Of Cookbooks and Canned Soup

Monday, February 1, 2010 41 comments
A favorite dish, redux: Seafood Linguine in Coconut Sauce

If you were marooned on a desert island, what books would you want to have with you?

Ah, nothing fires up the inferiority complex quite like a good ol' desert island book list. Along with its close companion, the dead-or-alive dinner party invites, such compilations always seem to me not so much helpful guides to worthy publications and personages but more as gauges of a person's level of cultural knowledge and sophistication. For this reason, I find them intimidating.

I consider myself well-read and relatively intelligent, but it's hard to shake the feeling that offering up personal favorites leaves me open to social judgment and reveals my plebeian tastes. So, I scour my memory for those classic titles that were required readings in high school or check current book reviews for the latest de rigueur read, intent on presenting a polished, cultured image. But while my fragile ego whispers, "Be sure to list Tolstoy, Hemingway, Homer [insert name of Literary Giant here]", my alter ego yells, "You're marooned on a @#$&*% desert island - pick books that'll make a decent raft!"

Welcome to Tangled Island

It's no better even when the request is for a single work, as when Mark Manguerra and Duncan Markham, co-editors of the dedicated culinary book review site The Gastronomer's Bookshelf, recently announced their first giveaway. The prize: David Chang's Momofuku, named to multiple 'Best of 2009' lists. The rules: simply share "the most important cookbook of your life" (details here).

But it might as well have read, "The most important cookbook that will determine your food blogging social life". Spending considerable time picking through my bookshelf, I searched for a title that would leave the most favorable impression: would Toussaint-Samat's History of Food wow the judges or should I show a sweet side with The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum? Yet time and again, my gaze was drawn to the one book that I really didn't want to admit, but could not deny, as being The One. You see, the most important cookbook of my life is not a Child, Rombauer, Hazan or Keller. It's a Campbell - The Treasury of Campbell's Recipes.

Warhol may have elevated them to pop art iconography, but in the realm of gastronomy, Campbell's soup is kitsch in a can. Nonetheless, of all the cookbooks I own, it is this compendium of convenience food recipes that has spent the most time by the stove. For as long as Mr. Noodle and I have been married, for each move to a new city and an unfamiliar kitchen, it has been a mainstay. It didn't teach me how to cook - I knew the rudiments already - but as a young cook of limited budget and still-developing culinary skills, it allowed me to prepare meals that didn't involve instant ramen noodles. From this book, I first learned what orzo was and how to use wine in cooking, and I proudly served dishes made from its recipes to my first few dinner guests. With improved finances, more knowledge and a palate refined, I bought other books, quality tools and better ingredients, but I still made one or two recipes from Treasury that had become favorites. Though rarely used today, it still holds a place among my go-to cookbooks. 

In trying to choose as my 'most important cookbook' one that I thought others would find enviable or admirable, rather than the one that I found truly useful but thought embarrassing, I've revealed myself not as a plebeian but as a poseur. Now, that is the true embarrassment.

Some might consign The Treasury of Campbell's Recipes to the bottom of the pile and find it rather ironic that I chose such a book for the chance to win one that is so highly-coveted and critically praised. But I now see it differently: to climb some of the highest peaks, you often have to start at the lowest valley. In the years since I made my first canned soup recipe, I've slowly cooked my way upward. I'm not yet in view of the pinnacle and I may never reach it, but I'm enjoying the climb.

And the view is ever so much better than on a desert island.

Linguine Frutti di Mare con Salsa di Cocco 
(Seafood Linguine with Coconut Sauce)

Page 178 of my copy of Treasury of Campbell's Recipes is wrinkled, splotched and well-used due to the favored recipe it contains: Linguine with Clam Sauce. I no longer make this dish as given by the book, which called for a can of cream of mushroom soup, but Mr. Noodle and I have fond memories of it. Now, I make it sans can but it doesn't mean I've also given up convenience. The following recipe still involves prepared ingredients such as canned coconut milk, frozen seafood and ground spices, but I hope you'll see the progress I've made.

As for the mouthful of moniker above, you can chalk it up to the influence of my mother, whose elegant style is rooted in the simple yet steadfast rule that a lovely accessory adds flair to the most simple outfit. So why not do the same for a simple dish?

Serves 4

1 large shallot, sliced fine
1 tsp flour
1 Tbsp canola oil
1 Tbsp minced ginger or ginger paste
1 Tbsp crushed garlic or garlic paste
1 can coconut milk
1/4 tsp ground galangal
1-2 tsps patis (fish sauce)
1 tsp sambal oelek
2/3 cup chicken broth
1 lb seafood mix (or your choice of shrimps, clams, bay scallops, etc.)
8oz linguine, cooked
Cilantro, for garnish
Green onions, garnish

To make:

1. Toss thinly sliced shallots and fry until golden crisp**;
2. In a wok or saucepan, heat oil and add ginger and garlic. Lightly fry;
3. Slowly pour in coconut milk, then stir in ground galangal, patis, sambal and chicken broth. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and continue to simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens a bit;
4. Add seafood and heat until cooked through, then remove sauce from heat;
5. In a large bowl, toss cooked linguine noodles and sauce, which should thicken more as the noodles absorb it;
6. Serve with a garnish of crispy fried shallots and sprinkle with cilantro and green onions. Enjoy!

**To fry shallots to golden crispiness, I followed these steps from Penny at Jeroxie. But be warned: her blog is addictive and consuming! 

Momofuku by David Chang was one of the hottest, best-reviewed cookbooks of 2009 and now, Mark and Duncan are giving away a copy! It's not too late to enter - just head over to The Gastronomer's Bookshelf for full details. Entries will be accepted until 12 pm GMT (7 am EST) on Sunday, February 7th. Good luck!


  • Manggy said...

    I gotta say, I'm a little surprised at your choice, but not at all judgmental, promise ;) For some reason some neurons crossed while I was reading and I thought you named The Treasury of Coconut (Milk, cos it's in a can) Recipes. I thought, "Wow, she really likes coconut milk!" Ha ha ha. But it's actually a little valid cos of the recipe- it's a gorgeous one and a good alteration :)

    Thanks for entering the giveaway!

  • Gera@SweetsFoodsBlog said...

    In an island? Difficult question...I'll ask to Tom Hanks that has experience. I think none...a desert island will be a hard moment..the cooking won't be the best. All the time I'll think how to get out of there.

    Continuing with yummy coconut recipes, this with seafood is gorgeous :)

    Have a great week,


  • Divina Pe said...

    Most likely, I think I would end up in an island with lots of coconut around me. I think I have a similar cookbook but it's not just a Campbells, but its' cookbook of different products at the supermarket. Well, anything with coconut sounds good to me.

  • Unknown said...

    Oh how I can identify with this! I, too, always think I should have loftier favorites when it comes to literature and the arts. But, you know, sometimes we just like what we like!

    As for cookbooks, one of my favorites (for many of the same reasons you cite Campbell's) is Betty Crocker's 30-minute Fix-it-Fast Meals. It was a life saver when I was first starting out on my own. I knew cooking my own meals, even if it included some convenience items, was a lot better than eating frozen pizza every night. And I knew I could commit 30 minutes to it. So - Betty got me started. I still have a few trusted favorites from that book.

  • Jenn said...

    I don't know if I can decide what book to take with me. I love to read, too. I think at least one cookbook would be on the list, though. Maybe something seafood oriented as I guess fishies and other sea critters will be my only meal there. Might as well make the most of it rather than cooking them simply on an open fire.

  • Sippity Sup said...

    The only cooking going on at my desert island is my bare behind as it finally gets a tan! But If I could have this dish sent out to the island once in a while, then all should be well. GREG

  • sophia said...

    Haha, I don't think I'll wanna read Tolstoy when I'm stranded in a desert, either. I actually do love his books, but not when I'm at the beach!

    OMG. Fried shallots!!! Lovely addition!

  • Anonymous said...

    i'd probably bring my food encyclopedia :) What a delicious seafood linguine and I love the addition of crispy shallots! My daughter had the crispy fried shallots on one of her courses in our latest 5 star and really loved them, I now need to make them at home for her!

  • diva said...

    oh you made me laugh. I'm in love with my latest cookbook purchase 'Everyday Harumi'. I'm liking this recipe. I havent tried coconut milk with pasta but oh i bet this is delicious. x

  • Yarntangler said...

    In my early cooking days I swore by The Brand Name Cook Book. Then my grandmother gave me a set of booklets put out by the Victory Canning Company during WWII about cooking with rationed ingredients, Titles like: 101 Ways to Cook Eggs or Cooking Without Meat I still use some of those recipes today.

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    I hope I have a spear gun for all the fish I'll need to catch and to shoot down those coconuts! p.s. ssshhh, don't tell anyone! - my warm crab dip's secret ingredient is a can of campbell's cream of celery. I feel so semi-homemade when I make it but everyone oohs and aahs over it.

  • Kitchen Butterfly said...

    You make me laugh...and smile with your 'research'. I wonder if I can choose a favourite cookbook....of the many I have. But a fave mag edition - yes - Delicious September 2004!!!!!!! Could live on all the recipes in that edition!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thanks, everyone! At the rate this winter is going, I'd happily be stranded on sunny, tropical island. 8-)

    Manggy - I've been on such a coconut kick lately! I'd better change it up a bit. Many thanks to you and Duncan for hosting the contest!

    Gera - Thank you! I figured coconut and seafood were the likeliest ingredients on a desert island. 8-)

    Kenny - It turned out well! We love creamy sauces and the coconut milk was a tasty alternative to dairy cream.

    Juliana - Thank you! Coconut is delicous whether it's sweet or savory - no wonder I've been obsessed with it recently. 8-)

    Divina - I think these convenience cookbooks have their place so even though they rely on packaged foods, it's a way to start building some cooking skills. As for coconut, I wish I'd bought the cookbook that was all about it when we were in the Philippines! 8-(

    Dhaleb - These were my first batch! I've done caramelized onions but not crispy shallots. Thank goodness for Penny @ Jeroxie and her easy guide. 8-)

    ValleyWriter - A kindred cooking spirit! I've got various cookbooks, magazines, clippings, printouts - more recipes than I could possibly cook and they range from the super-convenient to really ambitious. But I find them all interesting and worthy, if only I could find the time to make them all. 8-)

    Jenn - I think a cookbook is a must, although looking at the photos might make me go crazy that I couldn't have any. I think that I'd mostly have pop fiction like Stephen King - something to take my mind off the fact that I'm STRANDED!!

    Pigpigscorner - I'd have a whole library if I could! Or a Kindle/iPad with solar re-charger so I could just download books!! 8-)

    SippitySup - [LOL] Rump roast? If you were stranded on a desert island, doubtless you'll have turned it into an exclusive getaway in no time.

    Doggybloggy - The same way I'd get the books? I'd probably be starch-deprived - now that would be torture for me!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Sophia - I'd definitely have to read something 'lighter' than Tolstoy! The shallots were tasty but they were the first I'd ever tried, so I think they can turn out better with more practice. 8-)

    Full-Timed Housefly - Thank you! I really wouldn't know which books to choose. I think I'd rather be rescued than spend time reading! 8-)

    Wendyywy - Thank you! The fried shallots gave it a different texture with all the creaminess from the sauce.

    Penny - Oh, I just realized I didn't give you a head's up like I said I would! Apologies! Thanks so much for your shallot recipe - as you can see from the previous comments, they were a big hit!

    5 Star - I'm still learning that the little garnish/details that make dishes look so complicated are often not so difficult to make but have such an impact! I'm definitely going to do more fried shallots!

    Diva - I've heard so many great things about 'Everyday Harumi'! I want one but the wish list of books is sooo long now.

    I'm convinced that coconut goes with everything! 8-)

    Stacy - Thank you so much! It would be so hard to choose specific books - I have lots of favorites but imagine all the other new books out there that I haven't read yet!

    Yarntangler - I think these convenience cookbooks have some value and use in the kitchen, which is why I can't bring myself to discard or even store away my Campbell's book! Thanks for input!

    Daily Freebies - Thank you so much!

    Kat - I have fun 'trying' to come up with my own recipes using fresh ingredients, but sometimes, I really appreciate the help and convenience of these cookbooks! 8-)

    Gastroanthropologist - [LOL] Maybe one of our desert island books will have to be a Boy Scout guide to surviving in the 'wild'! I promise not to reveal your secret but you may have to share that crab dip recipe in exchange . . . !

    Kitchen Butterfly - Now, I'm so curious about this Delicious '04 issue. You'll have to share!

    Erica - It's so hard to choose when there are so many out there! And imagine all the ones in different languages, too . . . !

  • Lori said...

    What brilliant changes to that recipe! The coconut milk sauce sounds so great. Definitely going to keep that one in the file. Your talk of this cookbook reminded me of the all the ones my mom has from church days of the past. They are heavily reliant on canned soup, pudding mix and jello. Ha, ha!

  • Michele said...

    mmmm noodle that looks tasty and i hate seafood! lol. i may steal your sauce for chicken....

    also, i loved that you suffered a dilemma between the literary side and the practical side for the desert island question. i'm the same way!!

  • Kajal - Aapplemint said...

    Stranded on an island with cookbooks, well there'd have to be a chocolate cookbook for sure ... something divine to look at while waiting for the rescue boat to arrive ... lol
    Coconut milk ... not a big fan of it, maybe just in curries , but have to try this cuz it looks gr8 !

  • Debbie said...

    The book I'd bring with me would be The Doubleday Cookbook...it's an old one but has just about everything in it. My first cookbook and still my favorite! Love cooking with coconut milk and I think the pic of your dog is just so cute...!!!

  • Carolyn Jung said...

    I like your honesty in the book that you chose. Plus, I bet each and every one of us was strongly influenced at a young age by dishes made with Campbell's soup or other convenience products. Our Moms used it, and we loved our Moms' cooking. It's what made us grow to be passionate about our own cooking when we got older.

  • Trissa said...

    I love these old hard to find cookbooks. Campbell's soup was one of my favourite soups while growing up. I absolutely loved the mushroom soup and I would collect the recipes from the back of the can. Great to know there is a cookbook with lots of other great recipes.

  • Anonymous said...

    Whether or not this originally began as a Campbell's recipe or not, it's a wonderful dish and one that I would find most comforting. I grew up eating Green Bean casserole, Baked Macaroni and Cheese and Tuna Noodle Noodle Casserole all of which contained Cream of Mushroom Soup! It is no longer part of my pantry either but I remember it fondly!

  • Daily Spud said...

    Sometimes it is the questions that seem the most simple that can get us tied up in mental knots. I am scrambling for an answer to that 'most important cookbook' question - it's probably any one of a number of Madhur Jaffrey books, if for no other reason than they are the most liberally spattered from regular use.

    I admire your honest and forthright choice and, besides, who am I to judge? Your choice is yours and my opinions are mine :) And, in my opinion, your linguine looks like it should be gracing my dinner plate right about now!


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