One of the biggest lessons Susan Spungen learned as an art student was knowing when to stop — a restraint that carries over into her distinctive style of cooking. “I want my food to be deeply satisfying, a little special, a little surprising but not seem like it’s trying too hard,” she writes in the introduction to “Open Kitchen: Inspired Food for Casual Gatherings” (Avery, $35).
She has a term for that: sprezzatura, meaning “studied nonchalance.” And she’s had lots of practice — as a food stylist and recipe developer who served as food editor at Martha Stewart Living for years, and as an avid home cook who loves hosting relaxed get-togethers in her open kitchen.
The gorgeous photos throughout convey an aesthetic that favors handmade ceramics and natural wood over china patterns and starched linens. I can imagine impressing guests with a full menu built around, say, her Slow-Roasted Lamb Shoulder with Pomegranate Molasses flanked by platters of farm-fresh sides, ending with an eye-popping pistachio-crusted Strawberry-Chocolate Tart.
Right now, though, what I’m appreciating most about this book is its abundance of practical inspiration for creating restaurant-quality meals with relative ease, even while sheltering in place with only my spouse. Most of the recipes can be made partially, if not entirely, in advance. And they generate fabulous leftovers for when we’re trying to enliven mealtime with minimal trips to the grocery store.
Her dazzling Beet Hummus, which I tested for last week’s cover story, served as a delicious, nutrient-packed snack for the fridge for most of a week. The Brussels Sprout Gratin with Speck and Rye Crumbs (with bacon strips subbing for the speck) tasted just as delicious reheated in the microwave the next day. Having nearly everything I needed to make Za’atar Chicken Thighs with Grilled Peach and Crispy Couscous, I proceeded with what I had — using pearl barley in place of the Israeli couscous, frozen peach slices for fresh, and a hot oven and skillet for searing instead of an outdoor grill.
It looked and tasted like a party, and that was a beautiful thing.
Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.
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