How to write a cookbook? Cynthia Nimes has nine recipes to her credit, each filled with her own recipes (and she co-authored many more). Her latest work, Sea Clams, just released from Seattle-based Sasquatch Books, features 50 new drugs she has developed that include seven types of molluscs and crustaceans. An alumnus of the École de Cuisine La Varenne, she is also a former editor of Simply Seafood magazine, a former editor of Seattle Food Magazine, and a longtime freelance food writer. But still: where do all the recipes come from?
The process of writing cookbooks, of course, differs for different cookbook authors—Nims recommends the All Cookbooks podcast for a broader behind-the-scenes look. As you’re probably curious, some of Nims’ favorite cookbooks are Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans, Paula Wolfert’s Food of Morocco, James Beard’s American Cooking, the latest The Joy of Cooking, and All About Cooking. Extinguishing by Molly Stevens, who also contributes to the Everything Cookbooks podcast. (Nims provided more titles, but they had to be stopped somewhere!)
Next, find Nims’ own words about her approach to cooking and writing cookbooks (they’re different), and what she calls a “beautiful, springtime” recipe for crabs and asparagus from Clams.
Cynthia Nims on her everyday approach to cooking when she’s not working on a cookbook
Ninety-eight percent of the time – a rough guess – when I cook, and it’s not a recipe check, I do it over the counter. Sometimes this is something I often cook and it can have slight variations. Other times it’s something I haven’t cooked before and I just cook it based on elements of things I’ve cooked in the past or new ideas I’ve come across and want to play with. And I turn to the many cookbooks in my collection if I’m feeling in a rut or hankering after something I’m less familiar with.
About how a random selection of ingredients and the workings of her mind turned into one test dish.
My monthly box came from Ham Ham [Oyster Company] on Thursday, [and] it included a bag of mussels. I had cauliflower in the fridge, great local bacon in the freezer. I often roast cauliflower, and the new book has a recipe for fried mussels—why not combine them together? I put the chopped bacon in a large oblong skillet to fry it until lightly crispy. I scooped out the bacon and discarded most of the fat, then added chopped cauliflower and garlic to the pan and sautéed until light brown and more tender. I then added the mussels and sautéed until they opened. It was fragrant and delicious – something I would do again.
Coming up with new combinations of ingredients using different techniques is something I do quite often. It’s one of the things I love most about cooking – I’m thankful that I have a degree of comfort and skill in the kitchen to walk in and just get started. That’s why I’ll never be a great baker, because I can’t stop fiddling with formulas and wanting to try something different.
On what happens when it comes to working on a given cookbook
Ready meals can be the inspiration for what will later become the draft recipe I’m working on, but when developing recipes, I write the recipe draft in full form with all the ingredients and quantities, detailed instructions, cooking times, etc. I can guess some or many of these elements, but that’s what recipe testing is for—to test, adjust as needed, and update.
There’s definitely research as well – I’m always learning and growing in the process – that’s a big part of the joy of working with recipes. I could look at six or eight versions of salsa verde and their associated sauce discussions, as a random example, from resources I trust.
The cookbooks I’ve written actually grew out of a topic that I’m genuinely drawn to, and oh my god, you know, I wish I had a reason to delve into it. I like the excuse to look through old archives in the library, call people and ask questions, look through old magazine articles and the like. I really like that I find the backstory and context that leads to what we love so much.
On what she thinks of one recipe sample in The Clam
Lobster and artichoke stew is a variation on the traditional oyster stew that often consists of oysters, milk and/or cream and butter. I decided to pair my favorite ingredient, artichokes, with lobster in this simple, slightly creamy soup. With just a few ingredients and relatively quick preparation, I hope to pass on a wide variety of shellfish for quick, tasty and interesting recipes. Also, it’s a great display case for homemade clams, which I’m a big proponent of freezer storage for occasions like this one.
About the Prescription Review Process
Well, each recipe needs to be tested at least a couple of times, sometimes three, sometimes four or five – it depends on the degree of refinement, editing that needs to happen. This is an important part of the cookbook creation process: make sure you review the recipes to the point where you feel confident they will be reliable for the reader. Oh god, you know, it takes months and months and a lot of attention to detail. Yes, this is the core of the project.
That friends are also testing her recipes
It’s helpful to have someone else – both the kitchen and the ingredients – review the recipe to make sure it can be followed and get feedback on an ingredient they may have had a hard time finding, or [they] weren’t sure if it meant a description or whatever it was. I can’t do this with every recipe, but [it’s useful] with recipes that are a little more detailed.
On what things go wrong in the recipe review process
Oh god, anything can go wrong [laughs] — or just not the way I envisioned in my head. Let’s take something like a sauce, which turned out to be more liquid than I expected, so this technique needs to be worked out. Or, of course, the cooking time is customizable. Or the amount of how many molds it costs for something you’re going to cook to actually serve the six people you think it’s going to serve. The logistics of “a 9 by 13 pan is really not big enough” so either reduce the quantity or find another pan. Of course, taste characteristics – the balance of ingredients can go a little off. So everything comes out in testing. And sometimes recipes are just around the corner, and sometimes it can be four or five tests and major adjustments along the way.
On whether she eats bugs
Yes, they are usually still good enough to enjoy.
On what she likes about writing cookbooks
I really like this creative process – to sit down and sort of analyze: how to get from point A to point B and get a recipe? And just the freedom to create things, come up with new ideas and experiment. And not everything will work out – there are definitely recipes that did not make it into the book.
I really go through it all – all the testing, all the rewriting, all the editing – in the hope that someone will read this cookbook in their kitchen, get those ingredients and have a great experience – and just enjoy it.
CHILLED CRAB AND ASPARAGUS WITH GREEN ONION AIOLI BY CYNTHA NIMES
For a presentation as simple as this one, with a couple of stellar ingredients, this is the perfect time to splurge on chunky crabmeat if possible. The flavor of the aioli will be more pronounced if it is prepared an hour or two before serving, but it is best served the same day it was prepared; see note (below) for a shortcut alternative. — Cynthia Nims
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup finely chopped green onions, white and light green portions (reserve dark green leaves for serving)
1 1/2 teaspoons minced or pressed garlic
24 asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed
1. For the aioli, whisk the egg yolk, lemon juice, and mustard in a medium bowl. Start adding the oil a few drops at a time, whisking constantly, until the yolk begins to pale and thicken slightly, indicating that an emulsion has begun to form. Continue pouring in the remaining oil in a thin steady stream, whisking constantly. Mix green onion, garlic and salt. Refrigerate the aioli, covered, until ready to serve.
2. Fill a saucepan or large deep skillet halfway with generously salted water and bring the water to a boil over high heat. While the water is heating, prepare a large bowl of ice water. Add the asparagus to the simmering water, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the asparagus is evenly bright green and the tip of the paring knife barely resists the end of one of the large spears, 2 to 3 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the asparagus to the ice water and let cool completely. Transfer the chilled asparagus to a clean kitchen towel to drain.
3. Trim each asparagus to a length of 5-6 inches, keeping the bottom. Return the spears to the kitchen towel, wrap them in the towel and refrigerate until serving. Slice the cut ends thinly and place them in a medium bowl. Thinly slice the reserved dark green onion tops and set aside for garnish.
4. Go through the crab meat to remove any pieces of shell or cartilage, and squeeze the meat lightly to remove excess liquid. Add crab to bowl of chopped asparagus and 1/4 cup aioli sauce. Stir to mix evenly without breaking the crab pieces too much. The aioli should be just enough to hold the crab and asparagus together; add some more if needed. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about 30 minutes to blend the flavors.
5. Before serving, arrange the chilled asparagus sprouts next to each other on separate plates. Lay a heap of crab mixture in the center of each layer of asparagus, scattering a few scallions over it. Serve immediately with additional aioli separately.
NOTE. For a quick aioli, mix green onion, garlic, and salt with 1/2 cup cooked mayonnaise. The taste will be better if you cook it for a few hours, cover and refrigerate. It will not be as rich as homemade, but quite a worthy alternative.
– Excerpt from “Clamshells: 50 Seafood Recipes for Shrimp, Crab, Mussels, Clams, Oysters, Scallops, and Lobsters” courtesy of Sasquatch Books. © 2022 Cynthia Nims.