One of my favorite cookbooks of all time is Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book.
I was validated in my fondness when I heard that Barbara Haber—the food scholar who developed the famous cookbook collection at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard and a personal hero of mine—included it on her list of favorites, too, along with Julia and other classics.
The book is illustrated by Hillary Knight and the chapters have headings like “Company’s Coming or Your Back’s to the Wall,” and “Last Minute Suppers or This is the Story of Your Life.”
Published in 1960, just when women were seriously coming out of the kitchen and into the office, the recipes often rely on ingredients that are anathema to today’s foodies–things like canned beans and cake mixes. But it’s a great, funny read and a genuine document of vintage women’s lib, before we realized that although we made it into the workplace, we were never going to leave the kitchen, and didn’t really want to, anyway.
This season of giving is also–unfortunately in my opinion–also the season of potluck, of which I am not a big fan. I love to give dinner parties and do so frequently, and I love to attend dinner parties and do so less frequently.
But potluck, where I don’t have control over the menu and no one does, I generally avoid. Everyone in attendance has all the hassles of a guest and all the hassles of a host–the anxiety of cooking something delicious, and the stress of pretending other people’s food is delicious.
So, my favorite chapter in Peg Bracken’s book is called “Potluck or How to Bring the Water for the Lemonade.”
My goals for potluck are something you can make ahead and easily heat up–in a microwave if necessary.
Ironically, the recipe I like is based loosely on one in Julia's Mastering the Art, with lots of variations and shortcuts by sister-chef. It's daube, otherwise known as beef stew, made with fennel, orange and olives. Here's the gist:
Marinate 3 lbs. lean beef cubes in 1/2 cups red wine, a couple cloves of mashed garlic, 3 cloves, some thyme, a bay leaf and 3 Tbsp.fennel seeds (Julia says 1/2 cup gin or brandy is optional) overnight. Drain the meat, strain and reserve the marinade and brown the beef in olive oil until it's really dark. Add chunks of onion and let those caramelize a little, then pour the marinade over the beef. Add the juice and rind of an orange and a couple of chopped carrots. Cover tightly and cook for two hours. Add 1 cup of pitted olives and a little water if it seems dry, and cook another hour.
Let cool, refrigerate, and reheat the next day. You'll want to salt and pepper it to taste, of course, and maybe add some more fennel, maybe some fresh fennel for the last hour of cooking. My sister insists on cassees des baux olives, one of France's DOC olives, but hey.
She's a pro and a potluck is her hour to shine. Some of us are content to get by.