Cookbook Review: Ruth Reichl's "My Kitchen Year"

Ruth Reichl's new cookbook dives into life after Gourmet

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When Gourmet magazine suddenly shut down in November of 2009, Ruth Reichl became a captain without a ship. Initially sent into a spiral of terrifying unknowns (what to do next, how to pay bills, etc.), the former editor in chief soon found the best place to find joy and comfort was in her Hudson Valley kitchen—and on Twitter, where she sent countless tweets that border on poetry.

In her latest cookbook, My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, each recipe is printed alongside a tweet from the day she made it. "The tweets were the thing that jogged my memory," she explains. But Twitter was more than just her 21st-century version of a diary. In a seemingly paradox move, Reichl managed to use a space created for 140 characters or less to craft a 300-plus-page cookbook.

She also found support on Twitter through interacting with followers, even picking up cooking tips from her invisible swarm of new friends. When a power outage thwarted plans to bake a loaf of Jim Lahey's famous no-knead bread, she used her remaining phone battery in the best way possible: to send a Twitter blast asking for advice. General consent was to "just keep punching the dough down." So for three days, that's what she did. Turns out the dough was more than salvageable—this trick is now her go-to method, as well as one of the recipes in the book.

In another recipe, Reichl casually instructs us to let vegetables "tumble into tenderness" when making butternut squash soup. She goes on to urge us to seek out the "strongest, meanest" marmalade we can find for a bacon-and-jam sandwich and use only "as many onions as you feel like chopping" for beef stew.

Reichl also takes the formality out of ingredient organization, sometimes forgoing an itemized list altogether (see an excerpt here). She wants readers to loosen up and feel encouraged to improvise in the kitchen, rather than be bound by a straightjacket of recipe etiquette. Fittingly, the 136 recipes are organized by season, rather than course, tracing her cathartic arc that begins with the disappointing news she received that fall and ends with revitalizing cold summer soups.

The book is an ode to comfort: what to do when you've lost it, where to seek it and how good it can taste. As for her ultimate comfort food, Reichl chooses matzo brei without hesitation, saying that it reminds her of her childhood: "It was one of the few things my mother made well." Plus, it smells great as it's cooking—an important quality, as a deep inhale is always the first step in feeling better.

Matzo Brei

Excerpted from My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life, by Ruth Reichl

Matzo brei is basically Jewish French toast, with the matzo standing in for the traditional leavened bread. The difference is that you use water in place of milk as the soaking liquid—and you smash the matzo into pieces and scramble like crazy.

Begin by breaking a matzo into a strainer set over a bowl to catch the crumbs. Remove the strainer from the bowl and run it under the tap, soaking the broken crackers. Drain them well, turn them into the bowl, and beat in an egg.

Melt as much butter as you can bring yourself to use in a skillet, wait for the foam to subside, toss in the eggy matzos, and scramble for a few minutes until some of the bits are crisp little nubbins and others are as soft as clouds. Salt to taste. This dish has a simple goodness that always makes me feel better.

Copyright © 2015 by Ruth Reichl, reprinted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved.