Articles in Book Reviews

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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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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