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After spending the summer learning some of the ins and outs of foraging, I was delighted to find a new cookbook dedicated to my all-time favorite foraged food: earthy, meaty mushrooms. Written by Becky Selengut, a Seattle chef, author, teacher, humorist and forager, “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” provides a detailed yet fun-filled look at 15 wild and cultivated mushrooms and how to select, store, clean, prepare and pair each.
A native of New Jersey, Selengut’s infatuation with fungi began in childhood, when she tinkered with cooking white button mushrooms at home and indulged in stuffed mushrooms with her family at the Basque restaurant Jai Alai in Dover, N.J.
“It wasn’t great porcini hunting that day, but he told me how to spot them, just coming up through the duff, and, well, I had beginner’s luck and kicked at the dirt and I found the only ones we saw that day,” Selengut said.
Thrill to unearthing treasure
As Selengut can attest, there is a unique thrill to unearthing one of nature’s edible treasures. An even greater rush occurs when you slip into the kitchen to cook your wild, hand-plucked bounty. But what if you’re a newcomer to mushrooms and unsure how to properly prepare this delicacy?
Realizing that bad recipes and poor cooking techniques have thwarted many prospective mycology fans, Selengut leads “Shroom” readers through basic recipes, storage advice and cleaning tips for mushrooms. She also provides links to handy how-to videos she has filmed. Thanks to her thoroughness and approachability, even the greenest cook can step into the kitchen with confidence and create a scrumptious mushroom dish.
Selengut arranges each chapter of “Shroom” from the simplest to the most difficult recipes. Her first two offerings speak to novice or time-pressed cooks. Perfect for those craving easy dinners ready in 45 minutes or less, they include such flavorful specialties as oyster mushroom ragout and Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beach Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts (see recipe below).
Meals requiring multiple techniques and exotic ingredients are classified as intermediate recipes. With these, readers learn how to whip up Roasted Portobello Tacos With Cacao-Chili Sauce and Cabbage and Lime Slaw; cheese and fig-stuffed morels; and pickled chanterelles. In every chapter, Selengut provides two intermediate dishes.
The remaining fare in “Shroom” speaks to adventurous and skilled home cooks as well as professional chefs. Sauces, meats and sides factor into these preparations. Savory entrees such as Hanger Steak With Porcini, Blue Cheese Butter and Truffled Sweet Potato Frites and Black Trumpet Mushroom Tarts with Camembert, Leeks and Port-Soaked Cherries are part of this advanced category. Although more challenging and time consuming than earlier recipes, these courses remain accessible and delicious.
“My favorite way to prepare mushrooms flavor-wise would be over a live fire — cast-iron skillet on the grill, lid down to capture the wood smoke — or in a wood-burning oven. My favorite way to prepare mushrooms efficiency-wise is to spread them out on a sheet pan and roast them in a hot oven, at least 400 degrees, with a little oil, salt and pepper,” Selengut said.
Countless dishes around the world
In “Shroom” Selengut points out that whether they star or play a supporting role, mushrooms appear in countless dishes around the world. This global presence flavors much of her vibrant book. Vietnamese báhn xèo, Indian tandoori, Italian acquacotta and Japanese chawanmushi all find their way into the cookbook.
So, too, do a variety of wild and farmed mushrooms. Along with the tried and true Portobello, cremini and button, the petite beech, spiky lion’s mane and reddish-orange lobster receive their due.
Among all the uncultivated mushrooms found in the Pacific Northwest and in her book, Selengut singles out the black trumpet mushroom as her favorite. “It’s naturally smoky, earthy and just a little fruity — buckets of flavor and umami. It smells like the sexiest forest imaginable. Favorite cultivated is a tie between maitake and shiitake, both extremely flavorful despite being farmed and lots of promising research about health properties, specifically in preventing and treating cancer,” she said.
Don’t despair if your local market doesn’t stock black trumpet, maitake or even shiitake. For every mushroom featured in “Shroom,” Selengut offers substitutions.
Whether you’re a neophyte or longtime mushroom consumer, you’ll want to check out “Shroom” for its informative and lively look at selecting, cooking and enjoying this fabulous food.
Sweet Potato Soup With Lime Leaves, Beech Mushrooms, Basil and Peanuts
Recipe from “Shroom” provided by Becky Selengut. The beech mushrooms are less the star here and more of a textural element used as a garnish. Because of this, it’s extra important to use homemade mushroom stock to highlight the mushroom flavor. This soup started in my mind’s eye somewhere in Thailand (lime leaves, basil) and then — somewhat inexplicably — migrated to West Africa (sweet potatoes, peanuts). This is the perfect kind of soup to serve when it’s raining, you’re snuggled up on the couch with a blanket, a fire is lit, Thai music is playing and a zebra is running through your living room.
Prep Time: about 10 minutes (if not making mushroom stock from scratch)
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 servings
Wine pairing: French Riesling
3 tablespoons coconut oil, divided
1 small yellow onion, small diced (about 1 cup)
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided
2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and large diced
5 lime leaves (substitute 1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest)
¼ cup white wine
5 cups mushroom stock (see recipe below)
1 tablespoon seasoned rice wine vinegar, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon fish sauce
7 ounces beech mushrooms, base trimmed and broken apart into bite-size clumps
½ cup lightly packed fresh Thai basil
⅓ cup roasted, salted peanuts, chopped
Chili oil (see recipe below) or store-bought Asian chili oil, for garnish
1. In a soup pot over medium-high heat, melt 1½ tablespoons of the coconut oil. After a moment, add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt and sauté for 10 minutes, until starting to brown. Add the sweet potatoes and lime leaves. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, then turn the heat to high, add the wine, and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits. Add the stock, bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook until the sweet potato cubes are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Add the rice wine vinegar. Remove the lime leaves. Puree the soup in a blender until very smooth, or puree in the pan using an immersion blender. Season with the fish sauce, another ¼ teaspoon salt and more rice wine vinegar. If you feel it needs more salt, add more fish sauce (a little at a time). Keep tasting until it’s right for you.
3. Meanwhile, prepare the beech mushroom mixture. In a large sauté pan over high heat, melt the remaining 1½ tablespoons of coconut oil. After a moment, add the mushrooms and the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt. Toss the mushrooms around in the oil, and then spread them out. The idea is to get them to release their liquid and brown quickly. When they brown, stir in the basil and peanuts and transfer to a small bowl.
4. Serve the soup in wide bowls, garnished with the mushroom mixture and drizzled with chili oil.
From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.
You won’t be sorry you took the time to make your own. As you cook and are busy prepping vegetables and such — carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, parsley, thyme — save the trimmings instead of tossing or composting them. (Skip vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli or anything with a dominating flavor or color that you wouldn’t want in a mushroom stock — no beets!)
To make the stock, add these vegetable scraps to a quart-size resealable plastic bag that lives in the freezer. When the bag is full, you are ready to make your stock. At the market, pick up a small onion, a handful of fresh shiitake mushrooms and some dried porcini. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Drizzle a little high-heat oil on a rimmed baking pan. Throw the shiitakes, along with the chopped-up onion, onto the pan, and toss with the oil. Roast until caramelized, about 20 minutes. Deglaze the pan with a little wine or water, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the pan. Dump the mushrooms and onions, along with the liquid, into a stockpot along with the contents of that freezer bag (no need to thaw) and a few rehydrated pieces of dried porcini (along with the strained soaking liquid). Cover with 3 quarts water, chuck in about 5 peppercorns, bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Pour the contents of the pot through a fine-mesh strainer set over a large bowl, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible. You should end up with about 2 quarts mushroom stock.
Want to make vegetable stock? Do the same thing, but just use fewer mushrooms and more vegetables (and a big flavor bonus if you roast some of the vegetables as you would the shiitake and onion). If you want to make mushroom stock but don’t have a full bag of trimmings in the freezer, just use an assortment of vegetables and mushrooms (equaling roughly 1 quart) and follow the same general procedure. See the video on making mushroom stock at www.shroomthecookbook.com.
From “Shroom: Mind-bendingly Good Recipes for Cultivated and Wild Mushrooms” by Becky Selengut.
You can find many varieties of bottled chili oil in Asian markets or online, but it’s ridiculously easy to make a batch from scratch and store it in your fridge. Plus, your homemade oil contains none of the additives and preservatives that are commonly added to the bottled versions. To make your own, in a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine 1 cup peanut or coconut oil, along with 3 to 5 tablespoons red pepper flakes (see note). (The quantity will depend on how hot you want the oil to be.) Heat the oil to 300 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the pan from the heat and try not to breathe in the fumes!
Let the oil cool to 250 F, and then add 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil and 2 tablespoons minced, roasted, unsalted peanuts. Transfer to a clean glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. Seal the jar, shake it a few times to distribute the ingredients and leave at room temperature for 2 days. Refrigerate. It will keep for at least 1 month, if not longer, in the fridge.
Note: You can purchase whole dried chiles, toast them in a dry pan until flexible and fragrant, and then pulse them in the food processor, or just use regular bottled red pepper flakes.
Main photo: “Shroom” is written by chef Becky Selengut. Credit: Book cover photo by Clare Barboza; Selengut photo by Greg Mennegar
Every time you bake a load of bread, it’s a small miracle — combining flour, water, salt and air to get the final product.
When humans found a way to store grains and make them into flour, it changed the course of history, enabling economies and populations to grow. In so many ways, bread is at the core of our history. Bread is culture, and it is about people. It’s also about love — think about how we bake for people we love, our family and friends.
I recently read Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked,” and it made me think a lot about my relationship with bread. I did not relate to his idea of the perfect bread, which he claims to have found in Chad Robertson’s Tartine sourdough bread. Robertson’s bread, I’m sure, is amazing. I have not tasted it from his cafe, but I have enjoyed Robertson’s book, and I think it is a thorough and detailed baking book with a guide on how to make sourdough bread.
Bread shouldn’t be perfect, but varied
But to Pollan’s point, is there such a thing as perfect bread? I sustain myself every day on rye bread — actually, I can’t live without it. In the Middle East, they live on flatbread and pita, and in many parts of Eastern Europe they live on different types of rye bread. Thousands of bread traditions exist around the world, and the new and trendy sourdough bread made with a dark, tasty crust and light, airy texture can’t take all them out in one go.
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I bake bread according to what I am going to eat and what kind of flour I have in the house. I often like to eat dense bread with a lot of fiber, and I like to bake with varieties of flour such as rye, spelt, emmer and different heritage wheats. I use a lot of local flours, such as Ølands wheat. This summer I met a farmer at a Kneading Conference in Maine who had just started growing some Øland hvede wheat. Interest in that particular variety is growing.
The flavor of bread comes from the flour, so bread can’t be better than the flour you use to bake it. You can add to that with your skill and knowledge, which comes from practice. Baking doesn’t have to be only scientific; it can also be very intuitive.
Pollan writes in “Cooked” that he has concerns about the Tartine sourdough bread being 100 percent plain wheat and therefore not as healthy as a whole-grain bread, but it’s a challenge to get the same crust and texture with whole grains. My question is why not just enjoy a variety of breads baked using different methods?
I believe bread has to be about variety, and that comes from diversity in both craftsmanship and grains. Both have more or less disappeared in Western food culture, with the food-manufacturing industry taking over food production.
No matter what, good bread needs quality flour milled from grains treated with care and grown in an environment with crop rotation and care for the soil. The flour has to be stone ground and not separated in the process, and it can’t be older than 7 months when used. Finally, when baking bread, the dough needs time to ferment. Large-scale food manufacturers do not apply to any of these above-mentioned techniques, and many small bakeries do not either.
So, do you have to bake your own bread to have good bread? The answer is both yes and no. If we don’t bake it ourselves, we have to make conscious choices about the bread we buy.
If you are hesitant about the idea of baking your own bread and all it involves, you should know that baking is not hard or time consuming; most doughs take care of themselves.
Baking is part of my everyday life; I bake rye bread every week, and I also bake a lot of other breads, including this dense and tasty emmer wheat bread. It contains about 25 percent whole-grain flour, so it’s very filling. I eat only a slice for breakfast, and it’s perfect for a sandwich on the second day or with soup during the winter months.
Emmer and Wheat Bread
Emmer is an old wheat variety that contains a lot of protein and minerals and tastes wonderful. Eat the bread the Danish way with cheese or jam for breakfast or with a salad or soup.
Prep time: 1 hour
Cooking and proofing time: 8 to 12 hours
Total time: About 2 hours active work, spread over multiple days
Yield: Makes two loaves
2 cups (280 grams) stone-ground whole-grain emmer flour
4½ cups (500 grams) strong wheat flour
1½ teaspoons organic dry yeast
1 tablespoon flaky sea salt
2¼ cups (600 milliliters) cold water
1. Start by mixing the flours in a large mixing bowl, then add in the dry yeast and salt.
2. Pour in the water, mixing the dough until it is smooth and even. If you have a Kitchen Aid or similar mixer, use it to mix the dough. The dough should be quite sticky and will absorb a lot of the water while rising.
3. Place the dough in a bowl and cover it with a kitchen towel, then let it rise at room temperature for a half-hour.
4. After it rises, cover the bowl with cling film and place it in the refrigerator for 8 to 12 hours.
5. After proofing in the refrigerator, place the dough on a floured surface and let it rest for 30 minutes.
6. With spatula and a bit of flour, divide the dough into two equal pieces and shape it into two round loafs without kneading too much.
7. Place the loaves on a baking tray lined with parchment paper and cover with a kitchen towel. Leave to rise for about 30 to 45 minutes.
8. Check on the dough. It should have risen a little and bounce back easily when touched lightly. If the dough rises for too long, it will start going flat.
9. Preheat the oven to 450 F (225 C or Gas 7).
10. Sprinkle the oven with water or place a small oven-proof bowl filled with water inside. This will create some steam in the oven.
11. When the dough is ready, place it in the oven and bake for 10 minutes, then lower the heat to 400 F (200 C or Gas 6) and bake for 35 more minutes.
12. Remove the bread from the oven and leave it to cool on an open wire rack. It’s important not to cut the bread before it’s cool because the bread continues to bake during the cooling time and is not done until entirely cooled.
Main photo: Emmer and Wheat Bread with jam is a good choice for breakfast. Credit: Trine Hahnemann
When Liz Crain moved to Portland, Ore., in 2002, the food scene there was just starting to foment. In 2004, after meeting illustrator Brian Froud at a Powell’s Books event, she decided to see where her own passion took her. Crain quit her day job and committed to food writing. She began amassing bylines in the Portland Tribune, Willamette Week, Northwest Palate and the AOL City Guide.
A decade later, Crain is the author of the second edition of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” the seminal guide on Portland food culture out this month from Hawthorne Books. Known for her aversion to being wined and dined by PR folks, she also co-authored “Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.”
Crain spoke to Zester Daily contributor Emily Grosvenor about the new “Food Lover’s Guide,” now in its updated second edition, and the constantly evolving food scene in one of America’s most exciting food cities.
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By Liz Crain
This food guide is really different in how it is structured. Why did you take this approach?
Portland food culture is so unique. A book about it should be as well. I like all sorts of food writing, but my favorite focuses on the people and processes behind food and drink. I want to learn the how-to and get an eye into the culture of it. “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” celebrates local producers and purveyors — butchers, distillers, coffee roasters etc. — with a lot of details about how their fine foods are cultivated and/or crafted. Throughout the book you’ll find Q&As with folks in the Portland food scene that I admire, behind-the-scenes stories about their businesses and essays on everything from making your own local fruit wine and crabbing on the coast to harvesting eel-like lamprey at Willamette Falls.
The first edition of your “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland” came out in 2010. What has changed on the Portland food scene in the years in between?
So much. There’s more of just about everything. Sure, there have been closures but many, many more openings. There were a few years when I lived in Portland, from roughly 2005 to 2008, when I felt like I really had a handle on the food scene and that I’d been to most places worth their salt. These days, pretty much on a weekly basis I’ll hear about a food/drink spot that someone loves that I’ve never been to or maybe even heard of that’s been open for months.
Alcohol production is going crazy here. There are so many new distilleries, breweries, hard cideries, urban wineries. There are also a lot more urban homesteading businesses or businesses catering more to that: chicken keeping, beekeeping, goat keeping, canning, pickling and preserving. I dig it. I have a large vegetable garden, make my own wine, cider, miso and more. I don’t have chickens, but I’m really glad that my neighbors do.
Tell me about a classic day in the life of a Portland foodie.
I’ll tell you about a summer weekend this past June. My friends’ daughter, Elise, was about to graduate from Portland State University and her folks visiting from out-of-town made a reservation at Pok Pok to celebrate. The 12 of us sat upstairs at the private outdoor balcony table as the sun set. It was a magical night of passing plates of Pok Pok’s crazy tasty wings, clay pot prawns, spicy flank steak salad, and sharing sips of the house drinking vinegars (Thai basil, pineapple, raspberry) and cocktails and listening to Elise talk sweetly about her post-graduation plans.
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The next night I got together with friends for our third “cook the Toro Bravo book” dinner. I made plum wine sangria with plum wine that I make every year, based on Toro’s white wine sangria recipe, and grilled corn with cilantro pesto. Others made Toro’s sautéed halibut cheeks, sautéed spinach with pine nuts and golden raisins, hazelnut ice cream and much more. We cooked, ate, laughed, listened to the cookbook soundtrack and had an all-around great time as we do.
On Sunday my friend Erin and I hacked away at my Little Shop of Horrors backyard — a vine in a neighboring yard takes over my backyard every spring/summer. Afterward we cleaned up and made salame rolls with preserved lemon, Castelvetrano olives and pickled peppers folded into the cream cheese to take to The Last Hoot — a huge potlucky music-filled day and night with all kinds of tasty homemade food and drink. All of that in one weekend. Portland life is so very sweet.
Food carts have made such a big impact on Portland’s contribution to the national food conversation. But media coverage seems to have peaked on the subject. Can you reflect for a moment on what the food cart scene looks like at this moment?
Food carts are a much talked about part of the Portland food scene, but I honestly don’t eat at them all that often. When I worked downtown for a few years I did because I was really close to the Southwest 10th and Alder pod. There’s so much to choose from there. I go to them now and again and have some favorites (for example, I love Himalayan Food!), but I’m a bit of a crab when it comes to carts. I want street food to be very specific/honed, cheap and fast. Nine dollars for a mediocre sandwich that takes 10 minutes to make? No thank you. That said, there are some very tasty carts and I think that they’re a great incubator. A lot of Portland brick-and-mortar businesses have spawned from them. Brett Burmeister has championed Portland’s food carts for years and he was generous enough to write the food cart chapter in the second edition of my book. Check out his site if you’re hungry to learn more about Portland food cart culture.
What do you see as the most exciting new developments in the Portland food culture this year?
Every year I co-organize the Portland Fermentation Festival, which Ecotrust hosts, with my friends David and George. In 2009, the inaugural fest, a fellow named Nat West, whom my ex-boyfriend tattooed, came up to our table where we were sampling hard cider that we’d made from the Gravensteins in the backyard. He tried it, liked it and then gave us a couple bottles of his hard cider that he’d made in his basement from apples gleaned from around the state and in Washington. It was super yummy, and Nat and I became friends. Fast forward to the present and Nat is now owner of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider.
Nat has put Portland on the map for super tasty and creative hard ciders. We now have an Oregon Cider Week in Portland, Portland Cider Summit, all kinds of other cider appreciation events and goings-on and many new professional cider makers that Nat has paved the way for.
Do you think there is a Portland ethos in how the makers approach food?
I think that most successful Portland food and drink businesses are driven more by passion and curiosity than the bottom line. Of course, you need to turn a dime but profit isn’t the primary drive. I also think that the culinary cross-pollination in this town is outstanding. There are all kinds of events that celebrate food in a wider cultural context that are super unique and fun. Some of my favorites: Disjecta’s Culinaria dinner series, Pickathon, Live Wire + Toro + Tobolowsky dinner, My Voice Music + Toro dinner. Great food and drink doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and I think it should be celebrated and coupled as much as possible with other meaningful art and culture.
And who do you see as the standout people in town who you think are accomplishing this feat with gusto?
There are just so many, but I’ll choose one: Earnest Migaki of Jorinji Miso, who, in honor of full disclosure, is a good friend of mine, and makes the most delicious local miso. Well, he makes the only local miso and it’s crazy good. He makes traditional misos as well as more unusual ones, such as chickpea and lima bean, all of which are organic and GMO-free, which is not the norm in this country.
I started making miso for myself because of Earnest and I now have 4- and 5-year-old misos that have been getting better/richer/darker every year. Miso is like whiskey — it takes a loooong time to ferment and age so you have to have patience.
Main photo: Liz Crain is author of the “Food Lover’s Guide to Portland,” now in its second edition. Credit: Faulkner Short
Although it has been a while since I set foot in a formal classroom, each year at this time, with the beginning of school fast approaching, I tend to think about new skills I can learn or old ones I can improve upon. It seemed fitting, then, that I recently received an email from a friend asking which cookbook he should purchase to help him become a better cook.
For me, the choice was quick and easy: Anne Willan’s classic cookbook “La Varenne Pratique.” Ever since I acquired it on my first day of chef’s school 18 years ago, it’s been my go-to resource whenever I’ve needed to reference a cooking technique or learn more about a specific ingredient.
The original volume, weighing close to 5 pounds, was published in 1989 and has sold more than 500,000 copies worldwide. Thankfully, this essential book, long out of print and challenging to find in a secondhand store, was recently reissued as an e-book.
During the first half of her 30-plus years running the legendary France-based cooking school La Varenne, Willan, a Zester Daily contributor, and her staff continuously researched and wrote about essential French cooking techniques and the importance of understanding every aspect of an ingredient. The laborious effort of distilling all this culinary information resulted in a 528-page tome that provides in-depth knowledge of how to choose, store, identify and handle ingredients. This knowledge of good ingredients is paired with clear, encouraging instructions and action photos of foundational cooking techniques, such as how to dice an onion, fillet a fish or prepare different types of meringues.
Willan’s cookbook goes beyond the surface
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Many cookbooks these days take us on a wonderful culinary journey, tasting a region’s or country’s culture and table, yet only provide us with a fixed GPS map of how to get to the finished dish. When you get to a point in your culinary journey where you want to veer off course and understand why certain time-honored gustatory routes are so adored, “La Varenne Pratique” is the culinary guidebook to help you navigate your or any country’s kitchen.
The new e-book has been sliced and diced into four parts, each sold separtely. Part 1: The Basics discusses herbs and seasonings; soups; stocks; and sauces, as well as eggs, dairy and oils; Part 2 covers meat, poultry, fish and game; Part 3 examines vegetables, pasta, pulses and grains; and Part 4 dishes on our sweet tooth with baking, preserving, desserts, fruits, nuts and freezing. Each part also comes with a weight-and-measurement table (worth bookmarking for regular reference), list of cooking equipment, glossary of cooking terms and bibliography.
Because the book was written before the advent of modernist cooking, it does not include these techniques. However, if this is an area that interests you, I am sure Willan would recommend you check out her onetime student Nathan Myhrvold’s exhaustive six-volume series, “Modernist Cuisine.”
Having used the e-book version on both an iPad and laptop for the past month, I can vouch that the electronic version is reliable when adapting to different formats and layouts. Simply adjusting the font size or page orientation offers you a variety of almost personalized layouts. Because the images are scans of the original book and not high-resolution digital photographs, they can be enlarged only to a certain point. This is not much of a problem, as the images are large and easy to view.
How to purchase
The e-book version of “La Varenne Pratique” can be purchased through many major online retailers, including iTunes, Amazon, Sony, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Copia. Each of the four parts is $6.99.
The greatest challenge I’ve encountered is using the search function. In this day and age where we type anything into a search engine and get countless results, using an e-book’s search function can initially frustrate. If you type in a technique such as “how to cut up a chicken,” zero results show up. However, if you are more specific and type “cutting a bird in pieces” the exact result pops up. I’ve found eliminating the term “how to” and being more direct with your keywords drastically increases the likelihood of getting precise hits. It’s also just as easy to simply thumb through a section’s e-pages to find the specific subject you’re searching for.
Aside from the comprehensive information about ingredients, the best thing about this book is the countless technique shots that teach you lifelong, fundamental cooking skills. It would be fantastic to have a single website that aggregates all the “how-to” photo instructions “La Varenne Pratique” demonstrates as videos. But until someone invests the time and money to produce those videos, you will need to visit many websites to find all this information.
Simply put, “La Varenne Pratique” is a cooking school in a book, and certainly cheaper than tuition. It is the best gift you could give a new culinary student, a child heading to college, a newly married couple or your friend who writes a food blog. Fortunately, the e-book version is both lightweight and affordable and will not take up much space or weight in their culinary backpack.
Main photo: Anne Willan’s “La Varenne Pratique” is now available as an e-book. Willan photo by Siri Berting; e-book photo by Cameron Stauch
Sixty years ago, Elizabeth David’s book “Italian Food” first appeared and transformed the way we Brits, and probably many other foodies worldwide, lived and thought about food.
Back then, in 1954, Britain was a nation emerging from the dreary mediocrity of food rationing, cooking to the lowest common denominator and generally oblivious of anything that might appeal to the senses. Typical recipe collections of the period were driven by the rigid principles of home economy, focusing on how to make the best use of tinned ingredients such as Spam.
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We were a nation whose culinary imagination was in serious need of stimulation. This stimulus David supplied in the form of a book enhanced by Renato Guttuso’s powerful black-and-white illustrations. (She had met Guttuso, a Sicilian painter, while visiting the Rialto fish market in Venice.) It was articulated by a strong structure that moved from equipment to ingredients to the different elements of a meal and by contents focused on authenticity, flavor, appearance and regionalism. The book’s digressions into the history and cultural associations of pasta, for example, were unknown in other British cookbooks of the time.
David herself had broken with the conventions of English life, abandoning the debutante circuit and her upper-class background for a role as an actress in an open air theater. She considered a career as a painter before, with brutal honesty, recognizing that she lacked the talent. Apart from a brief marriage in the 1940s, her love life was also unconventional: With one lover, she rather recklessly sailed a small boat from Antibes in France to Sicily in May 1940 as the Second World War gathered momentum. She was surprised and annoyed when they were interned there as spies. Released undaunted, they traveled first to Greece and then, as the German advance accelerated, to Egypt.
When David eventually returned to England, she decided to make a living by writing about cooking, and got a series of articles published in Harper’s Bazaar that eventually turned into her first book, “A Book of Mediterranean Food.” After another book, “French Country Cooking,” her editor commissioned her to write “Italian Food.”
David’s research in Italy, which took up most of 1952, was painstaking and comprehensive. She traveled around the country, staying with friends and their friends. The results of this immersion in Italian culture were that she had a genuine understanding of the many regional cuisines of which “Italian” cooking was composed, and indeed an appreciation of the way in which these regions had only been amalgamated into a unified Italy less than 100 years earlier. She also understood how the country’s varied geography and climate influenced its produce. Hence she could offer a convincing explanation of why you could get an excellent “bistecca di bue” steak in Florence while a region less favoured by nature would produce something far less worthy of appreciation. She understood and explained the cultural and horticultural divides that led to the predominance of pasta in the south and rice and polenta in the north.
David’s book fell on a willing audience and changed our lives — or at least our parents’ and grandparents’ lives. Although it was not her first, Italian food was at the time more remote and more exotic than the cuisine of France (“A Book of Mediterranean Food” focused mostly on southern France). The book’s illustrations and descriptions inspired a demand for gourmet and imported ingredients outside a few specialty shops in London. We, the authors, remember our parents discussing the necessity of a trip to London to procure the ingredients for one of David’s risotti. The pattern of supply eventually evolved to meet this new demand. Garlic, unheard of outside London in 1954, invaded our greengrocers and eventually the new-fangled supermarkets. Olive oil, once regarded as a treatment for earache to be bought from a chemist, eventually became available by the liter in most good food shops.
The restaurant industry felt David’s influence as well. “Italian” restaurants began to appear whose offerings were more authentic and reflected regional origins.
Focusing on dining details
Finally, David’s concerns with presentation led us to reconsider not only the way we cooked our food, but the way we served it. In the 1960s, David opened a cookware shop where everything met her standards of usefulness and her discerning taste. These standards were so high that the store was unprofitable. She famously refused to stock anything of which she even mildly disapproved: Customers asking for garlic presses were told they were useless items and that they should go away if that was what they wanted. But it was precisely this perfectionism that created the books and articles from which her reputation grew, and made her something of a British national treasure.
David’s literary body of work was not limited to Italian cuisine. She went on to write about French provincial cooking, English baking and other subjects. She racked up many distinctions, including the honorary order of chivalry Commander of the British Empire (CBE), before her death in 1992. But her true legacy was opening the door for Britons to a new world of the senses, and helping them to discover and enjoy food and drink, a pleasure that has only grown in the years since.
Main photo: A collection of Elizabeth David’s cookery books. Credit: Jane McMorland Hunter
The sweet, amber liquid melted with a bite of chocolate in my mouth, creating a symphony of complementary flavors. Somehow the avocado honey combined with the earthy dark chocolate made for an ethereal combination.
I was at a tasting hosted by the National Honey Board, led by Marie Simmons, award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher. Simmons, whose latest book is “Taste of Honey: The Definitive Guide to Tasting and Cooking With 40 Varietals,” had already talked the group through three samples of honey, going from lightest in color to darkest. Each type was paired with a food that complemented it: alfalfa with a slice of cheddar, tupelo with a buttered cracker, and dark, bold buckwheat with a roasted sweet potato, creating a flavor explosion.
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By Marie Simmons
Somehow, the sum of the two ingredients of each pairing exceeded the parts, demonstrating the versatility and nuances of honey. With more than 300 varieties in the United States today, the uses and pairings are seemingly boundless, which is what Simmons said inspired her to write the book.
Honey more versatile than people realize
” ‘Taste of Honey,’ the book, exists because an editor who lives in Kansas City, Mo., was flummoxed by the array of different varietal honey at her local farmers market and called me to ask me which one she should buy and that there should be a book on the subject,” Simmons said. “After her call I went to my files — yes, I’m a paper person — and found an inches-thick mess of many dog-eared clippings about honey and lots of old honey recipes.”
The book is an ode to all things bees and honey. Simmons, a prolific writer with upward of 20 cookbooks under her belt, touches on every aspect of beekeeping, production, varieties, tastings and pairings along with 60 recipes. At the end of each chapter is a “quick hits” section with creative, simple suggestions for ways to use honey in every meal of the day.
As she led the tasting, her passion for the topic was palpable. Someone from the audience asked what to do when honey crystallizes, and she said, “I spread it on a warm piece of buttered toast and let it melt, then pop it in my mouth!” She told us that using honey in sweets and baked goods is a natural, but she was most inspired when cooking with it in savory recipes.
The book is chock full of interesting main dishes trotting around the globe, from a tagine with lamb and figs to a Vietnamese-style beef stew to Chinese stir-fry with cabbage and peanuts. Honey tempers the heat of spices, balances the salt and acid and complements aromatics like garlic, elevating savory dishes to heavenly heights.
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Simmons devotes a section in the beginning of the book to in-depth descriptions of honey varieties, how-tos for hosting a comparison tasting, and cheese and honey pairings. She sat with a cheese expert, and together they sampled platters of different cheeses with types of honey. Here is some of Simmons’ advice on the topic:
“Colors of honey: Notice the colors play into the flavor notes. Orange blossom honey, for instance, is a delicate floral honey and like other more lightly colored, floral honeys. It goes best with full-fat dairy: whole-milk yogurt, heavy cream; I love orange or lemon blossom honey with a sweet rich fresh goat cheese. It tastes like lemon meringue pie. Also cream cheese cake with orange blossom honey is amazing.
“As the color of honey darkens, the flavors become more pronounced. Wildflower honey with its spectrum of flavors from fennel to rosemary to goldenrod to fruit blossom to spice notes can be fabulous with a mildly salty/fatty cheese. I like it especially with the buttery and nutty notes in Comte or Gruyere cheese.
“The only cheeses that can be challenging with honey are the bloomy rind type: Camembert, Brie, etc., although there are some bright lights in that arena as well.”
As part of her research, Simmons traveled around visiting beekeepers and learning about their craft. One such interesting character is Earl Flewellen, an apiarist and restaurateur in Port Costa, Calif., who used a Kickstarter campaign to launch his bee farm. He serves his honey and other goodies at the Honey House Cafe in this village perched on the Carquinez Strait of San Francisco Bay. His recipe for caramel-like Honey Butter Sauce is included in the book.
Simmons’ journey of writing “Taste of Honey” taught her about unusual honeys, how they are sourced and collected, and the myriad ways this miracle of nature can be used for eating and health. Ultimately, it led her to her sweet spot, an urban farmstead in Eugene, Ore., where she has a small garden plot and raises chickens for eggs and, of course, bees for honey.
Here is an easy, delicious recipe from the book. Simmons suggests an everyday honey variety, such as clover or orange blossom, for the brittle.
Adapted from “Taste of Honey” by Marie Simmons.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing foil
- ¼ cup granulated sugar
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup heavy cream
- 2 teaspoons coarse salt, divided
- 1½ cups dry-roasted, lightly salted peanuts
- Line a sheet pan with lightly buttered foil.
- Combine the butter, sugar, honey, cream and 1 teaspoon salt in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Heat over medium-low, stirring until the mixture comes to a boil.
- Boil, stirring frequently, over medium to medium-low heat for 4 to 5 minutes or until the mixture turns a deep amber color. Adjust the heat to maintain a steady boil and stir to keep the mixture from boiling over or scorching.
- Stir in the peanuts. Immediately scrape the mixture onto the prepared pan, spreading it in a single layer with a rubber spatula.
- Sprinkle the surface evenly with remaining 1 teaspoon salt.
- Cool thoroughly, about 1 hour. Lift from the pan. Break into irregularly shaped pieces. Stored at room temperature in a cool, dry place, the brittle keeps indefinitely.
Main photo: Earl Flewellen’s Honey Butter Sauce. Credit: Brooke Jackson
When my wife started a goat milk ice cream company in 2004, I didn’t know much about our food system. While I had previously documented Italy’s Slow Food movement for a book, that work mainly focused on the cultural aspects of food. I knew nothing about the complex faceless journey food often takes to reach our plates. Watching my wife negotiate with trucking companies and storage facilities about shipping a frozen product, then haggle with supermarkets that required her to purchase ads in their papers or pay to stock the shelves when introducing a product, and even helping her scoop ice cream at endless supermarket and farmers market demos, gave me more insight into how truly difficult it is to profit from producing value-driven goods in a low-margin world.
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By Douglas Gayeton
The experience also showed me how opaque our food system has become. The simplest products — like soda crackers — have hundreds of ingredients, many of which can’t be pronounced. But what bothered me most about the industrialization of our food system is how brazenly companies have hijacked terms like “sustainability” to explain their business practices.
Defining the lexicon of sustainability
In 2009, my wife and I asked ourselves a question: What if we took the meaning of sustainability back? What if we identified the key terms and solutions that really define sustainability in food and farming, then sought out thought leaders across the U.S. who best exemplified these ideas. And then, what if we translated their knowledge into information artworks and films and books and academic materials that would raise the level of discourse and hopefully lead people to live more sustainably?
We began by making information artworks with farmers and food producers in our Northern California community, which includes West Marin and Sonoma counties, then looked across the Bay toward Berkeley and San Francisco. I use “with” instead of using “of” because each artwork displays the actual words of the photo subject we document. This highly personal, handmade approach is time intensive, but the results create a more authentic representation of these people’s valuable ideas.
Conscious of being too geographically focused, we quickly extended our project to cover the rest of the country, even traveling up to Alaska and crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. At first we worked alone, but volunteers and interns quickly appeared (it remains a mystery how these angels always arrive at critical junctures in our project’s development). And while we initially self-funded our work, a mix of companies, foundations, NGOs and even individuals eventually came forward with financial support. Their vote of confidence continues to remain vital to our project’s success.
Our initial perceptions about sustainability, at least as it applied to food and farming, have shifted greatly in the years since. The centralization of nearly every aspect of our food system has dismantled much of the infrastructure necessary for local food systems. Many of these systems must be rebuilt: local slaughterhouses, mills, dairies and processing centers for raw goods that disappeared must return, not only to ensure food security, but also to create the sense of place vital for any community. Who knew food had so much attached to it?
New food movement has no center or single leader
Despite the challenges, this New Food Movement reshaping our country has no center or no single leader. It isn’t composed of people waiting for governments or companies to step in with solutions. Instead, these people are doing it themselves — everywhere.
To capture the explosive growth of locally-based food movements across the country, the Lexicon has expanded to include more than 200 information artworks, a series of short films with PBS called “Know Your Food,” a book called, “Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America,” and an educational initiative for high school students called Project Localize. In all our initiatives, our core principles remain the same: Use words as the building blocks for new ideas, ideas that create conversation, foster an exchange of new ideas and hopefully shift the way our country looks at food.
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The New Food Movement’s rapid growth has made it fractious and hard to unite. Competing organizations often stymie the coalitions so necessary to translate popular sentiments into legislative action. But words are powerful. They can become tools for building a common language. With that in mind, we will launch The List this summer.
Each week we will introduce talking points for a new conversation dedicated to a single term from the Lexicon. These conversations will feature a network of partners from across the food and farming spectrum. By collaborating to share their own unique vantage points on a shared theme, our partners will enable us to share compelling stories of innovative and inspiring sustainable solutions over a variety of social media channels, allowing users to translate these talking points into communities and conversations around ideas that matter. These conversations are open to one and all. If you’d like to join, sign up at thelexicon.org. As we often say, a conversation starts with words, and we’ve got a few of them.
Main photo: Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok
La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson takes place today at Le Sélect in the former bohemian stronghold of Paris, Montparnasse. Where better than at this legendary literary cafe to consider the linguistic and aesthetic connections between cuisine and art? The list of the cafe’s celebrated patrons reads like a who’s who of literary and artistic Paris going back to the 1920s. Le Sélect may be the only cafe in Paris with its own biography, “Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd” by Noël Riley Fitch.
My guests (or should it be ghosts?) of honor today are the great novelist, dandy and gourmand, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and the Sélect’s most celebrated alum, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). We are gastro-philologists, exploring via my Café French learning system a love of words and texts about art and food and the art of cooking.
La Vie en Rose
One in a series of graphic explorations of French language, food and culture
The cook (le cuisinier, pronounced qui-zee-nyea) observes the materials arrayed on his work surface, just as a painter (le peintre, pan-truh) views the pigments on his palette (la palette, pah-let). The cook “sees” the possibilities before he even begins to chop, mix, sauté and roast.
As the cook engages with his culinary palette, his anatomical palate (le palais, pah-lay) anticipates taste – le goût (pronounced goo) — via the physiological mechanism of anticipatory arousal (salivation and memory). This parallel between the artist and cook, the palette and the palate, was noted by Balzac when he commented on the practice of that inscrutable 19th-century urban type, the flâneur.
The gastronomy of the eye
Balzac described flânerie (la flânerie, flan-er-ee) as “the gastronomy of the eye.” The flâneur was the ultimate urban observer, not merely a stroller, who would emerge at mid-century as the bohemian artist, an ironic dandy roaming the commercial arcades and grand Haussmann-designed boulevards of Paris. Drinking in its novelties, the flâneur, like a cook, served forth his aestheticized observations as poetry, prose, music and art. The poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), was the archetypical flâneur, and perhaps the first modern Paris artist.
Balzac understood flânerie (he shared a social circle with Baudelaire) but fancied himself a flamboyant dandy and even wrote the first philosophical study of the type, “Treatise on Elegant Living” (1830). More gourmand than dandy — he was described by one critic as a binge eater — Balzac’s slovenly corpulence always gave him away.
Gastronomy was in the air in Paris and in the restaurants that flourished after the French Revolution. The City of Light was becoming the gastronomic (and art) capital of Europe. Balzac was 26 years old when Jean Anthelme de Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiologie du Goût” was published in 1825.
The cook as artist
If, in Balzacian terms, the observing flâneur practices the eye’s gastronomy, the cook as artist operates as gastronomy’s eye — he/she sees/tastes something we don’t. The ingredients on the cook’s culinary palette are transformed through aesthetic expression and registered on the eater’s palate much as the painter’s colors, poet’s words or musician’s notes are transformed and registered on their respective sense organs.
Interesting to note that the French word for palate — le palais (pah-lay) — is also the French word for palace. Of course! The palate is our palace of gustatory pleasure. Before the discovery in the late 19th century of taste buds — les papilles gustatives — distributed throughout the oral cavity, especially on the tongue, it was thought that the human palate (soft and hard) was the sole site (or seat, as in “the seat of government”) of taste. Run your tongue along the roof of your mouth — it is a pleasure dome, no mere roof, and we are the kings and queens of the realm.
Back at Picasso’s palace
The haunted ambiance at Le Sélect is palpable today. Squeezed into a cozy booth, I am reading now about the “select crowd” in Fitch’s homage to the cafe and its resident ghosts, including Ernest Hemingway, Luis Buñuel, Henry Miller and, most famously, Pablo Picasso. You can almost taste the history of 20th-century modernisme at Le Sélect, or at least its mythology.
The cafe’s resident cat (chat), a long-haired bohemian fellow, is asleep on the bar, adding a je ne sais quoi (a little something, or literally, “I don’t know what”) to the cafe’s ambiance. Perhaps it’s a soupçon (a little bit) of domesticity, the cafe in its historic role as an extension of the home.
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The servers are scurrying from table to table, like penguins in their black and white garb. I glance out the window at the passersby, expecting my friend, the food writer, cookbook author and now French pastry expert, Martha Rose Shulman, who will be joining me for lunch today.
I have important questions for Martha — about Picasso not pâtisserie. She spent the 1980s living in Paris and operating her “Supper Club chez Martha Rose.” While there, Martha grew close (and still is) to her landlord, Christine, who she soon discovered was the widow of Pablo Picasso’s son, Paulo. Martha is my connection to the real, historic Picasso, Picasso outside the myth.
I’ve read a lot about the palette of the artist Picasso, but I know little of his palate. Señor Picasso was an Andalusian Spaniard, and I presume that he loved garlic, peppers, sherry and grilled sardines, a specialty of his native Málaga. Martha will know. We will sit at Le Sélect and, like good gastro-flâneuring bohemians, observe the action on Boulevard du Montparnasse and the action at our table – salade niçoise, croque-monsieur and café crème. I will drink in Martha’s stories about le palais de Picasso and the cafe’s nosy ghosts will be all a-twitter.
Main illustration credit: L. John Harris