Book review: Hope’s Table

Feb 24, 2020 by

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Providing food for oneself and family is a daily chore. Should you decide to complete this chore by actually cooking something, your resources are legion.

Hope's Table

Hope’s Table

Traditionally, one would reach for a cookbook or maybe a magazine. Now the internet provides boundless options as well. Cooking juggernauts like Epicurious and Martha Stewart offer up their recipe troves. As do thousands (millions?) of normal cooks, maintaining blogs replete with step-by-step photos, pop- up ads and self-deprecating prose.

Hope Helmuth, author of Hope’s Table from Herald Press, does both. She hosts a blog and has also created a beautiful and reliable cookbook.

Though the exotic nature of Helmuth’s bonnet and the word “Mennonite” on the front cover establish the cookbook’s unique angle, the best advertisement for me is the book’s modest number of recipes.

While other cookbook authors boast about their hundreds of recipes, Hope’s Table has 156. ­Total.

Celebrity chefs churn out recipe after recipe. Helmuth has culled only the best and most consistent, while adding modern updates and flavors.
(I strongly suspect neither of Helmuth’s grandmas prepared anything with mango or curry — see Mango Chicken Curry, page 191.)

Helmuth’s food feels tried and tested. Not prepared in a test kitchen for professional test tasters, but for family and friends. These recipes are written down and passed on because they have been continually complimented and requested. Some for generations.

The subtitle of Hope’s Table is “Everyday Recipes from a Mennonite Kitchen.” The advertising sound bite is, “If tradition has a taste, this is it. Like your grandmother’s recipe file, Hope’s Table brings enticing meals to your family’s table.”

I grew up in the Amish-Mennonite cooking tradition, and this is honest advertising. Many of these recipes are straight off my mother’s, aunts’ and grandmother’s table as well.

(Nope, no men included. Perhaps Helmuth’s granddaughters will pull from their grandpa’s recipe file.)

Indeed, many of the cookbook’s recipes are pedestrian for anyone from an Amish- Mennonite background: pot roast, poor man’s steak, baked egg dishes, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and cinnamon rolls.

One of my daughters looked through the dessert section and said, “We have recipes for most of these already.”

That said, what Hope’s Table lacks in cutting-edge ideas it more than makes up for with simplicity and usability. Every main dish recipe we tried was on the table in an hour or less. The ingredients are virtually all things I normally stock and feel comfortable using.

The food itself appeals to a broad range of palate. It is mild and safe, which is extremely practicable when cooking for multiple people, especially kids.

Besides, as my husband has proven over the years, you can add hot sauce to anything.

The use of basic ingredients is intentional. Helmuth writes, “Trying new recipes, with ingredients you don’t normally have on hand, can be fun. But remember: It can often mean ingredients piling up in your fridge that you wouldn’t usually use and that may be there for a long time.”

Was Helmuth hovering in my kitchen yesterday when I threw out bottles of hoisin sauce and peanut satay that have been in my fridge for, well, “a long time”?

In unalarming, familiar fashion, Helmuth does share more exotic dishes: Italian soup, Asian-themed rice bowls, curry chicken and multiple recipes with ­“fiesta” in the title.

I knew I couldn’t write a review before I set my teenage daughters loose with Helmuth’s book. To be fair, my daughters know their way around a kitchen. Still, they possess only a handful of years of kitchen knowledge, and I figured if they could prepare multiple successful dinners from Hope’s Table, it was a cookbook worth keeping.

My eldest’s meal was chicken parmesan. It was devoured. There were no leftovers of the shrimp alfredo, prepared by my 14-year-old. The girls tried pumpkin bars and rhubarb bars. Both disappeared in lunch boxes and as afternoon snacks.

They made baked fish (on the bland side), green beans with honey (an odd pairing), parmesan sweet potatoes (yum), “perfect broccoli,” ranch dressing (everything got dipped in that at the Super Bowl party).

My point here is that there were no flops. No meals where our family tried everything politely and then scrambled up some eggs an hour later.

After leaving my home community, I was exposed to new ­flavors and foods. At some point I told my husband, “Mennonite cooking doesn’t have any spices,” to which he replied, “Yes it does. Sugar and salt.”

So I had to smile when I saw that Helmuth’s pork rub was a combination of brown sugar, salt and black pepper. That’s it. We tested three pork recipes using the rub, and, as thousands of tourists who visit Amish and Mennonite restaurants attest each year, it is delicious.

(It is important to note that with equal parts salt and black pepper, the pork had a kick that bordered on spicy.)

Helmuth is clearly a good cook. Even more so, she is an artist. From what I can glean from the copyright page, Helmuth took all (but three) of the photos in the book — except for the ones in which she appears, of course.

This means she knows how to artfully focus the main dish while the background is blurry and do other cool visual tricks. But she also set up the shot — chose the presenting bowl, the dish cloth draped to the side or the partially unpeeled orange beside her young daughter’s colored pencils.

The entire book has a light, clean, even breezy aesthetic that combines the rural, rustic wood and crockery of a farm house with the white dishes and glassware of a modern kitchen.

It is a beautiful book. Even if you don’t make a single recipe, it is worth the flip through.

After a month of steady use in our house, Hope’s Table has earned a place on the cookbook shelf. I imagine it will on many others as well.

Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.

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