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Thrud picked this up for me because she thought it was the most different cookbook she'd seen in a while. I agree that it is-- organizationally, at least.

Segnit has selected ninety-nine separate strongly flavored ingredients, sorted them into categories to make them easier to handle, and then written about the things that can be made with each potential pair. (She decided on pairs because combinations of three or more ingredients would make the book insanely long.) Her goal is not really to provide recipes, although there are some; she assumes you can already cook. Her goal is to help you learn to improvise, to think about different flavors together, to get into the habit of mentally juxtaposing the tastes of all the things in your fridge and seeing what might work.

I really love the organization of this book. It includes combinations I would never have thought of but that make sense (such as rhubarb and saffron), combinations I've worked with forever (such as pork and apple), and combinations I need to be talked into (such as white chocolate and olive, which she is quite insistent about but which I cannot as yet manage to believe).

I am marginally less keen on the execution. There are ways in which she's done very well. For each combination, she goes in one of several directions: sometimes she discusses the ways the combination has been cooked with in various cultures, and that is generally wide-ranging and well-done; recipes from the entirety of the world show up here. Sometimes she talks about the chemical makeup of each food, whether they share any flavor compounds, and whether particular varieties of each have ever been described as having notes that taste like the other. This works pretty well, too, in suggesting possible cooking avenues and specific areas in which to begin experimentation.

However, sometimes, especially with the more outré pairings, she talks about famous chefs and dishes who have attempted it, and this-- well. It becomes a bit starstruck, and a bit testimonial, and a bit about how lucky she has been to be able to eat at a great many very famous restaurants. In short, it becomes amazingly pretentious. More pretentious than you are imagining. No, even more than that. She is always talking about quaint little places far out in the country (which country? pick one, anything from Provence to Morocco) away from the tourist trade and then insisting that she can't remember where they were. And she lapses into alliteration, which makes me raise an eyebrow, and at one point into verse, which makes me back away slowly. And she is desperately searching for a new set of words with which to describe the flavor of each of her individual ingredients in its summary, a dilemma with which I sympathize, but which she has rather comprehensively failed to conquer. I do not, for instance, think that cardamom ought to be compared to 'a sinus-cleaning stick', and if you have to try to describe cloves by comparing them to holy basil something has gone wrong somewhere.

Fortunately, the way the book is organized means that she is changing her subject every other paragraph, so we never get too much of anything particularly egregious at once. And she can be clever, and she can be charmingly down-at-heel, although not when she's trying to be, and the system she has designed is so interesting. Just, there are points at which you may need to grit your teeth a little and remember it will all be over soon.

As a way of getting me to think about flavor and food differently, it definitely works. The section on parsnips came damn close to sending me into the kitchen to look up baking ratios, because she mentioned that parsnip, which I love, used to be as popular in cakes as carrots are now, and also-- and this could have sent me to the store in the middle of the night, if the store weren't shut-- that parsnip goes really well with anise. I am making a parsnip cake with star anise, cardamom, molasses, and nutmeg, walnut cream cheese icing, just as soon as I have the brain to do the recipe adaptation and go out and buy the parsnips. I will let you know how it comes out.


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March 2017

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