BLUE COLLAR FOOD

It’s honest! It’s down to earth! What is it? It’s a cookbook called “BLUE COLLAR FOOD”, written by “two very down-to-earth guys who know that the best food is simple food, made in ways people can relate to….”

“BLUE COLLAR FOOD” by Chris Styler and Bill Hodge, published by William Morrow and Company, books, has actually been around for a few years—it was first published in 1994, but I will be among the first to confess that, what with the publication of so very many cookbooks every year, sometimes a few escape our notice, despite our best efforts to own all of the cookbooks in the world. (I can see all the cookbook collectors out there nodding their heads in agreement).

Chris Styler was born in Clark, New Jersey, and attended Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. He worked in the test kitchens of CUISINE and FOOD & WINE and has written for many magazines, including GOURMET, REDBOOK and FAMILY CIRCLE. Chris is also the co-author of SYLVIA’S SOUL FOOD.

Bill Hodge was born in Greenville, South Carolina and began working in restaurants at the age of fourteen—and he hasn’t stopped coking since. Bill attended the Philadelphia Restaurant School and apprenticed at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. Together, they own and operate “BLUE COLLAR FOOD, INC,” a catering and food consulting business located in New York City.

In the Introduction to “BLUE COLLAR FOOD”, the authors explain, “In 1992, after years of working in professional kitchens—make that other people’s professional kitchens—we decided to get together and go into business for ourselves. We didn’t know what to call our new business. Then Colleen, Bill’s wife, came up with the name ‘Blue Collar Food, and it stuck. What the name means to us is honest food—simple foods prepared in ways people can relate to. We’re a couple of down-to-earth guys ourselves, and this was to be down-to-earth foods, no difficult-to-find or expensive items, no time-consuming techniques….”

Bill and Chris say that between the two of them, they have twenty-five years combined experience cooking professionally. “We’ve run,” they offer, “kitchens that feed more than a thousand people a day, worked the line at the Four Seasons, trained with the last monzu in Sicily, performed as fish and meat butchers, taught cooking classes, and written about food for publication…”

“And yet,” they note, “the book we set out to write together was not a collection of extravagant recipes from around the world but rather a book that would feel comfortable in the hands of the home cook…”

And you have to applaud Chris Styler and Bill Hodge for that. There are, heaven knows, enough fancy cookbooks that are pretty to look at and admire, but never enough for basic cooks. The authors explain that they are home cooks, too. “When we come home from work, we’re tired; we don’t have much time or energy to prepare dinner.” (sound familiar?) Both authors have “tiny urban apartments with no specialized equipment, no restaurant range, no counter space, and above all, no staff.” They say they plan their dinner the same way they plan a dinner party at work—by looking at how much work has to go into it, how much work can be done ahead, how much the food costs, how to balance nutrition, appearance, and taste. They use shortcuts and dishes that can be done ahead. They make the most of leftovers and keep the pantry stocked,

“We don’t expect this book to change anyone’s life,” they offer, “but we do hope it will convince you to slow down from time to time and treat yourself and those you care for to good food, lovingly prepared..” Even for Chris Styler and Bill Hodge, after all the years of cooking food for a living, they find this is still one of life’s simplest and most rewarding pleasures.

It all actually began, the co-authors explain, – with sandwiches! Bill and Chris were working out of a diner in midtown Manhattan where they kept their food in plastic milk crates, which were piled one on top of another, in a corner of their walk-in refrigerator. One day, they recall, they got a call from an old friend, who had just opened an espresso bar in Greenwich Village. “Do you do sandwiches?” the friend asked. They hadn’t thought of that but said yes. “When you’re working out of a plastic crate in someone else’s refrigerator,” they explain, “you always say yes.”

Could they bring some samples? They were asked. “Today” the caller added.
“When you’re running an espresso bar,” the authors add, “you always say today…”

Bill and Chris threw together about ten different sandwiches, “grabbing whatever we could lay our hands on—bread here, fillings there—wrapped them nicely and arranged them in a basket…” they took a cab downtown and left off the samples and a price list—they had barely gotten back when their friend was on the phone again with his order, “Six dozen sandwiches. Tomorrow.”

Soon they added soup and desserts to their wholesale menu but say that they’ve always credited sandwiches for putting them on the map.

The Sandwich and Starter recipes offered in “BLUE COLLAR FOOD” range from curried tuna on dark bread to a Santa Fe Chicken Melt and includes recipes for Calzones, Red Onion Bread (the recipe I plan to make first!), a Walnut-Basil Bread, Black Bean Burritos, and more! There are also recipes for Guacamole, Black Bean Dip, Broiled Marinated Mushrooms and a Speedy Spiedini, which is a kind of Italian kabob. There are also recipes for BCF Chicken Wings, Baby Back Ribs and Blue Collar’s original 1-2-3 BBQ sauce.

Next is a chapter on Soups which the authors say they make by the vat at Blue Collar Foods, both for catered events and for the retail establishments. The soups offered in this cookbook are their best-sellers. “With the exception of Blue Collar Chicken Soup,” they explain, “which entails poaching a whole chicken, all of them can be made in half hour or less if you have some homemade or canned broth on hand. Some don’t even need broth…” Their soup recipes are also good soups for parties, they offer, “Elegant enough to eat with a spoon at a sit-down dinner, casual enough to sip from a mug standing around a barbecue or buffet dinner…”

Well, you all know how much I like to make—and eat—soups. I’m always looking for new soup recipes. “BLUE COLLAR FOOD” doesn’t disappoint. Along with Blue Collar’s basic chicken soup, there are also recipes for variations such as Chicken Rice Soup, Cream of Chicken Soup and Chicken Noodle Soup – all great favorites. Look also for White Bean and Lemon Soup, Cabbage and Lamb Soup, Corn Chowder with Turkey, Roasted Eggplant Soup – and more! There are also Basic Soup Making Tips which includes tips for making soup with leftover meat and poultry (something I am fond of doing) and how to cool and store soups.

Under the Salad chapter, be sure to check out Bill and Chris’ recipes for House Ranch Dressing, Toasted Walnut Dressing (yum!) and their House Vinaigrette. Salad recipes includes one of their most popular recipes on their catering menu, a Tricolor Salad with Gruyere and a great BCF Caesar Salad, a Bread, Tomato, and Basil Salad as well as the Blue Collar Potato Salad, one of their most requested recipes. There are also directions for making a green salad – ok, you think you already know how to make a green salad – so did I, but I’ve found some very worthy suggestions in this section just as I did in the chapter on cooling and storing soups.

Next, there is a chapter on Pastas which, the authors say, is Blue Collar food at its best – it’s cheap, no fuss, and endlessly versatile. “Pasta,” they explain, “Can be dressed up with crab and tomato or prosciutto and peas for company; it can be thrown together in a trice with some fried garlic or canned tuna for a solo supper after work…”

As professional chefs, Chris and Bill have developed countless pasta sauces over the years. They say the inspiration for their recipes comes from childhood memories, work and travel experiences, and their own instincts. Both men have worked and traveled in Italy, where, they say, “the seasons and ingredients at hand shape each day’s sauce….” They’ve also cooked in American restaurant kitchens with some of their generations most creative chefs. Be sure to read the section on How to Cook Pasta – there are some tips, here, that may surprise you. Recipes include mouth-watering dishes such as Chunky Fresh Plum Tomato Sauce, Cottage Cheese and Spinach Pesto, Spaghetti with Crab and Tomato, and Baked Shells with Broccoli and Blue Cheese. But don’t over look Blue Collar’s Macaroni Salad with Seafood!

Under a chapter titled “Barbecues and Other Main Events” you’ll find a wide selection from which to choose. The authors say that, although they’ve done their share of Park Avenue Parties, most of their clients ask them to cater informal, low-budget occasions. “From May through September,” they explain, “we do enough outdoor barbecues to get a suntan without ever hitting the beach…” In this chapter, they’ve grouped the main events–poultry, meat, and fish dishes—that they’ve found work best for parties. Also included are some ideas for quick main courses that are suitable for either family meals or small gatherings.

“Being Blue Collar guys,” say Chris and Bill, “we love a barbecue…” They lug huge galvanized tubs to the site and fill them full of ice, beer, soda, and wine. For a large crowd, they set up six-foot charcoal grills and throw everything on them “from handheld starters like ribs or spiedini to all American hamburgers…to grilled trout…” which they serve with papaya relish. While the coals are burning down, they serve the chips and dips and pass around starters they’ve prepared ahead of time, like mini packets of Lone Star Shrimp, the recipe for which can be found on page 184 of “BLUE COLLAR FOOD”. The recipes found in this chapter will surely have you planning your next barbecue – recipes such as Mustard-Glazed Cornish Hens, Grilled Pork Chops Teriyaki, Grilled Salmon with Dill, and Grilled Butterflied Leg of Lamb. Other Main Events include Stuffed Roaster Chicken Breast, Rosemary-Lemon Roasted Chicken, Blue Collar Beef Stew, and Saffron Seafood Stew.

And, despite having an entire shelf of veggie cookbooks, I found some new and different ways of cooking vegetables in “BLUE COLLAR FOOD”—Roasted Asparagus, for one (which I had never eaten until one of my nephews cooked it for me when I was visiting him), Signor Mario’s Baked Cauliflower, a Fennel and Leek Gratin, Roasted Broccoli, Mashed Sweet Poatoes, and (one of my favorites!) Creamed Spinach.

Dessert recipes include Aunt Elsie’s Plum Cake, a Pumpkin Pound Cake, Cranberry Crunch Loaf—and Pecan Pie Gone Haywire! These and many other recipes are sure to tempt your taste buds. I especially like the format to this great cookbook, and the easy to follow directions. The pages of suggestions and tips are especially worth while reading.

“BLUE COLLAR FOOD” is a publication from Hearst Books, an affiliate of William Morrow & Company.

It is available at Jessica’s Biscuit for $7.98, or from Amazon.com for $7.24 new, or starting at $1.88 for pre-owned.

Review by Sandra Lee Smith
ISBN 0-688-12373-2

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