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Park Avenue Princesses Prove They're More in Sync with the Times than the Real Housewives

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My entire office--foodies all--has been mourning the recent closing of Gourmet magazine. Some of us miss its sophistication ("That's how I learned to de-seed a pomegranate properly," a colleague sighed).

Frankly, though, what a lot of us miss is not the worldly, exotic Gourmet under Ruth Reichl, but our mother's Gourmet from years ago--back when the magazine focused on down-to-earth American home cooking. As one of my editors put it, "I may be an adventurous eater on the road, but for dinner with my family, I don't want a recipe for celery-and-octopus salad. I want a really good chicken pot pie."

Add to that a seismic cultural shift resulting from the economic crisis: the era of fancy dinner parties and kitchen one-upmanship are over. (After all, how many Vikings should one cram into an apartment when Michigan's unemployment rate is over 15%?)

Even Daniel Boulud is cooking up hot dogs and sausages at his kitchen venue DBGB. I am relieved that high society, too, is embracing a new approach, as evidenced by Florence Fabricant's new book, Park Avenue Potluck Celebrations: Entertaining at Home with New York's Savviest Hostesses (Rizzoli). From the silver tray on the cover and the roster of society swans who contributed recipes (the book benefits the Society of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a much lauded New York charity), you might expect tea sandwiches, red velvet and diamonds (and yes, all three are featured).

But when you page through it, you'll find the dishes have a wonderful warmth and hominess that belies their sterling pedigree. The book is full of simple recipes for comfort foods like frittatas, corn pudding and braised short ribs (served on Herend china). A few have just a handful of ingredients: saute some apples in a pan with butter and sugar and voila. The book may not dazzle with originality, but it is tremendously appealing and in sync with the mood of the day. This is what people like me want to cook and to eat. So don't judge this book by its cover, but by what it serves up--easy to make comfort food with a philanthropic benefit. It may be surprising but these Park Avenue princesses deliver something much more palatable and real than what the Real Housewives of New York City dish up each week.

From the Halloween Section
Butternut Squash Soup with Parmesan and Sage
(Kathy Thomas)

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 butternut squash, peeled, cut in half, seeded, and cubed
2 leeks, white part only, cleaned and chopped
2 carrots, sliced
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups well-seasoned chicken stock
2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup heavy cream, optional
sage leaves for garnish
extra virgin olive oil for drizzling, optional

Place the squash, leeks, carrots, and onion in a saucepan. Add the butter and salt, cover, and cook over low heat until the vegetables start to soften, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the chicken stock, bring to a simmer, and cook, covered, until the vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Using a tablespoon, drop about 24 small mounds of the cheese onto a nonstick baking sheet. Place in the oven and bake until the cheese melts and forms lacy crisps. Remove from the oven and cool. Set aside.

When the vegetables are soft, cool briefly, then puree them, along with the stock, in a blender or food processor in two batches. Return the puree to the saucepan and bring to a simmer. Season with salt to taste. Add the heavy cream, if using, and heat through. Serve in bowls or mugs, each garnished with Parmesan crisps and a sage leaf. If you like, drizzle the surface of the soup with olive oil.

These cheese crisps are what Italians from the Friuli region in the northeastern part of the country call frico. Even without the soup they are wonderful to serve as cocktail nibbles, alongside a salad or to garnish a plate of risotto.