Thursday, March 31, 2016

Omani food, Nigella Lawson, book recommendations

The "love cake" from Meera Sodha's Made in India = dense, buttery confection of ground cashews, semolina, and spices
I had to turn in an essay for the class I’m taking right around the time the Piglet got interesting and since I couldn’t simultaneously finish the essay and stalk the Piglet, I let the Piglet drop.

If were paid to write this blog, I’d have been fired by now. Or, as Donald Trump might tweet: "She should be fired! Lightweight blog that no one reads anymore. SO SAD!"

cardamom fry breads
Are you following DT's Twitter feed? You should. His Twitter voice is fascinating.

Anyway, I’m not paid, no one can fire me, and I’m back.

I couldn't style Omani food better than they did in the book, so I didn't try.
A perfectly respectable book won the Piglet. Not the book I would have chosen, but Hot Bread Kitchen is a perfectly respectable book that I haven’t yet mustered the energy to cook from because, as the title suggests, it's mostly bread and I haven't been in a bread-making mood. Of the books I got to know during the tournament, I really liked Zahav, of course, and Meera Sodha's Made in India, but I ended up falling hardest for The Food of Oman by Felicia Campbell. Initially, I was just fascinated by the obscurity of the topic. Later, I was happily surprised by the workability and deliciousness of the recipes. I expected Omani fare to be standard Middle Eastern, but it’s not, as anyone with a solid grasp of geography might have guessed. Oman is closer to India than to Egypt and you can taste that in these dishes, which are spicy and rich with coconut milk.

So far, I’ve made Campbell's caramelized beef, which involves cooking cubed chuck steak in a pot with spices, onions, cilantro, and water and for hours until the strong flavors have become one with the super-tender meat. I served this with a big pot of coconut spinach and pillowy, slightly sweet, sopapilla-like cardamom fry breads.  I’ve made those fry breads twice more since then, that’s how much I liked them. Some pan-seared meat dumplings were delicious as well, a zesty beef and onion mixture encased in a sticky, chewy dough, like curry potstickers. Only the soupy Omani coconut curry chicken has disappointed.

Omani caramelized beef
The weather has turned fresh and springy over the last week and Omani food is dark and serious. On Monday, I tried to figure out what I wanted to cook next from Food of Oman. The answer was, nothing. It's all too heavy for this time of year. I flipped through Hot Bread Kitchen. Nothing. I thought about Mamushka. Not feeling that either. I wanted something else entirely. But what? I browsed my shelves and when I got to the Nigella Lawson section, I stopped. Nigella. It was time for some Nigella.

What a good call that was. You could live a long and happy food life cooking only from Nigella Lawson's oeuvre. She’s funny, smart, and charming. Her recipes are fabulous and easy. I’m now going to link you to four of them. You are most welcome.

Monday night, I made salmon with mirin from Nigella Express (her “fast” cookbook). You mix soy sauce, mirin, and brown sugar in equal parts, marinate your salmon fillets for a couple of minutes, fry two minutes on one side in a dry skillet, flip, pour over the marinade, cook two minutes more. Remove fish, add a splash of rice vinegar to the pan, pour sauce over fish. Divine. Owen uttered words that have never before crossed his lips. “Is there any more salmon?” 

That night I also served a lovely strawberry crumble that Nigella promised would render bland, watery supermarket strawberries palatable. It did. Recipe for the easy, irresistible crumble is found in Nigella Kitchen (her "catch-all" cookbook) and here

Tuesday night, I served so-called meatzza from Nigellisima (her Italian book), which is pizza, but with a crust of seasoned ground meat, not bread.
I hate the name, but that's the only downside to this simple dish. It's perfect for all you gluten-free, low-carb eaters and pretty damn great for the rest of us. Recipe here. Use a pound of ground beef, a 15-ounce can tomatoes, and 6 ounces mozzarella. She doesn’t specify the quantity of salt, which I resent in a ground meat recipe like this one as I had to cook several tiny meatballs to get the seasoning just right. A heaping 1 1/2 teaspoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt did the trick.  

Finally, last night I served another killer Nigella dish, the broccoli-stilton soup from Nigella Express. I've made it before and written about it before, but I doubt anyone remembers. Ten minutes of "active" time to make this soup. Frozen broccoli! Love. Try it
Now, some books that have nothing to do with food:

I read this haunting and lovely novel by the author of Olive Kitteridge in two hours and so can you. So should you. It's about the secret childhood histories we carry around with us that no one in our adult lives can ever really understand. The details of the story are highly particular to narrator Lucy Barton’s troubled family of origin and yet almost made me cry in the ways (good ways) it reminded me of my own not-so-troubled family of origin. 

This book by a former colleague of mine is a thoughtful, big-hearted, and candid non-fiction portrait of life in a small Texas town. Karen Valby gets to know restless high school students who drive hours to the nearest movie theater and conservative older gentlemen who convene pre-dawn every day to drink coffee in the general store. There are towns like this all across America, but I sure don't live in one. I enjoyed getting out for a bit and meeting people I otherwise wouldn't. Highly recommend.

Peacekeeping deals with politics, intrigue, and Americans in Haiti. Mischa Berlinski is a superb writer and his novel started out strong. But page by page my interest seeped away. I got to page 265 and gave up with only a hundred pages to go. I just didn’t believe the story or care what happened anymore, and that’s a big shame because the book has a lot going for it. This review pinpoints the problems, I think. 

Now it's back to War and Peace (page 1022), Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, and easy Nigella dinners.  

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

How to be a generous critic

Purple cauliflower was on sale at Whole Foods so I bought it. Tastes exactly the same as white, looks less appetizing when cooked, supposedly has a very slight nutritional edge.  
Today’s Piglet review by Michael Twitty weighing the merits of Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year against Hot Bread Kitchen by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez is perfection. The writing is funny and vivid, but also 100% sweet and positive, which one could not say of Ari Shapiro’s review yesterday nor, ahem, my last post. Twitty presented this as a tough contest between two superb books and didn’t at any point go negative. Big hearted and gracious. I commend him. I have a copy of Hot Bread and look forward to digging into it. I’ve already cooked extensively from Reichl's bright, companionable book (Twitty: "an incredible braid of her Twitter poetry and recipes she loves"), which I regularly pull out when I don’t know what to make and it's 5 p.m. I trust Reichl’s recipes will be practical and tasty and that I might already have all the ingredients in the house. Sunday night's cauliflower pasta (anchovies, raisins, olives, cauliflower) is just one example of a last-minute Reichl feast.

On another subject, I’ve now tackled a handful of recipes from Meera Sodha's Made in India, most of which are very good. My favorite is the cauliflower, cashew, and pea curry, a simple, rich, substantial “doable on a weeknight” dinner. Sodha's spinach with black pepper, garlic, and lemon is also terrific. I have tried Sodha’s method of making rice and it works beautifully, as Sadie Stein noted in her review, but I prefer my old way, the Madhur Jaffrey way, which yields less oily, fluffier rice.  Recipe at the bottom of this post, in case you’re interested. The only miss was the Gujarati potato curry which was exceedingly dry. It calls for a 7- ounce can of plum tomatoes. I don’t even know where you buy 7-ounce cans of tomatoes. I put in a whole 14-ounce can of plum tomatoes and the curry was still too dry. 

Much as I like the particularity of the exotic recipes in this book, I think that when it goes up against J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Food Lab in the next few days, Food Lab should win. I think of Food Lab as the Revenant of this crowd of cookbooks, the biggest, most male, and most ambitious and that therefore it should absolutely win. Kidding. That isn't why Food Lab should win, though I do sort of think of it as The Revenant of the bunch. It should win because unlike The Revenant, Food Lab is a true magnum opus, a singular work packed with Lopez-Alt's vast cooking experience, contrarian sensibility, and hard-won, useful data. The recipes are there to illustrate general principles making them at first glance somewhat generic, and this might lead the judge to choose Made in India, which is full of seductive and unique dishes. We shall see. I'm pulling for Food Lab, though Made in India is pretty great, too. 

Last night, I cracked Food of Oman and made the rich, golden Omani lentil soup It could not have been easier or better.  Dried limes, some spices, onions, garlic, a few tomatoes, red lentils. The backstory of this book is fascinating. Felicia Campbell joined the military as a teenager and was deployed to Iraq. Something about the culture spoke to her. Campbell: “In this wild, ancient place, as a restless 19-year-old, for the first time I learned to be still. In Iraqi cafes I was welcomed by those I thought were my enemies, their warmth and graciousness softening my carefully guarded heart, humbling me. With them I learned to sit and simply be, savoring the minutes or hours spent with my platoon, my tribe, safe from the brutal loneliness that lay beyond our encampment. . . .”

Now we know that at least one good thing came out of the Iraq War. It softened one woman’s heart, broadened her mind, and led circuitously to the publication of a very fine book that may soften other hearts and broaden other minds about a culture unfamiliar to most Americans and unnerving to more than a few. Campbell rediscovered the inner peace of her Iraqi sojourn again in Oman, where she now lives. This extraordinary book is a love story of a person for a place. Of a woman for a culture we don’t think of as particularly hospitable to Western women. I had to look up Oman on a map. I had to google "Muscat" to get a mental picture of the capital city. I have a lot to learn.
Apparently I made this for the first time when I was pregnant with Isabel. In the note I complain about the rice sticking together, which probably means I rushed the rinsing process.
Basmati rice, Madhur Jaffrey's way. I have made this recipe a hundred times. The little 1973 book opens right up to the page. The salt is different in my version below because I use kosher. I don't always measure the salt. A big pinch is ok in both places. I don't measure the butter either and usually put in more to be sure it is extra buttery and delicious.

Rinse 2 cups basmati rice in running water, rinse it really well. Soak for a half hour in 5 cups water with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Drain. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a saucepan, add rice, stir to coat the grains. Add 2 1/4 cups water and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt. Bring to a boil, cover, lower heat as much as you can, and cook for 20 minutes. Lift lid. Fluff rice gently with fork. Cover and cook another 10 minutes. If you leave the lid on after it's done cooking, the rice will hold for a quite a while at a nice, warm temperature. I usually start cooking the rice about an hour before we eat. Serves 6.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Clean, clean, clean

Some ripe age ladies I ran into a few years ago. 
Friday's Piglet review of Diana Henry's Bird in the Hand and Pierre Thiam's Senegal was brilliant and made me jealous. I wish I'd written those lines and thought those thoughts, but I didn't. John Birdsall did. Birdsall makes such a strong, fair case for Bird in the Hand that I don't even feel I need to cook from the books to agree. (Though I will.)

This morning Jessica Koslow, proprietor of the adorable Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl, advanced Heidi Swanson's Near and Far over The Food of Oman, a choice I would not have made, though I thought Koslow's review overall was solid. I've cooked nothing from Oman (which looks great) and only the turmeric tea and a pleasant honey-sweetened lassi from Near, but I've spent enough time with Swanson's book (and cooked enough of her recipes in the past) to know that it is just not my thing. I want to be very clear that this is a matter of personal taste, not any failure on Swanson's part. What she does, she does extremely well -- and the better she does it, the less I like it, if that makes sense.

Swanson specializes in lovely, healthy, and delicate vegetarian dishes that she styles and shoots exquisitely, albeit a little wistfully. Everything appears forlorn, pretty, and somewhat wan. In this book there aren't a lot of substantial meal; she seems to be focusing more on dainty drinks and tidbits, grain salads, ricotta bowls and pantry "staples," like quick-pickled rose petals. Swanson: "I tend to keep dried rose petals around and make these now and then for a fragrant addition to couscous or as an accent on fruit salads. . . " She is very fond of rose petals and suggests finishing your breakfast yogurt bowl with optional "fresh or dried rose petals" or "a bit of bee pollen."

Why not fairy dust?
They were terrifying, the cows. 
For some, these touches will be inspiring, evoke a casually graceful and sophisticated lifestyle. In me, they provoke sighs. I find her writing precious. Swanson likes her biscotti "crushed into a little cup of creamy vaniglia or melone gelato." She suggests serving homemade vin de pamplemousse "in a Picardie glass filled with ice. . . I stock up on vanilla beans from the grand cru vanilla bar at Eric Roellinger on Rue Sainte Anne just for this recipe."

In one headnote she describes a big package of raw sugars a friend who lives in India sent her, along with a strainer. The friend tells Swanson in her note that the strainer is "perfect" for making paneer and yogurt. Swanson tells us: "The strainer is flimsy plastic and hard on the eyes, and while I typically avoid plastic, it's effective."

Maybe that last example isn't irritating. I don't know. It just presses my buttons. It would be hard to shop for Heidi Swanson.

What differentiates Near from her previous books is that she's organized chapters around her travels (to Morocco, India, France, Japan, and Italy) and shares dishes she brought home with her and made her own. As Koslow puts it: "This is world cuisine as seen through Swanson's eyes: natural, healthy, clean, simple."

And then, in the next paragraph: "Her recipes rely less on technique and kitchen wizardry, and more on simplicity and brightness through clean cooking."

Clean. I'm not the first person to see the problem of using the term "clean" to talk about food and cooking. Is world cuisine dirty and in need of a Heidi Swanson cleanup? How exactly is Swanson's food cleaner than what they cook in Italy and Morocco? Is it clean because she doesn't cook with meat? Because she explicitly calls for non-GMO products and organic corn starch? Because she avoids plastic? Because she garnishes with rose petals? Does she use less oil? Fewer ingredients?

I don't know if Swanson's food is actually "clean," whatever that means. But there is something overwhelmingly clean about this book, so I sort of understand what Koslow is getting at. But for me, it is not a plus. In the photos of her travels there are no people other than Swanson herself, posing in various exotic, seemingly empty buildings, looking contemplative. In the Indian chapter there is a picture of a ceiling fan with some cute ceiling paper as well as a photo of Swanson wandering in a vacant temple, but not a single Indian person to be seen anywhere. No flooded streets, no cows, no one cooking, no moped carrying a family of five plus their goat. All the colors in her India photos are elegantly muted, too. It's like this great, bright, roiling culture and cuisine has been visually purified and drained of all its dynamism and grit and humanity, not to mention meat and plastic. It is just too pretty. It is just too clean.


I must repeat: This is a beautiful, thoughtful book. It has integrity. It feels personal and sincere. I'm sure the recipes work. It is going to transport and inspire someone. I am not that someone. You know how it is when you wander into some shop and all the furniture is white and all the coffee tables are glass and you like threadbare old Oriental rugs, antique samovars, and oak? Or vice versa?

I have failed to say anything about The Food of Oman, which I bought and which is packed with dishes I have never seen before and am dying to cook. Coming soon. 

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Doable on a weeknight

Oh brother, this presidential election. 

But let's talk about another vitally important contest instead: The Piglet, the always-contentious annual tournament of cookbooks at Food52. 

As ever, they chose a wonderfully eclectic bunch of cookbooks for consideration, works covering the cuisines of Oman, Ukraine, Israel, India, and Senegal, along with a collection of chicken recipes, a baking book, and more. They also selected a fairly eclectic group of judges with the usual complement that doesn’t care about cooking and whose clueless misadventures outrage the vocal subset of Food52 readers that wants substantive criticism. These readers sound off in the comments, this year prompting Food52 editors to write a long, defensive, probably ill-advised post to which readers sounded off in the comments. . . 

And then blogger Phyllis Grant went and did everything right on Tuesday in her terrific review of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s Food Lab and Michael Solomonov’s Zahav. Grant cooked the hell out of her assigned books and made the case to advance Food Lab with passion, wit, and earned authority. Yesterday, chef Yotam Ottologenhi followed up with a sturdy little essay weighing the relative merits of Lesley Tellez’s Eat Mexico and Hot Bread Kitchen (which won and which I must acquire asap). Today, Sadie Stein put forth a persuasive argument that Made in India is a better choice for the home cook than Gjelina.

The readers of Food52 appear to be satisfied these recent judges. I am satisfied, though I have no idea if I agree with their judgments. Other than Zahav (love) and Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year (like), I've barely touched the Piglet books. In some cases, I haven't even seen the Piglet books. I did a big library run the other day and have since enjoyed a cup of fine masala chai from Made in India and a some anti-inflammatory turmeric tea from Heidi Swanson's Near and Far. I was all ready to mock that turmeric tea, which sounded like a revolting witch's brew of turmeric, honey, black pepper, and coconut oil. But it was a tangy, delicious elixir and instead of making fun of it, I made a second cup.

I've also produced a beautiful chicken soup with dumplings from Mamushka, a seductive collection of Ukrainian dishes. More about this in a subsequent post.

But the Piglet book I've really dug into is Leah Koenig's Modern Jewish Cooking. The sad fact is that while it appeared at first glance to be the blandest, most generic book of the bunch, it was also the most approachable. It's not that the other books are unapproachable, exactly, but as reviewers Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo put it in their critique, the dishes in Modern Jewish Cooking seem "doable on a weeknight."  I am pretty sure this is one of the main reasons they preferred Modern Jewish Cooking to the patently more original Mamushka. And I have a feeling that judgment was a mistake. But who am I to criticize? "Doable on a weeknight" is powerful when you're lazy or tired or busy, and aren't we all.

So, the book. In her introduction, Koenig tells the story of the genesis of Modern Jewish Cooking: As a young adult living in Brooklyn, she decided to teach herself to cook the traditional Jewish foods she grew up with. She mastered borscht, bagels, and blintzes. Eventually, she began to experiment, putting her own contemporary spin on classic fare, adding jalapeno to her matzoh balls and pumpkin to her challah. The book is a compendium of these updated recipes, along with a lot of sundry dishes that I'd never peg as Jewish (and for which I have hundreds of recipes on my shelves already), like a mushroom-goat cheese tart, roasted broccoli, a wedge salad, granola.

I would like to say that despite my initial indifference I've fallen passionately in love with Modern Jewish Cooking, but I can't. It's been a weeklong marriage of convenience. Don't get me wrong, Koenig has written a very smart, attractive cookbook. But I don't daydream about it when we're apart. I think the right audience for her book is a millennial novice cook who is trying dream up hip Shabbat menus. That isn't me.

I made both of Koenig’s oat granolas (apple and honey, black pepper and pistachio) and while both were fine, neither was as good as Alton Brown's. I baked Koenig’s tender honey-cinnamon cake, which was easy and lovely, but not quite thrilling enough for the scrapbook. The other night I served Koenig’s rosemary-maple roast chicken with a side of her toasted almond Israeli couscous. The chicken was great -- juicy and sweet -- but I have roasted so many great chickens that I can't get excited about a new roast chicken recipe, however great. The Israeli couscous made a pleasantly innocuous starchy side and I’ll forget I ever made it in a few days.

Ah, but here's how it works: I was all set to do something more exotic from one of the other Piglet books last night, like a curry from Made in India for which I had already bought all the ingredients, but I was busy and tired and at 6:30 pm decided I'd throw together a ridiculously easy Koenig cottage cheese-noodle dish instead. You cook some shallots in butter while boiling egg noodles. Mix the two in a big bowl with some cottage cheese, sour cream, and herbs. (The recipe calls for mint, but I used dill.) Per Koenig's instructions, I served this with a green salad. Perfect, not-that-nutritious dinner. I could eat it every night.

And yet even now, even after that satisfying, miraculously simple meal, I still don't feel a romantic spark with this cookbook.