Monday, February 23, 2009

A Gentle, Sweet Tale of Food, Cooking, and Possibly ... A Little Magic

"I'm thinking something minimal, industrial. Lots of stainless steel--I love stainless steel--with a concrete floor and black cabinets." Susan's hands gestured and pointed. "No handles--I hate handles --and maybe some rows of open metal shelves above the countertops. We could put the dishes and the new pots and pans up there." She turned to her fiance, who smiled and nodded. Amanda waited, thinking perhaps there would be more but this appeared to be the end.

:So we'll just leave you to do your magic for a littl while. Jeff and I need to go talk master bathroom, anyway. We're going to have to take out the whole third bedroom just to get a decent master suite!" And with another laugh, she was gone.

[...}

Antonia stood in the kitchen, trying in her mind to lay the outline of Susan's vision over the kitchen that existed, but the straight lines kept bumping into the curve of the bay, sharp edges rumpled by the cushion on a window seat, the rounded back of an imaginary chair, warmed and softened by the fireplace that somehow, in every iteration, never seemed to give way to the image that Susan had presented.

In Antonia's four years in America, in her four years of designing kitchens in eighty-year-old cottages and colonial mansions, contemporary condos and doll-size Tudors, this was the first fireplace she had seen in a kitchen, and she found herself circling it like a child with a dessert she knows is not for her. ...

But here was a fireplace. It reminded her of her grandmother's kitchen, with its stove at one end and a hearth at the other, the space in the middle long and wide enough to accommodate a wooden table for twelve and couches along the sides of the room. Her grandmother's cooking area was small--a tiny sink, no dishwasher, a bit of a counter--but out of it came tortellini filled with meat and nutmeg and covered in butter and sage, soft pillows of gnocchi, roasted chickens that sent the smell of lemon and rosemary slipping through the back roads of the small town, bread that gave a visiting grandchild a reason to run to the kitchen on cold mornings and nestle next to the fireplace, a hunk of warm, newly baked breakfast in each hand. How many times had she sat by the fire as a little girl and listened to the sounds of the women at the other end of the kitchen, the rhythmic rap of their knives against the wooden cutting boards, the clatter of spoons in thick ceramic bowls, and always their voices, loving, arguing, exclaiming aloud in laughter or mock horror at some bit of village news. Over the course of the day, the heat from the fireplace would stretch across the kitchen toward the warmth of the stove until the room filled with the smells of wood smoke and met that had simmered for hours. ...

----

"I don't know how to do this," Antonia told her boss in misery.

"What is the problem?" he asked.

"She doesn't want a place to cook. She wants a kitchen for people to see her in."

"You've dealt with those kind of clients before--more than once, and you've done it beautifully.:

"But this kitchen--you'd have to see it. I can't take it apart."

"But it's not your kitchen, Antonia, and they are the clients. You'll have to see through their eyes. Or," he added teasingly, "figure out a way to make them see through yours."
Here we see the basic message that Erica Bauermeister presents in different ways, through various characters in her first novel, The School of Essential Ingredients. The back cover says it is about "lessons that food can teach us about life," however I beg to disagree. It is about rediscovering our roots by turning away from the artificial and superficial ways of modernity back to the time-worn wisdom of slowing down life. Anyone familiar with the Slow Food movement will recognize a kindred message in Bauermeister's novel.

Bauermeister beautifully points out the many ways that fully appreciating ingredients, cooking, and meals changes lives in her story of the people who come to a series of cooking lessons. Some know that they are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives. Some do not. However, all are transformed as they handle, chop, combine, taste, and feed others. As each class's theme is revealed so is the story of a different person or couple. This includes the history of the school's instructor, Lillian, who also owns the restaurant in which the classes are held. There may be elements of magical realism involved (such as those found in Chocolat or Like Water for Chocolate) but the author didn't lean on these and most of the positive results were from grounding the characters' more in reality rather than hocus pocus.

I enjoyed this gentle, sweet tale although it suffered somewhat from comparison to the book I read immediately before it, The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones. Mones book delivered a more complex story, albeit with a different focus, and I found myself wishing that Bauermeister's plots were not quite as simple. We could see problems and conclusions before they were revealed and this was a disappointment, although the prose was as delicious as the food prepared in the novel. However, for a first novel it is very good and I can recommend it. In fact, I will be giving a copy of this book to my mother, who I think is in just the perfect mood to appreciate it.

I will be looking out for Bauermeister's second novel with anticipation.

For another review, read this one from Tea and Cookies.

Note: this review was based on an uncorrected proof from the publisher.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Cilantro Haters are United

fetid barb of green
cilantro spoils the stuffing
coriander too
Such was penned by a cilantro hater after finding cilantro slipped into the Thanksgiving stuffing. I must say that cilantro does not belong in stuffing.

This WSJ article looks at the many haters of cilantro who unite in Facebook groups and other places.

I used to be one such. When I was a child the smell was unappetizing and the taste soapy. However, with my early adult years my tastes changed. Who can say why? All I know is that my former distaste makes me sympathetic to those who abhor cilantro, such as my mother-in-law, and so I leave it out of any recipe when I know that one such is going to be at our table. I myself am merely happy to now be among those who can glory in cilantro's unique flavor, such as the fellow who wrote this haiku.
crisp cilantro sprig
trendy garnish refreshes
why peeps be hatin

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Crunchy Cornmeal Waffles

Now if only I could remember where I got these? The Doubleday Cookbook? Or maybe The King Arthur Baking Book? Aaargh ... well, if anyone recognizes it, let me know and I'll give proper credit.

These are sturdy, tasty waffles that we enjoy on their own but that I have a sneaking liking for as the base for creamed tuna. You may raise your eyebrows in surprise at that, but creamed tuna is a family favorite and considered a high treat. I think the secret is in using albacore tuna, whole milk (instead of a lower fat product), and last ... but not least ... that pinch of nutmeg which is du rigeur for a good white sauce (well, one used for this purpose anyway).

It also helps when you have searched high and low as I did to find a waffle iron that makes four waffles at a time. So much faster than the regular one-waffle-per sort.

Step 1:
1-3/4 cups buttermilk
2 large eggs
5 tablespoons melted, cooled butter or vegetable oil

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, and melted butter or oil.

Step 2:
1½ cups unbleached flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

In a separate bowl, blend together the dry ingredients, then quickly and gently combine the wet and dry ingredients. Let batter sit for 10 minutes to allow the cornmeal to soften.

Drop the batter by 2/3 cupfuls onto a hot waffle iron and bake until the waffle iron stops steaming.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

This Just In

The Cracker Kitchen: A Cookbook in Celebration of Cornbread-Fed, Down Home Family Stories and Cuisine by Janis Owens
Though our roots are in the Colonial South, we Crackers are essentially just another American fusion culture, and our table and our stories are constantly expanding -- nearly as fast as our waistlines. We aren't ashamed of either, and we're always delighted with the prospect of company: someone to feed and make laugh, to listen to our hundred thousand stories of food and family and our long American past.

Crackers, rednecks, hillbillies, and country boys have long been the brunt of many jokes, yet this old Southern culture is a rich and vibrant part of Amer-ican history. In The Cracker Kitchen, Janis Owens traces the root of the word Cracker back to its origins in Shakespeare's Elizabethan England -- when it meant braggart or big shot -- through its proliferation in America, where it became a derogatory term to describe poor and working-class Southerners. This compelling anthropological exploration peels back the historic misconceptions connected with the word to reveal a breed of proud, fiercely independent Americans with a deep love of their families, their country, their stories, and, most important, their food.

With 150 recipes from over twenty different seasonal menus, The Cracker Kitchen offers a full year's worth of eating and rejoicing: from spring's Easter Dinner -- which includes recipes for Easter Ham, Green Bean Bundles, and, of course, Cracklin' Cornbread -- to summer's Fish Frys, fall's Tailgate Parties, and winter's In Celebration of Soul, honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

Recounted in Owens's delightful and hilarious voice, the family legends accompanying each of these menus leap off the page. We meet Uncle Kelly, the Prince of the Funny Funeral Story, who has family and friends howling with laughter at otherwise solemn occasions. We spend a morning with Janis and her friends at a Christmas Cookie Brunch as they bake delectable gifts for everyone on their holiday lists. And Janis's own father donates his famous fundamentalist biscuit recipe; truly a foretaste of glory divine.

This showed up in the mail when I got home from work yesterday. I am really looking forward to reading it. I love Southern cooking and Owens' voice in the introduction already has me smiling and nodding and anticipating more.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A Couple of Books to Look Out For

If you liked Animal, Vegetable, Mineral and also Michael Pollan's writing, then it seems to me that Mark Bittman is taking elements of that whole way of thinking about food and putting it together in Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Probably not a lot new for those who are in tune with the food world but I have read reviews from several non-foodie friends who had their thoughts sparked by the two books I mentioned. They will probably find a lot of good stuff here. I am waiting for the library to get it in ... because I like reading the basics also. You never know when you will learn something new.

Also along those lines is Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient. I still begrudge the pork industry what we lost when they went to the "lean pig." In other words, I remember when a pork chop was tender. And had tons of flavor. I'm waiting for this one from the library as well.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Professional Cutlery Giveaway

Now this sounds like a good deal!
Food Service Warehouse sells professional cooking equipment to chef's, restaurants, and anyone interested in commercial quality cooking supplies.

We are giving away $1,000 worth of professional chef's knives made by the largest manufacturer of professional cutlery in the U.S. No purchase is necessary - just fill out the on-line form to enter. You can check out the giveaway here.
The knives they are giving away are of a brand I don't know but then again I don't buy professional cooking equipment. The photos and description are very alluring ...
The Connoisseur® Collection Chef's knives features high-carbon stainless steel blades that are hand-ground and honed for ultimate sharpness. The rosewood handles are infused with polymers and resins, making them impervious to stain, hot water and food acids.