Thinking Cookbooks: Home Made Winter

For many, winter is a season of sparkle and bustle followed by long months of cold and damp, stretched-out nights and bad moods. But I love the cold months, love how slowly the days unfold, snow delays and all. Once we’ve wiped the slate clean, hung new calendars on the wall, and set about the making of a new year, I give myself permission to hole up.

The winter months are all about projects around the house and waking up with a cold nose and good books read in the long stretches of darkness. It’s about building the nest for the coming months, which always seem to pick up momentum as the seasons march on. Yvette Van Boven—an acclaimed Dutch cook, restaurateur, culinary editor, and illustrator—seems to see eye-to-eye with me on this matter, which is probably why I’ve spent so much of my January with her whimsical and wonderful new book, Home Made Winter (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2012).

Born Dutch but raised mostly in Ireland, Van Boven has spent a lifetime tinkering in the kitchen, cooking beside her mother who possessed, said the author in one interview, a resourcefulness born of circumstance: “…Ireland in the 70′s. There wasn’t much to buy in the shops at that time.” Van Boven took after her mother’s resourceful creativity, playing with recipes, jotting them down, and soon was pursuing a sort of hodge-podge, art-infused culinary career. As a fellow freelancer, I feel shamed by her seemingly endless capacity for creation – spreading her talents between screen prints, paper cuts, drawing (her hand-drawn illustrations are strewn throughout her books and articles), recipe development and a variety of editorial work.

These days, Van Boven and her husband divide their time between a dark, stylish Amsterdam apartment—where Yvette co-owns a restaurant called Aan the Amstel with her cousin, Joris Vermeer —and a flat in Paris.

Her peripatetic decades seem to have given Van Boven a powerful need for home. In the form of a pantry stocked with preserves; soup-ready roots in dark, dry drawers; a full liquor cabinet at the ready for impromptu parties; and all the fixings primed for her impressive array of cake, cookie and candy recipes. After a tumultuous and nomadic few years, I share these urges. I’ve been spending this winter in Brooklyn—snuggling into my own little kitchen for days on end, simmering pots of Van Boven’s sweet potato and chickpea soup and inviting neighbors for dinner so I can bake another loaf of her apple quinoa cake to share.

In her first cookbook, Home Made: The Ultimate DIY Cookbook (released in the U.S. by Stuart, Tabori & Chang in 2011), Van Boven won hearts and minds with her playful approach to the kitchen arts. Like many of today’s earnest cooks, she’s an ardent fan of building her meals entirely from scratch as often as possible (think gooseberry jam, pickles, terrines and infused liqueurs). But what sets her apart is her aversion to fussiness. She’s quick to offer less arduous routes to home cooked brilliance—Home Made features a recipe for bread “without working the dough” and a whole section on ice creams that don’t demand their own appliances (or even a hand crank, for that matter). Together with not-so-serious photos of the author at work and several step-by-step recipe storyboards (all shot by her husband and often collaborator, Oof Verschuren), the book exudes a sense of curiosity, discovery, and joy, rather than righteous DIY-ism.Home Made Winter strikes the same note, but the frenzy of constant motion—I make this, I travel here, I jump to the restaurant, I hop on the plane—has calmed. Van Boven’s Winter is slower-paced and filled with recipes that suit long, snowbound days. There are soups and stews, grapefruit and lime curd, cured beef sausage, brisket, poached pears with brie, and red wine jelly. In this frantic era in which we find ourselves today, slow-cooked meals bespeak an increasingly rare commitment to staying put.

The beautiful photographs help reiterate the book’s snow-day ambiance —a brick chimney puffs smoke out into a gray sky, and in the interior pages, scenes of Irish winter and snowy Paris streets make me want to bundle up and hunker down. In her portrait shots, Van Boven herself seems to be kicking back. We see her walking her dog with a baguette tucked under her arm, laughing uproariously at a café, and chomping down on a chocolate espresso cupcake.

My favorite recipes in Winter are the ones that make me hungry for a simple weekday dinner. The author’s version of Tartiflette, the traditional potato and cheese casserole from the French Alps deploys a surprise — instead of the traditional bacon, she uses a briny shock of salt cod. The dish, writes Van Boven, is best eaten on the couch, with a spoon, a blanket and a good movie. Her hot whiskey, a fixture in Irish bars, can best express its restorative properties  “after a long walk on the stormy coast”. Now this is the kind of winter friend I can get down with.

Even the dishes she proposes for winter holidays — her mother’s colcannon for Halloween, the almond-filled galette des rois she recommends for the feast of the Epiphany, the spice bread and shortbreads of St. Nicholas Eve, the donut balls she likes to serve on New Years — have a homey feel. And though each appeals, I’m more inclined to the dishes that don’t demand a party in their honor. One of the luxuries of winter is inviting a single friend for a meal intended to be eaten while lounging in sweats.

Van Boven’s success with the first Home Made landed her a double book deal—Home Made Summeris due out this coming spring. I imagine I’ll get a copy and continue to delight in Van Boven’s lighthearted approach. But I’m not sure a book about summer—the season of vacation and picnic parties, concerts and days too hot to cook—can trump Winter.  What sets the book apart is the recognition that these slower months are a gift, an opportunity to turn inward, indulge a bit, and take time for the people and flavors we hold dear. That is to say, they’re about making home. And, if we slow down enough to admit it to ourselves, isn’t that all any of us is really after?