“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.
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.
The other day I was catching up a little on my blog reading, and came across something on a very well-known food blog that kind of blew me away. It was a recipe for a pepper salad, and was basically just red & yellow peppers, red onion, feta and cucumber. The kind of thing that I throw together without thinking twice; not the kind of dish I would deem “blog-worthy”. There was no cute story with it; just the recipe and a bit about how the author had stopped eating salads with lettuce. But there, underneath the post, were close to 150 comments saying how great it was, and how people were dropping everything to rush to the store to make this salad. I have to say, I was flabbergasted. Really?!?
Reading this person’s post, it jolted me back to the reality that many people (possibly even the majority?) who regularly read food blogs and watch the Food Network rarely cook! All those commenters that said stuff like “Wow, that looks so delicious”…? I would bet money that less than 5% of them go on to actually prepare the recipe. (I guess this isn’t so strange if you think about, for example, all the people who read fashion magazines but don’t dress fashionably.)
So what does this have to do with balela? (Huh? Remember that… the title of this post? Oh yeah…) Well, I made some a few weeks ago (or rather, my interpretation of it), and even took a couple photos, but never posted it because I didn’t think it was “fancy” enough or something. Clearly, I am out of touch with what the blog-reading public wants! I guess the moral of the story is that instead of trying to second-guess what people may want to read about, I should just post whatever I feel like?
Trader Joe’s sells balela in little plastic tubs, but the portion they sell amounts to about one whole serving, and it’s easy and much cheaper to make yourself. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of making big batches of grain or legume-based salads to take in my lunch. They’re also good potluck fare- this one was for the Memorial Day BBQ I went to (the one with the grilled pizza). My version isn’t “authentic” balela in any way, as I added some extra veggies (peppers, cucumbers), but I like the extra crunch they add. The dressing is inspired by the dressing for fattoush and can be used in any salad where you want Middle Eastern flavors.
Mediterranean Chickpea Salad (aka Balela, my way) (printer-friendly version)
1 can chickpeas & 1 can black beans (or two cans chickpeas), drained & rinsed
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
1/2 an English cucumber, peeled, seeds removed and diced
1/2 a small red onion, diced, or 3-5 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 red or green bell pepper, diced
1 good handful flat-leaf parsley leaves, minced
Notes: I use grape tomatoes because they’re more reliable year-round, but if you have good-quality regular tomatoes, go ahead and use them. This salad is excellent with a bit of feta crumbled into it- I don’t believe it’s traditional, but it makes it a little more substantial and adds a welcome texture and richness to the austerity of raw vegetables. If you can’t be bothered with the za’atar and sumac, the salad will still be good without them- I threw them in because I happened to have some handy. And if you’re inclined to use a whole lemon, just sick with a 1:2 ratio of lemon to oil and up the seasonings a bit; if you have leftover dressing it’ll keep indefinitely in the fridge, and is great on green salad too.
Directions: Combine all of the vegetables in a large bowl. Smash the garlic clove with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Place in a small screw-top jar with the other dressing ingredients and shake well. Let the garlic clove marinate in the dressing for 5-10 minutes and then fish it out and discard. Pour the dressing over the salad and stir well to combine. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper, or for more oil or lemon juice according to your taste. (It will almost definitely need more salt, but I’d rather err on the side of you having to add some.) Let the salad sit for at least 15-20 minutes to let the vegetables marinate and release some of their juices. Taste again and add more salt or dressing if needed. If not serving immediately, wait until serving to add the parsley. For best flavor, serve at room temp or only slightly chilled.
The other day I was craving earthy flavors, namely mushrooms. I bought a pound, not knowing exactly what I was going to do with them: perhaps do a pilaf with wild rice? or something with lentils? I was flipping through cookbooks and saw a mujadara recipe and thought, why not just add mushrooms? I liked the idea of mujadara because you have to make the super-caramelized onions for it, and I had been wanting to try out a new technique I read about on the blog Tigers & Strawberries. The final dish combination of lentils/bulghur/mushrooms satisfied my craving, and the sweetness of the caramelized onions rounded things out. (The only thing I would have changed is to increase the proportion of lentils to bulghur.) A dollop of lightly salted plain yogurt on top was the final component. If you have some on hand, a little sprinkle of finely chopped parsley adds a welcome fresh note to the dish as well.
Mujadara with Bulghur & Mushrooms (adapted from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden)
4 cups broth of your choice: chicken stock, vegetable or mushroom stock (see notes)
12 oz white mushrooms, or 8 oz white mushrooms & 2-3 oz dried porcinis (see notes)
3 medium or 2 large yellow onions (see notes)
1 1/4 cup bulghur (cracked wheat)
1 cup green or brown lentils, rinsed & picked over
1 tbs tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground allspice
pinch of cayenne
salt & pepper
optional garnishes: plain yogurt or a lemon wedge; chopped parsley
Notes: You can easily make this a classic mujadara by omitting the mushrooms and using chicken stock. For the liquid, I used a concentrated mushroom stock called “Better than Bouillon”. It’s a paste that comes in a little jar and it’s handy for soups, etc. If you’re using the dried porcinis, steep them in a cup or two of boiling water. When they’re rehydrated, fish them out and use the remaining water as part of your 4 cups liquid. You should either strain it or pour it very carefully so the sediment remains in the bowl.
For the onions, you may want to consider making extra since they take a little work. They’re so tasty and versatile that you can throw them in almost any dish. They also freeze well. For a lengthy set of instructions on how to properly brown onions, go here; otherwise just follow my summary below. If you do make extra onions, there’s a great recipe for a non-soup-mix onion dip here.
Directions: Put your 4 cups liquid in a medium-to-large saucepan, cover and bring to a simmer. If you’re using porcinis, prepare as mentioned above. Peel the white mushrooms or brush clean with a dry cloth (don’t rinse!) and slice them. Heat a little olive oil in a sauté pan and sauté them over medium heat, adding a little salt as they start to cook. Slice the onions in half lengthwise and then into half-moons as your mushrooms are cooking. When the mushrooms are almost done, stir in the porcinis. Set aside.
When your liquid comes to a boil, add the allspice, cayenne (up to you how much, but you’re going for a subtle warmth rather than hot & spicy) and tomato paste and stir well. Add the lentils and cook at a low simmer, covered, for 15 min. Add the bulghur and a little salt & pepper, taking into account the saltiness of your stock. Stir and cover. Cook over very low heat for another 15 min, adding water if it looks too dry at any point. Turn off the heat and leave covered for another 10 minutes until the bulgur is fully tender. Optional: stir in 3-5 tbs olive oil. (I forgot this step when I made mine, and it was still good and obviously less caloric.)
Meanwhile, heat a few tbs olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan (NOT non-stick!!!). A stainless steel pan is best (as opposed to cast iron) because then you can see your browning process better. When the oil is hot, add your onions, salt them in the pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. The onions will take at least 30 minutes to get fully and properly browned, so be patient. Bear in mind that the higher the heat, the more you’ll have to vigilantly stir them. Keep a cup of water next to you, and each time the caramelized residue starts to build up on the pan (see photo above), add a SMALL splash of water and stir quickly to dissolve this buildup and re-incorporate the caramelization back into your onions. (When I did mine, I probably repeated this process at least 10 times.) You’re not done until your onions have a nice deep amber color. It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s really just stirring, and when you taste the end result you’ll think it was all worthwhile.
To serve, stir in the mushrooms and onions. If you like, reserve a few of the onions to go on top (see photo). Garnish each serving with a spoonful of plain yogurt and a little chopped parsley. If you’re vegan or don’t have yogurt, a wedge of lemon might be nice.