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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.
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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.”
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.
As a forager who lives in a place with a definite off-season, I still manage to fill the winter months with wild food-related activities. Looking out the window of my Colorado office this month, the landscape alternates between snowy white and stricken brown. Today, the wind blew with such force that I found my trash can having a tea party with its friends two blocks from home. There just aren’t many wild edibles that I could forage right now aside from conifer needles.
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Sure, I can pick handfuls of cold-hardy greens in the dwindling months of autumn and again when spring leisurely awakens. But the meat of my foraging season occurs between April and September, when plants grow with such urgency here at high altitude that I spend nearly all of my free time picking and processing at a numbing pace. During the foraging off-season, I’m still able to accomplish much as a wild foods enthusiast since it is the perfect time for study and planning.
When the wild plants are bountifully growing, I’m careful to preserve them for the winter. I dry big tins full of nettles and linden flowers. The freezer fills up with blanched greens, and the shelves get lined with stonecrop pickles and elder cordial. Rows of half-gallon jars filled with dried porcini are my pride and joy.
Foragers taking stock and studying botany
My goal is to eat from wild foods as much as possible for the entire year, especially from abundant and invasive weeds. Come late winter, I’m able to analyze my stocks. I take careful notes on which plants I’d like to harvest more in the coming year, and also which recipes or foods aren’t being eaten with enthusiasm. This helps me adhere to the second rule of foraging (the first being never eat a food you’ve not identified), never take more than you can use.
This year, I’ve found that I didn’t pick nearly enough linden flowers to support my love of linden tea. Because linden mostly grows as an ornamental locally, there will be no problem with harvesting more next year. On the other hand, I seem to be the only one who eats the wild mustard kimchi, so I will plan for a smaller batch come spring, even though the plant is an invasive and can be picked freely.
Perhaps the greatest luxury that down time affords me as a forager is the ability to study. I check enormous stacks of books from the library, everything from foraging guides to cookbooks, and novels, too. Seeing the words and projects of others fills my sails with inspiration and sends me off in new directions of exploration.
Winter is my best opportunity to dive headlong into the study of botany. I came to foraging through a love of food, so studying botany with seriousness after falling in love with wild plants is a bit backward. I wish I’d known more about botany from the outset. Being able to recognize similar characteristics among plant families and unlocking the meaning of Latin binomials opens the world of foraging and makes learning new plants infinitely easier.
Studying botany needn’t been intimidating. I highly recommend starting with a book called “Botany in a Day,” by Thomas Elpel. While you may not be able to learn it in a day, any tidbit you can learn about how to accurately describe plants can be very helpful. Being able to determine something as basic as whether the leaves on a plant are opposite or alternate gives you a huge head start in identification.
One of my favorite challenges of the off-season is going for walks and trying to identify dried brown plant remains, and trees without leaves. It’s one thing to be able to identify a plant when it is in flower, it is much more challenging to identify its dried skeleton. But if you can do so, it may help you scout a new location. The same goes for being abile to identify a tree by bark and bud alone. A fellow forager memorized all of his local trees in the summer, and in the winter, he’d practice identifying them by bark alone, calling out their names as he passed them on bike.
Filling notebooks with adapted recipes for foraged ingredients
The final piece of my off-season puzzle is brainstorming recipes. Often, in the heat of summer, I’m too busy teaching or processing large batches of wild foods to spend as much time as I’d prefer coming up with new recipes. In winter, I take the time to really consider my favorite ingredients, and how best to highlight their unique flavors. I have a notebook divided into four sections, one for each season. When I come up with a recipe idea, I write down the basic concept, and note where the idea originated. That way, come harvest time, when my attention is elsewhere, I’m able to open up to the appropriate season and see a list of recipe ideas, ready to go. I take the greatest amount of inspiration from my friends. Some of my closest friends right now are Persian, Mexican and Indian, and I can see the flavors they’ve introduced to me seeping into my own recipes. I love to look at a traditional recipe, as made by a friend, and spin it in my imagination with local wild ingredients.
It used to be that winter made me sad. Especially in the digital age, when I could see the harvests of people living in places where there is something to forage all year long. I’ve come to learn that my own off-season can be productive, even if I’m not able to harvest plants. I’m able to take inventory of my pantry, study botany and brainstorm recipes for the coming year, none of which I have time to do when the plants are exploding with the growth of summer.
Top photo: Dried foraged foods from the pantry. Clockwise, from the upper left and moving clockwise: porcini mushrooms, cota tea (sometimes called Navajo tea) bundles, sumac and nettles. Credit: Wendy Petty
“A Commonplace Book of Pie” is anything but common. While some cookbooks may help you make poetry with food, this cookbook is poetry, and more. It is a collection of facts, real and imagined, about pie.
“I created these prose poems that are this imaginary zodiac,” Kate Lebo said of the writing in the book that leaps beyond the expected instructions. These are not anecdotes about your aunt’s legacy bubbling up in sunny syrup each time you make peach pie. Rather, these lyric narratives are gripping slices of dreamed lives.
The pumpkin pie fancier befriends bartenders. “People who love chocolate cream pie move through the world in a swarm of music,” Lebo writes. OK, sure. Or maybe not. Maybe you believe other things about these people, and that’s just fine, because this book makes room for discovery within accepted standards.
“We’re both really attracted to obvious things and finding things that are not obvious, shaking people out of their complacency with that object,” Lebo said of Jessica Lynn Bonin, who illustrated the book and accompanied her on tour this fall.
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By Kate Lebo
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The paintings of pie and its many component parts, Lebo said, are not just renderings of physical objects, but images that have their own stories. The poet is working in a similar fashion with her subject.
“I’m doing that in the pie book by taking something as commonplace as pie and using a form, using poetry, using language to talk about it and break it open in completely new ways,” she said. “We owe allegiance to surrealists because that’s what they do as well, but it’s not surreal.”
“This is not a pipe,” the painter René Magritte said of his painting of a pipe. This is not a cookbook like one you’ve known, but yes, it is a cookbook, and from it you can learn how to make pie.
The poetry of pie instruction
“Position your hands palms up, fingers loosely curled, the same way you relax your hand above your head while falling asleep,” reads the instructions in a recipe for crust. When a pie master suggests a shape of supplication for handling flour and fat, even those with deep attachments to pastry cutters will try to leave them in the drawer.
Like pie, the book has quite a life beyond its crust, or covers. The project started as a collaboration between Kate Lebo and artist Bryan Schoneman. In 2010, the two did a gallery show that involved a pie safe and people clamoring for the pies cooling teasingly inside it. “A Commonplace Book of Pie” appeared first as a zine and part of this show. Lebo sold 2,000 copies of the zine, and expanded the cardboard-bound booklet into a book, just published in October by Chin Music Press.
Here are some ingredients of Lebo’s life that are not inside the book. She was not interested in cooking until she was in her 20s, when she had a kitchen with a view of downtown Seattle and the Olympic Mountains. She baked her way through the “Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook,” and recalls that era as her “cool lady in the city time, singing Doris Day.”
After she got her master of fine arts from the University of Washington, she sold at a stand in her front yard to raise rent money. Her pie stand traveled to places like the Sasquatch Music Festival, and begat Pie School, which let Lebo pass along the fine qualities of pies by teaching people to make them.
Connecting with “A Commonplace Book of Pie”
“Pie is warm, inviting, a symbol everyone is connected to in this culture,” Lebo said. “I can talk to anyone about pie. It’s like football except I actually know something about it. So that kicks the door open for further discussion about something that is less approachable, something that is less familiar.”
Discussions on the book tour have covered a lot of topics. Seattle events drew a lot of literary folks. At a cooking school in the Midwest, people came who love pie. Questions ranged from what’s the secret to making the perfect pie, to how do you revise the manuscript?
People are reading the book to each other, which is something Lebo heard with the zine, too. She has a picture of a child — who attended a reading in Milwaukee, Wis. — reading the book to her family while they were making pie. Another fan is giving the book, along with a letter about what pie means in her family, to her children.
“Pie is a gift and that’s something I’m trying to evoke with the book,” Lebo said.
Top photo composite:
“A Commonplace Book of Pie” jacket cover and author Kate Lebo. Credit: Amy Halloran
The road to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, located about an hour from Tucson, leads deep into the cactus-studded tawny hills of the Sonora Desert. By the time I arrived at the museum for the Native American Culinary Association’s 10th annual Indigenous Food Symposium in early December, my spirit felt energized and ready for the compelling conference that was to come.
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NACA’s founder, Apache chef Nephi Craig, organizes the conference each year for indigenous people to exchange information, foster solidarity and inspire one another to reclaim their marginalized food traditions.
Among the topics at the two-day conference was decolonizing the native food diet. Speakers discussed strategies to revive food traditions that existed before reservations were established and nutritionally vapid commodity foods such as white bread and lard forced out traditional ingredients. Indigenous products such as dried buckwheat cholla cactus buds, saguaro cactus syrup, and brown and white tepary beans were what anthropology Ph.D. candidate Claudia Serrato described as “an effort to decolonize our taste buds and change our taste memories.” She pointed out that 46% of Native children are obese and stressed the importance of introducing indigenous foods to children as a means of nurturing them into adulthood.
A return to indigenous foods
Chefs Walter Whitewater and Lois Ellen Frank, who won a James Beard award for their book “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations,” discussed using indigenous foods for health and wellness and passing on culinary information to the next generation.
Frank discussed the importance of honoring the “traditional ecological knowledge” that we all possess. Whitewater and Frank teach classes to Native children as a means of preserving and often reigniting that knowledge, which they believe exists innately within the young people but has been blunted by a colonial imperialism.
Merging contemporary technology with ancient wisdom is inevitable, Frank said, and one does not exist without the other. Modern and ancient can exist side by side, she contended.
“It’s OK as chefs and people to be hip and embrace the contemporary as long as an abiding respect and knowledge for ancient wisdom remains,” Frank said.
The lunch break featured indigenous foods prepared by Native chefs from around the country. Attendees feasted upon dishes such as traditional Oaxacan sweet and spicy harvest soup, alder smoked salmon and a quinoa Napa wrap blue corn crepe with butternut squash.
Diet of Native Americans can thrive in the kitchen
“The NACA conference strengthens me and the solidarity I experience at it each year reinforces the message that I am not alone,” said Wisconsin-based chef Arlie Doxtator of the Oneida nation. Craig, Doxtator and Chris Rodriguez discussed the role of Native fathers in the kitchen. It’s time to redefine traditional gender roles — with the man cast as the protector and the woman as nurturer and cook — in many Native communities, they urged.
The role of protector doesn’t need to be disregarded bsut instead should be reconfigured as one of a cook who safeguards his children against the onslaught of diseases, obesity and the loss of indigenous food knowledge, Doxtator noted. Craig encouraged the men in the audience to challenge the traditional paradigms.
The final presentation featured Hopi Native Samantha Antone and two of her colleagues from the Natwani Coalition, who discussed their mission to preserve Hopi farming traditions and restore local food systems. They discussed their seven-year research with Hopi elders and other community members to develop a curriculum documenting traditional Hopi agricultural techniques that’s being adopted in Hopi classrooms.
It was an optimistic anecdote to conclude a conference celebrating indigenous food as a means to sustain, inspire and invigorate the minds, hearts and spirits of Native people.
Top photo: Blue corn bread from the Hopi Food Cooperative in Arizona. Credit: Jody Eddy
I caught Ed Behr on the phone just as the writer was wrapping up a story about what he called, in an atypical struggle for the right word, “contemporary, innovative, imaginative, fashionable, modern restaurant cooking.” It would be the lead story for the 92nd edition of “The Art of Eating,” the quarterly newsletter he founded almost 30 years ago and has been publishing more or less regularly ever since.
But the highly evolved and ultra-complex haute cuisine of modern restaurant chefs seemed, at least to me, a long way from the subject of my phone call, which was Behr’s latest book, “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” just published by Penguin Press. The book is a series of essays on a gamut of foods Behr finds interesting, challenging or curious, for one reason or another. A lot of the foods he writes about — cantaloupe, for instance, or cabbage, green beans, lemons, corn, rice, lettuce — are the kind of fundamental, even humble ingredients to be found in the kitchen of just about anyone who cooks.
So how does this relate to modern restaurants, to the radical creations of stars like Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal, to mention two names that Behr brought up?
He was quick to explain: “The topics in ‘50 Foods,’ ” he said, “are timeless; they’ll be around for a long time to come. And that’s what I set out to write, a book that would endure for a very long time. Now, with this article, I want to make the connection between those topics and modern cuisine” — and, he might have added, with the almost relentless pursuit of novelty and the esoteric that seems to characterize contemporary cooking at that high professional level.
“With all this sophistication,” he went on, “there’s an enormous lack of information about particular topics, even about food in general. In the book, I wanted to get to the essence of the thing, the nuts and bolts of what it is, along with how to choose it, the flavors that might complement it, buying information, and even when it’s relevant, what wine to drink with it.”
’50 Foods’ not a cookbook, but may inspire readers to head to the kitchen
There is not a recipe, however, anywhere in the book, although an experienced cook could certainly derive some excellent ideas to put into practice. But this is decidedly not a cookbook, even if reading it may eventually drive you into the kitchen to try out a project.
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By Edward Behr
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And not all the 50 foods are basics, by any means, although it’s true that what’s exotic for one diner or cook can be dead ordinary for another. Take honey, for instance, which Behr calls “one of the most varied, delicious tastes of all foods, and it’s possibly the food most obviously and directly linked to the place it comes from, sometimes to a short period of days and the particular plants then in flower.” In 9½ tightly organized pages, Behr teases out the esoterica of bees and bee pasture; nectar; colony collapse disorder; industrial and artisanal honey production; honeycombs and why they’re important; the flavors of various honeys (acacia, lime, lemon, tupelo); what to look for when you buy honey; how to store it; how to substitute honey for sugar in a recipe; what complements it best (yogurt, very fresh cheeses); and how (not) to serve it with wine. In short, if you’re interested in honey, here is everything you will need to know short of how to make it yourself. And if you’re not interested in honey (I’m not, though I found the entry fascinating), just move on to the next topic, “Lamb and Mutton,” or the one before it, “Ham and Bacon.”
“50 Foods” is not an encyclopedia, not at all. Part history, part aesthetic appreciation, part a series of strong, knowledgeable and educated value judgments, this is a reading book, a delightful companion on the bedside table where, if you’re like me, you might pick it up in the middle of the night in order to peruse a section on, say, butter, where you will learn of this ideal complement: “crisp raw radishes eaten French style, with unsalted butter, coarse sea salt, and bread that’s either fully dark or tan from flour containing a portion of bran.” It’s enough to make a girl get up and raid the refrigerator right then and there!
Caviar, oysters, salmon and truffles are among the fancy, expensive, perhaps elitist foods he covers, but he goes into great detail also about pears, plums and apples. If you read the section on “The Baguette” and then the one on “The ‘Country’ Loaf,” you will have an excellent summation of the recent, somewhat troubled history of bread in France. And if you read the several sections on various cheeses you may well conclude, as Behr does in the preface, that “cheese is probably the best food just as wine is the best drink.”
In short, the words are those of a superbly opinionated writer. But not an ignorant writer, because Ed Behr is famous for the perspicacity with which he tackles almost any subject, but especially any topic having to do with food or drink.
“The Art of Eating”
You may not have heard of “The Art of Eating,” but it is a publication read with attention and fascination by the likes of Alice Waters, René Redzepi, Dan Barber and lesser-known but equally important movers and shakers in the world of food and wine. The first issue, a scant eight pages, was written and produced entirely by Behr, and it continued that way for several years. Now, “The Art of Eating” runs to 48 information-packed pages, handsomely produced with the help of his wife, Kim, who functions as something between marketing manager and communications director. And it frequently includes contributions from others, both known and unknown (I’ve occasionally written for it). The current issue includes articles on Maryland hot peppers, old-fashioned blanquette de veau, a practically unknown Italian wine called Pelaverga, book reviews, restaurant reviews — in short an eclectic and provocative mix. You can read a few samples from back issues or subscribe (a nice holiday gift, perhaps to go with a copy of “50 Foods”) at www.artofeating.com.
Top photo: “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste” by Edward Behr. Author photo credit: Natalie Stultz
If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.
Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.
By the editors of "America's Test Kitchen"
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While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.
To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.
Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.
Kimball’s food publishing adventures
I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.
America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.
It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.
We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.
What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?
My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.
How did you learn to cook?
Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.
In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?
We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.
How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?
The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.
What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?
Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.
Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?
If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).
Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?
Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.
How much of being a good cook is science versus art?
There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.
How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?
Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?
Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.
Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”
First, a confession: I am not always a confident pastry maker. Yes, I make pastry, and sometimes it is good, occasionally very good, but I still approach each pastry-making session with some anxiety.
Because of this, I approached “Pastry” by Chef Richard Bertinet with a little trepidation. Quickly, though, I fell in love with the book, and now it’s becoming an old friend. I am not suddenly a great pastry maker because of this book, but, more important to me, I am no longer a nervous pastry maker.
“Pastry” has a lovely chattiness to it. This is not a book meant to intimidate, although the subject matter can be intimidating. Early in “Pastry,” Bertinet tells the nervous among us that, “There is an idea that some people are just naturally good pastry makers, or that you can only make great pastry if you have cold hands. I don’t believe that.”
By Richard Bertinet
Chronicle Books, 2013, 224 pages
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That is good to learn about someone who began training as a baker in Brittany, France, when he was 14. He moved to Britain in the 1980s, and after many years as a chef, he opened the Bertinet Kitchen Cookery School in Bath, England, in 2005. The school now draws students from around the world, eager to learn the skills he has perfected and detailed in four books to date.
“Pastry” is his latest. His first book, “Dough,” received many awards, including the Julia Child First Book Award and the James Beard Foundation Award for Baking and Desserts. It was followed by “Crust,” which earned a Gourmand World Cookbook award. “Cook,” his third book, focuses on dishes taught at his school.
Making pastry not just about cold hands
In “Pastry,” Bertinet hopes that “by keeping things simple and starting from just four key recipes, you can relax, enjoy yourself, bake with confidence, and perhaps even show off a little bit.” This may be a tall order for some, but, with the exception of the showing off (which I’m working on), I have relaxed and begun to enjoy myself more when making pastry.
The first chapter focuses on how to make the four basic pastries: salted, sweet, puff and choux. Dispelling a long-held belief that you need cold hands to make good pastry, he nevertheless reinforces a truth of bad pastry: that “squeezing and overworking … heats up pastry and makes it greasy and sticky.”
The step-by-step photographs throughout the book, but especially in this first chapter, are excellent, clearly illustrating his instructions and showing you how the pastry should look at each step.
Chapter 2 is devoted to salted pastry, so named not because this type of pastry contains a lot of salt but because it is the name for savory pastry he learned as an apprentice. The chapter includes a number of hearty recipes clearly laid out and easy to follow, with hot and cold variations. Bertinet includes recipes for Onion Tartlets and a rich Chicken and Tarragon Tart, but a great quick lunch is his Cornish Pasties filled with rutabaga, potato and beef (not a poor man’s food anymore).
Amandine for the holidays
Next, sweets take center stage, such as Lemon Meringue Tartlets with their wild meringue swirls resembling chimney stacks. One of my favorite recipes in Chapter 3 is for Amandine, a classic almond tart made with frangipane (almond cream). Not only is this tart delicious, it freezes well, making it a great make-ahead dessert for holiday meals. The Prune and Rum Tarts — rum-soaked prunes and almond cream — are also delicious; make plenty because they will be a great success with friends if mine were any indication.
Also in Chapter 3 is a segment called “A Boxful of Sweet Cookies,” with varieties such as Orange & Chocolate Cookies that can be made from a sweet pastry base. While the Orange & Chocolate Cookies have a winning combination of flavors, the crisp Langues de Chat have a whimsical shape — that of cats’ tongues — and make great use of leftover egg whites.
Chapter 4 made me more nervous than previous chapters because its focus is puff pastry. I usually buy mine at the grocery store and appreciated when he wrote, “I hope that you will enjoy making your own puff pastry, but if you don’t have the time or the inclination, choose a good ready-made all-butter one.” Still, following his instructions, my first attempt at puff pastry turned out well. I used it to make sausage rolls, which, with their lovely herb and spice seasoning, turned an often dry and flavorless thing into a delicious snack.
A perfect ‘how to’ on Croustillants
Another great use for puff pastry is in making Croustillants. These thin slices of puff pastry are coated in sugar, nuts or seeds and baked until crunchy, making a terrific and decidedly upscale substitute for potato chips at parties.
Chapter 5 is about choux pastry, the base for treats such as cream puffs and éclairs. In addition to these recipes, Bertinet includes a recipe for deep-fried Cheese Puffs containing either Cheddar or Gruyère. With a sprinkling of smoked paprika, these hors d’oeuvres will disappear quickly.
The last chapter is devoted to “Finishing Touches” and includes techniques such as how to finish fruit tarts so they are beautiful and delicious. This has much to do with how the fruit is cut and arranged and with the addition of warmed apricot jam as a glaze. Bertinet also offers recipes for fillings such as Chocolate Crème Patissiere and Crème Anglaise. If you can make the latter, he assures the reader, “you are halfway to making vanilla ice cream.” (And what vanilla ice cream it is.)
“Pastry” offers up many treats, but the best treat of all may be the book itself. It is great for building confidence in the pastry-shy baker and a further challenge for the pastry-secure baker. If you can’t get to Bertinet’s school in Bath, this book is the next best thing. It is indeed “A Master Class for Everyone.”
Top photo composite: The cover of “Pastry” and chef and author Richard Bertinet. Chef photo credit: Jenny Zarins
My first serious cookbook, “European Peasant Cookery,” published in the United Kingdom in 1984 and still in print with Grub Street, was published in the U.S. the next year as “The Old World Kitchen.” Now, it is again available in the U.S. in print, in a splendid new edition from Melville House.
Initial research, a matter of filling gaps because I’d already been collecting raw material for years, was conducted among the shelves of London Library’s Topography section. (I’d already exhausted Cookery.) There, I quickly discovered that the only authors of 19th- and early-20th-century travel books — the glory days of the genre — who can be relied on for details of the domestic — meals as well as interiors — are vicars and women.
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That said, it can generally be assumed that travel writers, men and women, fall into two categories: those who tell you what they eat and those who don’t. And complaints can be just as interesting as praise. Among those who share their dinner is Mark Twain, whose low opinion of the European breakfast is set against lyrical memories of the same meal in his native land: “A man accustomed to American food and American domestic cookery,” he explains sorrowfully, “would not starve to death suddenly in Europe, but I think he would gradually waste away and eventually die.” This was true enough at a time when the hungry hordes were emigrating in droves to the New World: “Imagine,” he continues dreamily, “an angel suddenly sweeping down out of a better land and setting before him a mighty porter-house steak an inch and a half thick, hot and spluttering from the griddle; dusted with fragrant pepper; enriched with little melting bits of butter of the most unimpeachable freshness and genuineness; the precious juices of the meat trickling out and joining the gravy; archipelagoed with mushrooms; a township or two of tender yellowish fat …” and so forth till the hungry reader could eat a horse. And did, in those more omnivorous times.
If American Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) didn’t think much to what came out of the Old World kitchen in the 1880s, English travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (read all about him in Artemis Cooper’s fine new biography) appreciated the asceticism of supper with the Benedictines of St. Wandrille-en-Fontanelle near Rouen in northern France in the 1950s: “As the monks tucked their napkins into their collars with simultaneous and uniform gesture … the guest-master and a host of aproned monks waited at the tables, putting tureens of vegetable soup in front of us and dropping into our plates two boiled eggs, which were followed by a dish or potatoes and lentils, then by an endive salad, and finally by disks of camembert, to be eaten with excellent bread from the Abbey bakery.” Sounds pretty good to me.
The monks of the Benedictine Abbey of Maredsous in southern Belgium — half an hour as the crow flies from St. Wandrille — keep the roof on their beautiful medieval buildings by providing monastic rations of potage du jour with their own good bread and cheese to tourists by the busload, myself among them. What goes into the pot depends on season and availability, as was always the way for the independent peasantry on whose good will and labor the monasteries depended. More such down-to-earth recipes are included in “The Old World Kitchen.”
For the soup:
8 ounces (250 grams) mushrooms (wild or cultivated)
2 ounces (50 grams) butter, divided
2 shallots or 1 onion, diced
Salt to taste
1 celery head, finely sliced with leaves
2 large leeks, sliced including both white and green parts
1 to 2 mature carrots, scraped and diced
1 bay leaf
1 sprig of thyme
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
2 pints (1 liter) water
Pepper to taste
1 pound (500 grams) potatoes, peeled and diced
A generous handful parsley, finely chopped
1. Pick over the mushrooms, trim and dice.
2. Melt half the butter in a roomy pan over a gentle heat. Add the chopped onion or shallots, salt lightly and fry gently till golden and soft — allow at least 10 minutes.
3. Add the rest of the butter. Wait till it melts before stirring in the mushrooms. Continue frying till the mushrooms release their water and begin to caramelize a little.
4. Add the celery, leeks, carrots, bay leaf, thyme and nutmeg and stir in the oily oniony juices over the heat for a minute or two.
5. Add the water to the pan, then add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Bring to the boil, turn down the heat, cover loosely and leave to simmer for about 20 minutes, till the vegetables are soft and the broth well-flavored.
7. Add the diced potato and continue to cook gently for another 10 to 15 minutes, till the potato is soft enough to mash a little to thicken the broth. Taste and correct the seasoning.
8. Stir in the parsley and ladle into bowls. Accompany with a bowl of radishes, thick slices of sourdough bread and soft-boiled eggs or your local cheese.
Illustration: The interior of the abbey. Credit: Elisabeth Luard