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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I just finished reading Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook pretty much back-to-back. Once you’ve read the first, you can’t help but be curious about the latter. The author of both is Anthony Bourdain, an in-your-face guy who somehow provoked in me simultaneous reactions of “Just shut up!” and “Tell me more…”

Kitchen Confidential essentially tracks his crazy career as a good-but-not-great chef, though not in a linear way – there are plenty of asides, advice, rants, and reminiscences. Throughout his tales of drug-fueled kitchen adventures, I kept thinking, “This guy is kind of an asshole,” but the book is saved because of two things. First, you get the sense he would be the first to tell you he’s kind of an asshole. And second, he writes in a truly engaging way about the world of food, from a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of a chef, to a chapter on “how to cook like the pros” (butter and shallots are necessary, a full set of specialized knives is not) to bigger-picture descriptions of how the restaurant industry works. He has an eye for detail that makes you really feel what it’s like to work the line, and this is what kept me turning the pages and tolerating the over-testosteroned tone.

Kitchen Confidential was written when Bourdain was in his mid-forties, recovering from heroin addiction and nearly burned out after decades in many different kitchens, an unknown chef.

What a difference a decade makes.

The book was a hit, and Bourdain is now a celebrity chef with his own TV show, guest judging spots on Top Chef…basically, he’s a star. Case in point: in Kitchen Confidential, he writes about how uber-famous chefs like Eric Ripert wouldn’t be giving him a call anytime soon. In Medium Raw? Ripert is described as his best friend in the world.

Medium Raw is composed of stand-alone chapters covering a wide range of topics, including reflections on Bourdain’s life since Kitchen Confidential and his thoughts on “selling out,” his heroes and villains in the cooking world, and changes and trends in the industry. I found this book to be much more lazily written, with a lot more gratuitous sexualized language (how many times do you really need to compare a food experience to a blow job, getting laid, etc.? Or use the word “clusterfuck?”). And yet…there are still plenty of juicy tidbits and beautiful descriptions of the pleasures of eating and cooking. My favorite chapter, titled “My Aim is True,” profiles the meticulous work of Justo Thomas, who cleans and prepares 700 pounds of fish a day for renowned seafood restaurant Le Bernadin.

If you’re interested in the musings of a man who relishes ripping on everyone from wait staff to vegetarians to food world gods (and of course, “bastard” food bloggers), but still has a true love and reverence for the culture of cooking, I recommend Kitchen Confidential. On the other hand, I’d wait until Medium Raw comes out in paperback. Or save your money entirely and borrow my copy – I’ll put Post-It notes on the good chapters 🙂

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For the last night in our international cuisine challenge, we headed back to more familiar cooking territory: Italian food. Rather than pasta, though, I was in the mood for seafood, and found a recipe for pesce all’acqua pazza in Marcella Hazan’s “Marcella Cucina.”

I liked how Hazan’s recipe intro noted that she was at first turned off by the name of the dish, because I almost passed it up too – Fish in Crazy Water? But I was intrigued by the simplicity of the ingredient list for the sauce: tomatoes, water, garlic, parsley, red chili pepper, olive oil, and salt. I wasn’t expecting anything too exciting, especially after I cut open my apparently ripe tomatoes to reveal disappointingly light pink insides. So, I added a squirt of tomato paste to bump up the color and flavor, and hoped for the best.

We weren’t disappointed – after simmering for over 45 minutes, the ingredients married perfectly into a beautifully rich, flavorful sauce for our rockfish (a good alternative to the called-for red snapper, which is on the seafood watch list to avoid). Even Justin, who prefers meatier, oilier fish, said that this was his favorite dish of the week! I think it didn’t hurt that I served it with his favorite garlicky new potatoes… 🙂

One of the lessons from our experience this week is to not be afraid to get creative: we had no red chilies in house, so I substituted a spoonful of leftover piri piri sauce from the other night. Stay tuned for other thoughts about our international challenge!

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Off to Africa for our sixth night of international cooking! Though one of my all-time favorite cuisines is Ethiopian, I didn’t quite feel up to the challenge of making injera. Nevertheless, we stuck to sub-Saharan East Africa to create sweet potato patties served with mixed greens and mung bean sprouts. The recipe is from a vegetarian cookbook called “World Food Cafe 2” by Chris and Carolyn Caldicott.

The patties are actually a mixture of sweet and white potatoes, onion, red pepper, and fresh corn, flavored with an array of spices including cumin, cinnamon, cloves, turmeric, cayenne peppers, and fresh ginger and cilantro (the recipe also calls for ground cardamom, but at around $15 for a tiny jar, we skipped it!). After frying in sunflower oil, they had a scrumptious flavor similar to some Indian pakoras I’ve had the pleasure to consume. The accompanying piri piri, a chili-based sauce used throughout Africa, added just the right kick of heat – and we have plenty left over to use as a future marinade. Tip: ALWAYS wear gloves when handling hot chilies!

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After our labor-intensive Indian meal, we were eager to prepare something a tad easier for our fourth day around the world. Simple but delicious? We knew we need look no further than Mark Bittman. He’s well-known for his New York Times column “The Minimalist,”  which showcases his signature straightforward cooking style. He also has the cojones to write cookbooks with names like “How to Cook Everything” and “The Best Recipes in the World.” It was the latter in which we found a variation on beef lo mein which had on the table in about 15 minutes: saute Chinese chives and shiitake mushrooms until browned…add garlic, ginger, soy sauce, a little water, and cooked lo mein noodles…toss, and serve!

For such little effort, we were rewarded with big flavors. The satisfyingly chewy noodles provided the perfect stage for the mild onion taste of the Chinese chives (about two feet long before you chop them) and the subtle meatiness of the mushrooms. Bittman notes that this is a traditional dish at weddings and New Year’s parties, but the ease of preparation has earned it a place in our repertoire for much more humble occasions!

Almost as good as the meal itself was the trip to the Asian market for ingredients. I spent much longer there than necessary, taking in the giant sacks of rice and aisles full of fragrant spices and produce. The candy section made me feel like a little kid, and I couldn’t resist bringing home some chocolate “burgers” for dessert!

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I think my love affair with Indian food started in college. My friends and I ate it about once a week, most commonly in the form of a Sunday morning buffet at our favorite restaurant following a late night out. We still laugh about how we would wait outside for the doors to open, and once at our table would order saag paneer in addition to the many all-you-can eat dishes on offer.

I had always wondered about how to recreate the complex flavors of Indian cuisine at home. In one of our few attempts many years ago, this involved grinding MANY different spices with a mortar and pestle. But when I recently took an Indian cooking class with my mom, I discovered another magic ingredient: ghee, or clarified butter. Our instructor had a large jar on hand and kept adding bright yellow scoops to seemingly all the dishes he was teaching us to make, resulting in an incredibly rich and creamy texture.

In our third (and most ambitious) night of world cooking, two of the three recipes called for the use of ghee as the cooking fat. Unfortunately, even a special trip to a market on Devon Avenue didn’t turn up the jarred version. I could have made my own by simmering unsalted butter until the moisture evaporates and the milk solids settle to the bottom, then spooning off the cooked butter…but I chickened out. The dishes were already complex enough without attempting a new technique, so I used the recommended substitution of vegetable oil. Next time!

All of last night’s recipes came from Julie Sahni’s “Classic Indian Cooking.” This is a really well-written cookbook, and I especially like how Sahni provides ideas for accompaniments for each dish. Using these suggestions, we prepared masala jheengari (shrimp laced with mild spices) served with gobhi sabzi (glazed cauliflower with ginger) and hari chutney ka pullao (mint pilaf).

Sahni notes that masala jheengari is the most widely eaten shellfish dish in India, and I can see why. The shrimp are first heated through in turmeric-spiced water, and the cooking liquid then forms the base of the sumptuous sauce consisting of onions, cumin, ground coriander, paprika, yogurt, salt, green chilies, and ground roasted white poppy seeds (I couldn’t find these at the store, so substituted sesame). After reducing to a thick gravy, the shrimp are added back in along with a swirl of heavy cream and some chopped fresh cilantro. The mouth-watering intensity of the finished entree was perfectly complemented by the more subtle flavors of the stir-fried cauliflower and rice studded with potatoes and infused with a mint and coconut puree.

Our Indian meal. Tip: When making basmati rice, factor an additional 30 minutes into your prep time to allow the grains to soak.

All in all (and despite a false start with the shrimp sauce in which I burned the onions and had to start over!), preparing this meal gave me more confidence with cooking Indian food, and I’m looking forward to creating some of our traditional take-out items at home (some favorites: butter chicken, samosas, malai kofta, and my old friend saag paneer!).

Because these recipes yielded a lot of food, we’ll be enjoying the leftovers tonight…but check back soon for our next international meal!

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I love Middle Eastern food, but I have to admit my attempts to cook it at home haven’t extended too far beyond falafel! Last night, we branched out to a main dish and dessert from two different cookbooks.

Up first, we prepared mihshi malfuf (cabbage rolls), a dish native to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. The recipe comes from “Middle Eastern Home Cooking” by Tess Mallos, a beautiful cookbook with full-color photographs of each dish. We opted for the vegetarian filling, a mixture of fried scallions, rice, chickpeas, parsley, tomatoes and olive oil seasoned with allspice, salt, and pepper. The stuffed rolls are drizzled with a garlicky mint sauce, then simmered in water for 45 minutes to allow the rice to cook. Served with yogurt and warm pita bread, the finished product was quite tasty, but the flavors didn’t have the “wow” factor necessary to justify the intensive prep and cooking time, not to mention the 30 minutes the rolls had to rest before eating! Maybe we’ll try the meat filling if we make this meal again?

For dessert, we had burnt honey ice cream from Greg and Lucy Malouf’s “Artichoke to Za’atar: Modern Middle Eastern Food.” We were intrigued by the technique of caramelizing honey to the point that it becomes slightly bitter, then adding it to a custard base and letting the ice cream machine work its magic. The result was very rich, with an intriguing flavor that we weren’t sure about at first, but turned out to be very “more-ish” (my mom’s term for when you can’t stop eating something). The ice cream is pictured here topped with almonds and lingonberries (I know, not Middle Eastern at all! But a nice tart antidote to the richness).

Off to the grocery store…what country will we be visiting tonight?

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Every household has its go-to recipes. In mine, it’s a rare week that goes by without seeing a burrito or a bowl of pasta on the table. While we love these tried and true meals, J and I have decided to challenge ourselves to try a new recipe each day for 7 days. It would be easy to scan the internet for ideas, but we plan to search exclusively within our wonderful but underused collection of cookbooks. With so many different cuisines to explore, we’re going to try a different one each day!

My parents are currently vacationing in France, so in their honor (or, let’s be honest, out of jealousy), we decided to start our world tour last night with a meal from France. For a muggy summer evening, we thought a light meal would be perfect, and we found what we were looking for in a recipe for la salade de roquette, asperges, et Parmesan de Ladurée from Patricia Wells’ “The Paris Cookbook.”

In the recipe introduction, Wells notes that she sampled this salad during a day at Ladurée, the famous French pastry shop (coincidentally known for inventing the modern macaron!). The fairly simple preparation of arugula tossed in a red wine vinaigrette and topped with asparagus, shaved Parmesan cheese, and a poached egg yielded fantastic flavor. Served with a baguette and a glass of rosé, la belle France set the bar high for our first day! Stay tuned for tonight’s recipe…

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