Monday, August 27, 2007


One Year of Blogging - Pflaumenkuchen

One year has passed since I first started this blog. What originally began as an exercise in both relaxtion and avoidance became a serious hobby and a marker of my evolution in the kitchen. Although this year started off well, the move back to New Zealand saw fewer forays into the kitchen. My interest, however, never dulled. Always amongst the works of theoretical investigation I am doing for my Master's thesis are a mix of single-subject (usually dense, often referred to as "scholarly") and favourite cookery books (the two are not mutually exclusive, of course). If I don't have the time to cook, I am often thinking of cooking during any future moment of "free" time.

Cooking has become an integral part of my life, an outlet through which I assert and explore my identity. It is a way of expressing facets of my personality as it is a way to share, enquire, and comfort. While my exploration is still nascent, I have come to understand how my palate works, what excites me (for now, as I understand that the palate lives and is constantly changing), and some of the principles of cookery. I am emboldened by the realisation that this is a life-long discovery.

Because writing is a component of this blog, it, too, is an exploration, principally of style, tone and focus. Perhaps it is the social scientist in me that values empiricism expressed through contextualisation, but I am as much inspired by the written words of cookery book authors as I am by singular recipes. My own writing is neither erudite nor fully-formed, but it is enhanced and driven to be more precise by those writers who best marry fact, history and other observations of social phenomena through the expression of carefully chosen recipes. I hope to one day match their enthusiasm and knowledge, a desire I didn't know existed in me before I started this blog. If you're interested to know, my favourite posts of the year, limited to only three, are: Egyptian Feast, my first Weekend Cookbook Challenge for which I made Cornish Hens stuffed with Bulgur, Raisins and Pine Nuts, Okra with Garlic and Ginger, and Almond Fingers; Thanksgiving, for which I made Roasted Root Vegetables with Honey, Balsamic Vinegar and Goat Cheese and Pumpkin Pie and Candied Pepitas served with Dried Fig and Coffee Ice Cream; and Feijoa Curd.

On this anniversary of my first year as a food blogger, I am happy to share a recipe that was passed on to me by my darling friend and mentor in politics, the intellectually-ferocious and generous Anita, who, in turn, was taught this recipe at the side of her German grandfather. Not only is this perfect for afternoon tea on any day in Summer or Autumn, but it is a wink to my first post for which I used a plum hybrid: Dapple-Dandy Pluot Tart.

Pflaumenkuchen is translated to "plum cake" in English, yet the base for this particular recipe, a doughnut-like sponge, requires yeast and the result is more reminiscent of bread. Tart plums are best for this, to offset and add interest to the sweet base, but which is further enhanced at the end with a dusting of sugar and cinnamon. I decided not to use damsons because, if childhood memory serves me right, the pits require a lot of time to extricate. Also, I didn't see any at the market, perhaps because they come out in the late Fall. I decided on red-skinned, orange-fleshed Pipestone plums. Also, if your baking tray (sheet pan) is not of the same dimensions, a bigger one will only yield a thinner base, which is what you may prefer - just make sure you have enough plums.


4 cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus more for kneading
1 oz/30g fresh yeast or 1/3oz/10g active dried yeast
8 tablespoons sugar, divided use
1 cup milk
1/3 cup/75g unsalted butter, melted
1 egg
1 pinch salt
3 pounds/1.3kg medium-sized plums
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1) Put the flour into a large bowl and create a well in the centre.
2) Crumble fresh yeast or active dried yeast that has been stirred into 1/2 cup of tepid water into the well and stir into the flour, pulling from the sides of the well, with 1 tablepoon of sugar and the milk. Though the ingredients should come together, the resultant mixture should look quite wet.
3) Cover and let rise in a warm place for 20 minutes.
4) Mix in 3 tablespoons sugar, melted butter, egg and salt.
5) Knead with floured hands until the dough is pulling away from the side of the bowl. I almost used an extra cup of flour until I got a dough that was smooth. The kneading process took about 10 minutes.
6) Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, approximately 25 minutes.
7) Prepare the plums by cutting them lengthwise and pitting. With a paring knife you can smooth out the groove in which the pit sat, but I like to see the indentations it leaves behind. Cut each plum half so that they open up like a book, that is to say, make a hinge.
8) Grease a baking tray, about 11 3/4" by 15" (30cm by 38cm).
9) Preheat oven to 425F/ 220C.
10) Remove yeast dough from bowl, knead once or twice, and roll out on a baking tray with a floured rolling pin.
11) Place plums on dough in close rows, pressing slightly into the dough.
12) Let rise for 15 minutes.
13) Bake for 20-25 minutes until slightly golden on top and juices are running from the plums.
14) Mix 4 tablespoons of sugar and cinnamon and use as much of this mixture as you prefer to sprinle over the still-hot pflaumenkuchen.

I love the pink stain left behind by the red skin of the plums, and I love the rich and round flavour of baked plums. As mentioned above, the dough is doughnut-like, spongey and sweet, but not cloyingly so. Cinnamon and baked plums are a match made in heaven. This is perfection on its own but enhanced with the bitter caramel edges of an espresso.

Post script See Pille's plum cake, Lihtne Ploomikook, using Emma Leppermann plums.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007


Food In Film - Meatballs with Spaghetti

Susan over at The Well-Seasoned Cook, my absolute favourite blog, is hosting an event for which one is to cook a dish from a film: Food in Film. For those of you who have read my previous post, one can see that the difference between the two food events is that this one is more specific insofar as a strong connection must exist between the dish one is making and the film that inspired the dish. I sought the advice of my angelheart Eric, my constant soundboard, because I was stumped.

I thought of making Chinese takeout, perhaps to eat in bed out of wire-handled cardboard-containers à la Woody Allen's Manhattan. My angelheart Eric pulled out every DVD we had and recounted directly a dish eaten in the film or a dish that is referred to in an important scene. Our hearts melted as soon as he pulled out The Apartment.

In this Hollywood classic from 1960, Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, career guy with a conscience. On account of making available his apartment to his superiors for their conjugal extra-marital relations, he climbs the ladder rather quickly - no one seriously climbs the ladder through actually working hard, do they? After getting pneumonia from sleeping in Central Park one night, Baxter decides enough is enough and no longer wants to loan out his apartment. Unbeknownst to him, his rapid rise through the ranks catches the attention of philandering chief executive, J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who inquires about using the apartment. Baxter's career aspirations win out over his conscience, which, as Hollywood movies often tell us, leads to a life lesson for him to learn about selling out.

One night during the Christmas season, he returns to his apartment and finds one of the sassy yet sweet elevator girls, Fran (Shirley Maclaine), has attempted suicide. After having her stomach pumped, she is ordered to stay with Baxter for 24 hours until she is given the all-clear. As far as Baxter is concerned, they are 24 magical hours, in which he redeems himself, made tangible by doting on the adorable Fran, whose heart is badly broken by Sheldrake.

During these 24 hours, Fran cleans Baxter's socks (only finding 3.5 pairs), his apartment, and comes across a tennis racquet in the kitchen. She asks him about this unusual piece amongst the batterie de cuisine, and it turns out he uses it as a pasta strainer. With the hope of winning Fran's heart, Baxter sets about making his specialty, meatballs served with spagehtti and meat sauce.

Meatballs and spaghetti are a Neapolitan classic. I have, however, made my ragù according to a Bolognese recipe, for it is less spicy and, for me, more aromatic. It is meat overkill to make both ragù and meatballs, but it is was Baxter served to Fran. The ragù seems a little fiddly for only one pound of pasta, so feel free to multiply the given quantities for a larger yeild. I only made one change in the recipe and that was to substitute bison for beef with 15% fat content. Depending on the size of your palms, Mario Batali's Polpette alla Napoletana recipe yields 12-15 meatballs.

Ragù alla Bolognese, Ricetta Antica
(From Lidia Matticchio Bastianich's Lidia's Family Table)

For one pound of spaghetti, use:
5oz ground bison
5oz ground pork
1/3 cup white wine
1oz bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 fat clove garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 medium onion, finely chopped
1/3 stalk celery, finely chopped
1/6 carrot, shredded
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2/3 cup milk
1/3 cup hot water (you could use turkey broth) - may not be required
black pepper, freshly ground

1) In a large mixing bowl, crumble up and loosen the meats with your fingers.
2) Pour white wine over the meat, combine until evently moistened.
3) Make a pestata: in a food processor, mince together the bacon and garlic until a paste in formed.
4) Put 1/3 tablespoon olive oil in heavy-bottomed saucepan that will be wide enough to accomodate your meat. Over medium-high heat, add the pestata and cook until aromatic and the fat has been rendered.
5) Add another 1/3 tablespoon of olive oil, then throw in the onion and leave to sweat, approximately 4 minutes.
6) Add final 1/3 tablespoon of olive oil, and add carrot and celery. Cook until they have broken down/wilted and are golden in colour.
7) Turn heat up to high, move vegetables to a cool spot in the pan, and add the meat and liquid. Brown the beat and evaporate all of the liquid. This took me approximately 15 minutes. Add salt for seasoning.
8) In a separate pan, scald the milk, then shut off the heat, move off the element, and cover to keep warm.
9) On a hot spot in the pan with the meat, toast the tablespoon of tomato paste, before stirring it into the meat and aromatics.
10) Ladle 1/3 of the milk into the saucepan, mostly covering the meat. Grate nutmeg of preferred quantity (for me, half a teaspoon) into the pan and stir into the meat. When an active simmer is reached, put heat on low and cover.
11) From here the ragù should cook for approximately one hour (if using more meat, say 4 pounds total, this could take as long as three hours). Check every 20 minutes, ladle more milk to cover the meat. If you find more instead of less additions of liquid are required, not only prepare to heat water (or turkey broth), but think to reduce heat further also. If you find no liquid is required after every twenty minute interval, turn the heat up. Stir well after every addition of liquid.
12) The final result should be just a hint of liquid pooling around the meat. Crank one tablespoon of black pepper over the meat and cook for a couple of minutes.
13) If using immediately, spoon out the fat or stir it into the meat (which is the traditional way). If you are not using it immediately, let it cool before chilling it, after which you can remove the solidified fat and store the ragu in the fridge for several days or in the freezer for a few months.

Polpette alla Napoletana
(From Mario Batali's Molto Italiano)

3 cups of 1-inch cubes of day-old bread
1 1/4 pounds ground beef
3 eggs, lightly beaten
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 pecorino romano, freshly grated
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper, freshly ground
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1) In a shallow bowl, soak bread cubes in water to cover for 20 minutes. Drain the cubes and squeeze out excess water.
2) In a large bowl, combine soaked bread cubes with the rest of the ingredients, except the olive oil. Form meatballs with wet hands to prevent sticking.
3) In a heavy-bottom frying pan/skillet, heat olive oil over high, almost to smoking point, and cook meatballs until deep golden brown. Cook in batches to prevent overcrowding, which will result in steaming the meatballs and which won't allow for crust to form on the exterior of the meatballs. It should take approximately 10 minutes to brown each meatball.

Served with one pound of pasta, the ragù and the meatballs definitely were too much. The ragù in fact was a little dry once it had been worked into the spaghetti, which I think is on account of using meat with a low percentage of fat. Furthermore, though it smelled great when simmering, the ragù was spread quite thin, and I think it would have been best to use the Ricetta Tradizionale, which incorporates tomatoes. The polpette, on the other hand, were richly flavoured - the combination of pecorino romano and pine nuts is earthy and nutty.

Sadly, Baxter and Fran never get around to eating the meatballs and spaghetti, but I won't spoil the end of the film for you. Watch The Apartment for yourself to see if they end up together.

Post script See the round-up of Susan's food blog event, Food In Film.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007


Weekend Cookbook Challenge # 19 - Broiled Figs

This month's Weekend Cookbook Challenge, started and maintained by Sara at one of my daily blog addictions - i like to cook - is being hosted by Paige at The instructions are just as I like them: loose - make a dish of any description to pair with a DVD of a movie or tv show. It didn't take me long to decide what to watch because MGM recently reissued a double-billing: Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring.

These two Marcel Pagnol novels were adapted for the screen by Claude Berri, who also directed the films, and Gérard Brach. They are cautionary tales with biblical undertones that are set against the backdrop of what is often today still regarded as paradise: Provence.

This, however, is not the Provence most of us know. Its endless golden, rolling hills - often the epitome of Summer - are, here, the setting for greed, captured in the landscape through drought and unabating heat. In Jean de Florette, Gérard Dépardieu, playing the titular role of the hunchback, arrives in the provençale countryside with his loyal wife and adventurous daughter, after having inherited a large plot of land with a water source. What he doesn't know is that the spring has been sealed by his neighbours, the dim-witted though single-minded Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) and avaricious entrepreneur César Soubeyran (exquisitely portrayed by Simone Signoret's husband, the elegant Yves Montand). The neighbours help the well-intentioned tax collector-cum-organic farmer to his ruin with the expectation of purchasing his land for their carnation venture. Manon des Sources sees Jean's daughter, Manon (portrayed by then ingénue, now international film star, Emmanuelle Béart) exacting vengeance on the conspirators.

This isn't meant to put you off your food, of course, for the landscapes are stunning, as are the village scenes: the farmers gathering in sunlit cafés despairing at their poor harvests, afternoon pastis under the shade of leafy trees, the gentlemen playing pétanque in the town square...In this oppressive Californian heat, and I proffer in any temperature, it is easy to be romanced by the azures and yellow ochres of la vie provençale.

The location of the source of life, as in the Garden of Eden, is amongst life-affirming trees. In this case, it is the fig tree. To eat while watching this film, I, thus, offer baked figs. This, to my mind, is the best way to have figs if one is to do anything to them - that is to say, not have them right off the tree. My usual additions to this Nigella Lawson recipe are a tart berry - this time red currants - and thyme (though, today, I couldn't find any in the fridge or on the spice rack; if you happen to have some, chuck in a tablespoon of fresh thyme or half a tablespoon of dried thyme). My substitution, as seems to be typical this Summer, is pistachios for almonds.

Broiled Figs
(Closely following Nigella Lawson's Forever Summer, in which they are described as Figs for A Thousand and One Nights)

12 Turkish or Mission figs (if medium-to-large, otherwise add more, as I did)
1/4 cup/55g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons rosewater
1 1/2 teaspoons orange-flower water
4 stems red currants
2 1/4 cups/510g mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

1) Quarter the figs without pushing your paring knife through the base of each fig. The key is to leave them open-mouthed. Place them cosily in a baking dish that can withstand the heat of the broiler.
2) Melt butter in a saucepan before adding the cinnamon, sugar, and garden-scented waters. Stir to combine and pour over the figs.
3) Pull red currants from their stems with the tines of a fork and scatter over the figs.
4) Fire up the broiler, and once it is fierce, put the figs under it and blister them for a few minutes.
5) Serve figs with a dollop of mascarpone and strew with almonds.

Not only does this capture the heat of Provence, where figs are abundant, but its magical properties, by way of the waters, lift one on the cloudless skies of Summer. This is the perfect dish to which one should watch the exquisite Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring. After the viewing, knock back a pastis and contemplate the philosophical debates addressed in these films.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007


Spicy Baked Chicken with White Peach

It is really too hot to do much in the kitchen these days (even with air conditioning in the house), but I can only eat so many salad and noodle dishes. My angelheart Eric has a lower salad tolerance than I do. Being a foodie, scanning the pantry for what we have on hand and the fridge or freezer for what needs to be used for a quick-cooking and flavoursome meal usually yields an interesting dish. Frankly, we probably have too many things that we have picked up on a whim or bought for only one recipe, leaving loads leftover. It seems such a waste to let things sit for too long, and most of us already know that some spices and dried herbs can lose their potentcy if unused within a year - give or take a few months.

I cannot remember for what particular recipe my angelheart Eric and I bought a bag of dried arból chiles. We do use them, but since we don't really eat especially spicy food (not because we can't take it, but mostly because I prefer to taste my food instead of being left with a numb tongue) we never seem to use more than one or two at a time. As usual, I turned to the Grand Bookcase for guidance. The lime green spine of Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday stood out, like sun rays bursting from behind a ominous and billowy clouds (this reminds me: I need to dust the Grand Bookcase). I spoke a little about this book in a recent meme, during which I was to randomly select seven cookery books. I hadn't read or used it since last summer, so rereading the book for the meme was quite nostalgic - the recipes are from the fourth season of the PBS show, "Mexico One Plate at a Time". I really wanted to reacquaint myself with Mr. Bayless.

The Salsa Roja de Chile de Arból is a traditional sauce used to dribble on top of tacos, tostadas, or any grilled goodies. For this recipe, however, it was being adapted as a sauce in which to bake chicken breasts, which typically need some pepping up. Furthermore, tomatillos are used in this salsa for their volume, brightness, and acidity. I didn't have four (or any, actually) on hand today, so I used two yellow tomatoes growing on the vine in the backyard in their place. I'm not saying this is always going to be an adequate substitution, for tomatillos are actually relatives of gooseberries, but the just properties I needed for this salsa could be achieved from using ripe tomatoes. Arból chiles rate between 15,000 and 30,000 Scoville units on the heat index, placing them somewhere between fiery poblanos and incredibly hot habaneros. They remain red (the colour that is indicative of their maturity; they start out green) after the drying process. Remember to wash your hands after handling them.

The Salsa Roja de Chile de Arból makes approximately one cup, which is enough to cover 4 chicken breast halves or 8 chicken thighs. Please find in parentheses Mr. Bayless' suggestions.

Spicy Baked Chicken with White Peach
(closely followed in Rick Bayless' Mexican Everyday)

2 tablespoons olive oil (vegetable oil)
16 dried arból chiles (or 2 dried guajillo chiles), stemmed
3 garlic cloves, peeled
2 medium sized tomatoes, cut in thirds (4 tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and cut in half)
5 chicken breasts (from 2 1/2 breasts, but you could use up to 4 breasts - boneless, skinless is fine)
1 white peach, pitted and diced (3 peaches, which is far too many for my taste, or 1 mango, peeled and diced)
1 tablespoon runny honey

For the salsa:
1) Roll the arból chiles in your fingers to loosen the seeds.
2) Split the chiles so that the seeds fall out. Discard the seeds.
3) Put olive oil in a 10"/25cm skillet. Place over a medium heat.
4) Add chiles to the hot oil, turning constantly until fragrant and a change in colour occurs, approximately 30 seconds.
5) Use a slotted spoon to remove the chiles to a blender, leaving behind as much oil as possible.
6) Remove oil from skillet with a paper towel, then set over medium-high heat. Lay garlic and tomatoes in cut-side down.
7) Once tomatoes and garlic are well-browned, turn over to do the other side. Keep an eye on the garlic as it will brown all over before the tomatoes do. Move them to the blender as they are browned. The tomatoes should be well-browned in approximately 10 minutes.
8) Add 1/2 cup water to the chiles, tomatoes and garlic in the blender. Blitz until almost smooth.
9) Cool salsa in a dish. Taste and season with salt.

For the baked chicken:
1) Preheat oven to 400 F/200 C.
2) Season the chicken breasts with salt and pepper and lay them on a baking tray (skin-side up if not using boneless, skinless breasts).
3) Pour salsa over the chicken breasts. If you do not have 8 chicken breast halves, then do not use all of the salsa, which can be refrigerated for up to one week and used to spoon over anything you grill.
4) Dot the diced peach on top of the salsa in a single-layer.
5) Bake until cooked through, approximately 20-30 minutes depending on their thickness (30-40 minutes if using chicken thighs).
6) Remove the chicken to a serving platter.
7) With a spoon, try to remove as much fat from the pan as possible.
8) Add honey to the sauce and stir, squelching the now-soft diced peach as you go. Spoon over the chicken and serve.

The most time is spent deseeding the chiles, but after that step is taken care of, the rest of the recipe is a breeze to complete. The peach is necessary to take some of the edge off the chiles, allowing you to actually taste the sauce. Be sure to season the chicken breasts or else they could taste bland in the event that the sauce doesn't sufficiently penetrate during the baking process. This recipe certainly makes for a bold step away from plain salads (and, yes, I know that salads needn't be boring, but eating them every day almost reduces me to tears), which is just what my angelheart and I were looking for. And we got to use half of the bag of arból chiles in the process.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007


Ribeye Steak Marinated with Juniper Berries, Star Anise and Rosemary

Not so long ago, during a wet Winter's afternoon in Auckland, I braised a leg of lamb (see here). Amongst the list of ingredients were juniper berries. I couldn't find any at the time, but I resolved to use them during the Californian Summer, for my angelheart Eric and I had bought some in Colorado in February (well, from an import store that brought them in from Hungary). Though I knew I wouldn't be as interested in braising meat in a hot August kitchen, the thought of making a marinade for ribeye (entrecôte) steak was implanted. Ribeye is a cut of meat that always pleases my angelheart Eric, and out of all steak cuts, this is my preferred for grilling as it has the perfect mix of fat and lean.

If I were not a fan Bombay Sapphire - my chosen spirit when out, if not having wine or cocktails - I don't think I would have been able to describe the properties of juniper berries; however, "gin" is not an adjective, is it? Further inhalations of the deeply hued cones (for that is what they are - not actual berries) conjure up images of an Alpine slope: piney (or resinous, as the younger berries tend to be) with a hint of citrus. Think of clear blue skies with a sharp, biting wind. On its own, though, it is perhaps too sharp. In Central and Northern Europe, juniper berries are often a component of sauerkraut, in a love triangle with caraway seeds and bay leaves. For our marinade, my angelheart Eric and I incorporated star anise, which was chosen to temper the juniper berries with a complex sweetness but offering the same clarity in taste as juniper berries, and rosemary, matching the juniper berries' woodiness with depth.

The oil of juniper berries is best released when lightly crushed using a mortar and pestle. This is the opposite for star anise, which in my experience releases its aroma when only lightly toasted. This is a common ingredient in many Taiwanese stews and soups. I am just a shameless hustler for all things that have the chemical compound anethole: fennel, ouzo, licorice, tarragon, chervil, Sambuca...The rosemary, which we plucked from the shrub in the yard, can be removed from its woody stem and be lightly bruised with the juniper berries.

Ribeye Steak Marinated with Juniper Berries, Star Anise and Rosemary

1 stem rosemary
1 1/2 tablespoons juniper berries
3 crowns star anise
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
3/4 tablespoon runny honey
1/4 cup olive oil
black pepper, freshly crushed
2 Ribeye steaks, approximately 1/2kg/1lb each

1) Remove the leaves of rosemary from the stem and cut thinly. Throw into a mortar.
2) Add the juniper berries to the rosemary in the mortar and crush lightly with a pestle.
3) Lightly toast the star anise, which is to say, take them off the heat when they are fragrant, which should only take a minute or two. Pound them.
4) Put the rosemary, juniper berries and star anise in a vessel large enough to comfortably snug in your cuts of meat. Add the soy sauce, honey and olive oil. Stir together to marry the ingredients.
5) Salt and pepper both sides of the steaks.
6) Put steaks into the vessel with the marinade, and rub the marinade into the steaks.
7) Leave to marinade in the fridge for at least one hour, turning the steaks over halfway through.
8) Bring steaks out of the fridge 20 minutes before you want to cook them.
9) Pat steaks dry with kitchen paper before pan-frying until desired done-ness. They are rare when springy to the touch, medium when slightly resistant, and well-done when they don't yield to the touch at all. Depending on your preference, this can take anywhere between 5 and 20 minutes.

I do not pretend that this is a conventional combination of flavours. The elements are mostly my angelheart Eric's chosing, based on our many trials with coming up with interesting and penetrating marinades for well-marbled steaks. Though complex, the combination leaves one feeling quite light, and this can be attributed to the juniper berries and star anise. To avoid astringency, rosemary and soy sauce impart depth. As an equally light side, a bed of arugula dressed with a vinaigrette and shavings of smoked cheddar (for creaminess and mild depth) was most fitting.

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Saturday, August 04, 2007


Book Review - How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food by Nigella Lawson

In 2005 Waitrose released a list of the top ten most useful cookery books, which was compiled by a group of respected chefs and cooks, most of whom had experience with writing cookery books. They left Nigella Lawson's seminal text, How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food, off the list, citing that it had not yet stood the test of time. However, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Meat Book is fourth on the list and was published a good six years after La Lawson's book - clearly, his single-subject focus and trendy concern for the provenance of meat enraptured the panelists. I am not complaining about his presence on the list, of course, but I don't think I am alone out there in feeling that How To Eat is not only a useful and reliable cookery book, but in the nine years it has been on the shelves, it has saved my generation from would-only-be restaurant and takeout patrons. And I speak from experience, you understand.

How To Eat was the first cookery book my angelheart Eric and I received. It was a gift from the sassy sauciere queen Lily, who was also in the habit of watching Nigella Lawson's television programme, Nigella Bites, with us in 2000. There was something very mesmerising about the manner in which this sensible, efficient, and hilarious woman went about cooking. She made me think I could do it. Me? No, At that stage in my life, I was young, cosmopolitan, and had no sense to save money. Also, having not decided where to live yet, Eric and I were with my parents, and we decided to spend most nights out - that is, at restaurants, not cooking at home. It was only on nights home alone and, certainly when we had our own home, that I actually started paying attention to cooking seriously.

You don't have to be serious about cooking to have and use How To Eat. Think of it not only as literature, for those who would rather read than cook, but as a wise (and wise-cracking) friend, for everything you need and may be curious to know is revealed, confessionally, as if over a glass of wine, within 500-odd pages. Now, there are no overly technical passages on methods, so if you want that sort of cooking assistance, you need to refer to other sources; however, La Lawson's voice is clear and present through the method of each recipe, making you feel proficient in whatever recipe you choose to follow. In fact, La Lawson does not see the hundreds of recipes as ingredients and methods, but as a "conversation" she might be having with her readers. This very subjective perspective is greatly appealing and is part of Nigella Lawson's long-standing charm amongst the public - those who tout her abilities more than those in the professional circuit. Beyond the tone of the writing, the layout of How To Eat is organized by useful chapters (Basics, Etc, Cooking in Advance, One & Two, Fast Food, Weekend Lunch, Dinner, Low Fat, and Feeding Babies & Small Children) in addition to providing weight and temperature conversion tables, a purveyors' guide, and a complete bibliography.

In the Basics, Etc chapter, you will find that La Lawson not only provides information on how to achieve the classics (such as how to make mayonnaise, various sauces - hollandaise, bearnaise, and bechamel - and stock - chicken and vegetable), but she does it her way, insisting that time-honoured traditions are only as good as one's personal tastes. She often simplifies these dishes (not dumbing them down, though) for the home cook who often has little time and many demands. You may not need to ever make all of these, but if you want to dress up a steak, for example, there is a sauce to go with, other than a standard pan sauce, for which she has recipes aplenty peppered throughout the book. This first chapter is worth the price of the book alone, arming you with the skills to make pastry and custard, through to advice on how to roast chicken, make madeleines, and produce the perfect ice cream - in fact, she calls it The World's Best Chocolate Ice-Cream, and it is a recipe of Marcella Hazan's which is made in the usual way before adding a hit of luxury and depth: a custard base without vanilla into which is folded melted chocolate (I have used 100% before, which is too bitter; 70% was met - and continues to meet - with more success), cocoa powder and caramel - the wow factor, lending complex smokiness to the ice cream. I have never tasted a chocolate ice-cream that is better, and I can't agree more with its placement in the Basics, Etc chapter. Obviously, you need to know how to make this, and she also offers sincere advice to heed regarding what to keep in your fridge, freezer, and pantry.

Cooking In Advance offers recipes for those occasions when you have guests over and making numerous dishes at the last minute is the fast track to the nearest institution for the emotionally fragile. This chapter allows you to experiment and play - and if nothing works out, no one needs to know. Of course some food benefits from being cooked in advance, allowed to rest, and then reheated, such as soups and stews, like Italian Broth and Chicken and Chick Pea Tagine. La Lawson expresses the virtures of and offers assistance on planning for all these occasions.

For Nigella Lawson, the beauty of cooking for one is not sheer indulgence, though that is not a cardinal sin, but experimentation. Of course, some of us have compliant partners on whose tastebuds we can experiment. My angelheart Eric, fortunately, is most accomodating and is usually as curious as I am. I understand not everyone is that lucky, but what I know from La Lawson is that when you have guests over, it is not best to choose to make something wildly different and out of left-field. Best to try it on your own. In One & Two, I have been meaning to try the Duck with Pomegranate forever, but those of you who are foodies know well how this refrain goes and always have sticky page-markers on hand. Of course, this chapter is not replete with risk-taking ventures; there are extensions of well-known dishes, too, that have been amped up. La Lawson's Kale with Chorizo and Poached Egg simply amps up a Salade Lyonnaise by substituting the frisee for kale (which, in itself could be considered adventurous, but when cooked as tender as possible and stripped from the thick stems, it is like spinach but with less furry residue on your tongue) and the lardons for chorizo. The poached egg remains intact and acts to temper the spicy chorizo.

In Fast Food, Nigella Lawson points out a few things to consider for fast-cooking success, such as the preparation and overall cooking time, and that one must never take short-cuts with food that needs to cook longer. Cook only with ingredients that are supposed to be or can be cooked quickly. I have to say that this chapter is a sentimental favourite, for it contains the recipes I first used for Baked Figs (though her recipe in Forever Summer is infinitely better and provided the platform for the version my angelheart Eric and I now use) and for the famous Seven-Minute Steamed Chocolate Pudding, which friends still ask me to make, though I haven't for a couple of years actually (not to say I couldn't in a snap, for the pages in the book are chocolate-smudged, each smear a reminder of the times I relied on this page). I also love this chapter for introducing me to interesting spices to which added to meat, for example the Lamb with Garlicky Tahina and Cinnamon-Hot Rack of Lamb.

Weekend Food is one of the larger chapters in the book, celebrating the downtime of urbanites. Meals are often at lunchtime, for it is the more relaxed period for socialising around food. This is not to say that lunch is an after-thought but that menus can be simpler - the focus is on sharing time with friends, not embarking on culinary perfection. Menus are provided for these relaxed and intimate affairs as they are for grander feasts, for every now and then one just wants to have a dinner party, which is further explored in the following chapter, Dinner. In this chapter, though, some dishes require advance preparation and others just need to relax and hang around a bit. Though there are many favourites, the menu that most gets me drooling is the Spring-scented Lunch, which consists of: Tarragon French Roast Chicken; Leeks, Rice, Peas and Mangetouts; and Lemon Pie. This is an elegant menu, full of clean flavours. What I also greatly appreciate in this text are not only the musings peppered throughout the book (whether it be on the classic British Sunday roast, the virtues of salsa verde, or the best method for soft and crispy duck), but the extolling of recipes from previously-published cookery books as sources of inspiration. La Lawson gives credit to her inspirational references and then explains why she has changed things and what you might be interested in experimenting with, for example, the above-mentioned Lemon Pie is adapted from Norma McMillan's In A Shaker's Kitchen. Instead of macerating slices of lemons with the pith on, La Lawson removes them, preventing people from leaving the bitter rubble on the side of their plates. She also suggests topping it with a meringue, with indications on how to do so.

Personally, I am a sucker for menus; I love the time that has been taken to consider the relationship between each of the courses. So much of my re-reading of this book has been focussed on the Weekend Food and Dinner chapters - they are well-marked (and stained). The courses in the Dinner chapter may be more intensive and slightly more formal than the ones in the preceding chapter, but they are mood-enhancing, tangible yet atmospheric, and, above all, inspirational. Try this Early-Autumn Dinner on for size: Guacamole with Paprika-Toasted Potato Skins, Cod Wrapped in Ham and served with Sage and Onion Lentils, followed by Hazelnut Cake with a Redcurrant and Peach Salad. There is a harmony of the turning deciduous colours, starting with the pine-green skins of the guacamole, ending with the browns and reds of the cake and salad, the comforting hues of Autumn.

The Low Fat chapter restocks the fridge, freezer, and pantry with, obviously, low-fat alternatives. Not all flavour is to be done away with, for La Lawson eats big portions of low fat food and small portions of higher calorific food in order to maintain interest in eating while she is dieting. This chapter is broken into segments: Templefood (food with cleansing properties, such as Aromatic Chilli Beef Noodle Soup and Salmon Marinated in Den Miso), Salad Dressings (such as Roast Garlic and Lemon Dressing, which uses a healthy amount of vermouth), The Statutory Cook-and-Freeze-Ahead Section (this encourages you to always have low-fat and satisfying dishes on hand, which will hopefully prevent unhealthy snacking, like Vegetable Curry in Vegetable Sauce), and Pudding (the key tip is to not make high calorie desserts in low fat alternatives, for depravation may set it, so instead try her various ideas on what to do with fruit, and always keep a bar of chocolate handy, for small pieces to munch on from time to time).

When I first reached the chapter for Feeding Babies & Small Children, I skipped it. Children didn't feature on my path then, and for the moment I don't have any paternalistic urges, though my angelheart Eric does - but I don't need to invite you to witness our domestic differences on this important decision. There is a little baby-weaning chart and there is a mantra in this chapter: expose your children to everything. I suppose this is so they have appreciation for all foods as they get older and may prevent over-pickiness. There are a few recipes that appeal to me - and I mean, me, not my fictional children: Courgette Frittata, Veal, Liver and Bacon Mince Pie (apparently La Lawson has not found a child that dislikes this pie even though it contains liver), and Digestive Biscuits (these are hardy wheaten cookies that I grew up with, for they are my father's favourite cookie; it's great to have a recipe for them should I ever hanker for them and not be in New Zealand or any other part of the Commonwealth). Parents who are looking for standard dishes with a twist might find this chapter quite compelling.

Perhaps this is a biased review, for we have had this book for years, and it is a sentimental favourite. I do, however, hope the above hand-holding through the contents of the book more than suggests its utility. As is typical of Nigella Lawson's diplomatic manner, there are suggestions of what pairs well together and offerings of alternatives that encourage the reader to veer from her path. Additionally, there are dishes to create and summon for every occassion. If all else fails, there is, of course, her famously comforting and inspiring prose. Her voice, omniscient and encouraging, ensured my first forays into the previously-intimidating territory of the kitchen were successful. Because her recipes are drawn from years of experience and from all over the globe, I was willingly initiated along roads which up until then were unconsidered. Because of How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food), I discovered Claudia Roden and Paula Wolfert, and I have been set upon a path, still being laid, towards discovering my own palate, all the while being able to entertain for my nearest and dearest. I am confident this book will inspire you, too.

Chicken with Morels
(from the chapter One & Two of Nigella Lawson's How To Eat: The Pleasures and Principles of Good Food)

15g/ 1/4oz dried morels
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 chicken thighs
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Marsala
1/2 stock cube (porcini or chicken)
1-2 tablespoons mascarpone

1) Place the morels in a measuring jug and pour hot (but not boiling) water over them, but no more than 200ml/6.7 fl. oz. Leave for 30 minutes.
2) Into a skillet, melt the butter and add the olive oil, then place the chicken thighs in, skin-side down. Make sure this is a skillet that has a lid, which will come into play later.
3) Remove the chicken thighs to a plate, skin-side up, when the skins are golden brown.
4) Over medium-heat and in the same skillet in which the thighs were browned, cook the onion and garlic.
5) Drain the morels, reserving the liquid, which you are to strain into a small saucepan. Heat the saucepan and keep the morel liquid hot.
6) Check the morels for any grit, then add them to the onion and garlic.
7) Put the chicken thighs back into the skillet, this time skin-side up, and add the Marsala.
8) Into the saucepan with the morel liquor, add the portion of stock cube and dissolve. Pour into the skillet with the thighs and cook until the thighs have cooked through, approximately 20-25 mintues.
9) Remove thighs to a warm plate and reduce the sauce, for which you can decide to remove the morels or keep them in the skillet. Push them to a side of the skillet away from the dominant hot spot if you keep them in the skillet, as I did.
10) Ladle out any fat before turning up the heat to high to reduce the sauce.
11) Stop when you have as much sauce as you like - generally, enough to coat the chicken thighs with a little for the merest hint of a pool. Turn off the heat.
12) Stir in the mascarpone. I only added 1 tablespoon, which provided enough creaminess for my tastes. You might like to add another. I also added a little more Marsala, following Nigella's suggestive lead.
13) Put the chicken thighs back into the skillet to cover with the sauce and then produce onto a plate, which you can fleck with finely chopped parsley.

For those who know me, this dish would evoke gasps as I usually detest mushrooms - don't ask me how many varieties I have tried. Though I am not fond of the texture of the morels - more for my angelheart Eric, then - I loved the morel poaching liquor. It was mildly sweet and without unusual earthy pungency, which I know some people happen to like. Immensely pleasurable and a cinch to make. Served wonderfully with brown rice and spinach sauted in olive oil and garlic.

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