Every day I work on cookbooks — those stunningly gorgeous, so-delicious-it-hurts cookbooks we all love. But all of the pretty, all of the time can be, well, too much. So when my eyes can't stand another perfectly styled and crisp food photo, I know it's time to retreat to my vintage cookbook shelf.
We all have those old cookbooks that just mean the world to us, don't we? We hold onto them our whole lives because the feeling they give us is completely irreplaceable.
A vintage cookbook is a doorway to a different time in food life, when people did things in a way that we can't remember anymore. These long-ago authors remind us of forgotten techniques and lost flavor combinations, and they lead us to those unexpected little discoveries we only have when we have a wiser friend with us in the kitchen.
So I'd love to introduce you to one of my favorite old friends: Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place. Viana published nine cookbooks in the dozen or so years after 1987, and her recipes have an enduring cult following. I know I'm not the only literary agent or editor with a few Viana gems tucked permanently in her back pocket.
Unplug Your Kitchen
Even though it's now out of print, Unplugged Kitchen is worth seeking out because of how calm and composed (and not inferior!) it will make you feel. First off, it has no photos. No photos! I know that sounds byzantine, but you'll be surprised how much you'll enjoy the quiet of the pages. It's the perfect cure for when you've been aspirational lifestyle-d to within an inch of your life.
And even in 1996, Viana had a feeling we were having trouble unplugging in the kitchen. Even before we were Instagramming our dinners, it was clear that we were beginning to trade the sensory experience of cooking for quick convenience. The book starts out with several introductory pages on why you don't need a food processor, or plastic wrap, or paper towels.
Yes, a big premise of the book is to give yourself the time to thoughtfully wash and chop your ingredients, rather than spinning and processing them to oblivion. When was the last time you carefully tore soft butter lettuce for a salad? If you can't remember, it's time for Viana's Sweet Torn Salad.
Fresh and Unforgettable
Another of Viana's recipes that's been canonized in my home is her Rich Lemon Rice. It's carbonara meets risotto, but it's freshened and deepened with lemon juice and a dash of cayenne. I've read hundreds of rice recipes over the years and never seen one like this. Its closest cousin is Tamago Kake Gohan — plain white Japanese rice with an egg yolk cracked on top and stirred in.
Rich lemon rice is an ingeniously designed recipe because every last ingredient hits one of the flavor touch points we crave. You have starchy sugars from the Arborio rice, umami from the eggs and Parmesan, a hit of acid from the lemon juice, a dash of deep heat from the cayenne, and the ever-reliable fat of a few pats of butter. If that isn't designed to make us happy, then there is no comfort in food and we all should all go home now.
It's an ingeniously designed recipe, but that didn't mean I could stop myself from tinkering with it. I wanted to modernize it in a few ways, so I looked for spots where it could be made even easier.
First, I turned it into a one-pan recipe. The original recipe calls for using either three egg yolks or two whole eggs. I have yet to become a person that can be trusted to make use of spare egg whites. (Are you? If so, please send tips!) So let's eliminate this potential waste and use two whole eggs.
Finally, as a former cookbook editor, current cookbook agent, and lifelong lazy person, I've gotten pretty expert at picking out what's really necessary in a recipe and what can be skipped without catastrophe. The original recipe called for softening your butter before adding it to your low-heat cooking rice. The last time I remembered to take the butter out to soften was never, so let's forget about that. The butter will melt over the low heat of your pan just fine — I promise.
One last thing: I know the great to-stir-or-not-to-stir risotto debate is still raging, but for this recipe, you will be just fine if you stir every few minutes rather than nonstop. You'll still end up with that nice, starchy liquid that adds the "rich" part of this rich lemon rice. Use that extra time you just got back to open another bottle of wine.
One-Pot Rich Lemon Rice
7 1/2 cups water
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
Finely grated zest of 1 medium lemon
Bring the water to a boil in a 3-quart or larger pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season generously with salt, add the rice, and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente, about 12 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs, lemon juice (use the full 1/4 cup if you like a lot of lemon flavor), and cayenne together in a medium bowl; set aside.
Set a fine-mesh strainer over a heatproof medium or large bowl. Pour the cooked rice through the strainer, then return the rice to the pot. While whisking constantly, slowly whisk 1 cup of the strained, starchy liquid into the egg mixture until combined to temper the eggs so they don't scramble.
Place the pot of rice back over low heat. Add the whisked egg mixture, 3/4 cup Parmesan, butter, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, gently stirring constantly, until thickened slightly, adding more reserved cooking liquid 1/4 cup at a time if needed, 3 to 4 minutes. The final mixture should be creamy and run slowly off a spoon like warm rice pudding. Stir in the lemon zest, taste, and season with more salt as needed. Serve immediately with more Parmesan cheese.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- Variations: To make this a seasonal and complete meal, during the last 5 to 10 minutes of cooking, you can stir in kale in the winter, asparagus in the spring, tomatoes in the summer, or shaved Brussels sprouts in the fall.
Recipe adapted from Unplugged Kitchen by Viana La Place (William Morrow, 1996).