A reader recently asked whose food-writing I enjoy. Truth is, after so many hours of scribbling food prose, I’m totally full — when I hit the pillow I want mainly mysteries — Andy Dalziel, Inspector Wexford Dave Robicheaux, or Stephanie Plum — not food porn. But the current crop of culinary books furnished some good reasons to read.
R.W. Apple Jr.: Far Flung and Well Fed, St. Martin’s Press, hardbound, 432 pp., $26.99.
After enjoying some of the late (2009) R.W. “Johnny” Apple’s essays over the years in the New York Times, I bought his final book of collected essays and realized that Far Flung will occupy a permanent position on my headboard, to retaste in bedtime bites before plunging into the dark side of prose. Apple’s is by far the best in this barrel of books. (This, and all but the Terra cookbook, are available on Amazon.com at a discount.)
If Anthony Bourdain’s Cook’s Tour (his more recent book is reviewed below) took us dining around the globe with a macho egomaniac, Apple’s essays offer a series of peripatetic dinners with one of the most charming, entertaining raconteurs and awesomely knowledgeable eaters on the planet. I wanted his book to go on forever. (Doubtless, Mr. Apple did, too, but all men are mortal.) He is only a hair less adventurous an eater and traveler than Bourdain: he covered numerous wars for his newspaper, and war correspondents can’t be cowards.
He goes everywhere, eats nearly everything (and so, generally, does his delightful wife — so much for culinary machismo). No food snob, he delves deep into the catching and smoking of seafood, the making of fine cheeses and wines, the seasoning of Southern sausage patties, the growing of Italian vegetables, etc. I wish I’d had this book when I traveled in India: he found the best dosai in Kerala’s funky Ernakulam (which I didn’t, during the whole torpid week I spent there). There’s even a local angle, or angler: In a chapter on the bluefin tuna of Baja, our own professor Sam Popkin of UCSD makes an appearance.
You’ll learn what’s so great about Dover sole, what French three-star Michelin restaurants look like inside (ugly!), and why you can’t get the best French cheeses here. (Our government, which barely blinks at E. coli and salmonella from American agribusiness, won’t allow raw-milk cheeses into the U.S., despite Western Europe’s stronger, better-enforced food-safety laws.)
The book also includes a few intriguing recipes, including two from the legendary Maison Troisgros (lamb rack and salmon), both made with readily available ingredients and easy techniques. There are more exotic flavors (such as shrimp in coconut milk from Brazil’s Bahia) and some highly regional American dishes.
This is all about joyous learning from mentally eating with a convivial, erudite tablemate whose company and menu choices you’re sure to cherish.
Anthony Bourdain: Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, Harper Collins, 304 pp., hardbound, $26.99.
Bourdain’s the one with the best-seller, of course. The book is essentially reality TV in print — brutal, boastful, macho. Bourdain, less substance-abusing than in his Kitchen Confidential days, has himself become a TV personality, which somehow, amazingly, seems to have swelled his ego! He loves dropping names of big-time chef buddies, but even more, dissing chefs outside his personal circle. (What could be more classically narcissistic than building up your ego by trashing somebody else’s? Although I admit to a scooch of envy-driven schadenfreude when he criticizes my old friend Alice Waters — a beautiful, upper-middle-class blonde — for her often-naïve idealism and born-to-the-manor privilege.)
This is a fast, fun, snarky read, but in the best chapters, Bourdain plunges into serious journalism. One chapter concentrates on David Chang, prickly Korean chef of the celebrated Momofuku. And then Bourdain discovers an unsung artisan in the fish-cutting room in the bowels of Le Bernardin (inarguably the best seafood restaurant in America). There, he spends a morning with its single fish-cutter, a native of the Dominican Republic named Justo Thomas. Between 6:00 a.m. and noon, Thomas dismembers and prepares 700 pounds of whole, untrimmed, ungutted fish, each species according to its nature, and mostly creating perfect, uniform fillets. There’s even a happy ending. Staffers aren’t allowed to eat at Le Bernardin, but Bourdain gets chef-owner Eric Ripert’s permission to treat Thomas to a full tasting dinner there. Dressed in his best suit, Justo finally gets to delight in the fruits of his labor, as cooked by an extraordinary chef. To a curious eater, this chapter justifies the price of the book: You look at restaurant fish with fresh eyes.
Melanie Rehak: Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., hardbound, $25.
Melanie Rehak’s Eating for Beginners is not, after all, a primer on developing your tastes for the finer things or the exotic things — that’s more Apple’s purview. The plot: A young bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) mom in a nice New York neighborhood with a picky-eater toddler worries about what to cook and where to buy it (e.g., local nonorganic versus nonlocavore organic? farmers’ market versus supermarket?). In the early chapters, I found myself annoyed by her serene sense of entitlement. Has the author once stepped into a bodega in Spanish Harlem or the South Bronx? Has she ever ventured into anything like our own misnamed farmers’ market in Barrio Logan (I call it the “used-vegetable market”) or smelled the “catch” at some of the little old-fish stores along its edge? Organic food in poorer neighborhoods? How about fresh food?
The “beginner” learning to eat is her rug rat, who rejects most foods. So (don’t ask me about the logic), Mom takes a kitchen job at a cozy nearby restaurant serving dishes made from local, sustainably grown ingredients. The vibes are kindly and nurturant (opposite of Bourdain’s old Les Halles) as the staff and owners gradually teach her the skills of all the cooking stations. From there, she expands her horizons by taking strenuous day jobs with the restaurant’s various suppliers — organic farms, cheesemakers, merciful meat-ranchers, sustainable-catch fishermen, et al. These chapters are pretty interesting (although Apple’s book covers some of the same ground with more sparkle and sophistication, minus the personal perspiration).
The book includes several attractive recipes, including starchless crab cakes bound by eggs. But there’s also solid information framed as first-person mini-adventures in the pursuit of healthy food. The central message reveals why organic produce is more expensive than factory produce — it’s not just a nasty scheme by Whole Paycheck to pick your pockets. The political infrastructure (think: senators of both parties collecting huge contributions to their reelection campaigns) supports agribiz with favorable laws, tax breaks, rare and lax inspections, and monetary subsidies that we pay for with our taxes. Agribiz food is initially cheaper, but we pay in other ways (air and soil pollution, chemical residues in our waters, etc., and E. coli and salmonella). In fact, we pay through the nose for the agri-billionaires to feed us, just not directly at the cash register.
Tom Standage: An Edible History of Humanity, Walker & Company, 288 pp., $16, paperback.
If you avoided anthropology and history in college in favor of fashionable psych or gut-course sociology, this book offers the fun of an ungraded elective on humanity’s development, centering on food in human life from the Neolithic to the now. It’s a rich route into the story of humankind, because nothing matters so much as food. What we eat and how we get it plays a central role in shaping our societies, whether we’re nomadic Kung tribesmen of the Kalahari or urban sophisticates glued to the Food Channel while gobbling Domino’s pizza.
In Standage’s account, hunting and gathering was humankind’s Eden, a life of relative leisure in egalitarian, communal social structures with shared food and minimal personal possessions. Agriculture brought our fall into a life east of Eden, of perpetual labor and anxiety. All too soon, surplus crops bred personal property, then wretchedly unequal social and gender roles, with leaders, warlords, kings, hierarchies, husbands, harems — plus cities and specialized artisans and artists, giving rise to the deadly vices of shoe-shopping and pedicures. Apparently, along with the stability it brings, surplus food breeds greed (and often slavery and war) the way rats breed fleas. A few chapters later, we’re into the Medieval spice routes to Asia, and eventually, the hostility between Christians and Muslims drawn from their spice-route rivalry — and, finally, some chapters later, life as it is today.
You’ll learn that the precious spices (and later, hot peppers from the Americas) were not, as the old canard says, employed to cover up the taste of rotten meat (nothing can do that!) but rather, to rub on the surfaces of meat to preserve it from rot. You’ll also discover that hot-water-bath preserving and canning in metal are products of the Napoleonic Wars. But it’s not all trivia-contest material: The book is a slow thrust through the ages to show us how food took us to where we are.
I do have a few carps, of course, especially in paleoanthropology. For instance, the author says that in nomadic hunting societies, where everybody had to move on foot to follow the game supply, women refrained from childbearing before a move. Did they refrain by using the pill or the IUD? Infanticide was one option, but almost all societies have invented infant-slings (ranging from animal hide to fair-trade organic Pima cotton) to carry babies on moms’ backs. Heavily pregnant women, toddlers, and tribal elders would be much more trouble on a trek (perhaps they were dragged on human-drawn sledges?). So, don’t take this book as a literal Bible of history with every aspect considered — just enjoy it as a survey course, larded with delicious food for thought.
From Terra’s Table, Jeff Rossman, Chefs Press $32.95, 208 pp., hardbound. Available from chefspress.com or at Terra Restaurant, across the street from Trader Joe’s in Hillcrest.
I originally intended to cover only food-writing rather than cookbooks, but then Jeff Rossman, chef-owner of the charming Terra Restaurant in Hillcrest, came out with a cookbook just in time for my deadline. (Official publication date is early November.)
Rossman’s aim is to help you “shop seasonally, cook simply, and taste the food that is grown near your home.” In light of the farm-to-fork movement, many Californians have changed the order of a typical shopping trip: Instead of choosing meats first, we look for the best produce items and then choose proteins. The cookbook encourages this new pattern. It’s organized in chapters according to specific produce (from avocados to root vegetables to vines, then various types of fruits) and finally, an appendix of resources. Almost anything seasonal that you find at the neighborhood farmers’ market, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or even in the supermarket produce bins is likely to occupy a spot here with a few tasty recipes, with or without animal proteins.
Many chef cookbooks are nutsy (unless the chef has a normal human collaborating with recipe-testing, etc.) because restaurant kitchen routines and recipe quantities are so different from those used at home. Happily, Rossman’s recipes are down-to-earth, accompanied by Paul Body’s savory photos. I didn’t have a chance before deadline to try out any of the dishes personally, but I trust my gimlet eye as an ex–cookbook writer and cookbook consultant to spot any strange giraffes in the backyard. I do wish that fewer recipes served six to eight. It’s the old-style standard for cookbooks, but you can’t hold a dinner party every night, and these portions no longer reflect today’s smaller families.
The only serious recipe worries I found involved two preparations for duck, both roasted “hands off” for three hours at 350 degrees, which sounds to me like a recipe for fatty skin and overcooked breast, unless your duck is the size of a Churkendoose. (Most good cooks start off searing duck at about 425º for 20 minutes to render some of the subcutaneous fat and start crisping the skin; then you pour off the rendered fat to avoid a grease fire in the oven and lower the heat, turning the bird at least once, roasting about two hours for a four-pound Muscovy or Moularde.) With the alluring recipe for duck with fruited bread pudding, the steps are all in the wrong order — Rossman first makes the pudding, then starts the stock for the sauce, then roasts the bird. Ouch! First (even a day ahead) should come the stock, then assembling the bread pudding (also a do-ahead possibility), then roasting the duck, and finally baking the pudding alongside the bird; it can cool down a bit to serving temperature as the done duck rests.
A series of prefaces on ingredients and techniques will help new cooks get started, although some instructions are scanty (e.g., in “deglazing,” Rossman doesn’t mention stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape up the solids). And, given all the wonderful veggie recipes here, I wish he’d included a full recipe for vegetable stock: one can’t just guess which veggies to use. A few ingredients (e.g., lemon avocado oil) are hard to find, and when it comes to achiote paste, a popular Latin ingredient bottled by Goya, Rossman sends readers up to Linda Vista for a product easily found in the central city’s neighborhood groceries from North Park on south.
So far, you’ve heard all my reservations but not enough praise. Most of the recipes in this book sound delicious, and the great majority are easy to shop for and to cook. I like the briefings on beers and wines (and the recipe for crème fraîche, which is hard to find locally). I very much like the wine and beer suggestions with each recipe, including much good local hooch. And I totally approve the use of gyoza or wonton wrappers for homemade ravioli, including Terra’s famous Pumpkin Ravioli and the delicate Spring Onion Ravioli. Some top French chefs in America employ this wonderful shortcut — why not you and I?
Above all, if you’re one of Terra Restaurant’s devotees or if you just prefer eating locally and seasonally whenever possible, you’ll probably enjoy sampling the goodies you’ll cook from these mainly easy recipes, with their distinctive emphasis on our region’s best, freshest ingredients. ■