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It is day three hundred and sixty-four what is this I don't even. WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH MYSELF ON TUESDAY. Well. It will be very odd not to have to read a book. I can't tell whether I'm looking forward to it or not.

So this is a cookbook by the Lao American Women Association of the Washington, D.C. Metro Area, which they donated to the Fairfax County library. It's meant to show the differences between Laotian cooking and the food of other countries in the region, and to provide recipes for members of the Laotian diaspora. It is, in fact, bilingual, English-Laotian.

Lao food turns out to be heavily influenced by Thai and Vietnamese, but unsurprisingly is a thing of its own. In Laos, the default rice is sweet sticky rice, which is served with meals instead of only as a dessert; quite frequently in order to make it more savory it will be soaked in salt water before cooking, or boiled and then fried as a chunk until crunchy, or roasted (raw or cooked) and then ground to powder. But you also get it in balls, eaten out of hand plain, or dipped into sauce.

There's always a dipping sauce on the table, or several, and there's usually a plate of raw or roasted vegetables. Lettuce wraps are popular. The default mode for meat and fish appears to be poached, boiled, or grilled; there's very little distinction between soup, stew, and salad, as things labeled salad quite frequently have broth and the omnipresent vegetable plate is meant to be combined with the soup or stew if one sees fit. Steaming is a popular preparation too, in banana leaves (though there's a note which says you can fake banana leaves with a layer of plastic wrap on the inside and a layer of tinfoil on the outside, a note I have been waiting for some time to see in a cookbook because I do not usually have access to banana leaves).

Dishes of particular note include the beef stew with boiled cow bile, which the author says is so bitter that only middle-aged and older people eat it; the various forms of larb, which is the raw chopped salad that can be made of beef or pork or fish or shrimp mixed with chilis and spices; and the entire section marked 'Dishes favored by the diaspora', which are foods that very clearly show their Lao ancestry but which use techniques or ingredients that come from somewhere else or are easier to find in the U.S. (You can make pâté the same way you make larb.)

Desserts are centered around coconut milk and sweet sticky rice, in various combinations, colored with different flavorings and served in layers.

Although this is a fascinating book, and does explain to me very clearly some ways in which Laotian cooks see their cooking (I particularly appreciate that the recipes are sourced as to where in the country the cook comes from, so that you know whether something is Vientiane-style or from the north or south), I would not recommend cooking from this unless you are a very good cook. I am a little afraid to try, because there is no standardization of amounts whatsoever: things will be measured in 'cans' or 'packets'. Some names of foods are not translated into English, and loofah is noted as 'Chinese okra', which is just confusing. (I think it's loofah, but I could be seeing the picture wrong.) I don't know what size of pepper they mean when they say large, I don't know what they mean when they list 'red pepper', 'chili', and 'large red pepper' in the same recipe-- I can, of course, conjecture-- but basically these are recipes written by people who have a deep understanding of what proportions of ingredients are appropriate for the food they are working with, and who are not necessarily working for an audience that does not already know this. In order to cook from this a person would need either to know what the food ought to taste like, or to be able to adjust ingredients on the fly in such a way as to produce something which tasted good to the cook, with the knowledge that the result might not be what the recipe intended. A couple of these recipes are sufficiently vague that I'm not really sure I'd use the word recipe: more guidelines. Loose guidelines. I freely admit to being intimidated.

But it's better than having no idea about Laotian food at all, which is where I was starting from, and the association says that at least in 2006 when this book came out there wasn't much by way of Laotian restaurants in the D.C. area. So I recommend this, because I learned things.
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Daufuskie island is a sea island, technically part of North Carolina but closer geographically to Georgia. It's one of the places where Gullah culture survives, linguistically and in other ways, but it's both out-of-the-way and not terribly populous; there are many more tourists than permanent residents and there hasn't been industry since pollution closed the oyster cannery in the 1950s.

The author grew up on Daufuskie in the 1960s, in a manner that would not have been unfamiliar a century previously: subsistence farming, hunting, gathering, and fishing, with hand-pumped and hand-hauled water, wood stoves, kerosene lamps, and a trip of several hours to the nearest store. There was no regular ferry and most people on the island did not own boats, so that store trip would involve calling in favors from fishermen and was consequently a significant production which didn't happen very often.

Her writings here are a mixture of nostalgia, moderate bitterness, and the particular confusion that a person gets when looking back on childhood and realizing that not everyone does things the way they were done by one's family; the bewilderment of noticing that, culturally, one is and was not in the mainstream, when previously it had not occurred to one that things could be different than they were, because that was how the world worked. It sounds like a hard-working life, which was varied and taught a great many practical skills, almost none of which could be transferred off the island. (She talks about her teachers in school trying to make the class speak English instead of their native language, talks about not knowing she was Gullah until a tourist asked her whether she was and she asked what that meant.)

The food is fascinating and very, very, very Southern; it's also the food you get when using few pots and pans on a wood stove, preparations designed to stretch calories, produce all the flavor possible from fat, and utilize the properties of fresh ingredients in an area where there wasn't much by way of indigenous spices and even garlic powder had to be hauled from that store.

The word salad, for example, means chopped things in mayonnaise, usually with hard-boiled eggs and sweet pickle involved somewhere. Nobody grew lettuce. Most main dishes are 'long pots', designed to cook at medium-to-low heat for five to seven hours at a time-- she talks about the way this tied her mother to the yard. Breakfast was at sunrise and dinner, the meal for which the long pots were destined, was somewhere between three and five p.m. so that her mother had a few hours of unhampered working time before the light faded. No lunches, but snacks of fruit and nuts between meals. Bread was always home-baked and always stretched with whatever fruit or vegetable was in season; plain white bread was a day-after-store treat.

Most of the long pots, whether vegetable-centered or based around game, start with five or six cuts of pork, some smoked and some not, to add depth and variety. The other staples are onion, red and green bell pepper, and shrimp; ninety percent of the meals involve some combination of these ingredients, either stewed entirely, made into a roast with gravy, or as a sort of stir-fry. They're always served over rice or grits and would probably feed an army in most kitchens I know-- if you can get the pork. I have no idea how I'd start trying to find a smoked pig neck-bone. Seafood can also go into long pots, but tends to be breaded and quick-fried because it had usually just been pulled out of the water. Game meant stew; there are recipes in here for stew featuring deer, squirrel, raccoon and opossum, with instructions for cleaning the meat before cooking. (This book will also tell you how to pick a crab, but assumes that any civilized person should be able to head and devein a shrimp, an assumption I find endearing although totally incorrect.)

The few quick meals in here are mostly things the kids came up with when they were left at home by themselves while their parents were working and wanted something to eat that wouldn't take six hours. It says something, I think, that both gumbo and red rice qualify as quick meals.

The desserts are a fairly spectacular array of Impressive Things To Do With Fruit, including a boiled blackberry dumpling that appears to have taken the best of English pudding ideas and run wild, and a pear preparation that creates pear preserves as a side effect. They are also the things in the book which one might be able to find ingredients for if not living in that general region, and I may try a couple of them.

If you are not an experienced cook, this book is not going to be helpful to you at all if you want to use the recipes. It is one of those books that cannot imagine a person not knowing various things about cooking. There is a recipe in here that begins 'cook a chicken in the way that seems best to you and then do x with the meat'. That said, the author has attempted valiantly to impose measurements and exact temperatures on a set of recipes which never had either; she describes three generations of women using a scoop of this, a dash of that, and knowing whether it should be on the front or the back of the stove. It is now in language an experienced cook should be able to follow and duplicate. (I myself do not think I know enough about pork products to attempt any of the meat dishes.)

If, however, you're interested in it principally as a portrait of a way of life and a set of foodways, it's quite good. There are some very nice black-and-white photos of the island, and the whole thing is sentimental around the edges but has the feel of a labor of love. I've certainly never seen another cookbook remotely resembling it-- it's a little like the sort of booklet you sometimes get from churches and small towns, where people contribute their everyday recipes, except that it's one family's stock of recipes and the food is not remotely prosaic or everyday to anyone who doesn't live there. Well worth reading, if a touch intimidating to a cook who feels moderately guilty about never having had to kill her own chickens.
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Review of the book I read Tuesday, July 19th.

So apparently, although I didn't know this before reading the book, the Getty museum is set up as a replica of a Roman-era dwelling, complete with garden layout swiped from Pompeii. As a result, they've put out this book about the ancient associations and references of the herbs growing in their (extremely accurate) gardens.

This is a really good sourcebook for information about herbs in Greece and Rome. You get the name of each herb in Greek and Latin, the current taxonomy, the current English name, a lovely water-color showing any distinguishing features, and a list for each herb of references from classical texts, including medicinal, magical, honorific, and culinary uses. There are sections from stories and poems, discussion of which authorities believed what about which herb, analysis of the difference between Greek and Roman beliefs and usages, and a few recipes.

And there is stuff in here I've never seen anywhere else. Parsley apparently had an association with the underworld in Greece, for instance; it was supposed to descend to the underworld nine times before it sprouted, and may have had some use at the Eleusinian mysteries. Consequently it was not widely eaten. The Romans, on the other hand, though they also thought it was a little unworldly, appear to have eaten it with bread as a standard breakfast. Plautus hated garlic. And mustard. Knowing Plautus, somehow this does not surprise me. Garlic actually is an antiseptic, and its uses as one were known as far back as anyone can tell; Galen also suggests that it will keep off dangerous beasts if eaten (and possibly anyone else, too). There's an attempt to deduce the flavor profile of the now-extinct silphium from the things people compare its flavor to in cookery texts, and I conclude that I would have hated it, as the description they come up with is 'kind of like onions, only very bitter and with an aftertaste rather like mint'. Well, these are the people who put garum on everything (a strong fermented fish sauce-- you can kind of approximate it today with Vietnamese fish sauce, but garum was much stronger, smelled rather impressively, and was used about how people now use ketchup).

There's discussion about the immemorial confusion between oregano and marjoram, which apparently dates to before Hesiod and is not helped at all by the fact that the two crossbreed. There's mention of how the Greeks knew about ten species of thyme and had them in a hierarchy. It's interesting to see which names have come down: basil does come from basileus, which is ancient Greek for king, and it's yet another of the plants sometimes used as crowns for victors in battle. (They had what we would now call ordinary basil and what we would now call holy basil, but not any of the more esoteric ones.) You get things like a mention that asparagus water seethed with basil and garlic was meant to be an aphrodisiac. I doubt it.

In short, do not be put off by the museum-related nature of this book, because it's a very nice collation of material that one could otherwise go through an entire reference library to seek out. And a fine bibliography. And you don't have to read Greek or Latin, though it would help. I only wish it were longer, and maybe referred more to the Babylonians and Sumerians, because there are tiny smatterings of that material and it interests me, though I understand that that was not their focus.
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Brought home by [personal profile] weirdquark.

This is not actually a graphic novel, but a basic Japanese cookbook centered around Food One Sees In Manga. There are a few actual citations as to what foods turn up in what series, but mostly it's just, you know, food that turns up all the time generally.

As a cookbook, it's not very well proofread-- there are a couple of things like sentences where words are run together oddly, or a recipe that tells you to add soy sauce when the ingredient list clearly says teriyaki sauce. But it's meant for people who are not necessarily proficient cooks and who have not necessarily worked with Japanese food before (I suspect it of being meant for teenagers, really) and therefore is good at spelling things out simply and clearly, with diagrams. And the range of recipes does hit a wide variety of things; this will tell you both how to cut apple slices into those little rabbit shapes and how to make shiruko from scratch anko paste and homemade o-dango. And, and this is important, it has what looks like a functional okonomiyaki recipe, which is by itself enough to endear the thing to me. I haven't had okonomiyaki in the U.S. since this confusing conbini in a Main Line suburb when I was in college, one of those places that sells imported candy and magazines and hair products and has a food counter, except that for some reason it was an Osaka-style okonomiyaki counter and I sometimes dream about it. (Those of you unfamiliar with okonomiyaki will keep hearing it called things like 'Japanese pizza', which is just silly. It is centered around cabbage, egg, bonito flakes, mayonnaise, a sauce all its own, and utter deliciousness.)

This book will also tell you how to make your own udon noodles, chicken kara-age, and those tiny sausages that look like octopi. You get the idea: things you will recognize if you spend time with Japanese pop culture.

It's illustrated, which adds a lot to the recipes because the diagrams are very good, but which is distracting and kind of annoying because it is the classic kind-of-amateur-looking one female character one male character one fluffy little animal doing running commentary and, well, boring. Not to mention incredibly cliche. If there is a cliche related to this set of characters and food not included here, I'm not sure what it is, except of course all the ones where the food turns out not to be good, because this is after all a cookbook. This means the gender roles are terrible, although it is not, fortunately, fanservice-y, because if I had to deal with too much of that in a cookbook I would just start screaming.

So if you can ignore the illos, this is actually the Japanese cookbook I have run into that I would recommend most highly to beginning cooks: it's not going to teach you the aesthetic rules about color and taste balance, it's not going to teach you things like correct slicing techniques, but it's going to teach you how to make food you recognize without making you feel like you shouldn't be attempting this until you're better in the kitchen. And while some of it is quick-and-dirty, most of it is fairly authentic food, what you would get from any other decent book, only with more diagrams.

Mind you, if you can't ignore the illos, I don't blame you.
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Via [personal profile] fiddledragon.

Well, this is definitive.

Seriously, this book has every conceivable fact about tofu: history, preparation as it differs between various countries, and recipes for every possible form of tofu and byproduct of making tofu. The authors are involved with Zen Buddhism and give recipes both from various important Japanese temples and monasteries and from several tofu restaurants that are so famous even I have heard of them.

Since tofu is very central to Japanese food, this is also, almost as an afterthought, the most thorough Japanese cookbook I have as yet met. There is an okonomiyaki recipe in here that looks plausible, which would by itself make me happy; there's every variant on nabe I've ever heard discussed; there's even a tamago-doufu recipe on the grounds that although it's made of eggs it's the same word as tofu so it ought to be present.

And the book tells you how to make your own tofu in several different consistencies and at both home and business production levels, how to make your own soymilk, how to make the various forms of fried tofu, and, and this makes me cheerful, how to make your own yuba, which I am so doing because I have always wanted to try fresh yuba and it has never been logistically possible. (Yuba is the skin that forms on the surface of heated soymilk, which can be lifted off and dried in sheets.)

There are also numerous Chinese recipes, small chapters on tofu in Korea, Taiwan and so on, and a lot of recipes which attempt to put tofu into forms the authors think will be appealing to Americans, which, well, I guess if one must but seriously I have my doubts about that particular set of recipes, somewhat.

The book is incredibly propagandistic about how good tofu is for the health and the environment and how we should all eat more of it all the time and it will probably save the world, in a very seventies-environmentalist way which relies on statistics and figures. This makes parts of it, the first chapters especially, certainly information-loaded but dry and laden with the vague feeling that someone is trying to sell you something. I consider this the major flaw of the book, because the later bits where the information about amounts of protein etc. are worked in among the recipes read much better.

At its best, though, this is amazing. For instance, they have yet another solution to the problem a lot of people have of not being able to keep poached eggs to hold together: set your water or broth boiling, take a slice of firm tofu, scoop out a little divot in the center of the slice without going all the way through, sprinkle with soy sauce and lemon juice, crack the egg into the divot and gently ease the whole thing into the water. This sounds to me as though it would turn out a quite impressive poached egg.

So yeah, if you need The Exhaustive Reference Work On Tofu, and honestly you may well because as I said this is one of the better Japanese cookbooks I've run into, here you go.
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I am not the intended or correct audience for this cookbook, which is why [personal profile] weirdquark handed it to me. The selling points of this cookbook are: a) it is vegetarian with extensive vegan options and things clearly marked as ovo or lacto or whatnot (okay, actually this is a feature in a cookbook for me, I'd like all of mine to come with a lot of vegetarian and vegan recipes) and b) it does not require prep.

By prep Klein means, you know, slicing, whipping, peeling, chopping, etc. Klein's claim is that you can get by in this book without doing any of that.

Therefore I am the wrong audience for this, because when I do not have curry paste in the house and I want to make curry, I do not go to the store. I make curry paste. It is only logical. To me, at any rate. That is how I think about cooking.

But it was worth seeing whether anyone could get away with a cookbook of this nature and have it produce actual food.

Verdict: uh, kinda-sorta? There are a lot of recipes in here that are food, by anyone's definitions. Vinaigrettes, sauces, the reminder that it takes you only five minutes to toast some nuts and pour them on your ice cream, unusual combinations of raw ingredients-- that sort of thing works, and there's a fair bit of it, and it's fine. And there are a few things that mostly require canned and store-bought stuff that I don't consider cheating; I knew that you can make completely respectable fake fondue in ten minutes by melting Nutella with cream, and I did not know that you can use the good kind of store-bought pie crust to make empanadas, though it should have been obvious.

But the vast majority of this-- look, her vegetable potsticker recipe lists frozen vegetable potstickers as an ingredient, okay? You can't tell me that's morally justifiable. And there are a good many pre-made foods out there that simply do not do the same things that the fresh ones do. The kind of minced garlic one keeps in a jar in the fridge is not real garlic, and while there are applications for which I am totally willing to use it, and in fact we always have some around, you cannot have not-real garlic and a whole boatload of other things of the same not-quite nature and expect to produce food. You may produce a reasonable facsimile of food, but it isn't the same. And so I sat there through much of the book muttering 'you know, it would take you five damn minutes to chop some chives instead of using freeze-dried, and do you know how much better it would taste?'

This book was, in fact, a lesson to me as to where I draw my personal line about pre-packaged and pre-prepared foods. I will buy pie crust but not pizza dough, for instance, because the grocery store makes better pie crust than I do but fails pizza anything. I will buy jarred artichoke hearts, canned chickpeas, and frozen Brussels sprouts, but I stare incredulously at canned beets or canned cooked lentils. Freeze-dried shallots are not the same food as fresh; we use both. I chop my own garlic mostly whether I have time or not. I'll buy Miracle Whip but if I want mayonnaise, which is not remotely the same substance, I make it, every blue moon or so. You see. So about half of these recipes I was converting back into food in my head. Some require only minor conversion-- chopping your own garlic will add oh five minutes to most tomato sauces-- some are more major, and some aren't worth it.

If, however, you are the sort of person who really does not have time to/does not want to do the sort of prep the book is trying to avoid, well, it has a large range of both vegetarian and vegan options, and food from a large range of ethnicities, and you should be able to tell from the recipe how close to food it is (hint: the fewer jars you have to open, the better). So for the inexperienced or busy cook, why not. I can't go there with you, but I'm trying not to judge. Failing, but trying.
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A one-volume piece by Fumi Yoshinaga, also author of Ōoku, Antique Bakery, Flower of Life, and many other extremely good manga of which I am very fond. Honestly Yoshinaga is probably my favorite mangaka. She references eighteenth-century philosophy in her gay romances and is doing a gender-switched version of the history of the Tokugawa shogunate, what's not to like?

And she is also something of a foodie.

This particular work is semi-autobiographical, in that way one sometimes gets with Japanese pseudonyms where the character is called F-mi Y-naga and everyone else is also called their names with parts blanked out. The principal effect of this is that one knows perfectly well that it is autobiographical... ish, because it is, in fact, a pseudonym; it gives her plausible deniability. Probably best to read this as fiction, though she assures us on the title page that all the restaurants are real, and gives their addresses, phone numbers, days open and nearest train stations.

At any rate, F-mi Y-naga, who is a manga artist, gets hired to do manga recommendations of good restaurants in Tokyo, and the manga is about how she does that. Along for the ride are her assistant/roommate/absolutely not boyfriend S-hara and their various friends, blind dates, colleagues and other people who can be taken out to dinner. The personal relationships are fun and interesting and do not follow the usual cliches-- when I say that S-hara is absolutely not her boyfriend, I mean that these are two people who would rather crawl over broken glass than date each other, but who are starting to worry that the expectations of their families and society in general combined with the oddly scheduled life of a manga studio may leave them no alternatives. Their friendship is bitchy, hilarious, and weirdly touching, and they are quite right that they shouldn't be dating.

But the main point is the food porn. Which is really impressive. I am glad that a) these are all real restaurants and b) she gives their addresses, because even though restaurants shift over time I will be hitting any one of these that is still there if I get to Japan in the next decade. She draws food quite appetizingly (there's a great repeating gag about how she keeps meaning to take reference photos when her meal arrives and then forgets until after she's eaten it), but as anyone who's read her Antique Bakery will remember, what she's really good at is how people talk about food. Everyone in this manga can talk about food in a knowledgeable, descriptive, non-pretentious, mouthwatering way that I wish I could do myself. Food is serious business to Y-naga, who at one point breaks up with a guy for not liking a restaurant she suggested, and her joy in cooking well, taking people to good restaurants, feeding people good food and watching them revel in it shines through continuously. (When someone asks her how it is she knows so many good restaurants, the reply is "There are maybe between four and six hours in a day when I am not either working or sleeping. During all of that time, I think about food. Or, better to say, depending on the work I might be spending my working hours thinking about food too. Since I've given that much of my life to food, don't you think food owes me a little bit of payback for it?")

Seriously, the only way this could be better is if there were recipes.
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I have no idea why there is a microwave cookbook published in 1983 in our house. I mean it. It appears to have been on the cookbook shelf for a while, and I know it wasn't me.

Anyway, I initially read this to laugh, because this sort of cookbook is usually full of candidates for the Gallery of Regrettable Food. Which, photography-wise, this one is-- it's photographed in the usual sort of fashionable-at-the-time-but-quickly-gets-dated way.

Some of the recipes are also fairly traumatic, as this cookbook seriously suggests, and I am having as much trouble believing this as you will, that you make punch for your next party by melting Cinnamon Red Hots in water and adding cloves and a little lemon juice. They call it 'Hot Pink Drink'. I just-- that is the sort of thing that one does not serve company; if a person were to like Cinnamon Red Hots that much, I am not saying that is a bad thing, but it should be kept to oneself, as with such other personal vices as Tang, the marshmallows picked out of Lucky Charms, and my own occasional craving for blueberry bagels with peanut butter and thinly sliced jalapenos.

However, as a technical manual of things you can do with a microwave... huh. It seems to think you can poach eggs in one, for one thing, and I may actually have to test that because keeping the water the right temperature on our stove is a high-wire act. It also thinks you can do the pre-baking bit of the kind of pie that needs a cooked shell before the filling goes in, that you can get water boiling to blanch vegetables (I... should have thought of that), and that you can get a substantial distance towards thawing a frozen turkey if you can fit the thing into there. And it thinks you can steam pudding (!). I reserve judgment as to whether any of that is true, as this is also the sort of book where the manufacturer thinks that the microwave is so exciting that you should invite all your friends over simply to stand about and look at it working, which I suspect was not a thing even back when microwaves were far less common. But the blanching vegetables thing is a) definitely true and b) obvious in hindsight, so maybe some of the rest of it is viable, and it's worth checking.

I am therefore totally ignoring everything the book says as to the ways one ought to combine different foods, but keeping it in mind as a thing to refer back to the next time we have to draw up the oven/stove schedule for a holiday, now that I no longer live in a situation where I have access to three ovens and eight working burners (*sob*). The toaster oven eases the load somewhat, but this seems as though it could help the stovetop crunches, which would be kind of awesome.
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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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So this is a book that is both an Acknowledged Classic and also really trendy right now, and I had never read it because um.

I kind of hate French food.

Don't get me wrong, there are things about French food I love desperately. When we were in France we spent huge chunks of time eating nothing but bread, cheese, and the occasional piece of fruit and those were some of the best meals of my life, because the French have demonstrably won at both bread and cheese. It's just that every time I go to a French restaurant I order something that looks interesting and it tastes lovely for the first three bites and then it is so rich that either I have to stop right there or it just starts tasting cloying, as though I am sitting there eating a stick of butter. (Oddly enough, when I was a child my mother cooked with no fat at all, on a rather misguided health kick, and so I was sufficiently fat-deprived for doctors to come into it at one point and I have had the experience of simply eating, and enjoying, an entire stick of butter. I knew I was getting enough fat in my diet when that stopped tasting awesome. I can remember what it tasted like, though, and slightly miss it. Maybe it resembles what people who aren't me like about French food?)

But this book was very interesting, though it continued to demonstrate that this is neither my natural idiom of cooking nor of eating and there is no use pretending that it is. The foods I feel most comfortable in a kitchen with are Indian and Chinese and some vernacular English; you want massaman curry, char siu bao or summer pudding and I can do that. You want a boeuf bourguignon and I start fumbling for my instruction manual and fretting. This is why I wanted to read this, because it is not remotely in my comfort zone.

And as a good cookbook should be it is designed to increase that comfort zone. It's really well laid out, very systematic-- each family of preparations has a master recipe, which then has usually about seventeen variations, some of which would taste entirely different, but which use the same basic methods. Get the first one down and you can make all of the others, probably without anyone noticing that you really just know one dish. The really intimidating things are also spelled out plainly, with diagrams, and the places you can cut corners are noted, as well as the places you shouldn't. The book has a way of blithely assuming that a determined person can deal with anything, which is both reassuring and slightly intimidating all on its own-- no, I do not think I am ever going to find a souffle something to approach without some element of trepidation, thank you, no matter how often I am told that with practice I can whip one out.

The technique notes are also good. I may never need to flute a mushroom cap, but it's interesting to know how it's done.

So there were entire huge sections of this which I am never, ever going to want to make (I mean, no one in the house eats veal), but there kept being things I would strongly consider: the aforementioned boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, pot-au-feu, pretty much the entire dessert section. And I do feel vague smugness at already being able to make mayonnaise and Hollandaise and poached eggs and creme anglaise, because it means the variations and changes on them are things I can note down for future use. This really is one of those books which can and does serve as an introduction and overview of an entire way of looking at food, and so inevitably there are some things I would like to swipe, even if I will never be able to figure out why in hell anybody would want to braise lettuce.

Deservedly classic. At some point I should read volume two.
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I seem to be in a food mood.

Ismail Merchant is widely known as the Merchant of Merchant-Ivory Productions; along with his lover, the director James Ivory, and their friend and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, he made more than forty movies, including A Room with A View and other famous adaptations of E.M. Forster. (I've always thought Merchant and Ivory showed great sense in putting their names that way round...)

Apparently cooking was a great passion of his life, and he seems to have enjoyed food and hospitality both for their own sake and for their uses in discussions with the artistic, temperamental, or financially necessary-- many of his recipes are annotated with the names of the actors he bribed with them. Merchant, a Muslim from Bombay, also seems to have been at the forefront of the introduction of Indian cooking to America, along with Madhur Jaffrey (a friend of his). He mentions cheerfully that when he started serving Indian food to New York City theatre circles there were two Indian restaurants in Manhattan, both of which were terrible.

His book is not incredibly well-written in its prose interludes, though it has its moments (one recipe notes 'This is what you should have for lunch while arguing about what to make for dinner'), and it has the celebrity cookbook nature in that it is very name-droppy and does not give much context for the names it drops. He is also very proud of having managed to learn to cook despite it being a thing men in his family Did Not Do, which is a reasonable thing to be proud of, except that he mentions it so frequently that it becomes a tad annoying.

But the recipes, which are primarily Indian but with strong French and American influences, are obviously and beautifully sound. He really thinks in both Indian and French idioms, and suggests seasonings that can be tipped toward one nationality or another by changing the ratio of the spices. I have never seen anyone quite so fond of mustard, or remotely so original with it, nor have I met other curries containing tarragon vinegar. He also highly values quick preparation, and if you are fast at your knifework and can keep up with the chopping, you can make most recipes in this book within half an hour, including the gigantic ten-person special-occasion expensive-meal productions like lobster tails in coconut sauce. It's not a terrible book for vegetarians, either, though not spectacular, but if you can't handle capsicum steer clear, because Mr. Merchant is incapable of making tuna salad without throwing in both diced green and red chilies (a mindset I sympathize with but do not consider workable on a day-to-day basis).

This is not a cookbook for reading, really; it's a cookbook for use and inspiration, one of those books that winds up tattered and covered in sauce, adding a few things to your regular repertoire and a few to special occasions and several to the list of things that if you ever go totally crazy you'll devote a week to. In short, it's neither a revelation nor a disaster, but a good workmanlike solid thing.
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This turned out to be terrible. Aargh.

Riley is a translator and historian of food literature, and the point of this book is meant to be that it contains adaptations of a selection of recipes from Renaissance Italy. Understandably, the author needed an organizational system; because this is not a reprint of the entirety of any one cookbook, she had to have a way to justify and explain which recipes she includes from the famous recipe collections. She decided to center her work around famous people: the food that Michelangelo, for example, would have been familiar with based on the things he said in his letters and the things we know about his household accounts.

This is not a bad idea for a cookbook. We have a lot of information about what the famous humanists and painters and writers and churchmen ate. However, she simply does not do it well. If you don't know who these people are and why they're famous when you pick up the book, you are not going to find out from her. She does not give more than the most cursory biographical overview of anyone, and even that infrequently. And she does not put in the text the citations that I know perfectly well exist concerning how we know about the food these people ate. I mean, I trust her to be telling the truth about it, but she needs to quote more letters, quote more account books. Her paraphrases do not communicate the way people thought about food, which was, of course, not the way we think about it nowadays. (I do appreciate that she explains exactly when the tomato entered Italian cooking, and how. That is helpful.)

The book is illustrated, too, with many contemporary pictures centered around food, but, and this amazes me, the subjects of the paintings are often totally irrelevant. True, there are several pictures by painters she discusses, but a fair number of the plates aren't even from the right time period-- I have faith that there are surviving pictures of melons from the fifteenth century! You don't need to turn to the eighteenth! This resonates with the weirdest thing in the book, which is, I suspect, an attempt to show the way in which recipes from Renaissance Italy got passed down and handed into the culinary vernacular even in quite separate countries, but which is in fact a completely unprefaced and out-of-the-blue chapter about, of all people, Martha Washington.

Of course, if the recipes were awesome none of this would matter very much. She is up against a known problem with them, which is that you cannot accurately translate the way things were written down at that time into modern measurements; accepted practice, however, is to do a lot of kitchen-testing until you come up with something. Riley is scattershot about this in an aggravating fashion. She will tell you to chop a very specific amount of chicken and then suggest that you season it with herbs-- without saying which herbs, let alone how much of them. She does not manage to accurately communicate the thing that can be readily deduced from old recipes, which is the ratio of one ingredient to another. It does not matter so much what amount of parsley you are using if you know that you have to use half as much rosemary as parsley and the total volume of herbs is to be one third that of the wine. That is the sort of thing the original collections will tell you, because that is one way people thought before standard measurements, and she basically leaves it out.

Because I have a lot of kitchen experience, and because I know something about old recipes, I can tell approximately what many of them are supposed to be doing. But I do not think that would be true for all readers. Also, there is an additional issue with about ninety percent of the recipes in the book, which is that, of course, the ingredients then and the ingredients now are rather different. Late medieval and early Renaissance cookery is swimming in verjuice, which you are only going to get mail-order unless you live near a winery or in New York City, and another staple ingredient is bitter (Seville) orange juice, which as far as I can tell is a seasonal farmer's market thing in vast swathes of the U.S. if it is available at all (I was not turning up anything mail-order). The two usual ways to deal with this sort of thing in a cookbook are a) a list of ingredient providers and relevant stores at the back of the book, and b) (and this is the really important thing), a list of adequate substitutions. Riley gives neither. (I conjecture that mixing balsamic vinegar with white grape juice would give me a reasonable fake of verjuice. Bitter orange? I got nothing.)

This means that the book, having already failed at entertaining and erudite, drops out of the category of useful. I mean, I made zabaglione from it this evening for New Year's, which was delicious, but I think it may have been the book's only usable recipe, and I think it's telling that that's one that's still in the culinary repertoire and has a fairly standard and common set of instructions. Avoid this book. It will only annoy you.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This is, as I had hoped, A Really Fricking Useful Book. I've spent a fair amount of time cooking various directions of Indian food and a fair amount on Asian dumplings and a lot on Japanese this-and-that, but I've never made Middle Eastern food in my life, and it's a cuisine I really like.

Bsisu has a selection of recipes here suitable for all skill levels, including things where you throw one or two ingredients together and things where you spend four days arranging all the pieces. She uses the ingredients she grew up using (in Kuwait and Jordan), but suggests substitutions for people who can't find specific items. She clearly defines the flavor palette and distinguishing features of the food she's producing, and, and this makes me very happy, not only discusses which country each dish comes from but tells you how to vary the base recipe to make the versions you would find in other countries.

And the whole thing is clear, euphonious, and interspersed with pleasant personal anecdotes and discussions of major occasions and festivals and what food could be served for various occasions-- on the birth of a child, on the proposal of marriage, on the evenings of Ramadan.

I had to get up and go eat some olives while reading.

I have not cooked anything yet from this-- I just read it today-- so it's possible that something could still go wrong or not be as tasty as it sounds, but my knowledge of how spices usually work indicates that the recipes look reasonable. She gives you directions for multiple spice blends and for making yogurt and yogurt cheese and several flatbreads, but admits freely that you can buy all of that if you need to.

In short, this appears to be exactly the primer on Arabic food and cooking that I wanted and that I hoped it would be when I got it out of the library. I am looking forward to working from it, to learning another way of thinking about cooking, because once you've cooked enough recipes from an area you start to be able to extrapolate about food and come up with your own things spiced and prepared similarly; and the ability to make a variety of tasty and different things from the same basic set of ingredients we always have in the house is really what I desire out of my cooking. When I look at an egg and a spice rack I want to have options. This book helps open out another set.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
A useful book on exactly what the title indicates. I'd call the ingredients more mildly fusion than totally authentic, but it all looks tasty. Covers regular sushi rice, brown rice, using omelet as a wrapper, and every major sushi shape I've ever seen-- cones, rolls, inside-out rolls, pinwheel rolls, nigiri, rolls-within-other-rolls, and the kind where you have a base of rice and make an enclosure on the top with nori so you can put a dollop of something liquidish on it, among others. There's a fair selection of fillings mentioned, everything from seasoned gourd to asparagus with sesame sauce to something resembling wasabi guacamole, and there's a section of dessert sushi involving rolls made of rice flavored with lemon or coconut and topped with fruit.

I suspect that some readers may find it easy to underestimate the amount of practice and patience needed for the more difficult rolls due to the minimalist language of the instructions, which have about the same level of detail for every recipe no matter how involved, and which don't specify difficulty levels. Having spent some time making homemade sushi, my personal experience indicates that even simple rolls need some practice before you get them looking really nice, and things like the square roll that is composed of other rolls in such a way as to make a pretty internal pattern are going to be serious technical challenges even for someone expert at easier rolls. However, I do think you can tell by looking at the recipe whether a roll is going to be hard, although probably not with precision, which is why I'd have appreciated some kind of internal difficulty rating.

The standard versions of the recipes use bonito flakes in stock and egg for omelet, but there's a fully vegetarian stock substitute recommended, and it would be pretty easy to make anything in this book vegan. There are suggestions listed after each recipe for fish fillings you could use to make more conventional sushi out of it; I appreciate this sort of versatility.

This isn't going to get you making restaurant-quality sushi, but you're almost certainly not going to wind up doing that at home anyway. Our goal with our home sushi is 'not as good as restaurant, much better than sushi-in-a-box', and that's readily achievable, and this book will help you with it.
rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This is a lot of the Daily Telegraph's World War II-era recipes, collected and organized. As a result, it's an interesting look at wartime British cookery and the way that recipes adapted to rationing, and probably not at this point in time to be used as an actual cookbook.

One thing that I note is that some ingredients that were evidently common are not, in fact, common to me. This may be an across-the-ocean thing as opposed to time period, I'm not sure; but fresh redcurrants are both seasonal and very expensive anywhere I've lived, fresh damsons unheard of (damson jam is mad expensive too), fresh loganberries right out; and apparently rabbit was a cheap meat. Oh, and suet. I have cooked with suet precisely once in my life, this time that [personal profile] eredien and I were using a pudding mold she had, and it had to be special-ordered. It is so assumed in this book that one knows how to make a suet crust that they do not bother with a recipe. And I think we have sultanas in this country under the name 'golden raisins' but they are not remotely standard.

On the other hand, of course a great many ingredients were incredibly scarce, and I was interested to notice which ones: dairy, certainly, most dairy, these recipes invariably use margarine and dry milk and something called 'household milk' which seems to be liquid but is distinguished from fresh, and there are many more uses for sour milk than one usually sees in a cookbook. Cheese seemed fairly plentiful, though, it's a staple here. Eggs-- everything here is with reconstituted dried egg. There's a section on how to make most egg dishes with dry ones, including how to fake hard-boiled egg for the center of a Scotch egg, how to fake scrambled eggs (with a helpful note that scrambled eggs are President Roosevelt's favorite food), how to do Yorkshire pudding with dried egg and dry milk. Many cuts of meat seem to have been prohibitively expensive, so they recommend you pot-roast everything, and make a Sunday joint by rolling a flatter piece jelly-roll style and stuffing it with forcemeat. Much fruit seems to have been around, except for some reason lemons, which were so dear that there's a recipe here for lemon curd using margarine, dried eggs, saccharine tablets and pounded lemonade drink mix powder.

There's also a fake marzipan made of almond flavoring and soybean flour, which actually doesn't sound that bad to me.

Many of the recipes here don't sound that bad, in fact. )
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This is a slim little cookbook translated from the Japanese by Vertical, Inc., who are best known usually for being a manga publisher. I think Vertical are putting out several more of Kobayashi's cookbooks, and I have to say it's really nice to see a Japanese cookbook that is neither incredibly simplified nor incredibly esoteric. Many of the other ones I've run into either assume that you cannot, in the U.S., possibly get any real Japanese ingredients and so give you all sorts of ridiculous substitutions, or they assume that you already know things like the basic rules of presentation for a dish. This is a nice happy medium-- does have a glossary, does list substitutions, but will ask for sashimi-grade tuna or shiso or chrysanthemum greens without assuming total ignorance on the reader's part.

Donburi are rice bowls, things over rice. The author makes the point repeatedly that things over rice are different from things next to rice, because the rice catches the juices and is more likely to be eaten with the topping instead of separately afterwards. Donburi are frequently a one-dish meal. They're also meant to be quick; I don't think anything in this entire book would take more than half an hour to make.

There's a good variety of things to put over your rice here, from the various forms of cutlet to the various forms of sashimi (marinated and otherwise), sukiyaki, different kinds of curry, and the many different things you can do with egg (including that egg-coated cutlet one so often gets as katsu-don in restaurants). There are even a couple of things like a Japanese take on ratatouille and a stroganoff. And there are some side dishes, mostly soups, salads and very quick pickles (of the throw-vegetables-in-spiced-liquid-wait-twenty-minutes school). It was also quite helpful in getting me to think about donburi and the flexibility of things you can put over rice-- we had a noodles-in-sauce donburi for dinner tonight that was not remotely based on any of the recipes in this book but that would not have happened if I had not been reading it.

However, while I would recommend this cheerfully to people who haven't done much with Japanese food, I would not recommend it to people who haven't done much with cooking. The recipes do not specify a lot of the things that people who have been cooking for a while will take for granted but that might trip up novice cooks. It is assumed, for instance, that you know how to cook rice; every single dish is served over or with it, but you won't find any directions for it here. It is assumed that you know how to blanch spinach, how to soft-boil an egg, the difference between julienne and fine dice, that you can deal with getting a scallop ready for cooking either unassisted or by looking it up somewhere else. If this is not the case, this is not a good starter cookbook because honestly several of its recipes are basically in shorthand, not quite on the level of 'make a breaded pork cutlet in the standard manner and season as follows' but really pretty close to that. When an ingredient is really esoteric there will be more details on it, but most of them aren't. This shorthand quality is the reason the book can be so slim, but I am hoping it doesn't trip me up any when I try to work with it, especially in some of the egg dishes, where the author may know what he's talking about but I will have to use trial and error.

And he's a little too eager to tell me that every single one of his dishes is ridiculously delicious, he's kind of terrifyingly perky. And this is not a good book for vegetarians unless you are good at substituting because he is one of those people who puts shrimp in everything. Everything. Like, even curried eggplant.

Still, good intermediate Japanese cookbooks are so rare that I can already tell I'm going to treasure this one, and use it, and try to get hold of his books on other kinds of food. And I think it will teach me to handle a couple of ingredients I haven't worked with previously, such as burdock. So I'm really very happy with it.
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Today's book is an exemplar of the dangers of reading while ill. I am, in fact, quite sick, and unaccountably we do not have in the house a copy of Pat the Bunny (sheer oversight on my part), so for some reason I decided it was reasonable to sit down with this extremely giant cookbook by Julia Child. Possibly because it has a lot of illustrations. Note to self: lots of illustrations do not, in fact, make the book any shorter. Really. So this was my first misstep.

So, after several hours of reading, napping, feeling too ill to read, feeling too ill to nap, napping while, technically, reading and reading while, technically, napping, my housemates came home, and I felt the urge to discuss the things I do not understand about the book, a list much longer than I expect it usually would be under healthy circumstances but which centers around one item: aspic.

You see, The Way to Cook is not actually a French cookbook. It is supposedly American food. What this means in practice is that it contains three kinds of recipe: a) solid, beautiful French food of the sort that Julia is justly famous for; b) Great American Classics such as baked beans and chowder, in what appear to be perfectly workmanlike versions; and c) American Cocktail Food c. 1957. This book, published in 1989, may be the last gasp in this country of the now-make-a-bechamel-sauce-with-pimento school of culinary terror. There's not much of it, but it is there. And, since Julia is going back to her French roots as often as possible, that means that the combination of classical French and bad American equals man, there are a lot of aspic recipes in this book, aren't there. (Okay, there are five. That's a lot.)

The thing I do not understand about aspic can be summarized easily. What I do not understand is: why? Why make a perfectly reasonable chicken stew, for example, and then jelly it and serve it chilled? Why would you do that to yourself? To the food? To your friends?

So I was going on and on about this, in my feverish way, and ranting about the various aspic recipes and how each is more ludicrous than the next, and showing the housemates the handy colorful photos, and asking my eternal question. And Thrud said, well, you know, if you really don't know why, there is only one way to find out.

When the dust settled and we finished listing what ingredients we keep in the house at each other, I discovered that I had, somehow or other, promised to make poached eggs in port wine aspic for my family just as soon as I feel better, because, God help us, we have all the ingredients, and I can for my sins poach a reasonable egg.

This is why it is dangerous to read new books when you are very ill. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

Other than that it is a pretty good cookbook, well written, full of useful little tips and tricks and insanely useful on the subjects of pastry and sponge-cake and choux paste. If you can keep your head and veer from the bechamel side of things, and remember that in these enlightened days one should about quintuple the amount of hot sauce and that turmeric, cumin, cilantro, epazote etc. are real things that exist and can be added, it could stand you in a very good stead. Who knows. Maybe we will all like aspic.

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