Cooking with Margaret Costa

The other night, I went to a cookbook club with a dear friend of mine. The ingenious idea behind the cookbook club is that the group is assigned a cookbook – in this case, it was Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book – and each of us was assigned a recipe. My friend had to do ratatouille and I did Costa’s recipe for peperonata. We then bring the dish to the club and share it with the other members, each of whom brings his/her own dish, as well. It’s a great, friendly way of learning about cooking, and even more importantly, talking about cooking. Everyone’s dish was wonderful and there were leftovers to take home.

Costa’s peperonata reminds me a bit of ratatouille or sausage and peppers, hold the sausage. It’s a very simple, vegetarian dish, and I chose it because it’s summer and I didn’t want to take the hot Tube with meat or dairy and possibly get people sick. I also work in an office with a tiny dorm fridge, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get the food in the fridge.

I won’t go into too much detail about how to make Costa’s dish – you should get the book to do that – but I’ll go over the basics. Essentially, it’s a side dish to be eaten hot or cold. For a serving of four, I chopped up 10 medium-sized tomatoes, 6 red bell peppers, two cloves of garlic (just two) and a little bit of salt. And that’s it. It was so simple, that I kept looking back to the recipe to see if maybe I was missing something. I almost threw pepper in it, but caught myself because there was no pepper in Costa’s recipe.

At the class we were discussing Costa’s recipes which are “of a time” – a bit like those Mad Men-style recipes that charm us with their silliness or weirdness. These are the kinds of recipes that are supposed to impress dinner party guests.

The peperonata went over well with the other guests, though I have to admit, it’s a hard dish to mess up.

Margaret Costa is a great food writer, and though the recipes are probably not dishes I’ll be cooking, I do own her book. I was one of a handful of people who knew who Costa was and was familiar with her book. When someone asked “who would buy this book now?” I raised my hand – I buy midcentury cookbooks because I love the kitsch/camp value. I also appreciate what cooking looked like when folks didn’t have access to many of the ingredients we take for granted now. Reading writers like Elizabeth David or Julia Child is an interesting education in social studies – particularly class and gender – what middle-class women were expected to do and how they were expected to do it.

The other we talked about was the dated format of the book. Unlike contemporary cookbooks, the recipes aren’t laid out with the ingredients listed in bullet points, nor are there gorgeous photographs of the dishes. Costa’s recipes are written far more casually and conversationally – she’ll write something like “heat the oil and throw in the onion and garlic which you have chopped up” – so as a warning, read the recipes in their entirety because the ingredient lists don’t indicate what you do with the ingredients, you have to read the instructions themselves (which are written out in paragraph form)

Along with the format, we also talked about the cover. There are a few editions of the book with the latest being a tasteful, grey cover. I own the goofy, campy cover as seen below:

Yup, that’s a dead bird, nestled among the veg and herbs

So the cover is so ugly that I had to get it – it’s hideous, especially the dead bird that’s taking centre stage. It looks stuffed (taxidermied) I find it funny that the food stylist thought that including a dead pigeon would make the book seem enticing.

I’ve made the dish before last night, though my version had anchovy and olives, and I’ve added parsley and pepper. The peperonata took on a sweet, summery taste (even though it’s firmly ensconced in Costa’s ‘autumn recipes’).

Brown rice and quinoa with mushrooms and peas

I’m shifting to a plant-based lifestyle, slowly but surely. I haven’t given up meat, yet, but have started to gradually move toward vegetarian food. It’s easier to do if one doesn’t go cold turkey. I’ve been eating oatmeal and muesli for lunch and trying to do plant-based dinners. Tonight I made a brown rice and quinoa dish with mushrooms – I love mushrooms because for meat-eaters, mushrooms are a great substitute (it’s the umami – the salty flavor that is contained in ‘shrooms) The dish isn’t 100% vegetarian because I used beef broth (I couldn’t find my mushroom broth), but any broth will do (though chicken broth might be too light)

Anyways, this recipe is totally easy to make – and one that is adaptable to whatever ingredients you have in your kitchen.

Ingredients (serves two)

  • 1 package of Tilda brown steamed basmati rice & quinoa (250 g)
  • 1 200g package of chestnut mushrooms, chopped finely
  • 1 200g package of white button mushrooms, chopped finely
  • 1 shallot, chopped finely
  • 1 bouillon cube (I used beef, but you can use anything you want)
  • 4 green onions – both green and white parts, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup of frozen peas
  • 2 cups of hot water (you probably won’t use all of it)
  • 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 2 tbl of tomato paste
  • 1 tbl of olive oil
  • 1 tsp of lemon zest
  • pinch of red chili flakes
  • pepper
  • salt

In a large, nonstick pan, heat the oil over medium heat, and add the chili flakes and throw in the chopped mushrooms. It’s going to look like your pan is pretty crowded, but that’s okay – mushrooms shrink like crazy when you cook them. You’ll have to cook the mushrooms for a bit – 10 minutes, until the mushrooms shrink and release the juices and then let the juices evaporate and start to create a fond. Add the tomato paste and mix and cook until the raw taste of tomato paste is cooked away, and the bottom of the pan is sticky and covered with browned bits. Add a little bit of the hot water – just enough to deglaze the bottom of the pan. Stir and loosen the bits and mix, adding a bit more water and cooking until all the water is gone.

Add the shallot and stir and cook until the shallot becomes translucent. More fond will be created, so add more water to loosen the browned bits. Add the broth cube as well and stir and cook until the cube is dissolved and there’s a thick, syrupy sauce. Add the package of rice and quinoa (it’s already cooked) and cook, breaking up the chunks of the rice, making sure it’s coated in the sauce. Add the green onions – both green and white parts. Add the lemon zest and the cheese and mix. Add the green peas (it’s okay if they’re frozen – they’ll thaw while cooking) and stir, heating the rice through (just make sure you don’t overcook the peas) Grind some fresh pepper. Serve, and Oh, enjoy.