'Keepers' cookbook: Real food for real people

Caroline Campion (left) and Kathy Brennan in Campion's home in Gladstone, N.J.
Caroline Campion (left) and Kathy Brennan in Campion's home in Gladstone, N.J.
Posted: October 25, 2013

Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion met in 2004 at Saveur, the gourmet food magazine in New York, where they spent just about every moment indulging their passion for all things culinary.

"I was being paid in bacon and cheese. It was my dream job," said Campion, like Brennan a senior editor. The pair also wrote stories, exploring family-owned wineries in New Zealand or experiencing the grape harvest in Beaujolais.

No surprise, then, that these two foodies - retired from Saveur, but still working in the food world and cooking for their families - finally did their own cookbook. Released in August, it's called Keepers: Two Home Cooks Share Their Tried-and-True Weeknight Recipes and the Secrets to Happiness in the Kitchen (Rodale, $26.99).

Brennan and Campion will sign copies and cook at two Philadelphia-area stores on Friday and Saturday.

Fresh from a promotional trip to California, Brennan, 46, and Campion, 40, took time out recently to talk and to make three dishes from the book - coconut chicken curry, Asian slaw, and kale salad with pomegranate and pumpkin seeds - at Campion's home in Gladstone, in Somerset County, N.J.

The three recipes are among 125 in the book intended to answer the question that dogs us all: What's for dinner tonight? And to answer it in a way that does not require an advanced degree, crazy ingredients, or more than 45 minutes.

When Brennan and Campion were living the life in New York, that question could be answered on the way home from work, with a stop at the greengrocer, the butcher, or the fish store.

Life is way more complicated now, especially since each has a son and a daughter. "I'm in the suburbs. I shop at ShopRite. And everyone's tired," said Campion, who blogs at devilandegg.com and does freelance food writing.

Adds Brennan, a James Beard Award winner, culinary school graduate, and freelance food writer and editor: "Cooking night after night, week after week . . . it sucks. Even for me."

Keepers, then, is "based on real life, for people in the trenches . . . not the crazy, unrealistic chef perspective," she said.

Brennan and Campion spent three years researching and writing. They drew on personal and professional experience, focus groups of friends and neighbors, and observations in the supermarket.

"You see parents telling their kids to pick out what they want," Campion said. "They pick burrito, burrito, burrito, hot pocket, hot pocket, hot pocket."

At its heart, Keepers is a collection of the authors' favorite recipes, "keepers" dating back 20 years. They were tested, retested, and refined for the book.

Main dishes comprise fish, poultry, beef, pork, rice, pasta, and soup; sides include greens and grains for those with dietary issues.

From the outset, it was clear that although food binds these two friends, they are alike in other ways, as well.

Both grew up straddling two cultures and cuisines. Brennan, who lives in Hockessin, Del., has an Irish-American father and a Japanese mother. Campion's dad is also Irish-American; her mother is Belgian.

There wasn't much crossover, but there was plenty of fine cooking.

Brennan, who has worked in restaurants and written about food in Tokyo and Hong Kong, recalls her mother preparing two dinners every night - say, grilled mackerel in teriyaki sauce for herself and the kids, if they wanted it, and Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and peas for Dad.

Campion's father liked his beef and spuds, too; Mom followed her Belgian muse. "We never had casseroles or pork and beans," recalled Campion, who spent many childhood summers with relatives in Brussels and channels her French-speaking mother in the kitchen.

You can sense Brennan's preferences in the book in the miso-glazed salmon and tangy ginger-scallion sauce. Campion's there in the Belgian-style mussels and classic celeriac salad. Other recipes run the ethnic gamut.

A well-stocked pantry is imperative, from the standard (extra virgin olive oil, canned beans) to the less common miso paste and chipotle chiles. But, said Campion, "It's amazing what you find in the supermarket now. If you don't find it, work with the manager."

Seetha Raju, 41, a Chadds Ford stay-at-home mother of three with a breathless weekday schedule, is one of those "people in the trenches" that Keepers was written for. She's using the cookbook to expand her culinary repertoire, which, until now, has excluded American food.

"I am from Indian heritage, and I cook Indian food, but my kids were born here and are growing up here. They want other foods," she said.

So far, either with a friend or on her own, Raju has made Keepers' deviled panko-crusted chicken thighs, Milanese chicken, and chicken pot pie. She also managed an "awesome" fennel salad.

"This is very different for me, but it was so easy, so foolproof," said Raju, whose kids liked the pot pie so much, they ate the whole thing, leaving none for their father.

"I was told to make two next time."


Coconut Chicken Curry

Makes 6 servings      

1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts, cut into 1-inch pieces and patted dry

Salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 yellow onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons minced, peeled fresh ginger

2 tablespoons mild curry powder, such as Madras

One 13.5-ounce can unsweetened coconut milk

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth or water

4 large handfuls of baby spinach

Fresh lime juice

Steamed rice

1. Season the chicken with salt. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the chicken and cook until lightly browned, flipping the pieces over a few times, about 6 minutes total. Transfer the browned chicken to a medium bowl.

2. Reduce the heat to medium and add the butter, swirling the pan until it's melted and golden brown, about 1 minute. Add the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook, stirring often, until the onion is softened, about 6 minutes. Add the curry powder and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the coconut milk and chicken broth and stir to combine. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 3 minutes.

3. Add the browned chicken, along with any accumulated juices, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, about 6 minutes. Add the spinach and stir until wilted, then season with lime juice. Check the seasonings and serve the curry with steamed rice.

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From Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Rodale, 2013)

Per serving: 421 calories; 37.5 grams protein; 10.9 grams carbohydrates; 3.3 grams sugar; 26.2 grams fat; 106 milligrams cholesterol; 194 milligrams sodium; 4.4 grams dietary fiber.


Asian-Style Slaw

Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons rice vinegar (not seasoned) or white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons white miso paste

1 teaspoon grated fresh peeled ginger

1/2 tablespoon mayonnaise

1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon honey

3 tablespoons sesame oil

2 tablespoons grape- seed or vegetable oil

Salt and pepper

6 cups thinly sliced (crosswise) green and/or red cabbage (about 1 small head total)

2 large carrots, julienned or thinly sliced

4 large radishes, julienned or thinly sliced

4 scallions (white- and pale-green parts only), thinly sliced on the diagonal

2 tablespoons black and/or toasted white sesame seeds (optional)

1. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, miso, ginger, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and honey. Slowly whisk in the sesame oil until emulsified, then the grape-seed oil. Season with salt and pepper and set aside. (You can also make the dressing in a blender.) The dressing will keep, covered in the refrigerator, for about 4 days. Whisk before using.

2. In a large bowl, combine the cabbage, carrots, radishes, and scallions. Add a little more than half of the dressing and toss to combine. If the slaw is too dry, add a little more. Check the seasonings, then sprinkle with the sesame seeds (if using) and serve.

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From Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Rodale, 2013)

Per serving: (based on 6 servings): 171 calories; 2.6 grams protein; 10.5 grams carbohydrates; 4.7 grams sugar; 13.8 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 256 milligrams sodium; 3.5 grams dietary fiber.


Kale Salad with Pomegranate and Pumpkin Seeds

Makes 4 servings

1 bunch of kale (about 3/4 pound), stems and center ribs removed and leaves cut crosswise into 1-inch ribbons

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup toasted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Seeds from 1/2 pomegranate (about 1/2 cup)

1/2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1. In a large bowl, combine the kale, oil, and salt.

2. Using your hands, massage the leaves, rubbing them with the oil and salt until they become softer, smaller, and darker, about 2 minutes. Taste a piece. If it's bitter, massage a little more.

3. Add the pumpkin and pomegranate seeds and gently toss to combine (don't worry if some of the pomegranate seeds burst).

4. Add the vinegar and toss again. Check the seasonings, adding a little more oil and/or vinegar, if needed, and serve.

Tip: Our friend Leslie taught us a no-fuss way to remove the seeds from a pomegranate: Cut the fruit in half crosswise. Hold one half in the palm of your nondominant hand over a medium bowl, cut-side down. Firmly whack the skin with the back of a wooden spoon several times. The seeds should start to fall into the bowl. Continue hitting the skin, gently squeezing the pomegranate a little to help the process if needed, until all the seeds are in the bowl. Repeat with the other half, then discard any white pith that may have fallen into the bowl. In addition to being an effective method, it's good therapy when you're in a bad mood - but we'd still advise not wearing your favorite white shirt.

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From Keepers by Kathy Brennan and Caroline Campion (Rodale, 2013)

Per serving: 84 calories; 3.3 grams protein; 7.8 grams carbohydrates; .6 grams sugar; 5.4 grams fat; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 122 milligrams sodium; 1.4 grams dietary fiber.


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