The Creative Table: Recipes that Nourish Gather and Unite” was a labor of love
METROWEST DAILY NEWS – Christmas came early this year for Michelle M. McGrath.
The Scituate resident got her first gift last month when her new cookbook, “The Creative Table: Inspired Recipes that Nourish, Gather and Unite,” shot to number one on Amazon among New Releases in New England Cooking, Food & Wine, just 10 days after it was released.
The self-described “home cook” – who also runs a public relations business, McGrath PR – began work on the book this summer. The finished product is a curated collection of more than 60 recipes gathered over decades of entertaining and tempting the taste buds of family and friends.
By telephone recently from her home, McGrath spoke about her new cookbook, her plans for the holiday season, and more.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?
A: It was two-fold, really. I started cooking when I was 13. And over the years, cooking has always given me an outlet for me to embrace my creative brain.
This project was also pandemic-driven. When my business slowed down earlier this year, I looked at all the space on my calendar and thought, ‘What can I do with this enormous pause in my life?”
From the time the coronavirus first took hold, I knew I needed to find something I could do to help people. I have a lot of friends in music education. I knew that they were teaching at home and their own children were also at home, going to school online. So five times a week, from late March through April, I would cook all day and then drive all over the place each night delivering complete meals to two or three families in a safe, touch-free manner.
I started the whole thing to help friends, but because I was posting on social media, people started nominating other families who needed help. Then people offered to sponsor meals or provide gift cards. It reminded that people are generally good-natured and want to help others. That whole experience was my way of showing gratitude for everything I have in my life and it also became one of the inspirations for this book.
Q: When did you begin work on the book and what was your process like?
A: I started the book in August, which involved going through my entire inventory of recipes. Then I asked my children as well as other families and friends to let me know their favorite recipes. Along the way, I began compiling photos I’ve taken of dishes I’ve prepared and also atmospheric South Shore scenes to include in the book.
Q: Did you have contributors submit recipes?
A: No, these are all my original recipes created in my kitchen. Some of them are adapted from old recipes I inherited from my maternal grandmother. I’m very lucky to have those, too, because they are all in her handwriting.
Q: Did you test all the recipes?
A: I did, yes, even though I’d made some of them literally hundreds of times and others maybe a half-dozen times. We did a socially-distant test kitchen at my house for two weeks in October, preparing and photographing the various dishes.
I needed to do the work, of course, but we certainly didn’t need to eat it all so I gave a lot of the food to neighbors and in return I got some valuable feedback. My neighbors served as taste testers, too, along with my children, and some of the people I cooked for this spring.
Q: What are your children’s favorites among your recipes?
A: My son Owen McGrath, 24 and an aerospace engineer, really likes the Asian Beef Noodles. And he and his siblings, my 21-year-old twins, Julia McGrath, a dialysis nurse, and Riley McGrath, a social worker, all love the Cinnamon Caramel Sticky Buns. They wouldn’t let a Christmas go by without them.
Q: Tell me more about the Sticky Buns?
A: They’re sweet bread yeast buns with a cinnamon and sugar swirl in the middle, and walnuts on top. They’re something I’ve made for years, often giving them in frozen dough form as holiday gifts to be defrosted and baked on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning. When you make them, your whole house smells like cinnamon and caramel.
Q: With your children grown now, has “home cooking” taken on a different meaning?
A: It has, because earlier my cooking was about feeding my family. Now, it’s more about entertaining. I’ve developed a love for culturally specific cooking, too, like my Raisin & Almond Babka Braid – a yeast bread I make at Easter time.
Q: What is your favorite section of the book?
A: Breads. I really enjoying making yeast breads. They are a lot of work, but I love spending time doting on them. For me, bread making is a labor of love
Q: Besides bread, what is another of your favorite foods to make?
A: Garlic Dill Refrigerator Pickles. They’re not canned so you make them within the same week of consumption. They are a staple at my events, especially in the summer when cucumbers are the freshest.
Q: What’s on your typical Christmas menu?
A: Our Christmas breakfast tradition is Cinnamon Caramel Sticky Buns, with cut fruit and coffee or tea.
At lunch, we always serve appetizers for a less formal meal. A few of our favorites are Shrimp Cocktail, Lemon Herb Crab Cakes with Horse Radish Remoulade, and a Cheese Ball, made from my grandmother’s recipe. And one of my PR clients is the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers’ Association so I always make cranberry recipes – like Cranberry Rangoon, with Cranberry Jalapeño Dipping Sauce.
Dinner is almost always beef – usually either Prime Rib, or Filet Mignon with cherry balsamic reduction – and mashed potatoes, with several sides and hot popovers fresh from the oven.
For dessert, I often make Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti – one of my three favorite biscotti recipes in the book – which are particularly seasonable because of the red cranberries and green-hued pistachios. Another dessert we like at Christmas is Pavlova Roll, which has a light, ethereal texture from the base of a meringue sheet, sprinkled with walnuts and coconut, wrapped around a layer of whipped cream, and served with fresh berries.
Q: Are there any holiday side dish ideas you’d like to recommend?
A: Sour Mashed Sweet Potatoes makes a very nice side dish. I use sour cream as the offset, instead of making them with just butter. The sour cream gives it a juxtaposition in flavors, making the taste more significant.
Q: Did you come up with altogether new recipes for the book?
A: The recipe for Chicken Saltimprese is one I came up with last summer. I looked at the collection of ingredients I had in the house and I asked myself, “What can I make from these?” I had ingredients for two dishes, Chicken Saltimbocca and Caprese, so I combined them into one, which is something I really like to do.
Julia was helping me that day. And when we took our first bites of the Chicken Saltimprese our jaws dropped. We both said, “This is a winner!” And it ended up being the cover photo for the book.
Michelle M. McGrath’s “The Creative Table: Inspired Recipes that Nourish, Gather and Unite” is available now on Amazon and at mcgrathpr.com, as well as Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, Hafta Havit in Pembroke, Joye and Goodies II in Scituate, and Storybook Cove in Hanover.
By R. Scott Reedy, correspondent