Articles in Book Reviews

I am a cake person. For people who know me, this is as irrefutable a fact as the Earth orbiting the sun. Given that, when I picked up Diana Henry’s new cookbook, “A Change of Appetite” (Mitchell Beazley, 2014), and it fell open to a recipe for Pistachio and Lemon Cake, I felt the book and I were destined to become true friends.

And so we have.

If you read my review of her previous book, “Salt Sugar Smoke,” you know that Henry is one of Britain’s best-loved food writers. She was twice named Cookery Journalist of the Year by The Guild of Food Writers.

I have enjoyed all eight of her books — particularly “Roast Figs Sugar Snow” — filled with winter recipes that make me long for frigid temperatures — and “Crazy Water Pickled Lemons” — for the name of the book and the Middle Eastern Orange Cake, among other things — but “A Change of Appetite: Where Healthy Meets Delicious” is timely because, like her, I have realized a change of appetite is in order.

Although I don’t eat an unhealthy diet (yes, I am a bit too fond of sweets), it could do with some tweaking — less meat, more vegetables and grains and different flavors. Still, I don’t want to sacrifice taste in pursuit of healthier eating, and, as the title attests, I don’t have to.

‘A Change of Appetite’ suggests seasonal eating

The book is divided into seasons, and the Pistachio and Lemon Cake is one of the spring recipes. About eating in spring Henry notes, “We find we want different foods: greener, cleaner, sprightlier flavors.”

A Feta and Orange Salad with Honeyed Almonds certainly provides sprightlier flavors, as does White Fish, Saffron and Dill Couscous Pilaf, a dinner that takes 15 minutes to prepare and is a delicious reward at the end of the day.

In summer the “appetite is fickle,” but even the most fickle will likely find something to enjoy here. Two summer recipes stood out for me.

The first, Turkish Spoon Salad with Haydari (a yogurt dip), involves much chopping of chilies, tomatoes, cucumbers and other ingredients, but you are rewarded with a lovely looking salad that is also delicious. For me, fine dicing promotes patience. It also reminds me of my father, who had abundant patience and always diced vegetables in this precise manner for his soups and salads, and they always tasted better because of the care he took in preparing the ingredients.

The second summer recipe, Shaken Currants with Yogurt and Rye Crumbs, was a lovely surprise. Given the addition of rye crumbs, I wasn’t sure I would appreciate this dish. Happily, I was wrong. Although other summer berries can be substituted, I loved the currants’ tartness, which complemented the earthy rye. I grew up eating currants because my maternal grandmother picked them from her garden and fed them to me with thick, fresh cream. When I complained that raspberries and blueberries, also abundant in her garden, were sweeter, she reminded me that life was not made up of sweetness only, so I should set my mind to other flavors too. I was 5 at the time, but the lesson must have taken hold because I’ve always relished other flavors, almost as much as sweetness.

“I love the pull toward the kitchen that cooler weather engenders,” Henry writes about fall. For me, that pull is a pull toward soup, and her Eastern Broth with Shallots, Lime and Cilantro will be a great addition to my fall lineup. A lovely broth on its own, it becomes a soothing and filling meal with the addition of tofu or chicken and vegetables.

Roasted Tomatoes, Hummus, and Spinach on Toast is filling as well, especially when a quick Watercress and Carrot Salad is added. Spiced Pork Chops with Ginger and Mango Relish are hearty, while Citrus Compote with Ginger Snow is a light and refreshing end to any fall meal.

Like her previous books, “A Change of Appetite” is stylish. Interesting food essays (“Japanese Lessons,” especially so) are interspersed with clear and easy-to-follow recipes, often accompanied by gorgeous photographs that inspire rather than intimidate. They draw you into the kitchen.

Cool weather cooking and sweet treats

When winter descends, the instinct to eat for survival, carried with us over eons, takes hold despite the fact that many of us are now blessed with the certainty of our next meal. Winter cooking, perhaps more than cooking in any other season, is for sharing, and a dish like Georgian Chicken with Walnut Sauce and Hot Grated Beet offers warmth and comfort against the harshness beyond our windows.

The recipes in “A Change of Appetite” reinforce the truth that healthy eating does not require depriving yourself of flavor and pleasure at the table. Far from it. And although cutting back on sugar is never a bad idea, you can still have dessert. When it is made a special treat, it will be enjoyed even more.

Returning to the special treat that began my friendship with this cookbook, Pistachio and Lemon Cake may well be a “perfect cake for spring,” but I won’t limit it to this season. It’s made with olive oil instead of the butter I so liberally use in my cakes, stale breadcrumbs instead of flour, and finished with lemon syrup that makes the cake even more moist and delicious.

My grandmother may have taught me that life will not be made up of sweetness only, but at times there will and must be some, so I will slice the Pistachio and Lemon Cake just a little thinner. Delicious.

Main composite photo: “A Change of Appetite” by Diana Henry. Credits: Book cover image courtesy of publisher Mitchell Beazley and author photo by Chris Terry

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Ruth Reichl’s engaging books talk of her growing up years, her family and how she learned to cook. In her nonfiction titles she has written about waitressing in a restaurant where every worker was an owner and about her work as a food critic with the Los Angeles Times, as a food writer for the New York Times and as editor-in-chief at Gourmet magazine.

In one of her books I remember Reichl saying she learned early on that the most important thing in life is a good story. And that’s what we get in her first novel, “Delicious.” One of the reasons I love first novels is they often have an unrestrained, unbridled, generous energy that catches and pulls the reader in like a lasso and the wild ride through character and plot is exhilarating. And when there is food at the center of the story, I’m hooked.

Food-driven plot

As a child, Billie Breslin, our heroine in “Delicious,” spends much of her time in her mother’s kitchen. Her sister Genie says, “She’s always sniffing the bottles in the spice cabinet.” And sure enough Billie can deconstruct almost anything she tastes, including the gingerbread cake her deceased mother used to make every year for her father’s birthday. (Check out the cake’s recipe in the back of the book.)

The book opens with Billie, Genie and their Aunt Melba making cake after cake until they finally figure out the exact recipe. “It’s even better than your mother’s,” Melba tells Billie, who has inherited her mother’s natural ability in the kitchen along with her nose and delicate palate.

In Montecito, Calif., where Billie and her sister are growing up, they spend a summer making cakes to earn spending money. They quickly become somewhat famous in the area and end up having a company called The Cake Sisters. Their final cake sells for a huge amount of money, but it costs them dearly.

Eleven years later, our heroine moves to New York City and finds a job at a magazine called Delicious that operates out of the “stately, gracious, old Timbers Mansion in Greenwich Village.” Billie is an assistant to the director.

But before she is officially hired we are treated to a tour through restaurant kitchens, Italian charcuteries and farm markets. We meet cheese mongers, bakers and chocolatiers, each of them imparting their passion and knowledge. Their willingness to have in-depth conversations ultimately creates a community for Billie that we New Yorkers know and treasure.

The reader is exposed to amazing foods and herbs that include curry leaves, myrtle, cassia and hyssop. We discover Chinese blossoms called Osmanthus that are used for sweet and sour sauces and to concoct the most exquisite tea. When Billie is taken into a butcher shop, she smells the sweet mixture of sawdust that is on the floor “and the clean forest scent … mingling with the mineral aroma of good meat.” Who knew that there was a difference between fall Parmigiano and spring Parmigiano?

Ruth Reichl’s characters take readers through kitchens and food history

“Delicious” is full of interesting characters, each with a full-blown story that unfolds within the larger story of the magazine. We meet people such as Jake, the handsome director of the magazine who had some kind of intimate relationship with Maggie, who is now his angry friend and one of the test kitchen cooks. Thursday Brown is a terrific chef at The Pig, a pub that everyone at the magazine frequents so we can catch glimpses of her great food.

We also meet Sammy, who writes for the magazine and travels great distances and becomes close friends with Billie, with whom she shares her dark secret. The Complainer is one of my favorite characters and when Billie takes a Saturday job at Fontanari’s Cheese Shop, a distant flirtation begins around his choice of cheeses. Benny, who owns the butcher shop, teaches Billie “where the T-bone ends and the porterhouse begins.”

The novel continues to twist and turn through the streets of New York and we are folded into the hearts and minds of Reichl’s characters like the eggs of a good soufflé (and James Beard writes, “Don’t be afraid of a soufflé”).

There are secrets lives, secret rooms and secret letters exchanged during the early 1940s between Beard and a young woman trying to comfort herself after her father goes to war and disappears. There is loss, family history and tradition. There is even a discussion of how important food was for the war effort during WWII: “It took a ton of food to feed a soldier for a year.”

When Reichl worked at Gourmet, she gave us a worldly spread of the life of food and when the magazine abruptly folded, her agent reminded her, “You’ve always wanted to write a novel. Now’s the time.”

And “Delicious” is a swift ride. Billie Breslin comes into the novel with heartache. She grows, changes, makes peace with her past and finally finds happiness and love. Reichl’s philosophy bursts forth from her book: “The secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things … the pleasure of a perfectly ripe peach, the juice running down your arm … DELICIOUS.”

Main photo: “Delicious” and author Ruth Reichl. Credit: Fiona Aboud

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Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh from the Farm.

In 2008, Susie Middleton was looking for a quiet place to chill out from her intense 11-year position as editor at Fine Cooking magazine. She visited Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., in the dead of winter, and there discovered her inner pioneer woman, New England-style. She promptly gave up her job in Connecticut, started raising vegetables on the Vineyard and opened a farm stand at the end of a quiet road. She said, “It’s really rewarding to see the food you grow go directly into people’s hands.”

The author of two previous cookbooks, “Fast, Fresh & Green” and “The Fresh & Green Table,” Middleton chronicled her island experiences on her blog sixburnersue.com.

It blossomed into her newest book, “Fresh From the Farm: A Year of Recipes and Stories,” which includes stories and photos of farm life and 121 recipes. Middleton added diagrams for building raised beds, a farm stand and chicken coop. You might call it a complete recipe book for the good life.

What was the major draw for you to leave a top glossy magazine for life on a small island?

I’d been editor at Fine Cooking for all those years, but I gradually had come to realize that I felt disconnected from the source of my food. I liked the idea of helping people get access to local food and learn to cook farm fresh food. Also, the minute I got my first little vegetable garden out here, I realized that it made me very happy. I am totally charmed by vegetables.

What elements of this lifestyle influenced your decision to start a commercial farm?

I was very fortunate to meet a man who became my life partner, Roy, and he had a little girl who is now just like my daughter. Her name is Libby. Together we lucked into renting an old rustic farmhouse that came with a couple acres of land. We liked it so much that we not only increased the size of our garden, we also built a hoop house and started raising more and more chickens. We’re very small but we raise 500 chickens and have another quarter acre of vegetables planted and a farm stand, which is very popular.

Access to land is one of the biggest barriers for small farmers. It sounds like that was your entry point.

It’s huge. I wrote about this on Huffington Post. We did start very, very small. We were able to be profitable without going into debt. So, if you don’t think you have to get a lot of acreage, you may be able to get started. Considering as a farmer you’re probably going to have to be doing something else anyway, it’s not a bad idea to start small so you can see if you like it.

You’ve been immersed in food for a long time, so how does owning a farm influence your cooking life?

If anything, it’s solidified my approach to cooking: Start with really fresh ingredients, learn some techniques and keep a well-stocked pantry. This book really reflects the kind of food we like to eat and what we like to cook. I want people to have fun in the kitchen and then get it out on the picnic table or the farm table — or the tiny oak table we have in our kitchen — and eat it and enjoy it.

From “Fresh from the Farm” by Susie Middleton (Taunton Press, 2014). Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

I’m crazy about vegetables. Everybody wants to cook more of them, not just vegetarians. So I feel like opening up the world of vegetables to everybody is a good thing.

I’ve always loved high-heat cooking. To me, caramelizing vegetables is a huge way to make them really tasty. I tell people to keep some good olive oil, some good vinegars, plenty of lemons and limes, good Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs, aromatics — onions, garlic and ginger — and a few condiments from your favorite cuisines, and with that you can make delicious meals.

With 500-plus laying hens, you have to have a good egg recipe or two. So, what’s your favorite?

Gosh, we do a lot of frittatas. We use the eggs in a lot of custards. We make a lot of French toast around here [laughs]. I like to make my Green Island Farm open-faced egg sandwich with some of the early Asian greens, like tatsoi. Greens and eggs are an amazing combination.

How did your first two books lead toward this one?

I started out life as a writer. When I first started doing cookbooks I thought it best to maximize my expertise at the time, which was cooking techniques. I started my blog sixburnersue.com six years ago and it has transformed itself into the story of the farm.

Readers do respond to stories. So, will you do more of this?

I have mixed feelings about food memoirs that have a dozen recipes. I think what I’d like to do is something that does have a lot of writing in it, but also has a fair amount of recipes.

Top photo: Susie Middleton and the cover of “Fresh From the Farm.” Credit: Courtesy of Taunton Press

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

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

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

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

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

Modernist Cuisine at Home, e-Book Edition

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

The Photography of Modernist Cuisine

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

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

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

Top photo composite:

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

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

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Charmaine O’Brien, author of

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

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

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

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

Long history flavors Indian food

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

IndiaBookCover

"The Penguin Food Guide to India"

By Charmaine O’Brien

304 pages, 2013, Penguin

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)

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

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

Serves 4

Ingredients

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

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup finely sliced onion

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped

Pinch of turmeric

Salt to taste

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

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

Variations

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

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

Top composite photo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food and sex inspire writers

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

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

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

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

Pour forth tears,

I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī

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

Western aphrodisiacs

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

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

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

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

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New growth on an old vine from

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

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

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

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

Documenting the historic shift

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

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

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

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

More than one kind of California wine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A well-written split pea soup recipe

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

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

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

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

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

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

Cookbooks by Nigel Slater. Credit: Barbara Haber

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

Garden inspiration in the depths of winter

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

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

Carrot and Split Pea Soup With Toasted Cumin

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

Serves 6

Ingredients

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 celery stalks and leaves, chopped

2 teaspoons cumin seed, roasted and ground

1 pound carrots, cleaned and sliced thin

6 cups chicken broth

1 cup dried green split peas

Salt and pepper

Directions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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