Articles in Book Reviews

The New California Wine, Adventures on the Wine Route and The World Atlas of Wine.

The clock is ticking for Christmas gift-buyers. But don’t fear, a great new book on shifting tides among California’s winemakers and updated versions of two classics are the perfect presents for the wine lover on your list.

“The New California Wine,” by Jon Bonné

New-California-Wine_small

Courtesy of Ten Speed Press

There’s a new breed of winemakers cropping up in California, and they’re aiming to overthrow the old guard, says Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle in his book, “The New California Wine.”

Sometime in the mid-1980s, California’s wine style shifted from mirroring the Old World to the more ripe, full bodied and extracted wines that are popular today. Some believe this shift was California defining its own style. Others, however, attribute the shift to the preferences of certain influential wine writers and magazines.

Whatever the reasoning, a new change is now taking shape. Traveling all over California and visiting niche vignerons and grape growers, Bonné describes what he calls a “revolution of taste.” By taking dead aim at the style he refers to as “big flavor,” Bonné introduces producers who are more focused on subtlety and sense of place than huge flavor and ripeness.

The artisan producers discussed are just as comfortable kicking the dirt between the vines as they are drinking some of Europe’s most sought-after wine. They are not only making exceptional wine, but doing so with a deep understanding of what their brethren create across the pond. These women and men are just as much wine geeks as they are creators of a style.

 Bonné divides the book into three sections: “Searching for the New California” describes his exploration of this transformation whilst finding winemakers involved, from the coastal vineyards of Santa Barbara to industrial estates outside the suburbs of San Francisco’s East Bay. “The New Terroir” discusses a lot of these vineyards, new and old, but more importantly, what makes them unique and special. “Wines of the New California” individually discusses the myriad personalities making these wines and describes how they are breaking from recent tradition. Wineries are listed by grape style, with brief notes on Bonné’s favorite wineries, highlighting particular wines from each of these producers.

Much like the wines he discusses, Bonné’s writing gives you a great sense of place. Through his descriptions, you can almost feel the chilly Pacific wind hurtling through the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County, or smell the eucalyptus and bay laurel that scent the Santa Cruz Mountains in northern California.

The book is subtitled “A guide to the producers and wines behind a revolution in taste,” but that doesn’t truly define it. This is more than a guide — it’s a manifesto, drawing a line in the sand between the wines that have for a long time been the mainstay of California’s “style” and these emerging rebels.

The producers mentioned in “New California Wine” are just the avant-garde of a trend that will divide California into two camps of wine types: the big versus the refined. It can be argued that both have their place, but 10 years from now we’ll look at “New California Wine” as the first book that documented the shift.

“Adventures on the Wine Route,” 25th anniversary edition, by Kermit Lynch

"Adventures on the Wine Route" Credit: Courtesy of North Point Press

Courtesy of North Point Press

When I moved back to a California a couple of years ago, one of the first “to do’s” on my list was to visit Kermit Lynch’s wine shop in Berkeley. Lynch is the wine merchant respected for his uncanny ability to discover some of what are now considered to be the greatest wines coming out of France and Italy. This year marks the 25th anniversary of his award-winning wine travel book, “Adventures on the Wine Route.”

This is a book for anyone who loves the French way of life — you do not have to be into wine to enjoy it. This is mostly in part to Lynch’s easygoing, yet humorous style of writing. More than any other wine book, Lynch’s “Adventures on the Wine Route” will get you going to the shop shelf to seek out the producers and regions mentioned.

It’s also a travel journal, where you’re seated in the car next to the author as he zigzags his way through the byroads of France’s countryside while explaining the nuances of its wines and the families making them.

“The World Atlas of Wine, 7th edition,” by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson

"The World Atlas of Wine" Courtesy of Mitchell Beazley

Courtesy of Mitchell Beazley

If there only two books in your wine book collection, one should be the Oxford Companion to Wine, while the other should be the recently published 7th edition of “The World Atlas of Wine.” British wine experts Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson have again teamed up to produce what may be the most thorough collection of wine-related cartography.

Whether your exploration of wine has only just begun or you are a fully fledged oenophile, this assortment of wine maps will prove indispensable in bringing any level of knowledge to the next stage.

Wine, more than any other beverage, is all about its origin — producers from the French sub-region of Maury in the Roussillon to Walker Bay in South Africa’s Southern Coast of the Cape all love to talk about their vineyard sites. With this book, you are able to delve further into what’s in your glass, pinpointing the exact location of the source.

The new edition boasts revamped maps of Australia and South Africa as well as new American viticultural areas (AVAs) in many of the United States’ major grape-growing regions. There is also a new section highlighting Asia’s wine regions, not to mention the hundreds of winery recommendations and specific regional descriptions. Consider this tome indispensable in furthering your understanding of wine.

Top photo: Top wine books for the gift-giving season. Credit: Louis Villard

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Bobby Burns cocktail. Credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

Everyone loves reading and drinking, right? Or maybe it’s drinking and reading. So these great books about cocktails would be perfect presents for just about anyone. You might even want to snag a few for yourself, and snuggle up to read them with a drink in hand.

“Cocktails for a Crowd”

This book by Wine Enthusiast Magazine spirits editor Kara Newman is a must-have resource for making punches, pitcher drinks and party-size batches of tiki and tropical beverages. Newman also spells out the way to go on ice, garnishes and other equipment to keep the drinks flowing at your next gathering. Additionally included are classics along the lines of the Bobby Burns (see recipe below), a strong, burly drink invented for Robert Burns Night, celebrating the Scottish poet, on Jan. 25. Newman even explains how to make a bottled version, ideal for serving to a large group. $18.95, Chronicle Books

“Dr. Cocktail: 50 Spirited Infusions to Stimulate the Mind & Body”

Alex Ott, an organic chemist and mixologist, has created cocktail menus for restaurants and bars around the world. Ott was inspired by his own brush with death in an airplane crash to write this book, which centers on the power of spirited concoctions to combat stress, boost energy, stay young, improve memory, cure hangovers, relax one’s nerves and, of course, act as aphrodisiacs and magic tinctures. Many of the drinks call for fresh fruits, vegetables, botanicals and herbs as well as chamomile, garlic, lemongrass and cinnamon to work their power. $17, Running Press

“The Drunken Botanist”

Written by New York Times best-selling author Amy Stewart, this is the book to get for the gardeners and cocktail historians in your life. A detailed exploration of the garnishes and flavorings that can naturally accent a good drink, from herbs and spices to berries, flowers and other botanicals, Stewart helps guide both how to grow all these accoutrements as well as how to use them in a range of flavorful cocktails, from The Aviation, made with violet liqueur, to a Negroni with fresh orange peel. $19.95, Algonquin Books

“Savory Cocktails”

Written by Greg Henry, author of “Savory Pies,” this is for those who prefer their drinks herbaceous, smoky and strong — his chapters are broken down by Sour, Spicy, Herbal, Umami, Bitter, Smoky, Rich and Strong categories. Within the inspiring recipes are notes on techniques and primers on how to make your own syrups, bitters, shrubs and infusions. $16.95, Ulysses Press

“Shake, Stir, Pour: Fresh Homegrown Cocktails”

Katie Loeb, a Philadelphia-based sommelier, restaurant consultant and bartender, believes that anyone who can shop, boil water, measure ingredients and operate basic kitchen equipment can make homegrown cocktails. But just in case, her book includes step-by-step photos of some of the more complicated procedures for those shaky around a shaker. Expect tips on how to make infusions of base spirits, bitters and your own limoncello. $24.99, Quarry Books

“Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender”

Northern California-based bartender Jeff Burkhart likens bartending to both marathon running and psychology. In this book, he takes a look at life from both sides of the bar, providing anecdotes on encounters with George Lucas, Robert Redford and Andre Agassi, as well as useful tips on drinking and making drinks. $15, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

“Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails”

Renowned mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim’s book is part history, part philosophy, with plenty of recipes for the world’s most widespread — if sometimes maligned — spirit, vodka. Abou-Ganim defends vodka’s complexity and versatility with detailed ideas for cocktails, a primer on pairing with such delicacies as caviar and a list of 58 vodkas with tasting notes and character scores for each. $22.95, Surrey Books

Bobby Burns

Courtesy Kara Newman, “Cocktails for a Crowd”

Serves 8 (about 4 cups)

Ingredients

12 ounces Scotch

12 ounces sweet vermouth, such as Carpano Antica

5 ounces water

2 ounces Benedictine

8 lemon twists, for garnish

Directions

1. In a pitcher that holds at least 5 cups, combine Scotch, vermouth, water and Benedictine and stir well.

2. Using a funnel, decant into a 1-liter liquor bottle or two 750-milliliter bottles. Cap tightly and refrigerate for at least two hours, until chilled.

3. To serve, set out a bowl or wine bucket filled with ice.

4. Shake the bottle to ensure the cocktail is well mixed, then set it in the ice so it stays chilled.

5. Pour into coupe or martini glasses and garnish each drink with a lemon twist.

Top photo: Bobby Burns cocktail. Credit: Teri Lyn Fisher

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“Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

Mystique — and hyperbole — surround North Berkeley’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto after almost half a century. The neighborhood, ground zero for a gastronomic explosion that morphed into a California cuisine revolution in the 1970s, seems to get more media coverage today than in its heyday. And sometimes it’s just plain silly.

Consider, for example, the overhyped version of today’s Ghetto portrayed in an October Forbes magazine article by Lanee Lee titled “Spending 24 Hours in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

Her mission to spend a whole day eating her way through the Ghetto begins at 9 a.m. But after just nine hours of nibbling and sipping at Ghetto icons such as the Cheese Board and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and several of the nouveau arrivé spots such as Philz Coffee from San Francisco, Lee takes off south for downtown Berkeley and even Oakland. She as much as admits the aborted mission when she says about one downtown restaurant, “Technically, it’s not in the Gourmet Ghetto …” Technically? You are either in or you are out (see map).

Lee’s article reveals, however unintended, the unhyped truth that the Gourmet Ghetto struggles today to keep up with its own revolutionary legend, let alone the increasingly vibrant foodie meccas to the south.

The reality behind the hype

Two female chefs-cum-writers who can testify to the true gravitas behind the original Ghetto’s supersized legend are Ghetto legends in their own right — Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise. Both cooked at Chez Panisse during its formative years before moving on to their own fame: Wise with her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie (1973-1986), across the street from Chez Panisse, and Goldstein at her Square One restaurant in San Francisco (1984-1996). Since the close of their much-missed showcases they have established themselves as culinary consultants and prolific cookbook authors with national reputations.

Both women have impressive new books out that attest to their continuing commitment to the revolution they served so brilliantly: Goldstein’s “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness” (UC Press) and Wise’s recipe collection, “Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors,” co-authored with Susanna Hoffman (Workman).

With the publication of Goldstein’s book, we finally have a scholarly account of the California cuisine revolution based on hundreds of interviews of the food- and wine-loving souls who made it happen — cooks, artisan food producers, winemakers and farmers. Among them, adds Goldstein, were an “unprecedented number” of women. One of these was Victoria Wise herself. Before she opened “the Pig,” as her shop was affectionately known in the Ghetto, Wise was Chez Panisse’s first chef.

Wise’s new book, “Bold,” presents a collection of full-flavored and full-plated (bye-bye, little plates) dishes that further define the hearty international melting-pot foundations of a new American cooking that has emerged in the wake of California’s outsized culinary contributions.

When legends collide

I had known Goldstein and Wise professionally back in the day. Then in 2010, after publication of my “graphic memoir,” “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” I invited them to join me on an author’s panel at the Berkeley branch of Books Inc. I titled the presentation “Legends of the Gourmet Ghetto” and included Alice Medrich of Cocolat fame (1976-1991) as well as Bruce Aidells, Berkeley’s sausage king who got his start in the Ghetto in 1979 chefing at Marilyn Rinzler’s “still-clucking” ode to chicken, Poulet.

The panelists shared stories and laughs about the early years in the Ghetto and agreed that the revolution, though clearly Euro- and mostly Franco-centric in inspiration, was largely triggered by the lack of traditional culinary arts training in the Ghetto. An autodidact love of fine food translated our European food epiphanies into an ingredio-centric cooking language outside the narratives of haute cuisine and directly relevant to our own time and place.

A new body experience

To be sure, ours was not the first generation of Americans jolted by what we tasted in France and beyond. A generation before Julia Child’s fateful encounter with French gastronomy, The New Yorker’s “Letter From Paris” columnist, Janet Flanner, had her own Proustian moment in France. In the introduction to her book, “Paris Was Yesterday 1925-1939,” a collection of her still wonderfully readable columns, Flanner writes:

I can recall the sensual satisfaction of first chewing the mixture in my mouth of a bite of meat and a crust of fresh French bread … Eating in France was a new body experience.

Yes, a sensual body experience. Very different from the visual and brainy (as in left brain) extremes of fine food so common in today’s haute cuisine world of masculine high-tech art food offered in San Sebastian, Spain; Copenhagen; London; and New York.

And who better than women such as Goldstein and Wise a few generations after Flanner to seduce our sensual bodies with simple, traditional food sourced and prepared right in our own gastronomic region — California.

Cuisine bonne femme

If you study my map of the Ghetto of the 1970s you will note that it was, indeed, the women at their shops and restaurants who were calling the revolutionary shots: Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, Alice Medrich, Marilyn Rinzler and, of course, Superwoman herself, Alice Waters.

I say “Superwoman” because Waters has always had the extraordinary ability — “genius,” Goldstein says — to get people to do her bidding — especially men, I’d add. When she came to the Cheese Board just before Chez Panisse was to open and asked whether I would wait tables, I jumped at the opportunity, as if I had been handed a first-class ticket to Provence. Waters must have memorized Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”

One of Waters’ leading men in those early Ghetto days, Mark Miller, who followed the epic reign of Jeremiah Tower as chef de cuisine, slyly observes in Goldstein’s book that the food emerging at Chez Panisse in the 1970s was far from revolutionary. It was, he notes, heavily influenced by the genre of French cooking known as cuisine bonne femme, the bourgeois home and humble restaurant cooking of French women. He’s right. But wasn’t that, if not the food per se, the Gourmet Ghetto’s revolution, or at least a key component?  Talented and powerful women running the show.

"Off With His Toque!" Credit: L. John Harris

“Off With His Toque!” Credit: L. John Harris

It was an increasingly feminist world we were living in circa 1970 and Berkeley was, of course, one of its capitals. Today, we take for granted women running professional kitchens, though it’s still a struggle for female chefs to get the same media attention as the men.

But back in those early days of the revolution it was, it seems to me, as if a Code Pink version of Mother Nature rose up and shouted out through Ghetto legends like Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise, “No more crap food! Off with his toque! You go girls!” And they still are.

Top graphic: “Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

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Andrew Schloss is the author of

As with everything in life, there are truths with cooking. Andrew Schloss, the author of “Cooking Slow: Recipes for Slowing Down and Cooking More,” hits upon one when he writes in his introduction that “cooking is a balance between time and temperature. Raise the heat and everything speeds up; flames jump, pots sizzle, grease spits. Lower the heat, however, and the turmoil subsides.”

Lowering the heat is what “Cooking Slow” is all about, and while doing this is particularly enticing with Christmas fast approaching, it is a great idea to lower a little of the cooking heat any time you can. What a welcome change to have something cooking slowly in the oven or on top of the stove instead of frantically whipping up another quick meal to satiate our hungry, hectic lives.

Schloss also is the author of the “Art of the Slow Cooker,” a cooking teacher and former president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Like many people, I grew up with slow meals, especially in winter. Arriving home from school, pink-cheeked and famished, the aroma of a hearty soup or stew that had been simmering for hours or a roasting chicken was a comfort unlike many others. It is this sense of comfort, above all, that permeates “Cooking Slow.”

After a corporate life with too many takeout meals eaten at my desk, I was reborn to slow cooking a decade ago, after I left the corporate world and went to work at a restaurant, surrounded by people who lived and breathed delicious food. My boss was a sophisticated and urbane Irishman who loved quality — and its accompanying price tag — above all. When he decided to invest in new cocottes — cooking pots with sloping sides that weighed a ton and cost the moon — for the restaurant kitchen, I joined him on his mad quest and bought one for myself, spending an obscene amount of money for a dull cast-iron affair that paled in prettiness next to the aubergine- , cherry- and saffron-colored pots on the market. I have never regretted the purchase, carrying my magic pot (as I quickly nicknamed it) to the east coast of Canada where I thought I belonged and then back again to my Ontario home. It was the first thing I unpacked when I settled into a new kitchen. Even the most inexpensive cuts of meat become tender and succulent when cooked slowly in it.

‘Cooking Slow’ requires patience, a few kitchen essentials

Schloss recommends such a pot, along with a cast-iron skillet, slow cooker and soufflé dish, among other things, to help transform your kitchen into a slow-cooking haven.

The transformation to slow cooking begins with Chapter 1 –  “Slow Roasting” — and the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who knew a thing or two about food.  Here is his quote on the skill of roasting:  “A man may be taught how to cook, but he must be born knowing how to roast.”  Schloss then adds, “Get ready to be reborn.”

For me, two recipes in particular in the first chapter help with that rebirth, Slow-Roasted Chicken With Potatoes & Herbs, and Balsamic-Glazed Duckling. Although duck “has a fat problem; there’s a lot of it on these buoyant birds,” turning down the oven temperature allows enough time for the fat to melt, resulting in a moist and flavorful meat.

Chapter 2, “Slow Baking,” offers a welcoming dinner meal of One-Pot Mac and Cheese that has a nice tang with the addition of brown mustard. Slow-Baked Beets With Orange Gremolata (the Gremolata reimagined with hazelnuts and orange juice) is one of my favorite recipes in this chapter, but even it is eclipsed by Parsnips Baked In Spiced Yogurt.

“Neglected and maligned, parsnips have a PR problem,” he writes, and I agree. This recipe, with its wonderfully spiced yogurt (with, among others, coriander and cumin), might make a few reluctant parsnip eaters into parsnip lovers.

The recipes throughout the book are clear and easy to follow, with accompanying photographs of finished dishes that are not only mouthwatering but also inspiring.

Follow the chapters, including the ‘Slow Sweets’ favorite

Other chapters explore slow simmering, steaming, grilling, frying, using a slow cooker and dabbling in sous vide cooking — that very long and low-temperature cooking method that has taken hold in many restaurants.

The last chapter in “Cooking Slow” is my favorite.  In “Slow Sweets,” a Steamed Cornmeal Pudding with Olives and Candied Orange offers a delicious melding of saltiness from the olives and sweetness from the orange. Ever the chocoholic, though, I bow in gratitude to Schloss for including a cake called Triple Chocolate Bypass, which bakes for four hours in an oven heated to 175 F. This silken and rich thing has now gone to the head of my holiday baking list, but I will have to make sure not to make it too early or it will never survive until Christmas Day, (although it’s so easy to make that I could always make another one).

Top photo: Andrew Schloss is the author of “Cooking Slow: Recipes for Slowing Down and Cooking More.”

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Richard Miscovich stands long and lean by the oven, a ponytail trailing down his back. Though the world doubts skinny cooks, he is the real deal, very aware of the fire behind him and all it can achieve.

The baker is also aware of the crowd in front of him as he leads classes, tending curiosity as if it were as important as loaves of dough. He knows his ingredients, so he can predict what those ingredients need. He’s also attentive to environments, so he can address questions that arise, in a wood-fired oven or a weekend workshop.

I’ve seen him at the Kneading Conference and Kneading Conference West, teaching workshops on baking with sprouted grain flours, and, most recently, making full use of the heat generated for wood-fired bread baking. He explores this potential — to make everything from beautiful bread to dried figs, not to mention rendering fat and building a classic pot of New England baked beans — in detail in his book “From the Wood-Fired Oven: New and Traditional Techniques for Cooking and Baking with Fire.”

Immersion in the American baking movement

The book puts his energy and knowledge at your fingertips, and appeals to a wide range of interests, from home bakers to those considering starting a small enterprise, or looking to revise an existing baking operation. These are the people Miscovich encounters at the Kneading Conferences, or when he guest-teaches at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Center, where he used to work in the bakery. He also sees these people in his baking and pastry classes at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where he’s been an instructor for 11 years.

Miscovich speaks and writes as one not yet removed from the thrill of learning. The book is a scrapbook of his immersion in the American bread movement and features quotes from stars and sages of that movement, such as James McGuire and Thom Leonard. That immersion happened by chance and circumstance, more than design.

“I was working at a grocery store and they opened a bakery and I thought that would be fun,” Miscovich said in a recent phone interview, describing his random entry into the field. He was attending the University of Michigan, studying English literature. The store served an international population, and received deliveries from scratch bakeries in East Lansing. Once weekly, German bread came from Detroit. “I could tell that the bread that was delivered had more character than what we were thawing and proofing and baking.”

Pioneer bread makers

His passion for baking as a career, however, did not take root until much later, when the book “Bread Alone” exploded his idea of bread in 1994. The book ratcheted up his home bread-baking practice from yeast to sourdough, and inspired him to travel from North Carolina for two weeks of workshops at the newly formed San Francisco Baking Institute. This was in 1996, a big moment for bread in America.

Bread with creative scoring. Credit: Richard Miscovich

Bread with creative scoring. Credit: Richard Miscovich

On that trip, he met Alan Scott, the New Zealand-born baker and oven builder who, with oven plans, workshops and, later, the book “The Bread Builders” (written with Dan Wing) pioneered the wood-fired bread oven movement in America.

When Miscovich visited Scott in 1996, breadmaker Chad Robertson was using Scott’s oven. There was grain growing behind the house and inside, Scott had hooked up a Diamant mill to a washing machine motor, to mill flour for his baking.

“I distinctly remember him talking about the benefits of whole grains and showing me his little mill,” Miscovich said. “The whole wood-fired oven thing hadn’t started yet, and the local grain movement hadn’t even started yet.”

Practical and accessible

“From the Wood Fired Oven” is, like “The Bread Builders,” also published by Chelsea Green. There’s enough information on artisan baking to stand as a thorough guide, but the language is not too technical to lose the home baker who has never touched a sourdough. Similarly, the practical instructions on building an oven, and managing fire and combustion, are in depth enough for anyone who is ready to build a backyard oven or launch a microbakery.

The book has profiles of bakers and oven builders who are helping push community-scale artisan bread baking to another level. Information on equipment, oven size and production practices is presented to help show how to make baking and ovens physically practical and economically feasible.

“People get burned out,” Miscovich said of baking, but the improvements he and others outline in the book can help prevent burnout and help keep artisan bakeries alive. “I think the book talks about materials and design and efficiency in a way that’s hopefully going to help those businesses become or stay viable,” he said.

Yet cooking is at the core of the book, so these details didn’t drive me, who has little interest in starting a bakery, away. I love the book, and its author’s classes, for helping explain how ingredients become foods, and how those foods become most flavorful. Even in my $25 oven.

Top photo: “A Wood-Fired Oven” and Richard Miscovich. Credit: Courtesy of Red Door Media

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Christopher Kimball. Credit: Courtesy of

If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.

Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.

While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.

To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.

Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.

Kimball’s food publishing adventures

I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.

Kimball founded Cook’s Country magazine in 2004, and he’s also the bow-tied host of the PBS cooking shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen.”

America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.

It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.

We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.

What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?

My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.

How did you learn to cook?

Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.

In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?

We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.

How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?

The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.

What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?

Almost no-knead bread from the "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook" is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Almost no-knead bread from the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook” is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.

Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?

If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).

Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?

Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.

How much of being a good cook is science versus art?

There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.

How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?

Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.

What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?

Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.

Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”

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First, a confession: I am not always a confident pastry maker. Yes, I make pastry, and sometimes it is good, occasionally very good, but I still approach each pastry-making session with some anxiety.

Because of this, I approached “Pastry” by Chef Richard Bertinet with a little trepidation. Quickly, though, I fell in love with the book, and now it’s becoming an old friend. I am not suddenly a great pastry maker because of this book, but, more important to me, I am no longer a nervous pastry maker.

“Pastry” has a lovely chattiness to it. This is not a book meant to intimidate, although the subject matter can be intimidating. Early in “Pastry,” Bertinet tells the nervous among us that, “There is an idea that some people are just naturally good pastry makers, or that you can only make great pastry if you have cold hands. I don’t believe that.”

That is good to learn about someone who began training as a baker in Brittany, France, when he was 14. He moved to Britain in the 1980s, and after many years as a chef, he opened the Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School in Bath, England, in 2005.  The school now draws students from around the world, eager to learn the skills he has perfected and detailed in four books to date.

“Pastry” is his latest. His first book, “Dough,” received many awards, including the Julia Child First Book Award and the James Beard Foundation Award for Baking and Desserts. It was followed by “Crust,” which earned a Gourmand World Cookbook award. “Cook,” his third book, focuses on dishes taught at his school.

Making pastry not just about cold hands

In “Pastry,” Bertinet hopes that “by keeping things simple and starting from just four key recipes, you can relax, enjoy yourself, bake with confidence, and perhaps even show off a little bit.” This may be a tall order for some, but, with the exception of the showing off (which I’m working on), I have relaxed and begun to enjoy myself more when making pastry.

The first chapter focuses on how to make the four basic pastries:  salted, sweet, puff and choux. Dispelling a long-held belief that you need cold hands to make good pastry, he nevertheless reinforces a truth of bad pastry: that “squeezing and overworking … heats up pastry and makes it greasy and sticky.”

The step-by-step photographs throughout the book, but especially in this first chapter, are excellent, clearly illustrating his instructions and showing you how the pastry should look at each step.

Chapter 2 is devoted to salted pastry, so named not because this type of pastry contains a lot of salt but because it is the name for savory pastry he learned as an apprentice. The chapter includes a number of hearty recipes clearly laid out and easy to follow, with hot and cold variations. Bertinet includes recipes for Onion Tartlets and a rich Chicken and Tarragon Tart, but a great quick lunch is his Cornish Pasties filled with rutabaga, potato and beef (not a poor man’s food anymore).

Amandine for the holidays

Next, sweets take center stage, such as Lemon Meringue Tartlets with their wild meringue swirls resembling chimney stacks. One of my favorite recipes in Chapter 3 is for Amandine, a classic almond tart made with frangipane (almond cream). Not only is this tart delicious, it freezes well, making it a great make-ahead dessert for holiday meals. The Prune and Rum Tarts — rum-soaked prunes and almond cream — are also delicious; make plenty because they will be a great success with friends if mine were any indication.

Also in Chapter 3 is a segment called “A Boxful of Sweet Cookies,” with varieties such as Orange & Chocolate Cookies that can be made from a sweet pastry base. While the Orange & Chocolate Cookies have a winning combination of flavors, the crisp Langues de Chat have a whimsical shape — that of cats’ tongues — and make great use of leftover egg whites.

Chapter 4 made me more nervous than previous chapters because its focus is puff pastry. I usually buy mine at the grocery store and appreciated when he wrote, “I hope that you will enjoy making your own puff pastry, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, choose a good ready-made all-butter one.” Still, following his instructions, my first attempt at puff pastry turned out well. I used it to make sausage rolls, which, with their lovely herb and spice seasoning, turned an often dry and flavorless thing into a delicious snack.

A perfect ‘how to’ on Croustillants

Another great use for puff pastry is in making Croustillants. These thin slices of puff pastry are coated in sugar, nuts or seeds and baked until crunchy, making a terrific and decidedly upscale substitute for potato chips at parties.

Chapter 5 is about choux pastry, the base for treats such as cream puffs and éclairs. In addition to these recipes, Bertinet includes a recipe for deep-fried Cheese Puffs containing either Cheddar or Gruyère. With a sprinkling of smoked paprika, these hors d’oeuvres will disappear quickly.

The last chapter is devoted to “Finishing Touches” and includes techniques such as how to finish fruit tarts so they are beautiful and delicious. This has much to do with how the fruit is cut and arranged and with the addition of warmed apricot jam as a glaze. Bertinet also offers recipes for fillings such as Chocolate Crème Patissiere and Crème Anglaise. If you can make the latter, he assures the reader, “you are halfway to making vanilla ice cream.” (And what vanilla ice cream it is.)

“Pastry” offers up many treats, but the best treat of all may be the book itself. It is great for building confidence in the pastry-shy baker and a further challenge for the pastry-secure baker. If you can’t get to Bertinet’s school in Bath, this book is the next best thing. It is indeed “A Master Class for Everyone.”

Top photo composite: The cover of “Pastry” and chef and author Richard Bertinet. Chef photo credit: Jenny Zarins

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Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris

I couldn’t believe what I was reading in the New York Times this summer about the controversial Polish ban on ritual kosher animal slaughter. I was just arriving in London, en route to Paris, and thought to myself, “Isn’t this what happened in the 1930s when Hitler came to power and began dismantling Jewish culture in Europe?”

As described in Dan Bilefsky’s article, “Polish Jews Fight Ban on Religious Slaughter of Animals,” the warring factions in the dispute compose the oddest collection of bedfellows one can imagine. At least in the 1930s you had relatively clear-cut sides in Poland: fascists vs. Jews.

Defending religious ritual slaughter that uses a special razor-sharp knife for the task, you have, according to Bilefsky’s article, Polish Jews and Muslims (halal slaughter is similar to kosher) teamed up with the Catholic church — in fact, Pope Francis himself is involved. Hard to imagine the West’s three major, and often feuding, religions getting together on the same side of anything.

Supporting the ban on kosher and halal slaughter in the name of so-called “humane slaughter” — using a special “captive bolt” gun that stuns the animal into unconsciousness before slaughter — you have Polish animal welfare advocates, assorted leftists and right-wing nationalists (read neo-fascists). This latter group is, of course, happy to see Jews and other minorities in Poland lose out again.

Here’s the wrinkle: Ritual slaughter in Europe is legally exempt from the requirement of pre-slaughter stunning. The exemption, agreed to by the European Union in 1979, acknowledges the human right of religious minorities to carry out animal slaughter according to ancient traditions.

So the ban in Poland actually violates a legal exemption that appears to trump Poland’s ban. A pending ruling from Poland’s highest constitutional court will seek to resolve this dispute. In the meantime, the two sides are fighting it out in the court of public opinion, if not in the streets of Warsaw.

Déjà vu all over again

After reading the Times’ piece and an update on the ban in the Wall Street Journal, I began looking more deeply into the question of humane animal slaughter and its complex and eerie history.

In the early 1930s, efforts were made in Europe, especially in Germany to restrict ritual slaughter, at least ostensibly, in the name of animal welfare. In Great Britain, The Slaughter of Animals Act of 1933 required the electrical stunning of animals before slaughter. The exemption for religious slaughter that existed at that time was challenged by fascists, including British veterinarian Arnold S. Leese. In his 1938 paper “The Legalised Cruelty of Shechita: The Jewish Method of Cattle-Slaughter,” Leese states:

The Aryan or Christian has decided that his cattle shall be stunned first so that they will not feel the anguish of the cut and the awful struggle against death which follows it. The Jew and the Mahomedan claim and receive exemption by British law from following the Briton’s example.

Leese goes on to say that in a future fascist Britain, the exemption would be overturned.

The anguish of the cut

Going further back in history, one is reminded that the invention of the guillotine was considered humane in its day, a revolutionary technology designed to limit suffering in beheadings. The French Revolution’s bloody Terror was “revolutionary” in more ways than one.

And a razor-sharp metal knife must have been considered revolutionary (and humane) in ancient times. In Jewish dietary code, it is required that the blade of the shochet’s knife (the chalef) be extremely sharp and long enough to sever both carotid arteries with one smooth and decisive cut, thus causing near instantaneous unconsciousness, or “insensibility” as science likes to describe the loss of awareness (and pain) of animals being slaughtered.

Temple Grandin to the rescue

In all the recent coverage of the Polish ban on ritual slaughter, the one perspective curiously missing is that of science. Science is not my usual default position, but in this case, it’s the essential “objective” dimension in the debate over animal welfare and pain-free slaughter.

Who better, then, to provide the science than Temple Grandin, the world’s leading authority on humane slaughter and, it must be noted, an unrepentant meat eater. Her personal story, including her triumph over autism, is well-known by now, following the recent release of the film “Temple Grandin.”

Grandin’s disability seems to be her virtue: objectivity. Typical of autism, Grandin has had difficulties with social interaction with humans, but her empathy for animals is uncanny and poignant. For much of her life, she hugged cows, not humans.

While her idiosyncratic personality may raise some eyebrows, no one can challenge Grandin’s credentials as a scientist — she has revolutionized the meat processing industry with her cattle management systems that keep the animals as comfortable as possible as they approach the inevitable. Her innovations are based on the insight that happy (stress-free) animals and pain-free slaughter guarantees better tasting meat for the consumer and more profits for the meat industry.

So when Grandin studied properly managed traditional ritual slaughter and compared it to modern technological slaughter she came to the following conclusion in a 1994 paper, “Religious slaughter and animal welfare: a discussion for meat scientists”:

Kosher slaughter performed with the long, straight, razor-sharp knife does not appear to be painful … One can conclude that it is probably less distressful than poorly performed captive-bolt or electrical stunning methods, which release large amounts of epinephrine …

Elsewhere she has noted that properly handled cattle appear not to be aware during ritual slaughter that their throats have been cut. Grandin appears to be constitutionally incapable of anthropomorphism.

It’s still unclear how the Polish brouhaha (moohaha?) will be resolved in the courts, though a decision is expected soon. The forces arrayed in this story are ideological and emotional and tied to very old prejudices. But I’d like to think that Grandin’s approach, call it scientific empathy, will contribute once and for all to an end to these provocative bans on ritual slaughter and, at the same time, lead to increasingly well-managed ritual slaughter practices that guarantee animals the best of both worlds, here and in transition to the other.

Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris

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