Still Life with Menu by Mollie Katzen
A keeper? OH no.
Another book that sounds really good…until you try to cook from it. Still Life with Menu is a vegetarian cookbook with, well, menus – instead of the usual cookbook structure of recipes organized by type or by main ingredient, this is the kind of book that gives you lots and lots of menus, with the recipes for each meal grouped together. It’s a wonderfully convenient type of organization if you want to make that whole meal just as the author planned it; not so much if you’re curious about what you could do with some particular ingredient, or you’re trying to decide what to make for dessert.
Yes, but no matter how a cookbook is organized, the first question is always “Would you want to eat this food?” I decided to try the Banana Cheese Empanadas (Latin American turnovers), because at a quick glance the recipe sounded easy, appealing and unusual.
Well. It was unusual. I’m not sure it was ever tested, though.
The first problem crops up when you start to make the dough for the turnovers – it’s just flour and water (well, a bit of salt). And not enough water. Moistening all the flour was impossible. Bad start. (I checked a couple of Mexican cookbooks, and found that their empanada recipes called for pastry; flour and water, yes, but also some fat. Maybe Katzen was following the low-fat-no-matter-what approach; but, as you’ll see when we get to the cooking instructions, probably not.
Then I really read the instructions for preparing the filling. You’re given detailed instructions on exactly how to cut a banana into 8 pieces – cut it crosswise, cut it lengthwise, got to get this right. And then the recipe tells you to “cut a 1/8 inch piece of the banana into several small strips”. (1/8 inch is about 3 mm.)
That’s just silly. I assumed that what Katzen really meant was “cut 1/8 of the banana into small strips”, and did that. (Well, actually, I used a quarter of a “nino” banana for each empanada, since I was only making half the recipe.)
You’re given two choices for cooking the empanadas – bake or fry. If you’re going to bake them, you’re supposed to use a couple of tablespoons of butter to grease the pan and to brush the tops of the turnovers; that’s a lot of butter, really, which would have been better used mixed into the dough. Oh well. By this time, I was annoyed enough to stick to exactly what the directions said.
So I daubed two of the empanadas with butter and baked them for the specified 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I melted a little more butter and fried the other two.
Frying worked better than baking, though the fried empanadas (above) were much too greasy for my taste. Also, since you’re shallow-frying them, you have to stand them on edge in the pan to get the sides of the turnovers cooked.
The baked ones (right) were hard on the outside but barely browned, and the dough was so gluey I didn’t want to eat it. The fried ones were less inedible; at least they were cooked through. Unfortunately, the filling wasn’t very good; some bites tasted of just melted cheese, which was okay but it’s less work to make a toasted cheese sandwich; some tasted vaguely of cooked banana; some tasted of nothing.
I had intended to try Katzen’s spinach souffle too. After the empanada disaster, though, I re-read the souffle recipe, paying more attention to the fact that her approach to souffles relies on putting cottage cheese and buttermilk through a food processor. That’s not the usual method for souffles, but I would have given her souffle technique a chance if the empanadas had been good. At this point, I think I’ll skip it. Especially since I seem to have tried one of her salad dressings a while ago – I didn’t leave any notes on what went wrong there, just a scribbled “no”.
I guess I should be thrilled to announce that I can get another book off the shelves.