Articles in Book Reviews

Sam Fromartz's newest book will have you smelling and tasting the featured breads. Credit: Sam Fromartz

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.”

Fromartz let his curiosities guide his book's odyssey. Credit: Samuel FromartzAs 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.

Samuel Fromartz, author of "In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker's Odyssey." Credit: Susan Biddle

Samuel Fromartz, author of “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey.” Credit: Susan Biddle

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.

“When you’re reading about the Romans and you read about all the different breads they made with barley and spelt, chick pea flour and everything else, all of those breads and grains were lost,” he said. Now, these grains are sometimes used as animal feed. But at one time they were eaten by people and prized.

“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

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Pierre and Monique Seillan moved to Sonoma in 1997. Credit: Courtesy of Monique Seillan

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.

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

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Pickled Beetroot, Goat's Cheese & Chilli Jam. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

“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


Grilled Cheese: Traditional and inspired recipes for the ultimate toasted sandwich. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

Grilled Cheese: Traditional and inspired recipes for the ultimate toasted sandwich. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

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

Basic Grilled Cheese. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

Basic Grilled Cheese. Credit: © Ryland Peters & Small/Loupe Images/Steve Painter

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Chef and

“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.”


“Prune”

By Gabrielle Hamilton, Random House, 2014, 576 pages

» Click here to buy the book


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.

PruneCoverThe 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?”

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.”

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Braised Fennel with Pernod Butter and Trout Roe. Credit: Eric Wolfinger

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

Ingredients

4 large whole chicken legs

Unsalted butter

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

Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider, as made by Sofia Perez from the "Prune" recipe. Credit: Sofia Perez

Farmhouse Chicken Braised in Hard Cider, as made by Sofia Perez from the “Prune” recipe. Credit: Sofia Perez

Directions

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

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Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Shopping for a great Christmas gift once meant hours of driving and parking, but with today’s Internet shopping, it’s easier. Internet shopping can be great for those of us who like to give cookbooks. With so many available titles, there are a few things gift-givers need to know to sort out the well-written quality books from the lesser potential gifts.

Cookbooks are terrific gifts because they can be used every day and often attain heirloom status that leads you to better cooking.

My specialty as a cookbook author is writing cookbooks for home cooks interested in culturally driven cooking that reveals a history or story. My favorites are Italian and Mediterranean cuisines in general. So when I look for cookbooks as gifts, I like to give not the latest trendy cookbook but often older books that I value and that my younger friends might not know. These are books from which I learned. I lament the fact that for all the cookbooks published every year and the popularity of food television and celebrity chefs, I don’t believe people are cooking at home more.

Food television has stimulated people’s interest and tried to turn cooking into entertainment and competition, but I doubt it has gotten them into the kitchen. What will make you a better cook? Buy a good cookbook, not necessarily the one everyone is talking about, and get into the kitchen and follow a recipe, and through trial and error you will learn to be a better cook.

Along with the handful of quality new cookbooks published each year, there are plenty of older, out-of-print ones that are almost bibles. You can find them on the Internet and they’re sometimes cheap. If there is someone who’s cooking you admire, ask them what their favorite cookbook is.

Good cookbooks have several criteria, and having recipes that work flawlessly isn’t one of them. More than meticulously tested recipes, I look for quirkiness, personality, a history, or a story told, perhaps about the cook, the author, the cook’s mother, the culture, or a broad sweep of it all.

When I see the crêpes suzette recipe written in that particular style of the ’60s in Julia Child’s cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” it’s not merely a delicious recipe. It is also laden with pregnant memories evocative of a whole era, of an entire culture, and a particularly wonderful day when I made it for the first time as a 15-year-old.

Here is a very small collection of older cookbooks from my library that I am fond of even if I don’t cook from them regularly nor would I say you must have them in your library, nor are they the best in my collection. They are simply good books I’ll never get rid of. (The first book is shameless self-promotion, but I actually use my book, too.)

» “A Mediterranean Feast” by Clifford A. Wright (William Morrow, 1999)

» “The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook,” by Gloria Bley Miller (New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1975)

» “Foods of Long Island,” by Peggy Katalinich, A Newsday Cookbook (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985)

» “Pasta & Pizza,” by Massimo Alberini, with recipes compiled by Anna Martini; Elisabeth Evans, trans. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1977)

» “French Provincial Cooking,” by Elizabeth David (New York: Harper & Row, 1962)

 Main photo: Cookbooks that make good gifts. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew, is one of the more traditional recipes in

Because I’m a chef and food writer, I’m often asked, “What’s your favorite food?” The answer is visceral, born of my childhood instead of my professional training or the international food experiences I’ve been lucky to have.

My favorite food is the cuisine of my mother’s native Iran — an overlooked area of the culinary world because of Iran’s 35 years of tense relations with the United States.

Persian food has typically been at the end of anyone’s list of favorites, but that’s starting to change. Driven by the recent foodie interest in the region at large — the Middle East and Indian — Persian food is having its day, and nothing could thrill me more.


 “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond”

By Sabrina Ghayour, Interlink Books, 2014, 240 pages

» Click here to buy the book


Those who know about this cuisine already know it is one of delicately nuanced flavors, rich varieties of meats and, in particular, produce, and deft technique that melds sweet and sour in an elegant way. Like Indian cuisine, basmati rice is a staple ingredient, but where much Indian food makes use of pepper, Persian cuisine prodigiously uses warm spices such as cinnamon, cardamom and turmeric. Saffron and rose petals add flavor that is actually more based in delicate aroma than pure taste.persiana2

Lamb and, traditionally, game birds are used in stews and grilled meat dishes and baked into rice dishes, but in Western adaptations, beef and chicken have become standard substitutes. As in Arab-Middle Eastern cuisine, a variety of salads and dipping sauces — most often made with yogurt and herbs — is the norm. Two hallmarks that make Iranian food particularly different are the vast array of pickles made from vegetables, spices, herbs and even fruit as well as the habit of consuming fresh herbs, onions and radishes as a condiment eaten out of hand or with bread. You’ll see this on most dinner tables.

I often describe Persian food as “north Indian cuisine without the heat,” and there’s a good reason for that description. The Mughal emperors of Northern India brought the food of the Iran they admired into their own region in the 16th century and mastered the layered rice dishes, fragrant stews and delicate fruit-based desserts. Today, that cooking sensibility remains the hallmark of most Indian restaurant cuisine and is still in evidence in many of the dishes’ Persian names. (Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire.)

One of the best new entrees into the world of Persian cooking is Sabrina Ghayour’s cookbook “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” (Interlink Books, 2014). In it, Ghayour, a London-based chef of Iranian descent, features both classic Persian dishes such as jujeh kebab, grilled boneless game hen marinated in a saffron yogurt sauce; morassa pollow, or “jeweled rice,” which is made with barberries, mixed nuts and orange peel; and fesenjan, a stew made of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup that is often served on holidays and special occasions.

Perhaps more compelling, for me at least, is the manner in which Ghayour melds Middle Eastern flavors that are not strictly Persian but are familiar to Western readers into a more Iranian food sensibility. She uses these flavors to add intricacy to the cuisine’s elegant techniques and presentations, such as with her Fig & Green Bean Salad with Date Molasses & Toasted Almonds or Baked Eggs with Feta, Harissa, Tomato Sauce and Cilantro.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a growing number of blogs and cookbooks about Persian cooking, including the blogs My Persian Kitchen and Turmeric & Saffron as well as Louisa Shaifa’s “The New Persian Cooking” (Ten Speed Press, 2013), all adding diverse voices to the multi-decade stand-alone canon “Food of Life” (Mage Publishers) by Persian cooking doyenne Najmieh Batmanglij. Ghayour’s “Persiana,” however, stands out for its creativity and clean design and the sheer delectability of the dishes.

Newcomers to Persian cooking as well as those already in love with the cuisine will find many reasons to return to the pages of “Persiana” over and over again, as you will see when you give her recipe for fesenjan a try.

Chicken, Walnut & Pomegranate Stew (Khoresh-e-Fesenjan)

Yield: Makes 6 to 8 servings

This recipe appears in “Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East & Beyond” by Sabrina Ghayour.

Khoresh is the Persian word for stew. Fesenjan is a rich, glossy stew of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup, usually made with chicken, duck or delicate little lamb meatballs. The flavor is deep and rich, with a nutty texture and a wonderfully gentle acidity that cuts right through the richness of the dish. Fesenjan is a popular dish in Iran, and its sweet yet tart character has made it one of the most revered stews in Iranian cooks’ repertoires. Like most stews, it is best made the day before you need to serve it.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 large onions, diced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 pound, 5 ounces (600 grams) walnuts, finely ground in a food processor

8 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

5 cups (scant 1¼ liters) cold water

3 tablespoons superfine sugar [38 grams]

3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) pomegranate molasses

Seeds from 1 pomegranate, for serving

Directions

1. Preheat two large saucepans over medium heat and pour 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into one. Fry the onions in the oil until translucent and lightly browned.

2. In the other pan, toast the flour until it turns pale beige. Add the ground walnuts and cook the mixture through.

3. Once the onions are browned, season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper and add them to the pan containing the onions. Increase the temperature and stir well to ensure you seal the thighs on both sides. Once they are gently browned, turn off the heat and set aside.

4. Add the water to the walnut pan, stir well, and bring the mixture to a slow boil, then cover with a lid and allow to cook for 1 hour over low-medium heat. This will cook the walnuts and soften their texture; once you see the natural oils of the walnuts rise to the surface, the mixture is cooked.

5. Add the sugar and pomegranate molasses to the walnuts and stir well for about 1 minute. Take your time to stir the pomegranate molasses well — it takes awhile to fully dissolve into the stew because of its thick consistency.

6. Add the chicken and onions to the walnut-pomegranate mixture, cover and cook for about 2 hours, stirring thoroughly every 30 minutes to ensure you lift the walnuts from the bottom of the pan so they don’t burn. Once cooked, what initially looked beige will have turned into a rich, dark almost chocolaty-looking color.

7. Serve sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and enjoy with a generous mound of basmati rice.

Note: Fesenjan is served with chelo (Persian steamed rice).

Main photo: Fesenjan, a walnut and pomegranate stew, is one of the more traditional recipes in “Persiana.” It melds traditional Iranian technique with a diverse ingredient sensibility. Credit: Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton

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Fresh Herb Meatballs are among the recipes featured in Michele Anna Jordan's book. Credit: Liza Gershman

Yes, meatballs are here again, those eternally returning spheres of gastronomic delight. Not high on anyone’s culinary sophistication list, meatballs have an earthy attraction that seems to come and go through the years. Now they are back big time with Michele Anna Jordan’s collection of meatball marvels, “More Than Meatballs” (Skyhorse, 2014).


“More Than Meatballs”
“From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between”
By Michele Anna Jordan, Skyhorse, 2014, 176 pages
» Click here to buy this book


The more-than-ness of the book puts the traditional meatball in a broad culinary context, as the subtitle —”From Arancini to Zucchini Fritters and Everything in Between” — suggests. There are more than 75 recipes, plus variations, so you can imagine just how far Jordan has ventured.

"More Than Meatballs" by Michele Anna Jordan

Yet the soul of the book remains the traditional meatball – named thus for good reason: Try making a meatcube, meatpyramid or meatcone. Even those words look horribly wrong! No, the meatball is a culinary merger of form and function no less perfect than its mechanical relative, the wheel.

The only other cooked product of man’s hungry genius that rivals the meatball for salutary simplicity and earthy economy is, I believe, the omelet. Curiously though, the omelet works inversely to the meatball: Omelets begin life round (the egg) and leave it flat. The meatball starts life flat (chopped meat, poultry, fish, etc.) and ends round.

Of course there are flat-sided meatballs: sausage and hamburger patties and the monolithic American classic — meatloaf. These more-than-meatball entities are what one observant aficionado of this class of foods, the eminent European artist, writer and restaurateur, Daniel Spoerri, has labeled “the premasticated” — chopped animal-based foods. The ancient Persian word for meatball — kufteh — means, according to my sources, “chopped” or “ground.”

Michele Anna Jordan. Credit: Courtesy of Michele Anna Jordan

Michele Anna Jordan. Credit: Courtesy of Michele Anna Jordan

Context is everything

It was actually Spoerri who introduced me to meatball-ogy. After absorbing his postmodern deconstruction of the meatball in “A Dissertation on Keftedes” (keftedes, a Greek variation on the Persian kufteh) in the 1970s, I reprinted the work in a collection of Spoerri’s food-related texts, published as “Mythology and Meatballs: A Greek Island Diary Cookbook” (Aris Books, 1982). The dissertation is full of learned and charmingly funky discourse on the social history and symbolism of the meatball in the context of world gastronomy.

But Spoerri’s material (Newsweek called it “a Dadaist sampler of culinary oddments”) seems a bit beside the point when we are truly hungry and a well-made bowl of sauced or souped meatballs, steaming hot and redolent with spice, is placed in front of us. For example, there’s Jordan’s meatball and pasta dish of Spanish descent, Sopa de Albondigas y Fideo, from the chapter titled with meatball-in-cheek irony, “Context Is Everything.” It’s a perfect dish to warm the soul on a cold winter’s night.

Michele Anna Jordan uses caul fat to wrap meatballs. Credit: Liza Gershman

Michele Anna Jordan uses caul fat to wrap meatballs. Credit: Liza Gershman

Out of context, served “neat” as Jordan puts it, the book’s mother of all meatballs is, logically enough, The Meatball (see recipe below), an “Americanized Italian immigrant,” writes Jordan. It is made from ground pork and beef and mixed with grated cheese, egg, onion, red pepper flakes, nutmeg and clove. Jordan adds that this meatball, as good as it is on its own, lends itself to almost any context: in classic spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce; in lasagna; in soups; or as part of sandwiches and sliders.

Optionally, these balls can be wrapped in caul fat — readily available now at trendy butcher shops — for added richness and succulence. Jordan’s introduction of caul fat — the stomach lining of pigs used as a casing for the traditional flat sausage patty in France known as the crépinette— makes for a perfect “coverup” for The Meatball and many other versions in the book. The very good step-by-step photographs of caul-wrapping technique are helpful to the novice caul wrapper.

Using caul connects Jordan’s creations to the ancient “minces” wrapped in pork omentum (caul) one finds in meatball compilations dating to ancient Rome, including the classic cookbook attributed to the gourmet, Apicius — De Re Coquinaria (“on the subject of cooking”).

The Global Meatball. Illustration credit: L. John Harris, 1990

The Global Meatball. Illustration credit: L. John Harris, 1990

Karma goes around, too

After decades in and around the food world, it’s starting to dawn on me that I have a karmic relationship with the meatball. First with Spoerri’s Dissertation, which inspired one of my first Foodoodle cartoons, “The Global Meatball” (see illustration). And now with Jordan’s “More Than Meatballs.”

I first met and worked with Michele Anna Jordan when she approached me in 1988 with her groundbreaking manuscript for “A Cook’s Tour of Sonoma” (Aris, 1990), the first of her many fine cookbooks, many of which are coming back into print. Spiraling forward through the decades, I was delighted by the opportunity to connect with her again, this time providing the foreword (without compensation, I should add) to “More Than Meatballs.” How could I resist my meatball karma?

Although I didn’t know it when I took on the task, it appears the humble, global, historical meatball is, as Jordan explains in the book’s introduction, back in fashion, and apparently for some time. And not just on restaurant menus and kitchen tables. There are now meatball-themed food shops and food trucks popping up across urban America and a new Guinness World Record for a meatball at more than 1,100 pounds.

“More Than Meatballs” is just the latest, and surely one of the best, examples of the meatball’s enduring power to please and sustain. Jordan puts it better than I could: “Yes, meatballs are on a roll, a rock ‘n’ roll. Let’s dance! Let’s have a ball!”

The Meatball

Prep time: 25 minutes (45 minutes if you are grinding your own meat)

Cook time: 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size

Total time: 35 to 65 minutes

Yield: About 32 small or 16 large meatballs

Ingredients

1 cup torn white bread, from sturdy hearth bread, preferably sourdough
3/4 cup milk or white wine
1 pound grass-fed beef, ground twice
1 pound pastured pork, ground twice
1 small yellow onion, grated
3 garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dry Jack, or similar cheese
Kosher salt
Black pepper in a mill
1/2 to 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, to taste
Whole nutmeg
2 large pastured eggs, beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs, or 6 ounces caul fat
Olive oil

Directions

1. Put the bread and milk or wine into a mixing bowl and use a fork to crush the bread and blend it into the liquid. Set aside for about 15 minutes.

2. Add the beef, pork, onion, garlic, Italian parsley and cheese to the bowl and mix well. Season generously with salt, several turns of black pepper, red pepper flakes, and several gratings of nutmeg and mix again. Add the eggs, mix well, and then knead for a minute or two until very well blended.

3. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or as long as overnight.

4. To finish, cover a sheet pan with wax paper.

5. Use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop to form small meatballs or a 2-ounce scoop to make larger meatballs; set each ball on the wax paper.

— If using bread crumbs, put them into a mixing bowl, add a meatball, and agitate the bowl to coat the meatball well. Set it on a baking sheet and continue until all are coated.

— If using caul fat, spread the fat on a clean work surface and wrap each ball.

6. To cook, pour a thin film of olive oil on a heavy skillet set over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot add several meatballs, being certain not to crowd them. Cook for about
45 seconds and then agitate the pan so the balls roll. Continue cooking until the balls are evenly browned and have begun to firm up, about 5 to 7 minutes, depending on their size. Set the cooked balls on absorbent paper and continue until all have been cooked.

7. To serve neat, return the meatballs to the pan, reduce the heat to very low, cover, and cook for 4 to 5 minutes for small meatballs and about 12 minutes for large ones, until the meatballs are just cooked through. Transfer to a platter and serve hot.

Main photo: Fresh Herb Meatballs are among the recipes featured in Michele Anna Jordan’s book. Credit: Liza Gershman

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Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

My first trip to Mexico began in  the Yucatán. I landed in Mérida, which as David Sterling describes in his brilliant new tome, “Yucatán,” is “a cosmopolitan grande dame standing at the crossroads, graciously welcoming home her global family.” I eventually became part of that family, moving to Mexico and becoming a citizen.


“Yucatán: Recipes From A Culinary Expedition”
By David Sterling. University of Texas Press, 2014, 576 pages
» Click here to buy the book


My initial encounter with the country, however, was on that trip back in 1973. My mother and I went for lunch shortly after arriving from New York. My first taste in this new world was of sopa de lima, a quintessential Yucatecan dish. The soup is a rich chicken soup perfumed by toasted strips of tortilla and slices of lima, a heady aromatic citrus native to the region. Its exotic scent became an indelible part of my psyche at that moment. A sip today conjures magical worlds for me like Proust’s madeleines.

"Yucatan: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition"

The Yucatán peninsula, historically isolated from much of the rest of Mexico, comprises the states of Yucatán, Campeche and Quintana Roo. It was populated by the descendants of the Maya, and later, by a mix of immigrants. Like all Mexican regional cooking, Yucatecan cuisine is a fusion of traditions, in this case primarily Mayan, Spanish, Lebanese and French. Nowhere else in the republic are these influences so obvious. And the celebration of its brilliant complexity is experiencing a revival. From market stands to restaurants with culinary institute-trained chefs, the eating-out scene here has grown by leaps and bounds. But the range of what is known and available has always been limited. The region’s cooking is well represented in the rest of the country, but usually by a narrow list of “greatest hit” dishes.

The great investigator, chronicler and chef Diana Kennedy laid the groundwork for unearthing, recording and promulgating Mexican regional food outside the country. She is to Mexico what Julia Child was to France, and she was similarly undervalued within its borders. Kennedy, who is now over 90, recently put together an acclaimed volume on Oaxaca. But she never did get around to celebrating the Yucatán. So with her blessing, Sterling has taken the reins. Kennedy’s blurb, which graces the back of the book, says it best: “I know of no other book in print today, or in the past for that matter, that explains so meticulously the ingredients and history of the foods of Yucatán.”

I don’t either. Sterling has done a magnificent job in every way.

Scholarly and readable

The subtitle of “Yucatán” is “Recipes From a Culinary Expedition.” But this is no mere cookbook. It is a work both scholarly but readable, informative and entertaining. It is beautifully designed and features the colorful photos and drawings from a team of photographers and illustrators, as well as archival material.

David Sterling

David Sterling. Credit: University of Texas Press

Chapters divide the book by geography — the market, the urban matrix, the fertile shores, the pueblos, as well as sections devoted to “pantry staples” and “kitchen technique.” There’s an astute mix of personal anecdotes, historical background and culinary analysis, in addition to the histories of individual dishes. The author is honest when he confesses, in a section entitled “La Cantina” that “I spent a few years in Yucatán before venturing inside a cantina. After all, aren’t these rugged, all-male enclaves dangerous dens of smoke, prostitutes and raucous drunks? … Eventually, though, my curiosity to see what was behind those seductive doors got the better of me and led me to try several cantinas.” He became a fan. Sterling is founder of Los Dos Cooking School in Mérida, the first and only culinary institute in Mexico devoted exclusively to Yucatecan cuisine. He resides and works there in a restored turn-of-the-century mansion.

To anyone venturing to the area, the book is an invaluable resource. A detailed history of the various migrations explains the complex recipes within. Rustic country dishes are elaborated upon. Pre-Hispanic cooking techniques — for example the “pib” method of marinating and pit roasting meats — are explained in detail. There are indeed recipes the home cook will never make — which is fine with me. This is not for the Rachael Ray “made easy” crowd.

Traditional dishes

Occasionally, substitutes for rare ingredients are suggested, but tradition is never compromised. For example, for the serious chef who wants to recreate the classic marinated suckling pig dish, cochinita pibil, a stove-top variation is suggested. Recipes for street foods include a variety of tamales, such as simple to prepare creamy colados. The recipe for Mucbilpollo, a large, baked festival tamal, offers a fascinating account of a cultural phenomenon, but it’s unlikely to inspire the average homemaker to reproduce it. No matter. There are also straightforward, elegant Spanish and Mayan influenced dishes: jurel en escabeche, a tuna-like fish cooked with tangy pickled onions, or hearty charcoal-grilled pork with achiote sauce. These are relatively easy to prepare, as is the classic, aforementioned sopa de lima or the iconic papadzules (egg-stuffed tortillas bathed in pumpkin seed and tomato sauces).

Many of these recipes have been culled from local chefs, from country cooks who use wood for fuel, and even from women of social standing who harbor their grandmother’s secrets. Some see the light for the first time here. Sterling should and will be lauded, as Kennedy has been, for his service to Mexican cooking and to gastronomy in general.

“Yucatán: Recipes From a Culinary Expedition” is a must for anyone with an interest in Mexican food, and in Mexico itself; bravo to the author and to the many cooks who have made it possible for him to share this wealth with us.

 Main photo: Sopa de lima. Credit: University of Texas Press

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