Leela Cyd's new cookbook features a variety of recipes for every occasion.

Gathering Around the Table

Cook the Book: Food with Friends

With the spring theme of creating food communities, Edible Santa Barbara food writing fellow Urmila Ramakrishnan cooked through our featured cookbook Food with Friends.


For me, sharing a meal is a cathartic experience. It’s about seeing the recipe transform from carrots, onions and vegetable stock into Turkish lentil soup, which acts as a vehicle for laughter and memories around the table. It’s tangible, and it’s always changing depending on the meal and the company. The experience itself is much like Leela Cyd describes in her new cookbook Food with Friends featured in our spring issue. Her belief is that the best meals are simple yet special. Taking this philosophy to heart, I test-cooked through her book with the goal of hosting a memorable dinner party.

Let me start by saying that I’m more of an open-the-fridge and see what I can make type of cook, and less of a stringent recipe-follower. Using my gut is my strong suit, and I can’t remember the last time I’ve cooked through an entire book a la Julie and Julia style. However, Leela’s book is easy enough to get lost in, with stunning photography and backstory, so it was an easy challenge to accept. Her book is split into six categories of recipes varying from breakfast to cocktails. She also shares some of her personal tips for great food photography and secret ingredients to always have stocked in your pantry. Her recipe introductions provided the perfect inspiration for a dinner party.


Beet-pickled Eggs

My first bite out of this book was around Easter. I was invited to a party and wanted to make something unique. After flipping through the book, I came across the recipe for beet-pickled eggs. It’s a different take on the typical deviled egg, and it was a huge hit at the function I attended. The beets haloed the eggs, which provided a spring-like contrast between the yellow yolk, egg white and the deep magenta. The recipe is easy enough to follow, but it takes some advance planning and patience. I later used the beets for salads, and I would probably simplify the filling because the flavor was very complex and competed with the delicate vinegary pickle the beets provided. The saying we eat with our eyes holds true in this case because the beet-pickled eggs had a deep magenta halo with a white and mustard yellow contrasting center. The eggs were also a great icebreaker, as I talked with people I just met about how I made the dish.

Avocado, Bananas and Muesli

Breakfast is my second-favorite meal of the day (after brunch), but it’s also the most solitary. I’m often scrambling for a quick piece of toast on the way out the door or reutilizing leftovers from last night’s dinner to nourish my body before a long day of writing and running around. So, with Leela’s book in hand, I wanted to create a breakfast that was meant to be shared and that took a little more care. To do that, I combined three ingredients that have the most memories for me: avocado, muesli and bananas. Muesli reminds me of my days in Italy, as I sat on the balcony and watched the sun rise while scooping yogurt and crunchy muesli into my mouth. Avocados are something that I purely associate with California. And bananas bring me back to my visits to Malaysia eating pisang goreng (deep-fried bananas). I also made her recipe for steel-cut oats, and I like the simple variations you can create with such a staple that we often think of as boring mush. Her breakfast avocado and coconut tartlet was pure decadence.

I transformed Leela’s breakfast item “Bananas On Fire” recipe into a dessert, substituting the topping with a whiskey praline ice cream. I would liken it to an elevated bananas Foster, which is already a simple delight. I also used her roasted plums with burrata as a dessert recently. I have a burrata addiction. It’s the blend of creamy fresh cheese and texture that gets me, and pairing it with plums is genius. It reminds me of a recipe I concocted one summer that was for grilled plums paired with a balsamic vinegar sauce and basil.

What I would have loved to see in the breakfast section are some savory breakfast/ brunch items. Though I have a penchant for anything sweet, sometimes all I need for a comforting shareable breakfast is a ham-and-cheese crepe or some smoked salmon or lox. 

Have Some Tea with Me

In Food with Friends, there is a section dedicated to small bites and drinks that would accompany a proper high tea. The book goes beyond crumpets and dives into some international delights like a South Indian kesari bhath, which I have fond memories of eating as a child. Tea signifies that special afternoon hour to unwind with a bite and a quick sip. It brings me back to the times my mother taught me how to make a proper chai when guests came.

Tea time also evokes smells of samosas frying and butter and sugar for teacakes. Leela’s tea section reminds me of what I would think of as a typical European high tea. I had the most fun making her sugar cookies with edible flowers. After the table was set, with the cookies carefully assembled on a plate next to a steaming hot pot of English breakfast tea, all I could do was stare for a moment before taking a bite. It was like eating art.


The Dinner Party

The last challenge: create a dinner party using solely recipes from the book. Friends were invited, candles were lit, napkins on the table, then it was time to cook. The menu included Leela’s Turkish lentil soup, a sweet potato tortilla española, the blooming flower salad, brûléed citrus fruits and lamb meatballs (not in the cookbook—yes, I cheated a little).

It was an eclectic tour of the world in some ways, as I peppered the table with these dishes that were served family style. These tapas-like dishes are great if you’re hosting. I would like to see more options for main dishes—hopefully in her next book.


Final Thoughts

With each recipe, I felt like I knew Leela a little more. I learned about her travels by tasting dishes from India, Turkey and California. I reminisced about my childhood while eating “Bananas on Fire.” But most importantly, this journey reaffirmed that gathering around the table and sharing a meal is a simple act but yet can be a very special one. Cooking from her recipes provided the catalyst I needed to make new friends and create memories with old ones. After all, that’s what food with friends is meant for.

Read the excerpt of Leela’s book that was featured in our Spring issue.

Urmila Ramakrishnan is a freelance writer and Edible Santa Barbara writing fellow from The Culinary Trust. She lives to eat, drink, write and experiment with leftovers. Follow her writing and sports adventures on her blog Jiu-Jitsu and Jalebi or follow her on Twitter.

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