thoughtful choice of Campbell’s soups?  Julia Child is dead people, get over it!

And I know that you will also appreciate doing things the Sandra way.  Like me, you will love how every ingredient is brand-specific with a registered trademark symbol beside it.  And what on earth are you going to do with the time you save by buying RealLemon juice in the plastic lemon-shaped container vs. squeezing it out of a problematic and hard-to-find actual citrus fruit?  (Well, you could work on your tablescapes for one thing.  I’m just sayin).

So pour yourself a glass of April Fool’s Vineyards Rose and let’s avoid cooking!

Off Topic: Lentil and Farro Soup

So when I was in Italy last month (and I never get tired of saying that.  Check back here in 2013 when I preface everything with “When I was in Italy 27 months ago…”) one of the highlights of my trip was a visit to Orvieto, a city once populated by the Etruscans, in Umbria.  It has an absolutely spectacular cathedral and, like a lot of Italy, it’s really just one damn beautiful thing after another.   

Another feature of the town is Zeppelin restaurant and its owner Lorenzo Polegri.  Lorenzo took our group through the market in Orvieto (where I got to sample porchetta, yum yum yum), then demonstrated how to make pasta and a simple tomato sauce, then fed us a memorable meal.    

Me and Chef Polegri. I really only have one chin; this is an extremely bad angle

Arguably the best part of that meal was a lentil and farro soup with some home-made sausage on top.  Chef Polegri’s intern, Nikki Olst (from Colorado) was nice enough to share the recipe with me and I made it tonight.   


It was truly delicious and both my husband and daughter gobbled it up. Before you add the meat and cheese, it’s vegetarian and vegan.  And even with those garnishes it’s still awfully healthy.  You can find farro, as well as many types of dried beans, at Whole Foods.  I would encourage you to salt this dish aggressively and invite all your Etruscan friends over to eat it as it makes about 7 quarts of soup.   

Finally, the next time you’re anywhere near Orvieto, please stop by Ristorante Zeppelin and try to meet Lorenzo; you won’t be sorry!   

Lentil and Farro Soup
Adapted from Ristorante Zeppelin
Makes 8-10 servings
1 1-lb. package green lentils
1 1-lb. package farro
1 lb. of mixed beans
5 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 bunch celery, roughly chopped
3 white or yellow onions, roughly chopped
salt and freshly-ground pepper
olive oil
parmesan cheese
1-1/2 lbs. Kielbasa or other sausage, slice into 1/4″ to 1/2″ diagonal slices
Puree the vegetables in a food processor or, as they do at Zeppelin, run through the meat grinding attachment to your standing mixer.  Add 2 tablespoons olive oil to each of three large saute pans and heat over medium heat.  Divide the vegetable paste equally among the three pots (with one being at least 7.25 quarts) and saute until vegetables are softened, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the lentils to one pan, the farro to another, and the beans to the third, along with enough water to barely cover.  Cover and cook over low heat until softened, about 30 minutes for the farro and lentils, about 2-1/2 hours for the beans.  (Check water often and add more as necessary.  Season each pot with salt and pepper to taste.
Add the content of two of the pans to the largest pan and taste again for salt and pepper.  Heat through.  While soup is heating, sautee sausage slices in 1 tablespoon of oil in large skillet over medium heat.  Set aside.
Ladle into soup plates or bowls and garnish with sausage, olive oil, and parmesan.

Off Topic: Rainbow Chopped Salad

Do I seem a little salad-obsessed? My daughter would respond with a definitive “YES!” Personally, I don’t think you can eat too much salad. And it’s not like I’m ignoring my friends hamburger, cake and alcohol.

So let’s add one more delicious salad to our repertoire, shall we?

This was soooooo good. Lettuce, cabbage, apples, pears, mango, nuts and cheese. And a spunky little red-wine vinaigrette. It’s a great balance of flavors and easily adaptable. Don’t have hazelnuts? Use sunflower seeds. Can’t find a ripe pear? Use jicama. The substitutions are truly endless.

Rainbow chopped salad is from the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit.

Off Topic: Rigatoni with Eggplant and Pine Nut Crunch

This is what comes from reading Bon Appetit right before lunch.  Everything looks good.  Turns out, this dish really was.

This is probably not a weeknight meal as it has a few components, all of which take some time.  But well worth it. 

The first part is an oven-roast of eggplant, bell peppers, and grape tomatoes.  This, it seems, could be adapted in many ways: zucchini, butternut squash, asparagus, etc.  The “crunch” part is a combination of basil, pine nuts and garlic, pulsed in the food processor.  The sauce — canned tomatoes, cream, more basil and garlic –is also whizzed up in the processor and not cooked.  Then you boil the rigatoni.  The whole thing gets mixed together and goes into a casserole dish, the “crunch,” along with some cubed mozzarella goes on top and it bakes for about 25 minutes.  (I found I only had half the required basil so I used 1 cup vs. 2.  In the dead of winter, with those precious little packs of basil going for $2.50 it was just not going to happen.)

Obviously, not a dish that will stand you well for bathing suit season but I think you could cut back here and there to make it a little more healthy without losing flavor.  The cream, for instance, could be half-and-half or you could use less of it.  And it was seriously difficult to put an entire pound of whole-milk mozzarella on top.  You could use part-skim and/or use 1/2 a pound and would not miss it.  And whole wheat pasta would work really well here too.

This is not unlike lasagna but a nice change from it.  You could certainly prepare all of the components ahead and refrigerate them.  You should probably be able to freeze the whole, assembled, dish ahead since it’s so similar to lasagna.  It says it serves 8 but really it’s more like 10 and that could include some seriously hungry people.

This is from the current (March, 2011) issue of Bon Appetit and can be found here on