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Cookbook might not be flashy, but it's a keeper

Tara A. Trower

In the Vegas-style smörgåsbord of modern cookbooks, covering everything from Ethiopian cuisine to molecular gastronomy, the red-and-white plaid binder can be easy to overlook.

And yet, it is impossible to miss.

In the weeks since the newest edition of the "Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book" (Wiley, $29.95) landed on my desk, there has been a steady stream of tales from co-workers about mothers, aunts and grandmothers who relied on this looseleaf binder, also known as the Red Plaid book, for nearly 70 years. Often given as a graduation or wedding gift, the Red Plaid is responsible for the indoctrination of many a home cook, including myself. And those who have them tend to cling to them for decades.

As a quiet rebellion against my mother, the home economics teacher, I spent most of my youth trying not to learn how to cook. She tried to teach me how to make biscuits, scrambled eggs, homemade mac and cheese and chicken soup, but the lessons went in one ear and out the other. I was required to master some basic skills, such as chopping onions, doctoring store-bought spaghetti sauce and even cutting up a whole chicken. But actually cooking from the bottom up? That was clearly someone else's job.

Relatives would egg me on: "How are you ever going to find a husband?" more than one asked. I would dramatically roll my eyes and retort, "My husband is going to cook for me."

Eventually, I did find the man who would cook for me, but I grossly miscalculated how long that would take. My first two years of college I lived on campus and ate dorm food. Then, the summer before my junior year, I got a newspaper internship in Indianapolis and my first apartment. As a housewarming gift, my mom gave me a box with some measuring cups and spoons, a colander, a pot, a skillet — and a copy of the "Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book."

All those years of home-cooked meals from my mother had completely ruined my taste buds for convenience foods. I discovered quickly that I hated ramen noodles, and I also hated box macaroni and cheese. In other words, I needed to learn how to cook, and my mother by then lived across the Atlantic Ocean.

So I hit the book and used it to make chili mac, beef stroganoff, banana nut bread, tuna casserole and corn bread. The book's instructions, courtesy of its test kitchen in Iowa, were patient and complete. On such solid footing, I had far fewer disasters than successes. I quickly learned to amp up the spices in the recipes to appease my Texas-trained palate. By Thanksgiving of my junior year, unable to go home for the holiday, I decided I was brave enough to stuff a turkey at my then-boyfriend's apartment. (There was a small miscalculation on defrosting, but otherwise it was a success. The boyfriend was not as successful a venture.)

My dad was so impressed that he asked for a repeat performance of the turkey roasting during my Christmas visit to their home in Germany the following year.

Sixteen years later, I still have my original book, complete with batter splatters, grease stains and scribbled annotations. It was a life-saver after I became a new mom and had to find recipes that could be made after work quickly while my husband worked nights. And that husband who cooks? He learned after he married me in 2006, and his first lessons came from the Red Plaid, too.

I must confess, I'm a little leery of trading in my 10th edition for the new and shiny 15th edition. I'm not sure I can let go. The new book has more recipes, more photos, more ethnic influences and more flavor. They've tweaked my old favorites — adding cheddar to the macaroni and cheese, which I've been doing for years anyway; putting ginger, nutmeg and cinnamon in my banana nut bread; and axing the condensed soup from my tuna casserole. And there are tons of step-by-step photos, including how to tie the legs of that blasted turkey.

Old becomes new

The book has come a long way since the inaugural "My New Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book" was published in 1930 as a collection of all the namesake's magazine recipes. (That binding was a turquoise blue. The red-and-white binder didn't arrive until 1940, and the diagonal plaid wasn't trademarked until 1970 .)

"We try to make the book grow up with us," said editor Jan Miller. "It's a little fresher. We try to keep up with the times."

Nutrition remains a big focus of the book, with labels for recipes considered healthy or low fat. (In the original book, the whole first chapter dealt with nutrition, and calorie counts have been included since the 1950s.) The recipes have changed as ingredients have fallen in and out of favor. These days fat for the sake of flavor is back in after a bit of a hiatus for a few decades, starting in the 1970s, says Miller, who in 1997 became the test kitchen's first full-time nutrition specialist.

"We try to be true to what is going on with flavor, and then take that apart and put in the book," she said. "There are a lot of things in there with more ethnic flavor punch."

The book has been reorganized and some sections beefed up to reflect the current culture's focus on food. The biggest surprise? A hefty section on canning, which is back in vogue as younger cooks try to figure out what to do with all that fresh produce they are acquiring from farmers' markets and their home gardens.

Miller says she's not surprised by my attachment to my old book. She hears it all the time. For many families, the book represents a journal of sorts; it allows cooks to trace their families' culinary history through the recipes and notes contained on its pages.

"There is an emotional tug that comes with the book," Miller says. "It's a loose-leaf binder for that very reason, so you can tuck in your favorites, and we have never changed that. I'm not sure what the digital world will bring, but so many women still say they want a tangible collection of recipes."

These days my own cookbook shelf is overflowing. Italian, Indian, Chinese, pasta, vegetarian. Recipes for the grill, the slow cooker, the wok. I've got a subscription to Cook's Illustrated. I've developed my mother's penchant for reading cookbooks just before bedtime and daydreaming about the dishes I'll make. I'm addicted to "Top Chef" in all of its iterations. I even made my own baby food.

When my parents come to visit, we talk a lot about food, and we test new recipes. Cooking has become soothing, comfortable and — when an experiment turns out — sometimes magical.

Even with all the competition, my Red Plaid will always have a home on my bookshelf. I just have to decide whether it will be the old one or the new one.

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Macaroni and Cheese

This is a family favorite. My family likes the sharp taste of the cheddar cheese despite its tendency to clump, so feel free to play with the cheese proportions — more cheddar, less American, or reverse if you like creamier mac and cheese.

2 cups dried elbow macaroni

1/2 cup chopped onion

2 Tbsp. butter or margarine

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp. black pepper

21/2 cups milk

11/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

11/2 cups shredded American cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook pasta according to package; drain. Set aside.

In a medium saucepan cook onion in hot butter until tender. Stir in flour and pepper. Add milk all at once. Cook and stir over medium heat until slightly thickened and bubbly. Cut heat and immediately add cheeses; stir until cheeses melt. Stir in past. Transfer mixture to an ungreased 2-quart casserole.

Bake uncovered for 24 to 30 minutes or until bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

— Adapted from 'Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book,' 15th edition

Beef Stroganoff

We like meat at my house, so I use more than the 12 ounces of beef the recipe calls for. If you do use a full pound or more, cook the meat in two batches so the skillet isn't too crowded (a trick I learned from the 10th edition). Then cook the vegetables and half the meat first; set aside, covered, and cook the second batch of meat. Return all meat and vegetables to pan before adding the sour cream mixture. Also, you can use just plain button mushrooms, but you'll get much richer flavor if you mix them with creminis or shiitakes. This also works nicely over rice, instead of the traditional noodles.

12 oz. boneless beef sirloin steak

1 8-oz. carton dairy sour cream

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1/2 cup water

2 tsp. instant beef bouillon granules

1/4 tsp. black pepper

2 Tbsp. butter or margarine

2 cups sliced mixed fresh mushrooms

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 clove garlic, minced

2 cups hot cooked noodles

If desired, partially freeze beef for easier slicing. Thinly slice meat across the grain into bite-size strips. In a small bowl, stir together sour cream and flour. Add and stir in the water, bouillon and pepper; set aside.

In large skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add meat, mushrooms, onion and garlic; cook and stir about five minutes or until meat is at desired doneness. Drain fat.

Stir the sour cream mixture into the meat mixture in skillet. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir for 1 minute more. Serve meat mixture over noodles.

— Adapted from 'Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book,' 15th edition