How do you write a cookbook? Cynthia Nims has nine to her name, each packed with her own recipes (and she’s co-authored many more). Her latest — “Shellfish,” just out of Seattle’s Sasquatch Books — features 50 new preparations she has come up with that include seven species of mollusks and crustaceans. A graduate of École de Cuisine La Varenne, she is also a former editor of Simply Seafood magazine, former food editor of Seattle magazine and a long-time freelance food writer. But still: where do all the recipes come from?
The process of writing cookbooks is different for different cookbook writers, of course — Nims recommends the “Everything Cookbooks” podcast for a broader look behind the scenes. Since you’re probably curious, some of Nims’ favorite cookbooks are “Cool Beans” by Joe Yonan, “Foods of Morocco” by Paula Wolfert, “James Beard’s American Cookery”, the latest “Joy of Cooking” and “All About Braising ‘ by Molly Stevens, who is also a part of the ‘Everything Cookbooks’ podcast.(Nims provided more titles but had to be stopped somewhere!)
Then find Nims’ own words about her approach to cooking and cookbook writing (they are different), plus what she calls a “delicious, spring-like” crab-and-asparagus recipe from “Shellfish.”
Cynthia Nims on her everyday approach to cooking – when not working on a cookbook:
Ninety-eight percent of the time — rough estimate — when I’m cooking and it’s not a recipe test, I’m doing it over the counter. Sometimes it’s something I cook often, and it will have minor variations. Other times it’s something I haven’t cooked before and I just wing 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 refer to many cookbooks in my collection when I’m in a rut or craving something I’m less familiar with.
On how a sample dish came together from a random assortment of ingredients plus the workings of her mind:
My monthly box came Thursday from Hama Hama (Oyster Company) and contained a bag of mussels. I had cauliflower in the fridge, great local bacon in the freezer. I regularly roast cauliflower and have a recipe for roasted clams in the new book – why not combine the two? I put the sliced bacon in a large oblong pan to toast it slightly crispy. I scooped out the bacon and discarded most of the fat, then added chopped cauliflower and garlic to the pan and broiled until lightly browned and mostly tender. Then I added the mussels and roasted them until they opened. It was aromatic 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 grateful to have the level of comfort and skill in the kitchen to walk in and just get started. That’s why I will never become a great baker, because I can’t stop myself from fiddling with formulas and wanting to try something different.
On what happens when it comes to work on a particular cookbook:
Ready meals can inspire what later becomes a concept recipe that I work on, but when developing recipes, I write a concept recipe in full with all ingredients and quantities, detailed instructions, cooking times, etc. I may be guessing some or many of those elements, but that’s what recipe testing is for – to verify, adjust and update if necessary.
There’s definitely research too – I’m always learning and growing through this process – that’s a big part of the fun of recipe work. I could look at six or eight versions of salsa verde and related discussions about the sauce, as a random example, from sources I trust.
The cookbooks I’ve written have really grown out of just a subject that I’m really drawn to, and — oh god, you know, I want to have a reason to delve into it more. I like the excuse of looking at old archives in the library, calling people and asking questions, and looking up old magazine articles and things like that. I really enjoy finding the background and context that lead to this thing that we’ve come to love so much.
On her thoughts behind a sample recipe in “Shellfish”:
The lobster and artichoke stew is based on a traditional oyster stew, which is often little more than oysters, milk and/or cream and butter. I chose to pair a favorite ingredient of mine, artichokes, with lobster in this easy, slightly creamy soup. With only a handful of ingredients and relatively quick preparation, I hope to convey the wide range of shellfish options for quick, flavorful, interesting recipes. Plus, it’s a great showcase for homemade shellfish stock, which I’m a big believer in keeping in the freezer for occasions like this one.
About the recipe testing process:
Well, every recipe has to be tested at least a few times, sometimes three, sometimes four or five – it depends on the amount of tweaking, of editing that needs to be done. That’s the meaty part of the cookbook process: making sure you go through the recipes to the point that you’re confident they’ll be trustworthy to the reader. Oh god – you know, it only takes months and months of time, and a lot of attention to detail. Yes, it is the core of the project.
About having friends test her recipes too:
It’s helpful to have someone else’s eyes – and the kitchen and ingredients – go over a recipe to confirm it can be followed, and get feedback on an ingredient they might have had trouble finding, or (they) aren’t sure about were what this meant – this description or whatever it may be. I may not do it with every recipe, but [it’s useful] with recipes that are a little more detailed.
What kinds of things go wrong in the prescription testing process:
Oh god, anything can go wrong (laughs) – or maybe not as intended in my head. If you take something like a sauce, it turns out more liquid than I intended, so that technique has yet to be worked out. Or, sure, the cooking times are adjusted. Or the volume of how many ramekins of something you’re going to have so that it actually serves the six people you think it’s going to serve. The logistics of “a 9 by 13 pan really isn’t big enough” so either reduce the amount or find another pan. Sure, flavor profiles – the balance of ingredients may be a little off. So that all comes out during testing. And sometimes recipes aren’t far off, and sometimes it’s four or five tests and major adjustments on the way.
Whether she eats the mistakes:
Yes, overall they are still good enough to enjoy.
On what she loves about writing cookbooks:
I really like that creative process – sitting down and sort of dissecting: how do I get from point A to B and get a prescription? And just the freedom to create things, come up with new ideas and play. And not everything is going to work out – there are definitely recipes that didn’t make the book.
I’m really going through it all – all the testing, all the rewriting, all the editing – hoping that someone will read this cookbook in their kitchen, get those ingredients and have a great experience – and just have fun with it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Cynthia Nims’ Chilled Crab and Asparagus With Green Onion Aioli
For such a simple presentation like this, with a few star ingredients, it’s an ideal time to splurge on lump crab meat, if that’s an option. The aioli flavor will be more developed if made an hour or two before serving, but is at its best the same day it is made; see the note (below) for a shortcut alternative. — Cynthia Nims
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3/4 cup mild olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion, white and light green portions (reserve the dark green tops for serving)
1 1/2 teaspoons minced or crushed garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
24 asparagus, tough ends removed
12 ounces crab meat
1. For the aioli, whisk together 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 starts to turn pale and thicken slightly, indicating that an emulsion is starting to form. Continue adding the rest of the oil in a thin, steady stream, stirring constantly. Whisk in the green onion, garlic and salt. Refrigerate the aioli, covered, until ready to serve.
2. Fill a casserole or large deep frying pan halfway with plenty of 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 boiling water, reduce heat and simmer until evenly bright green and the tip of a paring knife against the end of one of the larger stalks meets little resistance, 2 to 3 minutes. Use tongs to transfer the asparagus to the ice water and let them rest until completely cool. Place the cooled asparagus on a clean tea towel to drain.
3. Trim each asparagus spear to a length of 5 to 6 inches, reserving the bottom edge. Return the spears to the tea towel, roll them up in the towel and refrigerate until ready to serve. Thinly slice the trimmed ends and place in a medium bowl. Thinly slice the reserved dark green onion tops and set aside to use for garnish.
4. Swirl the crab meat to remove any bits of shell or gristle and squeeze gently to remove excess moisture. Add the crab to the bowl with the sliced asparagus and add 1/4 cup aioli. Toss to mix evenly, without breaking the crab pieces too much. There should be just enough aioli to hold the crab and asparagus together; add some more if needed. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about 30 minutes to cool and allow the flavors to meld.
5. Before serving, arrange the chilled asparagus side by side on individual plates. Place a mound of the crab mixture in the center of each asparagus and sprinkle over some of the tops of the green onion. Serve immediately, passing extra aioli separately. Serves 4-6.
NOTE: To make a quick aioli, stir green onion, garlic, and salt into 1/2 cup prepared mayonnaise. The flavor is best made a few hours in advance, covered and kept refrigerated. It won’t be as rich in flavor as homemade, but it’s a good alternative.
Excerpt from “Shellfish: 50 Seafood Recipes for Shrimp, Crab, Clams, Clams, Oysters, Scallops, and Lobster” courtesy of Sasquatch Books. ©2022 by Cynthia Nims.