Monday, June 29, 2020

Around the World in Eight Cookbooks - Part 1

From Conrad: Cooking is an act of creation. All recipes are mere templates for endless exploration and expansion. You make the dishes your own. A good rule of thumb for making a dish you’ve never tried before is to find 2 or 3 versions of it, compare what’s the same and what’s different, and choose what looks good to make it your own. That said, the following is a list of eight dishes from eight cookbooks from eight cuisines. The dishes chosen are not necessarily representative, but are ones that I like and that, I feel, have made me a better cook. Some of these books are out of print, but any good equivalent cookbook would do.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking​ by Marcella Hazan (this is in print and is considered a, well, classic) I love her. She’s prickly and opinionated and a stickler for authenticity, but she does unbend a little for less choosy people. She staunchly defends Italy’s place among the world’s great cuisines (as though that’s in doubt). And, mostly, I adore her because she got me to challenge myself to make something other than spaghetti. While tut-tutting that any true pesto is made with a mortar and pestle, she nonetheless gives us this:

Pesto by the Food Processor Method 

2 Cups tightly packed shredded fresh basil leaves, ½ Cup extra virgin olive oil, 2 Tbs. pine nuts, 2 garlic cloves, minced, Salt, 3 Tbs. softened butter, ½ Cup freshly grated parmesan-reggiano cheese, 2 Tbs. freshly grated romano cheese

Briefly soak and wash basil leaves in cold water. Pat dry and gently shred them. Pack them into the bowl of a food processor with the olive oil, pine nuts, garlic and salt. Process until uniformly consistent. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the two cheeses by hand until fully incorporated. Mix in butter thoroughly.

Et voila! Pesto!! I ignore her directions and use more pine nuts, more garlic, I use whatever hard Italian cheese I have on hand (Parmesan, Romano, Pecorino, whatever), and more butter. I also don’t bother to move everything to a separate bowl and mix by hand. I just add the cheese and butter to the food processor and let it do the work. But I am a heathen.

Indian Cooking​ by Madhur Jaffrey (this particular book is out of print, but she has newer editions that are essentially the same, or even expanded on - try Madhur Jaffrey's Quick & Easy Indian Cooking or Madhur Jaffrey's Instantly Indian Cookbook). Jaffrey makes no bones about this being a version of Indian cooking utterly subverted to accommodate a Western kitchen. It’s the first cookbook she wrote, and is very much informed by her homesick desire to replicate her
mother’s cooking, after she moved to England to go to school. This dish is very simple, and has nothing to do with our usual perception of Indian cooking. It is not a curry, but it is so very flavorful and easy to prepare that you might find yourself using this recipe whenever you make green beans.

Gujerati-style Green Beans

1 lb. green beans, cut into 1-2 inch lengths, 4 Tbs. vegetable oil, 1 Tbs. whole dark brown mustard seeds, ½-1 dried red chili pepper, crushed, 1 Tsp. salt, ½ Tsp. sugar, Freshly ground black pepper

Blanch beans (boil in water for 3-4 minutes until just tender). Heat oil in a frying pan big enough to hold the whole finished dish. When hot, add mustard seeds. Fry until they start to pop. Add garlic and saute them both until garlic is fragrant and takes on color. Add chili pepper. Stir about a bit. Add beans, salt, and sugar. Saute for another 7-8 minutes or until all flavors have melded together. Add a few grinds of pepper and you’re done. Easy-peasy!!!

Tagine: Spicy Stews from Morocco​ by Ghillie Basan (I think this is in print. If not, she has another book that’s almost exactly the same - try Easy Tagine: Delicious Recipes for Moroccan One-Pot Cooking)

A tagine is an earthenware (usually) cooking vessel with a conical lid and a shallow bottom for simmering meat and/or vegetables in small amounts of liquid. If you don’t have one, any pot will do. It is eaten throughout North Africa, but regional variations can be quite different from one another. Tagines can be as varied as the individual cooks who make them.

Spicy Carrots and Chickpeas with Turmeric and Cilantro​ (I find it kind of weird that, in America at least, coriander leaves are almost always referred to as cilantro, which is the Spanish word for it).

3-4 Tbs. olive oil 1 onion, finely diced, 3-4 cloves of garlic, minced, 2 Tsps. ground turmeric, 1-2 Tsps. ground cumin seeds, 1 Tsp. cayenne pepper (less or more, depending on how hot you want to make this), ½ Tsp. ground black pepper, 1 Tbs. dark honey, 3-4 medium carrots, sliced diagonally,  2-14 oz. cans of chickpeas, 1-2 Tbs. rose water, 1 bunch of coriander leaves (sigh, cilantro), finely chopped, 1 lemon sliced into wedges

Heat oil in the base of the tagine or, you know, whatever. Add onion and garlic, and saute until soft. Add spices, black pepper, honey, and carrots (in that order, letting each bit get mixed in before adding the next). Add enough water to cover the base of the tagine (or, you know....), cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes, until carrots are tender. Add chickpeas, more water (if needed), and cook for another 5-10 minutes. Sprinkle with salt, rose water, and cilantro. Serve over couscous with lemon wedges.

I generally omit the rose water (as I find it repulsive) and vary the amount of cayenne pepper to suit the tastes of whomever I’m sharing this with (like salt, it can always be added, but not taken away).

I use The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook​ by Gloria Bley Miller, but I’m almost certain this is out of print. My copy was given by my dad to my mom for her 45th birthday. It’s a beaten up old wreck, but I love it! Pretty much any generalized Chinese cookbook would do - try All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China or Chinese Takeout Cookbook: From Chop Suey to Sweet'n Sour, Over 70 Recipes to Recreate your Favorites.)

Stir-fry Asparagus with Sesame Seeds

1 bunch of asparagus, bottoms snapped off (as one does), sliced diagonally in 1 inch lengths, 2-3 Tbs peanut oil (or any oil that takes to high heat without becoming some horrid burned thing), 2-3 scallions, sliced thinly into rounds, 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced, ⅓ cup tamari or soy sauce, ½ Tsp. cornstarch, 1-2 Tbs. oyster sauce, ½ Tsp. sesame oil, Salt, 2-3 Tbs. toasted sesame seeds

In a small bowl, mix together the tamri, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. Heat oil in a wok (or a large frying pan) until very hot. Did I say very hot? I mean, VERY hot. Add scallions and garlic. Stir about, but don’t let the garlic burn as it will become super disgusting. Add asparagus. Stir-fry until it turns bright green and softens a bit. Add the tamari mixture and stir about until asparagus is uniformly coated. Taste a piece of asparagus to make sure they’re actually cooked through. Empty into a serving bowl and sprinkle toasted sesame seeds over it.

This is a pretty basic way to stir-fry almost anything. You can mix up what kind of sauce you use and end up with perfectly delightful variations for the rest of your life.

More cookbook adventures coming soon!

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