Pros: beautiful story, delicious recipes
Cons: wish there were at least some pictures
Many people at some point in their lives try to find a place that they can call home. It’s a search for self and belonging. For some it is obvious, but for others it is a journey that can take them far away and back again. Luisa Weiss’ book tells of just such a journey.
Luisa grew up with parents from very different worlds, and when they divorced, she was left stranded somewhere in the middle, always wondering where home really was. In an effort to find herself and soothe her emotions, she turned to cooking. Food and cooking became a way of defining herself and her life, and it allowed her to decide where she truly belonged. Most of this journey was played out on her food blog, The Wednesday Chef. But her recent book, My Berlin Kitchen, gives a much more in depth view of all of the indecision, melancholy, hope, passion, and confusion. Unlike most other food blogs turned into books, her journey becomes more real in prose.
Many of the foods that Luisa cooked were from memories of her childhood – comfort foods that were guaranteed to fill a certain void. With an Italian mother, and an upbringing in West Germany, these recipes of course included the traditional Italian sauces and beautiful German cakes. While the author at times struggled with this mixed background, I couldn’t help but feel envious that she had one foot in each culture.
The story is a beautiful one, and each recipe is carefully pulled into the narrative where it finds its place and doesn’t seem forced. Although some of the recipes are probably impossible to recreate in the typical US kitchen (where would elderflowers be found?), they are still beautiful on their own. Her descriptions of savoring these foods and drinks gives them a flavor without even trying the recipe in the first place.
I was very lucky to be able to ask the author some questions that I had following my reading of her book, and I was delighted with the answers. I have included them below. I also tried her Ragu alla Bolognese in my slow cooker to meet the requisite extended cooking time, and it turns out just the impossibly meaty and savory sauce that she promises.
Between the beautiful love story, the search for home, and the delicious recipes, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys cooking or food. Although the idea was born from a blog, the book certainly stands alone, and despite the lack of pictures, may actually be a superior read.
Q: How do you feel that growing up around so many different cultures has affected the way you view food and cooking?
A: I realized pretty early on that food was more than just fuel by observing how just in "my" own two home cultures, it played such an important role - how my American grandmother used to show her love for us, for example, or what my Italian family loved to talk about. Later, in my young adult life, when I was trying to reconcile the deep feelings of displacement and homesickness I'd acquired in childhood, it was in the kitchen that I was able to find some peace. So cooking has always been more than just a means to an end for me. It's been a deep, spiritual comfort.
Q: If you had to pick one recipe that you feel defines you, what would it be and why?
A: That's a very hard question! It would have to be something with tomatoes, because they are my favorite thing to eat in the world and because they're obviously so associated with Italy even though they come from the New World, so they're kind of a mishmash hybrid like me. Is spaghetti with tomato sauce too easy an answer? I do eat it enough that I'm probably part spaghetto anyway...
Q: You mention that food has helped you get through the difficult times in your life so far. What role do you see food and cooking playing in your future?
A: My son Hugo is almost four months old and I'm already excited for him to start eating. I can't wait to get cooking for him. I am so interested to find out what his favorite foods will be, what his deepest food memories will be from childhood when he grows up and what his relationship to cooking will be like. I love that cooking is a way for me to nurture my family both literally and figuratively, while at the same time acting as a sort of soothing therapy for me.
Q: The food we cook says a lot about where we are in our lives. What do you think your current dishes say about your life now? How do you think it's different from what you cooked five years ago? Ten?
A: 10 years ago, I was preparing the same three things for dinner over and over again - spaghetti, salad, more spaghetti, and braised chicken. I needed a change, but I was too unmotivated to do so. My blog changed everything for me - it was where I forced myself to cook a different thing every time I entered the kitchen. So 5 years ago, I was eating a huge variety of recipes - a glance at my blog archives from 2007 will tell you a lot. Tomato-bread soup, Asian noodle salad, braised oxtails, double-chocolate cookies, stuffed tomatoes, homemade pizza. Today I'm a nursing mother with a tiny baby and a working husband, so our meals are quick and efficient with lots of potential for leftovers so I have lunch the next day: braised meatballs with polenta, grain salads with vegetables and herbs, vegetable frittatas.
Ragu alla Bolognese (Beef Ragu)
Serves 8 to 10
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large yellow onion, finely minced
2 large carrots, finely minced (you want roughly equal amounts of minced onion and carrot)
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
½ cup red wine (open a fresh bottle and drink the rest with dinner)
1 28-ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes, pureed
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1. Put the oil and butter in a large cast-iron pot over medium heat, to melt the butter. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 7 minutes, until the onion is well cooked. Do not let it take on any color. Add the minced carrots and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, stirring now and then.
2. Add the ground meat to the pot, and using a wooden spoon, stir and chop up the meat so that it cooks and breaks down into uniformly tiny pieces. Raise the heat to medium-high or even high as you do this. It takes a good amount of elbow grease and a little bit of time. Continue to stir and cook until the meat is no longer pink (at no point, however, should the meat be browning). There will be liquid at the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until that liquid has mostly evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes.
3. Add the wine and stir well to combine. Simmer until the wine has mostly evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the pureed tomatoes and the salt, and stir well to combine. The sauce will come to a simmer almost instantly. Lower the heat to the lowest possible setting, put the lid on the pot, and let the sauce simmer for as long as you can, stirring it occasionally. Seven hours would be wonderful, 5 hours is pretty good, but any less than 3 and you’re really missing out. The longer you cook the sauce, the richer and more flavorful it will get. At some point in the cooking process, the fat will separate from the sauce and float at the top, so just give the sauce a good stir every so often to reincorporate the fat.
5. At the end of the cooking time, taste for seasoning and add more salt, if needed. Then serve tossed with pasta or use in a classic lasagne (this recipe makes enough for a 9x13-inch pan). If you plan on freezing the sauce, let it cool completely before putting it into freezer bags or other plastic containers.