Cookbook Review: Private Collection (Junior League of Palo Alto, 1980)


Private Collection is a fundraising cookbook compiled by the Junior League of Palo Alto, but it is no ordinary community cookbook.   Instead of the usual spiralbound cookbooks that come from churches and rotary clubs, Private Collection is a hardbound volume printed on quality paper with a bar code on the back and ISBN number on the cover page.  It was sold in local bookstores and reviewed in regional newspapers.   It received five printings in its first five years of publication and was continually in print for more than a decade.  

You kind of know what you’re getting in for from the get-go.   The cover is illustrated with a tasteful watercolor of apple branches and populated with an impossible amount of meandering text, which may actually be the full intended title:

A Private Collection of those truly special recipes, not readily found in other cookbooks, that have been lovingly shared by aunts, mothers, grandmothers, and dear friends over the years.   Here, the JUNIOR LEAGUE OF PALO ALTO represents the diverse peoples and cultures of northern California through uncommonly fine dishes and menus.

This Dickensian and pretentious title might confirm preconceived notions you have of the Junior League, but it’s also a pretty good indicator of what you’re getting yourself into. 

For those unfamiliar, the Junior League is an all-women’s volunteer organization with some three hundred chapters scattered throughout North America and Europe.    Their stated goals are to develop and empower women to be a force for good in their communities, with a specific focus on promoting education and charitable work.   As per their mission statement:

[T]oday’s League members work at the forefront of social reform, tackling the toughest and most critical issues of the day—including childhood nutrition and obesity, human trafficking, foster care, juvenile justice, teen self-esteem, cybercrimes, literacy and the environment, among others—for the purpose of enhancing the social, cultural and political fabric of civil society.

Despite the inestimable good they do in communities, the Junior League is often associated with archaic perceptions of caste and breeding and old money excess:  debutante balls, garden parties, dress codes for meetings, and a silent jockeying for status and leadership positions.  Membership is generally by personal recommendation only and requires an elaborate onboarding process that resembles pledge week at a sorority.   Over the past thirty or forty years the Junior League has made purposeful strides to shake off cliquish stereotypes, with a deliberate focus on promoting racial, economic, and religious diversity among their ranks.  I can’t speak authoritatively as to whether they’ve been successful, but they are making a serious effort to be less Dolores Umbridge and more inclusive.

Whatever the Junior League may be like today, Private Collection still gives off an air of exclusivity.  Recipes are written for a “ladies’ luncheon” or a dinner party – the beef bourguignon recipe is scaled to serve twenty-four guests.   For less complicated meals we are cautioned not to think of it as “peasant’s food” but to find luxury in their simplicity.  They speak of a recipe’s author being from a European country, the owner of a well-loved French restaurant, or a member of one of the area’s oldest families.  

The recipes follow the same sense of patrician sophistication.  They are elegant and delicious, but at the same time safe and unimaginative.  They are the kind of recipes you might expect from a suburban upscale restaurant.  They will invariably have the same list of entrees:  a pasta dish, a chicken dish, one each for fish and seafood, some sort of braised pork, and an inexpensive steak.   The price of the food is justified by the quality of the ingredients and sophistication of the preparation rather than their innovation or ingenuity.   There are classic recipes such as beef Wellington, osso bucco, lamb chops, and pots de crème.  There are quiches and consommés and molded custards topped with sweetbreads and desserts with unconscionably complicated preparations.  

At the same time, there is a sincere effort to provide a diversity of flavors.  There are several Asian- and Central American- influenced dishes which involve authentic ingredients and flavor profiles, even if they bear little resemblance to a traditional recipe.  Such recipes are “pleasurable reflections of the diverse and vigorous cultures that have burgeoned here [in California] for more than a hundred years.” 

The recipe that perhaps best exemplifies the Junior Leaguer spirit of Private Collection is Risotto alla Milanese.  The author, we are assured, is a member of one of “Northern California’s oldest Italian families” with a “flair and elegance for entertaining”.   While the recipe is assured to be a “crowd pleaser”, making a proper risotto is no mean feat.  The ingredient list is short and simple but the preparation is labor intensive; getting it just right requires practice and careful attention.  Poorly executed risotto might easily be mistaken for soggy pilaf or overcooked Rice-a-Roni.  Risotto is also a dish that tends to elicit very strong feelings, and purists will be immediately put off by this recipe’s use of long grain rice instead of Arborio.  I will politely encourage those people to check themselves before they wreck themselves.

Risotto alla Milanese refers to a risotto prepared with saffron and appears to have originated in the mid-19th century.   Aside from the non-traditional choice of rice, Private Collection’s recipe hews close to the classic.  The instructions in the original are thorough and thoughtfully prepared, good enough such that even as a risotto first-timer I was able to achieve a rich and luxurious final product.  In my adaptation below I’ve tried to be equally precise, at least as per my personal experience.

Private Collection recommends serving Risotto alla Milanese alongside Chicken alla Margherita (from the same cookbook).  I did exactly that, on a single plate with a Caesar salad, and it worked out brilliantly.  Risotto alla Milanese will also pair well with baked or freshly grilled salmon, or even flank steak with a little bit of red wine reduction.  Regardless of the protein, a salad or simply prepared green vegetable is necessary to cut the richness and perhaps to give your arteries a rest.

Private Collection is no longer in print but readily available from Amazon, along with its 1984 sequel.   Think what you will about the Junior League, this is an excellent collection of recipes.  Instructions are lucid, ingredients are expensive but not difficult to find, and excepting a few outdated gelatin preparations these are all suitable for fancy company.    ¡disfruta!

Risotto alla Milanese (adapted from Private Collection, Junior League of Palo Alto, 1980)

    • Preparation: 15 min
    • Cooking: 35 min
    • Ready in: 50 min
    • For: 8

    Ingredients

    Instructions

    1. Melt 5 tbsp of butter in a large dutch oven over medium low heat. Add the onion and saute for 5-7 minutes until onion is soft and translucent but not browned.
    2. Add wine. Raise heat to medium and cook until wine has evaporated, stirring occasionally.
    3. Add rice, salt, and white pepper. Stir in the buttery onion goodness until every grain of rice is well-coated with butter.
    4. Add saffron and 2 cups of chicken broth and continue cooking until broth is almost entirely evaporated, stirring occasionally.
    5. Reduce heat back to medium low. Over the next 20-25 minutes add a couple of tablespoons of broth at a time and cook, uncovered, until broth is evaporated. During this time you need to be constantly stirring and scraping the rice down from the walls of the dutch oven. When the risotto starts to reach the consistency you want stop adding broth, reduce heat, and continue stirring.
    6. After about 20-25 minutes of cooking the risotto should be creamy and luxurious and the rice should be a little bit al dente. When you have the texture you want, remove the risotto from the heat. Stir in the remaining 3 tbsp of butter and a few tablespoons of the freshly grated Parmesan. Serve immediately.

     


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