Thursday, November 12, 2009

On The Importance of Pictures in Cookbooks

I dislike cookbooks without pictures. Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of imagination on my part, but if a cookbook lacks illustration I'm likely to just pass it over entirely. A perfect example of this is Bake Until Bubbly, an enticingly-titled casserole coookbook from last year that seemed right up my alley: an encyclopedia of one-dish comfort food retooled for the 'oughties with an elegant package and not a Frito topping in sight. The cover featured a baked something-or-other in a posh Emile Henri dish with a blanket of brown-speckled cheese on top. But inside? No pictures. Feh!
I carve out an exception for Joy Of Cooking, my oldest and most-battered cookbook. That one does feature useful diagrams (its schematic on how to remove the wishbone from a chicken was a particular boon), but its recipes are by an large picture-free. However, just about everything in Joy is so standard-issue that an explanatory image is unnecessary. I know, within a certain margin of error, what meatloaf, or guacamole, and banana bread are meant to look like. It's the new stuff, the exotica, about which I need a visual hint. I encounter the same obstacle while ordering food at Asian restaurants. The menu descriptions tend to be workmanlike lists of ingredients, many of them almost indistinguishable from one another: basil, garlic, ginger, onions, etcetera. Obviously, the dishes are very different, but without knowing the proportions of the flavors, amount, color and consistency of sauce, I'm at a loss, and order with the precision of throwing a dart at a dartboard. Pictures would help. Is this dish going to be brown, or green, or some shade of red or orange?
Because I attack the preparation of a recipe the way a model enthusiast assembles an airplane kit, I'm always thrilled when something I make looks exactly like the photo. I recently found myself in possession of a number of long, bright-red peppers and no idea as to how they might be prepared. In one of those pleasing instances of serendipity, I found a simple recipe for a mezze involving the grilling of said peppers on a day lovely enough to fire up my grill. The book was called Vefa's Kitchen, a gorgeous compendium of Greek recipes almost entirely unuseful to a person whose food budget rarely accomodates the splurge of lamb or seafood. The peppers came out just precisely the way they were supposed to, and what's more, the bowl I served them in, a much-used wedding gift from our friend Zoe, echoed the graphics on the cover of the cookbook. Happiness. Here's the recipe:
1. Roast some long, sweet pointy Italian red peppers - you can throw in a spicy green one or two if you like. I grilled them until the outsides were charred, but you can do this over a gas stove by spearing them with a long fork and turning them over in the open flame of a burner (remove the thingamabob that holds your pots off the burner first) until they are evenly blotched with black. Immediately, put them in a container with a lid, a bowl covered with cling wrap, or a paper bag closed with a rubber band. This steams the skins. Once they're cool enough to handle, scrape off the skin of the peppers with a knife. They will be red and flaccid.
2. Dress the peppers with a dressing made of a 2-to-1 ratio of olive oil and red wine vinegar, seasoned to your taste with pinches of salt, pepper, and/or oregano. Use as much or as little as you please. These are supposed to be better the next day, but I couldn't resist eating them right away. Serve them on a lovely plate or dish.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Brown Food; Or, The Answer to a Hypothetical

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time pondering hypotheticals that would never, ever come to pass. How would I survive if I were trapped in an avalanche? What would I do if (and WHEN, darn it, WHEN) a magical time-stopping amulet came into my possession? And given the choice to eat only one color of food for the rest of my life, what color would I choose? This last one was a real conundrum, even though of the three I've just mentioned it's certainly the least likely to come to fruition. Nonetheless, it's been good for a fair number of amusing dinner-table conversations over the years. What would you choose?

Red is usually high on the list for me. Cherries, berries, strawberry ice cream and shakes on the sweet side; tomato anything on the savory side (including, I think, pizza), spicy soups and curries swimming in rich, spicy sauce. Red foods are full of zest and life. Apples are red, but only some and only with skins on. Which brings one to white foods: bread, all dairy, mashed potatoes (a HUGE plus in the white column), bananas, pizza bianca, fettucine alfredo. Do apples count as red or white? What about a sandwich on white bread without any visible filling? And with visible filling, which color rules? Is all varicolored food off the table in my hypothetical, or is the dominant color dispositive? And did law school truly and permanently alter my brain chemistry? (the answer to this last one is a likely "yes")

Brown food wins. I heard on a food podcast recently that to the American palate, "caramelized" is the most-favored flavor of anything and everything. And caramelized food is brown. Almost anything worth eating can be made brown and, in the process, delicious. Apple pie? Brown. Lamb rogan josh? Brown. Chocolate ice cream, beef stroganoff, baked potatoes, roast chicken? All brown. Beer! Mexican coca-cola! Sole meuniere! The list goes on and on. Maybe if I lived in a warmer climate with better year-round access to the full Roy G. Biv of fresh produce I'd feel differently, but when the temperature drops below, say, 50 degrees and stays there for eight months of the year, you want food that is warm and tastes warm. Creme brulee is totally brown, if you do it properly.

The above poorly-lit photos represent an entirely brown meal I served my family this week. The overall brownness was a combination of serendipity, seasonality, and sales (on chuck roast, which I use to make beef stew). Beef stew was my number-one favorite meal as a kid. When I asked my mother later in life for her recipe, she simply said, "I just use beef Soup Starter [pictured above]." That doesn't help me. They no longer make Soup Starter, for one, and I'm not a "starter" type of gal. My beef stew takes about four hours to make and tastes pretty darned good. As does my pumpkin pie, with crust made from scratch. Canned pumpkin, though. There is a quorum among experts that canned is in fact superior to fresh pumpkin where pies are concerned, and having done it the hard way once I'm inclined to agree. My pie above is cracked. You wanna make something of it? It tasted AWESOME and, like the rest of the meal, was well camouflaged on my brown tabletop; we had to just grope around for it.
Next post: some VERY red food.

Monday, November 2, 2009


No excuse for the lag in blogging. I have a half a summer's worth of lovely pictures of fruit tarts and salads that have not been dissected and analyzed and transformed into pop-culture-referential blog posts. Tonight we made nuggets. I'm reading a book called "Too Many Cooks: Kitchen Adventures with 1 Mom, 4 Kids and 104 Recipes." Even though this woman has clearly stolen my concept, I'm reading it and finding it less unbearably smug than I thought. The author, Emily Franklin, clearly has her shizz together. Her complement of kids outnumbers mine by 100% and she still manages to cook with flair and a sense of adventure, if her book is to be believed. Oscar spotted her "Mom Nuggets" recipe, which is provided in its early pages as an example of an uncharacteristic capitulation to kid-friendly cooking (her swell kids bravely eat curries and tofu and what-have-you for the entire rest of the book), and that was what Osk wanted us to have. He rarely weighs in with a specific meal request, so when he does, it is taken seriously. I'd like him to cultivate some joie de manger as well as relieve a little of the neverending freaking burden of figuring out what to make for dinner, a mental millstone that is ten times more onerous than the actual cooking.
So the nuggets. Photo One here is Ike's illustration of a Swissair passenger jet being loaded with a supply of "mom nuggets" for, he says, "a whole year and more." The second picture depicts the meal itself, which looks gratifyingly (to me) like we dumped a Happy Meal onto his plate. However, our nuggets are accompanied by roasted turnips from the veggie box; I should say roasted turnip singular, since we served our entire family from a single 'nip the size of a baby's head. The honey-mustard sauce we also made ourselves, although we could have probably called my sister across the street and dipped (literally) into her personal collection of scrounged McDonalds nugget sauces. The dinner was a smashing success with the under-10 set (except for the turnips, natch) and yielded enough leftover nugs for tomorrow night's dinner, when I'll be working. Here's the recipe, adapted from Emily Franklin:
2 lbs boneless chicken, white OR dark
1/2 c whole-wheat flour
4 eggs
2 1/2 c panko bread crumbs
olive oil
Cut the chicken into nugget shapes. Do not use dinosaur cookie cutters, because there is something seriously demented about a dead animal formed into the shape of another extinct animal. Dredge in flour, dip in beaten eggs, roll in panko. Set them on a plate to get them all racked up for frying. Heat the oven to 300 whilst you heat a goodly amount of olive oil in a nonstick skillet at med-high. Brown the nuggets in the oil, flipping once. As they are done, put them on a cookie sheet in the oven to keep warm. When they're all done, raise the heat to 375 and leave them in there for a few minutes, or as long as you think they need to be cooked through and/or as brown as you like. Depending on the bulkiness of your nuggets, they may be entirely cooked through straight out of the pan, but you may not want to serve them that way to your family, who will scorch their tongues on the molten-lava-hot chicken.
You can freeze the extras and reheat them on a cookie sheet. Screw you, McDonalds!!!!