"Every foodie worth his or her salt must know how to roast a good chicken.
No, I'm not talking about just simply knowing how to cook a chicken. I
mean roasting it properly, to the crisp skin and golden glory of it all."
"I believe you become a true foodie when you stop buying bottled salad dressing."
"Frankly, I don't take people seriously when they tell me they can't bake."
These sage words come from Pim Techamuanvivit, author of the very successful food blog, Chez Pim, who has also written THE FOODIE HANDBOOK: The (Almost) Definitive Guide to Gastronomy (Chronicle Books; October, 2009; ISBN: 978-0-8118-6853-2). I put this beguiling book on my list of best cookbooks of 2009 because here is a smart, savvy, immensely commonsensical guide that demystifies food, placing it squarely where it belongs--in the center of our lives.
My first reaction when the book arrived on my doorstep was wariness. "Uh oh, that title sounds so pretentious." I had survived nearly four decades of the worst food disease of all--New York Foodies. You know you're in trouble when you open the food pages of The New York Times and read a serious report on three different restaurants serving a hamburger composed of Kobe beef and fois gras, and priced well north of $60. There are people there with such empty lives that being the first to blog about some hot new restaurant that will invariably appeal only to young financial turks with too much money in their pockets, is considered worthy of profiling in New York Magazine. Graydon Carter, for god's sake, has a clubby Village restaurant where virtually nobody but a celebrity can get a reservation. So you will pardon my digression when I tell you the word Foodie brings up bad associations for me.
Fortunately Pim (I hope she won't mind me placing her on a first-name basis. The warm and conspiratorial tone of her book makes me feel like I'm a friend), hasn't a pretentious bone in her body. She's a genuine, well-traveled and experienced food enthusiast who wants everyone to come to the party. And she's knowledgeable enough to show you how to spot a fraud, what to avoid, how to cook it, order it, eat it, quaff it, and make the whole culinary thrill of it become a part of you.
The publisher tells us that Pim's blog receives 10,000 hits a week. I believe it. Lots of people are intimidated about dining in fine restaurants. They feel helpless when confronted with a wine list in a foreign language. "Going to a sushi bar is such a mythical, foreign experience fraught with peril--or at least potential embarrassments," she admits. But it is Pim who will help the neophyte to relax, enjoy, ask questions without fear of humiliation, follow your instincts, so that the experience is pleasurable enough to want to enjoy again and again.
This inclusiveness extends to cooking for family and friends at home. There is a superb Bread and Onion Soup that is simplicity itself and beyond delicious. Her adaptation of Joel Robuchon's Roast Chicken is so good, you won't want to share it with anybody! I never thought about making Pad Thai at home. I will now. Her generous observations and clearly written recipes extend to helping you confidently cook fish, rack of lamb, flaky pastry dough, and much more.
I especially enjoyed her chapter on how not to be a wine geek, with uncomplicated advice on how to learn about wines, retailers, producers and importers. Establishing trust and turning to sommeliers for real advice instead of asking them to select for you, Pim insists, will result in new discoveries and fewer unpleasant surprises. She is right. I once told a sommelier in a fancy New York restaurant that I was looking for a medium-bodied red wine at about $60. She returned a few minutes later with a wonderful Vino Nobile di Multepulciano and a fascinating story about how the restaurant discovered it. Pim made friends with the owner of her local cheese shop, a good thing to do when you are facing an enormous selection of cheese. Not only will you taste a lot of great cheese, but you'll get to find out where it comes from, the differences between cow's milk and sheep's milk (and goat's milk too).
I read THE FOODIE HANDBOOK in one sitting. I took it with me to my local pizza joint (where the pizza is just amazing). I was by myself, and despite the fact that the joint was jumping that evening, I was oblivious. Pim's food reporting was riveting and I was thoroughly entertained and even learned a few things (that sushi chapter will make my next visit to a sushi restaurant far less mysterious). That's what a terrific book should do for you, and THE FOODIE HANDBOOK is a terrific book. The next day I made the Bread and Onion Soup (recipe included). I'm now a devoted Chez Pim reader.
Simple Bread and Onion Soup
1 1/2 cups stale bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
3 cups thinly sliced onions
1 cup water
1/2 to 1 tablespoon salt
To garnish: Dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of chopped chives
Equipment: Regular blender or an immersion blender.
Toast the bread cubes until brown on all sides in a toaster oven or simply toss them in a pan over medium heat. When the bread cubes are well browned, transfer them to a medium-sized bowl and pour in the milk. Set aside to soak while you cook the onions.
Melt the butter in a large frying pan over low to medium heat. Add the onion slices and stir occasionally for about 20 to 30 minutes. The goal is to caramelize the onions but not burn them. If the pan gets too hot and the onions begin to burn too quickly, sprinkle a bit of water over them, lower the heat, and continue to cook until they are well caramelized.
When the onions are done, add them, with the milk and bread, to a medium saucepan. (If you plan to use an immersion blender to blend the soup later, make sure you use a large saucepan so the content does not spill over when blending). Add the water, half a tablespoon of salt, two turns of the peppermill and cook over medium heat until boiling. Lower the heat to simmer and let it cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the bread cubes are completely soft.
Blend the content until smooth, with an immersion blender directly in the pan, or transfer the content into a regular stand blender. (If using the regular stand blender, once the soup is smooth pour it back into the pan). Check the seasonings and add more salt or pepper as needed. If you find the soup on the sweet side from the caramelized onions, add a bit more salt to correct it.
Serve the soup in a bowl or a cute coffee mug. Just before serving, drop in a dollop of crème fraîche and sprinkle over finely chopped chives.