Miss Ginsu: About/Bio

 

Best. Amateur Cookbook. Ever.

"I think I need more," she said, with only the slightest trace of sheepish guilt in her expression. "If I give you money, can you see if they have more?"

Tomorrow is my CSA pick-up day.

But today, my coworker, a fellow local food devotee, is hitting me up. She's shoving money in my hands. For vegetables? Nah. For fruit? Nope. She wants cookbooks. Cookbooks produced by CSA volunteers, no less.

Well Seasoned Cookbook

Honestly, I bought one out of obligation. Sight unseen, I plunked down my $20 and expected I'd receive in return some homely little packet of jumbled text.

I expected an amateur effort that I'd push into my bookshelf and never, ever reach for (except to drag it from living space to living space throughout the course of my life). That's how these things work.

Well Seasoned Vegetable Guide

But lo! The cover was actually pretty nice. The pages were attractive. The photography was certifiably gorgeous. The interstitial artwork was tasteful. The recipes looked genuinely tasty. Indeed, it appeared this might be the first amateur cookbook I'd put into regular use in my kitchen.

My coworker saw it the next day and immediately wanted one. So at the next week's pick-up, I bought one for her and an extra copy for myself.

This week, I'm going back for more. I'm buying these cookbooks not out of some idea about nurturing the community, but out of a need for more of these great cookbooks that I can give as gifts.

Well Seasoned Side Dish Pages

Keep in mind, this was a very small-run book. You probably won't ever actually see one. (You can cook my two contributions — Summer Succotash and Divine Brine for Ramps, Scallions or Onions — from the recipes here.) But you may someday be involved in creating a community cookbook yourself. After all, thousands of these things are published on small press runs every year.

If and when that happens, you might be interested in doing what the Williamsburg-Greenpoint CSA is doing, because clearly, they're getting a few things right.

Well Seasoned Chapter Pages

Making Your Community Cookbook ROCK (Learnings from the GWCSA Cookbook)
1. Know the Readers. (CSA members, in this case.)
The folks who put this book together were very selective about which recipes would be most useful to their audience. They didn't use every recipe that came to the desk. And I think they chose well. A recipe like Zucchini & Caramelized Kohlrabi Quesadillas might not be right for every cookbook, but that page is bound to be a great relief to someone faced with a bunch of kohlrabi and no ideas. (That'll be me next month.)

2. Keep it Focused.
The Well Seasoned cookbook has a real sense of place. In addition to recipes from GWCSA members, the editors include recipes from beloved local restaurants. I'm looking forward to cooking Enid's Sweet & Hot Collard Greens and making Taco Chulo's Escabeche this summer.

3. Include relevant extras.
The front of the book begins with a guide to identifying and cooking all the major CSA vegetables we see throughout the season. The back of the book features a conversion guide, cooking terms, cook's notes and a nicely organized index. There are sidebars on Home Composting, Cooking for Pets and Preserving Summer's Bounty (canning, pickling and drying).

4. Use gorgeous photography.
So many small-run cookbooks neglect the mouthwatering beauty that color photographs provide, and that's a shame. I know it involves extra cost in the printing, but nothing inspires and motivates a cookbook reader like visions of tastiness dancing in the head.

5. Pay attention to detail.
The book printed on recycled, chlorine-free paper using wind power (see point #1). Each recipe includes servings/yield and the approximate preparation time. Vegan recipes are noted with a symbol beside the recipe name. All the food photography notes the recipe name and its page number. The book is spiral-bound to make it easy to use in the kitchen. There's a consistent recipe style used throughout. Attention to this kind of minutia might seem fussy, but it's essential when you actually want to prepare the recipes, as opposed to using the piece as a coffee table book.


The truth of the matter is this: my CSA, the GWCSA, is populated by very talented professionals. This amateur cookbook isn't strictly amateur. I note that the editor of this volume has years of experience in publishing, the art director/illustrator works for Saveur and the lead photographer seems to know her way around a food shot.

That said, I think anyone doing their own small-run cookbook can heed five simple hints from the pros (know the reader, keep it focused, provide extras, use color photography, mind the details) and polish a rough-hewn booklet into a useful and appealing little gem that'll keep people (like my swooning coworker) coming back for more.

Happy Eating!
Miss Ginsu

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6.30.2009

A Way with Les Conserves

On a trip to Paris a while back, I stopped in a bookshop on a quest for cookbooks. There were many fine volumes, but one in particular stood out as a must-have.

Les Conserves

Les Conserves is a glossy, photo-packed soft-cover (Produced by a French division of Reader's Digest! Why don't they make such lovely books for English readers?) is ideal for a French neophyte like me. Just look at this recipe for grape preserves.

Confiture de Raisins/Grape Preserves

You can see for yourself that the recipes in Les Conserves are supporting players to the photography. An interested cook can look over these images and gain insights on preparation, presentation and usage information in just a few seconds before deciding whether to invest a number of minutes processing the written details.

As much as I love words (I do make my living from them), I wonder if more cookbooks shouldn't handle instructions visually.

There's already been so much said about how we eat with our eyes, but the great majority of serious cookbooks contain little more than a centerfold of finished dishes in limited-utility glamour shots (if they contain photographs at all).

The cookbooks that do contain lots of photography and illustration seem to aim more at the coffee-table book audience than the folks who really want to learn to cook. So where, I ask, are the genre of serious instructional cookbooks that embrace the visual presentation of the useful as well as the lovely?

Well, perhaps they're in France. Perhaps they're made by Reader's Digest.

Have a look at the way the ingredients for the Grape Preserves are laid out for prospective cooks here. It's as if they really do want to instruct and inspire.

Ingredients

For those who read even less French than I, I'll offer a translation of the recipe in question:
Grape Preserves -Confiture de Raisins (Makes 1.25 liters/5.3 cups)

1 kg (2 lb) green or red grapes, plucked
2 lemons, cut in halves and sliced thin
3 cups granulated sugar
1 cup pecans, lightly toasted
1/2 cup cognac brandy

1. Put the grapes, lemons and sugar in a saucepan. Mix well, cover and let sit for a few hours to let the fruit macerate.
2. Bring to a boil, then cook on medium heat 1 hour to 1 hour, 30 minutes, stirring frequently so that the bottom does not stick.
3. It is unnecessary to test the degree of gelatin for this jam; it is ready when a wooden spoon pulled over the surface leaves a wake.
4. Remove the pot from heat and let the jam stand for a few minutes before putting it in jars (this prevents the fruit from falling to the bottom). Add, in turn, pecans and cognac. Ladle the mixture into sterilized hot jars, then seal with lids.
Cookbook rant done, and I hope you've enjoyed these peeks into Les Conserves.

I'm going to spend the rest of the week focusing on preserves of one type or another. Thrift and handmade charm seem to make them an appropriate topic for this year.

Cheers!
Miss Ginsu

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3.29.2009

Getting Stuffed

I've been off on a bit of a Claudia Roden kick for the past couple of weeks, and I must admit it's an awfully tasty kick to be off on.

In case you don't know who she is, let me just put in a word for her classic The New Book of Middle Eastern Food — an impressive culinary resource.

I love the way she breaks down recipes to discuss how ingredients and preparations differ a little in the different cultural versions of the same dish.

For a recipe addressing stuffed eggplants, for example, she cites the Syrian version but also refers the reader to a different filling that the Lebanese tend to prefer.

Stuffed Eggplant and Arugula Salad

It makes me wonder why I've shunned stuffed vegetables for so long. They're such an easy and flexible meal. You can use eggplants, peppers, zucchini and a variety of winter squashes.

Roden points out that the fillings range from purely meat and veggie stuffings to ones completely composed of grain and beans. So you can really use whatever you happen to have on hand. That means a stuffed vegetable entree can be made vegetarian or not, as you like it, and expensive or thrifty, depending on your budget.

Hollowing an Eggplant

I used eggplants this weekend, because I love them, and it's easy to just roast or sauté the innards pulled out of the eggplant for a quick baba ganoush.

I found that the easiest way to make a hollow for the stuffing was to draw a 1/2" thick outline around the flesh of eggplant with a paring knife to guide the area that I wanted to scoop. Then I scraped out the flesh with a spoon, as you can see in the image above. This would also work well with zucchini.

Stuffed Eggplants, Ready to Bake

The stuffing was based on one of Roden's recipes, but I used some chopped tomatoes for extra zip.
Stuffed Eggplants (Serves 4)
2 medium-sized eggplants
1 large onion, diced
1 1/2 tsp olive oil
1 1/2 lb ground lamb or beef
8 oz chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
Salt and ground pepper, to taste

To garnish: chopped parsley and crumbled feta

1. Halve the eggplants and scoop out the flesh. Place the hollowed eggplant halves on a baking sheet and save the flesh for another purpose.
2. In a large skillet or a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over a medium-high flame and sweat the onions for 10 minutes.
3. Add the lamb or beef, breaking it up for even cooking. Sauté for 10 minutes or until the meat browns well. Carefully drain off excess grease before adding the tomatoes, pine nuts, allspice and cinnamon.
4. Cook another 10 minutes, season with salt and ground pepper, to taste, and remove the pan from the heat.
5. Heat the oven to 375°. Spoon the filling evenly into the eggplant halves and place the baking sheet in the center of the oven. Pour 1/4 to 1/2 cup water into the pan to prevent burning and cook until the eggplant is tender, about 20 minutes.
6. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and crumbled feta. Serve hot.

Obviously, a person could replace the meat with rice or quinoa, maybe add in some chickpeas and come up with an equally happy result.

I'm looking forward to digging deeper into Roden's book, and I'll report more discoveries as I find them.

Happy eating!
Miss Ginsu

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2.25.2009

FoodLink Roundup: 04.21.08

Cupcake's Link Roundup
Last week, Cupcake was hanging out in Les Halles (1st arrondissement) in Paris. (Nice work, Hazard!) Where in the world is Cupcake this week? Post a guess in the comments.

The UK fig roll crisis
What will become of tea time?

McCain Recipes Lifted from the Food Network
Quick! Throw the intern to the wolves!

Roller Girls roll out cookbook
Oh those enterprising Michiganites...

Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter… and Umami
I missed this one when it came out last fall.

Laguiole : Exceptional knives
Wow... really ugly web page, but them's some beautiful knives.

Choices and Finger-Pointing
Hmmm... dinner for a week or a tank full of gas?

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4.21.2008

The Cookies of the Dead

Much as I love Halloween, I think the Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is far cooler.

A couple of hundred years ago, Halloween held a solid position in the autumn calendar as a religious event. These days, I'd bet a lot of people don't even realize that the "Eve of All Hallows" is supposed to be followed by All Saints' Day on November 1st and All Souls' Day on the 2nd.

Similarly, the Day of the Dead (sometimes called the Día de los Fieles Difuntos) is observed in Mexico from November 1-2. Annual rituals involve activities like cleaning and decorating loved ones' graves and building altars or small shrines that include supremely amusing little skeleton figurines made from paper mache, photos of deceased relatives, crosses, orange marigolds, candles, liquor and food, such as the pan de muerto (bread of the dead).

Dia de los Muertos Altar

While our modern Halloween has lightened its dark roots in favor of overflowing candy buckets for the little ones and sexy cop, nurse, shepherdess, fairy, zombie, etc. costumes for the adults, the Day of the Dead really can't help but remain conscious of the tenuous barrier between life and death. It's right there in the name. More than that, it's rooted in a culture that's apparently more strongly linked to remembrance than candy and costume. And because remembrance is such a personal process, the Day of the Dead necessarily demonstrates a more handmade and individual texture.

Dia de los Muertos Parade

A while back, I visited Tulum and Playa del Carmen on the Yucatán Peninsula during the Día de los Muertos celebrations. Different towns have different celebrations, of course, but Playa del Carmen went all out with an elaborate parade sponsored by the local culture center. It was a stunning carnival of fire and fireworks, undead musicians and jugglers, whirling dancers, springing acrobats and skeletons (both tall and tiny).

Dia de los Muertos Children

Homespun, heart-filled and gorgeous, that celebration was rich with reminders of death, and it made me love life all the more.

You can imagine how ecstatic I was when I found an Alice Medrich recipe for Day of the Dead Cookies in her excellent Chocolate Holidays cookbook. A whole stack of chocolate-vanilla skulls. The accompanying photo was both cute and creepy. I was instantly sold.

When I actually baked them, I discovered that this cookie is little complicated to make and it has about a 50% success rate. By that I mean: Only about half of the cookies are recognizable as skulls. I was initially a little crushed, but then I reconsidered. Even the rejects were delicious and the skulls that work are pretty cute.

Here's my recommendation: Make the cookies and separate them into two piles. Label the rejects, "Chocolate-Vanilla Crinkle Cookies." They're crispy, tasty and excellent with a cup of coffee. Take them to work and give them to your hungry coworkers. The other pile with the more successful skulls are your "Day of the Dead Cookies," and they're cute and crispy and tasty (and also good with coffee). Revel in the fact that they're delicious and imperfectly homemade, much like the Día de los Muertos itself.

Dia de los Muertos Cookies
Spooky, scary or just plain dumb. A gang of tasty skull cookies.


Maya's Day of the Dead Cookies
from Chocolate Holidays by Alice Medrich
(Makes about 3 dozen. About half of them will look like skulls.)

Vanilla Dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Chocolate Dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch process or natural
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (packed) brown sugar, lump free
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Equipment:
Baking sheets lined with parchment paper

1. To make the vanilla dough, mix the flour, baking powder and salt together thoroughly with a whisk or a fork. Set aside.

2. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla. On low speed, beat in the flour until just incorporated. Form the dough into a log about 2 inches in diameter. Set aside.

3. To make the chocolate dough, in a medium bowl, mix the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together thoroughly with a whisk or fork. Set aside.

4. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar with the back of a spoon or an electric mixer until smooth and creamy but not fluffy (less than 1 1/2 minutes with an electric mixer). Beat in the egg and vanilla. On low speed, beat in the flour until just incorporated. Form the dough into a log the same length as the vanilla log. If the dough is too soft and sticky to handle, place it in the freezer to firm up.

5. To shape the skulls, reshape each log of dough so that it is skull-shaped rather than round: Make one side of the skull narrow for the chin and jaw and leave the other side wide for the cranium. Wrap and refrigerate the chocolate dough. Form features in the vanilla dough, using the handle of a wooden spoon to poke holes for eyes through the entire length of the log. Form the nose with a skewer, poking two holes for nostrils. Form the mouth by inserting a narrow table knife and wiggling it back and forth gently to lengthen and widen the opening. Don't try for perfection: irregular holes make the best and weirdest skulls. Wrap and refrigerate the vanilla dough. Chill both doughs at least two hours, preferably overnight.

6. Position racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut the chocolate dough into 1/8-inch slices and place them at least 1 1/2 inches apart on the lined baking sheets. Cut the vanilla dough into 1/8-inch slices and place 1 slice on top of each chocolate slice. Bake until pale golden at the edges, 12 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking. Slide parchment liners directly from the baking sheets to the rack with a metal pancake turner, waiting 1 to 2 minutes if necessary to let the cookies form up before moving them. Cool cookies completely before stacking or storing. Cookies keep at least 1 week in an airtight container.

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11.02.2007

Thinking Outside the Cave

Working with food and recipes as much as I do, I find that I spend a lot of time in the cave.

I don't mean a cheese cave or a wine cellar. (That'd be lovely, wouldn't it?) No, the cave on my brain is Plato's cave. That is, his famous Allegory of the Cave. Take just a moment now and think back to your high school humanities class or that Philosophy 101 in college. Nothing bubbling up to the top of your mind?

I haven't read the allegory in a few years, so I may be fuzzy on the details, but I'll give you my version of a summary. This is the story that involves a group of prisoners sitting in a cave and watching shadows on the wall in front of them. The parade of darkened shapes before them make up that entire universe. They can't remember anything before this time of ghostly reflections, so to them, the shadows really are the world.

Meanwhile, outside the cave, there's people and trees and puppies and pizza and everything else that makes up a proper universe. All these shapes are casting the shadows those poor, ignorant folks in the cave are experiencing.

One of the poor souls in the cave breaks loose, wanders out into the sunshine and realizes everything he's ever known has been a mere reflection of something so much more defined, colorful, well-rounded and robust.

The actual form of the puppy is so much fuzzier and warm and slobbery than its shadow. Pizza is crispy on the bottom, lightly bubbly and seared on the top, and layered in shocking green basil that perfumes the air and intertwines with thin slices of creamy, fresh mozzarella. This is not the mere shadow of pizza that appears in the cave. This is the true form.

Of course, when the enlightened man returns to the cave to try to explain to his former neighbors the true delight of pizza and puppies, they consider him a babbling madman blinded by the light. Fooled into believing their shadows constitute the true world, they continue enjoying their darkened little universe, forever ignorant of the larger world.

So then, you can understand why Plato's cave would so often pop into my head as I comb through recipes and eat my way through the world. Recent dining life seems to be a series of revelations about the form vs the shadow versions of foods. I grew up with Pizza Hut Pizza and Swiss Miss Hot Chocolate. What a realization then, when I discovered the joys of New York-style coal-fired pizza and the decadent melted liquid chocolate served served at such chocolatiers as Jacques Torres. Shadowy frozen pizzas and cups of warm cocoa dust really didn't stand a chance.

The shadowy cave appeared in the forefront of my mind as I came across this recipe for Le Cirque's Pasta Primavera in Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook. It brought that familiar "ah-ha!" moment, because this is what a Pasta Primavera is actually trying to be.

Those boring primavera entrées sitting in the freezer case of every local supermarket are a far cry from the pine nuts, chopped chiles, fresh basil, olive oil, rich cream and fresh tomatoes of the Sirio Maccioni original. I'll bet he used fresh pasta, too.

For your reading pleasure... Pasta Primavera, 1.0. Ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby.

Le Cirque's Pasta Primavera

1 bunch broccoli, trimmed and cut into bite-sized florets
2 small zucchinis, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch lengths
4 asparagus spears (about 5 inches long), peeled, trimmed, and cut into thirds
1 1/2 cups green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups thinly sliced mushrooms
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh red or green chile, or about 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
3 cups seeded, diced ripe tomatoes, reserve the juice separately
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
6 fresh basil leaves
1 pound spaghetti or spaghettini
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream, or more if needed
2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2/3 cup toasted pine nuts

1. Cook the broccoli, zucchini, asparagus, and green beans in boiling salted water until crisp, but tender, about 4 minutes. Add the peas and cook for 1 minute more. Drain and refresh the vegetables in cold water. Drain and set aside in a mixing bowl.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a nonreactive large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the mushrooms and chile and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, the garlic, and tomatoes and cook, stirring gently so as not to break up the tomatoes, for about 4 minutes. Add the parsley and basil; stir and set aside.

3. Cook the spaghetti in boiling salted water until just al dente; the spaghetti must retain just a slight resilience in the center. Drain.

4. Meanwhile, in a nonreactive pot large enough to hold the drained spaghetti and all of the vegetables, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the cream and Parmesan and stir constantly until heated through. When hot, reduce the heat and cook gently on and off the heat until smooth. Add the spaghetti and toss quickly to blend. Add half of the vegetables and pour in the reserved juice from the tomatoes. Toss and stir over very low heat until the mixture is heated through, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Add the remaining vegetables and toss gently. If the sauce seems too dry, add additional cream, but the sauce should not be soupy. Adjust the seasonings. Add the pine nuts and give the mixture one final toss. Serve in heated soup or spaghetti bowls. Spoon some of the tomato mixture over each serving. Serve immediately.

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12.07.2006

Journey to the center of the kalonji

one spice, two spice
One Spice, Two Spice, by Floyd Cardoz and Jane Daniels Lear

One of the fantastic things about attending cooking school is the gateway it provides to great kitchens. To those who care nothing about the construction of food, it might seem silly to want to roam among the pots and cutting boards, but to the food obsessed, the opportunity to seek out behind-the-swinging-door secrets is truly the stuff of salivation.

As a culinary student, one is encouraged to "trail" in as many kitchens as one can without succumbing to exhaustion. A trailing cook simply sets up appointments with chefs or sous-chefs and arrives at the kitchen with knives in tow, ready to work on basic vegetable prep.

Generous chefs generally let the trailing student watch (and sometimes assist with) the set-up for evening dinner service, and they may let the student observe the service period itself (from a safely removed vantage point).

As a student, I trailed at Tabla. I loved the kitchen, the food, the ingredients and the fact that Chef Cardoz had a whole room dedicated to organizing and storing (and to my mind, exalting) the spices. I took an internship there, which turned into a job.

Young cooks tend to switch kitchens fairly often, but I stayed... for years. Indian food was fascinating.

Beyond the pasty yellow curries and soupy palek paneers served in the tiny to-go joints that pepper cities across America, Floyd Cardoz advocated rich braises and light, crisp tandoori breads, bizarrely spiced pickles and chutneys, and soups with more types of lentils than I'd ever seen. He brought me lotus roots and fuzzy melons, litchis, aleppo pepper, long squash and mung beans.

One doesn't often encounter fresh chestnuts in the wilds of South Dakota (where I was reared), but Chef had 'em. And they were a revelation ("Wow... they're nutty. They don't taste like a can at all!"). Every week I discovered five new things I could do with vegetables I'd never before encountered.

After years of daily practice with Indian techniques from making tarkas to pickling, spice toasting, braising and simmering, I've come to a few conclusions about the challenges to preparing delicious Indian foods in the American home kitchen.

The most opressive among these difficulties:
1. Understanding the techniques to layer in the traditional flavors
2. Acquiring good (or even appropriate) ingredients
3. Developing enough experience with good examples of the cuisine

I've clung to my usage-stained copies of Chef's recipes for the years since I left Tabla. Since these are the restaurant versions of his dishes, they all have phenomenally large batch sizes (first, dice 50 tomatoes...), and I struggle in my own kitchen to accurately size them down. No one household needs 4 gallons of pickled ramps, however tasty those little buggers might be.

Chef has now published a book of the very recipes my ugly, wrinkled home volumes contain. Thankfully, his One Spice, Two Spice was also written with household sizing in mind.

I always wonder about the accuracy of chef-written cookbooks. Are the recipes oversimplified? Have the authors reserved a few kitchen secrets? So I was particularly interested to compare my kitchen notes to Chef's published variations.

Having made the great majority of the recipes in One Spice, Two Spice recipe in a large-scale environment, I can verify the content in these small-scale versions is really pretty accurate.

There's a fore-section that explains the importance of the way one treats one's spices. Readers will discover the "whys" behind toasting, tarkas and whole-spice usage.

For home renditions of Indian foods, much of the first difficulty I mentioned above (understanding technique) can be remedied with this book. Unfortunately, this — or any other — book can do very little for cooks like my mother, (for example) who lives in South Dakota, and will still have difficulty with the remaining two challenges: acquiring appropriate ingredients and making an educated flavor evaluation of the finished product.

As much as I love books (and cookbooks specifically), One Spice, Two Spice has forced me to the conclusion that the book is a naturally handicapped tutor.

The core secrets of any cuisine are physical: first, the education of the tongue, and second, the training of the hand. These skills come from spending time in the presence of a skilled teacher. Recipes, even well-written recipes, are at best, simply a collection of notes to jog the memory.

That said, I've retyped one of my favorite basic sauces herein. The more obscure ingredients (like tamarind paste and nigella seed) can be found at most specialty shops these days.

This version (as it appears in One Spice, Two Spice), when properly seasoned, will make a good product. At Tabla's Bread Bar, it's called Kalonji and it's served with cheddar-cheese stuffed naan. If you don't have a home tandoor (and frankly, few Americans do), you might try dipping your cheese sandwich, flatbread or breadsticks in it. Or serve it alongside beef or lamb braises.

Warm Tomato Chutney (Kalonji)

Two 28-ounce cans whole or chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
3 tablespoons finely chopped peeled ginger
1 cup finely chopped white onion
2 small dried red chiles, crumbled
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
1 tablespoon sugar

Roughly puree the tomatoes to a medium-coarse consistency in batches in a blender or food processor.

Heat the oil in a 4- to 6-quart pot over moderately high heat until it shimmers. Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, and nigella seeds, shaking the skillet, and when they pop and are fragrant, after about 30 seconds, quickly add the garlic, ginger, onion, and chiles. Immediately reduce the heat to moderate, and cook, stirring, until the garlic and onion have softened. (Don't let them color.) Stir in a pinch of salt and the tomato puree. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 1 hour.

Stir in the tamarind paste, sugar, and salt and pepper to taste, then remove the chutney from the heat. Serve the chutney warm.

The chutney keeps in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2 weeks or in the freezer for 1 month.

Note: I prefer Muir Glen organic tomatoes, either plain, or for a little more kick, the "Fire Roasted" variety.

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11.05.2006

Pasta sans soul, per favore

A charming passage from Paolo Villoresi's little book, Whole Wheat My Love:
Concerning methods for determining when pasta is cooked, I have heard nearly everything, including the suggestion of throwing a piece of pasta against the wall. If it sticks, it is ready, if not, you must repeat the operation a bit later. Horror and error!

In reality, to determine whether or not pasta is cooked, it must be tasted with the teeth. I set a kitchen timer for one minute before the cooking time indicated on the box. Then I taste the pasta several times to be certain it is al dente. The pasta is ready when it is "without a soul!" In other words:

a. pull out one strand of pasta
b. bite it, and look at the center of the strand
c. if a white point, the "soul," is visible, the pasta is not yet cooked

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9.19.2006

Do You Know the Way to Flambe?

There's a warm time comin' for you all
History-rich image courtesy of the NYPL online collection

Call it a tour of technique. Herein, three cookbooks... three authors... three ways to describe the mystical, mezmerizing mastery of controlled kitchen flames.

Flambéing ("French Farmhouse Cookbook" by Susan Hermann Loomis)
When flambéing—that is, sprinkling a dish with brandy or other alcohol, then igniting it with a match to burn the alcohol off—follow these safety precautions:

• Tie back your hair
• Work off the heat and away from obstructions
• Stand back from the pan and avert your face
• Use a long kitchen match
How to Flambé ("Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook" by Ruth Van Waerebeek)
1. Heat the alcohol in a small saucepan over high heat.
2. When it is hot, remove the pan from the burner, and standing back, carefully ignite it with a long kitchen match.
3. Pour the flaming alcohol slowly over the dish that is being flambéed.

Safety Tips
• Make sure the hood fan on your range is turned off.
• Make sure there is nothing close by that can catch fire, including overhead shelves and paper products. Also make sure your clothing doesn't interfere or get in the way of the flames.
• Keep a large lid at the ready to cover the flames if they should get out of hand.
• Use good-quality alcohol and pour it from the bottle at the last minute so it does not evaporate.
Flambeing ("The New Basics" by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins)
Flaming a dish with brandy or liqueur must be done very carefully. Use long kitchen matches (they work best), be sure not to lean over the dish while you're igniting it, and always remove it from the heat source first.

In order to flame, the brandy must be warmed first. Warm it in a small, heavy saucepan, remove it from the heat, then ignite it and pour it over the prepared dish, which is also off the heat. Or skim the accumulated fat from the cooking liquid, add the brandy to the skillet, allow it to warm, then remove it from the heat, and ignite. The flame will die out quickly.

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8.21.2006

Bizarre Cookbooks: Weman's Cook Book

Weman's Cook Book
An ad for Weman's Cook Book

I really wish I could share a recipe from this cookbook. After all, Mr. Weman claims to produce "noteworthy features entirely distinct from any heretofore published." Tantalizing!

Unfortunately, what I have in my hands here is not a cookbook. Rather, it's a crumbling ad scanned from the back of a decaying book of Irish song lyrics found in my grandmother's estate (seems as though they weren't big on acid-free pages back in the day...). A Google search turns up nothing on the book or on Mr. Weman himself.

I find I'm fascinated by antique advertisements (and recipes) because they hold so much information about the psychology of the era to which they belonged. I feel as though I'm able to capture through them some inkling of the desires and values of certain groups... in this case, early American homemakers.

I love the way the woman in the image hangs in the background, watching the man. Meanwhile, he seems to have a confident mastery of his tasks. Though she was probably trained through a lifetime of household toil, she's merely an apprentice to the genius of this clever gentleman (whom my mind imagines as the talented Mr. Weman).

I've transcribed the text below. I love the random capitalization and the fact that you can purchase the book with stamps "same as cash." See if you, too, don't get a sense of the vastly different world our forefathers (or, more probably foremothers) inhabited as you read along:
This work on Cookery has several noteworthy features entirely distinct from any heretofore published. It is arranged so that the Housewife can tell at a glance the time necessary to Cook any Dish or Article of Diet. It also gives some practical hints and suggestions for selecting the various meats, vegetables, fish, etc., as well as directions for Preserving, Storing, and Keeping them. Special attention is paid to economy, and an effort is made to remove the reproach which justly clings to American Cookery, of being extravagant and wasteful without being palatable and healthful. Full instructions are given to prepare all kinds of Pies Puddings, Cakes, Jellies, etc., as well as preparing and cooking all kinds of Meats, Soups, Gravies, Fish, Vegetables, etc. in an economical and appetizing manner. It also contains considerable miscellaneous information pertaining to the household, such as Removing Kitchen Odors, Grease Spots, Iron Stains, Ink Spots in Books, Cleaning, Scouring, Receipts for Washing, etc. and a variety of others equally useful and necessary to the Housekeeper or Cook. These features make this work the best, most practical and Popular Cook Book ever issued. This book will be sent to any address, postpaid, on receipt of 25 cents. Special.—Five Books for One Dollar. U.S. Postage Stamps taken in payment same as cash.
More cookbook oddities found here in the archives...

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8.20.2006

Tomato + Watermelon = Friends Forever

tomato-watermelon salad
Salad today, soup tomorrow.

During the peak season for any particular piece of produce, it's common to find that its flavor friends are also hitting a high.

Asparagus, ramps and morels in the springtime. Tomatoes, basil and cucumbers in the summer. Apples, sage and butternut squash in the autumn. Rutabaga and... well, rutabaga might be the lonely exception.

When I found a recipe for "Tomato & Watermelon Salad" from Bill Smith's delicious volume, Seasoned in the South, I was initially a bit put off. Tomatoes and watermelons? Really? Yes, really. Really good, actually.

As it turns out, tomatoes and watermelon — both in full flush at the markets right now — are also natural meal companions.

Tomato & Watermelon Salad (Serves 4-6)

5 cups ripe, bite-sized watermelon chunks, seeded as best you can, but don't go crazy
1 1/2 pounds very ripe tomatoes, finely chunked
3 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small red onion, peeled, quartered, and thinly sliced
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup good, strong-flavored extra-virgin olive oil

Toss the melon and tomatoes with the sugar and the salt. Let sit for 15 minutes. Then fold in the onions, vinegar, and oil. Serve very cold. This salad is amazingly refreshing.
And he's right. It's fast, it's easy, it's slightly unusual and, to quote Cosmo Kramer, it's "very refreshing!"

Best of all, I found you can very easily serve up any leftovers the next day pureéed as a gazpacho.

For every four cups of leftover salad, just add a finely minced chile pepper (or less, depending on your heat tolerance) and a teaspoon or two of ground cumin. Pureé, then adjust the flavor to taste with some salt and lime juice. Stir in a small cucumber (chopped into 1/2-inch chunks) and serve with a garnish of cilantro or mint.

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8.10.2006

A jar. On the fire escape. Steeping.

Mangoes & Curry Leaves
The beautiful, enviable, luscious Mangoes & Curry Leaves

Oh, to have a deck... Or a patio... Or an accessible fire escape.

Gasping apartment-dwellers (myself included) tend to pine particularly pathetically during heat waves such as this.

That's why, as I paged through stacks of cookbooks in search of Thanksgiving recipes today (yes, even in the midst of triple-digit days, we industry types are already planning for the big bird), I was especially smitten with the cool, restorative look of Tamarind-Mint Tea in the latest Jeffrey Alford/Naomi Duguid foodpornfest, Mangoes & Curry Leaves. (And if I could find a big green mango in my pierogi-lovin' nabe, I'd be all over the Green Mango Cooler sitting next to it.)

Mmmm... astringent, tangy, spicy and sour. To my mind, that's a quickening combination that beats the pants off a cloying cherry-red slushy any day of the week.

For your sipping pleasure:
Tamarind-Mint Tea from Mangoes & Curry Leaves
Makes about 8 cups; Serves 4 to 8

2 cups loosely packed mint leaves
1/4 cup tamarind pulp, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon honey or sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 cups boiling water

Wash out a 1-gallon glass jar with hot water to heat it, then place all the ingredients in the jar. Use a long spoon to break up the tamarind and help it blend with the water. Stir well and let it sit for at least 1 hour.

Mix the tea again well, then strain it through a sieve or strainer. Serve hot or cold, as you like.

This can also be made as sun tea, starting with cold water. Simply mix all the ingredients in the gallon glass jar and then put the jar into the sun for a few hours to brew. Easy and fun. Serve over ice.

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8.02.2006

Food Quote Friday: James Beard

"I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around."

-James Beard (1903-1985)

May 5th is the birthday of James Beard, who began his career in theater, but switched paths and became known as the "Dean of American Cooking."

Beard wrote twenty-three cookbooks (including the first major cookbook devoted exclusively to cocktail food, Hors d'Oeuvre & Canapés" in 1940) and appeared on NBC's "I Love to Eat," the first cooking show ever televised.

Through an age of convenience food, Beard espoused the value of whole, fresh foods, American ingredients and hands-on cookery.

A simple sample recipe: James Beard's Favorite Hamburger (with cream, of course).

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5.05.2006

Bizarro Cookbooks: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Cookbook

Wizard of Oz Cookbook

Published in 1981, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Cookbook features 121 bright pages of simple recipes meant "for the young, and for the young in heart," plus a handy cooking terms section and index.

Don't go envisioning Judy Garland now, friends. This book explores the far more complex Oz of literature.

Author Monica Bayley explains in a foreword that her recipes are suggested by a formula of regional associations, references in the story text, and dominant food color matchups with Oz locations such as the yellow brick road, the Emerald City and the lands of Quadlings, Winkies, Gillikins and Munchkins.

Of course, we all remember that Munchkinland is blue and Quadlingland is red, right? Yeah, me neither. But never fear... there's a handy map at to guide you through the struggle of blueberries vs. tomatoes.

As well as Kansas recipe standards such as Aunt Em's Chicken & Dumplings, Uncle Henry's Short Ribs and Toto's Almond Bark (get it?), we find the Wonderful Winkie Omlet, the Winged Monkey Banana Sauté and a recipe for an 8 full ounces of Liquid Courage. (I'll be keeping that one on hand for when I attempt my taxes...)

Although this book seemed terribly exotic when I found it at my local library as a tyke, all the recipes are very simple Midwestern American fare renamed and reorganized.

What makes this book special are the whimsical engraving-style illustrations by W.W. Denslow and the accompanying pull-quotes from L. Frank Baum's richly visioned stories.

"Before them was a great stretch of country having a floor as smooth and shining and white as the bottom of a big platter. Scattered around were many houses made entirely of china and painted in the brightest colors."

China Princess Pecan Brittle
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup water
1 cup broken pecan meats
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon soda

Put sugar, syrup, cream of tartar and water into deep, heavy saucepan and boil until candy thermometer registers 250°F (hard-ball stage). Add pecans and boil until thermometer registers 300°F (hard-crack stage). Add butter, remove from heat, add soda and stir vigorously. Pour onto buttered platter and spread thin. When cold, cut or break into pieces.

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3.22.2005