A couple of years ago, Dana Cowin had a revelation: After 18 years as editor in chief of Food & Wine, it was time to learn how to cook. Now don’t jump to conclusions—it isn’t as if she didn’t know how to roast a chicken or assemble a lasagna; it was more that those meals didn’t quite live up to the delicious fare she sampled daily at the F&W offices.
“My cooking was a problem, so I would always leave room for error when hosting a dinner party,” says Cowin, who was en route to Napa Valley for a talk with chef Michael Chiarello at Bottega, his restaurant in Yountfille. “Like the time I made pesto so garlicky, you could choke on it. I finally realized I’ve been working ‘kitchen adjacent’ for almost two decades, and I’m still not a cook. It seemed too humiliating to go to a cooking school, or take a class at ICE [the Institute of Culinary Education] after work. But then I thought, I know the best cooking teachers in the world! Maybe they can teach me how to cook.”
Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen: Learning to Cook with 65 Great Chefs and Over 100 Delicious Recipes ($35; amazon.com) grew out of that epiphany. Culinary stars like April Bloomfield (The Spotted Pig), Sean Brock (Husk), David Chang (Momofuku), and Alice Waters (Chez Panisse) stepped up to chop, grill, garnish and sauté with her.
She nailed Broccoli Rabe Pizza (“my family’s favorite food and the zeitgeist dish of the millennium”) thanks to Mozza’s Nancy Silverton and Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery in Boston. Alex Guarnaschelli of N.Y.C.’s Butter schooled her in the art of Steak au Poivre, so she could cook a romantic meal for her husband, Barclay Palmer, when their children, William, 11, and Sylvie, 14, were away at camp. (The secret to that juicy steak? Use a nonreactive pan—not a cast-iron one—if you’re making a sauce with lemon juice.). Each one of the 65 dishes in the book was a memorable meal—and experience. “What a shame it would’ve been for me personally if I’d never learned how to cook!” she says.
Cowin never thought of these meet-and-eat moments as private tutorials. “It was not a class of one,” she says. “Each time I learned something new it was a lesson for all of those people who either cook as I do and serve up those dishes despite the mishaps, or simply don’t cook at all because they’re afraid of making mistakes.”
What’s clear is that Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen is for all cooks who want to create dishes that are simple, stylish, and delicious. Here are Cowin’s suggestions for three easy menus from her cookbook:
1. For an Impromptu Movie Night with Friends: Wow Them with Broccoli Rabe Pizza
The worst pizza is the one you order with the works, according to Nancy Silverton, “who makes some of my favorite pizza in America,” says Cowin. Silverton was the muse behind the Broccoli Rabe Pizza (pictured at top), which has a bit of garlic, a pinch of red pepper, and chopped greens as its topping. It’s stylish enough for a quick get together with friends, say, if you’re hosting a movie night. Why not ask everyone to bring their favorite Chianti and have Fellini’s La Dolce Vita ready to roll when they get there? Get the recipe for Broccoli Rabe Pizza here.
2. For a Romantic Dinner: Keep It Simple with Steak au Poivre
An early attempt at making a soufflé for a Valentine’s Dinner years ago turned into a rom-comedy of errors. So when it came to creating a delish dinner a deux for her husband, Barclay Palmer, Cowin didn’t want any tricky reciples. “I hadn’t cooked for just my husband in 14 years,” says Cowin, who turned to Alex Guarnaschelli of New York City’s Butter to guide her in the preparation of this classic strip steak crusted in crunchy crushed peppercorns with a flamed Cognac and mustard sauce. Cowin suggests pairing this “roasted potatoes tossed with rosemary and fleurs de sel, and a fluffy green salad.” A “big” cabernet, like Joseph Phelps Insignia is sure to seduce. Get the recipe for Steak au Poivre here.
3. For a Winter Night When You Want Comfort Food: Tuck into Baked Ziti Arrabbiata
“This dish and the Korean Meatloaf are the two recipes I’ll probably make the most from this cookbook,” says Cowin. It’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser, she adds. Her main tip? Don’t be put off by making the béchamel—the technique Mario Batali suggests is foolproof. When he was teaching her, she balked at doing it and he said, “That’s not a good idea!” Finish dinner with a sweet dessert—like hot cocoa or affogato—ice cream with an espresso poured over it. Get the recipe for Baked Ziti Arrabbiata here.
From Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin. Copyright 2014 Dana Cowin. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.