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:
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’).