Inspired by vintage cookbooks

Jen Klein

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Looking through some boxes the other day, I came across a cookbook that must be about 50 years old and I think it belonged to my grandmother. I like reading cookbooks like they are novels anyway, so I was instantly transfixed. Vintage cookbooks have a way of reeling me in and inspiring me in the kitchen.

Vintage Cookbook

Vintage cookbooks and the way we used to cook

As I paged through the pages of casserole recipes and noticed how heavy so many of the dishes were, I was struck by a number of things. First, how differently I cook now than how my grandmother and mother cooked. I don't know that they would recognize some of the things on my table - and I wouldn't be too sure of some of the ingredients that were standard for them. Next, I was struck by some specified brand-name ingredients. It was a time when the new-fangled processed foods were all the rage, and perhaps thought to be better in addition to their convenience. Quite a contrast to the current trend of simple and unprocessed foods we see now! Then, I was struck by, regardless of differences, how this was still just a collection of recipes a woman would use to feed her family. In that way the cookbook wasn't so different and foreign.

Updating vintage recipes

All that said, was there any use for this cookbook other than as an object of curiosity? Actually, yes! While I might not make any of the heirloom recipes verbatim, there were many that sounded absolutely delicious as is - and there was still plenty of room for inspiration and experimentation with other recipes. So how do you look at a vintage cookbook and find something new? It's really simple, actually. Start with substitutions:

  • Substitute fresh for canned or frozen
  • Substitute real fats for manufactured fats by using butter instead of margarine
  • Substitute homemade dressings for store-bought brands
  • Substitute light or fat-free ingredients where appropriate
  • Substitute low-salt, low-fat broths instead of regular broths
  • Substitute wheat or whole grain bread for white bread

Then lighten up:

  • Cut the salt in half, at least
  • Try using a lesser amount of butter, heavy cream, sour cream, mayonnaise or cheese
  • Reduce the amount of sugar

That said, some recipes just can't be transformed without undue effort. For example, if the recipe is all brand-name processed foods, some of which are no longer available, well, you're out of luck. Sometimes a specific ingredient just can't be duplicated (Tang, anyone?). Then there some really delicious, decadent recipes to make the family as a treat, but certainly not for everyday meals.

Cookbooks are simply a great read

Whether or not you ever use the recipes in a vintage cookbook, they are, at the very least, a great read. They give a little insight into how the moms that came before us fed their families and definitely give clues into food trends - and it makes me wonder how our grandchildren will look at our cookbooks. Kindly, I hope!

Updated vintage recipe

Chicken Sausage and Brie in Phyllo

A healthier and more elegant update for cheese and wiener crescents. Ingredients: Chicken and mango sausage (fully-cooked variety) Brie, chilled, cut into several thin strips Phyllo dough Directions: 1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. 2. Cut each sausage in half, then cut a slot in each half sausage. Stuff the slots with a strip of brie. 3. Cut several sheets of phyllo into a long triangle; the width at the base should be slightly narrower than each sausage half. 4. Roll each cheese-stuffed half sausage into a triangle of phyllo. 5. Place the rolls on the cookie sheet and bake 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly golden.

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