Speaking about Cookbooks…

And just when I was wondering what to post about next, I was tagged for TWO memes in the last two days. I’m very excited, because hey, who doesn’t like to be asked to talk about themself?

Today, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite subjects: COOKBOOKS. Michele at Oswego Tea was kind enough to recognize my exhibitionist need to share the dirty details of this very important facet of my life, which shouldn’t really come as any surprise considering I have an entire page of my blog devoted to my collection. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ve also undoubtedly run across posts referencing some of my more peculiar cookbook-induced behavior. I make no apologies: call me an addict, a junkie, a connoisseur (thanks Nicky!) or a voracious reader – I have far too many cookbooks for my own good and that’s not going to change anytime soon.

1. How many cookbooks do you own?
This is a tricky, tricky question, but I’m not going to waffle and say ‘too many’. On my bookshelf in Edinburgh I currently have 51 87 129 cookbooks, and at least one winging its way to me in the mail as we speak (I seem to always have one in the mail!). I have a sizeable collection in the US as well, but the exact numbers are hard to pin down since often it’s not clear whose cookbooks they actually are – I may not have purchased them but I am undoubtedly the only person to open them in the last 15 years or so, so maybe they count as mine by now! In any case, off the top of my head I can remember about 25 that I bought or received as gifts, so… you do the math. My consumption patterns have increased over the past couple of years, however, as I’ve gotten more settled, and the collection seems to be growing by about 15-20 50 a year (yikes!). So who knows where the madness will end…

2. What was the last cookbook you bought?
eatcaribbean.jpg Last week I splashed out bought a tempting new release called Eat Caribbean by Virginia Burke. As I have a very keen interest in the anthropology of food, and since I love to travel, I’ve been consciously trying to fill in gaps in my world food expertise by buying region- and country-specific books by knowledgeable authors. This one is wonderful, containing recipes from dozens of islands (as well as information on how the same things are reinterpreted from place to place), as well as oodles of beautiful, vibrant photographs shot on location all over the Caribbean. It’ll be on my nightstand for a while!

3. What was the last food book you read?
willwrite.jpg I just ordered and am currently reading the exact book I’d been waiting for someone to write for years: it’s called Will Write for Food, by Diane Jacobs (herself a food writer). It’s basically a writer’s manual for food writers: how to write about food, how to sell your writing, how to make a living from your writing, and glimpses of the path to success many well-known food writers have taken. It’s a very contemporary (interviewed experts include Paula Wolfert, David Leite, Jeffrey Steingarten, Alan Richman, etc.) and honest (she tells you the average food writer’s income is around $32,000 a year) portrayal of a profession that many of us on the food blog circuit may be seriously contemplating. It’s so informative I may write up a proper review post once I finish with it.

4. What are five Cookbooks that hold a special place in your heart?
I froze in fear at the thought of having to answer this one. Would you ask Mozart which of his piano concertos he liked best? Would you ask your mother which of her children she likes best? I know, I know, it’s not exactly the same, but it’s hard anyway. But since you need answers, here I go:

Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by Diana Henry
crazywater-sm.jpgI’ve been blogging A L O T (!) about this recent purchase of mine, and I honestly must say it’s moved pretty close to the top of my list for more reasons than one. Beautiful food, beautiful writing, beautiful pictures, but more than that, it is exactly the kind of book I would write myself. The food is exotic without being difficult; the recipes are regionally grounded but still free-form in their interpretation; the cooking instructions are knowledgeable but relaxed – she doesn’t seem like she would have any objections to you substituting whatever you could dig up from the bottom of your fridge to create her dishes (and believe me, I have!). And always, the results are pure magic. That’s my kind of cookbook!

Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rogers
zunicafe.jpgSince this is a tell-all, I’ll confess that I have never actually cooked anything from this book. That’s nothing unusual; many of my books have never been used in the kitchen. What’s different about the Zuni Cafe book is the sheer amount I learned from simply reading it – it’s like a master course in cooking and tasting as well as a collection of recipes. I found myself paying attention to small details after reading this book – whether my fruit was at the perfect stage of ripeness before I used it, whether I had left my sauteeing mushrooms long enough on one side to develop a lovely golden crust, and whether the size of the onion I chopped was exactly right to release its flavor in the amount of time I would be cooking it. Judy Rogers (who is the chef at SF’s Zuni Cafe) is
one of those rare authors who manage to combine decades of acquired wisdom in the ways of food and cooking with an eloquence and grace in her writing style that make you feel as if she were there looking over your shoulder, helping you to create things more masterful than you ever thought possible.

James McNair’s Favorites by James McNair
james.jpgThis one hadn’t even made the shortlist, but when I used the criteria of ‘books most used’, I realized it had to be here. I bought this hefty hardback from the bargain table in Powells Bookstore because, well, it looked like a lot of recipes for a little price. I also knew James from a couple of his single-ingredient cookbooks that my dad mysteriously owns (gifts? giveaways? who knows…), so I knew he has a flair for imaginative recipes. His ‘favorites’ book turned out to be a gem, and has probably become my most trusted multipurpose cookbook. He has recipes for absolutely everything in here, and soon after buying it and testing some of the excellent recipes inside, I started a routine when looking for a particular dish that goes something like this: "Vitello Tonnato? I bet James has a good recipe. Moroccan Bstilla? Let’s go ask James." His Creme Brulee variations and his Fried Chicken Salad have become household institutions. No matter what I’m looking for, he has it and it’s always fantastic.

Glorious Chocolate by Mary Goodbody and the editors of Chocolatier Magazine
This cookbook of mine has a long, dark and twisted history. I became seriously interested in cooking at the age of 12, and not finding fuel for my passion on my parents’ bookshelves, I turned to my local library. I checked out this book one day and became so smitten with it I knew I couldn’t give it back. Luckily for me, we were just about to move out of state, and I knew that even if I took the book and ran, they’d probably never be able to track me down. That’s exactly what I did, removing the dust jacket that had the library’s shelf number, and black marker-ing out the many telltale stamps on the pages inside. I felt like a fugitive, and believe me, I spent sleepless nights imagining myself in prison, but truly, honestly, I have gotten so much pleasure out of this book I can’t say I regret what I did one bit! (I know, I know – I should be ashamed of myself…) It’s true that this book is aging and by now many of the recipes inside are reminders of a slightly different dessert era, but they are fabulous nonetheless and I still cook from this book on a regular basis. Those folks at Chocolatier knew their stuff, even back then.

Anything by Paula Wolfert
PaulaWolfert.jpg I have more books by Paula than by any other single author, and I won’t stop until I have them all. Paula is exactly the kind of author I long to be; ostensibly she travels and collects recipes from around the Mediterranean, but really it’s so much more. She has a knack for finding never-before-heard-of recipes from regions that are awash in culinary literature; she knocks on doors and travels to remote villages to find the one person that makes something in the traditional way, often having no communication possible apart from hand gestures and tummy-patting. She’s a kind of lay culinary anthropologist, I suppose, and her books are fascinating reading on the culinary world of people and communities whose traditional foodways are slowly disappearing. Oh, and her recipes are great too.

5. Which 5 people would you most like to see fill this out in their blog?

In no particular order, the lucky people whose cookbook secrets I most want revealed are:
Bringing a little bit of aloha to the land of pasta, it’s… Rowena of Rubber Slippers in Italy!
On the backroads of America with a TV camera and a black lab, it’s… Heather of Viva Epicurea!
Fellow cookbook connoisseur and specialist in all things German it’s… Nicky of Delicious Days!
Wowing the masses with her astonishing photographic talents it’s… Keiko of Nordljus!
And finally, concocting things in his kitchen most mere mortals could only dream of it’s… Clement of A La Cuisine!

If you haven’t already been tagged for this one, meme away! 😉

A sidenote: No one seems to know where this meme originated. Reid at ‘Ono Kine Grindz traced it back as far as he could, only to lose the scent somewhere in cyberspace… So if you know, for goodness’ sake speak up!

Cocolat, Chocolate and Cherries

Molten Chocolate Cherry Cakes with Roasted Cherry Compote

Many years ago, in the city of my birth, there was a small chocolate shop and bakery. It was located about six or seven blocks away from the very house in which I came into the world, and naturally enough it formed a part of the daily fabric of my life from my earliest moments. A friend of the family worked there and often dropped off leftovers for us to enjoy; weekend mornings often found us taking our place among the hungry crowds waiting at the counter for something sinfully rich to start the day. Birthdays and special occasions were marked by the presence of a pink cardboard box that even today I associate with the sound of astonished gasps. From the enormous display case I remember ordering truffles so large I had to devote a good ten minutes to finishing one, and slices of tarts, tortes and gâteaus so rich and chocolaty they set my hair standing on end. When I was old enough to roam the streets alone, I would often stop in to spend my hard-earned babysitting money on a treat, usually lingering for half an hour or more in front of the display trying to decide which of all those glossy, shimmery, jewel-like concoctions appealed most. For me it was the quintessential neighborhood hangout. It was also an education in chocolate, and I grew up believing this was how chocolate should be.

The city was Berkeley, the decade was the 1980s, and the chocolate shop was the now-legendary Cocolat. At that time, of course, we didn’t realize we were sampling history in the making; we just went there because everything was so extraordinarily good. The woman behind Cocolat, Alice Medrich, is now often credited with single-handedly revolutionizing the way Americans eat chocolate, and thinking back, I believe it. Her creations were light-years ahead of what was available everywhere else; everything was dark, dense, elegant and seductively nodding towards Europe, at the same time that everyone else was trying to get their cakes as tall, and their icings as stiff and well-behaved as possible. Medrich is often referred to as the Alice Waters of chocolate, though considering my chocolate-tinged vision of the world I would rather say the opposite. Although she claims that she stumbled her way around her shop for its first few years, blindly concocting recipes and hoping for the best, no one seems to have any doubts now about her brilliance. Her original cookbook Cocolat, now out of print, sells for up to $100 on amazon.com.

Cocolat closed its doors for good in the mid 1990s, which freed up Medrich to concentrate on sharing her profound chocolate wisdom in the form of cookbooks. All her books are luscious, appetite-whetting feasts for the senses, full of unusual and imaginative recipes and breathtaking photographs. Her latest achievement, which I purchased recently in a fit of lustful reminiscence, is truly a thing of beauty. Titled Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Life in Chocolate, it chronicles Medrich’s lifelong passion for chocolate and the way in which her appreciation of it evolved over time from the days in which the height of chocolate indulgence for her was a Milky Way straight from the freezer. One of the most amusing anecdotes I ran across in this book is the way in which she invented her insanely-popular golf-ball sized truffles which remained Cocolat’s signature item until the end: wanting to recreate some of the amazing chocolate truffles she experienced in France, she fiddled around with ganache and melted coverture until she had a size she could easily handle and a taste she thought would sell. What she didn’t know was that chocolate had to be tempered, and that not tempering her truffle mixture would cause it to liquefy at room temperature. How did she cope? Why, by selling the truffles cold, of course. She says she cringes at the naivety that went into that recipe; I do anything but cringe as I vividly remember the feel of cold shards of paper-thin chocolate coverture shattering in my mouth and the deliciously cool, velvety-soft ganache I would suck out of the shell in mouthfuls, desperate to finish before everything melted into a gooey puddle. It was, undoubtedly, a stroke of genius. Anybody can make little chocolate truffles and wrap them up in fancy boxes, but only Alice Medrich could make truffle-eating an event requiring one’s total concentration.

The last time I visited Cocolat was more than thirteen years ago, and when I later learned it had closed I felt a curious pang of sadness, despite the fact that I now lived hundreds of miles away. Luckily for all of us – those who were lucky enough to know the shop and those who weren’t – Cocolat lives on in Alice’s recipes, and all I need to do to be transported back to that display case is pick up one of her cookbooks. I never had the good fortune to meet Alice Medrich in person, but I can honestly say she has affected my entire food-based existence very profoundly –  after all, who could grow up down the street from Cocolat and not come away marked forever?

Molten Chocolate Cherry Cakes with Roasted Cherry Compote

Source: adapted from Bittersweet by Alice Medrich
Note: The original recipe calls for raspberry puree to flavor the ganache centers, but I was tempted by the first crop of cherries in the market, so I decided to improvise. If you want to stick to the original, just substitute 1/4 cup strained fresh raspberry puree and 1 tablespoon of sugar for the cherry preserves.
Serves: 6

For cakes:
Sugar for the ramekins

7 oz (200 grams) bittersweet chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids)
6 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup cherry preserves, heated and strained (measured after straining)
1 tablespoon kirsch or brandy (optional)
5 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch salt

For cherry compote:
1 lb. cherries, halved and pitted
juice of 1 lemon
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons kirsch or brandy (optional)

Put a pie plate in the freezer to chill. Liberally butter the insides of 6 small ramekins or custard cups, sprinkle with sugar, then tap out the excess.

Melt the chocolate and butter together in the microwave, heating on medium power in 20-second bursts until melted (or do this in a double boiler). Transfer 5 tablespoons of the chocolate mixture to a small bowl, and stir in the cherry preserves and liquor if using. Scrape this into the chilled pie pan and return it to the freezer for ten minutes to harden. W
hen it has, use a small spoon to form the mixture into six round truffles (they don’t need to be perfect). Return them to the freezer.

Stir the egg yolks into the remaining chocolate mixture. In a clean bowl beat the three egg whites with the cream of tartar and pinch of salt until they start to form soft peaks. Beat in the sugar a tablespoon at a time, until the peaks are shiny but not dry. Fold about one-quarter of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten, then fold in the rest. Using half the batter, fill each ramekin about half-full. Press one frozen chocolate-cherry truffle into the center of each cup. Cover with the remaining batter, leveling the tops. The truffles should be completely covered. Cover the cups with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 3 hours and up to 3 days.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Combine the all the ingredients for the cherry compote in a baking dish and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until the liquid is syrupy and bubbling thickly. Remove and set aside. Twenty minutes before you want to serve the cakes, remove the plastic wrap from the ramekins and place them on a baking sheet. Bake 10-14 minutes, or until puffed like little souffles and a toothpick inserted in the center meets no resistance. Let the cakes cool for about 3 minutes.

Run a knife around the inside of each cup. Holding with a potholder, invert the cakes onto serving plates. Serve with the roasted cherry compote and a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Note: When I inverted these, I found that I had inadvertently pressed all my truffles to the bottom, and they broke open as I unmolded the cakes, thus depriving us of the ‘molten center’ effect. To guard against this, I would reduce the amount of chocolate I used for the truffles to 4 tablespoons, to make sure I would have enough batter to cover them top and bottom. Of course, you could always serve them from the ramekins – then it’s like discovering a fountain of liquid gold at the bottom of each cup!

For The Sweet Love of Spud

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Spicy Feta-Olive Salad

Let me introduce you to someone. His name is Mr. Sweet Potato. You may have met him before, you may have even enjoyed his company, but you might have thought he was too unexciting to go out of your way to see again. You might have also found him just a little too sweet for his own good, with that appearance he made cloaked in sugar, marshmallows or pie crust at your last family get-together and his uncanny ability to make your grandmother swoon. You probably decided he had friend potential, maybe someone you would invite for holidays at your house to amuse your relatives, but you decided he just wasn’t your kind of potato for anything more.

Well, let me tell you something. Times have changed. Since you last met Mr. Sweet Potato, he has matured. He has roughed-up that sugary veneer and cast off those wretched marshmallows. When you meet him now he exudes the unmistakable scent of earth, and spice, and danger; even his clothes are different: rough, torn, masculine. He has been to exotic places, learned things that will thrill you, amaze you, make you crave his company in a way you never thought possible. After you’ve been with him, you dream about him at night, imagining how your next encounter will be even more exciting than the last. Your grandmother may not even like him anymore.

But this bad-boy potato hasn’t completely transformed. Underneath this new facade is still that same sweet wholesomeness you admired in him before. Despite the fun, the impetuousness and the danger this is a potato that once welcomed into your life will care for you, nurture you, nourish you. He’s still good for you – he’s just a lot more fun than he used to be. Shall I give you his number?

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Spicy Feta-Olive Salad
Recipe Source: Inspired by a recipe in Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons
Serves: 2 as main course, 4 as side dish (can easily be multiplied)

2 large sweet potatoes, 3/4-1 lb each
200g (about 1/2 lb) block good feta cheese (sheep’s milk is the best – try feta imported from Greece or France), cut into 1/2-inch (1 cm) cubes
2/3 cup black oil-cured olives (or other high-quality olives), pitted and chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
1/2 cup (packed) chopped fresh coriander/cilantro
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds (ground ok)
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds (ground ok)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper

something cool and creamy to dollop on top: sour cream, yogurt, tzaziki… even hummus!

Preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Wash the potatoes to rid them of any dirt and place on a foil-lined baking pan in the oven (no need to prick them). Bake until they are completely soft, about 45-60 minutes (depending on their size).

While the potatoes are roasting, make the salad. I like to toast the cumin and coriander seeds before using them, but you don’t have to. If you do, just heat them in a dry pan, stirring often, until they smell fragrant and toasty. Set aside to cool, then crush them coarsely in a mortar or with the back of a heavy knife (if using whole seeds). Mix together all the salad ingredients in a bowl and leave to marinate in the fridge until the potatoes are done (add a little more olive oil if it seems dry). When they are, remove them from the oven and place on plates. Slice them lengthwise down the center, folding open to reveal the orange flesh inside. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Pile half the feta salad on each potato, and eat!

Notes: I can’t get enough of this dish. The contrasts between hot and cold, sweet and salty, crunchy and soft are mind-blowing. I make it in a slightly different way every time, depending on what I have in the fridge, but it graces our plates at least once a week. It is so simple, so quick, and so delicious – I am head over heels in love with sweet potatoes.