Collegiate cuisine

BY WHITNEY POW
Daily Fine Arts Editor
Published September 10, 2008

Let me introduce two dishes: mushroom and herb risotto, and the PB&J breakfast smoothie. Creating the first involves determined stirring over a hot soup pot, a furrowed brow and potentially a crisp, white apron. The other probably involves a blender and some college street smarts. PB&J has become synonymous with students because it's used and loved so dearly, but what about risotto? Risotto just sounds difficult, and Italian — everything PB&J isn't.

(SAM WOLSON/Daily)

But where would you find these two polar opposite dishes next to each other? Maybe in different buildings, if there’s a restaurant sitting next door to a college co-op, or maybe in two recipe books like “Gourmet Cooking” and "Whoa, We Like to Eat Things, Vol. 6." But risotto and peanut butter smoothies together in one house? Or together in one cookbook?

Max and Eli Sussman are Michigan chefs and brothers who share a love for cooking. Max is a chef at Zingerman’s Deli and obtained his undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. Eli, a graduate of Michigan State, works for a catering company in L.A. While the two are undoubtedly similar genetically, they are decidedly dissimilar in culinary taste, which is one of the details that sparked the unique survey of recipes in their newly-published cookbook, “Freshman in the Kitchen: From Clueless Cook to Creative Chef". The book contains recipes for everything from the aforementioned PB&J smoothies and risotto to microwave buffalo chicken wraps and chicken schwarma (a Mediterranean sandwich made with hummus).

“(Eli and I) have very different culinary backgrounds,” Max said. “When we were going to school we worked with different areas of food.”

While Max was working as a cook at eve – The Restaurant, a swanky French fusion restaurant in Kerrytown, Eli was working at a Greek restaurant in East Lansing.

“Eli was (also) living in a house with 14 guys and was making really ridiculously simple dishes that all of his roommates would go bananas over,” Max said.

The two mixed their ideas of what the culinary arts should be about — practical and filling (Eli's view) and fancy and subtle (Max’s view) — to create a cookbook that makes cooking accessible to college students.

“My brother (Max) is more classically trained and more refined in his cooking, and I’m the guy who uses a microwave,” Eli said.

Accessibility is a huge theme in the cookbook. While some of the recipes may seem a bit intimidating, the general idea is that no matter how fancy the name of the dish (salmon and goat cheese napoleon, for example), anyone who picks up the book should be able to make it. The recipes are ranked in order of difficulty, so those who barely know how to turn on a blender can begin making food in the section called “Getting Started,” graduate to sautéing in “Heat” and, a few chapters later, get up to culinary par with a chapter called “Cooking to Impress.”

The book also includes personal chef’s notes about each of the recipes, which are tellingly humorous and sincere. One chef’s note on a recipe for stuffed mushrooms reads, “There is this unbelievably catchy Jock Jams™ song that goes ‘We like to party! We like! We like to Party! We’re gonna have a party and everybody’s dancin’!!’ … Well have a party, make these mushrooms, play that song and see what happens. We guarantee results.”

And while the stuffed mushroom recipe itself may call for herb butter and dicing and hollowing out 30-plus mushrooms, it provides some incentive to break out the subwoofers and have a rager — something generally not associated with mushrooms previously intended only for the “parents’ dinner party” menu du jour.

Mixing things up is a big theme in the book, not only in deciding that mushrooms are hip, but in the recipes themselves. The brothers try intriguingly fresh takes on contemporary favorites, like the toasted coconut and lime biscotti, or a spicy citrus-chili glaze for salmon. However, some of the foods showcased in the book aren’t so much redesigned favorites as they are age-old family dishes, like their grandmother’s mushroom barley soup.

“Our grandmother’s mushroom barley soup is a staple when we go there,” Eli said. “It’s fantastic — that’s why we put it in the book.”

Growing up in a family that cooked was also important.

“The kitchen was where we got familiarized with cooking because it implied spending time with family, which is always important to my brother and I," Eli said. “You know, like when you’re cooking in the kitchen and everyone is hanging out before the meal’s ready. That’s a big part of our family."

But despite the brotherly ties between the Max and Eli, the two definitely diverge in terms of cooking styles, and, of course, favorite ingredients. Their favorite vegetables? For Eli, it’s squash, but while you may think of it steamed and buttered, he has a different cooking technique for it: “Throw it on the grill,” he said, with a little bit of olive oil and salt.

Max, however, stretches the definition of the word “vegetable” and says his favorite is garlic. But his passion for garlic is obvious: he has a clove tattooed on his left arm.

“It’s great to have that really sharp flavor — the flavor of raw garlic is really intense. And then if you mince the garlic and sauté it, it reduces its intensity, but you still get that really rich flavor.” And if you roast the garlic, the taste becomes “almost buttery and the flavor is really soft.”

Their favorite vegetables really sum up their differences. Eli loves the hardiness of food; Max loves the variation. But the two show that living in a college town next to a fancy restaurant isn't the only way to find rich foods on both ends of the culinary spectrum — it just takes a little open-mindedness and maybe a nice blender for those smoothies.