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Archive for the ‘Bookshelf’ Category

Top 10 Food Books: Affordable Alternatives

In Bookshelf on January 17, 2009 at 6:52 pm

img_0383At the end of the year, I love to hear all the great top 10 lists for books that proliferate on the radio, newspapers and podcasts, especially those focused on  food. As I have been perusing the lists the last few weeks, I was amazed at how expensive it is to buy many of the books new. I don’t buy many cookbooks, I usually need to save that money for the actual food, so I rely on my library’s generous renewal system.  (By the way, I do buy regional cookbooks when I travel, much more useful souvenir than a snowglobe.) So I’ve put together a few alternatives to some of the top 10 list books from 2008. The alternatives are either a little older, so easier to find in a library, or available in paperback, so cheaper and more widely available used.  And of course, they’re great books.

1. A Day at El Bulli, by Ferran Adria. Recc. on KCRW’s Good Food.

This book has been praised for being a great insight into the life of a very famous restaurant and what gooes into getting that delicious meal to your table. If you love famous restaurant backstory, A Meal Observed by Andrew Todhunter is a lovely narrative centered around the famed Taillevant in Paris. Each chapter corresponds to a course or aspect of a dinner at Taillevant, and is based on  what Todhunter learned during his short apprenticeship (amazing!) in the kitchen. Wonderful restaurant  stories and widely available in paperback.

2. Chanterelle: The Story and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic, by David Waltuck and Andrew Friedman. Recc on  KCRW’s Good Food.

Ellen Rose, owner of Cook’s Library in Santa Monica, described this book as a good gift for customers who like challenging recipes. I love when other people cook challenging recipes, but I like to actually make things that are a bit more accessible. The first cookbook I ever asked for as a gift was Staff Meals from Chanterelle, Waltuck’s 2000 book with recipes and helpful stories from the family-style meals the Chanterelle staff shares before opening every night. My most romanticized restaurant myth is the staff meal; great cooks making good simple food. If you love Chanterelle the restaurant (or the idea of it), but want a book that’s more geared toward family eating, it’s a great pick.

3. How to Cook Everything 10th Edition, by Mark Bittman. Recc. by T. Susan Chang, National Public Radio

Ok, I’m cheating a bit on this one, because I actually bought it and it’s at the top of my personal top 10 list for 2008 ( and I have somewhat of an epicurean crush on Mark Bittman). I literally open it everyday, not neccesarily for precise instructions, but ideas to build my own recipes on. However, I only bought it after spending the entire summer with a library copy of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Every Saturday, I came home from the farmer’s market and looked up recipes by ingredient based on what I had purchased that day. Well-organized, not too Western-centric like so many cooking tomes can be and everything was not only delicious, but presented in a way that inspired me to improvise with confidence.  Many thanks to the San Bernardino County Library system for letting me renew this book 5 times and re-check it out 3 times.

4. Fish: Without a Doubt, by Rick Moonan and Roy Finamore. Recc. by Epicurious

I was happy to find this book at my local library. I use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch App on my iphone to buy sustainable, clean fish, and Fish: Without a Doubt gave me the chops to expand my repertoire beyond tilapia and Alaskan wild sockeye. However, I also wanted to learn more about fish as food and The Story of Sushi, by Trevor Corson, was a great way to explore beyond recipes. It’s a fun read, loosely based around following a class of students at the California Sushi Academy, and packed with great historical and cultural anecdotes about every facet of sushi, including the fish. I’ve never been so amused by mackeral stories in my life. Widely available in paperback.

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Bookshelf: The Compassionate Carnivore

In Bookshelf on September 28, 2008 at 1:01 am

    Catherine Friend’s The Compassionate Carnivore has been sitting, neglected, in my reading pile since it was first published in April. After a visit with my doctor and nutritionist in January, I spent most of the first few months of the year immersed in Michael Pollan, Brian Wansink and Marion Nestle. We had made the big change in the way we ate and I felt like I was up to my ears in statistics and data about corporate food creation, so another book on the world of meat felt like overkill. However, I learned this past week when I finally picked it up again that Friend’s book is more of a narrative about how hard it is to make some of those big diet transitions and how to approach it realistically. She shed her own ignorance of the origins of meat when she moved to the source; a small farm in Minnesota.

     Friend briefly catalogs her education on the production of meat, much of it taking place as a result of her new role in the human food chain as a sheep farmer (she admits that her partner, Melissa, does the vast majority of the actual farm work, but she does seem to lend a hand with just about everything). There are a few chapters of data about factory farming and the processes by which a baby animal is eventually transformed into portions on styrofoam trays. If you don’t think you can stomach other books that get into factory farming for several hundred pages, but want to know more so you can make informed decisions,  Friend has written this book with you in mind. After the toughest pages detailing how different animals are prepared and slaughtered, she injects a vignette meant to clear your mind and give you happy thoughts of pastures and sweet grass. From there, she moves to how to find meat that you can live with, now that you have all this newfound knowledge. She advises a gradual approach and a critical eye towards labels like organic and cage-free.

     The feature that sets Compassionate Carnivore apart from other books on modern meat production are the back stories of Friend’s own transition to farm life. Her stories of how cuddly and soft the lambs can be share equal space with her family’s techniques for making sure they don’t get too emotionally attached to the animals they raise lovingly for meat. When taken as a whole, the stories of chasing down ewes, and tragically cute steer illustrate a pragmatism grounded in compassion. Friend is unapologetic about loving meat (and convenience food) and the costs of running a truly sustainable farm filled with humanely raised animals. But she also shows compassion for that other animal, the harried American consumer, overrun with choices and not always able to afford organic, pasture-fed, cage-free and the like. The personal stories in Compassionate Carnivore teach that it’s not important to get it right every single time and with every single purchase, but that the small efforts eventually yield a benefit larger than the sum of their parts. For us, and for the cuddly sheep.

Bottleshock: Let the Love Flow

In Bookshelf on September 8, 2008 at 3:07 am

     Bottleshock is in some ways, the perfect wrap up to our country’s post Olympics nationalistic fervor. Many felt a surge of national pride at the sight of Michael Phelps trouncing every other country on our collective behalfs. That “you done good, kid, you done good” feeling is also cherished in this summer’s “Bottleshock,” starring Bill Pullman, and Alan Rickman. On the surface, it’s an entertaining movie about what it takes to make good wine and how the upstart American underdogs beat the French at the famous Paris tasting in 1976. But once you get past the gratuitous hippie love story and the cliche’s of father/son antagonism/gruff love, it’s really about the greatest cliche of them all; belonging.

     The films’ strengths are moments that illustrate how some people can effortlessly belong together, while others always feel like they are looking through a window at a family dinner. In a scene where two of the main characters Bo Barret( Chris Pine) and Gustavo Brambilia (Freddy Rodriguez)  are trying to hustle money by betting on Gustavo’s ability to blindly identify any wine’s grape and vintage, the local bar flys harrass and tease the boys about their claims. However, this is Napa, and even the grizzled locals at the bar are wine snobs, declaring that any fool can tell a merlot from a cabernet. Everyone in the Napa scenes, from the vintner to the farm workers, talks about viticulture and soil moisture and bouquet. Wine is such an everyday drink, locals consume it from juice jars, coffee cups and straight from the bottle. Only outsiders use stemware. 
      Meanwhile, in Paris, British expat and wine worshipper Steven Spurrier (Rickman) finds himself continually on the outside of the French oenephile elite he admires. He conceives of the idea of the U.S. Vs. France tasting after experiencing multiple humiliations that remind him of his non-French status. Though the idea is partially to drum up business for his wine academy, it’s also a way to prove that he supports France’s reign over the epicurean kingdom.
     Wine solves all ills and ultimately, brings the close closer and the outsiders in. Neighbors in the Napa valley stand up and support each other with it. Spurrier becomes a pariah to the French wine elite, but it’s ok, he’s just become sommellier to the world. And of course, the guy gets the girl, the father loves the son, the young working class boy pulls himself up by his bootstraps — all on a river of wine. Even the cheesiness helps Bottleshock bring the often esoteric art of winemaking, solidly down to Earth.

Bookshelf: Best Food Writing 2007

In Bookshelf on August 31, 2008 at 8:05 pm

Eating in the United States can become, to borrow from Michael Pollan, the real “omnivore’s dilemma.” If you have the money and the inclination, you can eat-or consciously choose to NOT eat-just about any food product on Earth. Concerned about the impact of pesticides on agriculture and human beings? Organic, beyond organic and biodynamic choices abound in every major metropolitan area. Environmental impact and lack of flavor have you down on produce from another hemisphere? Your friendly local farmer is readily available every weekend at the farmer’s market. Worried that the beef on your table had a miserable existence in a feed lot somewhere? You can have buy and name your own calf, wait as he grazes a private pasture for 18 months and then have his deliciously clean rib eyes Fed-Exed to your door. The problem is, the more you care about exactly what is in your food-whether for reasons of health, social justice or plain epicurean snobbery-the more those worlds begin to collide.

            A running theme of Holly Hughes’ latest edition of Best Food Writing is an exploration of the growing complexity of food choices– and what happens when eaters take themselves too seriously. And as anyone who has read even one review in the New York Times or even the cover of Saveur can attest, folks in the food world can sometimes take themselves really, really seriously. The book’s nine sections range from “global” food issues like the organic movement and eating local, to personal memoirs on spaghetti sauce and turkeys.

            Several of the strongest pieces in the collection focus on revealing a single, sometimes unknown, aspect of the culinary world. Todd Kliman’s essay “Raw Tuna” puzzles over the stratospheric rise of this particular fish in American restaurant cuisine and describes the dizzying matrix of the seven grades of tuna quality and their corresponding price points. Kliman acknowledges that he didn’t even know that the two highest grades even existed, or that less than five restaurants in this country serve them. However, instead of leaving the reader with the impression that they have been eating-and paying lots of hard-earned money for-inferior fish, Kliman pulls back from the world of precious tuna and encourages the reader to not take the ruby colored flesh quite so seriously. Enjoy your wahoo and escolar instead, it may be the smartest pick on the menu.

            John Grossmann’s article “Spoon Fed,” leads readers into another hidden portal, the tasting practices of chefs in great kitchens. By following Commander’s Palace Executive Chef Tory Mcphail  through his tastings for an entire day, Grossmann brings an often romanticized restaurant vignette-the chef dipping his silver spoon into a steaming plate of sauce and declaring the dish perfect-squarely down to Earth. After tracking and counting all 169  of Chef Mcphail’s tastings on a particular day, Grossman had a nutritionist analyze the data and report on exactly what the Chef put into his mouth every day. I don’t want to spoil the surprise of the total fat and calorie count for readers, but I will tell you that Chef Mcphail makes NFL linebackers look like they pick at salads all day. The beauty of the article is that the Chef doesn’t take the stubborn line of so many supposed “foodies:” bah, that is the price you pay for good food, who cares about heart disease and obesity? Instead, he now runs four miles three times a week and has delegated some of his line tastings to sous-chefs. Grossmann reports that the tastes at the Commander’s Palace are still superlative, and the Chef is twenty pounds lighter.

            Collectively, the pieces in Hughes’ compendium achieve a modern approach to loving food. On the one hand, many of the authors encourage you to go ahead and indulge in the more privileged strata of cuisine: intense kitchens where saucier are literally dying to make things delicious, pad thai made with fresh Maine lobsters and  biodynamic strawberries picked by Marin County couples. And then, in the next moment, others seem to shrug their shoulders and say “Nothing wrong with a great carne asada taco from the truck down the street.”