Saturday, December 11, 2010

AMANDA HESSER’S NEW COOKBOOK TRULY IS ESSENTIAL


I've been searching for a way to convey my profound enthusiasm for THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK (W.W. Norton; $40.00; ISBN: 978-0-393-06103-1), but the book's heft, scope and sheer readability have until recently, given me writer's bloc. Amanda Hesser, a Times food editor and columnist, spent six years pouring through 150 years of recipes in the paper's archives, testing her way through 1,400 recipes before settling on the final selection of 1,000 recipes. This could have been a dull-dog of curatorial scholarship. Instead, Ms. Hesser has given us one of the best cookbooks of 2010, an entertaining, valuable and irreplaceable repository for some of the best recipes from the likes of James Beard, Maida Heatter, Craig Claiborne, Nigella Lawson, Eric Ripert, Lidia Bastianich, Rose Levy Bernabaum, Julia Child, Mark Bittman, Lindsey Shere, Marcella Hazan, David Chang, Thomas Keller, Dorie Greenspan, Tom Colicchio, Daniel Boulud, and Jamie Oliver.  And this is just for starters.  As the premier food section in the country, The New York Times food department has sought out and nurtured the work of so many significant and outstanding culinary talents. This new cookbook celebrates the best in food and can now be enjoyed over and over again by home cooks everywhere.

For nearly four decades, I was a witness to this culinary excellence. My kitchen overflowed with recipes clipped from the Times' food pages.  The paper’s food section influenced my cooking, my love of cookbooks, as well as my thoughts about food and entertaining. My refrigerator still sports a thick sheaf of Times recipes. I remember the impact of Mark Bittman's feature on Jim Lahey's famous No-Knead Bread, which Hesser writes, "is easily the most famous recipe ever to run in the Times.  Le Cirque's Spaghetti Primavera, spawned a trend (mostly bad), which was widely imitated in restaurants all over the country in the 1970s. There were recipes that readers loved, such as Teddie's Apple Cake or David Eyre's Pancake.  The paper was famous for picking culinary talent and printing their latest recipes. Hesser got readers involved by asking them for their favorite recipes from the paper.  The response was enormous and Hesser got busy testing and retesting recipes for the book.


I often remark about headers on recipes.  I think they set the tone for a recipe, offer insight and certainly are a reflection of the writer's personality.  Hesser's voice shines in THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK.  She is at turns funny, puckish, tongue-in-cheek, providing plenty of good, sensible advice.  "I'm not going to lie--this pizza is a project," she writes about Franny's Clam Pizza.  "And by the time it's done, it's like childbirth: you won't regret the effort."  Or "I included this cheese ball for its kitsch value," she justifies about The Spice Boys' Cheese Ball, which "looks like a tropical sea creature with a fuchsia skin and glowing greens scales." Of Crisp Potato Crowns she bluntly states, "The original recipe came with a forgettable salad, so I've forgotten it." Not however, before rescuing the part she liked best.  These are just a few examples.  Generously cheerful, Hesser is rarely out of sorts, so I was surprised and more than a bit impressed when she lets it rip in a recipe for Caramelized Bacon "The craft of recipe writing isn't a hot topic, even in food circles...That said, the current trend toward pared-down, robotic instructions is abominable.  Recipes should be more like a letter from your mother--somewhere between an instruction manual and a personal note. A good recipe will guide you with specifics and help you understand what the results should be.  Which is why I like this recipe by Patricia Marx, a novelist, so much." Through nearly 900 pages, Hesser kept this reader rapt and attentive.  
The first recipe I made was out of necessity.  Portland's awful summer produced a bumper crop of green tomatoes in my garden and by this book's publication date, I had to do something with them. The recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes is a marvel of simplicity. Dusted lightly with flour with only sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, they had the taste of "good jammy lemons, tart but not painfully so."  They were delicious.  I turned to the frying pan yet again when I prepared Latkes for Hanukkah.  These tasty, crunchy and almost pretty potato pancakes gave me everything I want in this traditional holiday treat.  She relates that Mimi Sheraton in her original recipe said applesauce was fine, but she was rather grumpy over the addition of sour cream, a habit I couldn't abandon, even for the fearsome Ms. Sheraton. Of course there are many recipes far more complex (or not) than the two I've sampled thus far. 



There are however, many more on my list, beginning with Chicken Canzanese, a recipe from Ed Giobbi (a talented and highly regarded amateur cook who often contributed recipes to the food pages of  the Times during Craig Claiborne's era).  I slobbered over this recipe, which is one of those magical one-pot meals where everything goes in at once, and is pretty much done in 30-minutes. Its original source led Hesser on an amusing, unexpected, and ultimately fruitless search for its creator.  Her investigation inspired her to sum it up:  "One thing is clear, though:  a good recipe has a thousand fathers, but a bad one is an orphan." She includes two versions of the classic Boeuf Bourguignon, both intriguing. Calamari Ripieni looks like a swell version of stuffed squid and a good candidate for Christmas Eve.  And how lovely to find a Calzone (or Pizza) Dough recipe that makes a manageable portion (almost every recipe I've read yields far more than I want at once).  And if I get a good bill of health from my next visit to the doctor, I'm definitely throwing caution to the wind and make The Most Voluptuous Cauliflower ("Any recipe that contains butter, cream, Gruyere, mascarpone, and Parmesan had better be voluptuous!").  I've been making Monte's Ham for years.  It feeds a small army of guests, who are always grateful you prepared it for them.  Maida's Blueberry Crumb Cake is a favored recipe from this beloved dessert icon, both are worth returning to over and over again.  The book is stuffed with recipes that have become classics. 

Ms. Hesser delivers plenty of reasons to consider this book essential, including an index in each chapter's beginning listing recipes for that category, a section time-line offering fascinating historical information about each category (i.e., for the Beef, Veal, Lamb and Pork chapter she writes that in 2002, “Michael Pollan buys a steer. Things don’t end well for the steer or us.”), as well as plenty of cooking notes with excellent tips and ideas as well as serving suggestions from accompanying dishes and desserts to beverages. This hefty cookbook is well illustrated with vintage black and white photos from the Times' food pages of the past. 

Who would have thought a cookbook from the Gray Lady weighing in at just under five pounds would be charming?  Yet that is exactly what Amanda Hesser has accomplished here. The book currently is one of the bestselling cookbooks of this holiday season and has been selected by most food writers as one of the best cookbook of the year.  This may be the most important cookbook to be published under the the Times imprimatur since Craig Claiborne's classic work. For my money, THE ESSENTIAL NEW YORK TIMES COOKBOOK attains instant classic status. Big snaps to Ms. Hesser and the folks who helped her deliver this wonderful cookbook to us.

Full disclosure:  I previewed this book without having seen a word of it last summer.  I got it all wrong.  It wasn’t a reworking of  Craig Claiborne’s classic cookbook of 1961, or any other number of mistakes I wrote, prompting Amanda Hesser to write me the gentlest of correction letters.  Red-faced, I fixed the glaring errors.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A JAMIE OLIVER MASTERWORK: Start of a New Series

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of reviews of cookbooks by authors I have long admired.  I have favorite cookbook authors well represented in my extensive library, and it's not unusual to see multiple works by Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Lee Bailey, Patricia Wells, Lidia Bastianich, Deborah Madison, Mario Batali, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Martha Stewart, Maida Heatter, Jacques Pepin, Barbara Kafka, Michele Scicolone, Diane Rossen Worthington, Susan Wyler, Jamie Oliver, and many others.  While I love all their books, each has one book that is very special to me.  I'm kicking off this series with COOK WITH JAMIE:  My Guide to Making You A Better Cook.  

Last night I made chicken with dumplings.  And not just any old chicken and dumplings.  This recipe was a loose adaptation of a version that I found in Jamie Oliver's superb COOK WITH JAMIE: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook (Hyperion)--a book that I consider his very best (it belongs in any serious collection of cookbooks just for the vegetable recipes alone). Jamie's original creation is called rather charmingly, Tender-as-You-Like Rabbit Stew with the Best Dumplings Ever.  Let's not get into the "Thumper" issue of rabbit.  I've tried to get friends to eat it over the years and have failed miserably.  I ate it as a kid (my mother's superb fried rabbit with mashed potatoes and milk gravy is still a vivid childhood memory) and loved it, Disney animation be damned. The recipe also calls for "a bunch of fresh tarragon," and while I happily follow Jamie recipes, tarragon for me is one of those herbs that needs restraint.  But what made me drool over the recipe was the photo of the dumplings.  They were brown and they were brown because they were baked in the oven without a lid on the pot like classic  steamed dumplings on top of the stove.  I had some chicken thighs in my freezer just begging to be used instead of the rabbit.  I figured I could cut the recipe (which serves 6-8) in half.  Here might be a perfect Sunday supper on a blustery Pacific-Northwest evening.

The recipe calls for the dumplings to be made first and when formed into balls, placed on a cookie sheet and refrigerated until you need them. The dumplings are a simple combination of self-rising flour, butter, salt and pepper, with some milk to bind them into a dough, which is then formed into a rope and cut into large pieces and shaped into round dumplings.  Instead of the tarragon, I used finely chopped Italian parsley and about five green scallions, also finely chopped. You add a small dusting of freshly grated nutmeg over the tops of the dumplings before chilling them.

I proceeded with the rest of the recipe.  Four large chicken thighs were dredged in flour and then browned in a combination of butter and olive oil in a four-quart cast iron enamelware Dutch oven.  Next I finely chopped three strips of bacon and browned that while moving the thighs around the pot until crisp.  I spooned off much of the fat and dropped in a little more than a quarter pound of quartered cremini mushrooms, to which I added a sprig of fresh rosemary, salt and freshly ground pepper, and "a large handful of baby onions," and a tablespoon of flour.  A quick stir and then the recipe required 12-oz of dark beer.  I had some and along with 3/4 of a pint of recently made turkey stock, and with the addition of the dumplings spaced evenly on top of the chicken and vegetables, the recipe was complete.  You place the heavy pot, sans lid, into a 375-degree oven for 45 minutes.

I faced a bubbling, aromatic stew with plumped and browned dumplings on top.  Comfort food in excelsis.  The thing about these dumplings is they are crunchy on the outside, and indescribably tender inside.  This is the kind of unfussy, and imaginatively flavorful food for which Jamie Oliver is famous.  Other favorite recipes in the book include Creamy Butternut Squash (a sublime sort of steamed-baked casserole of sliced butternut squash, with cream, white wine and Parmesan cheese, with crumbled red chilies, fresh thyme, crushed coriander seeds), and a magnificent Whole Baked Cauliflower with Tomato and Olive Sauce.  By far the creative recipe I've ever encountered for cauliflower, I practically OD'd on this delicious creation when I first read this book.

Throughout his by now quite lengthy career, Jamie Oliver has grown from London Lad to one of the most admirable cookbook authors, chef and culinary citizen of the world. He's given young and disadvantaged kids an opportunity to become restaurant professionals in his wildly popular 15 Restaurants, and last year introduced his successful school lunches program to the United States, via his short TV series on raising the nutritional consciousness of parents and school-aged children.  I have many of his cookbooks in my collection, but COOK WITH JAMIE seems to me to be his culinary masterwork.  


Friday, November 26, 2010

STOVETOPREADINGS' BEST COOKBOOKS OF THE YEAR



In cookbooks this was the year of the TOME.  Publishers issued huge, thick and densely photographed and illustrated books including The Essential New York Times Cookbook, The Sunset Cookbook, Bon Appétit Desserts, Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade: The Complete Cookbook, a new edition of Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook, Williams-Sonoma Cooking at Home; Molly O’Neill’s One Big Table, and Pushpesh Pant's wildly exotic India Cookbook.  Even Jane Hornsby’s What to Cook & How to Cook It feels big because while it contains only 100 recipes, each recipe has photos of various stages of a recipe’s progression, making for a larger book.  Plus Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson delivered two “large” cookbooks this season. Rachel Saunders’ The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook feels big, and so does Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan. Fortunately most of them added substantially to our cooking pleasure. 

When selecting my list of top cookbooks of the year, I noticed an interesting development: none of my choices involves either a restaurant celebrity chef (a category of cookbook that I rarely find useful to home cooks), or a current TV personality. While most of the writers here are well-known, few are household names. What they tend to share in common is the ability to produce outstanding and reliable cookbooks year-in and year-out, and most of them are women. This is worth crowing about. 

I’ve been hearing dire predictions that cookbooks are a dying genre.  Not so if one were to count the number that made it to my door this year, and we’re still in the midst of a difficult economy.  It was nearly impossible to whittle down so many cookbooks (I review on average four cookbooks a month, or about 50 books per year). I’ve selected a few more worthy titles—in other words, my top ten list blew up a little.  



In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite by Melissa Clark (Hyperion)

Reading Melissa Clark makes me smile.  Cooking any recipe by Melissa Clark makes me swoon.  Her food is so delicious, so personal and so good.  There’s nothing complicated here—nor is it dumbed-down, quick-cook short cuts (and those that are quick delight us in their brevity).  This is food you can get on the table every day and creative enough to lay out on a tablecloth with candles and cloth napkins and a good bottle of wine for company. Clark creates great home cooking, and finds inspiration everywhere.  Whether she’s creating recipes by the seasons, or discovering a new ingredient, finding something special at her local farmer’s market, or recalling a culinary memory from childhood, Melissa Clark is welcoming to good food ideas wherever she finds themA Good Appetite is a column that I read without fail every Wednesday in The New York Times.  I’ve already raved about My Mother’s Garlic and Thyme-Roasted Chicken Parts with Mustard Croutons.  But you have to make Spaghetti with Spicy Tomato, Clams, and Bacon, Pesto Scrambled Eggs with Fresh Ricotta, and Karen’s Chorizo Corn Dog Bites—you really have to. Here’s a book that is guaranteed to be  splattered with overuse and read over and over again for her warmth, humor, generosity, and scrumptious food.





Pig by James Villas (Wiley)

If you are going to publish a big survey about my favorite meat, then commit to finding the right guy to do the job.  James Villas, who spent a long period of his life as food and wine editor for Town & Country magazine) is just the writer for this delightful exploration. Despite his many years in New York, this North Carolina native has never abandoned his southern roots and gives us lots of a tasty recipes for all parts of the pig plus all the hoglore you’ll ever need to know. I loved his rant about breakfast sausage, which southerners take far more seriously than the rest of us Yankees.  He abhors the bland stuff in supermarkets above the Mason-Dixon line (and of course he's right).  This is a book that will remind us that southerners use all parts of the pig, much like the French and Italians.  I was over the moon about Carolina Pork and Sweet Potato Pie with Biscuit Batter Crust, Ham Croquettes with Parsley Sauce, and Bacon Cheddar Biscuits. Pork is the most flavorful of all meat, and whether you’re looking for “cue”, ham, sausage, roasts, chops, casseroles (or those items that make today’s bland supermarket shoppers squirm:  Deviled Pig’s Feet, Hog’s Head Stew, Mississippi Crusted Pigs’ Ears, etc.), and so much more, James Villas delivers tasty recipes and strong opinions in equal measure.



The Book of Tapas by Simone & Ines Ortega (Phaidon)


One of the most pleasurable aspects of visiting Spain is to go to a local bar or pub, order a glass of wine or beer or sherry, and indulge in the little plates of food that are available to accompany the aperitif.  These creative little snacks will keep you satisfied until dinner.  It’s a wonderful social ritual, but all too often tapas bars in the U.S. have blown the concept up.  Instead of a little bite of this or that, we get groaning plates of abundance that all but overwhelm the appetite.  The Book of Tapas is steeped in authenticity—it’s creator is Simone Ortega, author of the much admired 1080 recipes, Spain’s version of Joy of Cooking (an co-written with her daughter Inés Ortega). I often go crazy about the production of cookbooks.  But The Book of Tapas is truly one of the most gorgeous books you’ll ever hold in your hands.  It’s distinctive yellow paper with red type for the headnotes and black type for the recipes is eye-catching. There are five generous color photo inserts of hunger-inducing tapas, lavish even by today's standards for a cookbook. 

And the food?  Ranging from easy to a little more complicated, wouldn’t it be nice to eat your throughout the categories (but not in one seating!) beginning with vegetables.  How about Mushroom and Olive Salad or Prunes with Roquefort, Raisins and Pine Nuts For eggs and cheese there’s a classic Spanish Tortilla, or Cheese Fritters with Tomato Sauce. For fish and seafood there is Saffron Rice with Clams or Salt Cod and Potato Croquettes. Bite-sized Melon Balls with Ham, show off the country’s justly prized Serrano ham, and Chicken and Bell Pepper Empanadas is an excellent example of Spain’s pocket-sized snack in a crust.  The book showcases traditional tapas, but the authors also include updated tapas recipes from celebrated international chefs.  A striking-looking and useful cookbook.









The Essential New York Times Cookbook by Amanda Hesser (Norton)


In a year of big, ungainly cookbooks, this might have ended up as just another massive doorstop corporate cookbook.  The great recipes she has culled from the Times’ archives over the past 150 years instead, are framed by Hesser’s witty, engaging (and sometimes bracingly peckish) headnotes.  Hesser is full of good advice and history in this big survey. She has tested every one of the more than 1,000 recipes often providing tips and ideas that improve on the originals.  While respectful of the great food icons, she doesn’t stick them on a pedestal. Intriguingly Hesser selects a recipe for Maida Heatter’s Cuban Black Beans and Rice while passing over her famous East 62nd Street Lemon Cake (opting for another cake she thinks is even more lemony and moist).  As someone who religiously cooked from the NYTimes food pages for nearly four decades, I can assure you that all the famous recipes are here from  Le Cirque’s iconic Spaghetti Primavera and James Beard’s Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic, to Monte’s Ham and the wildly absurd Bacon Explosion (a frat-house inspired recipe of sausage stuffed in a bacon lattice wrap and basted in barbecue sauce) and No-Knead Bread (“easily the most famous recipe ever to run in the Times.”). But there are plenty of little known recipes published in the paper over the years. While reading the book, I ran across a recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes, and was struck by Hesser’s description:  “The strange thing about fried green tomatoes is that if you close your eyes, you might think you were eating fried lemons—good jammy lemons, tart but not painfully so.”  I tried them that night and the simplicity of preparation (a light dusting of flour, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, and a quick frying in canola oil, produced lovely, tart, jammy, green tomato slices). The range from simple to fancy is vast and the vintage photographs are a nice touch. This is a cookbook I’ll dip into regularly and use often. When you consider that not only did Amanda Hesser take on this heroic assignment and pulled it off magnificently, she did it with her food partner, Merrill Stubbs, while they launched their popular Food52 website.  Impressive indeed. 







Around My French Table by Dorie Greenspan (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Yes, I worked on the publicity for this book (I actually previewed it on my blog before the publisher hired me), but the avalanche of press this superb collection received couldn’t have been achieved unless the writer didn’t already have a mountain of good will from her readers and the food press.  The best cookbook of the year, and I got to work on it.  It doesn’t get better than that. For details do a Google search, but don’t say I didn’t warn you about that avalanche. 






Insalata by Heidi Insalata Krahling (self published)

This stunningly beautiful, self-published cookbook comes from a chef in Marin County whose popular Insalata restaurant in San Anselmo, California has been packing them in for more than thirteen years.  Krahling’s excellent Mediterranean recipes, are set off by Laura Parker’s magical color illustrations of fruits and vegetables. I made her recipe for Preserved Lemons and more importantly Fattoush Salad, a Middle Eastern bread salad with black olives, red onion, cherry tomatoes, cumber slices, feta cheese, romaine lettuce, cilantro and mint. What a combination of superb flavors. I served it to a friend, and we consumed a large salad for four very easily. The Cataplana with its mix of clams, chorizo sausage and tomatoes is fabulous. Krahling told me she self-published in order to produce the book she had in her head.  What a fine imagination she has on the plate and off.  This book amply demonstrates that vision isn’t always with the big publishers. And my thanks to Elizabeth at Ste. Maine, a gorgeous shop in Portland that sells amongst other things really nice cookbooks, for bringing this lovely book to my attention. 





Sara Moulton’s Everyday Family Dinners (Simon & Schuster)

If there is a less pretentious, more accessible, and creative cookbook that gets great food on the table in good time with the least amount of fuss, I haven’t seen it this year.  Sara puts convenience foods and salad bars, and takeout to shame, where it belongs. Just try the Creamy Garlic Dressing Two Ways: Rich and Slim.  Whether you use yogurt or heavy cream, you’ll be pouring this wonderful emulsion with glee over everything, salad greens, asparagus, green beans, cold meats or fish.  She loves Kimchi, the Korean cabbage pickle full of garlic, and uses it in at least four recipes (including a breakfast dish).  I’ve already eaten three of the sandwiches (a substantial and creative chapter), including “Fried” Catfish BLTs, which really elevates that classic.  There’s an attractive assortment of whole grain entrees, and the vegetarian chapter is really creative (the Rustic Potato and Greens Pie is a delicious example).  But the reason this book has stuck in my head is the Butterscotch Pudding Cake—easy, few ingredients, and really wonderful.  For the moment, Sara doesn’t have her own TV show, but if anyone can teach America to cook at home, it is Sara and this new book belongs in every family kitchen.




The Italian Slow Cooker by Michele Scicolone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I was skeptical.  The slow cooker is not my favorite kitchen appliance.  But I’ve cooked my way through at least six of her other fine books on Italian food, so Michele has instant credibility with me.  That credibility was put to the test with Beef in Barolo, a rich braise of boneless beef chuck with Barolo wine, tomatoes, carrots, celery, onions and pancetta.  I served it with gnocchi as a first course. The kitchen locusts descended and not a scrap of food remained on the platter. So now I’m a semi-believer.  Certainly the slow-cooker lends itself easily to adapting Italian food, such as soups, stews, and pasta sauces, all of which Scicolone delivers with low-key expertise. We all need first rate convenience cookbooks such as this in our collections. 






The Gourmet Cookie Book: The Single Best Recipe from Each Year 1941-2009 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

In music there are collections of Elvis’s #1 hits, the Beatles #1 hits, and Michael Jackson’s #1 hits. How about a cookbook of #1 cookie recipes? The fabled and now sadly shuttered magazine offers more than 60 years of sensational cookies, one for every year the magazine was published. I’ve baked many of these cookies over the years and its wonderful to have this collection in one convenient volume.   






The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders (Andrews McMeel)

Another one of the most beautiful cookbooks of the year is from the San Francisco-based purveyor of artisanal jams.  Rachel Saunders has assembled a stunning collection of fruit jams and marmalades that updates this popular and homey method of preservation in a very sophisticated way. While there are fine recipes for simple orange marmalade, plum, strawberry and other preserves, Saunders has concocted outstanding combinations that just beg for a piece of toast. Virtually pectin free recipes emphasizes the ripeness of the fruit with their jewel-like colors  and sheer spreadability.  Showtime Plum Jam with Rhubarb and Sour Cherries, Black Fig and Tempranillo Grape Jam, and Citron Shred are just three intriguing possibilities.  This is a serious book for jam-makers wanting to expand their repertoires and understand the techniques of the jam-maker’s art. And the delightfully vintage look of the book is very special.








Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People who Cook by Anthony Bourdain (Ecco)

Not a cookbook, but a rangy, often bracing, not always respectful and always intriguing look at today’s food scene.  Bourdain deflates a lot of big food egos out there and not a moment too soon.  I love the fact that he is worried about being a sellout.  He knows his life became something else entirely with the publication of Kitchen Confidential. And he’s used his success to create really interesting TV programming that you won’t see on the Food Network, which often deserves the kick in the ass he gives it.  Bourdain cares and has the writer’s chops to deliver one helluva an entertaining rant. Because he loves food, writes so imaginatively about it and takes no prisoners, Bourdain easily made this list. No other book I read this year was as much fun to read as Medium Raw.




A Newly Discovered Classic

Arabesque by Claudia Roden (Knopf)

I don’t know how I the world my radar managed to ignore the work of Claudia Roden, a London-based specialist in Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cooking. I discovered Arabesque (published in 2005) on a friend’s coffee table and became immediately smitten.  The jacket of the book is Mediterranean blue with gold and features a pretty dish of raw ingredients such as eggplant artichokes, cinnamon, pine nuts, saffron and peppercorns—pretty but not very revealing.  Inside however, Roden conjures up the intoxicating flavors of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, giving them an urgency and relevance to American cooks, they’ve rarely received in the past.  And the food is as flavorful as it is gorgeous to look at.  In the chapter on Moroccan food, Skate with Preserved Lemon and Green Olives, is a perfect example.  The skate-wing fillets (a favorite fish in my house) with their distinctive corduroy-like ridges, are seared first with the addition of chopped preserved lemon, green olives and parsley. The dish is so easy to put together, utterly delicious and very handsome on the plate.  The tagines with their combinations of lamb and other meats, fruit, nuts and aromatics are great entrees for a dinner party.  Peppery Bulgar Salad in Baby Romaine Lettuce, Zucchini Fritters, and Chicken Pilaf in a Pie are three fine examples of dishes from Turkey.  Lebanese cuisine, may be my favorite of the three.  The sweet/sour combination found in Eggplant Slices with Pomegranate, Yogurt and Tahini make for a distinctive starter, and Grilled Poussins with Sumac just hits all my favorite flavor combinations.  So does Spinach and Beans with Caramelized Onions.  Food this good deserves further investigation, and I’ll be investigating more of Ms. Roden's cookbooks. 





OOPS--I CAN'T LIMIT MYSELF TO ONLY A FEW GOOD COOKBOOKS! 






I told you it was hard to limit myself to only a few favorites this year.  So here a small and equally select group of cookbooks ALSO worth considering for the gift-giving season.


INDIA COOKBOOK by Pushpesh Pant (Phaidon):  An exhaustive, handsome survey of Indian cooking with 1000 recipes from India's renowned culinary expert.


FALLING OFF THE BONE by Jean Anderson (Wiley):  The award-winning author of many cookbooks (and a cookbook writer I've long admired), turns her attention to those tougher cuts of meat that when cooked correctly, yield tender results, savory results. A timely book to savor in this recessionary era. 


MY CALABRIA: Rustic Family CooKing from Italy's Undiscovered South by Rosetta Costantino with Janet Fletcher (Norton):  The first important cookbook to explore this little known culinary region.  Costantino was born in Calabria and continues the family tradition of teaching, food preservation and gardening in Oakland, California where she also teaches and writes a popular website (www.cookingwithrosetta.com).


HIGH FLAVOR LOW LABOR by J.M. Hirsch (Ballantine Books): The food editor of the Associated Press is also a busy father who by necessity has become a master of flavorful kitchen shortcuts. There are 150 fine recipes here, all worth your attention.


BAKED EXPLORATIONS: Classic American Desserts Reinvented by Matt Lewis & Renato Poliafito (Stewart Tabori & Chang). The popular owners of Baked in Brooklyn, New York, offer heavenly fresh new takes on the baked goods we love to eat. Try Nutella Scones or Caramel Apple Cake. 


SEASONAL FRUIT DESSERTS: From Orchard, Farm, and Market by Deoborah Madison (Broadway):  Deborah Madison is a master recipe writer and turns her affection for these rustic and refined sweets into sweet inspiration.


GIFTS COOKS LOVE: Recipes for Giving by Diane Morgan (Sur La Table/Andrews McMeel):  Into this awful economy steps the gifted Portland-based food writer with great gift ideas from your kitchen just when we need it most.


READY FOR DESSERT: My Best Recipes by David Lebovitz (10 Speed Press):  The Paris-based expat baking master and blogger delivers a new collection of his most sinful creations.


AS ALWAYS, JULIA: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  A chance letter launches a critical friendship between an unknown Julia Child, co-writing her magnum opus (Mastering the Art of French Cooking), and Agnes De Voto, who would not only recognized the quality of the work itself, but also acted as a broker in its long and tortured route to publishing glory. The letters are an intimate window into the minds of two fascinating American women who played an important part in America's modern food revolution.




Monday, November 22, 2010

JEWEL-LIKE JAMS AND MARMALADE USHERS IN A NEW ERA OF PRESERVES



With the publication of THE BLUE CHAIR JAM COOKBOOK (Andrews McMeel Publishing; $35.00; ISBN: 978-0-7407-9143-5), Rachel Saunders, the founder of the much admired San Francisco Bay Area-based jam company (www.bluechairfruit.com), has created what must be the most spectacular book on jam-making I've ever seen.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When I bought my house in Portland, Oregon, I finally had a kitchen big enough to take on projects such as making jam, and the first opportunity to do so arrived last Christmas time when a friend gifted me with fifteen pink grapefruits. There are only so many half grapefruits one can eat so I took on the challenge of converting those grapefruits into marmalade, only I didn't have a recipe in my cookbook collection that either appealed or included pink grapefruit.  On line, I found an interesting if vaguely written recipe for a pink grapefruit marmalade adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson.  By vague I mean it didn't explain too clearly when the marmalade might be ready to pour into sterilized jars, with many steps in between that were unclear at best.  But I forged ahead, calling my mother when things seemed to complicated.   Two grapefruits produced an astonishing six pint jars of a delicious and darkly colored marmalade sweetened with dark brown and white sugar and brightened with a bit of lemon juice.  Not bad.  I made another batch adding fresh ginger to the mix--it was even better.  Now I fancied myself a talented maker of marmalade.  My education was just beginning.

A friend brought me a large supply of green figs in August, and I tackled the job of converting them into jam.  The recipe I found required pectin, a thickening agent naturally found in fruit, though in varying degrees.  The recipe called for an envelope of pectin, and I remember at the time thinking it was an awful lot.  Wish I had paid attention to my instincts.  The resulting jam had a cloudy flavor and was stiff and rigid. Worse, it's texture was unpleasant.  I didn't want to make that mistake again.

So once I stopped drooling over the superb photographs in THE BLUE CHAIR JAM COOKBOOK, I began to search for any mention of pectin because only one recipe in the 100 recipes in this large volume contain pectin. "Rarely, you will need to use powdered pectin to achieve the right texture texture for a preserve," Saunders writes in the extensive introductory chapter.  "Use powdered pectin extremely sparingly and only if absolutely necessary.  Otherwise, it can produce a stiff texture and chalky flavor," she concludes.  My instincts about pectin were correct.


As you look at the photographs there is a jewel-like clarity and shine to the jams and marmalades in THE BLUE JAR JAM COOKBOOK.  Saunders writes fascinatingly about the process, the equipment required, and most importantly the fruit itself and the importance of it being preserved at its peak.  She describes when a low or high sugar jam is ready as well as a marmalade, and how to test for doneness.

But the heart of the book are Saunders recipes which bring a thoroughly contemporary sensibility to this essentially old-fashioned domestic endeavor. The recipes require attention to detail and are often prepared over a few days.  Saunders's approach is not about 30-minute jam.  The recipes are well written and clear but require attention to detail and in the end, the results are superb.

We're in prime marmalade season with oranges, grapefruits, lemons, kumquats at their peak.  Marmalades are not only delicious on toast, scones, muffins and other baked goods.  They are terrific in glazes for ham, pork--even corned beef.  THE BLUE CHAIR JAM COOKBOOK is arranged seasonally.  But be warned--this book's vintage appeal and beauty shouldn't be too close to your work counter.  I'd hate to spatter the pages of this lovely volume.




Lemon & Pink Grapefruit Marmalade

This is the perfect everyday marmalade: coarsely cut grapefruit and thinly sliced lemon suspended in a sparkling citrus jelly. The grapefruit is blanched twice and the lemons once, rinsing out some of their bitterness and balancing their flavors. It is tart yet not astringent, delicate but full of fruit, flavorful yet not overpowering.

1 pound lemons (preferably Lisbon), cut into eighths
1 pound seeded lemons, halved crosswise,
each half cut lengthwise into quarters and sliced thinly crosswise
33/4 pounds pink grapefruits
5 pounds white cane sugar
2 or 3 extra lemons, to make 5 ounces strained freshly squeezed lemon juice
Day 1
Place the lemon eighths in a nonreactive saucepan where they will fit snugly in a single layer. Add enough cold water for the fruit to bob freely. Cover tightly and let rest overnight at room temperature.
Day 2
Prepare the cooked lemon juice: Bring the pan with the lemon eighths to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium. Cook the fruit at a lively simmer, covered, for 2 to 3 hours, or until the lemons are very soft and the liquid has become slightly syrupy. As the lemons cook, press down on them gently with a spoon every 30 minutes or so, adding a little more water if necessary. The water level should stay consistently high enough for the fruit to remain submerged as it cooks.
When the lemons are finished cooking, strain their juice by pouring the hot fruit and liquid into a medium strainer or colander suspended over a heatproof storage container or nonreactive saucepan. Cover the entire setup well with plastic wrap and let drip overnight at room temperature.
Meanwhile, prepare the sliced lemons: Place the slices in a wide stainless-steel kettle and cover amply with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, discarding the liquid. Return the lemon slices to the kettle and cover with 1 inch cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, decrease the heat to medium, and cook at a lively simmer, covered, for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the fruit is very tender. As the fruit cooks, stir it gently every 15 minutes or so, adding a little more water if necessary. The water level should stay consistently high enough for the fruit to remain submerged as it cooks. Remove the pan from the heat, cover tightly, and let rest overnight at room temperature.
Last, prepare the grapefruits: Cut them in half, squeeze the halves, and strain their juice. Cover the juice and place it in the refrigerator. Put the juiced grapefruit halves in a large nonreactive kettle and cover them amply with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium and cook at a lively simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, discarding the liquid. Repeat this process, then
return the blanched grapefruit halves to the kettle and add cold water to cover. Bring the halves to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium-low and cook, covered, at a lively simmer for 1 to 2 hours, or until the fruit is easily pierced with a skewer. As the grapefruit cooks, press down on it gently with a spoon every 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary. The water level should stay consistently high enough for the fruit to remain submerged as it cooks. When the grapefruit is tender, remove the pan from the heat, cover tightly, and let rest overnight at room temperature.
Day 3
Place a saucer with five metal teaspoons in a flat place in your freezer for testing the marmalade later.
Remove the plastic wrap from the lemon eighths and their juice and discard the lemons. Strain the juice well through a very fine-mesh strainer to remove any lingering solids.
Prepare the grapefruit: Remove the grapefruit halves from their kettle, reserving the cooking liquid. Over a large bowl, use a soup spoon to scoop the flesh from each grapefruit half. Then, take each half and, cradling it in one hand, use the spoon to gently scrape its interior of excess pith and fibers. Repeat with the rest of the halves, going around each one two or three times until its interior is smooth and its rind is a uniform thickness. Cut each grapefruit half into 5 equal strips, then cut each strip crosswise into thick slices and reserve. Strain the scraped pith and fibers, along with the mushy interiors of the grapefruits, back into the cooking liquid, letting them drip for several minutes. Discard the solids. Pour the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, strained grapefruit cooking liquid, reserved fresh grapefruit juice, reserved grapefruit rinds, cooked lemon juice, fresh lemon juice, and lemon slices and their liquid, stirring well. Transfer the mixture to an 11- or 12-quart copper preserving pan or a wide nonreactive kettle.
Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Cook at a rapid boil until the setting point is reached; this will take a minimum of 30 minutes, but may take longer depending on your individual stove and pan. Initially, the mixture will bubble gently for several minutes; then, as more moisture cooks out of it and its sugar concentration increases, it will begin foaming. Do not stir it at all during the initial bubbling; then, once it starts to foam, stir it gently every few minutes with a heatproof rubber spatula. As it gets close to being done, stir it slowly every minute or two to prevent burning, decreasing the heat a tiny bit if necessary. The marmalade is ready for testing when its color darkens slightly and its bubbles become very small.
To test the marmalade for doneness, remove it from the heat and carefully transfer a small representative half-spoonful to one of your frozen spoons. It should look shiny, with tiny bubbles throughout. Replace the spoon in the freezer for 3 to 4 minutes, then remove and carefully feel the underside of the spoon. It should be neither warm nor cold; if still warm, return it to the freezer for a moment. Tilt the spoon vertically to see whether the marmalade runs; if it does not run, and if its top layer has thickened to a jelly consistency, it is done. If it runs, cook it for another few minutes, stirring, and test again as needed.
When the marmalade has finished cooking, turn off the heat but do not stir. Using a stainless-steel spoon, skim off any surface foam and discard. Pour the marmalade into sterilized jars and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions or as directed on page 42.

Approximate Yield: eleven 8-ounce jars  Shelf Life: 2 years
--From The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders/Andrews McMeel Publishing


Saturday, October 30, 2010

GORGEOUSLY SIMPLE SUN-LIT RECIPES FROM THE HEART OF ITALY'S SUMMER BOUNTY



I had too many books to review this summer and before it gets any later, I just have to give a shout-out to RECIPES FROM AN ITALIAN SUMMER (Phaidon; $39.95; ISBN: 978-0-7148-5773-2).  Collected by the editors of the legendary The Silver Spoon cookbook, here's a cookbook to take advantage of a long summer of la dolce vita.

"Italian summer food is simple to prepare and makes the best possible use of a 
huge variety of season produce."

The 400 never-before published recipes are organized into picnics, salads, barbecues, light lunches and suppers, summer entertaining, desserts, ice creams and drinks. This visually sumptuous cookbook is so striking and inviting, you're instantly immersed in it's summery glow.  So many of recipes here feature few ingredients, demonstrating that great summer food is best enjoyed as simply as possible to let summer's bounty shine. Lidia Bastianich first introduced me to the concept of rice salads as ideal summer fare, and I now make them all the time, especially when I'm going to a party and I'm asked to bring something.  You can put almost anything in them from meat, seafood and poultry to cheese, a huge variety of vegetables, herbs--whatever.  They feed a crowd, are easy to assemble and delicious.  Try the Piquant Rice Salad at your next picnic instead of heavier mayonnaise-based potato or macaroni salads.  Best of all they can safely sit on a warm table without worry of spoiling.  A Peach Salad with lettuce strips, low-fat yogurt, and walnuts, at first sounds different, and it is.  But it's delicious.  Corn and Mozzarella Salad have a natural affinity and with diced tomatoes, it's very pretty.

Grilled foods are an Italian summer specialty, and Grilled Stuffed SquidLamb Chops with Anchovy ButterMixed Fish Kabobs, the famous Florentine T-bone Steak, and Grilled Eggplant are some of the fabulously grilled foods here.  The barbecue section begins with a wealth of marinades and flavored butters that enhance these dishes.  

Summer's heat encourages lighter suppers and Farro and Shrimp SaladRadicchio, Turkey, and Snow Pea Salad are good choices.  While scanning the pizza section, I found a Potato Pizza that I ate on my very first visit to Rome and never forgot.  Eggplant, Shrimp and Arugula, and a Fisherman's Pizza with baby octopus, shrimp, clams and mussels could become new summer classics. 

In the summer Italians love to linger over long dinners with family and friends.  Canapes, crostini, bruschetta are simple, flavorful starters.  Soups (there's a gorgeous Milanese Minestrone with pancetta) and lots of vegetables), risottos (a surprising Strawberry version), fish (Fish Couscous), poultry (a wow Quail with White Grapes)  and meat main courses (Veal Roulades in Aspic and Vitello Tonnato), are the kinds of recipes I want on my patio table.


Desserts can be a simple as Figs with Cream or a Cherry Compote, or a very pretty Peach Aspic.  Iced Raspberry and Strawberry Souffle is an impressive company dessert as is Fruits of the Forest Tart with its  rows of blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and red currants over a pastry tart dough filled with creme patissiere.  There's also a fine section of ice creams and my own favorite, a Raspberry Semifreddo.  

These days with so many of us close to farmer's markets, it's easy to imagine your own Italian Summer meals.  I hope you'll get a copy of this lovely book with its painterly scenes of the Italian countryside. The enticing recipes and gorgeous photos should help get you through the long winter.


Piquant Rice Salad
Insalata di riso piccante

 Preparation Time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15-18 minutes

Serves 4

Ingredients

1 ¼ cups long-grain rice
½ cup shelled peas
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into strips
3 ounces canned anchovies, drained and chopped
scant 1 cup pitted olives
1 tablespoon rinsed and drained capers
generous 1/3 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice, strained
salt and pepper

Directions

Cook the rice in a large pan of salted boiling water for 15-18 minutes, or according to package directions, until tender. Meanwhile, cook the peas in a small pan of salted boiling water for 10 minutes, or until tender. Drain the rice, rinse under cold running water, and drain again. Drain the peas and refresh in cold water.

Put the rice and peas into a bowl and add the strips of bell pepper, anchovies, olives, and capers. Whisk together the oil and lemon juice, season with salt and pepper, and pour over the salad.

Raspberry Semifreddo
Semifreddo ai lamponi

Preparation Time: 4 ½ hours (including freezing)
Cooking Time: 15 minutes

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

6 egg yolks
1 ¼ cups superfine sugar
1 ½ cups raspberries
3 cups heavy cream

Directions

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar in a heatproof bowl until they are light and foamy. Set the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

Remove the bowl from the heat and continue to whisk until the mixture has cooled completely. Put the raspberries into a shallow dish and mash to a coarse puree with a fork. In a separate bowl, whisk the cream to stiff peaks, then fold in the egg mixture and the raspberry puree. Line a rectangular, freezerproof container with plastic wrap. Pour in the mixture and smooth the surface. Put the container into the freezer and freeze for at least 4 hours. To serve, briefly dip the bottom of the container in hot water and turn out the semifreddo onto a dish. Carefully remove the plastic wrap and cut the semifreddo into 1/2 –inch slices.