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Photos of perfect-looking prepared food in glossy magazines used to make Amelia Morris mad — really mad. So in 2009 she decided to start a blog called Bon Appétempt to help beginners like her feel good about their cooking attempts, no matter how badly they turned out.
“I want to show what life is like for the rest of us: messy, poorly lit and falling well short of our aspirations,” she wrote in one of her first blog entries.
“Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)”
By Amelia Morris, Grand Central Publishing, 2015, 320 pages
» Click here to buy the book
Bon Appétempt is a now an award-winning blog that features recipes Morris adapted from magazines, along with fun cooking videos shot by her husband, bits of food memories and photos of herself and her family — because, after all, food is all tied up with relationships: who you’re cooking with, and for, even if it’s just yourself on a lonely night.
This is abundantly clear in Morris’ new memoir — “Bon Appétempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (With Recipes!)” — where she traces her journey as a novice cook while navigating difficult relationships with her parents (her father hoped she’d become a wrestler), and trying to find herself as a writer.
Cooking to heal and celebrate
Through financial hardships, deaths of family members, a long-distance relationship, and then marriage and parenthood, Morris consistently turned to cooking to soothe hurts, celebrate happy gatherings and give herself a feeling of pride and success.
Recipes that have given her comfort and joy, such as “My Mom’s Chicken Cordon Bleu” and “Simple Vanilla Cake With Dulce De Leche,” which she learned from a woman in Argentina, fill the pages.
Cooking as a creative activity is something Morris understands well, which is why she’s honest and even proud of her flops — each one made her a better cook.
“… [A]ll of these so-called failures taught me that though writers would like readers as much as chefs would like eaters, at the end of the day, if there are none of either to be found, we can continue creating anyway just to feed ourselves,” she writes.
I caught up with Morris to ask her to tell us more about her story. She happily shared a recipe for an Italian cookie called pizzelle that she adapted from the version her grandmother used to make (see below).
Q&A With Bon Appétempt’s Amelia Morris
It seemed that cooking sustained you through the trials of becoming a writer, is that correct?
It did — it helped me in a lot of ways. Working on a novel took a long time and was lonely work. It was nice to get away from computer and go make dinner. Cooking is a tangible thing; it feeds your family, it feeds yourself. It’s way to take care of yourself.
Can you describe one of your cooking failures?
There was one with fried chicken — I used a cookie sheet for the oil, so it dripped off the sides. People were coming over for dinner, so I jumped into the shower and my husband came in and said, “There’s black smoke coming out of the oven, I don’t know what to do!” All I could think of was the blog, so I said, “Can you get a picture of the black smoke?” It was comical! I did serve the chicken to our dinner guests, but it wasn’t great.
You tell the story of a fabulously ruined cake that you had planned to serve for Christmas.
Yes, the chocolate peppermint cake. It’s one of those things with baking — you think if you follow the rules and have the tools, you can do it! I set myself up for success. I started three days ahead and made all the components. I was so impressed with what I’d done — Matt took pictures of me putting it together. The cake was layers of ganache-cream-cake, ganache-cream-cake. But as I began to ice it, all the icing started to slide — and there was no stopping it! We started taking pictures of it — you can see the whole thing on the blog.
When did you cross the line as a cook and begin to really feel confident?
It took a really long time. Through the blog, people started coming to me with cooking questions and recipe tips, as if I was this knowledgeable cook, and I resisted it. But recently I realized — I am a decent cook. I don’t have formal training, I learned by just doing it. Seeing my grandma cook, I am sure I absorbed some basic knowledge.
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Who are some of your favorite food-memoir writers?
Ruth Reichl was my introduction to food memoirs — I really love her writing. Also, M.F.K. Fisher‘s “How to Cook a Wolf” — I loved it from the minute I opened it up. I also love Molly Wizenberg’s books, and am inspired by “Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin.” He had a diner in Manhattan for a long time; he’s an interesting guy and his cookbook is really great.
Is there anything that still scares you, cooking-wise?
Yes! I’ve always wanted to grill a whole fish. That seems hard and scary, as well as cooking any big cuts of meat.
Meyer Lemon Pizzelle (Adapted From Food 52)
Prep time: About 25 minutes
Cook time: About 45 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour, 10 minutes
Yield: About 40 to 50 cookies*, depending on iron size
(*If you want to make a ton like Grandma did, you should double this recipe.)
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
6 large eggs, room temperature
2 sticks of butter, melted and cooled plus more for brushing on the pizzelle iron
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
Zest of 2 to 3 Meyer lemons (If you can’t find Meyer lemons, substitute with regular lemons or oranges.)
4 cups all-purpose flour, spooned into measuring cup
4 teaspoons baking powder
1. Combine the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes until well incorporated. The eggs must be at least room temperature.
2. Slowly drizzle the melted butter into the mixture, while mixing on medium speed. Add the extract then the zest.
3. On low speed, add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, and the baking powder, one teaspoon at a time.
4. The batter should have a satin sheen to it, but should be light and stiff. If your batter is too liquid, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time until the batter is stiff.
5. I can’t speak for other pizzelle irons, but I have this one, and here is my advice for using it: Make sure the iron is super hot before beginning! Also, to avoid getting the batter stuck in the iron, I quickly brush all four sides of it with melted butter. Using a tablespoon scoop, place dollops of batter onto the iron. Close the iron tight and wait about 30 seconds before opening. Repeat 20 to 25 more times depending on iron size. Fresh, hot cookies can be rolled or shaped into cups, although I haven’t experimented with that yet. Next year!
Main photo: Meyer Lemon Pizzelles, hot off the press. Credit: Copyright 2015 Matthew Bookman
Sancerre’s greatest secret is its red wines made from Pinot Noir.
At the eastern border of France’s Loire Valley, Sancerre is known for its benchmark Sauvignon Blancs, but this was not always the case. Pinot Noir historically covered Sancerre’s hillsides until phylloxera began its devastation of the region’s vines sometime around 1865. (Indeed, it is said the Champenois came here in search of raw material.)
Among the many varieties planted to reconstitute the vineyards, it was Sauvignon Blanc that proved perfectly adapted to the climate and the soils of Sancerre and today accounts for roughly 80% of the volume. Pinot Noir — for either rosé or rouge — makes up the balance.
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Until recently most producers treated their reds pretty much as an afterthought. Now Pinot Noir is getting serious attention. The wines may not yet plumb the depths of, say, Vôsne-Romanée, but the best ought to make Burgundy take notice. Sancerre rouge is getting better every day.
For the most part, these are seductive, light- to medium-bodied reds with vibrant flavors of cherry, plum and strawberry. Bottlings from older vines or prime parcels may be more structured, with hints of sweet spices, black tea and orange zests. They are supremely satisfying and absolute charmers. Most should be drunk slightly chilled.
Listed here are three of my favorite producers. Their grapes grow on one of Sancerre’s three soil types: “white soils,” composed of clay and limestone, also known as Kimmeridgian marl (the same soils as Chablis) on the westernmost hillsides of the zone; pebbly compact limestone, on the slopes and low hills; and flinty clay, or Silex, on the hills at the eastern limits of the appellation. All three vintners harvest by hand, keep yields low, and age their reds, at least in part, in oak barrels.
Domaine Claude & Stéphane Riffault
Thirtysomething Stéphane Riffault is one of my favorite discoveries. After studying viticulture and enology in Beaune, Riffault worked with Olivier Leflaive (Burgundy) and at Chateau Angelus (Saint Emilion) before returning to Sancerre, where he is in the process of converting the family property to organic viticulture. His reds are bottled without filtration.
Riffault’s Pinot Noir comes from a parcel called La Noue which gives its name to his rosé and his red Sancerre. Lovely balance and juicy red fruit characterized the (still too) young 2013. The 2008, however, was cool, silken and fine of grain. Wonderfully fresh, pure and fluid, it had deep flavors of cherry and black tea. (A second bottling, Les Chailloux, is not sold in the United States.)
Domaine Lucien Crochet
Lucien’s son Gilles, a Dijon-trained enologist, has long been one of Sancerre’s best ambassadors, making fine-tuned, concentrated, eco-friendly Sancerres, among them, two Sancerre rouges.
The basic bottling is La Croix du Roy. The 2011 was pale (vintage oblige) with lovely, mingled scents of small red berries. Cool, harmonious and lightly oaky, with a distinctly salty thread, it should be drinking beautifully when it arrives in the United States this fall. The 2010 is limpid and airborne, seasoned with oak, at once delicate and forceful.
Crochet’s Cuvée Prestige rouge is made from the Crochet’s oldest Pinot Noir vines and is produced only in the best vintages, most recently in 2005, 2009 and 2012 (the last won’t be released for another year or two).
The fragrant 2009 was pellucid and firm, a smooth, fresh gourmandise. The vivacious 2005 was similarly delicate but dignified, with rose petal accents, emerging flavors of oak and an appetizing bitter note in the finish.
Domaine Vincent Gaudry
Gaudry’s wines are sui generis … and downright fascinating. Gaudry says he works with his energy and his emotions and is guided by an old vigneron who “speaks the language of energy.” His mentor also provided him with great grapes, to wit, Pinot Fin, a pre-phylloxeric, pre-clonal version of today’s Pinot Noir that the old vintner planted 50 years ago by Selection Massale.
The grapes now make Gaudry’s “Les Garennes,” an unfiltered red, the 2013 of which was utterly seductive, silky, delicate and infinitely nuanced.
With the coarser, ruddier “Pinot Noir” we know today, Gaudry makes Vincengetorix, also unfiltered. The 2009 was dense, pure, cool, and lightly tannic, with flavors of spice and black tea — full of character and mesmerizing.
There are so many wonderful Sancerre rouges and so little space. Herewith, wholehearted recommendations for the following Domaines:
• Francois Crochet
• Pascal & Nicolas Reverdy
• Pierre Morin
• Dominique Roger
• Roblin, Vacheron
• Serge Laloue
Prices range from $22 to $40, and up to $66 for deluxe bottlings. And in case you’re wondering, all these winemakers also make terrific white Sancerres.
For more information about French wines, read “Earthly Delights From The Garden Of France: Wines Of The Loire,” by Jacqueline Friedrich.
Main photo: Harvest time at La Noue vineyard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Denis Bomer
Dan Pashman didn’t set out to make his living writing and talking about food. But with a popular podcast, a web video series and a new book from Simon & Schuster, his life has become all about eating. His podcast, “The Sporkful,” earned him a James Beard Award nomination and launched a career in food media; when he started it, though, Pashman’s goals were pragmatic.
The 37-year-old from Greenlawn, New York, worked as a radio producer on a number of programs that were canceled, including a stint on the ill-fated Air America radio network’s morning show. A podcast would give him more control. “I figured if I was going to put all this work into it, the only one who could cancel it was me,” he said.
“Eat More Better: How to Make Every Bite More Delicious”
By Dan Pashman, Simon & Schuster, 2014, 352 pages
» Click here to buy the book
It was only after deciding to start the podcast that he began to cast around for a topic. With no culinary background, the food angle of his new show may have been an afterthought. But he’s always been a passionate eater (which, he assures me, is distinct from your typical foodie).
“The Sporkful” is an eclectic mix of conversation about food from outside the food industry. His guests include musicians and comedians, and he can only recall interviewing three chefs in his five years of recording: “It feels like 99% of the food media talk about 1% of the things you could talk about when it comes to food and eating. I feel there is so much more out there that doesn’t get covered.”
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Pashman has always approached eating with an odd sense of certainty about how it should be done. A self-described “strict constructionist” when it comes to making sandwiches, he’s created elaborate rules for how to improve the taste of everything, from the right way to hold a tortilla chip for a given dip to plating a grilled cheese sandwich to preserve its crispness.
His overriding philosophy is to extract a higher level of “deliciousness” out of every meal, whether that means putting the cheese on the bottom of a cheeseburger to be closer to the tongue or turning boxes of leftover Girl Scout cookies into the perfect cheesecake crust. This philosophy has served him well: carrying him into the WNYC-featured podcast, a web series for The Cooking Channel, “You’re Eating It Wrong,” and now his new book.
Framed as a tongue-in-cheek textbook, “Eat More Better: How to Make Every Bite More Delicious” is devoted to the art of extracting deliciousness. It’s a wickedly clever un-cookbook, but it’s also filled with thoughtful and vetted (he with a fact checker and recipe tester) tips, tricks and recipes from his favorite restaurants and even a few celebrities. Rachel Maddow, for example, contributes recommendations for the perfect margarita.
I recently chatted with Pashman about “The Sporkful” and how “Eat More Better” evolved from a snarky satire into a sincere (but hilariously irreverent) treatise on the art of eating.
The book is filled with humor, but also sound advice, useful ideas and fantastic recipes. How did you arrive at a balance between practical, serious information and maintaining that light tone?
That was probably the biggest creative challenge. It was important for me that the book be useful: that it would have information that was, first of all, just accurate, and people would say, “that’s a great idea, I’m going to start doing that.” But I wanted it to be so much more than, “here are a bunch of tips and hacks for you in your kitchen.” I wanted it be a book that people would just pick up and read because it’s funny. I wanted it to be a book that you might read and it would change how you eat, but also it could be a book you just put next to your toilet, frankly, and get a kick out of every once in a while.
Food culture has evolved — people are getting more serious about what they eat. There are televised cooking competitions and maybe even a culture of elitism. Is your book a response to that?
Food is a wonderful common ground. There’s not a single culture or ethnic group that you can learn anything about without pretty quickly hearing about their food.
Whatever your background is, or wherever you’re from, if you think of any holiday or family gathering that you grew up celebrating every year, what’s one of the first things you’re going to think about? You’re going to think about the food you ate. It’s such an integral part of memories, of childhood, of life experiences. And it’s so fun! It’s so much about pleasure.
And so much of the food stuff out there is so serious. I’m not against it, and I consume a lot of that media. But I also feel like there’s this opportunity to cover this whole other world of having fun and focusing on the pleasure and the joy of food and eating.
What’s one thing you’d want readers to take away from your book?
That you can always make your life more delicious. You don’t need a lot of money, you don’t need special expertise, you just need to put forth a little more effort and think a little harder about what you’re doing when you eat.
If you can make every eating experience a little bit more delicious … it doesn’t need to be perfect and you shouldn’t come away from this feeling all this pressure to do it right, but if you could just make it ten percent better, just by putting in a little more effort. Imagine that … three meals a day … if every meal was 10% better, three meals a day times weeks times months times years of your life, it’s like your whole existence just got better. I do hope that in its own quirky way that this book will make people’s lives better.
You have homework assignments at the end of the chapters. Do you ever hear from your readers?
Yeah, I’ve gotten some in. I actually have one in my queue to add to “The Sporkful” blog that was really great. That’s been fun. You can continue to send in your homework submissions. I read every single one if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You have two small children — has your perspective on eating evolved as a result?
I don’t know how much my perspective has actually evolved, because my perspective was a little bit childlike already. A lot of what I do is about questioning assumptions: “Well, why can’t you do it that way?” And that’s the kind of thing that little kids do all the time.
I didn’t set out to make “The Sporkful” or this book especially geared toward kids. But it turned out that after I launched the podcast I started getting all these emails from parents, especially parents of kids who were 8 to 14, saying, “‘The Sporkful’ is the only thing we can agree on to listen to in the car, and we love listening to it as a family and discussing and debating what you’re talking about.” That was really exciting and not something I expected or planned for.
Pashman admits to having an idea for a second book. But with a surge in podcast listeners after the publication of “Eat More Better,” an increase in frequency of the show, new television opportunities and plans for live appearances at events such as Taste of Chicago and South by Southwest, he’s got his hands full. And when things get too hectic? He just follows his own advice: “No matter how crummy your day is looking when you wake up in the morning, if you have a couple good meals to look forward to, you’re doing pretty well.”
Spoken like a true eater.
Main photo: Dan Pashman hopes his new book, “Eat More Better” will help everyone make and eat food they truly enjoy. Credit: Lilia Cretcher for “The Sporkful”
Some ancient grains get all the press. Quinoa, freekeh, and spelt are the darlings of the food world these days, especially in the United States — and rightfully so, since they were ignored for millennia. But one ancient grain seems to lag behind: barley. Plain ol’ barley never makes a Top 10 list. It needs a spunky dance partner and great choreography to be seen. Mushrooms have often been its companion for comfort food — think of all the savory mushroom-barley soups. But wild mushrooms, exotic and even more flavorful than the cultivated variety while still just as earthy as barley, may serve as the most perfect partner of all.
During the chill of January, foraging for comfort food is often a search for simple, earthy foods — like barley and mushrooms. But these foods can also be rich and elegant, intriguing and satisfying, old and new. Sometimes all it takes is one little change to make a comfort-food dish special.
Barley and mushrooms, ancient foods
Barley is no newbie to the food scene. There is no way to overstate its importance in the Fertile Crescent and the Levant (present-day Iraq and the Middle East). Wild barley was an integral part of the human diet, so much so that it became a domesticated crop. It was the basis for a key everyday comestible that is still popular today: beer.
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In Europe by the Middle Ages, barley was the flour of poor man’s bread and the filler in Scotch broth. It was — and remains — a common food for livestock. Notwithstanding the changes in the world around it, domesticated barley is, in essence, a simple whole grain with plenty of nutrients. And it has countless culinary benefits.
There is a good reason why barley’s long time partner is the mushroom.
An ancient, originally wild food, mushrooms are fungi, and are incredibly healthy — high in B and D vitamins, selenium, copper, potassium and antioxidants that appear to protect DNA at the cellular level. Some of these benefits can be found in common button mushrooms and their close cousins, baby bellas, criminis and portabellos. But mushrooms are more than that. They are a natural flavor enhancer. All mushrooms contain glutamic acid, a version of the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Wild mushrooms, or those that were once wild and are now cultivated (called “exotic” by growers), burst with all of these benefits. No wonder wild ones have been popular across Europe, Asia, the United States and India for centuries. Each variety of wild mushroom has its individual charms. The one I used for this mushroom-barley risotto is the chanterelle.
Chanterelles, a sexy and mellifluous a name for fungus if there ever was one, evokes images of five-star French chefs cooking up lavish, sophisticated and warming dishes. To many a chef and connoisseur, chanterelles — golden and floral, earthy and fragrant — are in the same pantheon as morels and truffles. Chanterelles have even been considered male aphrodisiacs, with the 11th-century Normans in Britain serving them at wedding feasts to the grooms. Widely found in both Europe and the United States, fresh in season and dried year-round, the lightly peppery, softly fruity chanterelle is an ideal candidate to gussy up the Plain Jane barley.
The wine that links all the flavors
The element that can put it all together? A wine born from the same soil as those wild mushrooms. Barley risotto style is now a restaurant mainstay. But when the mushrooms in the risotto are the prized chanterelle and the wine is Willamette Valley — what you have is dinner alchemy.
Willamette Valley, Oregon, where chanterelles have long grown wild and are now cultivated, is a well-regarded region for producing fine grapes and even finer wines. The Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Willamette Valley are characterized by robust notes of black raspberry and bogs, of vanilla and cloves. The old cooking adage “if it grows together it goes together” is certainly true with Pacific golden chanterelles and Willamette Pinot Noir. Pairing these two is not for the faint of wallet. But the cost of the barley balances that out a bit.
And that wine — ooh — that wine is the essential link tying, literally binding, the mushrooms to the barley. All together, chanterelles and barley become something genuinely soul satisfying. The flavors and textures support and encourage each other, revealing the best they can offer. Perhaps that is what a plate-mate, a bowl-mate and soulmate should always be.
Barley Risotto With Fresh Chanterelles and Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
This special-occasion dish is impressive to serve and even better to eat. It showcases a classic Italian cooking technique applied to humble pearl barley and highlights the quality and unique flavors of fresh wild chanterelle mushrooms. The result is extravagantly delicious and memorable, worth every penny and every stir.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 50 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 5 minutes
Yield: 4 servings as a meal, 6 as a starter
2½ cups low-sodium mushroom broth
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 large shallots, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Leaves of 6 sprigs fresh thyme, minced (about 2 teaspoons, see Kitchen Tips)
1 cup pearl barley
2 cups Willamette Valley Pinot Noir (see Kitchen Tips)
1 pound fresh chanterelle mushrooms, sliced, cut into bite-size pieces
1 large fresh bay leaf
½ teaspoon kosher salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 (7-ounce) package fresh baby kale, thinly sliced
½ cup freshly grated Gruyère cheese
¾ cup sour cream or crème fraiche
1 teaspoon truffle salt (see Kitchen Tips)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, bring the mushroom broth to a simmer.
2. Meanwhile, in a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the butter and heat until it melts. Add the shallots and thyme, stir to coat, reduce the heat to medium, and cook, stirring occasionally for 2 to 3 minutes, until the shallots are translucent and the edges are just beginning to brown. Add the barley and cook, stirring to coat, for 2 minutes.
3. Increase the heat to high, add the wine, and cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until it has been fully absorbed into the barley. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the mushrooms and bay leaf, and stir well.
4. Add 1/2 cup of the warm mushroom broth and cook, stirring for 4 to 5 minutes, until the liquid is almost absorbed. Add the salt and stir. Continue adding the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously but gently for 2 to 3 minutes, until it is nearly absorbed into the barley. Repeat until all the mushroom broth is used.
5. Cook for about 30 minutes more, until the barley is al dente. Add the kale, stir well, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the leaves are completely soft. Reduce the heat to low, stir in the Gruyère cheese and sour cream. Remove from the heat, remove the bay leaf, sprinkle with the truffle salt and pepper, and stir well. Spoon into wide, shallow bowls and serve immediately.
1. To remove the leaves from a sprig of fresh thyme, hold the sprig (or a few) at the top with one hand, and with the other hand, grasp the stem with your thumb and forefinger and gently slide your fingers down the stem. The leaves will be pushed against the direction they grow in, and will come off easily.
2. For more information about Pinot Noir grapes and wines: http://www.pinot-noir-wines.com/
3. If you don’t have low-sodium mushroom broth, you can omit this extra salt.
4. Salt to which very small pieces of dried truffle have been added is called truffle salt. It is used to add richer flavor.
Main photo: Barley, Chanterelle Mushroom and Pinot Noir Risotto — elegant, simple, delicious. Credit: ©TheWeiserKitchen
Sam Fromartz’s new book, “In Search of the Perfect Loaf, A Home Baker’s Odyssey,” is a departure. The journalist and editor began his career as a reporter at Reuters, and his previous book, “Organic, Inc.,” was a standard work of nonfiction about the evolution of the organic food industry. But as his hobby became his subject, the writer leaped into the picture of this book.
“In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”
By Samuel Fromartz, Viking, 2014, 320 pages
» Enter here for a chance to win a free copy
» Click here to buy the book
“Baking for me was relief from my daily grind of journalism,” Fromartz said in a phone interview. “I really enjoyed the moment in the day when I would leave my keyboard and just bake, shape loaves, bake them. I really didn’t want to lose that sense of specialness, of what bread meant in my life. I thought if I mixed it up in my work too much, it would just become part of my job. I really didn’t want to do that.”
As the recession downsized his income, however, everything became a potential topic. In a single afternoon, he lost most of his steady freelancing gigs. Querying a contact at the travel magazine “Afar,” he proposed a story about going to Paris to study baguette baking.
The editor said yes, and the adventure began. Consider yourself lucky that his escape became his work, because the result is a really nice journey through baking led by a skilled reporter.
“This book was a lot more personal,” said Fromartz. “It wasn’t a journalistic investigation. But I am a reporter, so all of those tools I use in my work became tools I used in the book.”
Tools like reading, asking questions and framing the answers in good stories. There are some beautiful descriptions, like the one at Della Fattoria, a bakery in Petaluma, California.
“Everyone seemed to be working at a pace just short of a jog,” he writes, setting the stage for each reader to witness, as he did, the bread baking one morning. The baker-writer joins the action, helping shape loaves of bread. But once the actual baking begins, he stands on the sidelines and tells us plainly what he sees. We readers fall into the rhythm of the observed work.
As a small herd of bakers usher hundreds of would-be breads into the oven, Fromartz puts you right there, watching the “dance of the peels,” as loaves go into the oven, and then come out. You are just shy of smelling the bread and tasting it.
The pacing of the stories and information are spot-on. Fromartz takes you through a long baking lesson, baker by baker, describing the process and progress. Beginning with baguettes, which were a challenge for him to bake at home, you learn as much or more about the social history of this bread and its place in French culture as you do about the practical route he found to making this loaf.
Yes, there are elaborate recipes, heavy on method, at the end of chapters in case you want to bake along. But no baking is required to enjoy the research he presents as part of his journey. This odyssey is not just for serious home bakers or professionals, but also for anyone mildly curious about wheat.
Guided by his curiosities
“I wanted to understand things for myself,” he said. “A lot of baking books dealt with some of the questions I had, but there was no sort of central resource, and no book that tied together everything from the origins of grains to sourdough microbiology to how to shape a loaf.”
Writing the book really answered his curiosities. His dives into sourdough are deep; at one point he compares cultivating sourdough cultures to farming, and nurturing microlivestock. Holding all this heady material together is the importance of craft, and what he got out of learning a craft at the hands of people who really value bread, its historic framework and its future.
One of the most surprising discoveries he found on his journey was learning about flour, specifically locally grown and milled grains. As he started using local grains, and flour that came from small mills, he realized how variable bread’s main ingredient could be.
“It made me realize what’s been lost and sacrificed along the way in that quest for uniformity,” he said. Anything that threatened that uniformity got lost, like grains with different flavors, and non-standard types of gluten or proteins.
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“My sense is those guys probably knew something about flavor,” he said. “We have this real singular expectation of what bread should be. “Even whole-wheat loaves generally estimate that puffy bread ideal. “When you have such a narrow idea of what bread should be, you lose a lot of possibilities.”
Exploring those possibilities through different grains and flours engages him as a baker. It’s useful ecologically, too. Pursuing lesser-known grains is good for agricultural diversity and dietary diversity.
When I was reading, I was worried that baking might have lost some charm for the writer. But by the end of the book, he says he’s been able to protect his special connection to baking. I wanted to know how he preserved it. His answer was reassuring, if elliptical.
“I still bake a lot and baking is really a part of me,” he said. “I want to keep that sense of discovery about it. So I think will.”
Main photo: Sam Fromartz’s newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz
This Sonoma wine captivated with scents of gently crushed black cherries mildly seasoned with oak. Its attack was silky and the flavors echoed the wine’s alluring aromas. It was fresh and structured, though the oak gradually became more of a presence, indicating that the wine wanted cellaring.
It was the 2008 Vérité “La Joie,” an obsessively calculated blend of — here goes — 71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Malbec. Wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. awarded it 99/100 points and rated the 2007 vintage 100/100. There was another perfect score for “La Joie’s” sibling, Vérité “Le Désir,” a Cabernet Franc-dominated blend. And the third wine of the Vérité trio, the Merlot-based La Muse, garnered 99/100 points.
I do not typically score wines. I write pages and pages of notes. Amid the adjectives for that 2008 Vérité “La Joie” I noted “quite European in style” and “very French.”
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the wines were made by a Frenchman, Pierre Seillan, 64, who hails from the Lot-et-Garonne region south of Bordeaux.
The Vérité project
The Vérité project was the dreamchild of California wine icon, Jess Jackson, who died in 2011. An attorney and self-made billionaire, Jackson bought a pear orchard in 1974, planted grapes and eventually began making wine. In 1982 he created Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay and gave birth to a vinous revolution: Here was a moderately priced wine that trounced the Hearty Burgundies and other jug wines.
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Jackson continued to build his empire, which at its height comprised 35 wineries in five countries. What eluded him was a great wine. Then Seillan entered the picture.
The time was 1995. Seillan was managing estates for the Bordeaux negociant Cheval Quincard, when a mutual friend arranged for Jackson’s wife, Barbara Banke, to visit Seillan at one of the châteaux he was directing. In 1996 Seillan visited Jackson and by 1997 the Seillans had moved to Sonoma County.
They wasted no time. Vérité debuted with the 1998 vintage. But, first, as Seillan recalls, “Jess and I explored his different estates, vineyards and properties around California and around the world. I was able to identify and develop new locations in Sonoma County that were the right place for growing very high quality grapes, and matching the terroir to the appropriate varietal and rootstock. I then was able to identify what I defined later as ‘micro-crus.’ ”
The ‘micro’ approach
Seillan has worked with micro-crus for most of his life. “Ever since my grandmother taught me about soils and gardening when I was little at my parents’ estate in Gascony, then my work across Bordeaux, in the Loire Valley, in Tuscany and California. I learned to listen to the message of a particular place from the soil, climate and the vegetation, and to be able to match that to producing the right grapes in the right way.”
Seillan selects the best grapes from roughly a thousand acres of vineyards owned by Jackson to make the three versions of Vérité. The key parcels, well-exposed hillsides ranging from 578 feet to 2,457 feet, are: the Kellogg vineyard, Alexander Mountain Estate, Vérité Vale in Chalk Hill and Jackson Park.
Was the micro-approach uncommon in California? “Yes,” Seillan said. “Viticulture in California is still very young compared to France.”
In 2003, the Jacksons and the Seillans purchased the 55-acre Château Lassègue St. Emilion Grand Cru, and several years later, the 31-acre Château Vignot, also a St. Emilion Grand Cru. And Seillan manages the team at Jackson’s Tuscan properties.
Not surprisingly, the philosophy of micro-cru prevails, from painstaking selection of soils to persnickety parsing of grape percentages for each bottling.
A few favorites
Having tasted more than a dozen Seillan/Jackson wines recently, I had a hard job picking favorites. Nevertheless, I loved the 2010 Château Lassègue. Velvety and nuanced, it was fresh and structured, with notes of licorice blending with those of Burlat cherries. At $90 it’s not out of line for high quality Bordeaux and a lot cheaper than the 2008 Vérités ($390 a bottle). Of the three Tuscan wines, I much preferred the Chianti Classico to the two Bordeaux blends. Made from Sangiovese, the region’s traditional grape, it had a tasty story to tell on its home turf. What’s more, at $30 a bottle, it’s priced at roughly a third of the Super Tuscans.
And there’s a new, nicely priced charmer: Seillan has resuscitated vineyards planted by his mother on the Coteaux de Montestruc, facing the Pyrenees. True to form, he opted to plant Bordeaux grapes rather than those traditional to the region. The results are delectable. The 2012 Bellevue Seillan Côtes de Gascogne VdF, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, is a lip-smacking crowd-pleaser as well as a good value at $30 a bottle. Seillan’s grandma must be smiling.
Main image: Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan
“Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly” Robert Louis Stevenson famously wrote. I share his feelings. Gorgeous, gooey melted cheese is still the top go-to comfort food in my book when Jack Frost is nipping toes and all you want to do is hibernate underneath the duvet.
“Grilled Cheese: Traditional and inspired recipes for the ultimate toasted sandwich”
By Laura Washburn. Ryland, Peters & Small, 2014, 64 pages
» Click here to buy the book
I think Stevenson would have enjoyed this small but perfectly formed volume on the art of the ultimate toasted sandwich. The toastie with the mostie can only be made with cheese as the author so wisely knows. It is a universal truth: Grilled cheese never disappoints.
Laura Washburn was born in Los Angeles, studied in Paris, trained at La Varenne and worked with Patricia Wells. She now lives in London, where she works as a cookery teacher and food writer, and she has brought her international experience and professional skills to bear on this seemingly simple equation of cheese, bread and pan.
The wonderful thing about this basic trinity is that it can be equally good — depending on mood and moment — whether toasted sliced white bread and ersatz block cheese satisfies a case of the munchies at midnight, or Poilâne sourdough bread and three artisan cheeses makes for a legendary lunch at London’s Borough Market.
The book divides into simple, global, wicked and gourmet sections. Leek and Gruyere is an elegant idea to be served with a glass of chilled white wine, and Brie and Apple-Cranberry Sauce on Walnut bread is a brilliant seasonal suggestion.
Chorizo, Mini Peppers and Manchego is a spicy, smoky treat with a Spanish accent, and Avocado, Refried Bean and Monterey Jack would make a great brunch. The purist in me questions a Welsh rarebit made with two slices of bread (traditionally it lacks the top slice), but Washburn nails the filling — and doesn’t forget the ale, mustard powder and Worcestershire sauce that gives the rarebit its feisty character.
Wicked grilled cheese sandwiches are mini meals (Burger Scamorza or Meatballs, Garlic Tomato Sauce and Fontina, for example). But the gourmet section really takes off with zingy concepts such as Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese and Chilli Jam, and a decadent Brioche-based Lobster Tail, Tarragon and Beaufort. That’s the one I’m going to dream of tonight.
Recipes from “Grilled Cheese” by Laura Washburn, photography by Steve Painter.
Basic Grilled Cheese
This is the basic grilled cheese method, which can be used as a blueprint for all sorts of experimentation. For a more complex taste, it’s a good idea to combine two relatively mild cheeses, such as a mild cheddar and Monterey Jack.
Yield: 2 servings
4 large slices white bread
Unsalted butter, softened
3 1/2 cups mixed grated/shredded mild cheeses, such as mild cheddar, Gruyere, Monterey Jack or Gouda
1. Butter each of the bread slices on one side and arrange buttered-side down on a clean work surface or chopping board.
2. It’s best to assemble the sandwiches in a large nonstick frying pan/skillet before you heat it up. Start by putting two slices of bread in the frying pan/skillet, butter-side down. If you can only accommodate one slice in your pan, you’ll need to cook one sandwich at a time. Top each slice with half of the grated/shredded cheese, but be careful not to let too much cheese fall into the pan. Top with the final pieces of bread, butter-side up.
3. Turn the heat on medium and cook 3 to 4 minutes on the first side, then carefully turn with a large spatula and cook on the second side for 2 to 3 minutes until the sandwiches are golden brown all over and the cheese is visibly melted.
4. Remove from the frying pan/skillet and cut the sandwiches in half. Let cool for a few minutes before serving and dunk to your heart’s content in a lovely steaming bowl of tomato soup.
Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese & Chilli Jam
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A zingy combination of colors and tastes — perfect for brunch or a late-evening snack. Use an ordinary mozzarella for this sandwich, as its presence is merely for added ooze and to help hold the sandwich together.
Yield: 2 servings
4 slices white or brioche bread
Unsalted butter, softened
1 3/4 ounces soft goat’s cheese
2 to 4 tablespoon chilli jam, plus extra for serving
6 to 8 slices pickled beet
Freshly squeezed juice of 1/2 lemon
1 to 2 sprigs fresh dill, leaves chopped
4 1/2 ounces mozzarella, sliced
1. Butter each of the slices of bread on one side.
2. This is easiest if assembled in a large heavy-based, nonstick frying pan/skillet. Put two slices of bread in the pan/skillet, butter-side down. If you can only fit one slice in your pan/skillet, you’ll need to cook one sandwich at a time. Add half of the goat’s cheese to each slice. Top with half of the chilli jam, spread evenly to the edges. Arrange half of the beet slices on top, squeeze over some lemon juice and scatter over half of the dill. Top each slice with half of the mozzarella and cover with another slice of bread, butter-side up.
3. Turn the heat on medium and cook the first side for 3 to 5 minutes until deep golden, pressing gently with a spatula. Carefully turn with a large spatula and cook on the second side, for 2 to 3 minutes more or until deep golden brown all over.
4. Remove from the pan, transfer to a plate and cut each sandwich in half. Let cool for a few minutes before serving. Repeat for the remaining sandwich if necessary. Serve with additional chilli jam, for dipping.
Main photo: Pickled Beetroot, Goat’s Cheese & Chilli Jam. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter
“Don’t use anything better — no brioche! no pain de mie! — in some attempt to make this ‘gourmet.’ We are not that kind of restaurant.” – Gabrielle Hamilton, in “Prune” (Random House, 2014).
It’s not every day a James Beard Award-winning chef wields the word “gourmet” as a barb, or exhorts you to use Pepperidge Farm bread instead of fancier alternatives, but Gabrielle Hamilton is not your average high-profile chef. Since 1999, when she opened Prune, her tiny restaurant in New York City’s East Village, she’s gone her own way, and the same can be said of her first cookbook, “Prune.”
By Gabrielle Hamilton, Random House, 2014, 576 pages
A companion piece to “Blood, Bones & Butter,” her critically acclaimed memoir, “Prune” deftly captures Hamilton’s personality as well as that of the restaurant, neither of which are easy to pigeonhole. She’s a self-taught chef who has a master’s degree in fiction writing, while Prune is the kind of place where a bar snack of canned sardines with Triscuits confidently holds court on the same menu as Tongue and Octopus With Salsa Verde and Mimosa’d Egg.
The cookbook was written as if Hamilton is addressing her staff. It has been designed to look like a stylized photocopy of the recipes she types up for their regular use, complete with re-creations of the handwritten notes she pens when she’s forgotten some helpful detail. “If (the braising liquid) tastes too bright,” she scribbles at the end of a lamb recipe, “heavily char — almost burn — 2 slabs of peasant bread on the grill … push the burnt toast down into the liquid to soak it. … It will add body to the braise and soften the astringency.”
In its earliest days, Prune served only dinner, so that’s where the book begins, too. Tables of contents lead into the various subsections, but there’s no general index (though one will soon be available for download). Instead of lyrical head notes about a dish’s story of origin, Hamilton dives right in to the steps, though her voice is unmistakable when she directs you to “fully enclose the butter inside the dough, as if you were hastily wrapping a Christmas present.”
When I visited her at Prune recently, she explained the thinking behind the book’s form and content. “I tried writing it the conventional way for about five minutes, and it was immediately clear that I was lying my brains out, because I don’t use that language. The imperative was to tell the truth as I live it and experience it. I knew people would get it.”
The unique structure and tone are not the only things that set the book apart. There’s also a section called “garbage,” which details how the restaurant repurposes oft-discarded items such as zucchini tops and bacon rinds. At a time when Americans throw away nearly 40% of the food they buy, this chapter seems especially appropriate.
“Prune” includes many of the restaurant’s marvelously layered dishes, like Warm Lentil Salad With Fried Chicken Livers, Poached Egg, and Smoked Tomato Vinaigrette, as well as directions for assembling the more minimalist offerings (such as a bar snack of radishes with sweet butter and salt) whose unassuming appearance belies the care that underpins them. The first time I ever interviewed Hamilton, five years ago, we discussed the reaction to these “three-ingredient recipes,” a subject we revisited during our recent chat.
“They’re the ones that set you up for failure,” she says, “because there’s nothing to hide behind. Only radishes and butter and salt — what could possibly go wrong? And yet. You have overgrown, cottony, spongy radishes that have soaked in too much water, and they’ve lost their flame. Or the butter is over-tempered and greasy. Or you’re using the worst, overly granulated, way-too-salty salt. But when you have the right crispy-firm, hot-on-fire radish, the cool waxy butter, which not only tempers the heat but lets the salt adhere, and the salt, which brings back the flavor that the butter has started to tame.” She smiles. “I know it’s just three things, but can you believe what goes in to simplicity?”
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There’s much to like about “Prune,” starting with Hamilton’s mouthwatering food, but what’s most appealing is the respect she shows her readers, a quality that took on paramount importance for her after she visited home kitchens during a road trip a couple of years ago. “I had lost track of who we were talking about when we use that phrase ‘for the home cook,’ and it turns out the home cook is incredibly diverse. … I think the cookbook industry in the main tends to underestimate them, and it’s time to stop.”
When she directs you to garnish a dish with a “lime cheek,” she trusts you’ll get it, and if not, you can figure it out from the photos. Even when her insider notes are not directly relevant to your kitchen reality, they often get you to reconsider some element of how you prep, cook, serve or store your food. And at their least practical, the asides to her staff (“If Health Department comes, take the serrano [ham] off the carving stand and throw in the oven.”) still offer us a peek behind the scenes, which is one of the reasons people buy chef cookbooks in the first place.
Ultimately, it’s that sense of transparency that remains at the heart of the whole endeavor. “The book is the same as Prune and me in every way,” she tells me. “We’re not to everyone’s taste — our food, our gestalt — and neither is the cookbook. We love you, and we hope you love us, too, but we’re not gonna lie about who we are.”
Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider
[Excerpted from “Prune” by Gabrielle Hamilton. Copyright © 2014 by Gabrielle Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.]
Even though it’s best to use homemade chicken stock, I opted for a high-quality, low-sodium supermarket brand, which produced good results. If you are using store-bought stock, be sure to factor in the sodium level when seasoning the dish. Since I mistakenly purchased a package of drumsticks instead of whole chicken legs, I cooked a total of eight drumsticks, two per serving.
Yield: 4 servings
4 large whole chicken legs
Extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup slivered garlic
1 cup thinly sliced shallots
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 cup hard cider
1 tablespoon honey
1 cup chicken stock
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Season chicken legs all over with more pepper than salt.
2. Brown chicken legs in mixed fats, more butter than oil. Brown perfectly, on both sides; don’t crowd and don’t crank it, either. Keep heat at medium-high and do a careful job. Remove chicken, pour off fat.
3. Add a good hunk of butter, the garlic and shallots to the same pan, reduce heat, and sweat.
4. Add tomato paste and stir to fully blend, melt, even toast a little.
5. Deglaze with cider vinegar and hard cider.
6. Add the honey. Simmer to cook off alcohol and reduce slightly, by no more than 1/3.
7. Stir in chicken stock.
8. Neatly nestle the chicken legs in the pan and be sure to taste the braising liquid for salt, acidity, sweetness. Adjust now or never.
9. Cover with parchment and tight-fitting lid, if you can find one that isn’t too warped. Check after 25 minutes. You want loose joints but not falling off the bone.
10. At pickup, reduce sauce per portion, to have body, but not to become viscous.
11. One leg per portion. Good bit of sauce. Shower with parsley, freshly chopped, at pass.
Main photo: Chef and “Prune” author Gabrielle Hamilton and the cover of her cookbook. Credit: Hamilton photo by Melanie Dunea