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I picked up a copy of “Hello, Jell-O,” a new cookbook by Victoria Belanger (Ten Speed Press, 2012), with my 9-year-old daughter in mind. Jell-O, I thought, would be a fun food to make together this summer. She looked at the book’s cover of “petite watermelons,” red gelatin in lime rinds, and a big smile appeared. She went through every page of the book and quickly picked out several recipes to try.
I flipped through the book, not expecting much. I snobbishly avoid the Jell-O mold my mother sometimes serves at family gatherings. Something holds me back. I don’t know if it’s the obviously artificial coloring that turns me off or the fact that it’s sweet and served with our main (savory) course, but I never touch it.
‘Hello Jell-O’ has lineage
Oeufs en gelée, however, the French traîteur staple of a soft-boiled egg suspended in gelatin, often with a flourish of ham or smoked salmon and a fleck of parsley, is totally acceptable. I love it, in fact. And rectangular “cakes” of meats and vegetables, held together with aspic, are quite lovely. Cooks have used aspic since the Middle Ages (as a way of preserving foods) and Marie-Antoine Carême, the great French chef, embellished many dishes with aspic glazes in the 18th century. When food, fish, chicken or meat is covered with aspic mixed with a white or brown sauce, it’s a chaud-froid — something prepared hot (chaud) and served cold (froid). In the 1800s, French chef Jules Gouffé fiddled around with subjecting fruit to the chaud-froid treatment.
So Jell-O has its beginnings in fine French cuisine. Some of Belanger’s recipes are downright chic. Take, for instance, “sparkling Champagne and strawberries.” What a lovely way to end a meal. (Or begin one!) The sliced strawberries and bubbles suspended in golden individual molds were beautiful. The other eight “boozy molds,” as Belanger calls these adult concoctions, sound good too. The minty mojito might be up next.
Kitchen laboratory for kid-friendly recipes
The Fourth of July seemed to be the perfect occasion to try my daughter’s all-American selection of “root beer float squares.” Making the treat was like undertaking a science experiment (my daughter poking it with her finger throughout the process). We watched the powdered gelatin soak up the water and get puffy. Then we poured boiling water over it, stirred, and mixed some root beer into our potion. A white foam appeared which we skimmed off.
We chilled the mixture until it set, then cut the wobbly stuff into cubes. Part two of the recipe had us transforming vanilla ice cream into soup on the stove (what fun for a kid!) then mixing it with more gelatin. We poured that over the root beer cubes, chilled it and cut it into more cubes — now brown and white. They were a hit, but the real highlight was making them.
The tone of the Belanger’s book is just right. In the “Tips, Tricks, Tools and Techniques” section, for example, a heading reads: “How the %&@# do you get it out of the mold?”
While the author is having fun with her subject (and how could she not), she delivers helpful information. There are some nice photographs by Angie Cao and plenty of great recipes.
Belanger, who writes a blog called The Jello Mold Mistress of Brooklyn, offers recipes for layered molds, creamy molds, seasonal molds and even molds made with agar rather than gelatin, for vegans. There’s a strawberry-Nutella mold, and one made with green tea and milk. Peaches and cream, too. All require very few ingredients and seem easy to whip up. And so my daughter and I will. All summer long.
Top photo composite:
Cover of “Hello, Jell-O” and author Victoria Belanger. Credits: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press.
Grilled Asparagus and Leeks with Romesco Sauce. Salted and Pickled Anchovies on Grilled Flatbread. Trout a la Navarra prepared with kale and Serrano ham. Confit of Duck Legs with Plums. I want to cook and eat all the dishes from Seamus Mullen’s first cookbook, “Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012). That he tells us these recipes are healthy is almost beside the point. They all sound — and look — delicious.
Mullen, chef-owner of New York’s acclaimed Spanish restaurant, Tertulia, (and also a bit of a star thanks to his performance on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”) was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after excruciating pain in his hip made it hard for him to move. The flare-up may have been brought on by the harried schedule and intense stress of running a restaurant (it occurred a few years ago while he was executive chef at Boqueria), but Mullen was determined not to let RA keep him away from the work he loves.
“I know there’s no silver bullet, but I have discovered that some foods can make dramatic differences,” he writes. “And here’s the good news: In that great fatalistic way of Mother Nature, what I like turns out to be good for me!” That’s good news for us, too. Zeroing in on 18 “heroes,” as he calls these foods that make him feel better — parsley, olive oil and almonds among them, and treating them in the Spanish style, Mullen offers recipes we’ll make because they’re delicious. Their benefits, which I suspect apply to all of us, with or without RA, are secondary.
The moderate omnivore
This isn’t a book that banishes certain foods. There are lots of vegetables in it but there’s also some beef, a little butter, some gluten and eggs included in the recipes. Mullen, it seems, falls into the Michael Pollan omnivore camp and quotes nutrition expert Marion Nestle: “You are better off paying attention to your overall dietary pattern than worrying about whether any one single food is better for you than another.” He’s never militant, but recommends avoiding refined industrial foods, eating everything in moderation, listening to your body and enjoying yourself. Good common sense.
Mullen’s food is straight forward. He’s offers a lot of good research on nutrition, and he shares a lot of information about technique and his ingredients, too. He tells us what makes Bomba rice so special and why it’s the best for paella. We get lessons on cleaning squid and extricating a quail egg from its shell. (Cracking it on the counter doesn’t work.) After reading about anchovies, you’ll want to give them a second chance. And he makes a case for buying local lamb.
“Hero Food” is proof that Mullen isn’t letting his diagnosis get in the way of eating well and enjoying life. Photos, taken by Colin Clark, show him in his beloved Spain, making chicken and seafood paella with friends on his city roof, digging in the garden with a child, sharing a toast surrounded by family. “Even if that fresh ear of sweet corn were to cause me a bit of discomfort,” he writes, “for me it’s a good trade-off … After all, just how unhealthy could an occasional ear of sweet corn eaten only in season really be, compared to the life-pleasure it delivers?”
Photo: Pickled carrots from Seamus Mullen’s recip. Credit: Colin Clark
Mitchell Rosenthal has three San Francisco restaurants –Town Hall, Salt House and Anchor and Hope — and another, Irving Street Kitchen, in Portland, Ore. I haven’t been to any of them, but I’m pretty sure I’d like them all. I get this feeling because, as I read through Rosenthal’s new cookbook, “Cooking My Way Back Home,” I found myself really liking him. He has a giving and appreciative spirit, which often makes for a good restaurateur. He’s thankful for the mentors in his life — Tony Plaganis, “a big Greek guy who was passionate about food” and who gave him his first restaurant job; Paul Prudhomme; Seppi Renggli at The Four Seasons in New York; and Wolfgang Puck, for whom he worked at Postrio in San Francisco — and for everything working in restaurants has afforded him: travel, friendships, adventure and good food. This kind of honest and enthusiastic attitude tends to infuse one’s endeavors, and I’m sure his restaurants are full of it. His cookbook, written with Jon Pult, certainly is.
Get out the deep fryer
The book’s recipes, which have a Southern bent to them and are mostly culled from his restaurants, are adapted for home cooks — especially those with deep fryers. You’ll need one to make Angels on Horseback with Rémoulade, a gorgeous appetizer of deep-fried, bacon-wrapped oysters; Crispy Stuffed Zucchini Blossoms with Basil Cream; and an oyster and shrimp po’boy called The Peacemaker. For those of us without deep fryers, though, there are plenty of other finger-licking recipes to make us (fat and) happy. “Cooking My Way Back Home” is no diet book. It’s a collection of manly recipes that will also appeal to women who aren’t afraid to eat.
Rosenthal’s style isn’t subtle. There’s spice and smoke and fire in his food. There’s cream and butter. There’s lots of meat. And it all sounds delicious. Apple-Glazed St. Louis Ribs with Spicy Bourbon Barbecue Sauce, for example, and Peanut and Tasso Crusted Pork Chop with Hot Mustard. Even the fish dishes, like Warm Sea Urchin with Crab and Verjus Butter Sauce and Herb Fired Rainbow Trout With Apple and Horseradish Salsa Verde are daring. I want to eat them all. And I will. The recipes are clear, well-written and don’t require zillions of hard-to-find ingredients. His introductions offer as much insight about the food as about him — he had a recurring nightmare about eating gummy gnocchi, poor guy.
Thanks to beautiful photography by Paige Green, the food looks tasty and the people — whether it’s a smiling Rosenthal with his goatee and colorful tats or a young girl eating a messy lobster roll — look like they’re having fun. And I get the idea that if I serve this food at a dinner party, all of my guests will have a blast. It has that kind of energy. Indeed, the Haricots Verts with Harissa Vinaigrette, Serrano Ham and Spiced Almonds recently made an interesting and welcome addition to a potluck dinner. (Who knew making harissa was so easy? I’ll be using that vinaigrette on all sorts of salads.)
I’m often dubious about cookbooks written by chefs who spend their lives — including mealtimes — in professional kitchens, surrounded by sous-chefs and specialty equipment. In the introduction to the book, Rosenthal comes clean. “I’ve survived much of the last thirty-five years on staff meals. The last thing I wanted to do after a double shift on the hot line was to go home and cook.” But, he explains, as he became more of a restaurateur and less of a hands-on chef, he started to miss the “simple act of cooking.” That’s when he stepped into his home kitchen, started replicating his restaurant recipes and writing them down for the rest of us.
We’re lucky he did.
Mitchell Rosenthal. Credit: Paige Green
Book jacket, courtesy of Ten Speed Press
My favorite dinner is a cocktail party with passed hors d’oeuvres — and Champagne. Caterer Peter Callahan‘s new book, Bite by Bite: 100 Stylish Little Plates You Can Make for Any Party” (Clarkson Potter, 2011), offers dish after tiny dish for just such a meal. I’ve never been invited to a party put on by his New York- and Philadelphia-based company, Callahan Catering, but apparently celebrities love him — names like Conan O’Brien, the Rockefellers, Tom Petty and Tony Bennett — are dropped throughout the book.
As I flipped through its glossy pages and stylized photos, I realized this isn’t a collection of easy variations on crostini toppings or do-ahead dips. Callahan and co-writer Raquel Pelzel’s recipes are for fancy Lilliputian snacks such as baby Lobster Rolls, Tuna Tartare in Plantain Cones and meat-filled “Fortune Cookies,” complete with fortunes, homemade Chinese take-out boxes and a side of cherry sake. These are the kind of creative and crafty suggestions fans expect from Callahan, a former contributor to Martha Stewart‘s Weddings magazines. (Stewart writes the book’s forward.) His enthusiasm is remarkable, but I wonder whether regular people really make this kind of party food at home.
Diversity is the message
Nothing’s more depressing than a cocktail party short on variety in the food department — here comes the chicken saté … again. Callahan seems to agree. In his Themes and Menus section, he suggests having five or six different types of hors d’oeuvres for an hour-long party. But who has an hour-long cocktail party? For a more realistic gathering of two hours, he recommends 10 different dishes.
The book suggests the following menu for an engagement cocktail party: Fish Tacos and Margaritas in mini Patrón bottles; Vegetable Spring Rolls; Tuna Tartare Plaintain Cones; Caviar Spoons and Vodka; Lobster-Potato Petit Fours; Mango-Shrimp Lollipops; Chicken Noodle Soup; Spicy Chicken “Fortune Cookies”; Fried Clams and Bloody Marys; and Short Rib Burgers.
Labor and time-intensive recipes
The fish taco recipe calls for cutting out 24 2-inch rounds of flour tortillas, wrapping them around a ½-inch cannoli tube, sliding that inside a 1-inch cannoli tube, then frying. Next, marinate and roast the cod to fill the shells, make an avocado mash and, finally, prepare 24 limes to serve as cradles for the tiny tacos.
Here’s how to prepare those limes: “Slice a thin piece off one long side of each lime, so it doesn’t wobble. Rest the lime on the cut side. Using a paring knife, cut a ¼-inch-deep, 1-inch-wide V-shaped notch into the top of the lime.” It looks cute in the photo, but I calculate that that recipe would take the average home cook at least three hours to make. (Before the filling of 24 mini Patrón bottles with margaritas …) Only nine more recipes to go. Most of them are just as time-consuming — if not more so. What home cook is up for the task?
Better to eat than to prepare
I wouldn’t hold back on any of the hors d’oeuvres in this book if they were passed my way at a party (with the exception of the Bubblegum-tini), but I can’t imagine going to the bother of making them myself. Callahan offers time-saving tips, but they seem to defeat the purpose. Serving that fish taco on flat, premade tortilla chips just isn’t that interesting.
And I couldn’t justify buying all the special equipment and miniature serving pieces required. If I did spend days preparing for a two-hour cocktail party, I’d have to hire staff to help me serve and clean up the zillions of little plates and tiny glasses that would be left after each bite or sip was taken.
Callahan, in the end, makes a good case for splurging on the professional caterer. The cost, we realize, is justified.
Top photo composite: Peter Callahan and book jacket, courtesy Clarkson Potter.
When I heard about Fanae Aaron’s “What Chefs Feed Their Kids: Recipes and Techniques for Cultivating a Love of Good Food” (Globe Pequot Press, 2011), I was eager to get reading. I was curious to know what chefs cook at home and thought I might find some tips and a plan for helping my finicky 9-year-old expand her culinary repertoire.
Turns out, chefs are a lot like the rest of us. Some of them are OK with McDonald’s once in a while; some are fine with their kids grazing throughout the day; and some even play the “airplane game” to get little ones to open their mouths for a bite of food. Aaron, an art director for films and commercials whose interest in feeding children was born soon after her son was, did her research.
Within the first five pages we meet a natural health expert; chefs from Boston, New York, Kansas City, Atlanta and Tampa; an infant-feeding specialist in Los Angeles; and a biopsychologist in Philadelphia. On the pages that follow, they — and many, many others — chime in on subjects ranging from their children’s food preferences to their takes on when it’s OK for kids to drink sodas to what they pack for school lunches. The book, while lively, makes a reader feel as if she’s at a busy playground with all the parents talking over one another as they swap stories about eating, cooking and their kids’ quirks at the table.
Chapters by age group
Creating healthy meals is a common thread throughout the book, which is broken down in chapters according to age, from infancy to adolescence, defined here as ages 8 to 11. You won’t find vegetables snuck into recipes for pasta sauces or mashed potatoes, though.
These chefs want their children to appreciate the flavors and textures each food has to offer. Aaron shares recipes for dishes ranging from fresh pea and spinach puree for babies to whole-grain sesame scallion pancakes with tofu for toddlers to Goan shrimp curry for older kids. The photographs, taken by Viktor Budnik, make it all look delicious.
‘Good’ and ‘real’ ingredients: Yes, lard, and peanut butter and jelly too
Chefs, we learn, create meals for their children with “good” and “real” ingredients. One Southern chef makes biscuits for his family using lard. “It’s just a matter of, is it good lard?” he explains. “Were these happy pigs?” A chef in Los Angeles who packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for his son’s lunch said it was OK because he used “good” peanut butter and “good” jelly.
Keep looking for the word ‘organic’
Oddly, nobody in the book utters the word “organic.” It’s almost as if it’s been purposefully edited out of the text. Yes, organic foods can be hard to find, are expensive and may not have been proven to be healthier, but I’m pretty sure we don’t want to be giving our babies pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones with their millet-cauliflower purée. A chart of foods with the highest pesticide residue could have been handy here. (You can get the Environmental Working Group’s guide to the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15″ here.)
Instill an understanding of food
Aaron gives many, not all of them entirely novel, tips for fostering a love and understanding of food in kids. Take them to farmers markets, have them participate in cooking a meal, make them taste something before allowing them to declare they don’t like it. If they are not so sure about something, one chef says, get them excited about a dish by calling it your “famous” chili or pot roast or pasta. Bring young children to restaurants so they can try new things, let them see their parents enjoying a good meal and teach older kids to read food labels so they know what they’re eating.
I’ve done many of the things recommended in “What Chefs Feed Their Kids,” and I still have a picky eater. While my daughter may balk at some of the book’s recipes, many sound good to me. If they meet resistance, I can always employ another of Aaron’s tips: “Step away from it for a few days, and then maybe bring it back and try again later.”
Top photo composite:
Fanae Aaron. Credit: Flint Ellsworth
Book jacket photo courtesy of Globe Pequot
I must be one of the few Americans who didn’t grow up eating home-cooked spaghetti and meatballs for dinner. I do fondly remember, however, the chic sweet-and-sour meatballs my mother served at parties. I hadn’t thought about them for years until I recently picked up a copy of the fun, little cookbook, “i love meatballs!“ by Rick Rodgers (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011). Now I’m not only thinking about meatballs, I’m serving them for dinner.
Rodgers apparently did a lot of thinking about meatballs too, and offers recipes for meatballs hors d’oeuvres, meatballs in soups, meatball sandwiches, meatballs covered in sauce and sitting on top of spaghetti. He deep-fries meatballs, he bakes them, he cooks them on the grill, steams and braises them. Balls made of fish qualify here as “meatballs” too, as do tweaked matzo balls (made of ground chicken and filled out with matzo meal). Rodgers looked to faraway lands for inspiration — from Vietnam to Morocco and, of course, to Sweden — and compiled 50 recipes.
Meatball tips and tricks
This is a book for meatball lovers, but it’s also a great book for someone who never paid them much mind. Thanks to Rodgers, I’ve experienced the calm joy of rolling out ball after ball of ground meat. (Most readers probably know the trick he shares of rinsing hands in cold water between batches, but novices may not. The book is filled with such handy tips.)
I’ll refer to “i love meatballs” when I’m planning parties and scrambling for weeknight meals. Another bonus: Rodgers shares tips for freezing meatballs in or out of sauce. His turkey-sage meatballs, included in the recipe for turkey meatball subs with cranberry-chipotle mayonnaise, will find a place next to the frozen peas in my freezer (though I don’t think I’ll be making the flavored mayonnaise again).
The concept might seem a bit goofy, but the recipes are honest and far from wacky. Spanish meatball tapas with sherry-garlic sauce, Chinese shrimp ball soup and German meatballs in caper sauce, are all takes on classic dishes. Even the chafing dish meatballs, which Rodgers includes in the book, doused in a sauce made with grape jelly and bottled chili sauce, are a traditional American party dish. They’re so well loved, he says, he just had to include them.
Curry and pomegranate sauces
Most meatballs start out with ground meat, bread crumbs, egg and spices, but Rodgers gives us lots of variety in the sauces. We have green curry to pair with lamb; a pomegranate and walnut sauce for a Persian dish; a good Bolognese and more. He even lists sauces that can spruce up store-bought frozen meatballs. But after reading this book, I can’t imagine buying industrial meatballs ever again.
Though I don’t have a spaghetti and meatball recipe that brings my childhood rushing back to me, I’ve found a version in this book, checkered tablecloth spaghetti and meatballs, that I hope will remind my children of home when they’re older. Rodgers describes it as a composite “of what I’ve learned about spaghetti and meatballs from the various Italian grandmothers in my life.” If it’s good enough for this master of the meatball, it’s good enough for us.
Photo: “i love meatballs!” cover. Credit: Christy Hobart