From our region’s famed seafood to its spectacular wine and organic produce, the Northwest’s bounty is rich and varied. We’re also blessed with exceptional authors who excel at teaching us how to create a meal or cocktail that will even impress the “foodies” we invite over. Here are four local cookbook authors you should definitely get to know.
KATHY CASEY: A FLUID CAREER
Casey’s career began at the age of 15 when she took a job cooking for the nuns at a local convent. They liked what she made and from there Casey worked her way up through the culinary ranks, attending Seattle Central Community College’s culinary arts program and eventually becoming one of the youngest female executive chefs in the country.
Despite her hard-won success in the kitchen, Casey wanted more room to be creative, to put together a whole concept, but “there were no jobs like that back then.” Writing about food never occurred to her until a friend — a cookbook editor and agent — brought it up.
Her first cookbook Pacific Northwest the Beautiful, came out in 1995, and Casey wrote her “Dishing” column for the Seattle Times for 12 years, creating recipes for her readership. Her ninth and latest cookbook project, to be released in late spring, is Sips and Apps — cocktails paired with appetizers.
“There’s a definite Northwest slant to what I do. We live in a great place because we have so many great products. When you pick it or you forage it, it tastes better,” she says. Some of her favorite pastimes include huckleberry picking and wild mushroom hunting and her work studios have an urban garden.
“Writing cookbooks is probably about a tenth of what I do. It’s not a huge part, but it’s a big passion.” As a cookbook author, Casey prides herself on testing recipes thoroughly, so that readers will meet with success when they try them out. She wants her work to be fun and approachable, and loves the stories she gets in return, like the one from the young man who put together an entire Kathy Casey dinner — wowing his girlfriend in the process.
Whether it’s writing about seasonal foods, or creating a whole dinner party, says Casey, “I want people to feel like it’s me talking to them. I want to inspire people to get into the kitchen, or bar, or garden. I’m writing about things people can relate to.”
CYNTHIA NIMS: DETAIL ORIENTED
“One of the things about food writing” says Cynthia Nims, “it’s a self-directed career path. Everyone’s story is a little different.” For Nims, who was raised in Edmonds, the story began with neither food nor writing. Food, though she loved it, was something “just for fun.” And she by far preferred math theorems and physics problems to writing prose.
But it was a minor in French and a study abroad opportunity that opened the door to new career possibilities. “I got to go to one of the great culinary cultures of the world. It was surprising how flavorful a ham and cheese sandwich could be.” Nims returned to France to attend the famous La Varenne cooking school for a two-month stint and ended up staying more than two years, getting an on-the-job education at the school in recipe development, food writing and photography.
Ultimately, the Northwest was home and Nims returned, taking on various roles — as a magazine food editor, a gatherer and reviewer of recipes for the popular Best Places guidebook series and, eventually, the creator of her own recipes for the Northwest Homegrown Cookbook series in which she explored single ingredients – crab, mushrooms and salmon, a role that allowed her to lavish attention on the local foods she loved.
“The Northwest story is always one that I’ll want to tell.” says Nims, pointing out that not many areas of the country have the variety that’s available here. And she thinks that other areas of the country take some of their cues from Northwest cuisine.
In her own recipes, Nims focuses on communicating the possibilities of a meal in a straightforward manner. “I tend to shy away from recipes that have 24 ingredients,” she says. She wants a glance at a recipe to show that it is doable in an evening or as a weekend day project. With all her culinary experience she chooses not to use a professional kitchen, instead doing all of her testing at home.
“The real home cook is going to wonder where to put that pot of brine” she points out. It’s this attention to each step — traced back to her days as a math major — that she credits with much of her success in recipe development. “It made me really detail oriented,” she says, “There’s certainly a lot of creativity in development, but you can’t live by creativity alone when it comes to writing books.”
Nor is having a good selection of recipes enough to get a cookbook published today, says Nims. Publishing is changing, and high-profile cookbooks come from high-profile personalities. Online accessibility of recipes means a book of great recipes may not be as bankable, and cookbook publishers are cautious. “It’s fascinating and terrifying to imagine where food writing is going. It’s a big transition for some of us.”
BRAIDEN REX-JOHNSON: NORTHWEST DISCOVERY
After years as a writer — in the corporate world, as a freelancer
and as an unpublished author of screenplays and romance novels, Braiden
Rex-Johnson moved to Seattle with her husband and found her writing niche
right next door. She lived half a block from the Pike Place Market and
sought a way to bring the market to a wider audience. “It was the
right time,” she says.
“I do what are called collaborative or community cookbooks,” she says, meaning she primarily collects recipes from local chefs and puts them together in a cohesive form. For Rex-Johnson, almost every meal is grounds for research — like one birthday dinner she attended that turned into an hours-long conversation with the restaurateur about all of the details of the meal: the wine she was drinking, the winemaker and the forager of the mushrooms. At the end of the evening she had pages of notes. “Thank heavens I like my work,” she says. “It’s my life.”
It’s also an ongoing education, particularly for someone not coming from a traditional culinary background. Rex-Johnson learned on the job and feels that not having that training gives her a unique perspective and sympathy for the home chef. She tests recipes with people like herself, people with regular kitchens and appliances. “I don’t have a lot of fancy tools, because home chefs don’t have those things.”
She also aims to tell the story of food through the people who provide it, the farmers, winemakers, cheesemakers, chefs. She has found that the desire in the Northwest to eat close to the earth by eating locally has been around for a long time, and this differentiates it from other parts of the United States. The rest of the country is just catching up to the idea. “I have a passion for Northwest cuisine because it’s taking the best local ingredients and then not doing too much to them.” This ethos is expressed in her most recent book, Pacific Northwest Wining and Dining, a look at local food and wine region by region.
Even with her success, Rex-Johnson knows that cookbook publishing is changing. Now, she says, if you don’t have a whole platform — a James Beard Award, a television show and a line of companion products — it can be difficult to gain entry. But she’ll continue to write about her favorite topic, most recently on her blog. “It’s a more immediate way to get the word out and keep people current on the food and wine scene.”
KERRY COLBURN: COMMON GROUND COCKTAILS
Colburn worked for many years in publishing, editing other people’s books. She published several of her own, but this is her first book of cocktails, and, she says, it only saw the light of day in a competitive market because of its unique twist on the genre. “A traditional cocktail book would think about the drink and ingredients. I had to come at it backwards — starting with thinking about the event and the day.”
Colburn wants to make cocktails accessible to people. She’s had the experience of approaching large bar guides and finding herself overwhelmed. “I find that those are the books that stay on the shelf,” she says. She wanted her own book to be user friendly, a new way to think about classic cocktails.
Colburn says that her success in getting the book published shows there’s still room out there for people to write about food and drink, even if they aren’t experts on the topic. “You can always find an angle that speaks to you and successfully pursue it.” She plans to follow up this book of cocktails with a second about good drinks for bad holidays. Her goal with these cocktails is to give people a way to treat themselves — in a way that is accessible to most of us. “It’s a happy subject for most people,” she says. “It inspires them to try new things, and it’s within most people’s grasp to do and try.”
Given that eating and drinking are two things we all do — and that most of us enjoy! — we’re fortunate here in the Northwest to have both the resources and local talent to satisfy our appetites for flavorful dishes. Few joys parallel those of feeding ourselves and our loved ones well, especially when we have some knowledgeable help along the way.
Kerry Colburn’s Good Drinks for Bad Days
Bad Day: Cranky Relatives Staying with You
“Bad Day: Cranky Relatives Staying with You; Good Drink: Quaalude,” from Good Drinks for Bad Days, Copyright© 2008 by Kerry Colburn, reprinted with permission from Sasquatch Books. 128 pages, $14.95.
©2008 Caliope Publishing Company
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