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Family dinners, deep-fried cheese sandwiches and endless recipe-testing with Jack Bishop

November 6, 2009 | 12:30 pm

Cheese Frenchees The reader recipes arrived by the thousands, just as Jack Bishop knew they would. Some were indecipherable. Some were clearly awful. But the majority were family treasures. And not just a tasty recipe for meatloaf or pot roast, but the story behind those recipes as well.

The result -- one of Bishop's latest projects, "Cook's Country Best Lost Suppers" -- is like pulling up a chair to the nation's kitchen tables. But consider yourself warned: Don't pick up this cookbook when you are in a rush to get dinner on the table; it's far too easy to get caught up in the personal stories that grace each page.

Bishop is the editorial director at Chris Kimball's America's Test Kitchen empire, which specializes in testing recipes and bringing readers and viewers along for the ride. He was in town this week to tape a few upcoming segments for Evan Kleiman's "Good Food," KCET and PBS, which broadcasts the TV version of "America's Test Kitchen."

Fortunately for the Daily Dish, Bishop had time for breakfast at Fig in Santa Monica. He had a cappuccino to start, followed by steel-cut oatmeal and a side of fresh seasonal fruit.

The conversation was all over the map: lamenting the loss of Gourmet magazine, his grandmother's 99th birthday, and why his wife, cookbook author and pastry chef Lauren Chattman, just might have one up on Martha Stewart. He also let us in on a little-known secret about the recipes that come out of the Brookline, Mass.-based "America's Test Kitchen" and end up in Cook's Illustrated, a food magazine that bucked convention long ago by rejecting all advertising, and has about a million paying subscribers to show for it. (Its sister publication, Cook's Country, has about 310,000 paying subscribers.)

After the jump: highlights from our conversation and two of his favorite recipes from the new book.

-- Kimball is a familiar face and voice to devotees of all things America's Test Kitchen. Bishop is more of a behind-the-scenes guy, although he pops up regularly in the segments of the PBS show where ingredients are being tasted, or hardware is being put to the test. But if you must know more about Bishop, you can follow his wife's blog: Sag Harbor Days. There, Chattman chronicles the couple's life -- and meals  -- with their two young daughters. (One daughter cares nothing about food except that it's served, and the other keeps a detailed food diary when she goes on vacation.)

-- Most of those family meals are of the healthy vegetarian sort. Bishop, who wrote "A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen," and his wife enjoy eating that way. Vegetarian meals are often cheaper and easier to prepare, and it helps the couple model positive eating habits for their children. He rolled his eyes when he recalled the battles it took to get his kids to settle down and accept it. "A long, long time."

-- But Chattman is a pastry chef -- so there must be fantabulous desserts each night, right? Well, kind of. Prepare to be envious when you read this next paragraph, and then just recognize it for the fantastic idea that it is and rip it off:

Bishop said his wife always has several kinds of cookie dough in the freezer, to accommodate everyone's favorites. After dinner, she'll slice off a cookie or two from a frozen log, or drop two balls of frozen cookie dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, and that way everyone gets the cookie of his or her choice. Same thing in the morning while she's making breakfast, and then everyone gets a fresh baked cookie in a lunch pail.

-- America's Test Kitchen doesn't have final say on whether recipes ultimately make it into the magazine. Readers do. There's an army of subscribers who volunteer to test recipes again after Kimball & Co. are done with them. And if recipes don't score about 80% on the "would make again" question, they never make it into Cook's Illustrated.

-- Asked about some of his favorite food magazines, Bishop picked Martha Stewart's Living. He said that even if he never intends to make or cook anything in the magazine, he knows it will be an enjoyable read.

-- Bishop says his knife skills are horrible. But that has turned out to be a strength in a kitchen surrounded by classically trained chefs. Bishop gets to play the role of everyman, complaining about techniques that are too complicated for the average home chef, and kicking recipes back for more streamlining. "I tell them, 'You might be able to do this, but the rest of us can't.' "

-- He said his two favorite recipes from "Best Lost Suppers" are Cheese Frenchees (because you just cannot go wrong with a cheese sandwich covered in Ritz cracker crumbles and then deep fried), and Granny's Tamale Pie, which he raved about. Bishop said the pie is a bit of a project, and it's not a traditional tamale pie. There's no cheese, for example. But he said that if he had to pick just one recipe from the cookbook, these would be it.

I know that's two recipes, but who's counting.

-- Rene Lynch

Photo: Cheese Frenchees from "Cook's Country Best Lost Suppers"