Archive for the ‘Books worth reading’ Category

Food for Thought: A Cookbook for Cooking and for Thinking

I have been  vegetable gardening all of my adult life, and own several shelves full of vegetable cookbooks, and I have a very high bar when it comes to buying new ones.  Actually, that’s not true. I buy new ones in a fairly promiscuous fashion because that is my addiction, but I have a very high bar indeed for recommending that other people spend their hard-earned money on them.

So  here’s what I have to say about  Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables by Joshua McFadden: go buy it.  Now. Read it. Think about it.  It really will bring you to think in a new way about how to handle familiar vegetables.  Take salads, for instance. I like salads well enough but am almost never really excited by them.  They always seem a little predictable to me, and just throwing some meat, cheese, or eggy thing of some kind on top does not make them interesting in my view. McFadden’s  way of putting a substantial “pad” of seasoned nut butter sauce, savory seasoned whipped cream, whipped seasoned ricotta cheese, or other interesting  possibilities underneath the salad does make them seem new and like a real meal that I am happy to eat.

As good as the recipes are, I put this one in the “thinking cookbook” category,  i.e. an idea-rich cookbook that will affect the food you put on the table whether you were actually following a recipe from the cookbook or not.  Take the salad shown above, for example.  I had a lot of lettuce in the garden, including some dark red lettuce that still looked beautiful but had grown the slightest bit bitter  in hot weather.  I kept tasting bits of the leaves, thinking about what would make them taste good.  Ultimately, I whipped and seasoned some homegrown goat ricotta  with olive oil and salt, and smeared the plates with it, then arranged the red lettuce and some sweet green lettuce on top.  Then I put some of the ricotta mixture in the blender with an egg yolk and two cloves of roasted garlic, blended in more olive oil and some salt, and acidified it with lemon juice and white wine vinegar until it tasted just right, added some chopped marjoram because it seemed to fit in well, and used that as the dressing. I slivered shallot greens, soaked them in cold water briefly as McFadden recommends, pressed dry, and scattered them all over, and finished with warm leftover steak and bright sweet crunchy slivers of kumquat rind. The earthy rich ricotta dressing made the faintly bitter lettuce just right and complemented the steak beautifully, and dripped down to the whipped ricotta beneath to season it, while the kumquat rind added an electric zing.   Delicious and interesting to eat. It isn’t a McFadden recipe per se  but was entirely inspired by his methods and I would not have come up with it without reading his book.

The cooked vegetable recipes are very good too, as are the techniques. Just to name one, McFadden recommends grilling your vegetables “dry,” i.e. without oil, and then drizzling them with olive oil afterwards on the grounds that the burnt oil produces strange chemical flavors.   Even if you like the ones grilled in oil, I think you’ll like his method better. Try it and see.  I am also a fan of his section on pickles. These are not pickles that you can put on your shelf and keep forever. They are quick, delicate refrigerator pickles that serve as seasoning and garnish and add wonderful nuances to the flavor of vegetables.

This is a useful and excellent book at any price,  but I do wish to point out that the Kindle version is a special bargain and I highly recommend it.

Full Flavors: Hop Shoots and Goat Chops

“”Boy, I could go for some goat right now” said no American ever. But I have no idea why that is. If you are an urban or rural  homesteader you have probably considered goats because they are hardy, compact, dual-purpose, remarkably productive for their size, and extremely friendly. But you have probably thought, or been told, that the meat is strong-flavored and unappealing.

If you are dealing  with an old goat, this is certainly true, but I can’t imagine butchering an old goat. Goats under a year old are delicious, with a full robust flavor that people who shop at the supermarket can hardly imagine, but nothing that can fairly be described as gaminess. The ones that I occasionally produce for our household are 100% alfalfa-fed. If you are lucky enough to have access to such meat, cook it with respect. For the chops, that means marinating with garlic and herbs and grilling medium-rare because the meat gets tough if allowed to dry out. If you can’t get young grass-fed goat, apply the same principles to lamb chops, another meat that has not yet had the flavor bred out of it. Sear on the grill to medium-rare, let rest in a 200 degree oven for 10 minutes, and serve with a veggie that works with robust flavors, such as the pan-grilled hops shoots shown here.

I sometimes think that the direction of mainstream American agriculture is to eliminate anything that has a distinctive flavor. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve rediscovered dry-aged beef and gotten away from chicken breast, which (unless you raised it yourself) is the most tasteless and cottony part of a tasteless and cottony bird. I have tasted prime-grade beef that had no discernible beef flavor, just a fatty faint sweetness.   Spinach is sold in the baby-leaf stage when it has no intrinsic flavor. Corn is as sugary-sweet as cotton candy, with no “corn” flavor to speak of.  It makes me grateful beyond words for my tiny patch of land where I can grow hops shoots and chicory and grape leaves and wild weeds and herbs of all kinds to feed my desire for food that tastes of itself.

By the way, I cook hops shoots a lot in the spring and after trying several methods, I’ve decided that the only one worth pursuing is to cut the shoots in lengths about 1.5 inches long and stir-fry  in a hot pan with some very good olive oil, a hefty pinch of salt, and nothing else. Continue to cook, stirring intermittently, until there are browned spots and the little nascent leaves are fried crisp. This gives them the richness to accent their slight wild bitterness and makes them truly delicious. Like good goat chops, they are a feral and flavorful treat

I mentioned marinating goat and lamb, and my favorite marinade is the one that my mother used when I was growing up, with a tweak or two from me. It’s great for goat, lamb, and beef.  Tinker with it as you see fit, but at least once  try it as written here, with the finish described:

Red meat marinade:

1/2 cup good olive oil

1/2 cup soy sauce

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Red Boat fish sauce or 2 mashed fillets of anchovy

2-3 crushed cloves of garlic (I prefer 3) or a couple of stalks of green garlic, sliced fine and then crushed in a mortar and pestle

a small handful of celery leaves, chopped

Mix all ingredients and let sit half an hour, then pour over chops in a dish and let marinate at least four hours and preferably overnight in the refrigerator.

Finish: remove from marinade and salt lavishly on both sides with alder-smoked salt. Sear on a hot grill to produce the ultra flavorful Maillard reactions. Lower heat and grill until done, but no more than medium-rare. Rest in a low oven. Eat and weep. The alder salt makes the meat jump into deliciousness. It’s a case of robust meeting robust and the flame of love being kindled.

If you get interested in producing a bit of your own meat or supporting a farmer who does, study the book “Goat” for more cooking inspiration. Goats and sheep produce milk and meat from land that wouldn’t support crop agriculture, and their meat still has its own distinctive and wonderful flavor. This book was published years ago but, regrettably, there is still nothing else like it.

 

Unforgettable Paula Wolfert: A Tribute


When I was in my early 20s and becoming aware that I was by far my happiest in the kitchen and my interest in flavor and food was on a level that was not entirely normal, America was obsessing over classic French and Italian cuisine. Anxious cooks were obsessed with anything Julia. Later there was anything Marcella. But it was an oddly joyless time. If you went to a dinner party, you were expected to talk all evening about the food. Very little ever got said about anything but the food. There was a lot of competition involved, and the kitchen ethic that I grew up with in Louisiana, that of getting over yourself and cooking something good and inviting people in to enjoy themselves and each other, did not seem to be there.
Fortunately in Manhattan in the early 80s there was joyful food to be had. I would make the very long walk to Manhattan’s Chinatown, where there were basins full of wriggling seafood and strange vegetables all along the sidewalks, and ginger and wild-looking dried things that might be fungal or might be animal, and the elderly vendors would hand me unfamiliar vegetables with the invariable instruction “cook in soup.” There were the Indian markets on Lexington Avenue, full of wonderful spices with a combined aroma that seemed like Nirvana, where a passing shopper in a gleaming sari might easily stop and spent 20 minutes telling me how she cooked greens or chappati like the ones her grandmother made. There was a Greek market on Ninth Avenue that sold green coffee beans for roasting at home and olives from enormous barrels and where the proprietor might cheerfully pass me a shot of Greek brandy as he wrote up my modest purchases, for the pleasure of watching me gasp and sputter as I tried to swallow it.
And there was Paula Wolfert. Instead of the staid rhythms of a classic cuisine, she wrote about the bold, the unexpected, and the renegade food of the world.  Her recipes were long and extremely detailed and assumed that you loved to be in the kitchen and that spending a few extra hours there was nothing but a pleasure.  She wrote about food that was not for showing off, but intended to warm and nourish people and make them incredibly happy.   Her name became a kind of secret code among enthusiastic home cooks, and we might have long pleasurable arguments about which of her books was best.  I bought my first couscoussiere, a huge tin lined copper beauty that was the glory of my kitchen and astonishingly cheap at the time because few people in America wanted one.  I preserved lemons and cooked chickpeas  and developed a serious addiction to coriander leaves and toasted my own spices and longed for an exciting life like Paula’s.  As Paula went on through various Mediterranean cuisines, I went with her, loving every minute of the journey.  My Paula Wolfert cookbooks are ragged, broken backed, and splashed with food, which is as it should be. In some cases they look less blemished, because I wore out the original copy and got a new one.

In 2013 Paula was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and consistent with her personality, she not only tried every way she could to maintain her own health but became a spokesperson for others with the illness.

The cookbook Unforgettable, with the story of Paula’s life woven through recipes that she loves, has just been published through a Kickstarter campaign, and all diehard fans will want to own it. You can find it on Amazon. But don’t forget all the other books that chronicled her passionate interests through the years and gave us recipes that we will never forget.
Even though we never met, Paula was my constant kitchen companion for decades. My hat is off to her, now and always. And by the way; best Paula Wolfert cookbook ever? Mediterranean Grains and Greens. No question. Or if you aren’t convinced, meet me in the kitchen sometime and we can have a lovely argument about it.

The Oyster of the Woods

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There is nothing more interesting than mushrooms. Really. An independent kingdom of organisms, they have much in common with animals and their interactions with plants are complex and often beneficial. For a wonderful read about mushrooms and their biological role, check out Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running, and you will be wonderstruck at the hypheal hijinks going on all around you.
They are extremely easy to grow for everyone but me.  I am convinced that mushrooms have a very important role to play in a functioning urban homestead, even here in the high desert.  So far, however, I have been unable to make that work out in practice.  I have tried spreading the spawn among existing plantings under heavy straw mulches, and putting the spawn in piles of hard wood chips, and so far have not had any significant success, due to lack of consistent moisture, lack of shade, dry air, and insufficient attention.  I have harvested a few mushrooms, but nothing to write home about.  That is why the below images below are borrowed, to show how easily it can be done in moister climates than mine.
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Since I have finally accepted that it’s going to take more focus than just throwing some spawn around, my next attempt will be to insert plug spawn into damp hay bales in the dense shade of my black locust tree. I have also cut down a small Siberian elm recently and have a few pieces of suitable fresh log to try drilling plug spawn into. Next August I will harvest them, or not.
Meanwhile, many farmers’ markets have a mushroom farmer or two, and oysters can be found in our river bosque here and in many woods and forests if you are a knowledgable forager and know exactly what you are picking. Mushroom foraging is not for you unless you are prepared to study it seriously and know all your local toxics. No margin for error here.
However you get hold of them, good oyster mushrooms are just delicious. I love their earthy-almondy aroma and their meaty texture. I like them best simply pan-fried with a little macadamia oil and salt, but roasting them with a bit of butter and soy is awfully good, and so is grilling them rubbed with olive oil. The addition of a little chicken glacé early in the cooking stage so that it can cook into the caps suits their meaty flavor.
For preserving, I roast them with macadamia oil and salt just to the point that they are cooked through, cool them, bag, and freeze. When wanted, they can be thawed and pan-grilled until they get some lovely brown crunchy bits. I dehydrate the clean stems as long as they’re not buggy and grind them into oyster flour to thicken mushroom sauces and soups. I admit that I also open my little bag of oyster flour just to inhale deeply and recall the woods where I found them.
Yesterday I found that I had tossed more caps with macadamia oil and salt than would fit in my roasting pans, and stuck the surplus in the dehydrator. They emerged as delicious crunchy lightly browned Oyster Crackers. Yum. I will make more of those. A small pan-grilled cap on an Oyster Cracker would make a wonderful cook’s treat. In fact, a couple of them with nothing on top made a great cook’s treat…

The Semi-Permaculture Kitchen

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Recently I read a cookbook which I am not going to name because I was quite disappointed in it but can’t stand to pan such clearly goodhearted efforts. So I will only say that it is from my favorite publisher and has the word “permaculture” in the title. The recipes are perfectly good vegetable based recipes, similar to those in many, many other good cookbooks on the market. My disappointment is this: it concentrates on the usual annual vegetables that everybody grows, with occasional vague mentions of foraged greens or wild mushrooms, and seems to me to have very little to do with permaculture. So, uh, why call it that?
So today I’m going to indulge myself and make a plea to all potential authors, and talk about what a real permaculture cookbook would offer, with great hope that somebody knows of one or will sit down and write one. I am a semi-permaculturist at best, and even so some very strange produce indeed comes through my kitchen. Some examples: nettles, bladder campion, hops shoots, green garlic, blackberry shoots, cattails, unripe as well as ripe apples and plums, Goumi berries, clove currants, wax currants, linden leaves, mulberry leaves and unripe fruit as well as ripe berries, rau ram, ginger and turmeric leaves, radish pods, chicory leaves and roots, burdock stalks, milkweed, daylilies, hosta shoots, groundnuts (Apios americana, not peanuts,) goji shoots and berries, canna leaves and bulbs, quinces, salsify, and scorzonera as well as the more usual veggies and fruits. Bamboo shoots and the Japanese perennial vegetables Fuki and Udo should be ready to harvest in the next year or two. All these things grow well in semiwild tangles that can be managed with little or no soil disturbance after the initial planting. I would love to read a cookbook about foods like this. I would love to read knowledgable descriptions of their flavor and texture profiles and how they change through the season, how other cultures have used them, and how to make them respected at the modern table. That, to me, would be a real permaculture cookbook. I know that all over the world there are committed permaculturists working with these plants and eating them. I do hope that somebody will put it all in print. I’m hoping for a cookbook as weird and thoroughly wonderful as Baudar’s The New Wildcrafted Cuisine but devoted to the daily surprises, wild and cultivated and in-between, that can be offered by a single piece of land.

While I wait for this book to be brought to my attention, or written, I hope that you will comment with something unusual that you’ve eaten recently and what you thought of it.
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Dietary Advice: so wrong for so long

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I recently came across a piece of investigative journalism in The Guardian that I feel sums up the problems in nutritional guidelines, and how they got so screwed up, better than any other lay article that I have read. It is also a fascinating piece on how science self-corrects, but  surprisingly slowly. It is well worth a read.

I would draw attention especially to the paragraph which reads ” This [the social community of scientists] makes scientific inquiry  prone to the  eternal rules of  human social life: deference to the charismatic,  herding toward the majority opinion, punishment for deviance, and intense discomfort with admitting error.  Of course, such tendencies were exactly what the scientific method was invented to correct for, and in the long run it does a good job of it. In the long run, however, we’re all dead, quite  possibly sooner than we would  be if we hadn’t been following a diet based on poor advice.”

http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin

A Cookbook to Make You Think: The New Wildcrafted Cuisine

 

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Some cookbooks make you cook. The recipes are smart and well-crafted and will clearly work, and you want to run to the kitchen and get started.

Other cookbooks make you think. They are provocative and, at their best, subversive, and expand your possibilities even if you never cook a single recipe.

Today we have a thinking cookbook. When I first looked at this book a few weeks ago it seemed meant to be weird. In fact, it seemed at first to have a self-consciously outré quality that set my teeth on edge. An example: “lemonade” made, not with citrus, but with 2000 lemon ants, a citrusy-tasting ant found in Southern California, crushed and macerated. Surely juicing a lemon would be quicker and better, although the image of some earnest chef-wannabe counting out 2000 lemon ants is an interesting one that will be with me for a while. The author proposes that some fermentations to make vinegar need to get started from the fruit flies that they naturally attract because the little bugs carry something (Acetobacter presumably) that start the conversion to vinegar. Yech. As I see it, fruit flies are why humans invented cheesecloth, and nothing will convince me that they are better fermented than slurped straight-up just as they land in your wineglass, an ingestion that I avoid if at all possible. There are a series of recipes with “forest floor” seasonings composed of grass and leaves found under trees, and I can’t say that I have ever nibbled on a grass that I would consider potentially useful as a seasoning. There are a lot of recipes for lacto-ferments, and having lived through the last lacto-fermenting craze, I am not very enthusiastic about having another one. Lacto-fermented elderflower “beer” might sound elegant but is nowhere near as good as a well-made wine. The current obsession with local terroir in wine often involves mediocre grapes, inferior bottling practices, and determination to drink bad wine because it somehow tastes of the locale, and I thought that author/forager Baudar’s “primitive brews” would be much like that.

In short, I thought that I would pan this book and get on with other things. Instead, after owning it for a few weeks, I keep going back to it and thinking, and gradually realizing how wrong my first impression was. I have seldom encountered a book that makes me think as creatively about possibilities, and this is after reading, foraging, and cooking for decades. Now the lemon-ant lemonade seems, not tricksy and silly and literally intended, but an invitation to explore the possibilities around you in ways that you might never have thought of on your own. In effect, the recipe tells you “Don’t limit yourself. Think about every possibility.”  Bauder’s practice of letting his gaze light on something familiar and spending some time thinking about its culinary possibilities is infecting me with new pleasures and possibilities. Make wild greens kimchee out of whatever greens suit your fancy, and not only enjoy it as is but dehydrate it to use as a seasoning? Sure. Try cold-infusing the deliciously honey-scented goumi blossoms in my front yard to make a drink, as Baudar does with elder flowers and others? Not until my bushes get bigger, but then I will. Put a few of their blossoms on salads now? Of course. The trash Siberian elms that invade the Rio Grande bosque; have I ever thought about whether their scented cambium (inner bark) had any flavoring possibilities if roasted or smoked and infused? Not until I read this book. I like to make verjus from unripe grapes in the summer and enjoy its clean sourness anywhere that I might use lemon juice, but I’ve never thought of juicing other unripe fruits for the same purpose, and I’ll enjoy testing their range of flavors. I may well try roasting outdoors on a hot stone, or cooking something fast and delicate by arranging pine needles and herbs over the food in question and burning them. It has been a decade since I made flavored vinegars for shrubs, but now I will because this book has excited me all over again about the possibilities. And yes, I will certainly be trying “primitive brews” akin to his and experimenting with my local versions of his SoBeers, fizzy low-alcohol concoctions somewhere in between soda and beer. I’ll be tasting my own local grasses and herbs again to test their flavoring possibilities. I’ll be making vinegar-based and fermented hot sauces. I’ll try vinegars flavored with an assortment of my local seeds to grind into a mustard-like condiment. In short, I will view the familiar things around me, with uses that I think I already know, with new excitement and find new uses for them. Once over my initial dubiousness, I began to think that this is one of the most exciting cookbooks that I have read in a very long time. See where it leads you. Odds are that I will never cook a single recipe from it as written, because that isn’t the point.

I trust that it goes without saying (but here it is anyway): YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY when foraging. Study, consult guidebooks, and know for certain what you are about to taste. This book is not a guidebook and will not teach you the safety of your own local plants and animals. Don’t wander around tasting things at random, like a feckless innocent in Not-Eden. That kind of thing gives foraging a bad name.