Williams College alum co-authors new cookbook, focusing on fresh food and literature
Myra Kornfeld and Stephen Massimilla’s cookbook is a feast for the cook, and poet, alike.
“We like to say it’s a cook’s literary book and a book lover’s cookbook,” said Massimilla of their book, “Cooking with the Muse,” (Tupelo Press, 2016).
The tome — lovingly and carefully filled with 150 original recipes, countless poems and essays and delectable photographs — is described by its authors as a “literary cookbook,” with an anthology of poems. It’s a kind of perfect marriage of the culinary and literary; in a way, like Kornfeld and Massimilla, who have been married for 18 years.
“I’m always coming up with new dishes, always writing new recipes and Stephen is always coming up with poems and writing poetry,” said Kornfeld, a chef, educator and author of three previous cookbooks.
“We have really complimentary skill sets,” agreed Massimilla, a poet and professor who teaches literature, food ethics and writing at Columbia University and The New School. Massimilla also attended Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where he said many of his professors helped inspire his work in the cookbook. “A chef works creatively and so does a poet. Cooking is a lot like writing poetry.”
What began as an idea — a synergy of interests and skills, of sorts — led to the long journey a project like this can take one on. For the past four years, the couple has been working consistently on the cookbook, according to Kornfeld. What they found in the process was not only were cooking and poetry related on a creative level, but also on a literary one.
“Every time we were reading about the ancient world, food references would jump out at us,” she said.
The book is organized by season, to coincide with the best kind of muse, for a cook and a poet, nature. Each recipe has a cook’s note and a poet’s note. The cook’s note explains in detail why flavors work together or how to execute a specific technique. The poet’s adds context to the recipe by explaining the history behind a certain ingredient and references its use in past literature.
Fall brings a corn pudding souffle recipe, with a poet’s note explaining that Mark Twain recommended carrying boiling water to the garden to catch the corn and all its sweetness the moment it left the vine. There’s also a recipe for corn polenta cakes topped with ricotta cream and juicy blackberries.
The winter section is filled with hearty dishes with root vegetables — yam waffles with maple-pecan butter — potatoes and exotic spices with Moroccan influences. In the cruciferous vegetables section, a poem to butter is printed alongside a recipe for greens with lemon-thyme brown butter. “Butter, like love, seems common enough, yet has so many imitators.”
Spring honors asparagus shavings and spring peas in a risotto with fava beans. A spring onion tart gives what poet Naomi Shihab Nye calls “one of nature’s small forgotten miracles,” a spot at the table.
Summer celebrates recipes made for “tossing, blending and sauteing,” instead of hours hovering over a stove. A recipe for seared tuna with purple potatoes and cherry tomato sauce inspired a poem by Massimilla by the same name printed on the opposite page.
“It’s a really delicious dish and so summery,” said Massimilla, who also pointed out in his poet’s note the origin of purple potatoes, tracing the vegetable back to royal roots, when the Incas prized them as a dish to set before a king.
All of the recipes encourage using fresh, locally sourced food, something that is often referenced throughout history in literature and poems, Massimilla said.
“This book is the history of food through the lens of literature,” he said. “We find that it’s very easy to celebrate food and poetry together — both are nourishing, both about value and feelings, and our connection with the earth.”
When writing the book, sometimes the recipes inspired the poems and sometimes the inspiration went the other way around, he said. Inspiration, no matter how you come about it, is something they both hope this book provides cooks and literature lovers of all ages, abilities and interests.
“We’ve heard from literature people that this book makes them want to cook,” said Kornfeld. “And from cooking people, ‘I’m have a really good time reading this.’ That’s what we hope all readers will take away from this.”
Seared Tuna with Purple Potatoes and Cherry Tomato Sauce
From “Cooking with the Muse”
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh tuna (4 thick steaks)
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for marinating the tuna
3/4 pound small purple potatoes (such as Purple Peruvian or Purple Majesty), halved if small or cut into 3/4-inch pieces if large
1/2 cup thinly sliced leeks (whites and light greens only)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon fennel seed
2 teaspoons capers, drained and rinsed
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
Place the tuna in a resealable plastic bag with enough olive oil to moisten it all over. Refrigerate to marinate for up to 24 hours. Remove the tuna from the refrigerator an hour before cooking.
Add the potatoes to a small pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil. Add 1 teaspoon salt and cook until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a fork, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Warm 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the leeks and cook just until softened, about 3 minutes.
Add the potatoes, tomatoes, shallots, garlic, the remaining 1/4 cup olive oil, the balsamic vinegar, fennel seed, capers, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cover and cook over medium heat until the tomatoes are juicy, about 4 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the chives and parsley.
While the sauce is cooking, warm a cast-iron or heavy-bottomed skillet over medium- high heat. Sprinkle the tuna steaks with salt and pepper on both sides. When a hand held an inch above the skillet feels uncomfortably hot, add the tuna and sear until golden, about 2 minutes. Flip the steaks and sear on the second side for the same amount of time.
Transfer the tuna to the sauce and spoon the sauce over the top. Serve immediately.
Talk and tasting
Join ‘Cooking with the Muse’ authors Myra Kornfeld and Stephen Massimilla for a free talk, book signing and tasting.
Where:: Griffin, 165 Main St., Great Barrington, Mass.
When: 5 to 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 27
More information: cookingwiththemuse.com