Articles in Authors
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"
More from Zester Daily:
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
More from Zester Daily:
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.
More from Zester Daily:
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
Hazelnut farmer Barb Foulke watched in disbelief as the relentless storm lashed Oregon’s Willamette Valley in late September. Two weeks of rain punctuated by a 5-inch deluge over four days.
More from Zester Daily:
A warm May meant the valley’s hazelnuts had matured early and were already lying on the ground when the rains started. Instead of “vacuuming” up the nuts in the typical whirl of dust, Foulke’s crop was sitting in the mud. “It’s painful,” she said.
Hazelnuts (filberts in England) have become a hot commodity in Oregon with acreage dedicated to the scrubby trees increasing 10% a year during the last decade. Three thousand more acres were planted this year with the region’s 2013 crop predicted to be close to 40,000 tons.
That’s slim pickings when compared to the flow of hazelnuts from Turkey, which produces 75% of the world’s crop by weight. Still, it’s enough to give the state runner-up status along with the countries of Italy, Georgia, Greece and Spain.
Foulke and other growers are working to distinguish Oregon hazelnuts in terms of quality by focusing on sustainable farming and modern harvesting technology. As the Portland culinary scene has exploded, the locally grown nuts have become a signature ingredient.
Discovering great hazelnut recipes
Visiting the Willamette Valley for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in August, I fell in love with the nut’s rich, creamy texture and sweet flavor. In the shell, they look like acorns. Lightly roasted, they lose their paper-thin skin and have a bite that is firmer than a cashew, softer than an almond.
A dinner in the sleek, new Sokol Blosser Winery tasting room, created by Jenn Louis, chef/owner of Lincoln in Portland, featured crushed, toasted nuts in a honey spread spiked with toasted rosemary, chili oil and sea salt. Louis’ slab of roasted porchetta was made from pigs fed on the meaty nuts.
The same holy trinity of toasted hazelnuts, honey and rosemary was the heart of a tapas prepared by Colin Stafford and Alex Yoder of Portland’s Olympic Provisions with paper-thin lardo enveloping whole hazelnuts.
When I returned home, I dog-eared half a dozen yummy hazelnut recipes in my cookbook collection. All called for toasting the nuts — 10 to 20 minutes at 350 F, single layer on a baking sheet, removing the skins by rubbing the toasted nuts between tea towels.
Beloved L.A. food guru Joseph Shuldiner features chopped hazelnuts in his dukkah and halvah. He grinds them into fig paste, folds them into his mushroom risotto and tosses them atop his wild mushroom polenta in “Pure Vegan” (Chronicle).
Taking my shopping list to the grocery store, I began looking for hazelnuts.
Getting nuts on the grocery shelves
“You don’t see hazelnuts that much in stores,” said Mike Klein, a spokesman for the Willamette Hazelnut Growers. While the exploding sales of Nutella — a sweetened hazelnut spread — are testament to the popularity of hazelnut’s flavor, the naked nuts are rarely on the shelf. Grocery chains don’t think cooks want to mess with toasting them, he said.
You rarely find them in cans of roasted mixed nuts because they are relatively rare. Only 40 million pounds of shelled hazelnuts are produced each year compared to 1.8 billion pounds of almonds, he said.
I found hazelnuts at Surfas in Culver City and there were a few containers of them at my neighborhood Whole Foods. But the local Ralphs grocery store doesn’t carry them.
The easiest way to buy hazelnuts, said Klein, is to go to the website of an Oregon grower and buy direct. Unfortunately, Oregon growers sold out months ago, and you’ll have to wait for the new harvest.
The line is forming at Barbara Foulke’s Freddy Guys Hazelnuts, the nuts many Portland foodies consider the gold standard. Her small-batch processing using a tricked-out little roaster she traveled to Italy to buy directly from the manufacturer provides the obsessive attention to detail that appeals to the local DIY ethos.
And Foulke will have plenty of nuts. The rains stopped the second week of October. The sun came out and ushered in an Indian summer as odd as the earlier deluge. The warm days dried the ground, allowing the crew to “vacuum” up the nuts with Foulke’s harvesters before mold or mildew could gain a foothold.
The 2013 harvest is expected to set records.
Top photo: Cracker thin toast with fresh ricotta, stewed kumquats and other fall citrus, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnuts from Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown
It was a sweltering day outside the classroom at The Greenbrier when Julia Child came to visit. She would come each year to teach and enjoy a little vacation with us in West Virginia. And, in the air-conditioned classroom where we held Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne classes, she seemed larger than life.
By Anne Willan
More from Zester Daily:
Towering over the demonstration table, she had total command of the crowd with her unmistakable voice and her larger than life persona. I stood in the back of the classroom in support of my friend, admiring her expert movements and ability to multitask while narrating her every move.
This visit and many others came to mind as I worked on my new memoir, “One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France.” The times I’ve shared with my good friends gave me a treasury of stories and recipes. Julia was describing every detail of making a Hollandaise sauce, that silky combination of clarified butter emulsified in a mousse of egg yolks and water. Whisk, whisk, whisk, Julia first added the butter drop by drop and then in a slow steady stream. The sauce should thicken creamily but it remained obstinately thin. Fat spears of asparagus were simmering, the oven was calling with cases of puff pastry already browned. It would be fatal to stop whisking because the butter would separate.
“Anne, Anne, come and save it!” cried Julia, and I sprinted to the stage. Whisking like a maniac, I peered at the sauce. It was not lumpy and curdled, so not overcooked. I had seen Julia adding the ingredients and the proportions were good. Could it be too cold? Had the Greenbrier’s blasting air-conditioning got to it?
As Julia yanked baking sheets from the oven and drained the asparagus, I raised the flame — a dangerous tactic with delicate Hollandaise. But it worked, the sauce thickened just at the right moment and Julia gave me a congratulatory hug for the camera.
Top photo: Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier
Good writing about food is not different from good writing more generally, but cookbooks written by established literary figures can be especially satisfying. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House,” the work of Roald Dahl and his wife, Felicity, is one such book that I return to from time to time, for it shows not only his consistent interest in food but a tender side not often revealed in Dahl’s other work.
By Felicity and Roald Dahl
More from Zester Daily:
In much of his writing, his approach to food is mischievous if not downright wicked as when gluttonous children are punished in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and in “Matilda.” That novel is now a current Broadway hit musical, where a naughty, greedy child is made to eat an entire chocolate cake by himself, with success I might add.
But my favorite wicked food moment in Dahl occurs in his short story “Lamb to Slaughter,” in which a pregnant, loving wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb just after he announces he is leaving her. She gets away with the crime by getting rid of the evidence, cooking the meat and serving it to the four investigating policemen she invites to dinner.
Although I am happy to point out that “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” is not entirely free of Dahl’s biting humor, its purpose is to honor and celebrate the lives of the author’s extended family and friends through family recipes that connect people the Dahls loved to the couple’s favorite dishes. Writing such a book was a process of gathering-in so that the cookbook was a summary of what meant the most to Roald Dahl just before he died in fall 1990. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” was published posthumously.
Dahl’s was a household where food was respected and enjoyed and where paying tribute to meaningful dishes was essential. Because the book is so personal, its recipes are eclectic, ranging as they do from Dahl’s mother’s chicken concoction that contains canned potatoes and frozen peas to the complicated latticed lamb and apricot roulade with onion sauce, a dish that calls for a long list of ingredients that include puff pastry, chopped almonds and Middle Eastern spices. What limits the book as a cookbook — recipes sometimes chosen for their sentimental value — is also its greatest strength as a personal statement about love of family.
Famous last meals
Occasionally pulling back from too much sentiment, Dahl threw in a chapter called “The Hangman’s Suppers,” which reminds us that back in the days when convicted murderers were hanged in England, they were allowed to request a last meal. Dahl asked well-known friends what they would order for their last meal were they to face the hangman.
Actor Dustin Hoffman didn’t think he would have much of an appetite, but for the sake of the game chose mother’s milk. “Might as well go out the way I came in,” he said. Writer John le Carré was also transported back in time and ordered up a nursery meal that includes bread and butter pudding served, he hoped, by a young and pretty nanny.
Mystery writer P.D. James provided so complete a menu with proper wines that I suspect she had previously given the question serious thought. She went so far as to order two desserts because she figured she would no longer have to worry about her weight.
And, this being Dahl, his love of chocolate is deliciously dramatized in his elaborate discussion of British candies that were invented in the 1930s, including such classics as Mars Bars, Kit Kats and Smarties. He likened this golden age of chocolate to what in music would be compositions by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and in literature to the masterpieces of Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens.
He ends his disquisition by declaring, “If I were a headmaster, I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead and my pupils would study a subject that affected all of them.”
Always end a meal with chocolate
Such devilish perceptions enhance this food memoir, a genre that can be tiresome in the hands of people who take themselves too seriously. Roald Dahl’s voice keeps the tone of this book lively and entertaining, but at the same time pays homage to the people who have meant the most to him, and food is his vehicle for expressing both love and his roguish humor. That’s the thing about good writers writing about food. They can take us anywhere.
Although so many of Dahl’s books remain popular, “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” has gone largely unnoticed, probably because it is a cookbook and assumed by many to be unimportant. Bad enough to miss out on the insights provided by his descriptions of food, but to miss out on the colorful autobiographical writing and amusing anecdotes found here is a sad loss indeed.
The book reminded me that although critical evaluations of the lives of women automatically take into account their personal side, the same is not true for men. It is therefore all the more refreshing to find descriptions of Roald Dahl holding forth at a festive old pine table 12 feet long and 3 feet wide, covered with quantities of such sumptuous foods as Norwegian prawns, lobster, caviar and roast beef. At the end of the meal he would produce a battered box stuffed with chocolate goodies and announce, “Treats!” It is the only way to end a decent meal.
Top: “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” and other books from Roald Dahl. Credit: Barbara Haber
I was so saddened by the recent death of food writer Penelope Casas. I never met her, but I’ve long depended on her work for my own research. Her first cookbook, “The Foods & Wines of Spain,” was published in 1979 and was for decades the only act in town if you wanted to know about authentic Spanish food. She wrote a book about tapas long before small plates became fashionable (“Tapas, The Little Dishes of Spain,” 1986), and a comprehensive book on the regional cuisines of Spain (“Delicioso! The Regional Cooking of Spain,” 1996), a tome whose index does not include El Bulli, Ferran Adrià or foams.
Casas was not Spanish herself, but Greek-American, born in the borough of Queens in New York City. She studied Spanish in high school and majored in Spanish literature at Vassar. When she was 19, she went to Madrid on a student exchange program and fell in love not only with Spain and Spanish cooking, but also with Luis Casas, a medical student and the son of the woman who hosted her. He guided her through the tapas bars of Madrid that semester abroad, and eventually became her husband.
More on Zester Daily:
Sometime in the early 1970s, when the couple was living in New York, Craig Claiborne made an error of nomenclature when writing in The New York Times about a Spanish tapa called angulas. Casas wrote a letter to him about the mistake, and this eventually led to a Spanish dinner that she prepared for him in her home. He was very impressed by the meal and urged her to write a book; this became “The Foods & Wines of Spain,” published by Knopf and edited by Judith Jones.
One of my favorite Penelope Casas books is “Paella! Spectacular Rice Dishes of Spain,” which she published in 1999. This book, with more than 60 paellas, needed to be written, as Americans have long had misconceptions about what paella is and how to prepare it correctly. “The horrors that have befallen this exquisite dish and the indignities it has suffered!” Casas writes in the opening paragraph of the book’s introduction. “Paella is not a steamed rice, cooked in a covered pan, but generally a ‘dry’ rice that cooks uncovered in a wide, flat paella pan. It is not bright orange (that comes from artificial coloring) and it is not a precooked pot of Uncle Ben’s rice to which lobster, chicken and clams have been strewn on top to give a pretty appearance and to disguise what is usually very ordinary rice.”
Paella is meant to show off the rice itself and to highlight a few special ingredients. These can be vegetables, fish, shellfish or meat. Sometimes you will find sausage in a seafood paella (though rarely in Valencia, home of paella, where mixing sausage and seafood is heresy, according to Casas), but you will not also find chicken in that dish; you’ll find chicken in a typical paella Valenciana, however, and possibly rabbit.
Whatever paella you make, it should use short- or medium-grain rice, which should be cooked uncovered in a flavorful stock. You can get the highly regarded Spanish Bomba rice at specialty markets, but at more than $7 a pound I usually opt for a California-grown Valencia-style “pearl” rice from Goya Foods. It’s fun to make paella over a grill, and a bit easier than making it on the stove unless you have a large center burner. I don’t, so when I use the stove I position my paella pan over two burners and rotate it every five to 10 minutes while the rice is cooking.
I made a big seafood paella recently for a dinner party I gave for what I thought was going to be a dozen people and turned out to be 14. I had sold the dinner at my son’s school auction and didn’t know anybody who was coming except for the principal, but figured a festive paella would be a great dish for breaking the ice, if ice had to be broken. Paella is the perfect party dish because it’s a one-pot meal, and because it feeds a crowd (I didn’t know that there was going to be an extra couple at the table until we sat down and I found that I was two places short; I scrambled to set places but had no worries about having enough food). You can get much of the cooking done in advance, and the finished dish can sit for some time before you serve it. You can make it with seafood or meat, as well as vegetarian (I ate a wonderful vegetable paella in El Palmar, a small town near Valencia known for its paellas, and published the recipe it inspired in “Mediterranean Harvest“).
I didn’t know that Penelope Casas had died when I decided on my dinner party menu, but I’m glad to have cooked a tribute to this wonderful, pioneering food writer.
Paella de Mariscos
For the stock:
24 littleneck clams, scrubbed and purged (see Notes)
1 cup dry white wine
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 pound medium shrimp, in their shells
8 jumbo shrimp, in their shells (use 1½ pounds shrimp in all if jumbo shrimp are not available)
7 cups water, fish stock or chicken stock
Salt to taste
Generous pinch (about ½ teaspoon) of saffron threads, crumbled
For the paella:
½ pound uncooked sweet Spanish (NOT Mexican) chorizo sausage or mild Italian sausage, cut in ½-inch thick slices (optional)
¼ cup olive oil
1 pound monkfish, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 roasted red pepper or 2 pimientos, cut into strips
3 large tomatoes, cut in half, seeded and grated against the large holes of a grater
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 pound short- or medium-grain Spanish rice or Arborio rice
1 bay leaf
1½ cups fresh or thawed frozen peas or lima beans
1½ cups blanched green beans, preferably flat Italian romano beans, cut in 2-inch lengths
20 mussels, scrubbed and purged (see Notes)
1½ cups aioli, for serving
1. Combine the purged clams with the wine, ¼ cup water, and a tablespoon of the chopped onion in a lidded pot, turn heat to medium high, cover and cook 5 to 6 minutes, or until all the clams have opened. Remove clams from shells, rinse and set aside. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth and set aside.
2. Shell the shrimp and jumbo shrimp, leaving the heads on, and retain the shells. Combine the shells in a large pot with the clam broth, the quartered onion, the garlic clove, bouquet garni, and the water or stock. Bring to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer 30 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth. Measure out 7 cups (freeze extra). Taste and season generously with salt. Stir in the saffron.
3. Cook the sausage over medium heat in a wide paella pan, skillet or casserole until cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
4. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil to the pan set over a large burner or two smaller burners (or prepare a charcoal fire in your grill). Add the monkfish and cook for 2 minutes on each side, until it is opaque. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the shrimp and jumbo shrimp and cook just until they turn orange red, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat and set aside.
5. Add the remaining oil and the onion and cook, stirring, until tender and beginning to brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, stir for about 30 seconds, and add the red pepper and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, paprika and salt to taste, and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes have cooked down slightly and smell fragrant, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the rice, sausage, lima beans or peas, green beans and bay leaf and cook, stirring, until the grains are coated with oil, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the broth. Add the mussels and push them down into the broth. Place the fish, shrimp, clams, and jumbo shrimp over the top of the rice, without pushing them down into the broth. When the stock comes to a boil, reduce the heat and cook without stirring or poking, uncovered, for 20 minutes, or until the broth has been absorbed and the mussels have opened. Rotate the pan every 5 minutes so that the rice cooks evenly. Remove from the heat, cover tightly with foil, and let sit undisturbed for 15 minutes. Uncover and serve, passing the aioli at the table for guests to spoon onto their paella.
- For brightness, top the paella with more thawed frozen or cooked fresh peas.
- To clean and purge the clams (and mussels): Inspect each one carefully and discard any that have opened or have cracked shells. Place in a large bowl, fill the bowl with cold water, add a tablespoon of salt and leave for 15 minutes. Drain and rinse several times, swishing them around in the water, pouring out the water and refilling. Clean the shells if necessary with a brush. With mussels, pull out the beards just before cooking.
Top photo: Seafood paella. Credit: iStockphoto
It’s close to 6 in the morning, and the sky is muted and streaked with pink, white and blue stripes. I am on Kachemak Bay in a bright yellow kayak, and the water is as flat as a calm lake. A family of otters — a mother and two young cubs — swims alongside. Snowcapped mountains lie ahead in the distance. This is what dawn feels like in Alaska in the summer. The only problem: Alaska is so far north that the sun never sets this time of year, so kayaking or any other activity is done after a fitful sleep spent trying to keep out the light.
The idea of sunlight 24 hours a day sounds great. But, trust me, around midnight — or 3 a.m. or close to 6 a.m. — when your body is exhausted but your mind is saying, “Let’s go for another kayak ride,” it all begins to feel like a cruel joke.
More from Zester Daily:
Sleeping was my biggest problem on a recent trip to Alaska. Actually it was my only problem.
I traveled to a small wilderness lodge called Tutka Bay, located at the head of a seven-mile fjord on Kachemak Bay, off the coast near Homer, Alaska. I was there to do the things I love most: write, cook, exercise and see wildlife.
I wrote each morning with the guidance of two mentors, cookbook and memoirist Molly O’Neill and poet Carolyn Forche. In the afternoon we learned to cook Alaskan specialties.
Tutka Bay Lodge’s Cooking School, located in a dry-docked converted herring boat, may be the only cooking school in the world without electricity or running water. You’d think it’s impossible to cook without those two basic elements, but using portable butane burner stove tops and a huge water cooler, matched with the talent of chef and lodge owner Kirsten Dixon, the cooking classes were flawless.
Dixon, who has lived in Alaska for more than 30 years and written several cookbooks, has become a kind of ambassador for Alaskan cuisine. She, along with her assistant Christie Maggi, taught us about the history, influences and current state of Alaskan cuisine.
Alaskan cooking school makes local ingredients shine
Yes, there is such a thing as Alaskan cuisine. And no, it’s not (just) moose stew, reindeer burgers and potatoes. We were introduced to sophisticated dishes like king crab beignets, cold smoked salmon with brown sugar brûlée, local oysters with pickled cauliflower and juniper crème fraîche topping, sourdough biscuits with house-made sweetened ricotta, and rhubarb preserves.
“Most people think we are too far off the beaten track to have a cuisine,” Dixon explains. “But there is a vibrant culinary scene here. Young chefs in Anchorage are beginning to pay attention to local foods, farmers markets and native traditions.”
Using ingredients such as seafood (Alaskan salmon, cod and halibut being the most obvious) and foraged foods such as sea asparagus, fiddlehead ferns, seaweed, mushrooms and wild berries, the food you find in much of Alaska is no longer frozen and flown in from the lower 48, but now focuses on local ingredients.
The state of Alaska even offers subsidies to chefs who use local ingredients. “This subsidy helps promote the use of locally grown Alaskan food,” Dixon notes, “and really encourages Alaskan chefs to shop in-state.”
Eating local, shopping local and growing your own food is something Alaskans feel passionate about. During the summer months, many try to grow, preserve and freeze enough fresh food to last them through the long winter.
“The thing about Alaskans is that we have this homesteading mentality,” Dixon says. “We are a can-do people. There is a degree of self-sufficiency and a joy about living close to the land. Alaskans pride themselves in surviving without a Whole Foods.”
With the longest coastline in the U.S. (33,000 miles), the seafood that comes from Alaskan waters is superb. The extreme cold temperature of the water produces some of the best oysters I’ve ever tasted. But it’s salmon that’s king. There are five distinct types of salmon that come from the Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan coast: Chinook, or King, is highly prized and the largest species (weighing in at up to 150 pounds). Coho, or Silver, salmon is smaller with a fine texture. Sockeye is famous for its deep red color and mild flavor. There’s also Chum and Pink salmon.
Virtually every day I was in Alaska I ate salmon — fresh, smoked, pickled, grilled, barbecued and sautéed — and never grew tired of it. Eating fresh Alaskan salmon was like tasting salmon for the first time. It has such a buttery texture and fresh, explosive flavor that it’s nearly unrecognizable.
Alaskan-born Chef Rob Kinnan of Crush Bistro in Anchorage says when he came to the East Coast and tasted farm-raised salmon for the first time he couldn’t believe the fish was related to the salmon he grew up eating in Alaska. “It was like someone leeched all the flavor, texture and nutritional value out of the fish,” he explained. “Cold water means more fat in the fish, which equals more flavor. The fish create fat to insulate themselves in these very cold Alaskan waters.”
Benefits of an all-daylight growing cycle
Although I had a hard time with the 24-hour a day sunlight, it has its advantages for farmers in Alaska. The growing season is short (a mere 100 days) but intense. Crops can soak in the sun all night and day, which means Alaska grows incredible produce: broccoli and cauliflower the size of watermelons; berries and oversized root vegetables; winter-hearty vegetables like kale, rutabagas and potatoes. Because the state was once dominated by glaciers, much of the underlying subsurface is glacial till, silt and sand. This is rich soil.
With such a short season and the cost of shipping food from other places prohibitively expensive, the cooks at Tutka Bay do a lot of canning and preserving. In my few days there I sampled pickled cherries, fennel and cauliflower, not to mention a gorgeous selection of jams, jellies and preserves from local berries and fruit.
“Putting up” seasonal foods dictates a lot of what goes on during an Alaskan summer. Dixon talks about the troubles she has during berry season. It’s not just the bears that want a piece of the action. “There’s this ritual in Alaska that when the berries are ripe — blueberries, raspberries, huckleberries — women go out and pick for days, camping and make a ritual of it. It’s hard to get people to come to work when there’s berries to be picked.”
Dixon laughs at her own story. She points to a group from her kitchen that has just gotten back from a hike around the lodge foraging for fresh herbs and seaweed for the evening’s menu. Tonight we will eat roast Alaskan duck, a salad with foraged herbs and smoked salmon, and an assortment of pickles. After dinner, while it’s still perfectly light, we will walk along the bay, look for seals and otters and watch the brightly lit night sky. And then I will try to get some sleep.
Quick Pickled Cauliflower
Makes 4 to 6 accompaniment servings, depending on the size of the cauliflower head
At Tutka Bay, Chef Kirsten Dixon serves these pickles on top of fresh-shucked raw local oysters and tops them with crème fraîche seasoned with juniper berries.
2 cups cider vinegar
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon whole allspice
1 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
2 cloves garlic
1 head of cauliflower, shaved into thin slices
1. Mix all ingredients except cauliflower in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil over high heat.
2. Place cauliflower in a bowl and pour hot liquid on top. Allow mixture to steep for at least an hour. The mixture can then be used, refrigerated for up to a month or canned.
Top photo: Alaskan king crab. Credit: Kathy Gunst