Monday, August 29, 2011

My video shoot

my props
Friday morning I went to Safeway and bought a box of Uncrustables to use as a prop in the promo video for my forthcoming book, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter.  For the record, I think Uncrustables are silly. These popular frozen peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cost more than a homemade sandwich and don't taste as good. Very broadly speaking, this is the subject of my book.

Some backstory on the video: Earlier this summer, the publisher sent me a Flip cam and Isabel made a video of me grinding peanut butter in the kitchen of my mother-in-law's beach house. We didn't have a script and I told Isabel to shoot from above to make me look skinnier. As a result, I look like I'm being filmed from a security camera in the ceiling. You can see the video here and you may understand why the publisher wanted a new video shot with a real camera at eye level by professionals.
Andy, Max, Nick
Professionals were found. The sound technician was young enough to be my son, and I'm not talking about a teen pregnancy.

We met Friday morning in the kitchen of a cooking school that happens to be a few doors down from 40-year-old Chez Panisse and directly across the street from the 44-year-old Cheese Board Collective. Around the corner, is the original Peet's Coffee (45-years-old). We met, in other words, at what is arguably the birthplace of the farm-to-table American food movement, not to mention gourmet coffee.

Many sweaty, self-conscious hours passed. I demonstrated the mixing, boiling, and baking of bagels and talked about my book, repeating the same lines dozens of time. I tried to project, tried not to put my hands in my pockets, not to slump, tried to remember what I wanted to say and to say it with heartfelt verve to these patient young men whom I suspected I was boring to death.

I hadn't eaten breakfast and suddenly it was one o'clock. We took a break. You could practically smell the River Dog Farm chicken legs roasting in the wood oven down the street at the Chez Panisse Cafe. At the Cheese Board there was organic vegetarian pizza. Next door: Lush gelato. And on the counter squatted that box of Smucker's Uncrustables.

Yeah. You guessed it. And they were delicious. Sometimes all you really want is to stop being hungry, fast. To repeat: Very broadly speaking, this is the subject of my book.

On another subject, a few nights ago I made the lamb curry from Marcus Samuelsson's Soul of a New Cuisine and served it with his yellow rice. The curry was fabulous, as was the rice. You may have eaten yellow rice before, but probably not like this yellow rice.

It is yellow from the saffron ($$), but also from chunked corn on the cob, mango, yellow tomato, and yellow pepper. We ate it all up. I'm so happy with this book. The Africa News Cookbook has a lot to live up to.
 demo bagels

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Is this hoarding?

I cleaned out the kitchen drawers today. Forty-one measuring spoons.

And I can't bear to part with any of them.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

They aren't okra fans

 South African hot dish
I miss Africa. It reminded me of Wyoming, but with elephants, and I've been missing Wyoming my entire life. The other night I watched a movie called White Material, the kind of movie that made me never, ever want to go to Africa before I went to Africa. Like Hotel Rwanda.

But having been to Africa, I completely understood why Isabelle Huppert did what she did in order to stay on her plantation, despite the bad men with guns, child soldiers with machetes, and a decapitated ram's head left in her coffee beans. It wasn't pretty, but I understood.

I didn't think much about food when I was in Africa, not because the food wasn't delicious but because food in Africa is dwarfed by everything else. It is dwarfed by the trees full of baboons and the vast plains, the hippos and lions and giraffes and monkeys trying to get in your room, by the waterfalls and rivers, and, of course, the problems. It seems frivolous to talk about African cooking rather than African poverty, political instability, AIDS, and rhinoceros poaching.

Yet if all that you feel comfortable discussing about a place are its noble landscapes and problems, the place is no longer relatable and human. African food is wonderful. The food served to tourists, anyway, which is the only kind I ate or had the opportunity to eat. I realize this is not what ordinary Africans eat, but is still African food: food cooked by Africans in Africa using African recipes and African ingredients. It did not taste like any food I had ever eaten before.

African food, in my brief and very limited experience, is strong and spicy and hearty, often served with pap, a starchy cornmeal porridge much like polenta, but not cheesy or buttery. We ate a lot of this porridge alongside curry-like stews accompanied by chutneys and incendiary pepper pastes. (A creamy spinach-peanut braise served with some porridge was the best thing I ate the entire trip, and I am determined to replicate it at home.) I worry that some of the flavors will be impossible to capture here -- the beef tasted different and better than American beef, and I ate a butter cookie that tasted 10 times better than any butter cookie I ever encountered in my many decades of butter cookie consumption. I started thinking maybe it was made with cape buffalo butter after someone told me they make cheese out of cape buffalo milk. It is a brave man or woman who tries to milk a cape buffalo.

Anyway, when I got home, I immediately opened The Soul of a New Cuisine by Marcus Samuelsson to learn more about African cooking.

This is a beautiful and inspiring cookbook, full of gorgeous pictures and tempting dishes, but it is very high end and cheffy, with recipes for things like quail-foie gras soup and tangerine consomme. Tangerine consomme sounds lovely, but it doesn't sound African to me. Amazon reviews of the book are mixed, as are the notes from Eat Your Books. I am especially discouraged by a thumbs-down report on Samuelsson's injera recipe as I am determined to learn to make injera.

Then I pulled out The Africa News Cookbook, which I bought some years ago. I can't remember why.

It is a homely looking spiral-bound cookbook, lacking lush photography or lavish recipes. Amazon reviews of this book are outstanding.

My plan is to cook a few dishes from Samuelsson's book this week and then cook similar dishes from Africa News next week, and choose the cookbook to proceed with on that basis.

I started cooking from Soul of a New Cuisine a few nights ago. Results so far:

1.  My father came over on Saturday and I made bobotie (see photo on top.) Bobotie is essentially South African hot dish, an easy and frugal everyday casserole of spiced ground meat topped with custard. This recipe was excellent and I kept eating even after I was full. It was that kind of excellent. I served the bobotie with an easy mango sambal -- a.k.a. relish -- from Samuelsson's book and some creamed chard. Dinner was a big hit. For dessert, Isabel made turtle bars from an Alice Medrich recipe that you can find here. (You should bake these immediately; they are that kind of excellent, too.)
2. Monday, I made Samuelsson's Jollof rice and it was gummy, dark, spicy, and studded with peas -- a one pot arroz con pollo.  Owen: "I thought it was good. Not make-it-every-night good, but it seems nice for once a month." Isabel: "I thought the chicken was good but the rice had too much stuff in it." Husband: "The chicken would be better if it didn't have any bones in it."
Jollof rice

3. Tuesday night, I made Samuelsson's kofta meatballs with okra tomato sauce.  I had expected meatballs with a little sauce that you could serve on a plate, but ended up with a viscous okra soup in which floated big, tender meatballs. It was gumbo-like and I loved it. I was alone. Isabel: "The meatballs would have been better by themselves." Husband: "I thought it needed a noodle in it. The okra is a little bit off-putting." Owen: "I liked the flavor of the meat, but that vegetable is not the kind of taste that I like."

He misses Africa too.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Super Natural Every Day: Earnest Summation

I spent a lot of time analyzing my relationship with Super Natural Every Day while I was having the relationship. Here's what it was like: like dating an impossibly beautiful, cool, and graceful person who you really want to mesh with, but don't, quite. Like The Way We Were, and you're Barbra Streisand.

I admire this book a lot. I admire the sensibility, the aesthetic, the photography, the principles of restraint and mindfulness that underpin every gorgeous page. But I'm just not that restrained or mindful and the food -- simple vegetarian dishes --  wasn't what I, or the people I live with, wanted to eat.

Except when it was! There were some big hits. So the spread here is very unusual.

Of the 23 recipes I cooked from Super Natural Every Day:

worth the price of the book -- 2 (lemony yogurt on the outstanding farro soup; broccoli gribiche)
great -- 5 (I craved the white beans and cabbage and Swanson's oatcakes.)
good -- 5
so-so -- 9
flat-out bad -- 2

For the record, here the designations "so-so" and "flat-out bad" reflect sharp differences in taste, not recipe glitches. At this house, we simply like sweet things sweeter, cheesy things cheesier, alcoholic drinks more alcoholic, and we're not lovers of millet and tempeh. I wish we were, but we're not. Still: an exquisite cookbook, with some excellent recipes. This book stays.

Around My French Table: Earnest Summation

When I was in South Africa, I met a woman from New Jersey and we immediately connected over our love of Dorie Greenspan's cookbooks. She has a lot of fans, that Dorie. I think I've effused sufficiently about Around My French Table over the last 8 months, so I'll be quick. This has become one of my most cherished cookbooks -- for the sardines rillettes, the beggar's linguine, the cheese crackers, the perfect brioche, the super-easy curried chicken and peas that you roast in a triangle of foil. For the generosity and reliability and abundance. I keep going back to this book and suspect I always will.

During my initial fling with this book, I made 32 recipes:

Worth the price of the book -- 5 (the recipes listed above)
Great -- 12
Good -- 13
So-so -- 2
Flat-out bad -- 0

One of the best ratios since I started this blog.

Now, a little Heidi Swanson, a little Guy Fieri, and I'm current.

Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen: Earnest Summation

Last fall, I spent a few weeks cooking from Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen. Can you remember back that far? I can't, but I'm updating my cookbook reviews, which I haven't done for almost a year and which has been bugging me for almost a year. Not that anyone cares anymore, but for the internal integrity of the blog, I have to do this.

A recap: Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen is a handsome, earth-toned book full of enticing pictures of rustic food as prepared by a famous Seattle chef, the owner of How to Cook a Wolf and Tavolata, among other restaurants. Charlotte Freeman, who writes the Cookbookslut column at Bookslut, hated Stowell's book with a white hot fury. Its cheffy pretensions -- reminders about using only best quality ingredients, the "tone of haughty hyper-reverence" -- made her want to "stick hot needles" in her eyes.

I don't disagree with any of Freeman's points, which are all valid criticisms, but this book didn't make me want to stick hot needles in my eyes. (In fact, I can think of nothing that would.) To the contrary, I enjoyed Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen. Probably because I spent very little time reading the headnotes, which are indeed irritating, as I was so completely smitten with the recipes, which I found fascinating and exotic. Opening the book again this morning, I saw at least a dozen unusual, seductive dishes that I'd like to cook in the appropriate season: espresso granita with grappa cream, pear-star anise ice cream, soft-shell crab bruschetta with spring garlic aioli, canneloni with braised pork cheeks and sweet cicely.

That is, if I knew where to buy pork cheeks or sweet cicely without making a dozen phone calls and a trip to Berkeley.

Which is why, last fall, I cooked only 13 recipes from this book. (By comparison, I  made 57 recipes from the Moro cookbook; 36 out of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc At Home; 52 out of Claudia Rodin's Arabesque.) A lot of Stowell's dishes, maybe even a majority, call for obscure ingredients I could not readily find: ramps, rabbit loin, lobster mushrooms, Thumbelina carrots, Cacio Faenum cheese, snails, live sea urchin, lamb's tongues, nettles. Et cetera. Sometimes I'm up for a scavenger hunt. In October 2010, apparently, I wasn't.

The recipe tally:

Worth the price of the book -- 0
Great -- 6 (roasted figs with chocolate espresso ganache, endive lemon salad)
Good -- 6
So-so -- 1
Flat out bad -- 0

While I don't think it's a shelf essential, Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen still shines for me. I plan to throw away cookbooks that don't review well on the blog, and Mixt Salads is long gone. This book stays.

Done! On to Dorie Greenspan.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Words failed me

Avoid the final picture in this post if you are soft-hearted or squeamish..
It was hard to blog from Africa because internet access was at first nonexistent, then intermittent, and never powerful enough to post photographs. There was so much I wanted to say that I ended up saying nothing.

A very quick summary of two weeks in Africa with Owen:

Jamie Oliver is correct: Township food is better than much American food.
We started the trip in Johannesburg, where we ate stewed tripe, beans, and cornmeal porridge in a restaurant in Soweto, which was a highlight for me. Not the tripe, Soweto. Owen had no idea what it meant, but he was an excellent sport.

Mandela House
We flew to Zambia and drove through brushy countryside that looked like I had expected Africa to look, in both good and difficult ways. The border crossing/ferry to Botswana was exactly how I'd expected Africa to be, but only in the difficult ways. At our Okavango Delta camp (it bore no relation to camping, but it is called a camp) we saw cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, kudu and warthogs, and had a close encounter with a baboon. It was altogether magical.

Then we moved to the Chobe River.

Multiply by 1000.
The Chobe River is crocodile infested and let's not forget the water snakes. Here, I ate curried warthog. Here, Owen fell ill.  Here, I realized I would rather not travel than stay in hotels where I don't want to touch the doorknobs. I am ashamed that I am like that, but too old to pretend. Despite seeing many handsome elephants and hippos, plus sinister crocodiles and horrifying water snakes, this was the nadir of the trip.

Then, our luck changed and held. Owen recovered and at Victoria Falls he beat me at chess. I've seldom seen him more pleased with himself.  Monkeys tried to get into the room and I saw a hippo swim by at sunset. Victoria Falls is indescribable, so I won't even try.

This does not begin to capture it. 
But while we saw a lot of magnificent sights and animals throughout the journey, it was not until we arrived at a place called Londolozi that we began to understand how it all fit together -- the thorny trees, the rockpiles, the many and varied creatures. Our ranger here knew everything about the animals' sagas so you weren't just seeing cookie cutter leopards, you were seeing specific leopards. You were seeing specific lions, from specific prides and coalitions with noble and ignoble histories, lions involved in epic clashes and Shakespearean power struggles. It was a lesson in the power of narrative. We sat at dusk in a jeep, shivering and watching three enormous lions do absolutely nothing, and I think we would have sat there all night just to hear the ranger tell their stories.

This is the one part of the trip -- Londolozi -- that I think my husband and daughter would have loved.

But they're not into animals and they didn't want to go to Africa. I respect that. I also think they're a little crazy.

The most memorable African meal 

Monday, August 01, 2011

From exotic to EXOTIC

The newest addition to my collection
I grew up in California and I find everything about New England exotic. The other day, my mother-in-law's brother Edward gave me a copy of A Taste of the Somerset Club. He belongs to the Somerset Club. What is the Somerset Club? I had no idea, but perusing the cookbook, it became clear that the Somerset Club is exclusive, old, and the last redoubt of lobster sauce, Stilton cheese sauce and Madeira sauce ("The Club serves this classic sauce with chicken, veal, beef or pheasant.")

I love this cookbook. I own no volume quite like it.

Two nights ago, I was assigned to bring hors d'oeuvres to a family gathering at Edward's beach house.  I thought it would show my gratitude if I cooked from A Taste of the Somerset Club. There were only six hors d'oeuvre options, five of them deep-fried. The non-deep fried option: little pinwheel sandwiches of pita bread, roast beef, and curry powder. Since my brother in law Chris was making beef for dinner, and despite the fact it was miserably hot, I took a deep breath and decided to deep fry.


-coconut shrimp. Weird, enticing concept. You dredge shrimps in flour, egg, and sweetened (!) coconut, then dip them in a thick, spicy (by New England standards) batter and fry until puffy and crisp. Serve with a syrupy orange juice-horseradish sauce. I loved the idea of the sweet coconut and the sweet sauce, but it didn't quite work. A few people praised these fritters, but I think they were just being polite.

There was something on my camera lens.
-Somerset Club fishballs. Tough to say "fishballs" with a straight face. According to the Somerset Club: "Fishballs are our most favorite hors d'oeuvres and quickly disappear off the tray." To make them you saute some fish with wine, flake, and mix with vegetables and instant mashed potatoes, shape into orbs, roll in bread crumbs, and fry. Serve with Dijon mustard. As promised, they quickly disappeared off the tray. I preferred them to the coconut shrimp.

That said, my favorite appetizer was the onion soup dip that used up the rest of box of Lipton onion soup mix I bought to make dip a week ago. Am I insulting people when I serve this dip? I think it's irresistible, but maybe I'm oblivious to sighing and eye rolling.

They should serve THIS at the Somerset Club.
Anyway, the party was fun. And exotic. Sometimes, when my in laws have big family parties, I feel like I've stepped into a Ralph Lauren commercial. Lanky blond youths play touch football on a grassy knoll overlooking a glittering bay as elders repose in wicker chairs and sip gin and tonics. Only in this setting, do I and my children appear swarthy.

Polo, by Ralph Lauren
Owen and I are in the airport now, about to leave for Africa. There we will appear as we actually are: very, very white.