Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Best Cookbooks of 2015

For four years running I have shared my list of the top five cookbooks of the year. As in the past, I struggled to winnow this year’s class down to a list of the five best, IMHO. So without further ado, I present, in alphabetical order, my choice for the best cookbooks of 2015.

Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy. Saltyard Books.

Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California by Travis Lett. Chronicle Books.

Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Beyond by Olia Hercules. Mitchell Beazley.

Pasta By Hand: A Collection of Italy’s Regional Hand-shaped Pasta by Jenn Louis. Chronicle Books.

This is Camino by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain with Chris Colin. Ten Speed Press.

So why these books?

Rachael Roddy’s Five Quarters (here) serves up an outstanding collection of mostly Italian recipes curated by Roddy. She lives in Rome and writes both a food blog, Rachael Eats, and articles for London’s Guardian newspaper. Look for the North American release of her cookbook, entitled My Kitchen in Rome, in early 2016.

I happened upon Travis Lett’s Gjelina while perusing the fall cookbook offerings at my local bookstore. What a happy discovery! As I thumbed through this book with dishes from Lett’s Venice, California restaurant, I found myself wanting to try every recipe. Gjelina features bold, simple dishes like Braised Spiced Romano Beans with Yogurt & Mint; Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Parsley & Vinegar; Orecchiette with Chicken Hearts, Turnip Greens, Pecorino & Black Pepper; and Squid with Lentils & Salsa Verde. A first class cookbook!

The more time I spend with Olia Hercules’s Mamushka, the more I love its collection of simple, delicious dishes. The book contains mostly Ukrainian recipes, but she also includes a good number of Armenian recipes that remind me of dishes that I ate growing up. Hercules is a London chef, food stylist and one of The Observer newspaper’s Rising Stars in Food. Read Mamushka and it’s easy to see why Hercules’s star is rising.

If you spend any time bunburying around my food blog, you know that I make a lot of pasta and own a lot of books on pasta. So, in my opinion, Jenn Louis has penned one of the essential pasta cookbooks. Her Pasta by Hand (here) explores the fascinating world of regional Italian handmade pasta, including some seriously obscure shapes. If you love Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta, you will absolutely want to add Pasta by Hand to your cookbook collection.

Last, but by no means least, comes This is Camino (here). If forced to choose, This is Camino gets my vote for the best cookbook of the year. Moore and Hopelain share Camino’s approach to cooking and hospitality. Buy their book and you will get an excellent collection of recipes to make direct, flavorful food. I really like the book’s prose; it’s as if Moore is standing in the kitchen with you sharing the how and why behind every recipe. If you find yourself in Oakland, California, do yourself a favor and eat at Moore & Hopelain’s Camino restaurant.

I want to end this year’s survey by sharing some of the other books that I bought and considered for 2015’s list of the best cookbooks. As I mentioned, I had a really hard time this year picking only five books. Here are the contenders in alphabetical order:

The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook by Chris Fischer with Catherine Young.

Donabe by Naoko Takei Moore and Kyle Connaughton.

Fika by Anna Brones & Johanna Kindvall.

The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook by Danny Bowien and Chris Ying.

Preserving The Japanese Way by Nancy Singleton Hachisu.

Tacos by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman.

I enjoyed all of these books, especially The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook. Check it out.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Vin d'Orange

When family and friends gather—especially at the holidays—I like to offer my guests an age-appropriate libation. I just finished making a bottle of vin d’orange with a recipe from Pierre Koffmann’s Memories of Gascony (2012 revised edition published by Mitchell Beazley). Right or wrong, I consider year-end the best time to buy quality oranges and other citrus (at least here on the US West Coast). So now is the perfect time to get ready to make this quick aperitif.

1 liter white wine
zests of 2 large oranges
250g sugar
100ml Armagnac

Mix everything together in a large pot, cover and leave to infuse 12 days before drinking.

That’s it! This fortified wine smells and tastes of…surprise: oranges, but in a soft, graceful way. It is a lovely drink and couldn’t be easier to make. As is my practice when infusing lemons and grapefruit, I take care that the zest contains no pith. Other than this, success depends upon the quality of one’s ingredients.

For my latest batch I used a white Anjou wine made from Chenin Blanc grapes from France’s Loire Valley (because I couldn’t find a white from the Côtes de Gascogne at my local market…can you imagine that! What is this world coming to?!). And I used some nice apple brandy from Oregon as I did not have a bottle of Armagnac lolling about in the back of my liquor cabinet. What is Armagnac, you ask? It is a single distilled French brandy from, yes, Gascony, made from local white wine grapes. If you want to experience the vin d’orange of Pierre Koffmann’s childhood, by all means go with white wine and brandy from Gascony. But I advise that you not put off your infusion for fear of a lack of authenticity—your thirsty guests will never forgive you.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Red Lentils

The 2015 cookbook season swings into gear! Just out: This is Camino by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain with Chris Colin. What a fantastic cookbook! After cooking for 21 years at Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse, Moore opened Camino in 2008 with his wife Allison in Oakland, California. Camino turns out delicious, exciting food from a magnificent 10-foot wide limestone fireplace equipped with a brasero and various grills and warming stones. Because Moore cooks exclusively with wood fires, I wondered how he would craft a cookbook for a general audience. This is Camino certainly includes a number of grilled dishes and a whole chapter that walks the reader through the process of cooking an entire meal over an outdoor fire. The cookbook, however, focuses more on Camino’s approach to food rather than fire cooking.

Hopelain beautifully sums this up in her Introduction: “After a little more thought, it seemed clear that the essence of our cooking isn’t ultimately the fire. The fire’s simply a (huge, roaring) means to an end. At its heart, Camino is about an approach to food, one that can happen anywhere. Neither Russ nor I are grandmothers, but fundamentally ours is grandmotherly cooking. Specifically, a frugal grandmother who grew up in the Depression, had plenty of style, kept a sweet vegetable garden, and could shake a good cocktail.” Nice.

Any number of recipes in This is Camino’s exemplify the restaurant’s carefully sourced, straightforward fare: Tomato Salad with Yogurt and Herb Jam; Matsutake Mushroom and Fresh Flageolet Bean Ragoût with Oysters and Wild Nettles; Grilled Squid with Fresh Turmeric, Chiles and Radishes; Grilled Lamb Rack with Fresh Shell Beans, Tomatillos and Mint; Pork Shoulder Cooked with Milk, Lemon and Myrtle with Turnips; Tunisian Orange Cake with Dates and Yogurt; Amaro Cocktail; Nocino; and the Camino Negroni.

This is Camino also includes a number of Camino’s quintessential recipes that are dead simple to make: Egg Baked in Cream; Potatoes Fried in Duck Fat; and, one of my all-time favorites, Red Lentils. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I often opt for meatless dishes when dining at Camino because…the food sounds so tempting and ultimately tastes so delicious! I’m most happy when the menu includes a plate of Moore’s lentils, roasted mushrooms and an egg or two. Here’s Camino’s Red Lentil recipe, which makes about 5½ cups.

1 to 2 dried moderately hot chiles
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon brown mustard seeds
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 (1/8-inch-thick) slices unpeeled ginger
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
2½ cups red lentils (see note below)

Tear the chiles into manageable pieces, discarding the stems, and place them in a spice grinder. Pulse a few times to create a coarse powder.

Heat a pot over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and all of the mustard seeds. Swirl them around and cover the pot. In a few minutes, you should start hearing them begin to pop (kind of like Lilliputian popcorn). Once the popping begins to slow, take the pan off the heat and remove the lid. Here’s the tricky part: while everything is still hot, quickly add the garlic, ginger, and turmeric and stir immediately. You want the garlic and ginger to be coated in oil and you want the turmeric to sizzle a bit, but you don’t want any of it to get brown. I really don’t like burnt garlic and I especially don’t like burnt turmeric. So, after everything sizzles in the hot pan for 15 seconds or so, splash some water in there to stop the cooking.

Now add the lentils, some ground chile, a bit of salt, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil (so you have both cooked mustard-y oil and uncooked fruity oil), and enough water to cover by about half an inch. Turn the heat up and bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer, and stir to break up the clumps of lentils. Continue to cook, adding splashes of water here and there if the lentils start to get too thick and poke out of the liquid. But don’t add so much water that the lentils get watery and soup-like—you can always add water later, but you can’t easily take it out.

After 15 minutes or so, the lentils should begin to fall apart. This usually happens unevenly, so keep stirring and tasting for doneness (and, of course, for salt, since you are tasting anyway). It’s nice if there is a little texture left in the lentils, but there should be absolutely no raw flavor or crunch. It will look like a lumpy, bright yellow purée. The whole thing should take about 30 to 40 minutes.

To serve, you may want to add a little more ground chile or olive oil. Red lentils can be made ahead, refrigerated, and reheated easily over medium heat with a splash of water.

What a well-written, informative recipe! It’s like Moore is standing with you stove-side and carefully walking you through the cooking process. If you like this approach to recipes, then you’ll love This is Camino.

A few notes. As Moore points out in his intro to this recipe, use peeled red lentils (sometimes packaged as masoor dal, pink lentils or split red lentils). The first few times I made this dish I didn’t have any whole dried chiles on hand, but I did have a jar of Maras Turkish Chile from Oaktown Spice, which is located in Oakland, California. (Good news: you can order from this great spice shop on-line and their shipping doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.) The Maras chile married beautifully with the lentils providing a warm, spicy flavor.  I used black instead of brown mustard seeds and the dish tasted delicious.

When I lived in California I was fortunate enough to eat at Camino five to six times every year. It’s an outstanding restaurant and This is Camino is a fabulous cookbook. When I visit family and friends in the Bay Area, I make it a point to eat at a couple of restaurants: Palmento a Dopo (née Dopo) and Camino. Now I can get my Camino fix here on my island in the Salish Sea.