Category — Cookbooks

What Thomas Keller Taught Me

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home.  I settled onto the couch and strategically balanced the oversized, very heavy book on my lap.  By the time I had finished flipping through its pages, not only were my thighs numb, I already had accumulated about a half dozen recipes that I wanted to try.  Did I expect anything less?  Probably not.

How is this any different, you may ask, than any other new cookbook acquisition?  Consider this – while other cookbooks may give me collections of recipes that I’d like to try, thumbing through Ad Hoc at Home has managed to actually change the way that I think about cooking.  If you’ve ever seen the dozens of cookbooks that occupy their own Billy bookcase (and half of a second one) in our library, you would know that this is no small feat.  I’ve gone from collecting recipes to collecting techniques, and Ad Hoc at Home is a treasure trove.

One of the first recipes that I tried out of Ad Hoc at Home was actually listed as an ingredient for another dish that I wanted to make.  The soffritto, which is one of the components of a roasted pepper recipe, calls for only three primary ingredients – spanish onions, plum tomatoes, and olive oil – plus one minced clove of garlic at the end.  Easy enough, right?  And yet, the actual recipe itself, when done in accordance with Keller’s instructions, takes five hours from start to completion.

From a process perspective, nothing could be simpler than this soffritto.  Just chop the onions, toss them into a pan with a generous amount of olive oil, then simmer away for 2 1/2 hours.  At that point, create a tomato pulp by stroking the cut plum tomatoes against a grater, add that to the onions, and simmer for another 2 1/2 hours.  One pressed clove of garlic finishes the dish.

You would think that such a simple recipe would yield standard results – a sweet caramelized onion flavor, some acidity from the tomatoes, but nothing fantastic, right?  This is where the magic of Keller’s technique shines – the resulting soffritto has such a depth of flavor, it’s tempting to just break out a spoon and eat it straight from the pot, thereby nullifying five hours worth of toil for five minutes of pleasure.  The overall experience is a subtle shift in perception, a quiet realization that, if treated with enough care and attention, even the humblest of ingredients can surprise you.  I used the soffritto in the roasted peppers, then gradually depleted the rest of the batch by stirring it into scrambled eggs and folding a spoon of it into a batch of home fries.

My one admission is this – I didn’t carry the recipe through to its full five hour preparation time.  It’s not that I didn’t want to, it’s that I was forced to end it early after realizing that the soffritto was browning way too quickly.  My burners were not designed to sustain such a low simmer as what Keller’s recipe demands, and I was forced to take the soffritto off of the heat to save it from turning into a charred mess.  So, as soon as I get my hands on a flame tamer, I’m going to tackle this recipe again, and do it right the next time.  As good as the soffritto was after three hours, I can only begin to imagine how it will taste after five.

And one day, I may just find myself in Yountville, sitting down to taste the original.

May 12, 2010   Comments

A Review of Chocolate: A Love Story

My first experience with Max Brenner chocolates occurred this past summer, during the last few hours of our trip to Manhattan. We stopped into the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar in Astor Place, our curiosity piqued by the notion of an entire restaurant devoted to chocolate.  Exhausted from having taken in two full days of the Fancy Food Show, and with a bag containing sixty pounds of cookbooks in tow (long story), we were in no shape to sit down and engage in a full meal – but that’s not to say that we merely browsed and left empty-handed.  It’s CHOCOLATE, folks.  You can’t just look.  It’s illegal to just look.

The store is like a Willy Wonka fantasy for adults. A variety of chocolates were showcased under glass, like jewelry, and it took us quite a few minutes of circling the case before we were able to decide on our selections.  Each square piece of chocolate featured an intricate design and yielded flavors blending the usual suspects – fruit, liqueurs, nuts, cereals – all very good, and beautifully presented.  A box of Max Brenner chocolate pralines is as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate.

With that said, when I was offered the opportunity to review Max Brenner’s cookbook, entitled Chocolate: A Love Story, there was absolutely no hesitation behind my acceptance.  As it turns out, just as his retail shops are no standard confectioneries, Max Brenner’s book is far from your ordinary cookbook.

Max Brenner, in collaboration with the artist Yonatan Factor, has created a compelling work that achieves something that is rare among cookbooks – Chocolate: A Love Story not only inspires me to cook, it also inspires me to write.  Reading this book, you realize that a cookbook that is prepared by a writer can become a very different animal from all of the cookbooks that are mere collections of recipes.

Most of the 65 recipes in this book are introduced by snippets of prose written by Brenner, which all tend to evoke themes of love, romance, chocolate, and nostalgia.  Not content to simply throw recipes at the reader, Brenner seeks to draw his audience into his world, using prose to set a mood for the reader, so that they may experience a fleeting glimpse of some deeply emotional fiction that connects Brenner to the recipe on the page – romance, whimsy, ennui, nostalgia, senses of loss and remorse among them.  Remorse? Are we still talking about a cookbook?  Amazingly, we are.

The recipes are accompanied on the facing pages by Yonatan Factor’s Art Deco poster graphics, which serve to complement Brenner’s prose, and which sometimes threaten to transform the recipe itself into a third wheel.  Thankfully, the majority of the recipes are strong enough to stand on their own, and then some.

Recipe titles like “Control Freak Chocolate Spread” and “Politically Correct Sacher Torte” mingle freely with straightforward declarations like “The Belgian street waffle” – a deceptively simple title which contains no hint of its inclusion of butterscotch chips, roasted pineapple, and a white chocolate and orange maple sauce.  There’s even a recipe that mimics a cheeseburger in its entirety – but using chocolate instead of beef patty, strawberries instead of ketchup, and so forth.  It’s not something that you would expect an average reader to attempt, but Brenner gets credit for the imaginative effort.

Reading the intro to “My lost childhood chocolate birthday cake”, which one would think to be a surefire recipe for happiness, actually made me a little sad. The recipe itself is a very basic yellow cake preparation with a ganache frosting, nothing fancy or overly complex.  The same recipe could appear in a dozen other cookbooks and evoke no emotion whatsoever. Yet, in Brenner’s hands, it’s something else.

In his introduction to the book, Max Brenner says that after ten years of seeking inspiration, he has yet to embark on writing his first novel.  But, flipping through the pages of his book, it’s quite clear to me that he’s already been on his journey as a writer for quite a while now, and maybe he just hasn’t realized it.  All of his ingredients are in place, somewhere in his mind – he just needs to put them all together to create a literary meal.

December 1, 2009   Comments

How to Build the Ultimate Cookbook Library

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from a Best Food Blog Ever reader who was interested in building a cookbook collection, and was soliciting my recommendations on the best titles to pick up.  It seemed like a simple question, but before I realized it, my reply had already reached four paragraphs and a deeper level of analysis than I ever would have deemed appropriate for the query.  Though I never have given much thought to the subject, it turns out that I actually do have a process – a method to my madness – and I’m sharing it with you today.

I’ve written about my cookbooks before, but never really discussed my library in detail.  As I would imagine is the case with any media archive, whether it’s books, music, or a certain movie genre, there are a handful of titles that serve to establish the foundation of your library.  These are your “desert island” titles, the books that you know, for certain, contain the core recipes that enable you to whip up almost any appetizer, side dish, main course, or dessert that you can envision.  Your library doesn’t need more than one or two foundation titles, as you’ll find that the ingredients and techniques for a basic recipe of, say, hummus, are not going to vary much – if you’re aiming for a traditional interpretation of hummus, that is.  Think of the recipes in your foundation titles as starting points that you can riff off of to come up with your own style.  My foundation titles are The Best Recipe, which I cherish because of their scientific approach to finding the optimal ingredients and methods for each dish, and The Joy of Cooking, which is encyclopedic in its scope, especially since they’ve recently updated with a new edition.  I may not completely agree with the preparation for a specific dish in The Joy of Cooking, but I know to a certainty that I am holding a baseline recipe in my hands.

After you’ve settled on your foundation titles, you want to begin exploring method-specific cookbooks, which I refer to as “Technique” titles.  Technique titles delve deeply into a specific topic like roasting, pressure cooking, slow cooking, baking, braising, or any other method that’s used in the kitchen.  By using these books, you’ll learn to identify the best methods of preparing something that you come across at the market – a nice piece of fish, a good cut of beef – and you’ll also prevent your repertoire from becoming boring.  Face it, there are not a lot of protein options in your local supermarket; it’s either chicken, pork, beef, or fish of some sort, and not all of those alternatives will be available on a given day.  If all you knew how to do was roast things in the oven, you and everyone that you cook for would quickly grow weary of roasted chicken, roast beef, roast pork, and roast fish.  Being able to prepare a single type of meat using several methods opens up choices, and it also makes for space economy when you’ve got other things going on in the kitchen.  If the oven is busy with a casserole or other side dish, for example, it becomes essential to know a few recipes that don’t need to use the oven.  I try to pick up as few Technique titles as possible, although sometimes new titles hit the shelves that represent a new “best” guide.  Some of my Technique titles include Roasting – A Simple Art, The Gourmet Slow Cooker, The Pressure Cooker Gourmet, and Splendid Soups.  I also tend to favor the Williams Sonoma Essentials series.

The last tier of cookbook titles that should be in your collection are ethnic classics, and this is where you need to be the most selective.  It’s important to note that when I say “ethnic” I am also referring to regional American cuisines, as well – southern cooking, Tex-Mex, and New England recipes come to mind.  There are many, many ethnic cookbooks on the market, and they all vary in their degree of authenticity.  Ideally, you will want to choose titles that truly convey a sense of a particular culture, beyond just the recipes of that culture’s cuisine.  Peruse the bargain bin of any chain bookstore and you’ll find dozens of Quick and Easy-type of cookbooks that promise to make you the next Martin Yan, Mario Batali, or Madhur Jaffrey.  But, if you really think about it, if you really wanted to cook like these chefs, you would just buy their own cookbooks.

Don’t shy away from an ethnic recipe because it contains ingredients that you haven’t heard of, or are otherwise hard to find.  Many times, an unfamiliar ingredient is the first step on a journey of discovery that will take you to ethnic markets and parts of the city that you would otherwise never know about.  As a last resort, there are sometimes substitutions that you can make (orange and lime juice for bitter oranges in Cuban cuisine comes to mind) that will enable you to experience the recipe in as near-completeness as possible.  Some of my most well-worn books for ethnic cuisine are The Breath of a Wok and The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, A Taste of Old Cuba, and Lidia’s Family Table.  By flipping through any one of these titles, you’ll see that the authors go to great lengths to educate the reader on their own experiences growing up as part of that culture, and it makes you appreciate the dishes even more when you know a little more about them.

I love talking about this stuff, as you can tell.  If you have any questions, shoot them my way at ddl[at]bestfoodblogever.com.

January 28, 2009   Comments

On Fire at the Wild Wing Cafe – Charleston, SC

Yes, I’m getting around to trip updates from the Charleston excursion.

If there’s ever a mecca for wing eaters, it’d be the Wild Wing Cafe.  At any given moment, Wild Wing has over 30 different types of wings, ranging from five or six different heat levels of your standard buffalo wing, to alternate flavors such as Thai, Lemon Pepper, or Garlic.

Wild Wing also lays claim to one of my favorite appetizers, the Hot Shot, which is what you see pictured above.  A basket of Hot Shots, along with an introductory beer, is the preferred way of slipping into a meal here.  Served piping hot straight from the fryer, hot shots are similar to fritters and consist of spicy sausage, cheese, and batter-of-some-sort, rolled into balls and fried crispy.  All of this is served with a dipping sauce that looks like a tub of melted margarine with some lemon pepper thrown into it (which is probably exactly what it is).  It’s the finest appetizer of its kind.

Coming to Wild Wing immediately after checking in at the hotel, we were fortunate to find ourselves arriving on Wild Wednesday, which is their way of saying ‘2 for 1′ on the wings.  Charleston is, after all, a college town, so there’s lots of deals to be found that are appropriate for a college student’s budget.  We each ordered a dozen, with two varieties per order for a total of four flavors.  The hardest thing about coming to Wild Wing is figuring out which kinds you want.  We ended up getting Gold Rush, Garlic! Garlic! Garlic!, Lemon Pepper, and CHINA SYNDROME.


Gold Rush and Lemon Pepper have been our favorite flavors since well before we were married, so it was a no-brainer to order them.  The Lemon Pepper is exactly as it sounds – the wings are tossed in a light margarine coating, and then liberally sprinkled with lemon pepper seasoning.  They aren’t spicy, but they sure are tasty.

The Gold Rush, which is my pick, is a tangy, slightly spicy, slightly sweet sauce.  The menu describes it as honey BBQ with a kick, but the flavor is more subtle, less cloying than your typical honey barbecue flavor – and I think the barbecue in this case may have been mustard-based.

So that brings me to the China Syndrome story.

I have quite a tolerance for heat.  For some time now, I’ve maxed out on the heat level at Hooters, and their 911 wings don’t affect me at all.  Everywhere I go, I tend to order the hottest level of wing that is on offer, and, for the most part, I am rarely impressed.  So, when it came time to order a typical straight buffalo wing at Wild Wing, well, I went for China Syndrome.  On the menu, it’s two steps above the typical ‘Hot’, and two steps below what the restaurant calls Braveheart.  When our food came out, it’s the first one that my fingers went for, and I promise you, I will never, ever order that flavor ever again.

I have been defeated by a buffalo wing.  Here’s the thing about the wings at Wild Wing – they aren’t served covered in sauce, like you’ve seen in other places.  Here, what seems to be happening is that the cooks fry the wings, toss them in sauce, and then pop them into the oven for a bit, so that the sauce bakes onto the wings.  The sauce still comes off on your fingers, but they’re a little neater.  So, with the China Syndrome, what I discovered that evening is that the wings actually had red pepper flakes baked into them, and that’s what made all of the difference.

My mouth was on fire in a way that hasn’t been seen since the Bhut Jaloki Incident, which I have yet to tell you about.  Beer, as quenching as it may be, was no match for the pain and fury that my body was experiencing.  So, with that one wing, my entire meal was put on hold while I waited for the effects of the China Syndrome flavor to subside. I’m never doing that again.

August 7, 2008   Comments

Introducing My Cookbook Collection

Books

For some people, it’s shoes. For others, it’s consumer electronics. For me, the object of my collection obsession, as it has been for a number of years, has been the cookbook.

You may have noticed that, so far, a lot of the recipes that have appeared on The Best Food Blog Ever have been sourced from cookbooks and culinary magazines, and this is by design. I am approaching the development of this blog much like the evolution of my own skills in the kitchen. At first, you prepare recipes exactly as they are presented in a cookbook, to the letter, and as someone new to the kitchen, you fear any variation lest you “mess up” the final dish. Then, one day, you really want to make a particular recipe and you find out that you’re missing one small ingredient – and you substitute, and it works. Then you do this more and more, and one day, you’re using the cookbooks and recipes as launching points, taking an idea here, a technique there, and making your own creations based on tried-and-true past experiences.

That’s my rationale for having so many cookbooks. Quite a few of them are good for only a handful of recipes, but they are solid, dependable recipes that will always work. Others, like the Joy of Cooking and The New Basics, are the go-to books for master recipes covering a broad range of different ingredients and techniques. Still others form the basis for my core knowledge of ethnic cuisine, and I try to limit myself to the “best of the best” for a certain nationality, but someone’s always writing a better one that will be published one day, and that will invariably end up in my bookcase.

The oldest cookbook that I own was probably picked up when I was fifteen, and the most recent was likely found at an outlet store for a killer price. I used to avoid books that had a lot of fancy photography and advanced layout (I still have a small collection of Frugal Gourmet paperbacks) but in today’s modern times that’s all we seem to get, and I don’t mind the shift. I’ve come to realize that food photography can go a long way towards illustrating what a dish is supposed to look like, and without it, you’ve lost an important barometer of how well you’re executing a dish.

Perhaps the best part about finally buying a house was being able to display all of my cookbooks in one place, as opposed to having random stacks of them on the floor in our old apartment.

Well, that, and the larger kitchen.

May 10, 2008   Comments