Melissa’s new cookbook, Cook This Now, was published a few weeks ago. The book, organized by month, features seasonal recipes that can be prepared with fresh ingredients found at the local farmer’s market. Each of the 12 chapters includes a mix of sides or salads, main dishes and desserts. And, because it is organized by season, it’s easy to browse the quarterly sections, bookmarking recipes that can be combined together to make a full meal. Most important, these are Melissa’s family favorites — go-to recipes she’s perfected over time.
On the day my copy arrived, my husband Matthew was traveling, and I had just a few minutes before picking up my daughter at school to flip through the book and see if there was a recipe I could make that evening. While Fall may be in full swing on the East Coast, here in Santa Barbara, melons, berries, corn and a variety of tomatoes and summer herbs can still be found in abundance at our local markets. I did a quick scan of the recipes for the month of August, and stopped at Israeli Couscous with Fresh Corn, Tomatoes and Feta. Every ingredient either was in my kitchen, or could be plucked from our garden.
While my daughter tackled her homework, I got to work in the kitchen. In less than an hour, the two of us were devouring the summery pasta. We loved the freshness that the corn and tomatoes brought to the dish, slightly warmed from the tiny balls of pasta. The crumbled feta melted dreamily and gave the dish a creamy texture but a bite, too, providing a nice contrast to the mellow summer flavors. I didn’t have fresh basil, but rosemary was suggested as a nice alternative, and it was, lending the dish the piney-ness Melissa promised.
After each recipe, Melissa includes a section called, “What Else?” offering substitutions for ingredients, or ways to take a recipe into the next season by swapping out one vegetable or fruit for another. In some cases, she includes an extra section called, “A Dish by Another Name,” helping the home cook convert the recipe into something pretty different. These two kinds of end notes are recipe boosters, helping the home cook gain confidence building on a recipe that she has mastered, and even improvising something new.
I’ve made a mix of dishes from Cook This Now. My family loved the warm Turkish spices prevalent in the Bulgur “Pilaf” with Swiss Chard and Dried Apricots. The bulgur cooks in a pot of boiling water along with a cinnamon stick, infusing the grain with flavor. Toasted pistachios with cumin brought another layer of spice and crunch to the dish. Swiss chard, roughly chopped, is sauteed with shallots and garlic until wilted, and then stirred into the pilaf. A squeeze of lemon at the table finished the dish.
I served the Pilaf with Melissa’s Lamb Merguez Burgers with Harissa Mayonnaise. Coriander and fennel seeds, toasted and then finely ground provided subtle, exotic flavor to the lamb. Paprika and cayenne kicked the flavor up a notch. Warmed whole wheat pita, sliced Persian cucumbers and tomatoes lent the burgers a cool counterpoint. Together, these two dishes were a flavor powerhouse.
Vivid Green Bean Salad With Walnuts and Walnut Oil (I subbed in hazelnuts for the walnuts) was transcendant: tiny haricots verts flash cooked so they retained a bright color and a satisfying bite. The salad was dressed with a punchy vinaigrette, flavored with finely diced shallots, tarragon — redolent of anise — sherry vinegar and walnut oil, which adds richness to the dish. Toasted hazelnuts, roughly chopped were sprinkled on top before serving. What a fresh complement to a piece of roasted salmon.
It’s time to talk dessert. Tucked away, at the end of Chapter October (that sounds a little funny, doesn’t it?) is a recipe for Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Sandies. A cookie with intense peanut flavor, it is equal parts salty and sweet, a touch crumbly when you bite into it, and wonderfully grainy. The dough comes together quickly in a mixer, and then is shaped into a log and placed in the refrigerator to firm up. The most intoxicating aroma fills the kitchen as the little disks bake and expand. It wasn’t easy waiting for them to cool, but worth it. The recipe for this memorable treat is below with permission from Melissa.
I look forward to continuing to cook and bake more of Melissa’s family’s favorites. Cook This Now will have a place on my nightstand for a long time before it moves to the shelf about my sink in the kitchen.
- 1¼ cups whole wheat pastry flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ¼ teaspoon plus a pinch of kosher salt
- ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup natural salted peanut butter
- 1 cup Demerara or raw sugar
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter. Beat in the peanut butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat well. Beat in the egg and vanilla until fully incorporated. Stop and scrape down the bowl. Slowly beat in the dry ingredients.
- Transfer the dough to a large sheet of plastic wrap or wax paper. Shape the dough into a 12-inch-long log. Wrap the dough in the plastic, using the wrap to help form the most uniform-size log possible. Transfer the dough to the refrigerator and chill at least two hours.
- When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the dough into ¼-inch-thick rounds and transfer them to an ungreased baking sheet 1 inch apart. Bake the cookies until lightly colored and semi-firm, about 15 minutes; rotate the sheets halfway through baking. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.