By: Tom Natan
Reading her bio on the back of her cookbook makes me want to have dinner with Ruby Dee Phillipa. She’s been all over and had all sorts of careers: environmental advocate, textile designer, fishing boat worker, restaurateur (she opened three of them in Seattle), and musician. And eaten all kinds of things, too.
She also has years of experience cooking on the road throughout the U.S. And when you get to Thanksgiving Dinner, the last chapter of Ruby’s Juke Joint Americana Cookbook, you really get a sense of how she has poured her love of good ingredients into a meal. Her personality shines through, and the Thanksgiving food sounds terrific.
I wish the rest of the book were at that level. Before I read it and had only seen Ruby’s bio, I thought from the title it might have food from all over the country, made from (to use cooking competition show foodspeak) Ruby’s culinary point of view.
According to her introduction, Americana to Ruby means unpretentious cooking, and the food lives up to that. But there’s not a lot of pan-U.S. food. While she mentions enjoying New England chowders, they don’t show up here. There are a few salmon dishes in a nod to her time in the Pacific Northwest. Otherwise the book contains a lot of favorite family recipes, mostly with a southern or southwestern flavor to them.
Nothing wrong with that, but when I’m reading what amounts to a personal document about the way Ruby, her friends, and her family eat, I need to get to know the people involved to get excited about the food. That usually happens either by really interesting twists on recipes or by fun text to go with each dish. Unfortunately, for the most part you don’t find either one here. The first 150 pages of recipes, while easy to make and almost all with real (unprocessed) ingredients, aren’t much different from things you find in other books. And I kept looking for a little bit of what I figured from her bio must be a lot more personality.
I also have to admit that I was put off by the photos. A little out of focus and either washed out or with ultra-saturated color, they made the food look unappealing. It might be asking a lot to expect more from a $21.95 soft-cover cookbook, but it made me realize why authors and publishers spend a lot of money on high-quality food photography.
In the end, though, I was won over by Thanksgiving Dinner. In addition to awesome food, you get a little of the atmosphere of the holiday at Ruby’s house. The next time I make a Thanksgiving meal, I’ll be using these recipes: Roast Turkey with Maple Herb Butter and Cider Gravy (you reduce a cider/maple syrup mixture, add herbs and butter, then chill to solidify it – spread the mixture under the skin of the turkey before roasting, use some of that butter in the gravy along with applejack) and Wild Mushroom Stuffing (dried and fresh mushrooms in the bread mixture, with leeks, hazelnuts, apples, and dried cranberries, as you can see below). My mother always says that a cookbook is worth buying if she gets one really good recipe out of it. So that puts this book ahead already.
Ruby very kindly gave her permission to reprint her recipe for Wild Mushroom Stuffing. Don’t wait to stuff a turkey, though. You can make the stuffing to serve with roast chicken. There are two ways to do this. The first is to mix up the stuffing and bake it all in a greased baking dish as directed. Or you can roast some of it with the chicken. Mix up everything for the stuffing except the eggs. Instead of stuffing the chicken, cut out the backbone and press down on the breastbone to flatten it. Grease the roasting pan and put about half the stuffing in a layer as large as the chicken, then set the flattened chicken on top of the stuffing to roast (there shouldn’t be stuffing in the pan that’s not under the bird or it might burn). When the chicken’s done, remove it to a board to rest, and mix the cooked stuffing with the rest, add the eggs, and then put in a greased baking dish. Bake it uncovered while the chicken is resting, about 20 minutes.
Ruby’s Wild Mushroom Stuffing
2 c hot water
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms (about a cup of mushroom pieces)
1 1/2 lbs. egg or cornbread, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
6 T butter
4 c leeks, chopped
1 c shallots, chopped
1 1/4 lbs. crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 lb. shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 c celery, chopped
1 c parsley, chopped
1 c hazelnuts, chopped
3 T dried thyme
2 T dried sage
½ pound apples, chopped
1 c dried cranberries
Rinse the porcini pieces in cold water to remove some of the grit. Combine hot water and porcini mushrooms in small bowl. Let stand until mushrooms are soft, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid, and chop coarsely.
Preheat oven to 325. Bake bread cubes on sheets until golden brown, turning once, about 15 minutes. Cool and transfer to large mixing bowl.
Melt butter in heavy Dutch oven or skillet on medium-high heat. Add leeks, shallots, and the fresh mushrooms and sauté about 15 minutes until golden brown. Add celery and porcini mushrooms and sauté additional 5 minutes. Add to bread mix in bowl.
Add parsley, hazelnuts, spices, S and P, apples, and cranberries. Toss evenly. Add about a cup of the reserved porcini liquid (pour it carefully to avoid the grit that has settled). Let it sit for a minute and then add more of the liquid if it seems too dry.
Add eggs just prior to stuffing the bird. Mix to coat evenly with the egg.
Stuff bird and place remaining stuffing in a buttered baking dish. Cover with foil and bake about 30 minutes. Uncover and bake additional 15 minutes, until slightly crunchy on top and browned.