I stopped counting my cookbooks a long time ago. Every last bookshelf is jammed end-to-end with them, and they are now piled in precarious stacks around my house. Some of these stacks are two rows deep. I love all of the books—well, most of them, even the ones that sit untouched for months, or years. When I rediscover them—this usually happens when I’m looking for one title in particular and my eye catches a completely different one—it’s like they’re new again.
I could never choose a single favorite cookbook and, happily, I don’t have to. But, like many cooks, I find myself returning to a select few again and again, books that over the years have worked their way to the top of the pile (and into my heart) for any number of reasons: because the recipes consistently work; because I love the voice of the writer, or the philosophy of the cook; or maybe because the book came to me during a particular time in my life and has sentimental value. I’m going to turn the spotlight on some of these treasured books over the next few months, with occasional posts and recipes.
I’m starting today with The Victory Garden Cookbook, by Marian Morash. For one thing, this book combines all of the elements I mentioned above. For another, it just happens to hold within its pages one of my favorite recipes to make for Thanksgving: squash cornbread. Sounds common, even boring, doesn’t it? Oh, but this little loaf is equal to so much more than the sum of its parts. But first, about the book.
Originally published by Knopf in 1982, The Victory Garden Cookbook was the companion cookbook to the PBS gardening series of the same name. The show was produced by Russell Morash (who also produced The French Chef and other cooking shows starring Julia Child, as well as This Old House). Morash’s wife, Marian, an avid gardener who had worked as an executive chef on one of Child’s series, contributed countless recipes for the many vegetables featured on the show.
My mom got the first copy of the book in our house. I can’t remember for sure, but my guess is that it was a gift from my dad, an early devotee of PBS cooking shows (not surprisingly, we were big fans of The Romagnolis’ Table). A few years after my mom got her book, she gave a copy each to my sister and me. Mine has followed me more or less everywhere I’ve gone since then and I still consult it regularly. The book is a large paperback, and a few weeks ago, the front cover of mine finally came off and had to be taped back on. I thought about buying a new copy–the book was re-released earlier this year–but by now part of the appeal for me lies in its worn state.
I love how the book is organized, alphabetically by specific vegetable rather than more traditionally by course. Each chapter starts with a photo of the featured vegetable and an introduction with information on growing, varieties, yields, and such; plus basic instructions for blanching, boiling, sauteing, baking, etc. The recipes that follow–more than 800 altogether–beautifully showcase each vegetable, on its own and with other vegetables, in salads, soups, stews, and braises, in appetizers, main courses, and desserts. There is a chapter on celeriac (celery root) and one on fennel–written long before those two became the darlings of chefs and ambitious home cooks. And, best of all, there is Morash’s genuine affection for even the most humble vegetables in the book, and her boundless creativity in using them in dishes from Parsnip Chowder to Rutabaga Roulade, and from Smoked Pork Butt Stuffed with Greens to the aforementioned Squash Cornbread.
I’m not sure what originally struck me about the cornbread. It’s a small recipe, sandwiched between Squash Cake and Squash Yeast Rolls. There’s not even a decent photo of it. I was probably drawn to the unassuming but promising head note, which says, simply, “I love cornbread but sometimes find it too dry. One day I added squash to my cornbread as an experiment. To my delight, the bread turned out moist with a pleasant aftertaste of squash.”
That right there is how great recipes are born, in my opinion. And, in fact, the cornbread is exactly as Morash describes it. It hovers somewhere between a quick bread and a cake; it’s sweet, but just barely, with a lovely tender crumb and a slight crunch from the corn meal. When baked, it turns a rich golden color. It’s a wonderful bread to serve on Thanksgiving–either as part of your feast or, even better, for breakfast on Thanksgiving morning, sliced and spread thickly with apple butter.
Buon Appetito and Happy Thanksgiving!
From The Victory Garden Cookbook, by Marian Morash (Knopf, 1982)
I use baked and pureed buttercup squash to make this cornbread. It's my favorite of the winter squashes, with sweet, dense flesh. Butternut is another good choice. Although the original recipe calls for butter, I have substituted sunflower oil here. But know that you can use whichever you prefer and your bread will be delicious either way.
- 3/4 cup yellow corn meal
- 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup sunflower or other vegetable oil, or softened unsalted butter, plus more for greasing a loaf pan
- 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 cup pureed cooked winter squash
- 1/4 cup milk
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine the corn meal, flour, baking powder, spices, and salt in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat together the butter or oil and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until combined. Beat in the lemon juice, squash, and milk. Gradually beat in the dry ingredients until well incorporated (take care not to over-beat).
Lightly coat the inside of a medium-size (8 1/2-inches by 4 1/2-inches) loaf pan with oil or butter. Pour the batter into the pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool for 20 to 30 minutes. Carefully remove the loaf from the pan and let it cool on the rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.