Category Archives: Food Books: Nonfiction

chilindron (spanish stew) and a book event with hank shaw

This summer, Hank Shaw of the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook announced he was going on tour to support his new book Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast . Much like the tours organized by many of my friends in fledgling bands over the years, this was a DIY, couch-surfing, cross-country jaunt, with Hank scheduling the events himself sans (at least to my knowledge) the aid of his publisher. Curious to see if there was anything in the works for Detroit, I emailed him and offered to help out. We went back and forth a bit as far as what type of event it should be, and Hank suggested a potluck. Marvin generously offered up his studio in the Russell Industrial building as a gathering place. I had hoped Hank might be able to spend the afternoon prior to the event foraging around the area to bring in examples of things people could find locally, but it didn’t pan out that way- the weather was already getting a bit too cold to find many wild plants, and Hank had other plans for hunting woodcock up north.

I put the word out about the event, and was pretty pleased with the response, given that I’ve worked many, many book signings where only a small handful of people show up and even less actually purchase the book. We had about 20 in attendance and probably would’ve had more if not for the really nasty freezing rain that night. But despite the inclement weather, we had quite a spread: home-cured prosciutto, lardo and lonzino, a few kinds of homemade pickles, jams, and home-brewed spruce beer were some of the contributions, in keeping with the spirit of the evening (Hank covers many curing and preservation methods on his blog in addition to hunting and foraging). Not to mention this beautiful pie that my friend Abigail (one of les culinettes) brought!

I decided to make a recipe I’d recently seen on Hank’s blog- a Spanish stew called chilindron, which I could make ahead and warm in the slow cooker. For side dishes, I put together a garlicky raw kale salad with pecorino, and a plateful of the nuptial ham. Last but not least, I was able to make paw paw ice cream thanks to a gift of some foraged paw paws courtesy of my friend Ian. I was super excited about this since I had never tried paw paw before. I wanted to do a full post just about the ice cream, but I didn’t use a recipe and it turned out a little too icy and hard, although the flavor was good. If you ever get a chance to eat a paw paw, they’re wonderful- the texture is sort of like mango but with none of the stringiness, and the flavor is delicately tropical and custardy. Some people compare it to banana but I didn’t particularly get that. Paw paws do have large seeds that are somewhat obnoxious to work around to get all the fruit off, but the effort is well-rewarded. I can’t believe I’ve lived my whole life in Michigan without trying one until now, and I’m definitely going to seek them out next year.

As folks filtered in for the event, the table grew heavy with food; I think I sampled everything at least twice (you know, not wanting anyone to feel slighted!). We decided to eat first, and then Hank talked for a while about what hunting means to him, sharing some stories of hyper-local meals and other hunting-related experiences. Afterward, he stayed signing books and chatting with guests before heading off to Slows for a beer. I’m not sure how he felt about the event- it was a much more modest affair than many of the fine-dining events he’s been a part of- but the attendees were all thanking me profusely for putting it together, so I’m calling it a success. It was cool to be able to share something I’ve been a fan of for a while with a bunch of people who had never heard of it (I think maybe one or two people had been aware of Hank’s blog prior to that night), and have them react so positively.

Not only did I have a fun evening with great food and company, but I now have a new recipe in my repertoire to boot. The original recipe leaves a lot of leeway for different types of meats, but I just used bone-in chicken thighs, not having access to any game meats at the time. It calls for the meat “in serving pieces”, so I’m not sure if that means bone-in or boneless. Because it was a potluck, for ease of serving and eating I took the meat off the bone, but if serving at home you could leave it on. I also went against the “use white wine with chicken” suggestion and stuck with red, as I felt it would go better with the heartier flavors. Besides, I cook dark meat chicken with red wine all the time and it pairs just fine (hello, coq au vin?). I made a few other tweaks, prepping and adding ingredients where it made more sense to me, but the essence of the dish is the same. Hank’s feedback was that it was good, but “needed to be spicier”. I had followed his recipe measurements for the hot paprika, so maybe the brand he uses is just spicier; I would say, taste as you go and add more if you want a bit of a kick.  I had thought about doing rice or polenta as a starchy accompaniment, but due to time constraints wound up making couscous, which was just as suitable. Potatoes or crusty bread would, of course, be a couple more options.

Photos of stew and paw paws are mine; all other photos this post by Marvin Shaouni

Chilindron (Spanish Chicken & Pepper Stew) adapted from Hank Shaw’s blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook
printer-friendly version

3 ½ pounds chicken thighs (or a combination of thighs and drumsticks), trimmed of excess fat
salt and pepper
5 roasted red bell peppers (see note)
½ oz dried porcini mushrooms (feel free to use up to an ounce if you’re feeling flush)
1 cup boiling water
2 large onions
10 cloves garlic
¼ cup olive oil
2 slices bacon, cut into strips
2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
a couple sprigs fresh thyme (optional- not in Hank’s recipe but I had some lying around and it’s a nice addition)
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon hot paprika
4 bay leaves
1 cup crushed tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
chopped fresh parsley to garnish

Note: To roast peppers, broil or put directly on a gas burner, turning until blackened and blistered all over. Place in a covered bowl or paper bag rolled shut to trap the steam. When cool enough to handle, remove skins, stems and seeds.

Directions:
Rinse the chicken and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper and set aside at room temperature for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prep the vegetables: Put dried mushrooms in a small bowl;  pour in 1 cup boiling water and cover. Roast the peppers as indicated above. Slice the onions in half-moons and mince the garlic.

Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot with a lid over medium high heat. Brown the chicken in two batches, adjusting the heat as needed. Follow Hank’s advice: “Take your time and do this right”. You want the meat to be really nicely browned. As each piece is done, remove it from the pan to a plate covered loosely with foil.

Sometime during this process, you should have time to deal with the mushrooms and peppers. Lift the mushrooms from the liquid and roughly chop, reserving the soaking liquid. Peel the peppers and remove the stems and seeds; cut into strips.

Cook the bacon over medium heat until it begins to render some of its fat; if there is a lot of fat in the pan, you may want to pour a little off. Raise the heat slightly and add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook until they begin to soften, stirring well to dislodge the browned bits. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two.

Return the meat to the pan, along with any collected juices. You can either take the skin off first or leave it on, your preference- I don’t care for soggy chicken skin so I remove it and nibble on the crispy parts while I cook. Increase the heat to high and add the wine, bay leaves, rosemary, thyme sprigs (if using) and paprika; boil rapidly until the wine has reduced by half. Add the tomatoes, roasted peppers, stock and reserved mushroom liquid, pouring it slowly and carefully to leave any debris behind. The liquid should come about 2/3 of the way up the meat; if necessary, add more stock or a bit of water. Cover the pot and cook at a very low simmer for about an hour.

If desired, remove the chicken pieces from the pot and allow to cool enough to handle. Remove the meat from the bones, tearing into bite-sized pieces, and return to the pot. Alternately, you can leave it on the bone, your choice.

Just before serving, taste the stew and season with salt and pepper as needed- it will most likely need at least another 1/2 teaspoon salt. If you want it a little spicier, add more hot paprika to taste. Remove and discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Chop the parsley and serve on the side to be sprinkled on top of each diner’s dish.

book review & book signing: “a tiger in the kitchen” by cheryl lu-lien tan

I’ve been remiss lately about updating my “books” section of the blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! Despite the busy schedule, I usually read at least a few pages at lunchtime and then again at night before bed. I recently devoured Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton (it took me all of 2 days to plow through that) and was wondering what to start next, when I got an email from Cheryl Tan, author of the cooking memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen. She’s going to be doing a book event at Leopold’s in Detroit this Saturday, August 13th at 7pm and wondered if I might be able to help spread the word. Consider it spread!

After reading Cheryl Tan’s memoir A Tiger in the Kitchen, I would venture to say that no one would be more surprised at the turn of events in the author’s life as Tan’s own girlhood or teenage self, if such a thing were possible. Born under the fierce and headstrong sign of the Tiger, she grew up in Singapore, moving to the States after high school to attend college and build a career as a journalist. As a child, she was pushed to achieve academically, but was never expected to learn “womanly” tasks such a cleaning and cooking- there were maids for that. Her paternal grandmother, however, was a powerhouse in the kitchen, not only doing the family’s daily cooking while she was alive, but churning out tarts and dumplings by the hundreds during holidays and festivals. The family recognized that Tanglin ah-ma (Tan’s nickname for her grandmother) was a great cook, but it was also taken for granted, and Tan simply didn’t possess any curiosity at the time for anything taking place in the kitchen.

Tan makes sure to emphasize the difference between an interest in cooking (or lack thereof) and an interest in food. Somewhat ironically, she echoes Calvin Trillin’s characterization of Singapore as “the most food-obsessed nation on earth”- in one passage, she tells how she’d visit the computer lab late at night in college to go online just to look at photographs of Singaporean food (surely one of the earliest instances of online food porn!) because she missed it so much. But it didn’t occur to her for several more years that she might actually be able to learn to create the food she so desperately craved.

Tan’s culinary exploits started slowly and humbly, with meatloaf and other dishes “built on the salty shoulders of a can of Campbell’s soup”, and evolving through her twenties as she met her husband-to-be and they began cooking together. She developed a fondness for baking, which she found calmed her after particularly harried days at work. 2008 brought about a turning point- her job was becoming increasingly unbearable, and stress-related health issues were signaling to her that she needed a change. She decided that she would spend a year traveling back and forth between the US and Singapore, spending time with her Aunties and learning to make her grandmother’s recipes. Her grandmother had passed away when Tan was a child, but fortunately, her father’s sister-in-law had spent years cooking with Tanglin ah-ma and knew how to produce all of the key dishes the family had grown up with.

Tan’s journey is an enjoyable one to tag along with, as we follow her from tentative observer to capable cook able to serve her family a multi-course meal (the ambitiousness of which would have sent even the most experienced cooks into a panic). In the beginning, she insists on measurements for everything, which her aunts laugh off: “Just agak-agak“, they insist, a phrase that roughly translates as “guesstimate” or “adjust as you go”. As someone who has observed and taken notes of my future mother-in-law making her Puerto Rican rice without measuring anything, this scene made me chuckle with recognition.

Although Tan displays the characteristic cockiness of an oldest child at times (and a Tiger at that), she also doesn’t hesitate to portray herself in a sometimes unflattering light. She admits that anything still resembling the animal it came from makes her squeamish, and confesses that she messed up a batch of dumplings for being too stingy with the filling. The pressure she felt as a child to achieve is ever-present, as her family are all harsh judges of food and don’t hesitate to let her know when her efforts are “sub-par”. Still, she is willing to put herself on the line by exposing herself to their critiques for the sake of learning.

The book is a great read not only for food lovers, but for anyone interested in Singaporean and Chinese culture. Through Tan’s stories of her childhood and her interactions with her parents and older family members, we glimpse the chasm between the older generation and the new, the cultural gap between Singapore and mainland China, and the struggles of being a modern, Westernized woman in a culture that has contradictory expectations for women (Tan’s parents push her to succeed in her career, while her aunts all nag her about having babies!).

One of the things that struck me most about the book is exactly how much it can take to overcome the notion that one “can’t” cook, or the fact that it never occurs to many people to even try to learn. If it takes a major cathartic event for someone who grew up eating amazing home cooked food to want to learn, what will it take for the average American? How do we get the average person back in the kitchen, so that narratives like Cheryl Tan’s are the norm rather than the exception? I hope to be able to get her thoughts on this and other questions at her book event this weekend- hope you in the Detroit area can make it!

Disclosure: I received a copy of A Tiger in the Kitchen from the publisher for review purposes.

book review: “shark’s fin & sichuan pepper” by fuchsia dunlop

The year after I graduated college, I spent a year working and traveling in France.  It was an adventure for a girl who had grown up in suburban Michigan, and although I had traveled fairly extensively in Europe in college, living somewhere and learning how to fit in to another culture on a daily basis was  nonetheless a challenge.  However, France is one thing; China is quite another.  I envy and greatly admire someone like Fuchsia Dunlop, who in her early twenties decided to attend a school for foreigners in China in order to learn Chinese and study the culture.  Not only did she choose China for her adventure abroad- she chose Chengdu, in Sichuan province, a mid-sized provincial capital where the sight of foreigners still provoked stares and finger-pointing.  Not initially having any intention of a career in food, Dunlop found herself seduced by the intense allure of Chinese cuisine, and has since made it her life’s work to learn about it and instruct others.  She takes us on her journey in her fascinating memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China.

The memoir chronicles several of Dunlop’s visits to China, both as a student and  to research her cookbooks (Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan CookingRevolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province), but it’s that first year that really makes an impression, as Dunlop experiences many foods and flavors for the first time.  In one memorable passage, she recounts her first taste of stir-fried rabbit heads, a dish she had once avoided but eventually succumbed to in a late-night, post-drinking attack of the munchies.  She rapturously describes the creaminess of the brains; the silkiness of the cheek.  Equally evocative are the descriptions of humble noodle dishes enlivened with scallions, ginger, and the zing of chilies and the famous Sichuan peppercorns.  Every day provides opportunities for discovery, and Dunlop is not shy about diving in headfirst.  She makes friends with street vendors and other locals, fully taking advantage of her surroundings where many Westerners would languish and bemoan the lack of “normal” food.

In addition to the vicarious thrill of reading about the inevitable exotic fare, the book also reveals a great deal about the Chinese culture, their relationship to food, and their relationship to foreigners.  In the cooking school Dunlop attends, her curiosity and hunger to learn drive her forward in spite of the outright scorn and derision of her classmates, both for being foreign and female.  However, she manages to find a few kindred spirits, including a would-be pick-up artist who takes her under his wing and teaches her authentic Sichuan home cooking.

The Chinese attitude to food and cooking is equally as fascinating as the dishes Dunlop learns at cooking school.  Cooking is looked down upon as a menial task, regardless of the complexity of many dishes.  Recipes are closely and jealously guarded by chefs, and many have been lost to the ages because a chef refused to share his secrets with the next generation.  The years of famine have created a culture of extreme excess and wastefulness, where it is commonplace at a banquet or other large dinner to throw away three times as much food as what is consumed.  Middle and upper class appetites for a more meat-heavy diet are exhausting the environment, while peasants in the Chinese countryside still subsist on simple diets with very little meat.  In one chapter, Dunlop suffers a crisis of conscience when treated to an extravagant dinner with Communist leaders in a poor provincial town, but fears angering them by refusing their generosity.

I don’t think I can overemphasize the impact this book had on me in terms of rethinking what we (i.e. Westerners) consider edible, and the attitudes towards a living thing becoming food.  In China, the boundaries are fuzzy at best.  Pretty much anything that moves is fair game; no distinctions are made for creatures considered “cute” or “lovable”.  Where we would look at an animal and possibly see a creature with a soul, a Chinese person might simply see a potential meal.  Dunlop describes it thus:

Culture shock hit me hardest when I was invited to lunch by a motherly middle-aged woman in her special rabbit restaurant, not long after I had arrived in Chengdu. ‘Come into the kitchen and watch,’ she urged me.  When we entered, the main ingredient for our stew was sitting sweetly in the corner of the room, nibbling lettuce. The following is an extract from my diary, written in the kitchen that day as I watched:

Death of a Rabbit
Hit rabbit over the head to stun it.
Hang up by foot.
Slit its throat.
Immediately peel off skin.
Chop brutally into small pieces with a cleaver.
[…]
From live rabbit to dish on table in less than 10 minutes. (pp. 49-50)

The above incident perfectly illustrates Dunlop’s observation that “They didn’t kill animals before they cooked and ate them.  They simply went about the process of preparing a creature for the pot and table, and at some random point it died.” (p. 49; italics mine).

Rabbit may not be that far out for many adventurous Western eaters, but Dunlop ventures much farther afield, sampling various types of offal, dogs, rats, insects, etc.  At the end of the book, there is a moment of truth of sorts when, back in England, she finds that her perspective on what is edible or desirable to eat has irrevocably shifted.  In the months since I have read this book, it’s a subject that continues to surface from my subconscious from time to time.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be intrepid enough to try some of the delicacies which become familiar flavors to Dunlop, but I am inspired to push the limits of my comfort zone and expand my palate and my mind.  If I took anything from this book, it’s that taste is one hundred percent a matter of cultural perception, and completely malleable under the right circumstances.

book review: “families of the vine” by michael sanders

It’s always a happy occurrence to come across a book that covers overlapping topics of interest to me- in this case, wine and France, and more specifically, malbec (a favorite grape of mine) and southwestern France (where I lived for a year).  I’m not quite sure why Families of the Vine sat on my shelf unread for as long as it did- it came out in 2006- but I’m very glad I finally got to it.  Reading it was a little bittersweet, as I regretted not having visited any of these vineyards when I last was in France, but I now have an itinerary for my next visit!

Over the course of two years, Michael Sanders (author of From Here, You Can’t See Paris, about a French village restaurant and also on my reading list) spent time with three winemaking families in the Lot valley near Cahors, the city which lends its name to the wine’s appellation.  In Families of the Vine, we are introduced to Yves & Martine Jouffreau-Hermann of Clos de Gamot, a vineyard dating from 1610 and whose signature wine is considered the quintessential expression of red Cahors;  Jean-Luc Baldès of Clos Triguedina, the prodigal son who returned to the family vineyard after studying in Bordeaux; and Philippe Bernède of Clos la Coutale, who favors fast cars and producing a more international (read: softer, fruitier) style of red wine.

Le vin de Cahors has, in recent centuries at least, always played second fiddle to its cousins from Bordeaux and Burgundy.  Sanders gives a bit of history explaining that due to geography and political power, Bordeaux gained the upper hand that it still enjoys to this day, in spite of the fact that the “black wine of Cahors” was once preferred by the English over the lighter claret (the Brits’ name for Bordeaux).  Cahors wine, by law a minimum of 70% malbec with merlot and tannat making up the remainder, received appellation status in 1971 thanks to native son Georges Pompidou.

The book takes place in 2002 and 2003, with Sanders writing about the 2003 growing season and the 2002 vinification process, in that order.  The 2003 growing season was unusually hot and dry, causing much stress on the part of the winemakers.  In some cases, hot dry weather can be a boon to the grapes, but in this case it wreaked havoc on them, causing the winemakers to have yields that were  50% or less of their normal harvest.  Coincidentally, I was visiting France at the exact time of the harvest Sanders writes about, and I well remember la canicule– the devastating heat wave in which hundreds of elderly people across France died.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was reading about vinification, and the struggle between old and new ideas among France’s winemakers.  This is a subject that has been on my mind lately, as some of my more winesavvy friends have been talking about natural wine and what it means.  The crux of the problem is that, although in an ideal world many French winemakers would love to make a more traditional product, the market demands wines that can be consumed just a few years after being bottled.  Many winemakers simply don’t have the resources to cellar the wine for the requisite time, which requires not only the space to do so, but the capital to be able to tie up their money for years on end.  Some, like Bernède, are embracing the more fruit-forward, “Parkerized” styles of wine, which are easier to sell internationally and don’t require as much investment.  Others, like the Jouffreau family and Jean-Luc Baldès, are trying to hang on to the more traditional style of Cahors wine, which typically requires at least 10 years in the bottle to reach its full potential.  Yves Jouffreau-Hermann has even gone to the extreme of planting a difficult hillside vineyard, Clos St-Jean, whose grapes he hopes will yield a truly outstanding wine in years to come.

The main thing I am taking away from this book (apart from a burning desire to return to southwestern France to sample some of the wines of the region) is the importance of supporting producers who are dedicated to making quality wine in the traditional manner, even if it means sacrificing easier profits.  Like any artisanal tradition, when these winemakers are forced to cut corners to survive, we will all suffer for the lack of variety and quality.  I admit that until now, I have never cellared any wines, instead just buying them as I needed them.  But after reading the personal stories of these families and how much work they do for relatively little profit, I think it’s time to start endorsing that by choosing more “challenging” wines; wines that require a bit of commitment.

The only thing this book sorely lacks is a map showing the region and locations of the vineyards and châteaux, but other than that, it’s a wonderful introduction to anyone unfamiliar with winemaking, and a great resource for anyone interested in Cahors wine or the lives and struggles of the people behind the grapes.

Note: The photographs from this post were borrowed from the internet. Clicking on the photos will take you to the websites where they were found.

book review: “climbing the mango trees” by madhur jaffrey

Although signs of spring are finally here, it was somewhat cold and gloomy the past couple weeks.  Climbing the Mango Trees: A Memoir of a Childhood in India was just the book to transport me to balmier climes as I read about Madhur Jaffrey‘s rather idyllic childhood in Delhi in the 1940s.  I bought this book a while ago when it first came out in paperback, but with my backlog of must-read books, it took me a while to get to it.  However, I’ve been on somewhat of an Indian food kick lately, so, to the top of the pile it rose.

The book was a wonderful example of the memoir-with-emphasis-on-food genre.  The stories flowed naturally, and the mentions of food were neither stilted nor overly sentimental.  The daily routine in her household compound included meals with 50+ people at a time- parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and the patriarchal paternal grandfather (Babaji) at the helm of it all.  In the Indian tradition, adult children (i.e. the male sons and their families) were practically required to live under the same roof as the grandfather, so Jaffrey grew up with dozens of cousins to run around with.  Even still, she describes feeling lonely at the center of all that familial chaos.  Jaffrey was a bit of a tomboy, but also portrays herself as a “sensitive soul”, which would probably explain her getting into acting in her teens (Jaffrey had a career in film and television before becoming a world-renowned cookbook author).

The family must have been wealthy by Indian standards, as the daily meals described sound like nothing short of a feast. Prepared by servants, with the women of the house contributing some dishes, the meals typically contained several courses, accompanied by an array of chutneys and freshly prepared flatbreads such as parathas and pooris.  Dinners were preceded by what the French call l’apéro: drinks and light snacks such as nuts.  Eventually, upon Babaji’s cue, the clan would proceed to the dining table, which was so long that you could barely see who was at the other end.  The gatherings would continue on into the evening, sometimes with a musical performance or poetry reading, ending only when Babaji was sated.

Jaffrey grew up during a fascinating time in Indian history.  The book is set against the backdrop of British colonial rule, the rise of Gandhi and the strife of Independence and Partition.  Jaffrey’s family was fortunate to survive that tumultuous period relatively unscathed, but she wistfully describes how the changes affected her young life, such as the fact that most of her Muslim school friends were forced to leave Delhi.  In spite of the many unsettling and disruptive aspects of Partition, Jaffrey strikes a positive chord describing all the new foods that that were introduced to Delhi as a result of the migrations of groups from other parts of India.  Jaffrey describes the “exotic” foods shared with her by classmates of different religious and ethnic backgrounds- Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, etc.  Of course, their food always seemed more appealing than what she had brought in her own lunch box!  The popular Delhi restaurant Moti Mahal opened during this time period as well, introducing many of the foods that would become Indian restaurant staples in the U.S.

At the end of the book is a section of family recipes.  I made Tahiri (rice & peas) from this book, as well as Aloo Gosht (Meat & Potato Curry) and Kale in Mustard Oil from two of Jaffrey’s other cookbooks.  All were absolutely delicious- follow the link above for my post on the Aloo Gosht.

book review: “feeding a yen” by calvin trillin

Do you like to read? Eat? Laugh out loud, forcing your beverage of choice through your nose? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions (you talk to your computer screen? weirdo…) and if you have not yet read any of Calvin Trillin’s food essays, get thee promptly to a bookstore or library.

I only wish I had encountered Trillin’s food writing earlier- I feel a retrospective bereavement for all those years I was missing out on it.  I had heard of Trillin from working at the bookstore (his Obliviously On He Sails, a poem about the Bush administration,  and About Alice were both pretty good sellers for us), but for whatever reason, his food books did not get ordered.  I was at the library a few weeks ago browsing the Food/Cookbooks section as I am wont to do, when I came across Feeding a Yen and decided to give it a try.

The common thread in this volume of essays is Trillin’s “Register of Frustration and Deprivation”- a list of food items whose authentic incarnations can only be found regionally, and for which the author pines nostalgically.  Each chapter discusses an item on the list- Basque pimientos de Padron, Ecuadorian fanesca, Cajun boudin, and many more.  Since the book’s concept strongly involves a sense of place, many of the essays have the element of great travel writing as well, which was a bonus for me.

One of the funniest essays, especially for anyone who is a regular consumer of “food information” online, was New Grub Street, which talked about Chowhound.com‘s self-proclaimed “Alpha Dog” Jim Leff and other New York food writers such as Robert Sietsema (check out his funny but somewhat snob-noxious blog post “Things We Hate: Overused Food Words” in the Village Voice). These writers are a rare breed in that their lives seem to revolve around a bizarre one-upmanship of who can find the best hidden food gems in New York.  At one point in the essay, Leff talks about a restaurant that serves amba, an Iraqi mango hot sauce. He intones gravely to Trillin, “It’s not considered available. It’s extremely rare. This might be the rarest single food in town.” (p. 84).  I was at Marvin’s house while reading this, and called out “Hey hon?  That mango stuff you have in the fridge… is that called amba?”  I felt more than a little amused (ok, smug) knowing that less than 15 feet away was an item considered by a New Yorker (the Chowhound Alpha Dog, no less) to be a such a rare and exotic foodstuff!

I am looking forward to checking out Trillin’s other food books- I love his dry wit, and his writing alone is enough to make me add foods to my own Register of Frustration & Deprivation that I haven’t even tried yet (I actually had a dream about pimientos de Padrón after reading that essay!).  Alice, Let’s Eat looks like a good one…

Incidentally, Trillin’s book About Alice, a touching and humorous ode to his wife (who died of cancer in 2001), is a beautiful read to get you in the Valentine spirit, or to give as a Valentine’s gift.  We listened to it on audiobook (read by Trillin himself) on the way down south and thoroughly enjoyed it.

book review: “the cheese chronicles” by liz thorpe

Cheese ChroniclesAs someone who has many interests but never a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, it’s a little hard not to envy Liz Thorpe.  In 2002, she quit a corporate job to work behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York for minimum wage, because she decided on a romantic whim that she wanted to work in cheese (in her paraphrased words, the reason was something like “I thought it would sound cool at cocktail parties”).  In seven short years her new career has skyrocketed: she is now Vice President of Murray’s, has traveled all over the U.S.,  advises chefs as reknowned as Thomas Keller on their cheese menus, and just recently appeared on Martha Stewart. Oh, and did I mention she wrote a book?

The Cheese Chronicles is Liz’s self-proclaimed attempt to trace and document the origins and history of cheesemaking in America.  The chapters loosely group together various artisanal cheesemakers into somewhat arbitrary categories such as “Pastured”, “Farmers’ Markets” and “Restaurants”.  Within each chapter, Liz describes her visits and experiences with the cheesemakers, their back stories, and of course their products.  The cheese operations she features run the gamut from tiny creameries who only sell their cheese locally, to larger, nationally distributed companies such as Cypress Grove, and everything in between.  Each chapter has several sidebars that are interesting and informative but tend to interrupt the book’s “flow”, requiring the reader to hop around a lot.

If the book’s organization is its biggest flaw (and it’s a minor one at that), its most shining quality is Liz’s ebullient prose.  You can tell that, dammit, this is a woman who loves cheese!  While her descriptors sometimes verge on wanky (think snooty wine critic), I can forgive her that because a) let’s face it, there are a limited amount of adjectives one can use when describing cheese flavors, and b) her willingness to go out on a limb just goes to show her enthusiasm.  Rather than come across as pretentious or stuffy, Liz’s tasting notes convey the depth of her infatuation and continued excitement for her subject.

With its narrow subject matter, you may think The Cheese Chronicles would only be of interest to a very small minority of food-snob cheese fanatic types, but I think anyone who loves good food and who cares about artisanal production will find something of interest in this book.  There are lots of “people stories” here too, so it’s a good balance of factual information and storytelling and never gets dull.  Cheesemakers, as it turns out, are a colorful bunch.

I picked up The Cheese Chronicles in part because my burgeoning food curiosity has led me to want to explore whether there might be any feasible careers in food.  Having worked in restaurants, I know the life of a chef is not for me, but what about producing and selling a food product?  One of the great things about this book is that Liz goes into detail of how each and every producer got started.  It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that there are success stories from those who had never had a whit of experience as well as from those who had dairy farming in their blood.  I did attend a cheesemaking class at a goat farm recently and am investigating the possibilities of home cheesemaking, so who knows?  Meanwhile, I’ve got a new list of must-try cheeses to get my hands on.  Expensive, yes, but hey, it could end up being “market research”!

Follow Liz on Twitter: twitter/LizCheese

book review: “cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world” by mark kurlansky

CodOn the surface, Cod is a history book: the history of a particular food source, the evolution of its harvest, and the tangential events that resulted from cod being such a large driving economic force.  But in a sense, the story of cod is really the larger story of humankind’s constant attempts to assert their dominion over nature.  As such, while reading about cod’s particular story was new to me, the narrative was as old and familiar as a child’s fairytale, albeit with a much more grim conclusion.

Mark Kurlansky starts his fish tale with a vignette of some modern-day fishermen in Petty Harbor, Newfoundland, to give a feel for the current situation (dire, to say the least).  He then goes in more or less chronological order from the 10th century, circling back to the fishermen of Petty Harbor  towards the end of the book.  In between, he discusses the Basques, the Vikings, the slave trade, the American Revolution and both world wars, and many other countries and cultural groups who had their hands in the cod nets.

The book was disappointingly dry for my taste- I had expected more, since it was so highly rated (even winning a James Beard award for best single-subject cookbook).  Even though the book is short, it took me a while to get through it.  I was most compelled by the last few chapters, which described the current state of the cod stocks and fishing economies.  However, it was difficult to read without feeling powerless and frustrated at the lack of foresight and the utter disregard on the part of governments, politicians, and the fishermen themselves.  It’s the same old story, whether it be old growth forests, natural gas, or any other consumption of a natural resource- politicians don’t want to make themselves unpopular by placing limits on access and thereby stifling local economies, and workers in these fields are reluctant to give up their livelihoods even when they can see the writing on the wall.

My favorite parts of the book by far were the interludes between chapters and the section at the end of the book describing salt cod recipes from years, decades, and even centuries past.  To me, it was fascinating to read about preparations from hundreds of years ago and to try to envision what such dishes would taste like.  I’m actually tempted to try to make one of the really old recipes to see how it turns out, but the differences in language are fairly pronounced.  Although I can understand the words themselves, the directives for preparing the food seem completely opaque.  Still, I get a kick out of reading them and trying to envision their result.

Although I had a little bit of a difficult time making it through this book, I’m glad I read it.  It was definitely depressing in the sense that it ended on a pessimistic note, with world fish stocks in crisis, but I suppose that’s the fault of human history rather than the fault of the author.  If you’re interested in knowing what species are currently the most overfished, here’s a list.  The Greenpeace website also has a lot of good information about marine life and the problem of overfishing.

NB: Originally this post was supposed to be a “Book Club” post, but apparently I was the only one who read the book.  However, if you’re interested in checking out the discussion questions I came up with, go here.

book club: “my life in france” by julia child

My Life in FranceUntil fairly recently, I have to confess that my familiarity with Julia Child was pretty minimal.  I vaguely recall seeing snippets of the French Chef on PBS (you can watch some of the episodes here), and when Dan Aykroyd lampooned Julia on Saturday Night Live, I sort of got it, but that was about the extent of my exposure.  A few months ago, I read Julie and Julia, and in that book there are interludes where the author imagines scenes from Julia Child’s life.  This prompted me to want to learn more, so I picked up My Life in France.  The bulk of the book takes place from 1948-1954, during which time Julia lived in Paris and Marseilles and began the decade-long journey that would culminate in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Julia had lived overseas before, working for the government in such places as Ceylon (where she met Paul Child) and Kunming, but when she and her husband moved to France just after WWII, Julia experienced a feeling she’d never had before- the feeling of finding one’s spiritual home.  She grew up in Pasadena, CA, but never felt she fit into the bland, conservative culture there.  In France, Julia was able to truly blossom and find what would turn out to be her calling.

What struck me the most while reading this book was Julia’s endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm.  Most people would have been content to just take a few cooking classes, enough to prepare them for cooking everyday meals at home and the occasional dinner party.  Julia became a woman obsessed, determined to not only learn all aspects of classical French cuisine, but to share her knowledge with all of America.  The sheer amount of man-hours that went into all of the recipe testing and writing for MtAoFC boggles the mind.  Even with a co-author, the book took well over 10 years to complete, and certainly not for any lack of motivation or work ethic.  But despite her dedication, she seemed to balance it all with a sense of humor and adventure.  Her infectious joie de vivre permeates the book, making the reader feel as if they are a backseat passenger on Julia’s crazy joyride of a life.

Regardless of whether you even like to cook, Julia’s memoir is inspiring for all those who would dream of making a career out of your passion.  It’s true that the 1950s was a different time, and having the luxury of unlimited free time and resources would be an uncommon situation in today’s world.  However, not everyone in her position went on to write a bestselling cookbook and have their own TV show, so clearly Julia’s intrepid spirit and boundless ambition are to thank for her eventual success.

Discussion Questions

(Note: The discussion questions are intended to be a springboard for conversation and comments.  However, if there are other aspects of the book that you would like to touch on, by all means do so!)

1. Julia’s first meal in France (Sole Meunière) was transformative.  She recalls it in the book with great detail, calling it “the most exciting meal of my life”.  Do you have any one meal that stands out in your memory like this?  Was it simply because the food was exquisite, or is it tied to another experience that made it particularly special?

2. Nowadays, with the popularity of celebrity chefs such as Rachel Ray touting “30-minute meals”, is Julia Child obsolete?  Do you think people care anymore about the art of cooking and making something truly oustanding, or are most people looking for the “quick fix”?  Where do you fall on the spectrum, and why?

3. For several years, Julia spent enormous amounts of time and energy writing the cookbook that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, despite having no assurances that the book would ever be published.  Can you imagine undertaking such an enormous endeavor, not knowing if your efforts would ever bear fruit?  Do you feel that this type of dedication is a vanishing quality in our society, or have you or someone you know ever undertaken a similar project not knowing whether there would be a payoff?

4. Julia describes her father and stepmother as being somewhat small-minded and not at all interested in “experiencing” France in the way she did.  Her father’s conservative attitude was a constant source of chagrin for her, and she never felt close to him because of it.  Do you feel she should have made more of an effort, or was she right to give up on him and keep her distance?  Why do you think her father was threatened by Julia’s choice of husband and lifestyle?

5. The memoir covers several periods in Julia’s life, from the time she arrives in France to her later years at La Pitchoune.  What was your favorite part of the book or of Julia’s story, and why?

ants on a tree (recipe from “hungry monkey”)

For my newly-minted book club, I had the ambitious idea that not only would I read a food-related book a month, I would also try to post a recipe or two from said book.  June’ s book was Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton; go here to see the book review and discussion.  (I actually made the dish a couple weeks ago, but time has a habit of slipping away from me these days, hence the delay in posting.)

Ants on a Tree plated 1

It wasn’t hard to choose a recipe out of this book- I went with Ants on a Tree (not to be confused with Ants on a Log, an entirely different animal) because the author constantly refers to it as his family’s favorite dish, and it’s the one thing his daughter has been willing to eat even through her pickiest phases of toddlerhood.  It’s a Szechuan (or Szichuan, depending on your fancy) noodle dish consisting of seasoned ground pork (the “ants”) and bean thread noodles (the “tree”), and it would give me an excuse to use some of those Szechuan peppercorns I bought a while back at Penzey’s.

noodles in bowlThe nice thing about this recipe, and one reason I imagine it’s become a favorite at the author’s dinner table, is that it’s pretty easy to throw together.  I’m sure after making it a few times and having the seasonings memorized, you could whip it together in a matter of 30 minutes or less.  I love highly-seasoned food, so I did enjoy this dish; my only difference of opinion is that I found it a little too “decadent” (see my note below re: oil) to want to consume it on a regular basis.  Also, I wouldn’t consider this a one-dish meal since it’s just meat and carbs with no veg, so I made a batch of my Chinese-style kale to eat alongside the noodles. We had leftovers, which I would venture to say tasted even better in my lunch the next day.

Making this dish led me to ponder having my own hungry monkey someday, and wondering what his or her unwaveringly favorite food would be.  Until then, I’ll just have to live vicariously through the Amster-Burtons, and raise a forkful of noodles as a salute to Iris and her international palate.

Ants on a Tree (recipe from Hungry Monkey, with a couple tiny tweaks as noted) printer-friendly version

pork in wok8 oz. ground pork
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs sugar
1 tbs hot bean paste (sometimes sold as spicy bean paste, or hot bean sauce)
1 tsp cornstarch
6-8 oz cellophane (bean thread) noodles
1-2 tbs peanut or other neutral oil (see notes)
2 scallions, white & light green parts only, thinly sliced (the darker tops can be sliced and used as a garnish)
1 red jalapeño or Fresno chili, seeded and minced
1/4 cup chicken stock (canned or from concentrated bouillon is fine)
1 tbs dark (mushroom) soy sauce
1/4 tsp ground Szechuan peppercorns (see notes)

Notes: You may try to see if you can get away with using less than the 2 tbs oil called for in the original recipe, as I found the end result to be a little on the greasy side (perhaps the pork I used had a higher fat content than what the author normally uses).  Also, the Szechuan peppercorns are listed as “optional”, but if I was of a mind to leave them out, I’d just make a different dish instead; in fact, I would even suggest upping the amount to 1/2 tsp if you’re feeling gutsy.

Directions:  Put some water on to boil.  Meanwhile, combine regular soy sauce and cornstarch in a medium-sized bowl to dissolve the cornstarch.  Add the sugar, hot bean paste and pork, stirring thoroughly to combine.  Refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Place the noodles in a large bowl and when your water comes to a boil, pour over the noodles to cover.  Soak for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then drain in a colander.

Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet or wok over medium-high heat.  Add the scallions and jalapeño and cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently.  Add the pork and stir-fry until no longer pink, breaking up any chunks, about 3 minutes. (You really want to break up the pork as small as possible, or the meat will all sit at the bottom of the dish, negating the whole “ants on a tree” thing.)

Add the noodles, chicken stock, dark soy sauce and Szechaun pepper.  Cook, tossing the noodles with tongs or two wooden spoons, until the sauce is absorbed and the pork is well distributed throughout the noodles.  Transfer to a large platter and serve immediately, garnishing with a few chopped scallions if desired.