Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Mamma Mia, Oy Vey!

cover of The Italian-Kosher Kitchen
 The Italian-Kosher Cookbook
By Ruth and Bob Grossman
Galahad Books, 1973

When I first saw this book, I thought it was a gag book, but a quick look showed that while it is humorous, it's actually quite useful for those wanting Italian food that conforms to Kosher rules. A follow-up to the Grossman's Chinese-Kosher Cookbook, it follows the same pattern of adapting classic dishes of one cuisine to meet dietary laws while maintaining respect for the initial cuisine

Chock full of puns and Yiddishims, the book is funny--but the humor can pall after a bit. Every single title has a pun or joke or two. It gently lampoons a certain kind of Jewishness--that of the New Yorker immigrant and its second-generation. Full of bubelehs, schlmiels, and nudniks this is an enjoyable light read.

The recipes are supposedly the creation of "Grandma Slipakoff", who peppers her recipes with constructions like:

"…an artist you should be in the kitchen."

"This will make plenty for 4-5 people and maybe tonight you'll skip yourself the dessert."

By turns nostalgic, silly, and practical, the recipes look like they work, though they might be a little under-seasoned--but not atypically so for its publication date. For example, the Lasagne Spinaci Mazeldik is a straight-forward cheese and spinach lasagne, but is considered "spicy" despite having only 2 cloves of garlic, and a few tablespoons of basil, parsley and oregano. Oddly, it also calls for a cup of breadcrumbs to thicken the tomato sauce.  That's going to be one solid lasagne.

Other recipe titles that caught my eye:

Stuffed Eggplant Indigestione

Qvelling Cod Filets

Gefilte Fish Fra Diavolo

Um Gepahtch Kid Matzoh Brei Parmigiana

Since Italian cuisine values vegetables and grains, as well as having a rich Jewish history, creating Kosher dishes isn't too difficult. I'd like to see how the Grossmans handled shrimp and pork dishes in their preceding work or the omnipresence of butter in the book that followed on Kosher French cuisine. I'll keep an eye out for both at the next book sale.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Traveling in Space and Time

American Cooking: The Northwest
by Dale Brown and the Editors of Time-Life Books

I recently visited Seattle for a conference, and while most of my food was decent but uninspired hotel cooking, I did have an amazing meal at Bar Sajor. Usually when I travel I manage to find a new cookbook to bring home, but this time I was so busy trying to cram in some sightseeing that I never got to a proper bookstore. I did see some cookbooks in a touristy shop or two, but nothing caught my eye; they were mostly "gifty" books.  
The series has pretty covers, but the spines are prone to fading

On returning, I looked over my regional American shelves, but the pickings were slim. In fact only one book could be considered: American Cooking: The Northwest from the venerable Time-Life series Foods of the World.

For the uninitiated, FOW was series of 27 cookbooks that were published by Time-Life between 1968 and the late 70s. Each volume actually came in two parts: a hardback volume that described the topic cuisine (Classic French Cooking, Russian Cooking, etc.) and frequently also functioned as a travelogue, and a smaller, spiral-bound volume that contained just recipes. While the hardbacks included some recipes, the spiral volumes had all the recipes. Both can be found online for sale, though rarely together; the spirals are harder to find.

Library and estate sales are a good source for both kinds; I frequently see the international ones there. I got most of my international spirals in one full swoop at a library sale and have been filling in the bound volumes. Recently I snagged the American Cooking set, which is eight volumes alone! Unfortunately, I don’t have any of the spirals for the American set.

But they're still worthy reading, and The Northwest was enjoyable in its depiction of a large and diverse region. There was a focus on the historical Northwest, particularly the food ways of the pioneers, loggers, and traders of the frontier. Much of the text celebrates the natural bounty of the area with sections on hunting, fishing, and foraging.

While the initial intent of these books may have been educational, this volume, like many of the others, spends more time looking backwards than forwards. Even the interviews with contemporary cooks and food purveyors are pervaded with nostalgia for a disappearing way of life, one that seemed more immediate in the Northwest region.

Forty-five years after initial publication, those ways seem even farther away, and, of course, there is no indication of the massive changes in industry and population that would occur. Yet, there is still a sense of the forest when you visit the Northwest, even in the cities of Seattle and Portland. An acknowledgment perhaps, of the mountains that sandwich the area and its isolation from the east.

What I was aiming for
I tried the following recipe from the Alaska chapter. I like rhubarb and have ready access to it from my mother's garden. The rhubarb plants came with the farmhouse she bought 40 years ago--she occasionally divides or moves them, and they just keep coming back year after year. The one disadvantage of this old-fashioned rhubarb is that it is more green than pink. So, my ring lacked the rosy hue of the original. In fact, it was a distinctly unappetizing shade of what I will call "slug".

But as my stepfather said, "There's nothing wrong with the taste." And the taste is good--a clean sweet taste, refreshingly cold, and excellent with some whipped cream. I think if I made it again, however, I would scant the sugar by a couple of tablespoons to give it a more sour edge.

Rhubarb Ring
Adapted from American Cooking: The Northwest

2 pounds rhubarb, cut into ½ inch pieces, about 4 cups
1 cup sugar
1 ½ cups water
2 packets unflavored gelatin

Combine the rhubarb, sugar and 1 cup of water in a non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Simmer until rhubarb us tender but still intact. The original recipe suggests 10 minutes. I found it only took about 5 minutes, and my rhubarb was not very intact even then.

Meanwhile sprinkle the gelatin over the remaining ½ cup of water and let it soften, about 4 minutes. Off the heat, stir gelatin into rhubarb mixture and stir until it dissolves completely. Turn into an oil-coated ring mold. Cool to room temperature and then cover and chill at least 3 hours or until firm. Turn out to serve.

The book recommended serving this with strawberries and barely sweetened whipped cream. I think the cream is a good idea, but I'm not a fan of strawberry and rhubarb together. In the end, we just ate it with some Readi-Whip.

If you are brave, scroll down for a photo comparison.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

When Engineers Cook

The Chinese Cook Book by Wallace Yee Hong
Crown Publishers 1952

Check out the attractive gray and yellow color scheme
I inherited several mid-century cookbooks on Chinese cuisine from my grandmother. I find them fascinating. Without fail, they all proclaim that they teach "real" Chinese cooking. Never mind that Chinese cuisine has serious regional differences--much can be said the same for any book on French, Italian or American cuisine. You gotta start somewhere, right?

I find Chinese books from this era to be endearing in their belief that acceptable result are possible in a Western kitchen with limited access to special ingredients, while also finding them to be unappealing in the liberal use of canned ingredients and MSG.

Hong, a restaurateur in NYC and Boston according the jacket, begins with a brief introduction, a list of purveyors of special ingredients, and a list of Recommended Chinese Restaurants.* He then jumps right into soups and shu mai and works his way through various ingredients, ending with tea and wine.

There isn't a lot of handholding here. Hong has no truck with explaining ingredients or techniques. You better already know how to stir-fry and what to stir-fry in. There are no pictures. This reads very much like the sort of recipe book a restaurant creates for its staff. Formula-based, the recipes give amounts and basic instructions, but the chef is expected to have enough experience to understand the preparation and serving of the dish.

To make matters worse, and this is what I love about this book, there is the actual syntax of the recipes. Hong loves to assign letters to his ingredients; I assume to make the actual writing of the recipes shorter and more efficient. He basically breaks all the rules of recipe writing. The result is something that will most likely make perfect sense to the engineers out there. The rest of us will have to muddle through what is distressingly like cooking instructions from IKEA.

Insert Tab A into slot B. Simmer for 10 minutes. Garnish with C.

This is also how he crams in 438 recipes in a 262 page book. He liberally uses cross-references like this:

272. Steamed Squab, West Lake Style (Si-Woo Bok Opp)
Use the same method and ingredients as in recipe No. 247, using 3 or more squabs instead of duck.

I will give this book credit for including the Chinese names of recipes in the text and index and for using mostly fresh foods and ingredients we don't see very often, including terrapin, eels, squid, and lotus root. Compare the complexity of the above recipe with a newspaper clipping I found in the book for a much more pedestrian and Westernized "Jade Empress Chicken."

Don't go crazy with that garlic salt or dry ginger!

Unfortunately nearly every recipe in The Chinese Cook Book calls for MSG--certainly every savory recipe calls for at least a teaspoon of "seasoning powder."  If this was standard operating procedure for Chinese restaurants in the day, no wonder everyone complained of headaches. I'm getting thirsty just thinking about it.

*including one in Detroit! New Life Chop Suey on Gratiot.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Gracious living

 Life is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days by James and Kay Salter
Alfred A. Knopf  2010

The start of a new year seems a good time to look at this charming book. A free-flowing collection of stories, recipes, trivia, food facts and memoir, there is nothing quite like it. While it can be used as a reference, it's much more a book for pleasure reading.

Arranged neatly by the days of the year, the entries are sometimes very specific to the day; at other times they nod at seasonality, and sometimes the authors abandon any strict time constraints and ramble on joyfully.

The Salters clearly have spent years compiling this collection. Interwoven among the hard facts are reminiscences of meals eaten, various dinner guests, and thoughts on food, entertaining, and the place of dining in our lives. They also have a special affinity for other writers, and there are many literary nuggets, some only tangentially related to food.

Throughout, there are sweet watercolor illustrations by Fabrice Moireau. Paging through this on a gloomy winter day, the images conjure up Paris and the Côte D'Azur. The Salters themselves seem like a Wes Anderson film family come to life. I suppose it's too late to be adopted.

If you are at all like me, then your first impulse is to read the entry for today's date before reading the entry for your birthday. Both are good examples of the range of the book. January 7 is the birthday of Ruth Cleveland, for whom the Baby Ruth is named. My birthday gives advice on the size and arrangement of dining room tables. Perhaps not one of the more exciting entries, but what do you expect for a Virgo? The Leos and Scorpios always get all the attention.