Let's get a few things out of the way about Gwyneth Paltrow's cookbook, My Father's Daughter, before we get to the heart of the matter, which is, of course, the food: I admit, I laughed along with the rest of the peanut gallery as the first round of jokes aimed at her cookbook aspirations circulated. (Particularly amusing was the list of quotes, taken directly from the recipe headnotes, published by Eater National.) It's true that Gwyneth can be a bit precious, refusing to admit that cavolo nero is kale, describing it instead as "a dark green leafy vegetable that's very good for you." But the jokes got tired quickly; I wanted to treat Paltrow's book not as a punchline, but as a cookbook, and one that deserved to be evaluated on its own merits.
So a few weekends ago, for my mother's birthday, I decided to cook a la Paltrow. It seemed appropriate: Paltrow's book is all about family — the title is an homage to her late, food-loving father, the film director Bruce Paltrow, and many of the recipes are ones that she encountered growing up. It's also an account of Paltrow's current home life, and the way she feeds her family. As a reader, I became well acquainted with her daughter's early-onset vegetarianism and her son's penchant for roasted cauliflower (though Paltrow rarely mentions the preferences of her husband, rock star Chris Martin). The recipes are aimed at everyday cooks, with dishes that don't require too much skill or too many ingredients; there's an emphasis on deliciousness (many recipes require the deep fryer — though I wonder how often Paltrow uses one) and health (she's an unsurprising champion of alternative grains like spelt, and sings the praises of Vegenaise, a brand of vegan mayonnaise). In some cases, we're given two takes on one recipe — her mother's blueberry muffins call for a stick of butter, Paltrow's alternative features agave nectar, soy milk, and vegetable oil.
For my own Gwynethian spread, I decided to feed my parents and my boyfriend a mix of indulgent and wholesome recipes from My Father's Daughter: an appetizer (cold pea and basil soup), an entree (fish tacos), and dessert (berry Pavlova). For the soup, I first made Paltrow's vegetable stock. I chopped all the vegetables (onions, carrots, celery, leeks) the night before, and made the stock the morning of the meal. While it simmered, I got started on the pea and basil, cooking onion in olive oil for the base, then adding the frozen peas and fresh vegetable stock when the onions were soft, and so on, doing whatever the easy to follow ingredients told me to. The recipes were clearly written, with good results. (I have to admit, I felt incredibly wholesome making my own vegetable stock (which I had never done before), and now I have two quarts ready to go in the freezer.) The soup, completed, was a fresh, sweet puree that made great use of frozen vegetables.
While the soup was cooling, I made the meringue for the pavlovas, created attractive mounds on a parchment-lined sheet pan, and put them to bake. Achieving the pillowy nests was a straightforward process, and the results were gorgeous. Instead of using the leftover egg yolks to make pasta, as Paltrow suggests, I used them to make a simple custard, which I folded into the whipped cream that typically tops the pavlova for a rich, vanilla-scented pastry cream. As it wasn't blueberry season (the fruit called for in the recipe), I macerated some strawberries and cubed mango with lime juice, lime zest, cardamom, and sugar, and set the mixture aside on the window sill until the desserts were ready to assemble.
Photo: Gabriella Gershenson
At this stage in the dinner prep, I had been working continually for hours, and still had a couple of hours to go. My stamina was running low. The fish tacos, the final recipe to tackle before we could all sit down and eat, were the piece de resistance. Individually, each component of the tacos wasn't difficult: lime crema made by mixing Vegenaise with salt and lime juice (so tangy and delicious, the memory of it is a salivary trigger); pico de gallo; salted cabbage; guacamole; beer-battered fingers of hake. Tackling one condiment after the other, however, was a bit trying. If I were to do it again, I would enlist the help of the family—these condiments, each made from five ingredients or fewer, would be hard to screw up.
But in the end, the tacos turned out beautifully. And the reaction to them was golden: The dishes of tortillas, crisp and greaseless fried fish, and multiple zesty fixings were positively magnetic (my one note: adding some chopped chile to the salsa would have brought some welcome heat). Once it was time to eat, the hungry people around the table descended upon the elements of the fish tacos in unison. Assembling them created a wonderful sense of activity, and everybody loved the taste of everything. "This is why people love fish tacos so much!" enthused my boyfriend, Keith, who apparently had only sampled lesser versions until that afternoon. "Mmm, so sweet," said my mother Anna, the birthday girl, as she slurped the cold pea soup. "I'll eat my own," my father, Ed, informed me, when I offered to share a gargantuan pavlova, spilling over with whipped cream, pastry cream, berry syrup, and macerated fruits.
What I learned from this exercise in Gwynethism? Paltrow's book delivers on its promise. The recipes I tried out were delicious, not too difficult to execute, and brought the family together. Would I cook from the book again? Absolutely — even if she won't reveal the secrets of cavolo nero.