Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Mana’ From Rana


Though I’d heard of the middle eastern spice mix za’atar many times before, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I truly started to see its potential.

Za’atar is a blend of spices generally comprised of sumac, toasted sesame seeds, thyme, cumin and salt, though recipes differ depending on where in the middle east they come from. Back when I was reviewing Good Food For All for Taste T.O. one of the dishes I sampled was a za’atar-spiked chicken burger, which (incidentally was fantastic) left me with a cupful of the blend to continue using afterwards.

But as much as I enjoyed using za’atar in western preparations, it wasn’t until a Lebanese friend educated me about her culture and food that I learned some of the ways that they would use it traditionally.  One afternoon when we ordered food from a Lebanese restaurant, I fell head over heels in love with a flatbread-like object called manakeesh.  Slathered with labneh and sprinkled with za’atar, it was a doughy delight unlike any I’d ever tasted before, sort of like a cross between a pizza and a toasted bagel slathered with cream cheese.  Ever since that moment I have craved these za’atar and labneh manakeesh on nearly a weekly basis, but the restaurant is a fair distance from my house.

But on Meatless Monday this week I decided I wanted to make something to accompany our asparagus, fig and parmagiano salad, and I happened to have a ball of my frozen pizza dough on hand, so I thawed it out and stretched it into a large round.  It didn’t take long to connect the dots and add the strained yogurt that I normally eat for breakfast and a liberal amount of za’atar to the unbaked pie.  A quick rest in the oven was all it took for it to get puffy and golden brown.  It wasn’t a purist’s manakeesh by any stretch of the imagination, but man, it was still freakin’ gold.

I think Rana would be proud.


All The Flavours Of The Rainbow

The Flavour Thesaurus

When I was out the other day buying that ridiculously overpriced ice pop maker, I also happened to be in the neighbourhood of The Cookbook Store which was coincidentally just the place where I had a birthday gift certificate from my mother in law burning a hole in my wallet.

Knowing my habits fairly well, I have never allowed myself to set foot inside their store before.  Since I already own several hundred cookbooks (and counting) going here even semi-regularly would just be a really bad idea.  But, I had the gift certificate and I was in the area so I figured I might as well kill 2 birds with 1 stone, right?

Just as I suspected, The Cookbook Store was a beautifully curated room devoted to nothing but books on epicurean delights.  It was pure heaven for a food/print nerd like me.  After perusing the store languidly for nearly half an hour, I was in the unenviable position of finding way too many books to take home with me.  Standing firm, I decided that I would only choose 1.  Of course, I couldn’t decide which one it should be, so I put down the whole pile and begrudgingly prepared to leave.

Out of the corner of my eye I spied this colourful tome sitting atop a stacked table and hesitated.  After quickly paging through The Flavour Thesaurus I immediately knew that this was the book for me.  Aside from the vibrant colour wheel on the cover and the fuchsia-tinged pages, the concept of the book resonated with me.  Since I don’t often cook from actual recipes, being able to easily identify clever flavour pairings is right up my alley especially when they’re collected all in one handy reference place!

Author Niki Segnit divides the book into 16 central flavour profiles, such as woodland, marine, bramble & hedge, sulfurous, etc and then divides each group into several pertinent subsections (i.e. sulfurous contains cabbage, brussels sprouts, eggs, etc).  Each subsection then lists ingredients that pair well with the highlighted base foods in a manner reminiscent of a textbook entry.  Some suggestions, such as artichoke and lemon or broccoli and cheese will come as no surprise to even the most casual reader, but more subtle pairings such as anise and rhubarb and parsnip and banana definitely intrigued me.  Proving that the book is also on the pulse of the culinary world, the au courant chocolate bacon marriage gets a nod, too.


The Accidental Salad

Warm Salad

For Meatless Monday this week, the Everyman was out of town on business, but flying home late that night.

I promised him I would set a plate aside for him, so the obvious question became what could I make that would keep relatively well for an indeterminate period of time?

After pondering for a little bit, I recalled 2 things.  One was the warm potato salad that we both loved at last year’s Outstanding In The Field dinner and the other was a potato and bean salad that I tested while reviewing Earth To Table.  I couldn’t remember much about either, except that a) they were warm, b) they both contained potatoes and c) they came with light, yet creamy dressings.

Given that I was in no mood to excavate my way through the stacks of cookbooks in my house to find Earth To Table (you know you have too many books, when…) I decided to improvise.

Both dishes used fingerlings but I didn’t have any, so instead I cubed a few yukon golds and quartered some shallots and tossed them in some coffee olive oil, then roasted in the oven for an hour.  When they were getting close to being done I melted a little high milkfat artisan butter in a pan until it foamed, then quickly sauteed half a pound of chopped asparagus until it turned emerald, then left it to get slightly blistered and browned.  Removing the pan from the heat, I sprinkled close to half a cup of freshly shelled peas in and let the residual heat of the pan turn them bright green, too.  Next I combined all the veggies in a bowl and tossed with a simple white wine dijon vinaigrette made puckery tart by the addition of a splash of barley vinegar.


Now You’re Cooking With Gas

52 Loaves

During the past few years, baking bread has become more than just a part time obsession.

So, when I saw that William Alexander had a new book out called 52 Loaves, which was all about his year long quest to create the perfect loaf of artisanal bread, the story immediately resonated with me.  I too have been trying to perfect the art and craft of bread baking for quite some time now, (though I’ve never restricted myself to just one kind of bread) so the idea of such an undertaking was entertaining to me.

I’ve been meaning to read his other book The $64 Tomato since I first heard about it 2 years ago, but my Chapters wishlist is one of those things that only balloons as time goes by, yet despite buying several hundred dollars worth at a time the list never shortens.  Having just finished 52 Loaves and generally clicking with his writing style, I’ll be sure to jump his book about my other all-consuming passion (gardening) to the top of the list soon.

52 Loaves chronicles a year in the life of Alexander and his family, as he attempts to recreate a delicious peasant bread he consumed at a restaurant with his wife once.  What begins with the planting of a small field of wheat on his property, quickly escalates into so much more.  Week after week the fleeting memory of the ephemeral loaf haunts him, as the leaden, close-crumbed replicas he churns out in the beginning bear no resemblance to his ideal.  But as months pass, he educates himself further, reaching out to a yeast factory, several famous author/bakers and a growing number of books, culminating in a typical pilgrimage to France, though his is slightly unconventional as he ends up baking in a centuries old monastery, and also teaching the brother monks how to bake again.

Throughout the book hilarity often ensues, as Alexander writes about conventions, lectures, state fairs and a half-assed attempt to build a backyard wood fired oven that he was promised could be completed in a day.  He narrates the story with dry wit and charm, all the while causing the reader to wonder if he’s about to go mad.  One thing I particularly liked about the book was that he agreed with my analysis about the no knead technique, and after attempting it he wasn’t overly impressed either.  By the end of the book, you’re still not sure if he’s found what he’s looking for, but nonetheless he’s amassed scads of knowledge along the way.


Bastardized Pasta

Cavatelli or Capunti

For a long time now I’ve had a growing fascination with Italian cuisine, namely pasta in particular.

I constantly marvel at the innumerable shapes and sizes of pastas that Italy has created, and the myriad uses they have unique to each one.  For at least 6 months I’ve wanted to take a course that would teach me more about the intricacies of a subject I know precious little about, but as far as I can tell, such a course does not exist.  It’s unsurprising really, as I’ve noticed that Italians generally tend to be quite cagey when it comes to passing on their culinary know how to non-familial brethren.  If you are lucky enough to gain mentorship, I bet you sure as hell had to prove yourself first.  I’ve not yet found a person who thinks I’m worthy of what is to most a cultural birthright and so I continue on, on my own.  Perhaps when I make it to Italy one day I will track down a willing nonna who will share all her secrets with me.  One can always dream!

Barring any sort of official instruction, I’ve been messing around with pasta dough on my own more and more lately.  I’ve been meaning to buy the Encyclopedia Of Pasta ever since it came out, but my local bookseller never has it in stock and it’s definitely the kind of tome I want to page through before I buy it, just so I can make sure it’s really what I’m after.

In the meantime, I’ve been perfecting my stamped and ribbon pastas on and off for the past few months, so last night I thought I’d try something completely different.  Using Ruhlman’s pasta ratio I prepared 4 servings of dough in the morning and left them to rest in the fridge all day.  When I arrived home I started the basics of a red meat sauce on the stove by combining half a jar of my home canned tomato sauce with a lingering hothouse tomato, 4 grated zucchinis and half a pound of ground beef.  While the sauce simmered, I split the dough in half and began rolling out long, snaky tubes.  Snipping them down into 1 inch lengths, I rolled them a bit longer and thinner between my palms, then used a bench scraper to gently drag the dough nubs across the surface of the table until it formed either cavatelli or capunti.  I can’t say with certainty which one I made because so many pastas are so nuanced that they have only the faintest whisper of difference between them.  In this case, I think what I made is capunti, because I’m pretty sure cavatelli is usually made with a ricotta enriched dough.  As you can see from the above photo, some turned out rather well while others are an embarrassment to real pasta.  For a first attempt though I thought they were magical, and once they floated to the top of the briny, boiling water, I tossed them in a meaty tomato sauce and allowed the whole to soak in a little bit.

Like fingerprints, they’re all a little different, but definitely not quite perfect just yet.  The fun part about experimenting with pasta (or anything, really) is that in the end you can just eat your mistakes.


You Don’t Know Gorp


Until about 6 months ago, I never really understood all of the hoopla about granola.

Granola bars are alright I suppose, but even they aren’t something I ever get a craving for.  Granola always seems too sweet, too greasy, too dry or too flavourless to merit any time in my mouth, not to mention that I’ve often associated it with old people, specifically my dad.  For lack of a better explanation, it just reeks of aging hippies crunching on tofu, muesli and bean sprouts, which I know is a very stereotypical thing to say, but the mind thinks what it wants.

But, about 6 months ago, Pierre Lamielle (of Kitchen Scraps fame) changed all of that.

You see, I was reviewing his cookbook during my stint at Taste T.O. and one of the recipes I opted to test was his granola ratio.  Once I got over the concept of granola having a set recipe, I freed myself up to start making a concoction I could actually enjoy.  Since then, I’ve been making a batch of granola every 2-3 weeks to keep the Everyman and myself in crunchy breakfast heaven.  In my case, it’s served over a thick, strained whole yogurt, but the Everyman prefers to eat his nut-free version plain.  Our versions are nearly identical, but in his the omission of nuts is replaced by extra raisins and the occasional bittersweet chocolate chip.

This gorp is so hunger-inspiring that you might even want to try making some yourself.  My version (replete with alterations and substitutions) is detailed below, but you can also find the original in the Kitchen Scraps cookbook.


When Blogs Beget Books

The Art Of Eating In

Because for years I worked at an internet company, and then moved to my current job where I’m employed by the internet division of our company, I assume I can be forgiven for not constantly keeping on top of the latest blogs, trends and memes.  When you spend 8 hours a day on the internet for your job, the last thing you want to do is come home and surf the internet a whole bunch more.  In fact, it’s a wonder I ever started this blog in the first place (2 years and counting!) since it obviously requires a fair bit of my spare time be devoted to the blasted internest, but it’s all about food, so it’s a labour of love to me.  I never fell for Myspace, I didn’t fawn over Facebook and even though I have a Twitter account, I find it to be of very limited value.  I guess you could say that in some respects I’m a bit of an internet rejectionist, since I have little time and patience for it as a medium.

That being said, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I’d even heard of Cathy Erway or her blog, Not Eating Out In New York.  I think I may have browsed over to a link for a recipe on her site once, but by not making myself aware of the context of her writing, I didn’t find it interesting enough to follow.  I only recently heard about her book The Art Of Eating In through a recipe on Serious Eats, of all places.  In fact, the post was the impetus for me to finally test out that whole no knead bread thing.  And even though I wasn’t absolutely blown away by the no knead bread (I think I just like traditional bread with sourdough starters better) I was intrigued enough to seek out the book and add it to my reading list.

Now it should be noted that to date I’ve not found any blog to book treatments that have tickled my fancy, because for the most part a lot of these bloggers’ stories do not resonate with me.  I think I’ve made it quite clear how I feel about The Julie/Julia Project over the past few years, and though I know many people who love it, I never got into The Pioneer Woman Cooks.  Now, if that Hunter Angler Gardener Cook guy wrote a book (he hasn’t yet, has he?) then I could possibly get myself engaged, but generally speaking, it’s just not happening.

As such, it should come as no surprise that I didn’t find The Art Of Eating In immediately riveting.  It’s not bad when considered as a kind of social experiment (in fact, it reminds me of that The Year Of Living Biblically guy crossed with No Impact Man) but I found that the book spent more time meandering around how the whole not eating out in New York idea impacted finding and keeping a romantic interest more than anything else.  Certainly it was neat to read about the act of participating in all sorts of community cook-offs and underground supper clubs and broadening of horizons through foraging and freeganism, but overall I did not find the story to be all that compelling.  The recipes on the other hand were definitely worth reading, and I’ve earmarked several of them to try in the next little while, particularly the smoked tobacco and coffee infused dish from one of her supper club parties.

Perhaps it struck a bit of a chord with the bit of poor girl left in me, but the idea of constantly eating out (in any city) seems ridiculously extravagant to the point of almost being insulting.  Because of that perspective, I might be a little biased when considering the idea of giving something up that for most people is an unimaginable luxury.  Several times whilst reading the book I’ve wondered if I would have found it a more page-turning read if I’d been following her blog for any length of time beforehand.  Truthfully, I think it’s doubtful, but if there was one thing about the book that explicitly pleased me, it was the way it spurred on a number of people to challenge themselves to a week of not eating out, via the gauntlet that was thrown down over at HuffPo.


The Resurgence Of No Knead Bread


I’ll be honest.

I’ve been categorically ignoring the whole no knead bread trend since I first heard about it back in 2006.

It became quite the internet sensation at the time, died down and now seems to be making the rounds again, due at least partially to Cathy Erway’s new book about not eating out for 2 years, I assume (which includes her riff on the recipe).

As someone who loves cooking and food as much as I do, I can say with alacrity that I’ve often thought of no knead bread as the lazy person’s shortcut, aka baking for dummies.  If you asked my mother, she’d probably cluck her teeth and mutter something under her breath about it being the cowboy way.  Beyond that, even though I start by mixing 90% of my breads in a stand mixer for at least part of the process, I can’t imagine giving up the interaction with the elementalness that is bread just to make life “simpler”.

But, when I saw Erway’s recipe for parmagiano, peppercorn and potato no knead bread, I made an exception and decided to try it.  At the time I had no knowledge of what made her recipe differ from the standard no knead bread, so I followed everything to the letter except for 2 things.  I subbed in a cup of whole wheat flour to surreptitiously improve its healthiness and instead of cracked black peppercorns, I mixed up a blend of 5 different ones that I’ve had lurking in the kitchen, including Muntok, Sarawak, Malabar, Tellicherry and Moula peppercorns crushed in a tea towel with a mallet.


From The Vault Of Delectable Chocolate Arcanum

Who Loves The Chocolate?

Above all else, I admire passion in others.

Not for me are the random masses shuffling along through their workaday lives, never fully immersing themselves or finding anything worthwhile to commit to.  Instead I respect the creative, overly exuberant doers, the ones who push the envelopes and expand the boundaries of their respective fields through constant trial and experimentation.

When I familiarized myself with Paul A Young’s 2009 work Adventures With Chocolate recently, I knew I’d found a rare culinary maverick worthy of further examination, whose book I just had to lay hands on.  Once I managed to track down a copy through Alibris UK I only had to exercise a modicum of patience until it arrived on my doorstep a week and a half later.

Adventures With Chocolate is a rollicking stroll through the mind of a (not so evil) genius, whose book jacket photo reveals a dapper young man reminiscent of a modern day Willy Wonka.  This is by no means your mother’s cookbook, resplendent as it is with the rich tones and lush textures of pure chocolate juxtaposed against rustic, homespun preparations.  It’s part concept journal and part chocolate as high art, but on all accounts they add up deliciously.  I’ve yet to test drive a single recipe, but after my recent experimentations with chocolate and ‘nduja I’ve been inexplicably drawn to some of his more whimsical combinations, including chocolate water crackers (for cheese), fig and date tarts with cumin chocolate syrup and cedar cassia truffles (to name a few).  I’ve no doubt that once I start I will work my way through the book in its entirety.

Especially helpful for the novice chocolatier is the glossary near the beginning that identifies certain flavours that marry well with distinct varieties of single origin chocolate.  I may be somewhere between amateur and professional (having only dabbled in truffle making during my late teens and early twenties under the moniker Princess P) but even I found the table to be an invaluable tool.  I’ve also found it curiously prevalent for British recipes to specify the variety of sugar; whether it’s turbinado, muscovado, caster or any other, nothing is left to chance in the precise flavour compilations Young is after (definitely a trend I would like to catch on universally).


New Beginnings


Tomorrow is my birthday.

So, it seems only fitting that as I prepare to spend another year in this skin, I should reflect on what it is I’m planning to do in the coming months, particularly in relation to gardening.

With the exception of the various forms of root stock I ordered (potatoes, sunchokes and asparagus) all of my seeds have arrived.  I spread them out on the kitchen table last night and simultaneously felt surges of fear and excitement.  There’s something rather exhilarating about the potential of this year’s garden with the many unknowns I’m introducing into the equation, but at the same time I can also see the immense amount of work all of the seed packs represent.

Of course, the few months between receiving the seeds and actually planting them into the ground is excruciatingly painful for someone as impatient as I am.  There is the distraction of starting the seeds in the basement, but that is just a temporary solution, which is why I invariably end up going back to the seed catalogues that keep showing up at my door and ordering more.  In fact, immediately after I placed the orders for all of the seed packets that you see above, another Richter’s magazine (ironically) showed up, attempting to entice me into purchasing again.  To date I haven’t caved, but only because I’m not sure whether I realistically have room for all of the things I’ve already bought.  Regardless of that concern, I’m sure before May rolls around there will be a few more seed orders arriving at my door.

As an added bonus, the company that sent me the seeds on the very left (Heritage Harvest) included a free package of tomato seeds with my order, and I’m very intrigued by them.  They’re called Henderson’s Wins All and apparently this heritage variety grows grotesquely massive 2-3 pound specimens.  While some of you may be aware of my fascination with all things tiny and squee, I’m also (surprisingly) amazed by those biggest vegetable ever contests that people hold every harvest season.  Between the Sicilian Saucer (another 3 pound beast) and this new Henderson’s I think I’m going to have giantesse all wrapped up this year.  I’m expecting it’ll be a very Alice In Wonderland-esque garden with all of the tiny cherry tomatoes being dwarfed by these 2 oversized plants.


An Unorthodox Usage For Lard


As you may recall, one of the things I wanted for Christmas was a bag of Chris Cosentino’s Boccalone lard caramels (amongst other things).

After the holidays I was able to cross a few things off that massive list (I Know How To Cook, the dough press, a scraping beater, a rolling pin and the spice storage solution, specifically), but I was still no closer to tasting those caramels.  As I probably mentioned at the time of writing, unless I get myself (or someone I know) to California (which is highly unlikely) I don’t have much chance of partaking of them any time soon, either.

You may also have noticed that this past weekend I rendered down the better part of 10 pounds of pork fat into lard, the majority of which has been earmarked for sealing the prosciutto.  Even after taking that into consideration, there was still a fair amount of fat left over.  Some I planned to freeze for another day, but it occurred to me that I had enough of a surplus to sacrifice a little to a lard caramel experiment.

When I first read about these fancy lard caramels, I assumed there must be some magical twist to them.  Further research revealed that wasn’t the case, and in fact the only thing unique about them (compared to other caramels) is the fact that the lard supposedly comes from Cosentino’s restaurant.  Beyond that, everything I read indicated they’ve employed a fairly standard caramel recipe.


Larding The Pantry

Pure As The Driven Snow

As some of you may recall, late last year I embarked on an attempt to cure my own prosciutto.

And now, as the first stage of that nearly 2 year process draws to a close, we’ve come to one of the more time-consuming and arduous tasks.

Having been rested in a salt and herb coat for quite some time now, the prosciutto is nearly ready to be smeared with a mixture of lard and black pepper and hung to be aged until it’s magically delicious.

Of course, to get to that point, one has to have a fair amount of lard.

Lucky for me I bought half a pig last summer, which came with its own lion’s share of fat.  As you may know, fat can eventually be rendered down into lard.


What Shall We Eat For Dinner?

The Gastronomy Of Marriage

I’ve often wondered if those 6 words might just be one of the most uttered phrases in any relationship.

Having caught up on some (long overdue) reading lately, I’ve had my nose stuck into The Gastronomy Of Marriage by Michelle Maisto for the better part of the past week, a tale which attempts to answer that exact question.

I’d first heard about the book back in December, while combing through one of many ‘makes a great gift for a foodie’ guides that tend to present themselves right before the holidays.  The summary made the story sound interesting enough, so I’d earmarked it on my Chapters wish list and then forgotten all about it.  While at the bookstore returning a duplicate gift after Christmas, I’d spied the bright veg on its cover and was inspired to take it home.

I’m not entirely certain what it is about the photo, but there’s something romantic, sensual, yet poignantly sad about those 2 crooked gourds wrapped around each other.  Perhaps I’m just full of silly sentimentality, but to me it evokes an us-against-the-world feel which doggedly tugs upon my heartstrings.

Throughout the story, Maisto explores the link between family and food and how they influence our personal opinions of what makes a suitable meal (or comfortable life), all against the backdrop of her impending marriage.  Combining the single households of Italian American Maisto and her Chinese American husband prior to their nuptials often produces comical results.