Tag Archive: cookbooks

Cooking the Books #1

Like my new little series of “Bite Marks” on my food blog, SaltShaker, for mini-restaurant reviews, I’m trying to be a bit more organized, and I thought I’d start with doing much the same with book (and other media) reviews. Let them be gathered together and all that….

So I have this vague recollection that a few years ago someone told me about a new food novel about some Indian chef in France. It sounded kind of interesting, but I forgot completely about it. Then, of course, last month, everyone started going gaga over this new film about some Indian chef in France. It sounded kind of interesting, but I thought I’d read the book first. And there on the cover of The Hundred-Foot Journey is a quote from Anthony Bourdain claiming that it’s the bestest everest novel set in the cooking world that’s ever been published, or something to that effect. Novel, mind you, not best cooking or chef or food book. But that’s a pretty bold claim and a big gun name to get on the cover of your book. So I sat down to read it. And read it. And… pretty much, I couldn’t put it down.

I ended up reading through it over two evenings, before bed. I got completely caught up in the story, the writing is tight, well paced, and I thought the story developed beautifully, I found myself right there along with the protagonist, our erstwhile Indian chef in France. I loved it from cover to cover, be it the food and ingredient descriptions, particularly those relating to his Indian influences, and I could see exactly how his drive to succeed pushed him into this world without social connections – it’s what happens to many chefs who get singled minded in pursuit of their craft. At some point, it all comes crashing down, or, they find a balance.

And I started to think, there’s no way they could make this into a movie, no one but chefs would want to watch it, which means that one of two things has happened – either they’ve made a really arty film that will become a cult hit with people who are really into food – foodies, if you will, or, they’ve torn out the soul of the book and replaced it with some Hollywood feel-good storyline. The movie’s getting raves all over the place, take a guess….

[spoiler alert if you keep reading]

I just knew it, I never should have gone to see the movie (which, inexplicably, here is called Un viaje de diéz metros, or the Ten-Meter Journey, when it should be Thirty-Meters). I can’t say it was a heartless adaptation, because first, it wasn’t heartless, it was all about heart, it was all about romance – two parallel romance stories that never occur in the book, in fact, one of the romance lines involves two people who in the book are dead, part of what drives our young chef to become what he becomes – it was, however, soul-less. Second, it’s not an adaptation. That assumes that there is some relation to the original story, one that involved racism (in the book) rather than politics (in the movie) – oh so blatantly dropped out of the early scenes, in fact, the family name is changed from a Muslim one to a Hindi one (to be more specific, a Kshatriya clan name), just to bypass that whole arena (a bit of racism comes in later on, but that’s not until the family is in Europe). All the intense, graphic scenes of dealing with ingredients (like nearly a chapter spent on the hunting and butchering of a wild boar), are sanitized into an idyllic bicycle ride through the woods looking for mushrooms and the occasional fishing line cast into the river.

I could even forgive the romantic storylines and whitewashing the grittiness (whatever for? watching someone butcher a pig is far less gruesome than watching, say, an episode of Bones) that make the movie a box office draw if it wasn’t for the most egregious offense, one that amounts to food racism (and I’m a bit surprised, given some of the people who are behind the movie) – in the book, it’s our Indian chef in France’s refined, elegant, modern Indian food that shocks, surprises, delights, and opens doors, and the French food comes in later; in the movie, despite his evident passion, he’s shown cooking homestyle and street Indian food, and it isn’t until he embraces the French classics (and later molecular gastronomy, which never happens in the book) that anyone pays a moment’s attention. Indian food, it’s made clear, is something that Indian people eat, not those with any taste. At most, we can allow a few spices to be added to the “real” haute cuisine in order to make it a bit “exotic”, but no more. (Actually, there’s a whole second racist overtone – the family goes from in the book being well-off, well-dressed, albeit outsiders from India, to being relatively poor, grubby immigrants, and the family restaurant is ignored by the townspeople until the family starts dressing up in Bollywood costuming. Oh, Oprah, were you paying any attention? Or do you think the only people hurt by stereotypes are black?)

Now, how would I have felt if I hadn’t read the book first? Obviously, I can’t really know. Would I have picked up on the whole shift of cuisines? Probably not, but that’s also because he wasn’t shown making the elegant, modern style Indian food, he didn’t start going for elegance, presentation, refinement, until after starting to learn about French food. Had the movie followed the book, it might have been more evident. I wouldn’t have known about the dropped racism in India storyline. I wouldn’t have known there were no romances developing. I wouldn’t have known it was missing the deep diving into the guts of animals that was so graphically portrayed in the book. So my guess is, it would have come across as a reasonably well acted and directed story about love and a passion for food, albeit a bit schlocky. Read the book, save your movie dollars for when it shows up one day on WE tv.

Now, a bit less in-depth, just short thought on another book finished this week:

Awhile back someone recommended this book to me, I don’t recall who. Japanese Farm Food, by Nancy Singleton Hachisu and Kenji Miura, is a beautiful look at a type of Japanese cuisine and an approach to preparing it that most of us in the West probably will never experience. As such it’s a great journey, well illustrated and with easy to follow, step-by-step instructions. The flipside is that many if not most of us may simply not live somewhere with access to the ingredients necessary to make these dishes properly, and if there’s any fault in the book it’s the lack of suggestions for substitutions on ingredients, equipment and method. While I can appreciate the commitment to the integrity of the dishes and their tradition, it leaves much of the book as something interesting to read and dream about.


Neat Observations

Easily the most bizarre book in the gastronomy world I’ve ever read. I’m of two minds (at least) about Observations from the Kitchen by Richard Neat. Let’s start with the style. It’s written in a weird third-person with all the personae titled rather than named, “The Cook”, “The Banker”, etc. It’s strange enough when someone writes about themselves in the third person, but third person abstract is a step way beyond. The book is written with the intermingled threads of a chess game, a series of recipe procedures, and personal interactions. The chess game is meant to be, according to the author, a metaphor for the way things unfold in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the metaphor is lost in translation – here and there it seems to apply to the rest of the narrative, but mostly, not. One reviewer of the book assumed that he himself was lost because of not being a chess player. No, I play chess and the narrative that’s lost.

The text is desperately in need of a good old-fashioned proofread. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes abound. Homonym interchanges take place with maddening regularity, seemingly several times in each chapter, as the author doesn’t seem to either have understood, or, perhaps, just let some sort of auto-correct feature take place, between pairs like break and brake, your and you’re, bare and bear, etc.

The book is, apparently, intended as an odd auto-biography, tracing the author’s/chef’s journey through his career in various locales and kitchens. There’s no question he’s a brilliant and well-known chef. I’ve used some of his recipe elements myself and they’re without peer (not pier). The food and the recipe procedurals are without a doubt the highlight of the book. And there’s no question he illustrates how much effort and thought go into his dishes.

“The Cook”, perhaps self-aware, or perhaps oblivious, presents himself proudly as an overbearing, histrionic and petulant tyrant and points to this as “the only” recipe for a successful restaurant venture and the training of cooks. I certainly don’t agree… the best restaurants I’ve worked in have never been those with “difficult” chefs.

Worth a read for the food, and perhaps just a glimpse at that infamous line between genius and madness.


Moderately interesting, not quite as “outre” as the excessively long title Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodgyear might lead one to believe. The author is a bit too infatuated with restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who makes anywhere from a cameo to a full blown participant in almost every chapter. The book is very Los Angeles-centric – pretty much nothing happens unless it’s there, as if that city is the epicenter of the cutting edge food movement – nothing against L.A., but, really, it’s not. Of course I found the chapter about underground restaurants intriguing until discovering that it’s basically 100% dedicated to Wolvesden, again, nothing against them, but they weren’t the first, they didn’t invent the concept, nor did the concept start in Los Angeles, not by a long stretch.

The book is a bit too self-centered – not in a pretentious sense, and I understand that she’s writing from her personal experiences – but she seems a bit too sure that she’s the one that has discovered, for the first time in history, all the things that she’s writing about, even while acknowledging that she heard about each and every thing she experiences from someone else. In the end it comes across as a series of personal journal entries rather than a well thought out book. That doesn’t take away from the overall subject interest, which is what held my attention through the book.


More, Yo

Almost two years ago I reviewed the book Plenty by chef and author Yotam Ottolenghi, and it’s still one of my favorite “go to” books for creative and interesting vegetarian recipes. At the time he’d just released two other cookbooks but neither was yet available in ebook form. The most interesting of the two that struck me was Jerusalem: A Coobook, and I put in a pre-order for it for when the e-version became available. At some point it did, auto-downloaded itself onto my tablet, and there it sat, forgotten in the electronic reading “pile” that tends to back up on my disk. I finally got around to it a few weeks ago and wended my way through it.

It’s as well written as the previous book, the subject material is far different. He and his co-author/chef Sami Tamimi explore the classic dishes of the interwoven cultures of the city of Jerusalem, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian, Israeli or Arab, of Middle Eastern or Eastern European origin. There’s a particular focus on the dishes that the two of them, one Israeli, one Palestinian, have from their formative years. And, it’s a great read. In many ways it’s more of a storybook than it is a cookbook, despite an ample number of recipes. It would be an interesting one to cook one’s way through, but personally I’d be more likely to cook my way through Plenty. Still, it’s one to add to my small collection of Middle Eastern cookbooks, and that adds some depth to a particular subset of those cuisines.

From Jerusalem: A Cookbook

I gave a shot at two of the recipes, modified slightly for the ingredients that we have available to us – for the most part I was able to find everything, and we had a delightful dinner of roasted squash and onions with a tahini dressing, and a lovely salad of chickpeas, tomatoes, and cucumbers in a garlickly yogurt. I’d happily eat either again, Henry wasn’t overly thrilled with the squash dish, finding the tahini dressing a bit on the bitter side for his tastes, which is more a matter of adjusting the amount of tahini in the dish, something that the authors bring up a couple of times in the book.

Do I recommend the book? Absolutely, if you have an interest in exploring a facet of Middle Eastern cuisine. And, if not, but you’re a fan of great vegetable dishes, head back to that previous review and pick up a copy of the other book.


Growing Up Russian

Great book by an author who I already liked – Anya Von Bremzen’s Please to the Table is a fantastic resource for the various cuisines of the former Soviet Union. I was surprised that there was little cooking in this new volume, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. While there’s a fair amount about food, much of it is about politics and growing up, and just life in general, and there aren’t any recipes or even hints at them while reading – which I suppose eminently fits the subtitle, A Memoir of Food and Longing. Only upon reaching the end of the prose, about 90-some percent of the way through the book, did I discover that all the recipes are provided at the back, more or less as a final chapter – I think I’d have liked to know that upfront. Still, her story more than makes up for that and I definitely recommend the book.


On Fermentation and Carrot Pudding

I’ve gotten away from posting about various food books that I’ve read, and someone asked me this week if there was anything I’d read recently in the genre that I recommended. So, I thought, let me get back to that – I’ve been reviewing what I read over on Goodreads (yet one more social network to belong to, for book lovers) – so some of this will be copied from my thoughts there.

Sandor Ellix Katz - The Art of FermentationThe current darling of the die-hard foodie set is Sandor Ellix Katz and his books on fermentation. This one came to my attention first, if I recall correctly through Aki and Alex over at Ideas in Food as a recommended book, but I could be wrong about that. Here’s what I had to say over on Goodreads: “Easily the most comprehensive introduction to the world of home fermentation (primarily of vegetables and fruits, but not limited to those) that I’ve seen. Well written, interesting, and very smartly lays out the procedures rather than specific recipes (which I believe can be found in his previous book, Wild Fermentation, next on my reading list), so you can adapt the procedures to what you have around or want to work with.”

Brussels Sprout ferment

It led me to play around with a fermented Brussels Sprout idea that resulted in these delicious little things – I posted briefly about it, there was more in the followup comments after someone asked me for the recipe:

The Brussels Sprout ferment was pretty basic, and I plan to play with it a bit, but:

1 kg brussels sprouts, cored and quartered
1 rocoto chili, slivered
1 red onion, sliced thin
1/3 c coarse kosher salt
1 Tb yellow and 1 Tb black mustard seeds
Water to just barely cover

I left it for a week in a warm spot in the kitchen, covered, and just opened it once a day to make sure any buildup of pressure was released – though I don’t think in the end it was likely necessary. Then I put it in the refrigerator for another week before using them – fermentation continues, but slower.

As a first change, I think on the next run through I’m going to separate the sprouts into their leaves (core them and then pull them apart) – I’ve been finding that some of the middle layers of leaves haven’t fermented as thoroughly and are a little bit to crunchy still. I think I’d also toast the mustard seeds on the next go-round to help bring out their essential oils a little more, the mustard was just a bare hint in the background and I was hoping it would be more prominent.

And if you missed it, here’s how I used it in last week’s dinners. More ferments to come….


Amelia Simmons - American CookeryI truly don’t remember how this one came to my attention. I’m sure it was in some article I was reading about the history of American cooking that probably mentioned it, and I found this on Gutenberg as a free download in various formats – rather than paying Amazon $5 for the download. I mean, the book was written in 1760, I don’t think the author is going to miss out on residuals. My thoughts on Goodreads: “Just an interesting glimpse into the world of cooking in the U.S. a bit over 200 years ago. Generally acknowledged as America’s first published cookbook, it’s a guide for unmarried women who find themselves needing to take work as domestic help in the homes of the wealthy and covers how to select meats and produce and how to prepare them properly for the tastes of the day.”

I don’t know why, but a recipe for Carrot Pudding caught my eye. It’s a semisweet sort of pudding, and I was thinking it might make an interesting side dish. It’s a little too sweet and pumpkin-pie filling-ish for that, but I’m going to play with the general recipe and see what I can come up with as a savory version. In the meantime, a little step-by-step, because it really was delicious!

Carrot Pudding

Here’s the recipe the way the book gives it: “A coffee cup full of boiled and strained carrots, 5 eggs, 2 ounces sugar and butter each, cinnamon and rose water to your taste, baked in a deep dish without paste.”

Note there’s not a whole lot of info when it comes to how to do it – the assumption in older cookbooks like this, I’ve found, is that you know how to cook, so recipes are often little more than lists of ingredients with a note or two.

Carrot Pudding

Peeled, sliced and boiled the carrots, drained them.

Carrot Pudding

I took “strained” to mean pureed, otherwise it would be a very odd pudding. I basically just threw everything in the food processor together (melting the butter first) – I ended up using a teaspoon each of the cinnamon and rose water.

Carrot Pudding

Although it doesn’t say to, I lightly buttered the baking dish. The “without paste”, just based on reading other recipes in the book, I take to mean, “without a top crust”, since the dough used for topping pies in various parts of the book is referred to as a paste.

Carrot Pudding

No details are given on the baking process, one can assume that there were not digital temperature controlled ovens at the time. I decided to go with the way I’d normally bake a cheesecake – pop it in the oven at 180C/350F for 10 minutes, then turn down the heat to 140C/285F for roughly 30 minutes more, until the pudding had firmed up and gotten lightly golden on top.

Carrot Pudding

As I said, it comes out in many ways like a pumpkin pie filling, a little less spice, and a little less sweet. The rosewater gives a really light floral note in the background that you probably wouldn’t pick up on what it is, but that adds some interest to the flavor profile.

Next version, making it more savory – probably cut the sugar in half, add a little salt and some other spices, and see how it comes out.


No Fat Vegans

Those of you who’ve been reading my posts for awhile might remember my critique of The China Study a couple of years back. Keeping in mind that my criticism was directed mostly at the book, not at the concepts it presented, I try to keep an open mind. In fact, here at home, the majority of what I eat tends to be vegetarian, often even vegan – and here and there a bit of seafood and chicken. We virtually never eat red meat at home, well, I don’t, sometimes on request I’ll cook it up for Henry. It isn’t an ethical commitment, it’s simply I tend to feel better without eating it – I’ll still indulge on occasion if we’re out and about, but it’s rarer and rarer.

Anyway, that book and another, which I’m going to get to today, led to viewing the movie Forks Over Knives – it’s not a movie that presents any particularly new information, but given that a large percentage of the population wouldn’t pick up a book of the genre, it’s a film that they might. Well, probably not unless it airs on television because let’s face it, the likelihood is that the only people who saw it were people already interested and quite possibly committed or thinking about a change in diet. What’s particularly noteworthy is that the movie is pretty much based on these two books and the work of the two authors, both of whom, though they quote each other’s work, and know each other, like to claim that they’re the only person really out there making an effort to change things. Book publicity I suppose.

What I really should do is just tell you to go read the other critique. Why? Because I could almost copy it here. Okay, there’s some different focus, the studies are different, this book is actually better written and a more interesting read, and, the author’s wife packs the last section with recipes. But, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D.’s Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The revolutionary scientifically proven, nutrition-based cure in many ways might as well be the same book.

Again with the bludgeoning, though at least here the good doctor swaps back and forth between the phrases “plant-based nutrition” and “plant-based diet” almost as fast as Mitt Romney can switch positions on an issue. He does go a step further than the vegan diet recommended by T. Colin Campbell, PhD – he goes for full on vegan plus – eliminating chocolate, nuts, avocados, and plant-based oils (though, strangely, after deriding all types of nuts in several places, other than walnuts, which he considers acceptable, the recipes in the book often make use of nut milks…). In fact, if one gets to the end, while not officially limited to it, the recommendations are so overwhelmingly restrictive that only the most dedicated would follow them – “It is helpful to keep breakfast and lunch simple – and nearly the same every day.” The breakfast recommendations were pretty much all variations on oatmeal made with fruit juice instead of water or milk, and the lunches were pretty much undressed green salads. Example dishes touted for dinnertime include black beans and rice that we could eat just as is, every single night, and apparently be perfectly happy about, or maybe the much touted bowl of boiled, unseasoned kale.

But back to some of the science. Thankfully, the book isn’t as loaded with numbers and graphs as the other one, part of what makes it easier to read. Instead, it’s basically chapter after chapter of personal anecdotes and those of the doctor’s patients who participated in his scientific study. Here’s, however, where I get all uppity about the numbers. You see, that revolutionary (as if no vegan before had ever suggested that a switch to the diet could be beneficial healthwise) scientifically proven study consisted of 24 people. Well, really 18 people because 6 of the folk who agreed to be in the study gave it up as a bad thing after a brief fling at it. There was no control group to compare against, the doc’s clinic decided that wasn’t in the budget. There was no accounting for any other life changes – in fact the doc specifically poo-poos the idea that exercise is all that important because he’s not familiar with any studies proving that exercise is good for heart disease. His statement, not mine. Yet, he notes, anecdotally, that all of his patients became more active and got into exercise – he considers it an after-effect of the diet and it’s cure, rather than an adjunct cause.

And while he studied those 18 folk over a long period, a couple of decades, his studies are based on self-reporting. Oh yes, he drew blood and did laboratory analyses, but he relied on the patients in his study to account for how well they stuck to the diet. And he’s quite sure they all did because they told him they did, and why would they have any reason to lie about it? Certainly not his admonition that anyone who reported straying from the diet would be dismissed from the study…. Strangely, in a moment of candor, he admits that he strays from the diet himself – claiming just once a year on New Year’s Eve when he binges out on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Sure, I buy that. Just once a year. But of course, none of the patients would do such a thing. Right?

To be honest, at the end of the book I think I’d be less likely to even consider a vegan diet than at the beginning, unless I was in the dire circumstances of one of his patients. Oh, did I forget to mention that they 18 folk who participated were all basically at death’s door, their regular docs had told them to put their affairs in order and go home and die. These were folk who had had multiple heart attacks, bypasses, were on major medications, and nothing was working, so perhaps, just perhaps, they had some impetus for doing something truly radical. Interestingly, he does go back and mention that twenty years on he followed up on those six folk who walked out on the study and one had died and five of them still had heart problems. Ummm, wait, these were people who were supposed to be all dead within minutes if they didn’t participate in the study. Right?

So, another diet book written to spout a philosophy that no doubt has some validity behind it, but isn’t really doing much of anything but lining the author’s pockets. If he was as truly committed to what he claims to be committed to as he says he is, he’d be putting the information out there for free.

Maybe I should take on critiquing one of the diet books at the other end of the spectrum – a little Paleo or South Beach or something of that sort… hmmm.


Yo Yo, Yotam

Ottolenghi: PlentyFor those of you who like your vegetables, if you haven’t discovered London’s star chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes floating around the ‘net, it’s about time you do. For awhile, from December of 2008 on, he wrote a column for The Guardian, called “The New Vegetarian“, and some of the recipes that appeared each week were pretty spectacular. The column hasn’t been updated since September of last year, and even that was seven months post the previous recipe, so it looks to be a defunct source of weekly inspiration. [Edit: Contacted by tweet from the restaurant, the column still exists just under the chef’s name, and is no longer just vegetarian but a mix of his recipes.] But not to worry – Ottolenghi’s just published his new book Plenty: Vibrant Recipes from London’s Ottolenghi (he’s got two other recently released books, Ottolenghi: The Cookbook and Jerusalem: A Cookbook, that don’t focus on his vegetarian cuisine) that collects together in a convenient hardcover or, yes, ebook, not only all or most of the recipes from his column, but many more to boot.

One of the things I particularly like about the book is that it’s not preachy. First off, Ottolenghi is an unapologetic omnivore. Actually, who knows, that may be part of what ended the column, he makes a point that he and the newspaper received a lot of what amounts to hate mail from the hardcore vegetarian set, decrying everything from his lack of commitment to his unabashed use of dairy, eggs, and flavorful ingredients – you know, making things taste good. I suppose that particular subset of humanity will never get that they’re not going to attract more people to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle by being, well, dicks. I just had a similar experience – I was trying to setup some classes with a noted raw food vegan chef while I’m going to be in NYC in May, wanting to increase my knowledge of the subject and add some variety to our diet – after finding out I wasn’t committed to an all out conversion of my eating and cooking habits he got pretty abrasive on the phone and I haven’t heard from him since even though I followed up. Yeah, that just gets me all excited to learn more.

So back to the book – I have the ebook version, and it’s laid out beautifully, with great color photographs of the majority of the dishes. The recipes are easy to follow, and pretty enticing. I’d already tried a few of them in the past from reading his column and finding recipes online in other spots, and jumped right in.

Ottolenghi: Soba salad

I spotted this one, Soba noodles with aubergine and mango, almost immediately flipping through the pages. I had a packet of buckwheat soba noodles out already, planning to use them for something the other evening, so this looked perfect. I even had most of the ingredients, though two quick substitutions – I had a papaya in the fridge instead of a mango, and oddly, no cilantro in house, but some fresh dill, which sounded like it would work just fine. It did, the dish is a wonderful blend of eggplant, the fruit, a medium spicy dressing, and fresh herbs. He doesn’t mention what kind of soba noodles, though most of the folk out there posting about the recipe seem to be using the white wheat ones, I liked the nuttiness of the buckwheat version.

Grilled anchovy with ottolenghi soba salad

And, probably in keeping with his omnivorous philosophy with a vegetable rather than vegetarian focus, I already had fresh anchovy fillets lined up for the griddle (I wasn’t going to fire up the parrilla for two fish fillets). I loved the whole thing and had plenty of the salad left for me since Henry decided he couldn’t eat a savory salad that had fruit in it. Sometimes….

Overall a great book, I love that it’s organized by vegetable rather than by cooking technique or type of dish – it’s a delightful way to look at one particular ingredient and then have several ways to prepare it featured right in a row.

If you’re into vegetables, pick this one up.


Supper Club, The Book

“Oh, did I tell you I have a cookbook? I have a cookbook deal.”

– Ted Allen, writer and food show host

Did I ever tell you the story of how I was almost Ted Allen? No, I know I didn’t, though once before I promised to. So here’s the story. I was living and working in NYC, as a sommelier at the time, with a small catering business on the side, plus occasionally running these Second Sunday Supper Club dinners I’ve been going on about recently. I also had this hobby. Standup comedy. I know, it’s a strange hobby, right? But there it was. And I was actually pretty good at it – performed a couple of times a month around the city, did some events, even thought about it as a possible career – well, actually more, I thought about comedy writing as a career, the lifestyle and demands of being a comic just weren’t what I was into – but, I love food and wine too much, so, back to the restaurants with me.

Anyway, I got a call from a friend who’d seen me perform, knew I worked in the food industry, and that he was with a team casting a part for a new reality TV series for Bravo where they were going to do makeovers of straight guys’ lives, did I want to audition? I thought it would be fun and showed up on the appointed day and auditioned for a group of a few folk sitting around, there were a bunch of us… and then they asked me to wait a little while while they went through some other auditions. Then they called me back up and asked me to, and I remember this vividly, do an on camera audition “as gay as you can possibly be and selling us on White Zinfandel”. Afterwards, I got a call from the guy who’d called me in the first place, who said, “Look, we like you and we really need someone who knows something about food, but it was down to you and this other guy, and you’re just not gay enough!” So Ted, if you’re ever sitting at a table in my restaurant, wherever it may be… well let’s just say, you might want to bring a food-taster with you. Maybe Carson. Not gay enough. Bah!

Supper Club by Kerstin RodgersSo Ted Allen has a cookbook too now, damnit. Oh, and so does Kerstin Rodgers. Better known to the world at large as Ms Marmite Lover through both her blog, The English Can Cook and her supper club as they’re styled in Jolly Old England, The Underground Restaurant. I knew the book was coming out – it came out at the end of April, I got my copy a couple of weeks ago when it arrived with a lovely thank you note from Kerstin – as quite awhile back she’d contacted me to tell me she was writing a book about the whole phenomenon of supper clubs and wondered if I’d contribute a typical Argentine meat recipe. Not something I cook here at Casa S, as I told her, but it was what she wanted, so my version of locro is enshrined in her pages.

So on to the book itself. First, it’s a weighty tome, coming in at an even 3 pounds in hardcover. Love the actual cover, not so keen on the dust jacket which seems to have been designed by someone else entirely (none of which was likely in her hands). It’s cutely illustrated with line drawings throughout, the few pages of photography are a little grainy, but show a glimpse into the behind the scenes of the subject matter – it’s subtitled “Recipes and Notes from The Underground Restaurant” – and, it turns out to be pretty much that – not so much about the phenomenon, but more directly her own place. There’s certainly mention of other places, she doesn’t short shrift anyone, but in the end, there is a focal point. And that doesn’t surprise me in the least, Kerstin has been a tireless promoter not only of the whole scene in the UK, but in particular of her own spot, and she’s quite good at it with ning groups, newspaper articles, radio and television interviews, speeches, council meetings, and anyplace else one might pop up. I wish I had 10% the marketing skill that she does. Sometimes I wish she did too. That’s not personal against her, it’s just usually when a visitor from across the pond is extolling her place and telling me how I should be grateful to her for the mere fact that I’m allowed to exist.

The book is a fun read, and the text portion, The Notes, that take up the first 80 pages of 300-some, are written in style that’s basically like reading her blog or having a chat with her over tea. It’s in a casual vernacular, filled with references and slang that for a non-Brit sometimes take a moment to register. She covers everything from how she got started, to bits about her childhood, to her thoughts and recommendations on how to start your own. For that alone, it’s worth a read, even if I’d have given different advice here and there – but then, it’s all a matter of opinion and location – hers is based on the view that people open supper clubs because they’re primarily anarchists or anti-establishment, which may be true in London, but isn’t necessarily so elsewhere, like here for example. The book moves on to the recipes, laid out nicely and each with a little intro. They’re easy to read, easy to follow – I haven’t tried any of them out, but reading through them, they make sense and I think would to the average home cook. And much of the food is just for that purpose, it’s food that someone with a good basic kitchen skill set could jump in and reproduce, and uses, for the most part, ingredients that are probably found in many a pantry.

Now, if Kerstin will permit me, not that she has any choice, I’m going to poke a little fun. Not negatives, just some momentary amusements on my part….

She talks here and there about the whole anarchy of the movement and sticking it to the man and that sort of stuff. Which, to me anyway, contrasts with all the public appearances with corporate media, a book publishing gig, and, the one thing that I noted in more than a fair share of recipes, the reliance on tinned and boxed ingredients. Likewise, Kerstin is a vegetarian, well, pescetarian, but has offered up a section of red meat recipes – not of her own, this is where some of the rest of us in the supper club world came into play, but I found myself wondering why – why not take that stand if that’s what you believe in? (Assuming an ethical basis for her pescetarian-ism, which of course, may not be her reason at all.)

Having spent a good portion of my life writing and editing, proofreading mistakes tend to glare at me (in other people’s writings, for some reason they never stand out in my own when I proofread, so there you have it). The two that stand out in my mind this morning are “course salt” and “chilies en adobe” – the latter striking me with a giggle when I read it and having conjured up an image of popping the lid off a can of plaster to find spicy little vegetables mucking about in the white goo. It’s “adobo”, a tomato, garlic, onion and herb sauce that chilies, more often I would assert, come in. Likely, that was a program spell checker auto-correction that just wasn’t caught.

Blackening. It’s a process of cooking that comes to us from the Cajun cooking world. And, it doesn’t involve coating fish in spices and then baking it in the oven or frying it in oil. Really. If you’ve ever seen it done or done it, you know how it gets its name – the spice rub is fine, but the process is to have a cast iron skillet heated pretty much to glowing hot (when I worked at the Sazerac House we used to put a skillet on a flame when we got in first thing in the morning and it would be “ready to use” by lunchtime) into which you place the fish (or chicken or meat) without any oil or other fat, just dry, for long enough to char the herbs and spices, i.e., blacken them, and it was hot enough to cook the meat through at the same time.

And the last note was on her nod to Latin American traditions of closed door restaurants. Despite our having had a conversation about it, she stuck with the party line that she’d come into the conversation with, that it all started in Cuba in response to government restrictions and the American embargo (more anarchist rhetoric, I guess) with the paladar movement, and that it was a response to economics, as it has been recently in the UK. Sorry, but just not the case. First, puertas cerradas (as they’re called everywhere else in Central and South America except Cuba, where the name is based on a soap opera that was popular in the mid-1980s) have existed in Latin America stretching back as far as I’ve been able to research it – they’re just part of the culture, not economic (which is not to say there aren’t economic factors, it’s just not the driving force historically). There are places here in BA that have been open 30 and 40 years and I know of some in Lima and Mexico City that have been open as long. The paladar movement in Cuba didn’t really come into being until 1988, and was not in response to either restrictions or embargo (which began 28 years earlier in 1960), but to the start of the reversal of some of that – it was when the Cuban government made, more or less, a peace offering to its struggling populace and passed a law that allowed for paladares to open as long as they met a set of rules (limited to 12 seats, no advertising, and limited to certain dishes served, among other things). There’s a really well written history here. Paladares may not be state-run restaurants, but they’re not underground either, they’re very heavily regulated.

So that’s the book. Overall worth the investment for a combination of the interest factor, and being the first onto the shelves of what will no doubt be a slew of supper club cookbooks (hey, I’ve been working on one for over two years, but after losing the publisher who initially contracted for it, it just hasn’t been my focus). The recipes look like fun, and there are plenty of them, and like ones that any good home cook could tackle with aplomb and produce good results.