“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.
Sometimes you try a new recipe and it goes off without at hitch, seamlessly incorporating itself into your repertoire. Other times, you beat it into submission, until it bends to your will…
A recipe for beef soup- what could be so hard about that, right? Well, if you’ve never cooked with beef shanks before and you don’t realize just how long it takes for them to break down and be edible, you might think that the recipe’s 90-minute suggested cooking time was reasonable, and might try to attempt making it after work one night. If you did, you would find that it actually required at least a few hours of simmering to reach the right consistency (this was discovered over the course of three days, in which I would cook it for a while each night and stick it back in the fridge before going to bed because it STILL wasn’t done). It wasn’t a huge tragedy, and eventually I got my soup done and it was delicious, but if I ever cook with beef shanks again I think I would consider going the slow cooker route and putting them in before work.
But enough about the beef, some of you are probably saying “What is this ‘freekeh’ of which you speak?” Long story short, it’s a form of wheat that has been roasted and has a wonderful smoky flavor. (You can read more about it in this post.) I had never cooked with it before and my blogger friend Warda had mentioned using it in soup, so when I saw this recipe, with its warming flavors of cardamom, cinnamon and allspice, I was attracted to it instantly. However, if these flavors don’t appeal to you, I think freekeh would be excellent substituted for barley in any mushroom, beef, or lamb-barley soup.
In spite of my issues with the recipe (which I have modified slightly in hopes of sparing you the aggravation I experienced!) the soup turned out to be a winner. Marvin, who isn’t the hugest soup fan, gave it two thumbs up. If anyone has slow cooker experience and can suggest how to adapt it, let me know- I think it would work well.
2 cups freekeh (see notes)
1/4 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 large or 2 small onions, finely chopped
2 1/2 lbs beef shanks (2 large shanks should be approximately this weight)
1 tsp ground cardamom
5 cardamom pods (see notes)
2 bay leaves
1 tsp ground allspice
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 cups boiling water
optional: 1 28-oz can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped
to serve: lemon wedges and fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley
- There are two types of freekeh, crushed and whole. You can use either one; the whole freekeh will just take a little longer to cook. The freekeh I bought came packaged and I did not see any stones, but if you buy it in bulk you should sort through it like you would with lentils.
- The original recipe called for simmering the beef shanks for a total of about 1 1/2 hours. I needed to simmer mine much longer before I was able to separate the meat into pieces, and even then, it was tough (har har). I had never worked with beef shanks before and did not realize how cartilaginous they are! Just be patient, though, and you will be rewarded.
- I’m not exactly sure why the recipe calls for ground cardamom AND cardamom pods. If you only have it ground and don’t want to buy the pods, I would think you could just add an additional 1/4 tsp or so.
- According to the author of The Arab Table, Jordanian cooks sometimes add tomato to this soup. Although I love tomatoes, I preferred to try it first without, just to get the full impact of the aromatic spices. I did end up adding some tomatoes in with the leftovers and liked it. It’s easy to add the tomatoes at the end, so try it both ways and see which you prefer. (Use the tomatoes and the juice released when chopping them, but don’t add the thick purée they come in.)
Put the 10 cups water on to boil while you gather the rest of your ingredients and chop your onions (if you have an electric tea kettle, this is a great use for it). Wash and pat dry the beef shanks; give them a generous coat of salt and black pepper on both sides. Set aside.
If you are using whole freekeh, fill two medium bowls with water. Place the freekeh in one bowl, swirl it with your hands and transfer it by hand or with a slotted spoon to the second bowl. Repeat, refilling the bowls with fresh water until there is no more debris. Drain the freekeh and set aside. (If you have crushed prepackaged freekeh there is no need to wash it.)
In a Dutch oven or other large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it begins to soften. Add the beef shanks and spices and stir well to coat the beef, about 3 minutes. Add the boiling water, cover the pot, and return to the boil. Skim the foam from the surface of the soup. Reduce heat and simmer gently, covered.
After 2 hours or so, you can check the meat every 30 minutes by poking it with a fork. When it’s nearly falling apart, remove it from the soup. Cover the soup and turn the burner off or on the lowest setting. When the meat is cool enough to handle, pull it from the bone, tearing it into bite-sized chunks and discarding any gristly pieces. (If the meat does not pull apart easily, return it to the soup and cook it longer.) Return the pieces of meat to the soup pot.
At this point, you can add the freekeh, or you can do what I did, which was to refrigerate the soup overnight so as to skim the fat from the surface. Either way, return the soup to a simmer and add the freekeh along with 1 Tbs salt. If using crushed freekeh it will cook almost instantly, like bulghur. If using whole freekeh, simmer for 30-45 minutes. The freekeh should retain a slight crunch when you bite into it, like biting into a kernel of corn. If you are using tomatoes you can add them at this point. Taste the soup for salt and pepper, adding more if needed.
Serve with wedges of lemon and fresh chopped parsley.
Things are crazy lately and I haven’t been able to post full-on recipes as regularly as I would like, so I had the idea to do some shorter posts focusing on single ingredients that you may or may not be familiar with. First up: freekeh- also spelled farik, frik, freka, and probably a handful of other ways depending on who you ask. The reason this ingredient doesn’t have an established anglicized spelling is because it is fairly uncommon in the U.S. (although a pre-cooked version has recently made an appearance on the shelves at Trader Joe’s).
So what exactly is freekeh? According to May S. Bsisu in her book The Arab Table, it is “…the roasted grains of green wheat stalks. There are two types: whole green kernels and shelled kernels. Whole green freka can be purchased in Middle Eastern stores… As with bulgur, freka should be soaked in cold water for 10 minutes before cooking…” The Wikipedia entry on freekeh gives more detailed information as to how it’s produced. (Personally though, I love the succinct description on the package I bought: “Roasted Baby Wheat”- sounds a bit diabolical!) The freekeh I purchased was the cracked or “shelled” variety, and it cooked up very quickly. I think if you were using whole freekeh it would take 2-3 x as long.
Roasting gives freekeh a delightfully smoky flavor, which makes it really stand out in comparison to its cousin, bulghur. If you enjoy smoked foods, you’ll really like freekeh- its scent reminds me of campfires and fall. You can use it in soup, or cook it on its own as a side dish. According to Bsisu, the finished texture should have a slight crunch or “pop” to it, like when you bite into sweet corn. As you can see in the photo below, since it is not fully mature, freekeh has a slight greenish tint to it.
I first heard about this grain a few months ago from Warda of 64 Sq Ft Kitchen. It’s a pretty obscure item, at least around here- I’ve shopped at several grocery stores specializing in Mid-East foods and had never seen or heard of it. I finally came across some when the band took a trip out to Grand Rapids and we stopped to get sandwiches in a small Middle Eastern deli/grocery (The Pita House). (Update: I have since found packaged whole freekeh at Gabriel Imports in the Eastern Market.) Once I found the freekeh, though, I still had trouble finding recipes- I looked in several Middle Eastern cookbooks and found only two or three mentions.* I’m guessing this is because it’s more common in Palestine, Jordan and Syria, whereas many Middle Eastern cookbooks published for Westerners tend to focus on foods from Lebanon, Turkey, or Morocco. I did find a recipe for Beef & Freekeh Soup (Shorbat Freka) in The Arab Table, which I will post about very soon posted about here!
*Note: I have since come across this website, which offers off-the-beaten-track recipes such as “Freekeh Yogurt and Zucchini Loaf” and “Crisp Freekeh Crab Cakes with Aioli”. If anyone is brave, you can try them and let me know how they turn out.