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Most cooks I know either have stopped making stocks or broths to use in the kitchen or never got in the habit in the first place. As one of the few still bucking the tide, I admit that “Three cheers for the dear old stockpot” is not a message I expect to go viral anytime soon. But maybe some people could start seeing homemade stock as a practical option if we could shed a few hoary assumptions about what it entails.
Recipes for poultry, meat and fish stocks in today’s general-purpose kitchen bibles almost invariably surround the lead role — chicken, beef or whatever — with the same supporting characters: onion, celery, carrot and a bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay leaf. The idea is that when simmered for some time, these elements will fuse into a subtle whole greater than the sum of its parts, like the actors in a theatrical ensemble.
True enough. But what nobody tells you is that these standard aromatics actually limit the usefulness of the finished whole. They’re guaranteed to taste dead wrong in any kind of cooking outside a certain Eurocentric range. Heretical though it may sound, why not treat simple foundation stocks as something closer to solo instead of ensemble performances?
A stock recipe for foods from all cultures
My own rethinking of stocks started many years ago, when I began noticing the clash of sensibilities between basic European stocks (French, Italian and other) and the flavor palette of many or most world cuisines.
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For a while I took to making up batches of stock for use in specific Asian cuisines. It was an eye-opener that I recommend to any really curious cook. But no one can regularly splurge on the time and money needed for such productions. On the other hand, anyone can occasionally manage a batch of what I call “stock for realists.”
What militates against realism these days is a dimwitted supposition that stocks made from scratch represent monumental exploits of yesteryear, no more suited to today’s home kitchens than the odd brontosaurus shinbone. Well, by stock-for-realists logic, the point is not the role that stock played in the Ritz-Escoffier era or your great-great grandmother’s domestic routine, but the role that it can play in the here and now.
Any cook can regularly ensure a supply of decent, eminently useful stock in the freezer through one of two very simple strategies. Neither involves any added seasonings beyond two or three trimmed scallions (or one trimmed leek) and, if you like, a couple of slices of fresh ginger.
Stock technique No. 1
For Stock No. 1, buy a bunch of the cheapest meaty, or somewhat meaty, bones you can find. A useful default ingredient for chicken stock is backs, sold in packs in some supermarkets. Wings are a good addition (though pricier than they used to be); if you can find chicken feet, they add plenty of gelatin for pennies. Beef stock is unavoidably more expensive. I usually end up with knucklebones and meaty neck bones, possibly supplemented with a piece or two of bone-in shin. In either case, all you do for realist-style stock is plunk the main ingredient in a pot with the scallions and optional ginger, add about a quart of cold water per pound of bones and bring it to a gentle simmer, skimming off any scum from the top as necessary. With supermarket chicken parts, you’ll have a respectable stock in one hour, though you’ll extract more flavor in two hours or longer. With beef, plan on about three hours, or up to four or five for maximum flavor. The pot can be left to tend itself while you do the laundry or Sudoku.
Stock technique No. 2
Stock No. 2 is equally hassle-free but yields a double dividend: a somewhat better-flavored stock for saving, and cooked meat for various purposes. In this case, you want to start with something good enough to be eaten in its own right. You will need one or two whole chickens (preferably cut up in parts, though you can throw them in as is) or a cut of beef like brisket or boneless chuck that benefits from long simmering. Flanken or short rib is good, too.
Again, you simply put the chosen meat in a pot with about a quart of cold water per pound, add the scallions and optional ginger and let it reach a gentle simmer. This time, however, you want to remove the star performer at its peak of flavor. Lift out the chicken just when tender; I’m assuming everyone’s capable of checking after 45 minutes and allowing as much more time as necessary, depending on the size and age of the bird. There will be much variation with different beef cuts also, from as little as 1½ hours (when I’d start testing) to as many as 4 hours.
Whichever method you opt for, the procedure for stock is the same: Carefully strain it off from the solids into a clean vessel, let cool to room temperature and decant into 1-pint or 1-quart containers for freezing. The surface layer of fat is most easily removed if you first put it in the refrigerator overnight.
Sans seasoning reasoning
I can already hear doubting Thomases complaining that stock made by either of these methods is bound to be “pale” and “underseasoned.” Well, that’s just the point. This is stock meant to receive the appropriate seasonings at the point of eventual use, not before. But I assure you that it will lend straightforward depth to any soup, sauce or braised dish. Certainly it won’t have the richness of stock made by browning the chicken or beef before adding water, and will lack the overtones contributed by doses of aromatics. Instead, its flavor will be light and clean — virtues too often disdained by gourmets. Its neutral quality is exactly why it can flexibly suit many different contexts, including ones where canned broth or the heavily flavored stocks now being sold in cardboard cartons would stick out like sore thumbs.
In sum: It’s a perfect resource for the kind of cook who’s equally happy making Thai soup-noodles or Belgian waterzooi, but can use some practical strategizing in the stock department.
A final postscript: Meat or poultry cooked for my second version of stock will face prevailing foodie prejudices against plain “boiled” anything. I find that just saying “poached” instead does wonders. So does serving the chosen item piping hot with coarse salt, freshly ground pepper, good mustard or horseradish and maybe some capers and pickles. And let’s not forget the Act Two charms of homemade chicken or beef hash, not to mention chicken salad.
Top photo: A large stock pot. Credit: iStockPhoto
Professional food writers may know more than other people about searing duck breasts à point or detecting hints of locally sourced turpentine in some chef’s spruce-needle sorbet. But do we really understand cooking — the intrinsic humanity of the act — any better than anybody else? Not on your life. I’ve never seen a book that drove home the point more devastatingly than Alex Witchel’s “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments.”
For the benefit of the very young: Witchel is a longstanding New York Times fixture who at different times dished on the theater scene and became known for celebrity profiles that often reduced the subjects to chunks of shish kebab quivering over the fire. Subsequently the paper turned her loose on the dining beat in a monthly column titled “Feed Me.”
In a startling change of course, her new book relates the dreadful fallout from several unsuspected mini-strokes that her mother suffered in late middle age but that remained undiagnosed until crucial brain functions began disappearing. Over about a decade, the family would watch memory, reason and finally all but a bare shred of identity depart from the woman who used to hold up the sky. A blow-by-blow chronicle of Barbara Witchel’s advancing illness, and its effect on Alex, is one of the two main intertwined narrative threads of the book. The other, a stormy saga tracing aspects of Witchel family dynamics and Alex’s adult life, spans close to 50 years and includes a strong emphasis on food.
“All Gone” can be read as a quasi-sequel to “Girls Only,” Alex Witchel’s 1996 valentine to the loving but prickly mutual irritation society formed by her mother, herself and her much younger sister Phoebe. But it stands on its own as a far fiercer postcard from some unthinkable edge. A relatively mild sample is this theater-of-the-absurd exchange partway through the wrecking process, when Alex tries to bounce the terrible maternal plea “I want you to kill me” back into Barbara’s court:
“She was monumentally offended. ‘Committing suicide is against the Jewish religion!’ she declared.
“I was dumbfounded. ‘So is committing murder!’ ”
Family recipes in ‘All Gone’ not what you might expect
Though food becomes a unifying leitmotiv of the two interwoven stories, it’s emphatically not the kind of food you might expect from anyone with Witchel’s reputation as mistress of the lethally sophisticated putdown. It comes from a different quadrant of her universe, a space where she can hold a sort of mental conversation with a beloved parent no longer able to converse.
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By Alex Witchel
Riverhead, 2012, 224 pages
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And what a parent! Barbara Witchel diligently raised four children and kept a kosher kitchen for a demanding husband while (successively) teaching school, earning two graduate degrees and becoming a college professor. Nobody else’s mother was doing such things in 1960s and ’70s Passaic, N.J., or Scarsdale, N.Y. The woman had a tight ship to run, and her gallantry in running it made her the eternal heroine of Alex (the oldest child, and her deputized lieutenant).
Alex can still taste in memory the standbys and special treats of her mother’s (or occasionally her Witchel grandmother’s) culinary repertoire. She’s able to make the rest of us sense how meatloaf anchored the universe, how Chicken Polynesian hinted at voyages to its very margin. Thirteen selected recipes — the “refreshments” of the sardonic subtitle — appended to the book’s eight chapters document some of the dishes in question, and most will be quite a surprise to anybody expecting chic, sleek “foodie” food.
Alex has presented these pieces of the Witchel culinary heritage pretty much as she remembers them — the rough and ready, shortcut-bolstered labors of a resourceful Jewish wife, mother and career woman who, according to her daughter, treated cooking as a far from welcome duty but understood how to make dinner “the center of the day, its organizing principle.” The recipes are all meant to fit into kosher “meat meals” (ones from which dairy products are excluded). They’re also meant to deliver the fastest possible results with the least possible trouble. Hence the meatloaf bound with canned tomato soup (not cream of tomato) and cornflakes, the nondairy creamer in spinach kugel, the canned tomato combo in Frankfurter Goulash, the mixture of garlic powder and Lawry’s Seasoned Salt used to season a roasting chicken. No clever airbrushing of family snapshots here.
Two recipes stand as telling bookends for everything else, while also pointing to a kind of relay station between past and present generations. The first is the talismanic meatloaf, the Barbara Witchel perennial that Alex instinctively begins re-creating in her own kitchen while watching her mother’s memory and intellect disappear. It’s an attempt to salvage something permanent from chaos, the edible equivalent of T.S. Eliot’s “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” The other formula, which concludes the book, is not Barbara’s recipe but one that came to serve the same purpose for Alex, her husband and her cherished stepsons: a mammoth dish of skillet-braised chicken breasts with 80 (yup, you read right) cloves of garlic and enough rosemary to fumigate a hospital ward; three cups of olive oil first go into the cooking and then do duty as a serving sauce.
Anyone who doubts that those two dishes, in unvarnished form, were and are the food of love needs remedial tutoring in family values.
My mother, like Alex’s, cooked the day’s meals not for pleasure or adventure but as an unromantic responsibility that maintained stable, loving order in our small bit of the cosmos. I read “All Gone” marveling that I could ever have looked down on, rather than up to, such an achievement. It’s an honor to meet Barbara Witchel as she was before her mind was ravaged, and celebrate the kind of cooking she stands for.
Top photo composite: “All Gone” book cover. Alex Witchel. Credit: Fred R. Conrad
It didn’t look like a crime scene, but it was.
The occasion was a Sunday brunch for food bloggers and writers at a pretty village café in a still-bucolic corner of upstate New York. Penetrating questions and brave attempts at answers about the once and (we hope) future food-writing profession flew across a sunny room for a couple of hours, abetted by satisfying eats. The backbone of the simple menu was Belgian waffles topped with a choice of fresh peaches or strawberries. And the crowning glory was an accompaniment of whipped cream. Lordly, generous bowls of it on every table, looking like poufs of cloudlike whisper but promising the enveloping richness that no other substance delivers. One glance and you knew that it wasn’t any old whipped cream — have I mentioned that we were in very fine dairy-farm country? This cream, whipped to delicate heights, was clearly as noble a collaboration as has ever been achieved between the right cows and the right people.
Two hours later, it sat there untouched.
Well, I exaggerate. One or two out of maybe a dozen bowls might have been missing a dab. But at our table, nobody except me even looked at the stuff. Whole quarts of beautiful — and undoubtedly costly — heavy cream must have gone into its making; lord knows if the restaurant was able to salvage it for any other purpose. And mind you, this meal was the finale of a rousing, collegial, all-too-short country jamboree for people who love food! “Crime scene” is a mild term.
How to explain the tortillas?
Would smart, motivated foodies enjoying another kind of meal have been equally happy ignoring Winesap apples? Tuscan lardo? Pedigreed Spanish almonds? I know they wouldn’t have ignored handmade tortillas, because at the previous evening’s dinner they had demolished dozens of these turned out by a one-woman assembly line to wrap around morsels of Mexican-style spit-roasted pig. Brunch-time whipped cream, however, might as well have not existed.
I’m not sure I understand all the reasons. One clear lesson is that devotees of excellent locally produced food can have a strange talent for not seeing it when it appears under their noses; misplaced priorities aren’t limited to proletarian demographic segments. And somehow fresh dairy products tend to escape foodie notice unless tagged with some epithet like “chef,” “handcrafted” or “Greek.”
But why? Is whipped cream just too simple to command respect? (If that’s the problem, I can promise the insecure that one part of it is anything but simple: finding the right cream. Nothing whips as easily and beautifully as unhomogenized, non-ultrapasteurized heavy cream from well-managed cows, but the difficulty of scoring any at supermarkets, groceries and even many gourmet stores ought to confer some snob value on the result.)
Missing the foodie train of thought
Is it a matter of lingering fallout from the 1980s phobias that set food-industry flacks to glorifying fat-free surrogates for anything from French fries to chopped liver? Disdain of all farm products that can’t hitch a ride on the artisanal-passengers-only express? A constitutional superiority to anything whose essential flavor and texture invite the awful epithet “bland?” Whatever the reason that bowls and bowls of heavenly whipped cream could sit in reach of 50 or so engaging, intelligent food writers without being fought over to the last smidgen, the thought of pearls before swine is hard to suppress.
Still, I refuse to give up the cause for lost. Not to diss the molecular-gastronomy contingent’s joy in the wonderful world of aerated colloids, but I’ll take plain whipped cream over trendier “foams” any day. What’s more, I think thousands of people would join me if they knew how it really ought to taste: freshly and corporeally there, but as “bland” — or more accurately, elusive — as the touch of air or dew or thistledown.
The trick to whipped cream
Yes, it really is an aerated colloid — what you get by taking an emulsion of butterfat globules dispersed in whey and agitating it until the globule membranes become halfway disrupted and begin forming fragile bubble-walls around tiny pockets of air introduced by beating. The hitch is knowing the right point to stop, before the process slops over into a second chemical card trick known in plain English as butter-making. But anyone can whip cream, without fancy equipment or scientific knowledge:
1. Get some heavy cream. If ultrapasteurized and/or homogenized products are all you find, the cream won’t whip as fast or taste as magically fresh, but it will still be gorgeous. Chill 1 or 2 cups of cream along with a beating implement and container — a food processor or electric stand mixer with bowl, a hand mixer, a whisk or an old-fashioned rotary egg-beater with any bowl able to accommodate about 2 cups per original cup of unwhipped cream.
2. Put the cream in the bowl, start whipping and watch it quickly or more slowly thicken and expand to a light airy mass. Pause from time to time to judge the texture; stop when it’s either softly billowy (the orthodox gourmet preference) or very stiff, almost ready to turn to butter (my preference). If you like, sprinkle in a little granulated sugar and a touch of vanilla extract in the last minutes; I’d suggest 2 teaspoons of sugar and a drop of vanilla per cup of cream, but there are people who like much more of both.
3. Bask in the enjoyment of what you’ve just made.
4. And if you’re ever lucky enough to attend one of Molly O’Neill‘s Long House Food Writers’ Revival sessions in Rensselaerville, N.Y., I hope you’ll devour any real, honest-to-God whipped cream you see on the brunch table at the Palmer House Cafe.
A bowl of whipped cream. Credit: iStockPhoto
By my lights, almost all store-bought cherries are for people who don’t know any better — meaning people who never were children in a now-vanished patch of Pennsylvania farm country and consequently never spent mornings in early July shimmying up cherry trees. Four or five of those trees existed as spreading, easily climbable “volunteers” around the borders of our property, undoubtedly the aftermath of bird raids on local orchards 40 or 50 years earlier.
The cherries were a little bigger than large peas. There were two kinds, a dark red and a bright glowing red. Both were thin-skinned and voluptuously juicy, with a clear, sunny, faintly almond-like sweetness and an elusive almost-astringent, almost-acid undertone. They — along with mind’s-eye snapshots of myself parked in the crook of two branches, reaching up for another handful and glimpsing deep sky through a screen of green leaves — are the reason that to this day I cannot abide store-bought Bing cherries, Rainier cherries or any other big, pulpy excuse for a sweet cherry.
But there was one thing even better, and though I hadn’t the slightest botanical knowledge or curiosity, I knew that its origins must have been completely different. It came from a few dwarf trees at the south end of our property, obviously the result of design rather than accident. Every year they yielded a crop of much larger, vividly red cherries clearly belonging to another world than the ones for which I scaled trees. Grownups called them “sour cherries,” a term that didn’t make much sense to me. True, they were more sour than the climbing-tree cherries — but also sweeter, juicier, richer, more sprightly, more almondy, more winey, more everything. They were bursting with one of the first flavors I instinctively pegged as complex and interesting before I knew how to use those words. And when I also heard them called “pie cherries,” I understood why without being told.
Today I know that they must have been either Montmorency or some closely related cultivar, grafted on dwarfing rootstock. They are the reason that many decades later, come June and early July, I annually set aside my “never buy cherries” rule and troll city farmers markets and a few specialty grocery shops asking, “Do you have sour cherries?”
It pays not to be over-hopeful, because “sour” or “pie” cherries are too juicy and too fragile to be handled like the dry, thick-skinned sweet favorites that show up from the Pacific states 12 months a year. Of the growers who still bother with them, many sell only to the commercial processors responsible for cans of “pie cherries” on supermarket shelves — one of the few cases where a canned fruit delivers more honest flavor than most of the stuff passing for fresh.
In my part of the Northeast, fresh-picked sour cherries have a blink-of-an-eye season and very restricted local distribution. Nine times out of 10, my query elicits a blank stare or a “Sorry, finished last week.” The 10th time, however, pays for all. If the weather is refreshing and I’m feeling ambitious, it means a few cherry pies of divine slurpiness. But in a muggy, oppressive summer like the one we’ve been having, those pie cherries are headed straight for the soup pot.
Yes, the soup pot — though I hasten to explain, to undergo only brief cooking followed by a long stint in the refrigerator. For anybody who doesn’t already know that tart cold fruit soups are twice as refreshing as ice cream on a sweltering evening, this is a perfect year to meet the inspired Hungarian version based on sour cherries. It’s one of those dishes that call for blithe flexibility with ingredients, particularly in the balance of sugar and lemon juice. I serve it as a dessert, though in Eastern Europe it can appear as a first course.
Hungarian-Style Sour Cherry Soup (Meggyleves)
1 cup sour cream or crème fraîche
2 pounds sour cherries, preferably the clear red Montmorency type
½ to ¾ cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick (about 3 inches), broken in pieces
1 or 2 cloves or half a dozen allspice berries, lightly bruised
Half a lemon
A pinch of salt
1 to 2 tablespoons Kirschwasser (optional)
A good slug (3 to 4 tablespoons) of red wine (optional)
3 tablespoons potato starch or cornstarch, dissolved in 3 to 4 tablespoons cold water (unnecessary if using crème fraîche)
1. Have the sour cream at room temperature, for smoother mixing. Stem and pit the cherries. Wrap the pits in a cotton handkerchief or kitchen towel and whack with a hammer to crack the shells. (The infusion from the tiny kernels will reinforce the almond undertone of the fruit.)
2. Scrape the mess into a small saucepan and add 2 cups water and a ½ cup of the sugar along with the cinnamon, cloves or allspice and a 2- to 3-inch strip of lemon peel. Boil briskly until reduced by half; let cool slightly and strain through a coffee filter or very fine sieve.
3. Put the cherries and their juice in a medium saucepan. Add the strained infusion, 5 cups water, a few squeezes of lemon juice, the salt, and the optional Kirschwasser and/or wine. Bring to a boil and simmer gently until the cherries are cooked through, about 15 minutes.
4. Taste for the balance of sweet and sour; stir in more sugar or lemon juice to taste.
5. Stir a ladleful or two of the soup into the starch slurry, then whisk the mixture into the pan. Cook for a few more minutes, stirring. Remove from the heat and whisk in the sour cream. (The starch mixture, which helps keep the cream from curdling, isn’t necessary with the more stable crème fraîche.)
6. Some people insist on puréeing the soup, a step I omit because I like the (admittedly messy-looking) cooked cherries. Let cool to room temperature before chilling for at least four or five hours. Serve as cold as possible.
Photo: Sour cherries. Credit: Anne Mendelson
My cookbook collection has always tended to be a mishmash of things that struck my fancy at odd moments. Maybe the most miscellaneous exhibit of all is a smattering of books that stands today as inexhaustibly fascinating records of a time before the sun had set on the British Empire or many American missionary outposts.
I treasure, among other works, the 1958 edition of “The Kenya Settlers’ Cookery Book and Household Guide,” still offering advice on cucumber sandwiches and safari preparations to members of a Scottish Presbyterian women’s guild in Nairobi 30 years after the book was first published. I love the bilingual (English and Thai) “YWCA Cook Book, Bangkok,” which in 1967 was comforting Western exiles with recipes for sloppy Joes and green split pea soup while providing an invaluable illustrated guide to many Southeast Asian vegetables, herbs, fruits and fish. My favorite of the lot, however, is “Rangoon International Cook Book.”
This amazing document went through several editions. Mine is the first. It appeared in 1954, seven years after the assassination of General Aung San, principal architect of the post-World War II Burmese campaign against British rule, and six years after Burma had achieved independence. Aung San’s widow, Khin Kyi, was serving as national minister for social justice when the Women’s Society of Christian Service of the Methodist English Church decided to publish a cookbook reflecting the culinary omnium-gatherum of Rangoon, “where many countries and races meet, and share friendship as well as food.”
Unlike the cheerful plagiarists who churn out many such works, the Women’s Society actually credited sources of previously published recipes. That was why during my research for a biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker in the mid-1990s I came across some scraps of Rangoon-to-Cincinnati correspondence regarding permission to use several recipes from “The Joy of Cooking.” Eventually I managed to buy my own copy of the book.
The drab little 1954 volume was a fund-raiser for the city’s Methodist English High School, where Aung San and Khin Kyi’s 9-year-old daughter, Suu Kyi, was a student. Like many other cookbooks-for-a-cause, it is freely peppered with ads — in this case from the likes of San Loo Chow Restaurant (“the FINEST Shanghai CHINESE COOKERY In Town”), Nam Seng kitchenwares shop and the Rangoon agency of KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. The contributors crammed in some advice on nutrition (via Betty Crocker) and infant feeding along with several pages of suggested menus, a seasonal guide to local market produce and an English/Burmese/Hindi glossary of names for foods.
The Women’s Society and the school — to alumni, MEHS — clearly were a lot more ethnically and culturally diverse than a merely trilingual glossary suggests. The several Chinese menus probably owed much to the book’s Fujian-born editor, Mary Brewster Hollister (the daughter of a Methodist missionary family and a prolific author of children’s books and novels about China), and her sister, Karis Brewster Manton. Other menus include “English Four O’Clock Tea,” two American-style picnics, “Indian Buffet Dinner,” “Pakistan Luncheon” and a nine-course “Burmese Meal for Guests” that had been specially solicited from the beloved “Mrs. Aung San.”
The 500-odd recipes are even more multifarious. The sources range from American manufacturers’ brochures, Ladies’ Home Journal or McCall’s clippings, and Clementine Paddleford’s This Week column to the wife of the Ceylonese ambassador. A Burmese grande dame had been persuaded to part with her recipe for delicate spirals of candied ginger. A Rangoon caterer specializing in mohinga, the splendid Burmese soup-stew of fish and rice noodles, divulged her renowned version. A Texan serving with the Technical Cooperation Administration (a Cold War foreign assistance program of the U.S. State Department) shared his grandiose blueprint for a home-style barbecue.
In the bread chapter, South Indian dosai, idli and an accompanying yogurt (“curd”) chutney occupy a page facing oatcakes, potato scones and bacon-studded pancakes with syrup (the first two Scottish, the third Dutch). “Cereal, Lentil and Noodle Dishes” embraces Burmese coconut rice, American Midwestern Johnny Marzetti, Pakistani biryani (“A Mohammedan Festival Dish”) and a version of Amoy rice vermicelli that Mary Brewster Hollister apparently brought from China — luckily arriving to find Fujianese in Rangoon manufacturing the right kind of noodles.
The contributors had not the slightest idea of spelling out foolproof directions for non-cooks, or indeed cooks outside their own ethnic group. They often measured ingredients in the local units of viss and tical. They assumed that, like them, other people would regularly use Indian-style jaggery and atta for Western brown sugar and whole-wheat flour, or resort to tropical substitutes for the fruits in apple tart or peach crisp pie.
Some recipes are fairly intelligible, others filled with obstacles. So it was only a few weeks ago that I ventured to cook anything from the book. Trying to find a potluck dish for a mushroom-themed reception and lecture, I homed in on two adjacent recipes in the vegetable chapter, Hill Mushroom Curry from Nellie Isaac (a teacher at MEHS) and Mushroom Curry from Mrs. David Tin Hla (wife of the Rangoon YMCA general secretary). I’d never made a mushroom curry in my life, but why not?
I did, however, want to find out first what “hill mushrooms,” or taung-bho-hmo, were. My pal Naomi Duguid, whose book “Burma: Rivers of Flavor” is due out this fall, wasn’t sure. But she promptly put me in touch with a friend in Myanmar: the writer, artist, activist and MEHS alumna Ma Thanegi, a sometime political ally of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Thanegi explained that taung-bho-hmo grow on anthills during the summer rains. There are two types; the smaller sounds like the “hill mushrooms in bud” recommended in the recipe. Neither they nor the thicker ones disparaged by Nellie Isaac as “apt to be coarse” are yet in season, but Thanegi undertook to send photos when local women start selling them. With luck, I may hit on a good American substitute.
Meanwhile, with little idea of what might come closest to the flavor and texture of the original, I fell back on the line of least resistance and expense by using ordinary white mushrooms and improvising a hybrid of both versions. I omitted Nellie Isaac’s water spinach (“rabbit greens” or Kazunywet), used fresh chiles instead of dried, opted for Mrs. Tin Hla’s onions and lemongrass and threw in a bit of my own garam masala. The dish may or may not accurately represent the two versions that inspired it, but it does prove that mushroom curry is a great idea.
Burmese-Inspired Mushroom Curry
Serves 12 to 15
This is one of those Southeast Asian dishes in which the main flavoring ingredients are reduced almost to a paste, usually by pounding in a mortar or whizzing in a food processor — which you may prefer to my chosen tactic of mincing or chopping the seasonings one at a time. (I think the frying goes better with ingredients added in sequence instead of all at once.) I also cook the mushrooms separately before combining everything, so that they absorb more of the golden turmeric color.
These amounts yield enough for a party, but can easily be halved. Experiment as you like with the proportions of garlic, chiles and other seasonings. I took the liberty of using full-flavored Malaysian shrimp paste instead of the “best fish sauce” specified by Nellie Isaac, but would be glad to be corrected if this is a blooper.
- Peel or trim all the fresh flavoring ingredients from garlic through chiles as necessary. Separately mince each very fine with a heavy sharp knife (I use a Chinese cleaver). Chop the onions fairly fine. Set aside all these sauce ingredients in separate piles.
- Cut off the mushroom stems and save for another use. Cut any large caps into quarters or halves; leave small ones whole. Set aside while you make the sauce paste.
- Scoop out the shrimp paste onto a small (about 4 inches square) piece of aluminum foil. Fold over the edges to make a square packet, squashing the paste flat as you do so. Set the packet over a gas burner on low flame or an electric one preheated to medium-high for about 1½ minutes. Turn with tongs, heat for 1 more minute and remove from the heat. Open the package and scrap out the shrimp paste into a small condiment bowl. (If using fish sauce, skip this step.)
- Choose a wide, heavy saute pan or Dutch oven. (These amounts are too large for a wok.) Set it over high heat until a drop of water spits fiercely on contact. At once add ¼ cup of the oil. When it is barely starting to smoke, add the garlic and stir-fry for 20 to 30 seconds. Add the ginger and lemongrass; reduce the heat slightly and stir-fry for another 20 to 30 seconds. Add the shallots, chiles and shrimp paste (or fish sauce). Reduce the heat just a bit more and stir-fry for another 2 to 3 minutes. Add the onions, with another slug of oil if the sauce paste is starting to stick. Give everything a good stir and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are softened and partly translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a heatproof bowl, rinse out and dry the pan, and get ready to continue.
- Heat the pan as before and add another ¼ to ⅓ cup of the oil. When it is not quite smoking, stir in the turmeric and garam masala. Dump in the mushrooms, reduce the heat to medium or medium-low and toss to coat the mushrooms evenly with the yellow-tinted oil. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, until they begin to release their liquid; add a little more oil as necessary if the pan becomes dry. When the juices are fully released, raise the heat to high or medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid is almost completely evaporated.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low. Scrape the reserved cooking sauce into the pan, stir to distribute everything evenly, and let cook for 2 to 4 minutes longer. Turn out into a serving dish and squeeze the lime juice over the mushrooms. Serve hot or at room temperature, garnished with fresh cilantro.
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.
Photos: Top, Freshly picked mushrooms. Credit: iStockPhoto
Bottom, “Rangoon International Cook Book.” Credit: Anne Mendelson
The first thing to say about Anne Willan’s “The Cookbook Library” is that for years or decades to come, this beautiful volume is going to be an indispensable resource for readers and researchers in love with the history of cookbooks. Certainly it will become one of my own hunting grounds for the answers to many mysteries.
The next thing to say is that it must have been an unimaginably difficult work to compile and publish, one of those productions marked with awkward traces of their own birth pangs. Something like three or four different books seem to be going on here at the same time — all worthy, all fascinating, but not all harmoniously meshed or equally well-realized.
The overall framework is a kind of gallery tour through the huge and important private library amassed by Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, over a period of many decades. The book is studded with many dozens of title pages, frontispieces, engravings, etchings and other images from the Willan-Cherniavsky collection. (All illustrations are black and white, a drawback only with reproductions of medieval illuminations and later paintings.)
The couple’s “cookbook library” is also the springboard for a historical survey of cooking, cookbooks, cookbook writers and recipes from the late Middle Ages to about 1830. The material is organized into four substantial chapters covering developments throughout the four centuries from 1400 to 1800, two shorter chapters addressing the late 14th and early 19th centuries and a few dozen boxed essays on special topics such as the medicinal angle of early cookbooks and the evolution of table furnishings. As if this complex design weren’t enough, each chapter also concludes with a handful of recipes (38 in all) taken from books in the collection, with the original text followed by Willan’s lengthy adaptations for modern home kitchens.
A spirited historical overview
The best-realized part of all this, aside from sheer visual plenty, is the general historical overview. Willan manages to place dozens of obscure (to most lay readers, anyhow) figures in lucid, lively context while sketching trajectories of influences from one seminal work to its progeny. Her spirited sketches of people like Taillevent, Platina, Elizabeth Raffald, Sir Kenelm Digby and Marie-Antoine Carême will make “The Cookbook Library” an invaluable adjunct to food history courses everywhere, not to mention a nifty tool for self-taught dippers and browsers.
The subsidiary boxes do a fine job of bringing crucial but often unsung issues — for instance, the literacy or illiteracy of cooks through the ages — to attention. And Willan can trenchantly remind us that “historical” cooking techniques aren’t terribly distant from living memory; one of the best things in the book is her childhood recollection of being taught by an old family cook to beat the batter for Christmas cakes with her bare hand in a rural Yorkshire kitchen. (“First the butter: I would squish with my fingers, then curving my hand like a spoon would beat it to a cream, the warmth of my little, eager hand helping the mix.”)
All the more pity that as a historian, culinary historian or elucidator of texts, the author is frequently out of her depth. Owning a notable library of historic cookbooks unfortunately has nothing to do with scholarly chops. Willan seems to believe that Piers Plowman (not William Langland) wrote the Middle English poem “Piers Plowman.” Her unfamiliarity with the conventions of scribal abbreviations produces garblings like “Pep” for “Peper” (pepper) in a transcribed 14th-century recipe for “cormarye” (roast pork in a spiced wine sauce). Elsewhere, she marvels over the “spartan” character of a 1791 dinner at the court of George III without noticing that it’s for “Their Majesties Pages,” not “Their Majesties” and mangles the title of the oldest book in the Willan-Cherniavsky collection, a 1491 edition of St. John Cassian’s “On the Establishment of Monastic Communities and the Remedies of the Eight Principal Vices,” by thrice writing “viliorum” for “vitiorum” (vices).
The left hand sometimes doesn’t appear to know what the right hand is doing. Having pointed out that Lucy Emerson’s “New-England Cookery” (1808) was almost wholly plagiarized from Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” (1796), Willan then manages on the same page to draw inferences about Emerson from her book’s title page without observing that it’s repeated almost verbatim from Simmons. About 40 pages later, she reproduces one of the cribbed Emerson recipes (a squash pudding) without mentioning its provenance.
The difficulties of old recipes
The reconstructed recipes, which occupy acres of page space and obviously have had much work bestowed on them, are the weakest part of the effort. You never know whether you’re going to find penetrating insights into the nuts and bolts of old recipes or stumble on maddening failures to think through the meaning of some original word or direction.
A very few examples: Modern commercial brown sugar is no proper equivalent of the “Madeira sugar” in a 16th-century quince jelly. (Madeira sugar was white enough to have been dubbed the island’s “white gold.”) Gallina morisca in a 17th-century Spanish recipe almost certainly refers not to a Moorish style of cooking chickens but to a particular variety of poultry — in fact, today it sometimes means “guinea hen.” The chocolate in Vincent La Chapelle’s “Chocolate Cream” (1733) would have been a coarse-ground, grainy substance more akin to today’s Mexican chocolate than the smoothly conched modern dark chocolate in Willan’s reconstruction. The “rape-vinegar” in Maria Eliza Rundell’s pickled lemon recipe (1811) would have been made not from “wild turnips” but from wine-press leavings.
It has to be said that reconstructing historical recipes is difficult stuff even for skilled culinary historians; probably Willan would have been prudent to make these a less prominent part of the general plan. “The Cookbook Library” is still a triumphant contribution to both the study of culinary history and the ranks of treasurable books on cooking. Would that the execution of its grand design were less erratic, but it belongs in any real cookbook lover’s library.
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.Top photo composite:
Book jacket courtesy of University of California Press
Mark Cherniavsky and Anne Willan. Credit: Patty Williams