Oddly enough, though it’s been a week since my last posting, I’ve done a few postable things lately. Not that you know, because I haven’t posted anything. That’s because my work has gone CRAZY!! We bought a competitor on the left coast and it’s made for some long days. Not that they’re not going to get longer, because the week after Thanksgiving I need to fly (ugh) out to California. Y-E- freakin; A-H.
Last week we went to a chain bookstore and I went immediately to the bargain section. In there, what should I find, but a hero’s book. What hero? Mark Bittman. And what book? How To Cook Everything. No thoughts, no, ‘Should I?”, I just bought it.
Oh, I’ve cooked from it TWICE this week, and have been a happy boy each time.
Possibly the nicest blogger who ever blogged in this bloggy world of ours, Sara, asked me to be part of a Round Table Review wherein we would each review a cookbook and cook several recipes from it. Cooking with my friends for fun and profit, well – not profit it the Warren Buffet sense, but profit in the exposure-to-new-foods sense? C’mon, how could I say no?
Andreas Viestad, Norwegian born culinary star, has gone way off the plantation with his latest book, Where Flavor Was Born, Recipes and Culinary Travels Along The Indian Ocean Spice Route (2007, Chronicle Books). In it, he contends that the flavor we have in food comes from spices and spices come from the Indian Ocean Rim. It’s hard for an American like me to dispute that fact considering that our continent was brought to Europe’s attention just over 600 years ago when Christopher Columbus stumbled upon us in a now famous trip to Penzey’s, or the 15th century reasonable facsimile thereof.
The book, richly photographed by Mette Randem, starts off with a compendium of spices. Each one is categorized as to where it originated from, what exactly it is, what it tastes like, etc. Probably one of the most useful resources of any kind I have come across in a very long time. The book then follows this same layout, with each chapter a particular spice and recipes from all along the Indian Ocean that use that ingredient.
Each recipe itself garners a whole page – most with a personal story putting a face on the recipe, perhaps how the author first tried the dish or an insight into the people who grow or gather the spices. The writing in these vignettes is fun and enticing, giving you not only insights on the dish, but hints on adjusting spice levels to taste.
I cannot begin to tell you how beautiful this book is to look at. The layout is colorful and eye-catching and the photographs!! As a poor sap with the second-rate digital camera trying to author a food blog, I am rendered speechless every time I come across Randem’s pictures. They leap out at you and grab you by the eyeballs (in a good way), freezing your attention to the page. There’s a picture on page 101 of peanuts, garlic and chiles that saddens me with jealousy.
But, this is a cookbook and a cookbook is judged by it’s recipes. We made six different recipes from the book and I was pleased to varying degrees by each one. Some were wonderful, some were, “Eh, take it or leave it” and some were good but, only by the grace of God.
The first recipe came from the cumin chapter and was a Fresh Yogurt-Cucumber Soup. Simple to make, it not only had the obvious ingredients of cucumbers, yogurt and cumin it also had cilantro and tomato. It tasted bitter immediately after I was done, but after resting for an hour the flavors melded and mellowed. The combination of the cumin, which warmed the mouth and cilantro which alternately cooled it was very nice, but I don’t believe I would serve it on it’s own – it just didn’t do it for me. But, the soup was recommended as an accompaniment to spicy foods and I could see that as an absolute winner.
One of the better dishes we tried was a simple desert from the cardamom chapter, Bananas With Coconut and Cardamom. I’ve known about cardamom for twenty years because it’s a key ingredient in my Christmas Glogg, but that’s the ONLY thing I had ever used it in before this book. Anywhoo, this recipe is so stinkin’ simple and so stinkin’ good, it’s a crime I keep using the word stinkin’ in reference to it. Slightly under-ripe bananas are poached gently in a spiced coconut milk bath. Oh, my. I used baby bananas for this and I have a feeling that we have those on this earth specifically for this dish. Seriously. (Want the recipe? It’s here)
You can’t have a book about spices that centers itself around the Indian Ocean and not talk curries. I made two curry recipes, the both again using the ubiquitious coconut. Fish in Coconut Curry was a spice cavalcade, with cardamom, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, chiles and pepper. The first four are toasted in a pan, filling the house with the most beautiful, incredible, heady, (insert synonyms here) aroma, then added to coconut milk with tomato, lime, onion and of course, fish that had been rubbed with turmeric and ginger. Definitely a go-to dish in the future, if only to toast those spices again.(Want the recipe? It’s here)
The second curry was a cake. Yes, a cake. The curry mixture this time are the typical spice cake spices with a few, but not outrageous, additions. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg have star anise and cardamom join the party in this, sorry to say, uninspired cake. Though it’s called Coconut Curry Cake, it has a paltry 3 tablespoons of grated coconut in it – I couldn’t taste it. Now, to be fair, I do live in New Hampshire and it’s January, so running out to the back yard and getting a fresh coconut from the tree isn’t an option. Maybe if I was using fresh coconut, it would have come through, but with the bagged stuff I can get now, not so much.
The Tamarind Chapter led us to a recipe I was salivating over – Entrecote With Onion, Ginger and Tamarind. I was also to discover that America is a big country and in it, some things are bigger. The recipe, for two, mind you, calls for SIX onions, sliced and cooked. After I had sliced three, I gazed at the huge pile and called it a day, somewhat confused by this apparent disparity. It was only later, going through my new Nigella cookbook I saw she refers to an average onion as 1/4 of a pound. My three onions weighed in at over 1 1/4 pounds, nearly the 1 1/2 pounds (if onions in Europe are 1/4 pound each) the recipe calls for.
I also discovered something else. Tamarind paste, called for in the recipe, is not the same as tamarind concentrate, the only thing I could find. You see, tamarind concentrate needs to be diluted 1:1 with water to make what you would have if using tamarind paste. I found this out the hard way, making a dish I call Tamarind Hell, which is Entrecote With Onion, Ginger and Tamarind using full bore tamarind concentrate in place of tamarind paste. After the exorcism, I tried it again with the correct tamarind and found it to be as good as I expected. The tamarind was just right – the onions had a sweetness and sourness that complimented the steak just right. I can only imagine how wonderful this would be if the steak had cracked black peppercorns pressed into it before cooking. (Want the recipe? It’s here)
The last recipe was the one I wanted to try since I opened the book – Stuffed Onions With Ginger And Lamb. Strange that I should want to do this, considering I haven’t liked lamb my whole life but just the idea of stuffing onions with meat and all the flavors – I knew I needed to smash through my self-imposed boundaries and go for it.
And I’m glad I did. I really liked it, but making this was a chore. The recipe was only marginally helpful with the mechanics of making this. The first step is to “peel the onions and cut out the root ends” and simmer the onions for 15 minutes in turmeric-laced water to soften them up. After that’s done and they have cooled a bit, we are to “cut a slit in the bottom of each onion and press out the layers“. What is the “bottom” end? Wouldn’t that be the root end that we cut out previously? Through trial and error, I found the “bottom” is actually the stem end; the stem stubbornly holds onto the onion layers and cutting a slit releases the layers. And using a fork to pull them out from the root end works MUCH better than pushing them out. Oh, and turmeric stains like the Dickens! I dumped the water in my white sink and turned the whole thing yellow! I had to bleach it to get it clean.
The recipe also calls for the onion “guts” to be cooked with two pounds of lamb, dried apricots (?), ginger, almonds, red pepper, cumin, garlic…all kinds of happiness. But, I think two problems reared their ugly head here – the onion issue from the Entrecote and no testing of the recipe. I only used about half of the onions to mix with the lamb and such and still ended up with nearly TWICE the amount of stuffing needed. And if my onion hypothosis holds true and European onions are smaller, it would have been that much more left over. I have to believe no one not connected to the recipe was ever asked to make it as written.
Ok, no more Mister negative! For all it’s faults, I loved it! I served it to friends who were up for dinner and they loved it! I was so unsure about the apricots, but like a good good soldier, I followed orders and put them in, only to find their subtle, wouldn’t-know-what-it-was-if-I-didn’t-put-it-in flavor incredible! I can’t wait to make these for my parents, who love lamb. Definitely my favorite recipe from the book. BTW, as a test I used four yellow onions and two Vidalia onions and there was no noticeable difference in taste.
So, what’s my overall impression of the book? I like it a lot! I think you will need a good spice collection and be comfortable in the kitchen to use it to it’s fullest. That being said, there are a lot more recipes in the book I intend to make (Cubeb Pepper Figs jumps to mind) and whenever I’m looking to get out of my comfort zone and make something different, I know I’ll be going to Where Flavor Was Born.
And a special thanks to all my fellow members of the That Cookbook Thing:
Anyone who has spent five minutes reading this blog knows of my almost inappropriate love of Michael Pollan and especially of his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Here is an almost hour long video of a speech he gave about that book. Grab a snack and link back to the YouTube page so you can view it full screen.
Last weekend, the kids and I went off to the bookstore armed with some gift certificates and time to kill. Little Chef had picked out his books in about three minutes and Princess hemmed and hawed, finally buying just one book.
After perusing the bargain section for foodie books, I wandered over to the food section and got to work. I looked around and promptly gave up, asking a very helpful young man to direct me to Michael Pollan’s new book, “In Defense of Food”.
Armed with the only one I really wanted, I then picked up a book by my girlfriend, er..I mean, Nigella Lawson, “How To Eat”. This isn’t just a cookbook, it’s full of her advice on eating, entertaining and thinking about food.
Lastly, I bought something that as I look through it, I realize I should have bought a long time ago – “Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques”.
This is the companion book for his old PBS show that I watch in rerun each week and in it he teaches over 1,000 basic cooking techniques, like how to filet a fish, tie a roast, skim a stock, etc. I love Jacques and I can’t say enough about his autobiography, “The Apprentice”. If you EVER get a chance to read that, DO IT!!!