Cream of the Crop
David Willis McCullough isn’t strictly a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. That’s lucky for his wife, Fran, editor of Houghton Mifflin’s annual Best American Recipes cookbook series, since she tests hundreds of recipes each year and almost every dish—from 1999’s Cumin Crisps to this year’s Potato Chip Cookies (see page 103)—gets a tryout on David’s plate. “She prescreens,” says David, 64, a writer, “so there’s almost never a disaster.”
The final picks are anything but. Culled from cookbooks, Web sites, even the backs of garlic bags, McCullough’s selections form an eclectic, unfussy mix called “the perfect gift for the busy cook,” by Food & Wine magazine. “I like simple but sophisticated recipes,” says McCullough, who also includes a look at the year’s food trends in each edition.
McCullough, who majored in English at Stanford University, happened into food publishing after years of editing novels for Dial Press and Harper & Row. She wrote the first of her own three books, The Low-Carb Cookbook, in 1997, and when Houghton Mifflin tapped her for Best American Recipes the next year, she jumped at the chance. In addition to David, she now tries out recipes on friends and the couple’s children Ben, 34, an Internet consultant, and Katy, 32, a toddlers-program coordinator. Even with help from an assistant and from Katy (who uses her own pals to taste the high-carb recipes her mom avoids), McCullough figures she prepares 400 new dishes a year. Yet she insists she isn’t a natural. “A good recipe,” she says, “should make anybody a good cook.” At her home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., McCullough discussed this year’s culinary harvest with contributor Eve Heyn.
How do you find recipes?
I look at maybe 350 cookbooks a year, read magazines and always have my antennae up. The weirder the source, the more thrilled I am. The Quick Pickled French Green Beans in this year’s edition I found in my HMO newsletter. The Potato Chip Cookie recipe came from a Long Island UPS worker.
Do you prefer ordinary people’s recipes to well-known chefs’?
I like a mix. Great chefs don’t have the only license to create exciting things.
How do celebrities’ recipes stack up?
Surprisingly, only a few make the grade. We tried Cybill Shepherd’s greens this Thanksgiving—turnips, collards, mustard greens and kale—and we’re planning to include them in next year’s book. We also tried Laura Bush’s green beans with anchovy butter, but there may have been a misprint: The quantities were off. The only celeb recipe in this year’s edition is Hillary Clinton’s eggnog, which is an old White House recipe. It has three kinds of liquor in it—cognac, dark rum and bourbon.
How do you decide which recipes to test?
I refer to it as having radar. I’ve been editing cookbooks for so long that when I see something unusual, a light goes on. “Honey and cilantro in deviled eggs? That’s interesting.” I pick what appeals to me. But if the ingredients are too weird, I don’t think people will buy them, so I stay away.
How do you determine which ingredients are trendy in a given year?
They’re impossible to avoid. This year mint was a trend. We included five mint recipes in the 2001 edition, but then we declared a moratorium.
What else was trendy in 2001?
Beets, the most ordinary, maybe even loathed vegetable in America, were suddenly being cooked every possible way. And plums—we found recipe after recipe that was just terrific. Soufflés are definitely back. And for next year’s book, we already have 10 lemon recipes.
What was the worst trend you saw this year?
Popcorn. Like chicken pot pie with a popcorn crust, and popcorn soup. I think that’s weird. We still plan to test some popcorn recipes, but I’d be surprised if they made the final cut.
How do you decide what does make the cut?
It’s hard, because we can only include about 150 recipes in each book. Usually, the simpler the better; a lot of these recipes dogs and cats could cook. But they have to be really good. When I test things on my family, they’re honest. They’re quick to say, “Do we have to eat this? Is there anything else?” I get a sense of what works.
Are your friends candid critics too?
When you make something for your friends, they want to be supportive, so I have to keep saying, “No, I really want to know what you think.” When people say, “You have to give me that recipe!” then you really know.
What’s your favorite recipe from the series?
Beer Can Chicken from the 2000 edition, where you grill the chicken on top of the beer can. I use Bud. You get all these flavors, but it doesn’t taste like beer. It’s easy, and it’s killer delicious.