Jesse Kornbluth, of HeadButler.com, would happily serve you a dinner cooked by Alex Hitz.
My quick way to figure out if a cookbook is worth writing about here is to leave it on my wife’s desk for a few days. Then I count how many pages have been turned down. This year’s record has been set by Alex Hitz’s book — really, it would probably have been simpler if she’d applied reverse logic and only turned down the pages with recipes she doesn’t want to try.
It’s not hard to see why.
“Always keep it simple, and give people what they want—comfort food, nothing trendy or pretentious,” Hitz says. “Save the test tubes for another time.”
Ah, comfort food. Like, if you live in New York, the late lamented Mortimer’s or its successor, Swifty’s. Like Sunday lunch at the WASP country club in your town. Like a lot of the dishes you find in Park Avenue Potluck. Only, as I say, more and better. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Cheese straws with just two ingredients. A dip of hot artichoke custard. Shrimp bisque. Spinach soufflé. Twice-baked potatoes. Corn pudding. Chicken country captain. Billionaire’s meatloaf. Salted caramel cake. Strawberry cobbler.
And the thing is, this is not an aspirational strategy for Hitz. He came from Atlanta, where there was Coca Cola money in the family and his mother was married to the orchestra conductor Robert Shaw. At home, the family cook produced legendary meals for visiting dignitaries; whenever Alex had a few days off from school, his mother took him to Paris. He liked the kitchen life, so he trained at Le Cordon Bleu and owned a restaurant in Atlanta before stints as a Broadway producer, real estate developer and clothing designer. Realizing that he “missed the kitchen,” he began giving dinner parties in Los Angeles. Now, at 43, he sells prepared frozen meals at his web site and is the toast of hostesses in New York and Los Angeles.
Every society matron of a certain age seems to be besotted by Alex Hitz . (Nancy Reagan: “Alex Hitz is the most elegant host and young man with old-world taste and charm.”) That isn’t usually a good sign. The good news is that he’s not at all stuffy — he believes in good manners, but he believes, even more, in amping up the liveliness level.
I like this book as much for its sound advice as for its recipes. Consider:
— The cookbook I use the most is still Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume 1. It’s based on her experience at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. I think it is so much better than their books — and they are really great.
— Never skimp on ingredients: Always buy the best you can afford. I did not say the most expensive — I said the best. Learn to tell the difference.
— Always use salted butter, not margarine. Sneering purists will have you believe that if you use unsalted butter, you might better control the salt in a dish. The result inevitably ends up tasteless and needing salt. That’s why I like Land O’Lakes, the salted butter I grew up on.
— My favorite Dijon mustard is Maille. Do yourself a favor and find it!
— Homemade stocks are always best, but if you don’t have time to make them, organic bases are perfectly acceptable..
— Throw away cheap baking sheets — they burn food. Buy heavy stainless-steel ones.
— Buy a large KitchenAid mixer, a food processor and a scale.
And finally… Taste everything as you are cooking.
Some sample recipes….
Heirloom tomato pie
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 pounds mixed heirloom tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 onion, halved, then sliced thin
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup fresh basil leaves, firmly packed
3 sprigs fresh parsley
1 medium shallot, peeled
1 green onion, whole
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese, firmly packed
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese, firmly packed
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Basic pie crust (JK: feel free to get a frozen one)
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons coarsely ground black pepper
Slice the tomatoes into 1/4-inch-thick slices and place them on a rack to drain.
Sprinkle the tomatoes on both sides with ¾ teaspoon salt, 1 ½ teaspoons total. Let them drain on the rack for at least an hour to remove the unwanted water.
When the tomatoes have finished draining, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. When the foaming has subsided, add the onions and sauté them for a couple of minutes, until they are slightly soft, and then add the minced garlic. Continue to sauté the onions and garlic until they are translucent, 10 to 12 minutes.
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the mayonnaise, basil leaves, parsley, shallot and green onion, and process them until the mixture is green and smooth, approximately 1 minute.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the mayonnaise mixture with the Gruyere, Cheddar and ½ cup of the Parmesan cheese and stir to mix thoroughly.
Spread the cheese mixture evenly over the cooled pastry crust.
Place the sautéed onion and garlic evenly on top of the cheese mixture, and then arrange the drained tomatoes in a pretty pattern on top.
Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese and the black pepper, and bake the pie for 50 to 60 minutes.
Let the heirloom tomato pie rest for at least 30 minutes before cutting, and serve it warm, at room temperature, or cold with additional basil mayonnaise, some of which you will have left over if you made your own!
serves 8 to 10
2 sticks salted butter, melted
2 cups whole strawberries, stemmed (frozen berries are fine)
2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
2 cups milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Pour the melted butter into a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish, and add the strawberries.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flow, baking soda, salt and sugar, and slowly add the milk, whisking it until it is smooth.
Pour the batter over the fruit and bake for 45 minutes, until it’s more than golden brown. Set. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream.