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Misery loves company

Actress, author, mom Jessica Harper is a Crabby Cook, and she knows there are a lot more just like her out there

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She sang about being an old soul, but these days, she's more of a crabby one.

Jessica Harper has had a long to-do list. She's a mom to two college-age daughters, author of 11 children's books, she's recorded seven CDs for kids, and she is an actor whose films include Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, and Pennies From Heaven.

Most memorably for Winnipeggers, she played Phoenix in Phantom of the Paradise. Where the film flopped everywhere else, it was a huge hit here, big enough to spawn Phantompalooza, an event that celebrated the film's 30 year anniversary in 2004.

And all this time, she been cooking, and cooking... and cooking. And that's where the crabby comes in. When you're a mom cooking for a family of picky eaters, the limited menu choices get tiresome pretty quickly. And if you also suffer from what Harper calls the "distracted cook gene," where you are inclined to forget you have something on the stove, the food burnt into pots and pans will also make you grouchy. So naturally, she wrote a cookbook. The Crabby Cook Cookbook: 135 Almost-Effortless Recipes Plus Survival Tips (Workman Publishing Company, $20) is her way to share the kitchen misery, and share she did from Texas where she was promoting her book.

"It gave me something to complain about for 250 pages," she says. "It's a great exercise in kvetching."

In addition to the family-friendly recipes, which include ideas for getting "two meals for the aggravation of one" and "miracle foods" that everyone likes, Harper's book is also an account of some of her biggest kitchen messes, including the disastrous turkey pot pie ("the crust tasted like tarragon-scented Play-doh") she served to Richard Gere and his then-girlfriend Cindy Crawford.

It wasn't the ongoing culinary challenges that she faced that prompted her to write the book, though. It was the lightbulb moment when the other members of her mah-jong club confessed that in spite of all appearances to the contrary, they were crabby cooks as well. And the more people she spoke to, the more she heard about picky eaters.

"I find everybody has a story -- everybody has the same issues. I went to the throat doctor last week and told him how my husband will only eat chicken and he said "Oh! My wife will only eat chicken, and not only that but only the breast of chicken, so I have to call the restaurant in advance and find out if they have it on the menu," But everybody has their tale about extreme pickiness and it makes me believe that we are all really secretly a crabby nation and we need to out ourselves," she says.

"I'm just waiting for Food Network. I think there's an underserved majority out there that really needs their own Food Network show."

Although her two daughters have left the nest, she is still in the kitchen.

"I do have to eat," she says. "What keeps me in the kitchen is this endless quest -- it's like the holy grail -- finding recipes that are new and interesting that include the very limited ingredients that my husband will actually eat. It's a lifelong search for those kind of miraculous recipes. I kind of enjoy looking for new things all the time."


Harper had some advice for the grumbling masses.

"Keep your sense of humour! And keep it simple! Simple is good and I've come to think of simple also as the most delicious. Those are the two things that I tell everyone to do."

She also says the book is for armchair cooks as well.

"I like to think that this book is a fun read even if you find yourself having a night where you're not cooking -- not that that will ever happen -- but it's also for the non-cooks just to read the stories."

And finally, I asked if she had a shout-out for the folks in Winnipeg.

"When I went there for Phantompalooza, I had the best time, the people were lovely and they were so sweet and so civilized and it was just a really, really nice experience. I have really fond memories so I just want to send Winnipeg a big hug!"

And we'll send it right back.

Here are three recipes from The Crabby Cook Book. There is an easy main and a toasty make-ahead nut recipe for snacking that is also added to the side salad for a quick and easy meal. You can find her crabby (but actually pretty sweet) self at where you'll find links to her blog and her Crabby Cook site and some very funny video clips of her crabbing away in her kitchen.


Quirky Turkey Pasta


You can toss the sauce into the pasta or serve it as shown in our photo, with the sauce on top.


45 ml (3 tbsp) olive oil

1/2 onion finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

500g (1 lb) ground turkey

5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt

2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped

400 ml (16 oz) can of tomato sauce

50 ml (1/4 cup) low-sodium chicken broth

2 ml (1/2 tsp) dried basil

2 ml (1/2 tsp) ground cumin

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

300 g (12 oz) fusilli

Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for serving


1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

2. Meanwhile, heat 30 ml (2 tbsp) of the olive oil in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook it until it's soft and translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the turkey and the salt, and cook, breaking the turkey up with a fork, just until it loses its pink colour, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the tomatoes, tomato sauce, broth, basil, cumin, and pepper, and bring the sauce to a simmer. Let it simmer while you cook the pasta.

4. Add the fusilli to the boiling water and cook until it is al dente (just tender). About 10 minutes.

5. Drain the pasta and return it to the pasta pot. Add the turkey sauce to the pasta and mix well. Serve the pasta immediately, with the grated cheese on the side. Serves 4.


Spicy Nuts


Mix up a batch of these for a nice little snack, toss them on the salad recipe that follows or, crush them on top of some ginger ice cream.


1 egg white

300 g (about 10 oz) shelled pecans (about 21/2 cups)

50 ml (1/4 cup) sugar

10 ml (2 tsp) curry powder

5 ml (1 tsp) ground cumin

5 ml (1 tsp) kosher salt

1 ml (1/4 tsp) freshly ground black pepper

1 ml (1/4 tsp) cayenne pepper


1. Preheat oven to 120C (250F). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

2. In a large bowl, whisk the egg white until it is foamy. Then add the pecans and toss gently to coat them evenly. In a separate bowl, combine the sugar, curry powder, cumin, salt, and black and cayenne peppers. Add this mixture to the nuts and toss to distribute the spices evenly.

3. Place the pecans in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet and bake until they are fragrant and sizzling and the sugar has mostly melted, about 35 minutes. Let the nuts cool completely on the baking sheet.

4. Break up any nuts that are sticking together, and store the nuts in an airtight container for up to two weeks. Makes 21/2 cups.


Wolverine Salad


Harper says this one is named after those claw-like salad tossers used to dish out salad. No wolverines were harmed in the preparation of this dish.


For the dressing:


30 ml (2 tbsp) fresh lemon juice

15 ml (1 tbsp) balsamic vinegar

5 ml (1 tsp) Dijon mustard

5 ml (1 tsp) Worcestershire sauce

1 garlic clove, minced

125 ml (1/2 cup) olive oil

1 ml (1/4 tsp) salt

1 ml (1/4 tsp) freshly ground black pepper


For the salad:


1500 ml (6 cups) salad greens, rinsed and patted dry

175 ml (3/4 cup) Spicy Nuts (recipe above)

175 ml (3/4 cup) dried sweetened cranberries

About 125 ml (1/2 cup) crumbled ricotta salata


1. Prepare the dressing: Whisk the lemon juice, vinegar, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic together in a bowl. Slowly add the olive oil, whisking constantly until the dressing thickens. Whisk in the salt and pepper. Set the dressing aside.

2. Place the salad greens, Spicy Nuts, and dried cranberries in a salad bowl. Toss the salad gently, gradually adding just enough dressing to coat the greens completely.

3. Divide the salad among four to six salad plates, sprinkle each with a bit of cheese, and serve. Serves 4 to 6.


Need More Jessica Harper?

For all you "phans" of the 1974 cult hit Phantom of the Paradise, there will be a special screening of the comedy/rock/horror flick at the "Phantom at the Pemby" event. Tickets are for sale at the Pembina Hotel, 1011 Pembina Hwy. Call the hotel directly at 453-3724, ext. 6 to inquire about ticket information. Tickets are $10 each, with the event beginning at 7:30 p.m., and screening of the movie at 9 p.m. on Feb. 26. Go to the Phantompalooza facebook page at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2011 D1

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