In Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful 2016 book about pursuing creativity, Big Magic, she writes—and here I am paraphrasing as I read the book months ago—about the notion that creative ideas are floating around us all the time in search of human collaborators so that they may be brought forth in the world. Sometimes an idea finds a collaborator only to be abandoned for one reason or another and then the idea moves on to another collaborator who brings it to fruition.
I feel the same way about recipes. Not all recipes find a permanent home in our repertoire. But when they do they become a part of us, stuck to us like glue almost. The recipe gets made, it speaks to us in some way and then takes up residence in our kitchens. We have found each other.
The best example of this notion that I can offer is my friend, Kathy’s, recipe for Stepmother Cookies. Years ago when her children were still small and doing the joint custody shuttle between parents who had both remarried, they returned to Kathy’s house one day with a bag of cookies which their stepmother had made. (They were essentially a version of chocolate chip cookies made with Rice Krispies.) The kids loved them so much that Kathy asked their stepmother for the recipe which she happily wrote out for her on an index card. The cookies got made again and again and soon became affectionately known as Stepmother Cookies.
I love this story because it says a lot about my friend. At a time when she was juggling blended families, she was big-hearted enough to ask for a recipe that her children’s stepmother made and then renamed the recipe for her. It was an acknowledgement that her children had two separate families and that they didn’t have to take sides.
Yet the really interesting part of the story is that years later, at her daughter’s graduation, Kathy sat next to the stepmother and said something about the cookies and learned that the stepmother didn’t even remember the recipe. You see how that recipe had moved on from one collaborator to another?
Stepmother Cookies are now so much a part of Kathy’s story that the recipe doesn’t need any other collaborators. I know this because Kathy gave me the recipe after I ate them at her house. I made them once, they were delicious, but I have never made them since. The recipe didn’t need me.
In fact, in Kathy’s orbit, the recipe doesn’t need anyone other than Kathy. She recently told me that she made them again over the holidays with her grandchildren in order to bring some to old friends they were visiting over the New Year. She gave a bag to her grandchildren for the plane ride home, and then the rest went to her friends. Hmm, I thought, I know her friends are perfectly capable of making those cookies themselves, but I bet like me, her children and her grandchildren, they would rather have Kathy make them. Because of the love that is baked in. And the beautiful back story. Plus, we would have to rename them and then they would just be chocolate chip cookies made with Rice Krispies and they would lose their charm.
I was thinking about this the other day when I was running through a list of recipes in my head wondering what to do with some leftover holiday ham. I have many recipes that I have collaborated with over the years that are deeply embedded in my history. I write about them in these blog posts. What did I have that would make use of some ham, I wondered.
What sprang forth surprised me because I hadn’t thought about it for years. You never know what’s swimming around in your past that suddenly bubbles up to the surface. From the depths of my culinary history what came to the fore was a dish someone made for me once decades ago when I was a student in Strasbourg, France. I don’t even think I ever wrote it down but it stuck to me nevertheless.
So much of the story is hazy. My aunt who lived in Ohio wrote to me that she knew a young couple and their two small children who had been transferred by a local company in Ohio to work for a few years in Colmar, another charming town characterized by half-timbered houses nestled along the Alsatian Route de Vin, just south of Strasbourg where I was studying. I was introduced to them via letters from my aunt and then invited to spend a weekend with them.
To a student far from home, a weekend invitation that involved being fed was no small thing. Yet, I remember so little of the weekend. I don’t recall their names or what we did that weekend but I do remember they had fraternal twin girls about four years old. One of them was named Lauren and she had adorable curly blond hair and green eyes that were full of personality. Her sister—whose name I don’t recall—was plain in comparison, with straight, light brown hair and features that were ordinary in comparison to her sister.
I have thought of those girls from time to time over the years wondering how it worked out for them. Having one sibling that is a standout must have been difficult for everyone. They are middle-aged now and I have no way of tracking them down since my aunt is long deceased. But I carry them with me for some reason or another.
That first day I arrived in Colmar we had a simple lunch at home in their apartment. What struck me was how thoroughly my aunt’s young friend had embraced her new home. Colmar, not a large city by any stretch, must have seemed so foreign to a young mother from an area of northeastern Ohio that was more rural than urban. And yet, she did not try and recreate America in Colmar for her two young children.
Instead she composed a salad of local ingredients that was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. It was thoroughly Alsatian and I was enthralled watching her put it together. The salad consisted of diced ham, Gruyère cheese, sliced endives and apple, all bound together with a sharp vinaigrette. It was a revelation to me—so clever and simple and utterly delicious. It was my first experience with French home cooking that showed me that the French approached ingredients differently than we did in America. The quality was impeccable and yet the execution was unfussy. It taught me that much can be made from humble ingredients that are well-sourced.
Other than the memory of those twin girls, that salad is all that remains of that weekend long ago in Colmar. How is it I remember that salad and nothing else? When I made it again recently, it wasn’t the Proustian taste memory that struck me, it was the act of assembling the salad itself. It was the image of my American host, standing in her Alsatian kitchen effortlessly putting together a simple lunch that has stayed with me all these years. She was an early role model for what it means to be a confident cook—especially when you are out of your home territory.
Recipe collaborations are a random phenomenon. They can happen in an instant: A child comes home with cookies or a young woman is invited to someone’s home for lunch, a recipe is exchanged or merely absorbed and suddenly it becomes part of your story. Why it happens I cannot tell you, but it is certainly something that is magical.
Alsatian Salad of Ham, Cheese, Endives and Apples
Serves 4 as lunch or light dinner
2 Cups good quality ham (preferably French) cut into matchsticks
2 Cups aged Gruyère Cheese cut into matchsticks (you may substitute Comte or Appenzeller cheese—Emanthaller or mere Swiss cheese are too mild for this dish.)
4 Belgian endives, washed, trimmed and sliced crosswise.
2 firm tart apples such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into matchsticks or diced.
Fresh ground pepper
3 – 4 tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
3 – 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or good quality apple cider vinegar)
1 – 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
For the vinaigrette, whisk together the vinegar and Dijon mustard then add the oil and whisk again until emulsified. If the vinaigrette doesn’t come together, add more mustard.
Prepare the ham, cheese, endives and apples and toss in a serving bowl with the vinaigrette. Give it a good grind of pepper. Serve with a crusty baguette and a cool, crisp glass of Alsatian Riesling. Some meals are effortless.
Note: This salad can be easily enhanced to suit your tastes. Some toasted walnuts on top might be nice. Or maybe sprinkle in a few caraway seeds. A little bit of chopped celery would also be welcome.