Recent Reading: a miscellany of cookbooks, part two

As I said a few days ago, I have here a stack of eight new-to-me cookbooks which are wildly variable in type. You’ll remember the first four from the previous post: the Taste of Home annual; the Cook’s Illustrated annual; a handsome book by Sophie Grigson called Gourmet Ingredients, which as a James Beard nominee, btw; and Inside the Southeast Asian Kitchen, which offers a small selection of recipes from each of the ten SE Asian countries

Okay, then, here’s the rest of the stack.

First, you remember the Goodreads Choice awards a few months ago? I found out about a couple of books via the nominees. One was the first novel featuring Veronica Mars, which was quite good, btw, and definitely had a few plot twists that took me more by surprise than any other murder mystery has for a while. Another was Genius Recipes, a book which arose from a column by the same name on the blog Food52. I hadn’t previously heard of either the book or the blog. Well, the book is absolutely top-notch, handsome and fun to read and featuring interesting recipes. Now I check in on the blog from time to time, too. There’s a good post up right now about Genius Recipes that didn’t garner much interest last year and why commenters should give them another look.

Anyway, I recognize some of the most famous recipes in the Genius Recipes book – Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread is in here, and Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce, and Nigella Lawson’s chocolate loaf cake. I already knew about those, and I do agree they’re worth featuring. Many, many other recipes in Genius Recipes look either interesting or good; often enough both. Like from Kenny Shopsin, we get a technique for turning flour tortillas into fake but apparently persuasive crepes. You sort of treat the tortillas like you were making French toast, dipping them in an egg mixture and then frying them. I must try this, although actually I don’t think ordinary crepes are at all difficult.

From Canal House comes a recipe for chicken thighs with preserved lemon. You lay the skin-on chicken thighs in a barely hot skillet and leave them there without fiddling with them for 15-30 minutes, until the fat has rendered out and the skin is deep golden-brown. Then at last you turn them, stir the minced peel of half a preserved lemon into the rendered fat, and cook them for 15 minutes longer. That’s practically the whole recipe right there in those two sentences. It sounds so peculiar. Who can read about this technique without wanting to try it? Especially since I already have preserved lemons in the fridge.

There’s a recipe in this book for Onion “Carbonara.” You actually use ribbons of onion instead of pasta. That’s *so strange*. I know I keep saying that, but honestly, isn’t it? And yet, if you’re into the low-carb thing, isn’t that an interesting idea? I mean, as long as it’s something that works and is tasty, as I guess it is or it wouldn’t have made it into this book.

So, yeah, snazzy book. If you like to cook, you might want to check out the Food52 blog and/or this book.

Next I have here a book by Simon Hopkinson called The Vegetarian Option. I like Hopkinson’s tone – he isn’t trying to claim the moral high ground for vegetarians, and he *is* trying to celebrate vegetables. I like how his recipes are impressive without sounding like they’d be impossible to make. Warm asparagus custards with tarragon vinaigrette, say, or spinach mousse with Parmesan cream. Or if you don’t want to get quite that fussy, the asparagus frittata with soft cheese looks good, too. And surely you can’t go wrong with the macaroni and cheese with tomatoes.

If you want an impressive showcase dish, there’s one featuring a sort of soup cooked in a pumpkin. You cut the top off a small pumpkin, about four lbs, scoop out the seeds, fill it up with garlic-infused cream (crush a clove of garlic, add to the cream, bring to a low simmer, remove from the heat, and let set ten minutes) and a generous cup of grated Gruyere, and bake it at 400 degrees for 1½ to 2 hours. That’s all there is to it. When the pumpkin is tender, you stir spoonfuls of the flesh into the cream and serve it right out of the pumpkin shell. Hopkinson says the original recipe he is riffing on alternated croutons and Gruyere, then filled the pumpkin up with cream, and I would probably use the croutons, too – Hopkinson says he thinks this makes the cream soup too thick, but thick sounds good to me. If it turned into a kind of bread pudding in the pumpkin, that’d be fine. Anyway, if I see smallish sugar pumpkins around next fall, I hope I remember this.

Next up is Mediterranean Street Food by Anissa Helou, which is a pleasure to peruse, though it certainly doesn’t beat Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, one of my all-time favorites among my cookbooks. Of course the Mediterranean isn’t the same as the Middle East, so both books are worth having in your cookbook library even though they do overlap.

Helou provides enough comments about each recipe to make the book a pleasure to read, and the author’s personal voice comes through clearly, as in, when describing fried vegetables in Tunis, she comments, “Each [cook] grabs a large handful [of fried vegetables], puts it in a metal tagine dish, and chops the vegetables with a mezzaluna. They work very fast, each with a different rhythm. Listening to the sounds they made reminded me of a contemporary piece of music composed by Giorgio Batistelli, who based a whole work on the sounds made by various artisans at work – knife grinders, cobblers, barrel makers, and so on.”

Here’s a bread recipe from Tripoli which certainly catches my eye, given the Gourmet Ingredients book I referred to in my last cookbook post:

Thursday Bread

½ tsp yeast
2 C flour
½ tsp sea salt
¼ tsp ground mahleb
½ Tbsp olive oil
A little vegetable oil, for brushing
1/8 tsp nigella seeds, to sprinkle over

Stir the yeast into ¼ C tepid water and leave for a few minutes. Combine the flour, salt, and mahleb. Rub in the olive oil with your fingers. Add the yeast and gradually add another ½ C water; knead 5 minutes. Place the dough in an oiled bowl, cover, and let rest in a warm place for an hour or until doubled in size. Divide dough into four pieces and roll each into a ball. Let rest, I presume covered, for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Put a couple baking sheets or pizza stone in the oven to preheat.

Roll each ball into a 7-inch disk. Now, Helou says, “Remove the baking sheet from the oven and quickly line it with parchment paper.” I will probably try rolling the dough rounds out directly on parchment paper that’s already been sized to fit the baking sheets so I can just lift them quickly onto the baking sheets. Anyway, bake for ten minutes or until the breads have puffed up and turned golden; that’ll be five to seven minutes if you’re using a stone, Helou notes.

The comments for this recipe note that in Tripoli, this bread would be eaten with cheese or strained, thickened yogurt and olives. That sounds good to me. I’m sure I have enough mahleb seeds to make both this bread and the cookies.

Okay, the last new-to-me cookbook on this stack is by far the oldest. This is a book called At Home on the Range, which was actually written by Margaret Yardley Potter in 1947 and has now been re-packaged with a new forward by her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Gilbert, in 2012.13238283

The forward is deeply moving. Gilbert writes, “Her kitchen has outlived her: My cousin Alexa has its contents – down to the least serviceable utensil – in her house in Baltimore. Her recipes have outlived her: I grew up eating Gima’s chutney and Gima’s pickles, prepared by my Midwestern mother, who never met the woman, but who fell in love with the cookbook. Her name has outlived her: my Uncle Nick named his daughter Margaret, in honor of his irreplaceable grandmother. . . . What I’m saying is, if you are influential enough and beloved enough, it turns out you can stick around for quite a while after you die.”

Margaret Yardley Potter’s book is then presented exactly as it was originally written, which is to say, as a series of essays with the recipes told off casually, as we see in this basic recipe with an irresistible introduction:

How many little girls today read Louisa M Alcott, I wonder? Compared to comic books and Western movies, her old-fashioned stories must seem lacking in action, yet once the four March sisters were as real to me as Orphan Annie to the present generation.

What I felt was “offensively” good health – I still can’t even look delicate – kept me from following poor Beth’s example and seeking an early grave. The less spiritual ambition of owning a toy cookstove that really worked, such as Daisy had in Little Men, was more easily achieved and from the morning I saw it under the Christmas tree I’ve never regretted the choice I was forced to make. Just as well, too, for health and a cookstove still continue to keep me from a higher plane . . .

My mother, who was no cook but, like every good housewife in those days, knew “how things should be done,” appeared in the nursery as soon as my new toy was set up, announcing that she was going to teach me one worthwhile thing before I started to mess. This turned out to be white sauce and worthwhile it is – and how few cooks still understand its manufacture, as witness the paste that so often masquerades under that name in restaurants or, even sadder, on the home table. Her recipe for white sauce remains the right and only one.

Melt 2 Tbsp of butter over a medium flame and stir in 2 Tbsp of flour. When things start to bubble take the pan from the fire and stir in 1 C of milk. Do this very slowly; let the flour absorb the liquid and not a lump remain. Put the pan back over the heat and just as slowly add 1 C more of milk, never ceasing the constant stirring. Add 1 tsp of salt and 1/8 tsp of black pepper, and keep it over a lower heat for at least 10 minutes longer, stirring occasionally. . . .

I regret to say that the toy stove was wrenched from me shortly after this lesson, for one afternoon alone in its company I was discovered trying to camouflage a badly singed pair of eyebrows with a lead pencil and preferred not to discuss a suspicious scorch on the nursery ceiling. Mother’s recipe was the first I taught my daughter after the young man appeared who turned her thoughts to things culinary, but behind locked lips has lain till this day how I acquired intimate knowledge of the dire results that follow pouring alcohol on a lighted wick.

I’m sure you all already knew how to make white sauce, so there’s nothing special about that, although my mother says she would use only half as much milk for two Tbsp flour and I’m sure my mother’s version is actually definitive. Anyway, not all the recipes are so basic (tripe, anyone?), and the casual anecdotes and comments that surround the recipes are always charming.

I’m sure Margaret Potter would be pleased to know that nearly seventy years after she first saw her book in print, despite the vast quantities of entertainment choices available, plenty of readers still enjoy Alcott’s books. I, also, have fond memories of Daisy’s cookstove, though I never had a toy cookstove of my own. Of course I started the kinds of cooking a child can do in the actual kitchen pretty young. I wonder how old I was when I put a Tbsp of salt into the pancake batter instead of a tsp? I do know that particular incident lingered in family memory for a long, long time.

So that’s the set this year (so far), and I’d be hard pressed to pick out the most useful or the most interesting or the most readable – strong competition in all those categories. I expect to cook out of all of these books in the coming year, probably starting with that beef rendang from the East Asian book, though the idea of using six cans of coconut milk for one recipe is still tough to wrap my head around.

Update: I made the rendang and it was indeed very good. I used only four cans of coconut milk for 2.75 lbs chuck and it was plenty. Toward the end when the beef was coming apart in shreds, I poured off the remaining oil, which was about 3/4 C of clear orange oil. I think I might fry potatoes in it or something.

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4 thoughts on “Recent Reading: a miscellany of cookbooks, part two”

  1. Oooh I’m so glad you updated us on the Beef Rendang. “Coming apart in shreds”! I’m itching to try it now.

    Also, I am impressed by your collection of cookbooks. Just thought I’d put that out there.

  2. My dad says my mother and I are the only two people he knows who read cookbooks straight through, like novels. :-)

    I hope you do try the beef rendang. I really like it, which is good since it made quite a bit. I’m eating it with steamed glutinous rice, but I think any kind of flat bread would also be ideal. It isn’t really saucy enough to put over ordinary rice, imo.

  3. I tried to read my America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook straight through, and then my husband interrupted me. He wanted crunchy fried chicken (ch. 7).

    I have 1 other cookbook and I *did* read that one straight through. My husband wasn’t interested in its recipes.

    I’ll let you know when I try the Beef Rendang!

  4. If you only getting started collecting cookbooks, I recommend The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman. There’s an impressive collection from all over, with ingredients and instructions aimed at the ordinary home cook. One caveat: I don’t go to Bittman for desserts. He’s not really a dessert guy, and it shows.

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