Archive for December, 2011

Some of my current favorite books


Winter in central New Mexico is a time of spectacular, and early, sunsets. Once I’ve enjoyed the light show, I’m ready for a long evening of cooking and reading. I don’t do any posts about “best books of the year” because many of the most useful and interesting books that I read are old, and some of the best are things that I’ve read before and have returned to this year because they are good and useful. So this list is personal, opinionated, and idiosyncratic. With that in mind, here are some of the books that I used most this year.

An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler
I didn’t expect to like this book, based on preliminary information that it was a book of culinary essays. Over the years I’ve become dubious about culinary essays because there are too many of them, many of them sound just like one another, most of them elevate the obvious, and nearly all of them lust a little too obviously after M. F. K. Fisher. THis one, however, has a genuinely original voice and was one of the most interesting books on food that I read in 2011. Ms. Adler’s organizing principle is thrift, and her musings offer a system of thought in which every product created in the kitchen can lead to future, equally delicious, products of the kitchen. Follow the flow of her thoughts about avoiding waste of food or effort and, whether you are a beginning home cook or an old hand, you will learn things about how to make your efforts pay future interest. In addition, you’ll enjoy yourself a lot.

Simple French Food, by Richard Olney
This is a real oldie, but in my opinion everyone with a real interest in cooking should reread it every couple of years. At a time when Julia Child was laying down rules of French cooking for anxious Americans, Olney was capturing the spirit of day-to-day Provencal cuisine, where thoughtful improvisation is informed by classic principles, and rational frugality is made delicious. The chapter on improvisational cooking is a culinary classic, and should be read by all cooks who try to improvise without really thinking about their potential ingredients first. On second thought, it should be read by all cooks.

New Moroccan, by Mourad Lahlou.
This one is new this year, and may be my favorite of the current crop of new cookbooks. The “memoir with recipes” is a very overdone genre, but this one is the real deal, where memories and personal history genuinely inform the author’s thoughtful musings about food and cooking. It doesn’t really matter if you make the recipes or not; you will be a better, more thoughtful cook after exposing yourself to the way that Mourad thinks about food. I should add that, as would be expected, the recipes are very complex. You may never make a single one of them precisely as written, but they are lovely to read and give insight into a culture where many people spent a lot of time thinking about food. I have never been to Morocco, but my childhood in food-obsessed Louisiana wasn’t much different in spirit, so this volume was oddly nostalgic for me.

Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, by Diana Henry
This one is subtitled “Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean, and North Africa” and this is certainly accurate, but like all my favorite cookbooks, there are gems of description here that help a cook use ingredients really well. Here is Ms. Henry on cumin: “A real workhorse, its coarse ridged seeds smell like earth and life: fresh sweat, sex, dust, maleness.” In one sentence, you have the germ of a mindset about how to use cumin intelligently in cooking, and a clear visceral sense of where it doesn’t belong. I have had this book for a few years, and come back to it regularly.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, by Jennifer Reese.
Ms. Reese lost her job, a common story these days. She began to experiment with doing more food production at home, and wrote a book about which things are worth doing and which things are not. I disagree with her about many specifics; just for starters, she is vehement about not raising meat birds at home, while I think it’s one of the most valuable of my home food production systems. Nonetheless, her experiments and conclusions are always worth thinking about. I should point out that there was still an income in the family, and the financial freedom to spend $1600 on goats and goat necessities that she admits will never pencil out, so this is not a poverty-level view, but it contains valuable information for the frugal middle class and for people who like to do things for themselves, even if they cost a bit more that way. In one vignette that I especially like, she describes her husband saying about one of her proposed projects “it’s like we wanted to go for a drive, so you decided to build a car.” If you have self-sufficient leanings, keep it reasonable, for others in the household as well as for yourself. This book is a fun read with a good perspective, and while your own decisions about what’s worth doing may be different from the author’s, you are likely to have a good time.

The Weekend Homesteader, by Anna Hess
This one is not a book but a monthly newsletter available electronically. It’s based on the premise of doing one major homesteading task and a number of minor ones each weekend for a year. The projects are intelligent and well-described, the writing is good, the slant is practical rather than wild-eyed, and it is clearly the work of someone who has actually done the work. Highly recommended.

Mini Farming, by Brett Markham, and The New food Garden, by Frank Tozer
I have referred to both these books over and over since I bought them, and I wouldn’t want to be without either one of them. Right now, I’m thinking of incorporating more aesthetic elements into my back yard and so I’m consulting Tozer’s book more. When I’m on an efficiency kick, I use Markham’s volume more. Get them both, and skip the many pile-on-the-trend books out there by authors who clearly haven’t walked the walk.

The Vegetable Book and The Fruit Book, both by Jane Grigson
I can’t imagine being without these fine older books, and when I finally use my well-thumbed current copies to death I’ll buy new ones. You can’t do better for the products of your garden than to get these books, read them, and use them.

Happy holidays, and many happy winter evenings to you!

Winter pleasures: pomegranates


Pomegranates are a common landscape plant in our area, although our recent cold winters have culled them pretty heavily. A little further south, they can be found naturalized by roadsides. They are ripe in early winter, and there are lots of ways to use them in cooking, but I also like them as juice. The juice is tannic, and in my view needs softening, so I drink it in orange juice, using one medium-sized pomegranate for every two or three oranges. I cut the pomegranates in half and juice them in the orange squeezer, but if you don’t have one, you can hold each cut half over a bowl and squeeze the inside with a large rounded spoon to extract the lovely crimson juice. Salute the season, and enjoy. After starting a winter morning with this lovely toast, you can complete the evening with a pomegranate margarita if you feel so inclined.

The Very Composed Salad, and notes on vinaigrette


For the most part I make simple salads when I make salads at all, relying on top-quality greens and a well-made vinaigrette for effect. But the salade composee, or composed salad, will always be dear to me because I can remember when Salade Nicoise was the very height of Manhattan foodie chic and Nocoise olives were hard to find. The urge to make a greater spectacle of my salads comes over me in midwinter, when short days and long nights give me more time to fiddle. In my opinion, this salad is one worth fiddling with.
For two people, I started with a small red onion, half a head of purple cauliflower (probably 5-6 ounces, or a heaping cup of trimmed florets) , a very firm red-skinned pear, and a small head of castelfranco raddicchio from the garden. A small head of round or Treviso raddicchio from the store would work just as well. I had on hand a third of a cup or so of red-wine-vinegar vinaigrette (see notes below) and a bottle of truly superb olive oil.
First, heat 1.5 cups of water to boiling, adding a tablespoon of salt and the juice of half a lemon. The lemon juice is essential to keep the red/purple veggies from turning an awful muddy grey. Trim the cauliflower florets neatly, slicing the stems where needed so that all pieces are about the same size. Drop them in the boiling acidulated water, cover tightly and turn the heat down to medium, and poach at a fast simmer for eight minutes. While it cooks,slice half of the onion very finely (save the other half for something else) and put them in a bowl. After eight minutes, drain the cauliflower, pouring its poaching liquid into the bowl with the onion slices. Run cold water over the cauliflower pieces to chill them, and set them aside to drain thoroughly. Stir the onions around a little, then let sit for half an hour. Drain the onion, press out excess moisture but don’t rinse, squeeze on a few more drops of fresh lemon juice, work them through the soft onion strands with your fingers, and set aside. Wash the radicchio thoroughly and spin it dry or whirl it around in a kitchen towel (outdoors, please) until reasonably dry. Put it back in the refrigerator. Rinse the lemon juice off the onion slices and squeeze them dry in a towel. You can do all this up to two hours before dinner. Everything should be at room temperature except the radicchio, which is used cold from the refrigerator.

When ready to eat, use a very sharp knife to cut thin slices off the pear. Choose your salad plates, preferably red ones, but black looks equally good and very dramatic. White will do. Arrange some torn radicchio leaves artistically on two plates. Toss the thin pear slices around over them. Pile half the cauliflower florets on each plate, keeping them toward the center so that the radicchio and pear show clearly. Place some onion slices (which will now be soft and magenta in color) over and around the salad. Drizzle with a tablespoon or two of the vinaigrette, and then drizzle lightly with your very best olive oil, taking care to get some gleaming golden drops on the pear slices. Grind just a touch of pepper over the top. Serve.
Purple cauliflower is widely available in this season. Check your favorite food co-op if it has a good produce section, or try Whole Foods. If you can’t find any, the yellow Cheddar cauliflower will give a different but still nice effect. A light scattering of toasted pine nuts or walnuts would be a great addition to this very autumnal salad. Don’t be tempted to throw in any cheese, no matter how fine a cheese it is. The pure flavors will get muddy, and the result will be undistinguished. Half the art of the composed salad is being able to stop before you ruin it with over-elaboration.

I have strong, even violent, opinions about vinaigrette. Each vinaigrette has to be made to suit the materials it is meant to enhance. In my opinion, this is the right one for this salad. Nothing that came premixed in a bottle is going to work. I have noted the steps that I consider especially important.

Opinionated Red Wine Vinaigrette

Start with really good olive oil and the best red wine vinegar you can lay hands on. I make my own wine vinegar, so I can’t help you with brands, but it’s essential that it be aged in oak and have a full flavor. The steps fit into general kitchen preparation, so you can do lots of other things while marinating the alliums.
Chop allium: 1 clove garlic chopped very finely, or one small shallot sliced finely, or half a small onion sliced finely. Put the prepared allium of your choice in a small bowl and add half a teaspoon of salt and 3 tablespoons of red wine vinegar. Stir around, and let sit at least 15 minutes. The “sit” is essential to get the right flavor. After this brief curing, add a teaspoon of fresh thyme leaves chopped and half a mashed anchovy fillet or a dash of colatura (my preference.) If you are vegan, or an irredeemable anchovy hater, you can substitute one or two pitted oil-cured olives thoroughly mashed in a mortar and pestle to give the meaty-umami undertone that helps tame bitter leaves like radicchio. Grind in fresh pepper, about 6 turns of the mill, and stir in half a cup of really good olive oil and a tablespoon of roasted walnut or roasted hazelnut oil. Taste and check for salt (remember, it should be on the salty side to season the veggies properly) That’s all there is to it. For other uses you may want to add a little Dijon mustard, vary the herb(s), use lemon juice instead of vinegar, or any of a million other variations, but this is the basic. The worst offenses that I taste in vinaigrettes are mediocre olive oil, bad wine vinegar, and a general excess in seasoning. No amount of herbs will make up for poor basic ingredients. I also dislike drippy, overdressed salads. As I see it, if you can’t taste the leaves and florets, why have them on the plate?
Since young adulthood I’ve cherished a story someone told me about seeing Alice Waters dining out in San Francisco; the eager voyeur insisted that she ate a large salad with her fingers, and then licked them. I have no idea whether it’s true, but if it is, more power to her. I’ll bet that was a good vinaigrette.

Goat milk in the morning, and a great goaty book


My goat does Magnolia and Cocoa are out being bred right now, and the back of my property is depressingly silent, with none of the constant cross-talk that occurs as they stand on the roof of their goathouse observing the antics of the rest of us. It makes me realize how much they’ve become part of our daily lives. In their absence, I’ll talk about some things that I do with goat milk.
Of course I make cheese, mostly soft cheese and halloumi. I plan to discuss cheesemaking in some later post, but for now let’s get on to the fresh milk. You will hear it said that goat milk tastes just like cows’ milk, to which I say “Not so fast.” On day 1, goat milk tastes much like cows’ milk but even when impeccably fresh it has a tangier flavor profile. However, it contains lipase that works on the lipids and changes the flavor. On day 2, it’s good but you will know that you’re drinking goat’s milk. On day 3 it’s quite strong and only good for making stronger cheeses, and on day 4, as far as I’m concerned, it’s chicken food (they love it, by the way.) So the goal is to use it up by the end of day 2.

I’m always looking for nutritious, tasty, and interesting things to eat for breakfast. They have to be very quick, because getting to work in the morning is not optional. And they have to hold me for hours so that I’m not tempted to snack.
One of my favorite breakfasts is a sort of warm pudding of goat’s milk and rice. The flavors are based on an Indian drink of warm milk sweetened and flavored with saffron that I read about in my early twenties. I recommend cooking this in an unglazed clay pot for the ineffable earthiness it confers, but do use a flame-tamer device or a simmer burner, because scorched milk adheres to clay like stucco. You can make several days’ worth at once and it will keep in a good cold refrigerator for up to a week.
Start with eight cups of fresh goat milk. Add half a cup of unwashed uncooked basmati rice or jasmine rice. Start the burner on low, and as your clay pot warms up, increase the heat gradually to medium. Add half a cup of agave nectar (important for its low glycemic index), a half teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of saffron crumbled between your fingers, and a half teaspoon of cardamom crushed finely in a mortar and pestle (please don’t use the preground stuff.) For the first half hour you will need to stir frequently, scraping the bottom of the pot well all over with a wooden spoon so that the grains of rice don’t stick and scorch. Once the milk comes to a good simmer, turn the burner down as low as possible and add the flame-tamer under the pot. Add a large handful of raw shelled pistachios or slivered almonds. Let simmer, uncovered, for 4-5 hours. Stir occasionally. When a milk-skin forms on the top, stir it in. The rice will swell and the milk will cook down. You are aiming for something about the consistency of half-and-half, although naturally it will be lumpy with softened rice grains. It will thicken as it cools. Eventually you will have what looks like a cream-soup of a beautiful creamy-gold color. Turn off the burner and let it cool. Taste when cool, and add a little more sweetening if needed, but keep in mind that this is a breakfast, not a dessert. Store in a container in the refrigerator and ladle out into pretty little bowls, heat gently in the microwave (I use two minutes at the defrost setting for two bowls) and eat. I like to pour a tablespoon or so of extra fresh milk across the top for extra gleam and “juice.” It turns breakfast into a little ten-minute island of luxury, and the boost from my own chemical-free hormone-free alfalfa-fed goat milk is considerable.

Goats are compact, hardy, and economical, and the amount of milk they produce relative to body size is prodigious. It’s no surprise that they were among the earliest domesticated animals (although well after dogs) and that they still help people eke out a living in marginal circumstances all over the world. They are the ideal dairy/meat animal for small properties. And yet, rarely are the meat or milk seen in American cookbooks. This book changes all that, with scores of carefully composed recipes for the meat, milk, and cheese that goats produce. Buy it if you have goats or access to goat products. If you don’t, it’s still a great read, full of stories about the authors’ interactions with these highly interactive animals.
Also, checl out Mark and Bruce’s marvelous blog about making and eating real food, Real Food Has Curves.