This summer, Hank Shaw of the blog Hunter Angler Gardener Cook announced he was going on tour to support his new book Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast . Much like the tours organized by many of my friends in fledgling bands over the years, this was a DIY, couch-surfing, cross-country jaunt, with Hank scheduling the events himself sans (at least to my knowledge) the aid of his publisher. Curious to see if there was anything in the works for Detroit, I emailed him and offered to help out. We went back and forth a bit as far as what type of event it should be, and Hank suggested a potluck. Marvin generously offered up his studio in the Russell Industrial building as a gathering place. I had hoped Hank might be able to spend the afternoon prior to the event foraging around the area to bring in examples of things people could find locally,
but it didn’t pan out that way- the weather was already getting a bit too cold to find many wild plants, and Hank had other plans for hunting woodcock up north.
I put the word out about the event, and was pretty pleased with the response, given that I’ve worked many, many book signings where only a small handful of people show up and even less actually purchase the book. We had about 20 in attendance and probably would’ve had more if not for the really nasty freezing rain that night. But despite the inclement weather, we had quite a spread: home-cured prosciutto, lardo and lonzino, a few kinds of homemade pickles, jams, and home-brewed spruce beer were some of the contributions, in keeping with the spirit of the evening (Hank covers many curing and preservation methods on his blog in addition to hunting and foraging). Not to mention this beautiful pie that my friend Abigail (one of les culinettes) brought!
I decided to make a recipe I’d recently seen on Hank’s blog- a Spanish stew called chilindron, which I could make ahead and warm in the slow cooker. For side dishes, I put together a garlicky raw kale salad with pecorino, and a plateful of the nuptial ham. Last but not least, I was able to make paw paw ice cream thanks to a gift of some foraged paw paws courtesy of my friend Ian. I was super excited about this since I had never tried paw paw before. I wanted to do a full post just about the ice cream, but I didn’t use a recipe and it turned out a little too icy and hard, although the flavor was good. If you ever get a chance to eat a paw paw, they’re wonderful- the texture is sort of like mango but with none of the stringiness, and the flavor is delicately tropical and custardy. Some people compare it to banana but I didn’t particularly get that. Paw paws do have large seeds that are somewhat obnoxious to work around to get all the fruit off, but the effort is well-rewarded. I can’t believe I’ve lived my whole life in Michigan without trying one until now, and I’m definitely going to seek them out next year.
As folks filtered in for the event, the table grew heavy with food; I think I sampled everything at least twice (you know, not wanting anyone to feel slighted!). We decided to eat first, and then Hank talked for a while about what hunting means to him, sharing some stories of hyper-local meals and other hunting-related experiences. Afterward, he stayed signing books and chatting with guests before heading off to Slows for a beer. I’m not sure how he felt about the event- it was a much more modest affair than many of the fine-dining events he’s been a part of- but the attendees were all thanking me profusely for putting it together, so I’m calling it a success. It was cool to be able to share something I’ve been a fan of for a while with a bunch of people who had never heard of it (I think maybe one or two people had been aware of Hank’s blog prior to that night), and have them react so positively. Continue reading
Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.
With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.
So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.
Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.
I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:
- Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
- Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
- Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.
Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.
1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic
Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)
Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.
Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.
“Why I hate cookbooks” may seem like an odd blog post title for someone who owns as many cookbooks as I do, and who regularly swoons over them. But every so often, I have one of those frustrating cooking experiences that make me almost angry at the cookbook author for whatever flaw in their recipe that caused the demise of my dinner.
The primary problem with cookbooks is obviously that they’re not interactive. Have a question or need something clarified? You’re outta luck.* Unlike blogs, where you can usually get a question on a recipe answered via the comments or an email, cookbooks are static and unyielding, leaving many home cooks up in the air and having to guess at what was intended.
Part of this has to do with the fact that many cookbooks assume a level of knowledge or background that may or may not be there. Many foodies probably scoff at cookbook authors such as Nigella Lawson, who is not a “real chef” but just a home cook like (most of) the rest of us. But that’s exactly the thing I love about Nigella’s cookbooks (and blogs like the Amateur Gourmet)- they bother to describe mishaps or trouble spots they experienced while making the dish, in hopes of sparing you the same problems. Details like “don’t worry if your dough appears clumpy” can be invaluable when making a recipe for the first time. (I try to include these types of details in the recipes I give here- it makes them longer, but I’d rather give too much info than not enough!)
Another pet peeve is cookbook authors who don’t seem to test their recipes with American ingredients, even though the U. S. is the primary market for their book sales (they should take a page from Julia Child- she specifically tested her French recipes in an American kitchen with American ingredients, to make sure they would work). I frequently encounter this problem when cooking from ethnic cookbooks whose authors live abroad. There are big differences in ingredients such as flour or even meat, and adjustments need to be made. The person executing the recipe should not be expected to know to make these modifications.
So, what prompted this bout of cookbook disaffection? Spending an entire afternoon and evening in the kitchen one Sunday, and having two different dishes not turn out as expected. The dishes attempted were pork rillettes (from Charcuterie) and a baked chicken and freekeh dish (from the The New Book of Middle Eastern Food). The rillettes, made with expensive pastured pork, turned out the consistency of chewed tuna fish. Note to self: next time, do NOT use the stand mixer as suggested in the book! Next time I’ll use a fork to gently break apart the meat. Another issue was that there was not even a ballpark indication of how much liquid to add, and I think I added too much, which also contributed to the “wet tuna” consistency.
The baked chicken dish was rescued but turned into something completely different from what was intended. I thought the instructions were a little wonky- boil the chicken for an hour, then cut it up and bake it for 30 minutes- but forged ahead, trusting the recipe. After 1 hour of simmering, however, my chicken was falling apart and unable to be cut up into pieces. What would the additional 30 minutes of baking have done anyway, besides drying out the meat?! Bizarre. (Incidentally, this is not the first time I’ve had an issue with a recipe from this book.) I ended up picking all of the meat from the carcass, putting it back in the broth with the freekeh, and just calling it soup. It tasted fine in the end, but what if I hadn’t been experienced enough to shift gears and transform the dish into something else?
I’ll never fully turn away from cookbooks, but right now, I’m more than a little disenchanted. My resources (both time and money-wise) are limited, and I can’t afford to devote them to recipes that can’t deliver a reliable result.
6/4/10 UPDATE: I had houseguests from France to whom I hesitantly served the rillettes, explaining that it was my first effort, etc. They both said that the rillettes were “tout à fait correct” (i.e. just fine), and judging by the quantity they consumed, I don’t think they were just being polite! They said rillettes can range from fine to coarse. I still think I’ll hand-mix them next time, but it was good to know they weren’t the failure I thought they were. I do think a few weeks in the fridge improved the flavor & texture.
I own a lot of cookbooks, so it takes quite a bit for me to become so enamored with a cookbook that I make several recipes from it within the span of a few months. But that’s exactly what happened when I purchased All About Braising by Molly Stevens a couple years ago. The fact that I haven’t written more about it here is partly due to “blogger backlog” and partly because I made some of the recipes before I started blogging. Please believe me when I say, though, that this cookbook ranks in my top 5 for many reasons, not least of which is this cabbage. I first made it for a St. Patrick’s Day potluck, partly because cabbage is traditional but also because I was kind of broke and cabbage is really cheap! To my surprise, the dish went over like gangbusters- who knew?! I had never heard cabbage described as “amazing” before; I even had a professed cabbage-hater tell me they liked it. Long braising makes the cabbage melt-in-your-mouth tender, and a blast of heat at the end of cooking caramelizes the dish and brings out all its mellow sweetness.
I’ll go on a little bit of a tangent here to tell you about the other reasons I love All About Braising, since I probably won’t ever get around to giving this book its own separate “review” entry. First of all, the recipes are solid. I have made five or six of them and not had any duds or problems whatsoever. Secondly, it’s very eclectic- there’s a great variety of recipes inspired from all over the world. I’ve made the Chicken Do-Piaza, Chicken with Star Anise, and Goan Chicken, and all were stellar. (Yes, I do eat meats other than chicken; I also used Molly’s recipe as a guide when making these oxtails.) The only recipe I didn’t absolutely love was an Indian-style braised cauliflower (I found it to be a little lean), but that could also have something to do with the fact that cauliflower is not a favorite of mine.
Back to our cabbage- this is one of those dishes that you make and think to yourself “Why have I not been cooking this for years?” I made a roast chicken the other day and, along with some leftover butternut squash & sage risotto, this was a perfect rustic side dish. If you’re having a big holiday spread, this would be a great addition since it only takes a few minutes active prep, yields a lot, and works out to about 25¢ per serving (take that, Wal-Mart!). I wanted to post it before Thanksgiving and didn’t have time, but really it’s a good side dish for any winter meal.
The only deviation I have made from Molly’s recipe is that I don’t bother turning the cabbage over halfway through the cooking time like she does. The first time I made it, I forgot to do it, and found that it made no difference whatsoever; the cabbage was still perfectly cooked throughout. Seasoning on both sides prior to cooking also eliminates the need to flip.
1 green cabbage, approx. 2 lbs (ok if it’s over)
1 medium to large onion (about 8 oz.)
¼ cup olive oil
¼ cup chicken stock (use vegetable stock or water for vegan version)
sea salt, pepper, & dried red pepper flakes
Preheat oven to 325°. Core your cabbage; if it weighs over 2 lbs, remove a wedge or two and reserve for another use. Cut the remainder into 8 wedges. Peel carrot and cut it into coins. Peel and slice the onion into ¼-inch-thick rings.
Brush a 9 x 13 baking dish with a little of the olive oil. Season the cabbage wedges with salt & pepper on both sides and place into the baking dish, overlapping them slightly. Scatter the carrots and onions over the top. Sprinkle with red pepper flakes. Drizzle the remainder of the olive oil over the vegetables, and pour the ¼ cup stock or water into the bottom of the dish, tilting slightly to distribute. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 2 hours. Check after an hour or so to make sure the pan is not dry; if it is, add a small amount of water or stock.
After 2 hours, remove the foil and increase the heat to 425°. Bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the cabbage begins to caramelize and brown a little on top. Sprinkle a little sea salt on top (I like to use the chunky kind) and serve.
I know many cooks who, like myself, enjoy reading cookbooks as one would a novel; curling up with them and reading several recipes straight through. Not many cookbooks out there can qualify, in my opinion, to be worthy of this activity. The writing must make you eagerly anticipate the work involved in creating a dish, to be sure. But more than this, the author must give a sense of themselves and their culinary worldview that is compelling enough to make the reader feel a connection, as one would when reading a memoir.
Judi Rodgers’ The Zuni Cafe Cookbook is such a book. I purchased it a few years back after it had gotten some good press in the New York Times and elsewhere, and quickly became enamored with Rodgers’ down-to-earth tone and earnest passion for tradition and ingredients. Rodgers is a “graduate” of the Chez Panisse kitchen, but something about her feels more genuine than some of the other chefs whose careers were spawned there. She went to France as a teenager and just happened to have the extreme good fortune of lodging with the Troisgros family, famous among food lovers for their 3-star Michelin restaurant in Roanne, France. From this experience, her mind and tastebuds were expanded, and after traveling and cooking her way through Southern Europe, she headed back to California. After doing time at Chez Panisse and elsewhere in the ’80s, she landed at Zuni Café in San Francisco, where she came into her own as a chef and restauranteur. (I sadly haven’t had the opportunity to eat at Zuni, but here’s a lovely review from Pim of the blog Chez Pim that gives a good idea of the food and ambience.)
So, is this a cookbook full of expensive ingredients, complex preparations, and lofty ambition? Well, yes and no. Because of a focus on regional ingredients, some of the recipes would be purely academic to anyone living outside of California, such as a recipe containing glasswort. Other recipes would require getting online to mail-order certain more exotic items, such as bottarga, a favorite ingredient of hers. But there are almost an equal number of recipes that are inexpensive, incorporate leftovers, and/or can easily be made with things you would have on hand on a daily basis. Case in point: one of my favorite recipes, Panade, which consists of stale bread, chicken stock, chard, onions, and cheese. It gets baked in the oven, becoming a casserole of puffed, browned gooey goodness. Another example is a recipe for Boiled Kale, Four Ways. Whether the recipe is simple or complex, however, Rodgers takes pains to give elaborate, detailed instruction. This does not come off as culinary bossiness, but as proof of her devotion to quality and traditional foodways.
Despite Rodgers’ predeliction for the food of France and Italy, the cookbook does include some typical American bistro-type food, such as hamburgers and Caesar salad. Again, these recipes are all about the implementation of technique and quality of ingredients to get the best possible result (grinding your own beef for the burgers, for example). I haven’t made the burgers, but I have made the Caesar Salad and can tell you it was one of the best I’ve had. Other recipes I’ve made from this book: the Zuni Roast Chicken with Bread Salad (the restaurant’s signature dish and highly recommended), Chard & Onion Panade, Asparagus & Rice Soup with Pancetta & Black Pepper, Pickled Red Onions, House-Cured Salt Cod, Shrimp cooked in Romesco with Wilted Spinach, Sea Bass with Leeks, Potatoes & Thyme, and Orange-Currant Scones. (Like me, Rodgers doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth, and the number of dessert recipes reflect this. In my opinion, however, this was not a shortcoming so much as an example of playing to your strengths.)
What ties together all the ideas in this book is an overriding desire to create “honest, generous” food using the best possible ingredients. Rodgers presents us not just with a book of recipes, but a philosophy of cooking and eating. A good percentage of the book is comprised of Rodgers’ careful, thoughtful instructions: the salting of meat, choosing the best produce, suggestions for putting together a cheese course; advice on weights, measures, cooking vessels and the like. It is telling that the cover photo, rather than showing a finished recipe, shows an image of carefully selected fruit, nuts and meat. The book’s tone can best be summed up by a quote that Rodgers took from her mentor, Jean Troisgros: “Méfie-toi du cinéma dans la cuisine”, or “Beware of theater in the kitchen”. Elevated but without affectation, Rodgers’ book will inspire anyone wishing to take their cooking to the next level, without having to use culinary trickery or pretention to do so.