The New Basics Cookbook was the first cookbook I ever bought. The year was 1993 and I was a fish-eating vegetarian (I didn’t know the word pescatarian yet) in search of a way to eat good food on a tight budget. Up to that point I was a ramen noodle, brown rice, stir fry and salad eater with an untouched Mollie Katzen vegetarian cookbook on the shelf.
But when I first saw Julie Rosso and Shelia Lukins’ The New Basics Cookbook, I recall thinking (with much remorse) that I was late in joining the gourmet food revolution. The cookbook’s unfamiliar cooking techniques and recipes made me want to get in my kitchen, start cooking, and catch up. Pronto.
The simplicity and playfulness of Lukins’ illustrations were beguiling—like a picture book for a child–and distracted me from my fear of learning something so new and unfamiliar. With Lukins and Rosso’s help, I started simply. I bought olive oil and fresh herbs. I roasted whole heads of garlic. I made fresh pesto. I chopped tomatoes and onions and made something called gazpacho. I cooked down eggplant and peppers for eggplant caviar. I watched in awe as my blender turned egg yolk and olive oil into aioli. With my new found culinary skill, I scoffed at store bought mayonnaise. For the first time in my life, I was using familiar ingredients in strange new ways.
The New Basics introduced me to new ingredients like watercress, fresh dill, and catfish; these were inexpensive items I could afford to experiment with. I learned how to make challa bread pudding with a whiskey sauce and oven roasted catfish with a a lemon dill sauce. I cooked these two dishes again and again until I could prepare them from start to finish from memory. For years, these were my go-to entree and dessert choices for every special occasion.
When Shelia Lukins stopped in for a meal at Pizzeria Mozza last year, I recognized her the moment she walked in the door. My heart rate whizzed as I watched the manager sit the author of my dog-eared cookbook at a table in my section. “Do you know who that is?” I said, as the manager walked past, nonplussed. I scurried to the back kitchen to find Nancy Silverton (my boss) and told her of Lukins’ arrival. Nancy’s eyes went wide and it took only moments for her to reassign her cooking duties so that she could join Lukins at her table. The pair embraced and shared food stories over plates of pizza and antipasti.
When I learned that Shelia Lukins died this week from brain cancer, I was stopped cold by the news. Lukins was my first teacher in the kitchen. Her words, basic instructions, and illustrations set me on my path. Her recipes intrigued me and guided me through a culinary infancy. Lukins’ legacy may not be as flashy as a Food Network chef, but like Julia Child, she was a cookbook author with abilities and recipes that changed the way people thought about food.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Lukins. Though she may have thought the server standing before her was simply offering a perfunctory thank you as she got up to leave, my parting thank you meant so much more than that. In actuality, my thank you was for inspiring me to get into the kitchen and learn more about food.
Thanks again, Sheila. You changed my life for the better.
Reddened Catfish with Lime Watercress Aioli
From The New Basics Cookbook, Sheila Lukins and Julee Russo
For the Lime Watercress Aioli
1 egg yolk
1/2 cup minced watercress leaves (or leftover greens)
1/4 cup chopped scallions
2 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1/2 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tsp grated lime zest
1. Blend the egg yolk, watercress, scallions, lime juice, mustard, salt, and pepper in a food processor or blender until smooth.
2. With the machine running, slowly add the oil in a thin stream. Blend until the sauce is thick and smooth. Transfer to a bowl and stir in lime zest. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For the Reddened Catfish
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 tbsp lemon zest
2 tsp paprika
2 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp Kosher salt
1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
1/4 cup half-and-half
1/4 tsp sugar
6 catfish fillets (about 3.5 ounces each), skinned
1 cup lime watercress sauce
1. Preheat oven to 450F. Grease baking sheet and set aside.
2. Toss the bread crumbs with lemon zest and herbs on a plate. In a shallow bowl, lightly beat the half and half with the egg and sugar.
3. Dip the filets one at a time into the batter mixture and then the crumbs.
4. Arrange the fish on the baking sheet and bake until sizzling and cooked through, about 12 minutes. Serve immediately with the sauce.