The ultimate chat-up line, according to the food writer Molly O'Neill, is: 'I'm working on a book about the cooking in New York.' It secured for her five years' worth of dinner dates, some in swank restaurants, others in fire stations, delis, walk-up tenements and palatial homes on Park Avenue. And, finally, it resulted in the frenetic but wonderful New York Cookbook (Workman Publishing).
Ms O'Neill is a 40-year-old chef-turned-journalist from Columbus, Ohio. A woman famous for a great opening line, she can display a strange willingness to be bland. 'I do a weekly column,' she says in a flat mid-western voice. 'And I work as a style reporter writing about trends and women's issues, and the diet industry. Stuff.'
Her accomplishments are anything but bland. She arrived in New York 10 years ago and moved into a rough midtown quarter nicknamed Hell's Kitchen. This is just the patch on which to hit the skids. But O'Neill settled there and became restaurant critic for New York Newsday before landing the plum job of food correspondent to the New York Times.
The idea for the New York Cookbook came in 1987, when O'Neill was approached by Peter Workman, of Workman Publishing. He wanted a gutsy, echt New York cookbook. This suited O'Neill. 'I felt that I just wasn't getting to know the real New York by going to all those four-star restaurants,' she says. 'In New York, every time you turn a corner you can be in a different world, and I wanted a book where every time you turned a page you would be surprised.'
She has pulled it off. Reading her book, one can smell hot dogs grilling, chicken frying, bread baking and callaloo simmering.
There is a chicken soup recipe from the 89-year-old aunt of a Guardian Angel. Even the long- suffering Poles of Greenpoint, snubbed when the Polish Pope first visited New York, get a look- in for their bakeries and meat markets selling kielbasa and pierogi. If that ain't street cred, there is a chilli recipe from a police crony of Serpico's.
Come to think of it, it ain't anything approaching street cred. It is life-into-copy opportunism by a notably talented journalist. But O'Neill's mid-western vision dignifies this vampiric process. She views the city and its millions with genuine awe - that of a vaguely snobbish prig from the sticks forever being cut down to size by the natives. Lingering beneath this is the sort of self-conscious liberalism one finds in Steven Bochco's police dramas. Appropriately, she even gives the Bochco family recipe for gefilte fish.
Which leads to the worst case of name-dropping in a cookbook since Alice B Toklas picked up a pen. Celebrities, some of whom appear to have contributed their recipes posthumously, crop up with various offerings. So we find, for example, Katharine Hepburn's Brownies, Nora Ephron's Sauce Segretto, Robert Motherwell's Brandade de Morue and (the killer) Estee Lauder's Beef and Barley Soup.
Somehow, however, O'Neill avoids patronising the more obscure New Yorkers. Nor does she sneer at brisket poached in ginger ale: she credits it for its Gotham spirit and tasting good. Essentially what distinguishes her writing is a fine sense of food.
Among the recipes she collected is this one, which comes from a new wave of Russian immigrants to Brooklyn. Two chef friends of mine had scribbled out, cooked and declared it delicious within a day of my buying the book.
Potato and mushroom pierogi
Makes 25-30 dumplings; serves 5-6
Ingredients: For the dumplings: 16fl oz (460ml) plain yoghurt
1 egg, lightly beaten
15oz (425g) plain flour
For the filling: 1 very large potato (1/2 - 3/4 lb or 250-340g)
1 onion, chopped
1lb (450g) button mushrooms, trimmed and minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
fried onions or sour cream, for serving
Preparation: 1. Make the dumpling dough: lightly beat the yoghurt, egg and salt with an electric mixer. Slowly add the flour and continue beating until smooth. Knead the dough on a floured surface until smooth. Add water, a teaspoon at a time, only if needed to smooth out the dough; it should feel like pizza dough. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in a kitchen towel and set aside in a cool place for 2 hours.
2. To make the filling: peel and quarter the potato. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer (15-20 minutes) until it offers no resistance when pricked with a fork. Drain and set aside.
3. Melt 2tbs butter in a frying pan over a very low heat. Whip the potato with the butter until it is fluffy and creamy. Set aside.
4. Melt the remaining 2tbs butter in the pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent (about 5 minutes). Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper, and saute until the mushrooms are tender and any liquid exuded has evaporated (about 5 minutes). Remove the mixture from the pan and set aside to cool slightly. Mix the vegetables into the mashed potatoes.
5. Bring a large pot of salted water to a the boil. Meanwhile, roll out the dough - 1/8 in (3mm) thick. Cut into 3in (8cm) rounds with a biscuit cutter or the rim of a glass. Put about 1 heaped tsp of the mashed potato filling on one side of the circle. Fold the other side over the filling so the pierogi looks like a half moon. Press the edges together to seal.
6. Lower the heat so the boiling water simmers. Cook pierogi in batches of 4-6. Simmer gently for 5-7 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and keep warm while cooking the remaining pierogi. Serve with fried onions or sour cream.
The 'New York Cookbook' (Workman Publishing) will be available from Tuesday 14 June from Jerry's Home Store, 163-167 Fulham Road, London SW3 (071-225 2246), price pounds 15.95. Melia Publishing Services Ltd, PO Box 1639, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 6YZ, will accept orders by post for pounds 12.99, plus pounds 1.50 for postage, from 1 July.
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