Posts Tagged ‘New Moroccan’

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!

The Hen That Laid the Golden Eggs, and more notes on ethical meat

The days are short now, cold nights make a warm stove welcome, and there are longer evenings in which to do my culinary experimenting. Sometimes I like to try unknown ingredients and cuisines that are new to me, and sometimes I like to try slight twists on familiar favorites. Right now I have an abundance of good chicken raised in my own yard, and a simple roast chicken is great when it has real chicken flavor. These birds are big (the one we ate for Thanksgiving had a dressed weight of 14 pounds) and they look quite impressive roasted, but of course a smaller chicken is fine as long as it was raised properly and tastes like a real chicken. Here I followed my usual MO for roasting a chicken (see my post on roast chicken) with a couple of changes.
Twist #1: Since these huge birds have deep breasts which can dry out near the surface by the time the center is cooked properly, I injected the breast with a half-and-half mixture of melted butter and concentrated homemade chicken broth to improve the juiciness. You can buy injectors for this purpose which have big needles that won’t clog up easily. This isn’t as necessary on a smaller chicken, but is still a very tasty touch.
Twist #2: I carved the potatoes into eggs and browned them well in a skillet with some olive oil before putting them in the oven to roast. Keep them in a separate roasting pan and put them in the oven about 50 minutes before the chicken will be done. Be sure to sprinkle them with salt. Baste them regularly with chicken pan juices (you will need to keep adding good broth to the chicken pan to have enough juices.) When you take the chicken out to rest before carving, test the potatoes for doneness and leave them in the oven if needed while the chicken rests. Then pile them around the hen and bear the laden platter to the table. I also carve some chunks of carrot into smaller, goldener eggs to roast in the chicken pan, but I’ll be the first to admit that this is unnecessary fiddling.
If your bird isn’t a hen, it can be the rooster that laid golden eggs, an even rarer phenomenon. I suppose that if you were obsessive enough, you could cut some chard leaves or kale leaves into long, trailing tail feathers to make the phoenix that laid golden eggs, but this is the sort of culinary feat that announces to your friends and loved ones that you spend way too much time thinking about matters unrelated to real life. It will get you talked about, and not in a good way. But if your tastes lean toward culinary fantasy, it’s worth trying anyway. Since you are already lost to reason, consider carving some blue potatoes and purple carrots into colored eggs to add to the general picture of barbaric opulence.

Now, about those notes on ethical meat that I promised you. None of my homesteading ventures have been treated with more dubiousness by others than my decision to raise chickens for meat and harvest them myself. But from a personal standpoint, it’s the best project that I’ve undertaken. The way that commercial chickens are raised is appalling, and fancy labeling about “free range” means very little. If you want details, read the section on chickens in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and then remind yourself that Pollan is describing a best-case scenario. Then, get real about what you eat. Sometimes I come across writing by others who have participated in the harvest of meat, and today I’d like to share a clip from Mourad Lahlou’s marvelous book New Moroccan. He describes how in his Moroccan home, it was the duty of one adult man to kill meat animals with maximum speed and minimum suffering for the animal, and that it was an activity conducted after prayer and one that the whole family gathered to witness. At thirteen he was taught to do the ritual slaughter by his grandfather. He says “No doubt your reaction to this is that it seems barbaric. But I’m telling you that it’s the opposite, not simply because the slaughter is done in a humane way, but because the act of witnessing it is a reminder that we can never take a life for granted. When you’ve seen an animal give its life for you, you don’t take it lightly. You cook it with care. You eat it with respect. And perhaps the greater barbarism is never coming face to face with that, and pretending that meat comes from a market and not an animal.” Amen to that.
Mourad’s book is one of the best new cookbooks I’ve come across for years, and I recommend it to anyone for the marvelous writing as well as for the recipes.

In the near future I’ll write about exactly how I produce the chickens.