Gather a group of foodies and chefs together for a meal and the topic is always food: ingredients, recipes, war stories and tools. When award winning culinary author, columnist and teacher Marie Simmons showcased her 20th cookbook—Thing’s Cooks Love: Implements. Ingredients. Recipe—at the latest Cooks with Books event at the Left Bank Brasserie, the buzz never stopped.
This beautifully designed book is the first publication from Sur la Table, the Seattle-based culinary retailer. Its goal: to teach cooks–—both novice and accomplished—how to stock their kitchens, select and master tools and successfully prepare over 100 recipes. As the evening unfolded and I spent some time with the author and her book, it was easy to see why Marie Simmons was the perfect choice to write this.
The evening was warm and it seemed like the entire world was out enjoying life as guests began arriving. Marie chatted and laughed with those gathered as she took up residence at a table just outside the room and started signing books. While this was an intimate gathering, I’ve always wondered if authors get squirrely signing hundreds of books at larger signings. When I asked her about it, Marie laughed and related how she once signed what seemed like thousands at a giant warehouse store. A worker had set up a long table, opened the books to the proper page, and stacked them high the full length of the table. “Marie Simmons” soon degenerated into a scribble as she worked her way through the chore. Hearing this story again made me realize how fortunate I am to enjoy the richer author experience provided by great events like Cooks with Books.
As I watched her work and interact with fans, it was obvious that Marie is one of those rare people that immediately puts people at ease and makes them feel like they have her full attention. In the dining room, Marie’s table was filled with close friends there to support her, colleagues and CWB guests. Within minutes we all introduced ourselves and were in deep foodie conversations. All were hungry, munching on fresh bread and butter and enjoying wine created by Marie’s husband, John Simmons.
Marie joined us for the first course, a vibrant, red-orange tomato saffron broth with saffron cream. When she got up to speak, she announced that the tomatoes were left out of the recipe ingredients list in the book. “We all read the galleys and made corrections but somehow they got left out. Use three pounds of tomatoes when you make this at home.” It’s somehow nice to know that even the most seasoned pros aren’t above an editing error now and then!
Chef Scott Howard came to the room and we learned that he used heirloom tomatoes in the broth. One woman detected a slight hint of seafood and asked Chef what he used. “No seafood in the broth.” He’d used three varieties of heirloom tomatoes and told us each has its own distinctive taste. This could explain the complexity of flavor.
Risotto is one of my all-time favorites so I was happy when this creamy rice dish with granny smith apples, hazelnuts and prosciutto arrived. We all loved that the prosciutto was crisp like a thin cracker. Chef Howard told us that he baked the prosciutto slices between two pieces of parchment paper to achieve this effect—one he felt was a good contrast to the soft risotto and apples.
Throughout dinner Marie worked her way around the room talking with each guest and answering questions. At times she turned and addressed the entire group with tips, background stories and observations that would help them later in the kitchen.
One guest at our table shared that she was originally put off by the book and had viewed it as a giant advertisement for Sur la Table’s often expensive, name-brand products. Marie shared that she’d had similar concerns, but had worked hard to provide a treasure trove of information and recipes that would help and inspire readers. While she loves the implements featured in the book, Marie knows that many cooks can’t always afford them so recommends alternatives both in the book and at her store appearances.
During one appearance at a cooking store, Marie began offering affordable alternatives to pricey equipment and noticed that the manager looked tense. Later he happily informed her that they had sold five thousand dollars worth of products—both the featured ones and her alternatives. Sur la Table should realize that in her concern for all cooks, Marie Simmons is really a brilliant marketer.
I peeked in my book to find out what tool was used for the main course of pork medallion sauté with figs, and discovered it was a simple meat pounder. Contrary to what many believe, this is not just a clumsy club to beat veal, chicken, and beef into shredded submission, but a useful tool that should be selected for its weight and balance and ability to flatten. As I scanned the tips and recommended care I learned more than I ever knew was possible.
As Chef Howard’s fresh apricot and blueberry tart arrived, several of us started talking about the spirit of the night. The energy level remained high, due in part to Marie. One of her friends noted that, “she’s passionate about her work and sharing it with others. Marie is a good friend and a great person.” As a self-taught cook and reader of thousands of cookbooks over the years, I recognized in Marie the mentor we all wish we’d had during our novice years. There’s a lot to be learned from her new book and I can’t wait to get started.
Get a printable copy of Marie Simmon’s Pork Medallion Sauté with Figs recipe.