Articles in Book Reviews

I am not one of the lucky ones who owns the original “Modernist Cuisine” 2,400-page, six-volume set that rocked the food world when it was released in 2011. With its new style of macro presentation, depth of detail, sheer heft and price, “Modernist Cuisine” was acknowledged by the best in the business to be a paradigm shift in cookbook publishing.

The initial work published by The Cooking Lab was the brainchild of Dr. Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer for Microsoft, aspiring photographer and insatiable food lover. Myhrvold focused his life passions on creating a body of work that would provide detailed written explanations and visuals that explored the chemistry behind cooking.

With the release of the abridged “Modernist Cuisine at Home” in 2012, I discovered an approachable way to learn the basics about modernist cuisine and, more important, fit it into my life in a practical way. This winter, the inspiration for my gluten-free mac ’n’ cheese came directly from applying a bit more science to the sauce.

Now, with the publications of Inkling’s digital app version of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” and the printed behemoth, “The Photography of Modernist Cuisine,” Myhrvold’s team continues to expand the presentation of 21st century food publishing from a unique point of view.

Both new publications are riffs on the same theme, broadening their audience by narrowing the focus of the initial immense work. They invite photographers and iPad-toting foodies to learn about the unique blend of flavor and science that makes up the world of molecular gastronomy.

Modernist Cuisine at Home, e-Book Edition

I am a big fan of large printed published materials converted into iPad e-books by digital publisher Inkling. The publisher’s ability to merge printed materials with fully engaging videos and glowing photographic details brings “Modernist Cuisine at Home” to a new level of engagement and education. As a digital version, it’s even more interesting than the original printed medium and frankly, more fun. I can tap, swipe and click my way through any recipe in a kitchen-friendly iPad version with a bit more detail than the book.

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine

When I first cracked the cover, I was not sure whether I needed a much larger coffee table, a set of museum-quality white gloves or even one of those page-turning contraptions that the Library of Congress uses to showcase important documents one page at a time. Comparing this book to a museum exhibit, I’d vote for the value of being able to savor its breathtaking pages again and again. It’s a stunning inspirational feast for the eyes that encourages you to look at and think about ingredients in a completely different way — all without featuring a single recipe.

Poring over this book, I’m also encouraged to think about food photography differently. For the rapidly expanding universe of food photographers and iPhonographers, this stark homage to the ingredient through obsessive attention to detail gives permission to depart from the glistening food-porn and dreamy expressionism that blankets Pinterest boards and Instagram.

“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine” may not motivate me to go into the kitchen, but it motivates me to pick up my camera and open the refrigerator. The iPad app of “Modernist Cuisine at Home” just makes me want to try everything when I do.

Top photo composite:

“Modernist Cuisine at Home.” Credit: Courtesy of Inkling Systems

“The Photography of Modernist Cuisine.” Credit: Courtesy of The Cooking Lab

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Charmaine O’Brien, author of

One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”

Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too  have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.

O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.

Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.

Long history flavors Indian food

This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.

IndiaBookCover

"The Penguin Food Guide to India"

By Charmaine O’Brien

304 pages, 2013, Penguin

Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.


 

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The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.

O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.

There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.

Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.

When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.

It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.

India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.

Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)

Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.

Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup finely sliced onion

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped

Pinch of turmeric

Salt to taste

¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)

Directions

1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.

2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.

4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric.  Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.

5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.

Variations

With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.

With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.

Top composite photo:

“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai

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Poetry and stories that will make you crave food and romance. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.

Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.

However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.

In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.

Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.

A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”

Food and sex inspire writers

Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.

The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.

But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:

“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes

Pour forth tears,

I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī

Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”

Western aphrodisiacs

The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.

Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.

There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.

* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.

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New growth on an old vine from

California wine is finally getting interesting, and wine lovers can dare to hope that America’s premier wine region will produce more wines of higher quality.

What? Those $200 Napa Valley Cabernets aren’t great wines? Sorry to say, most are not. The good news is a group of winemakers is stepping away from California’s pack mentality to produce wines that reflect both an appreciation of the place the grapes are grown as well as an understanding that bigger is rarely better when it comes to wine.

And, be still my heart, they aren’t afraid to say it. Out loud. In print. San Francisco Chronicle wine critic Jon Bonné has captured their voices and given early support to this movement in his recently released “The New California Wine: A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste” (Ten Speed Press).

During the past half-dozen years, I’ve met with established winemakers who talk about dialing back the alcohol levels on their wines. They claim a deep longing to produce “European” style wines with greater finesse and character. Then they beg, “Please, don’t quote me!” Inexplicably, they seem to think they can accomplish this transformation so slowly that their public — and the critics — will barely notice the change.

Documenting the historic shift

Shifting directions is risky. Timid American baby boomers learned about wine by leaning heavily on critical scores, buying what they were told they “ought” to drink. So when the two overlords of California wine criticism — Robert M. Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator’s Jim Laube — championed high-alcohol fruit bombs, America’s first generation of wine drinkers eagerly fell in line behind them.

The rare winemaker willing to be quoted declaring a dramatic shift in style away from that norm has crumbled when facing angry consumers wondering why they had been paying top dollar for wines that the winemaker suddenly says are not what they ought to be.

From his perch at the Chronicle, Bonné was able to dig deep into California’s wine culture to find the winemakers who never compromised. Years of walking vineyards in every corner of the state paid off in the discovery of Steve Matthiasson, Tegan Passalacqua, Ted Lemon and dozens of other pioneers making wine to suit their personal taste rather than to score critical points. “Just three or four years ago, these guys were really out in the wilderness,” Bonné says.

Their stories of reviving abandoned vineyards in marginal growing areas, cobbling together wineries in deserted warehouses, and striking crazy work-for-free deals with vineyard owners sound more like the do-it-yourself culture that is transforming the American food scene than the big-money mentality that dominates California wine.

More than one kind of California wine

Bonné is a wine geek who delights in highly nuanced details of grape farming and cellar work. And, while that can result in a slow read at times, it’s an important plus. These are the distinctions that make a difference and separate the pioneers from more established vintners. Bonné empowers his readers by carefully explaining these specifics. And, bless him, he spares us the poetic hyperbole that hobbles so many wine books.

“This story was totally evolving as I was writing it,” says Bonné. “It was terrifying and exhilarating.” The first wine writer to make a strong statement about the promise of these emerging winemakers, and by comparison drive home the problems with California’s established wine industry, Bonné takes a risk. The nascent movement is so small it could easily dissipate.

The established “cult Cabernets” will not go away, Bonné says. Rather, support for these new wines will grow. “The people who had given up on California will turn around,” he predicts.  In the future, there will be more than one kind of California wine.

Eventually, “there will be a transfer of power” in the American wine industry, he says. “This emerging generation is drinking with a level of curiosity that is very different from their parents.”

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr at domaineLA. Credit: Corie Brown

Judging by a recent crowd of young wine lovers eagerly tasting through a selection of California wines championed by Bonné, he’s calling it right. At domaineLA, a Los Angeles wine shop with a reputation for promoting an international selection of well-priced, high quality wines, Jon Bonné and Rajat Parr. was joined by leading Santa Barbara small-production vintners Sashi Moorman and Rajat Parr, partners in Sandhi Wines, and Napa Valley-based winemaker Steve Matthiasson. This year, Bonné named Matthiasson the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Winemaker of the Year.”

The wines had bold, pronounced flavors, yet they retained the lift of natural acidity. All but a couple of the dozen wines on offer were priced below $40 a bottle. And the alcohol levels were all under 14%, a mark of a classic European-style wine.

Questioning the dominance of Napa Valley’s over-extracted and over-priced bruisers will soon go from taboo to “told you so.”

Top image: The beginning of growth on an old vine. Credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press, publisher of “The New California Wine” by Jon Bonné

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Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber

I read somewhere that people generally use only two or three recipes from each of their cookbooks, and realized this was true for me, so I began to wonder why we select the ones we do from the vast numbers of recipes that are available.

For answers, I took a look at my own preferences, and while I make no claim to speak for anyone else, I will describe why certain recipes appeal to me. I sometimes come across a recipe that becomes a favorite when I am searching for ways to use up ingredients.

For instance, I had on hand eggs nearing their expiration date and a surplus of corn on the cob. I went through a few cookbooks and soon found a tempting recipe for fritters that called for eggs, lots of corn kernels and, happily, not much flour. This has become a standard dish in my house. But while I appreciate practical reasons for favoring recipes, I am more intrigued when I randomly come across a description of a dish I find so compelling that I must try the recipe as soon as possible or else I will obsess about it.

I should say right off that for me, and for other food lovers I am sure, reading a recipe is comparable to sight-reading by a musician. Just as an orchestra conductor can hear the music in his head by following the notes on a score, I can almost taste a dish by reading the ingredients and cooking instructions. Therefore, reading cookbooks has become an enjoyable pastime for me and maybe even adventurous because I never know when I will stumble into my next great find.

My latest discovery comes from Michael Romano’s “Family Table,” a cookbook focusing on the family-style meals prepared for restaurant staff that is filled with down-to-earth recipes. Among them is blue smoke oatmeal cookies. You may wonder what could be so special about an oatmeal cookie, that old standby that can be mealy and taste more healthy than delectable. But, this recipe includes some crushed cornflakes and coconut — not too much — so that the texture and flavor of this oatmeal cookie surpassed any I had tasted.

A well-written split pea soup recipe

I am often attracted to a recipe because of its use of a favorite seasoning not found in standard versions of the dish. Dried split pea soup recipes always struck me as pretty much alike until I came across one in the cookbook “Season to Taste,” which calls for lots of sliced carrots and roasted cumin, a flavor I love. The result is so good than whenever I serve this soup to guests I am bombarded with requests for the recipe.

I also find myself seduced by claims made by cookbook writers. For example, Madhur Jaffrey has a recipe for crisply fried onions that are slowly cooked and then stored in a jar in the refrigerator to use as toppings for a variety of dishes.

“It’s like money in the bank,” she promises, and she is right. Her words ring in my ears not only when I make those onions but when I cook and freeze the thick soups I prepare each winter and pull out to serve on cold nights.

James Beard’s work is also full of opinions and advice. In one of his books he counsels us to always have on hand a roasted chicken because then you will be prepared for many occasions. I listened to him and find that in the summer I can pull off a great salad at the last minute, and, at any time, have available the fixings for sandwiches, stir-fries, hash or my latest favorite, chunks of cooked chicken warmed in a curry sauce and served over naan instead of rice.

I sometimes find irresistible comments made in a cookbook writer’s head notes. In “Flour,” Joanne Chang says about a recipe for a multigrain bread she learned from a bread-baker, “If I had to pick one recipe that I am most grateful for, it would be this one.” Finding such a recommendation pretty compelling, I immediately tried the recipe and understand why it deserves Chang’s rave.

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

But a writer’s high opinion of a recipe I follow does not always lead to a good result. On the lookout for a definitive biscotti, I came across one whose author claims “these are hard, crisp, full of roast-almond flavor, and addictive for either dunking or munching.” They were so hard I wound up breaking a tooth and sitting in the chair of a dentist for a root canal. I should have dunked, and not munched.

Garden inspiration in the depths of winter

These days I am under the spell of Nigel Slater, the gifted British writer whose recipes are elegant and simple. “Tender,” a book about how he uses the produce from his backyard vegetable garden, is my current favorite, perhaps because we share an enthusiasm for growing and eating potatoes. But I also am drawn to his stylish writing and wit. In flipping a pan-sized potato pancake he instructs, “I find doing this with one positive movement and no dithering tends not to end in tears.”

And in “Áppetite,” a book I ordered from a dealer in England, he talks about why we should cook even though it creates a mess and takes up time. He says that if you decide to go through life without cooking “you are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures you can have with your clothes on.”

Carrot and Split Pea Soup With Toasted Cumin

(Adapted from “Season to Taste” by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer)

Serves 6

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 celery stalks and leaves, chopped

2 teaspoons cumin seed, roasted and ground

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced thin

6 cups chicken broth

1 cup dried green split peas

Salt and pepper

Directions

1. In a large saucepan, heat oil. Sauté onion, garlic, and celery about 5 minutes.

2. Add cumin and carrots and cook for 2 minutes.

3. Add stock, bring to a boil, and add split peas. Simmer partially covered, for about 45 minutes or until peas are very tender.

4. In a food processor or blender, purée 2 cups of soup mixture, leaving the rest in the pot.

5. Return purée to pot, taste for salt and pepper, and serve.

Note: If soup has thickened too much before serving, thin with stock or water.

Top photo: Carrot and split pea soup with toasted cumin. Credit: Barbara Haber

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Co-author and translator, Maureen B. Fant and the book's editor, Maria Guarnaschelli at the book's launch in New York City. Credit: Julia della Croce. “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. Credit: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

Every now and then a new cookbook comes along that stands above the rest. Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen Fant’s “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way” is such a book. There’s nothing really new about it, and this is its strength. In an age of obsession for novelty, here comes a cookbook without gimmicks, a handbook for amateurs and adepts alike, a holy writ of Italian pasta cookery that I wish could, once and for all, put to rest the deplorable mistreatment of Italian pasta recipes at the hands of American cooks.

Brought to you by the authors of the “Encyclopedia of Pasta” and “Popes, Peasants, and Lore from Rome and Lazio,” this valuable work contains a vast body of culinary knowledge that can only be gained from an intimate attachment to the Italian way of life.

No meddling editor’s hand has constrained the writers to Americanize ingredients, simplify techniques or modernize recipes to suit the foreigner. The legendary editor of this title, Maria Guarnaschelli, has shaped other important cookbooks, famously, Rose Levy Berenbaum’s “The Cake Bible” and Diane Kennedy’s “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” and this one is the jewel in her crown.

The best cookbook writers can paint you pictures with their words and draw you into their world of food in a way television celebrities cannot. Cuisine is, after all, not only about recipes, but also about culture, people and where they live, what they eat, and why.

One author is a native Italian with roots in Bologna (coined “the belly of Italy”) who learned pasta-making as a child at the elbows of the sisters in a convent school. The other is an American scholar of classical archaeology who was transplanted to Rome more three decades ago. They take you, forks in hand, through the marvels of a corner of Italy’s cookery that is at once timeless and timely.

A guide to pasta technique

Besides its erudition and charm, this book is a manual for proper cooking technique and the whys and wherefores of matching of pasta shapes to sauces. If the recipes are true to Italian tradition, they are not stale. Most, such as spaghetti with clam sauce, are classics. Some are strictly orthodox, like Bolognese meat sauce, which stipulates no tomatoes and no garlic. The authors tell us that the Bolognese, who are fixated on preserving their glorious cuisine’s authenticity, have gone so far as to register the genuine recipe with a notary.

Others, including chestnut and wild fennel soup, have rarely been tasted outside the Italian kitchen. A few will show you tricks you probably never knew before, like a way of cooking eggplant that reduces oil absorption, learned from the revered, still living, Italian chef, Gualtiero Marchesi.

What makes this holy text fresh is writer-translator Fant’s lively voice and careful research. About the emblematic Sicilian pasta alla norma, she tells us that it was not named for the opera, as every other source will tell you, but after the word for “marvel” in Catanese dialect.

Bucatini all'amatriciana from "Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way." Credit: Gentl & Hyers/Edge

Bucatini all’amatriciana from “Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way.” Credit: Gentl & Hyers/Edge

Further,  Fant writes, when the original dish was invented by Marietta Martoglio, it was topped with “a snowfall of grated ricotta salata.” With a mere phrase, we are there, gingerly walking across a bridge of nimble words into that early 1900s kitchen, inhaling the aromas of the steaming spaghetti lapped in glittering fried dark-purple eggplant slices and veiled in flakes of cheese.

There are countless other bites of history. We learn that the Pythagoreans, who subscribed to reincarnation, eschewed the primordial staple of Mediterranean peoples, fava beans, because they were thought to nestle human souls.

I have read this captivating book from cover to cover, digesting every phrase, savoring every recipe, relishing all the fine points, ancient wisdom and new visions that make it utterly seductive.

I’ve written five titles about Italian pasta cooking of my own, and for me reading it has been like puttering in the kitchen with two old friends who can all but finish each other’s sentences, yet have so much that is new to tell one another. With its sensitive and rich photography, it makes for a book that is both useful and beautiful, and bound to be treasured, even by the reader with a groaning shelf of other Italian classics.

Amatriciana Guanciale, Tomato and Pecorino Romano

From “Pasta the Italian Way: Sauces & Shapes” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant

The reader ought to go to the recipe in the book for the savory and local history of this popular topping for pasta from Lazio’s northeastern province; it is “one of the dishes self-appointed purists (read fanatics) will fight over to the death, or at least death by boredom,” the authors write. Rarely do recipes for its preparation tell you, as the locals would and which the authors do, that one of the secrets to its success is to toss the piping hot pasta after draining, first with the grated pecorino, then with the sauce; this method gives the sauce a voluptuous consistency.

This sauce is used on flour-and-water shapes. This includes spaghetti or bucatini, of course, but also rigatoni, casarecce or some of the handmade flour-and-water shapes, such as strozzapretti/pici.

For the condimento (sauce):

2½ ounces (70 grams) guanciale [salt-cured pork cheek], cut into thin strips

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 small onion (any kind), chopped (optional but recommended)

1 pound (450 grams) red, ripe sauce tomatoes, broken into pieces, or canned Italian peeled tomatoes, drained

1 small piece dried chile

salt

For the pasta:

1 pound (450 grams) pasta (see suggestions above)

7 rounded tablespoons (70 grams) grated pecorino

Directions

1. Put the guanciale and oil in a saucepan. Turn the heat to medium and heat gently so the guanciale renders some fat and starts to brown. Take a piece to assess how salty it is.

2. When the meat just begins to become crisp, add the chopped onion (if using) and sauté gently until transparent.

3. Add the tomatoes and chile, then taste for salt (how much you need will depend on the guanciale).

4. Finish cooking the sauce, covered, over low heat. You’ll know it’s done when the liquid has thickened somewhat and the fat shows on the surface, about 20 minutes.

This much can be done earlier in the day, but the sauce is not customarily made in advance or kept, except casually as leftovers for the next day.

5. Bring 5 quarts (5 liters) of water to a boil in an 8-quart (8 liter) pot over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons kosher salt, then add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente.

6. Warm a serving bowl in a low oven. If the oven is not practical, warm the bowl just before use with hot water, even a ladleful of the pasta cooking water.

7. Drain the pasta and put it in the warmed serving bowl. Toss it first with the grated cheese, then with the sauce. Serve immediately.

Top composite photo:

Co-author and translator, Maureen B. Fant and the book’s editor, Maria Guarnaschelli at the book’s launch in New York City. Credit: Julia della Croce.

“Sauces & Shapes: Pasta the Italian Way,” by Oretta Zanini De Vita and Maureen B. Fant. Credit: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.

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Kate Lebo's

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.

“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.

The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.

“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.

“Both of us are really interested in everyday objects, objects that we take for granted but really inform us in subtle and important ways of who we are, where we are, what type of relationship we have to a place.”

The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.

“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”

“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.

The poetry of pie instruction

“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.

Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.

Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”

After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.

Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”

“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”

Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?

People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.

“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.

Top photo composite:

“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran

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I caught Ed Behr on the phone just as the writer was wrapping up a story about what he called, in an atypical struggle for the right word, “contemporary, innovative, imaginative, fashionable, modern restaurant cooking.” It would be the lead story for the 92nd edition of “The Art of Eating,” the quarterly newsletter he founded almost 30 years ago and has been publishing more or less regularly ever since.

But the highly evolved and ultra-complex haute cuisine of modern restaurant chefs seemed, at least to me, a long way from the subject of my phone call, which was Behr’s latest book, “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” just published by Penguin Press. The book is a series of essays on a gamut of foods Behr finds interesting, challenging or curious, for one reason or another. A lot of the foods he writes about — cantaloupe, for instance, or cabbage, green beans, lemons, corn, rice, lettuce — are the kind of fundamental, even humble ingredients to be found in the kitchen of just about anyone who cooks.

So how does this relate to modern restaurants, to the radical creations of stars like Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal, to mention two names that Behr brought up?

He was quick to explain: “The topics in ‘50 Foods,’ ” he said, “are timeless; they’ll be around for a long time to come. And that’s what I set out to write, a book that would endure for a very long time. Now, with this article, I want to make the connection between those topics and modern cuisine” — and, he might have added, with the almost relentless pursuit of novelty and the esoteric that seems to characterize contemporary cooking at that high professional level.

“With all this sophistication,” he went on, “there’s an enormous lack of information about particular topics, even about food in general. In the book, I wanted to get to the essence of the thing, the nuts and bolts of what it is, along with how to choose it, the flavors that might complement it, buying information, and even when it’s relevant, what wine to drink with it.”

’50 Foods’ not a cookbook, but may inspire readers to head to the kitchen

There is not a recipe, however, anywhere in the book, although an experienced cook could certainly derive some excellent ideas to put into practice. But this is decidedly not a cookbook, even if reading it may eventually drive you into the kitchen to try out a project.

And not all the 50 foods are basics, by any means, although it’s true that what’s exotic for one diner or cook can be dead ordinary for another. Take honey, for instance, which Behr calls “one of the most varied, delicious tastes of all foods, and it’s possibly the food most obviously and directly linked to the place it comes from, sometimes to a short period of days and the particular plants then in flower.” In 9½ tightly organized pages, Behr teases out the esoterica of bees and bee pasture; nectar; colony collapse disorder; industrial and artisanal honey production; honeycombs and why they’re important; the flavors of various honeys (acacia, lime, lemon, tupelo); what to look for when you buy honey; how to store it; how to substitute honey for sugar in a recipe; what complements it best (yogurt, very fresh cheeses); and how (not) to serve it with wine. In short, if you’re interested in honey, here is everything you will need to know short of how to make it yourself. And if you’re not interested in honey (I’m not, though I found the entry fascinating), just move on to the next topic, “Lamb and Mutton,” or the one before it, “Ham and Bacon.”

“50 Foods” is not an encyclopedia, not at all. Part history, part aesthetic appreciation, part a series of strong, knowledgeable and educated value judgments, this is a reading book, a delightful companion on the bedside table where, if you’re like me, you might pick it up in the middle of the night in order to peruse a section on, say, butter, where you will learn of this ideal complement: “crisp raw radishes eaten French style, with unsalted butter, coarse sea salt, and bread that’s either fully dark or tan from flour containing a portion of bran.” It’s enough to make a girl get up and raid the refrigerator right then and there!

Caviar, oysters, salmon and truffles are among the fancy, expensive, perhaps elitist foods he covers, but he goes into great detail also about pears, plums and apples. If you read the section on “The Baguette” and then the one on “The ‘Country’ Loaf,” you will have an excellent summation of the recent, somewhat troubled history of bread in France. And if you read the several sections on various cheeses you may well conclude, as Behr does in the preface, that “cheese is probably the best food just as wine is the best drink.”

In short, the words are those of a superbly opinionated writer. But not an ignorant writer, because Ed Behr is famous for the perspicacity with which he tackles almost any subject, but especially any topic having to do with food or drink.

“The Art of Eating”

You may not have heard of “The Art of Eating,” but it is a publication read with attention and fascination by the likes of Alice Waters, René Redzepi, Dan Barber and lesser-known but equally important movers and shakers in the world of food and wine. The first issue, a scant eight pages, was written and produced entirely by Behr, and it continued that way for several years. Now, “The Art of Eating” runs to 48 information-packed pages, handsomely produced with the help of his wife, Kim, who functions as something between marketing manager and communications director. And it frequently includes contributions from others, both known and unknown (I’ve occasionally written for it). The current issue includes articles on Maryland hot peppers, old-fashioned blanquette de veau, a practically unknown Italian wine called Pelaverga, book reviews, restaurant reviews — in short an eclectic and provocative mix. You can read a few samples from back issues or subscribe (a nice holiday gift, perhaps to go with a copy of “50 Foods”) at www.artofeating.com.

Top photo: “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste” by Edward Behr. Author photo credit: Natalie Stultz

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