Monday, March 10, 2014

2013/2014 Cookbook Choices - New York City Legends

I had my graduation dinner at 'Daniel'.  My friend, who was terminally ill, very much wanted to come.  We all patiently waited an hour for her. And the chef Daniel Boulud was very understanding.  In fact, he came by to observe this young, exuberant table of diners, perhaps not knowing that his fabulous cooking had been an eternal treat for my friend.  Boulud has since gone on to expand globally and now has a restaurant in Singapore.

"Daniel" the cookbook documents Boulud's life's work. Most of the dishes marry the refinement of French gastronomy with the artistry of celebrated restaurants such as 'Eleven Madison Park'.  Black
Truffle Oeuf En Cocotte is presented so elegantly, almost a technological wonder of coddled egg done perfectly.

Yet what captures me is the end part of the book where Bill Buford, the book's essay writer, joins Boulud team to create the intricate dishes that make French cuisine so legendary.  Together, they would 'produce over a dozen elaborate, technically flamboyant, and historically evocative French dishes' which include Turbot Souffle, Tete de Veau en Tortue, Coulibiac, Chartreuse, Volaille a Noelle and Pate en Croute.  My blog readers will know by now that I am into food porn.  So to come across modern day photos of old style food is rather rare, let alone the patience and fortitude to create them.

Boulud is merciful and leaves us with one last chapter about home cooking.  Recognizable and achievable for cooks like me, 'Beer-marinated Pork Rack' will be something I want to try to bring a Superbowl party a notch up.  Or perhaps 'Garlic-studded Gigot' in time for Easter, accompanied by Tarte Normandy before I visit the beaches this summer.

Something more homey and American is "The Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant Cookbook". A beloved institution where one can imagine Don Draper dining at, the cookbook is part souvenir and part history lesson on the restaurant at the basement of the grand train station.  It is written by the executive chef Sandy Ingber who grew up in Maryland and trained at the Culinary Institute of America, all good signs to lead a restaurant that has built its name on crabcakes and oysters.  Furthermore, Ingber continues to visit the fish market at 3am in the morning to pick up the daily specials for the restaurant.  A bowl of chowder and it underscores why I continue to love the city.  And the recipe can be found in this book, along with charts that detail the source, flavor and size of at least 200 different oysters.

2013/2014 Cookbook Choices - Lest We Forget Aleppo

The missing plane from Malaysia only cements our concerns about possible terrorism and the troubled areas of this world.  From as far back as I can remember, the Middle East has always been a hotbed of conflict.
Recently, a friend told me about his relatives who chose to remain behind in Aleppo, Syria.  It was the only way of life they knew and they could not imagine abandoning everything, thus signaling that they had given in to the rebels.  When the matriarch died, she was buried in a rebel-controlled cemetery and had to be transported early in the morning, accompanied by only one son.  Such is the courage and the struggle to survive.

Aleppo is an ancient city and was a crossroad for the many conquerors who came to that region.  Abraham is said to have stopped there on his way to Canaan.  The conquerors included the biblical Amorites and Hittites, the Mameluks, Ottomans, Mongols, Venetians, Romans and French.    Inevitably, the Aleppians created a great culinary capital, utilizing the spices, herbs, grains, meats and vegetables influenced by these various groups.

There are two amazing books.  One, "Aromas of Aleppo" (Poopa Dweck) elaborates on the legendary Syrian Jewish cuisine and the other, "Flavours of Aleppo" (Elie Badra) documents the Syrian Arab food.  Compare and contrast and one realizes the similarities that both groups share with each other.  Kibbeh, candied orange peel, phyllo pastry.  "Aromas" is an ode to the tight-knit Syrian Jewish community, since dispersed to various parts of the world but predominantly in Brooklyn and Deal, New Jersey. Written by a mother grieving after her young son's passing, her comprehensive book alone symbolizes the Syrian Jewish woman's qualities as a wife and mother.  "Flavours"was written by a woman who now lives in Canada, about memories from her mother's kitchen.  A subject close to my heart.  As Badra wrote, "Memories of the aromas wafting from my mother's kitchen are ingrained in always held the central position, like a vital organ in our home.... she always prepared larger amounts of food than necessary for our immediate family".

The recipes in both books are simple.  It will interest Nonyas to know that Aleppian Jewish cooking uses tamarind juice - a fundamental ingredient for many of their dishes. Along with cilantro, semolina and even coconut, suddenly the world seems small enough.

And while we're zeroing in on the Middle East, there are two other books not to be missed.  "Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies" (Najieh Batmanglij) is a comprehensive study of a rich culture.  The book is one of those epic documents, complete with ancient paintings, history, customs and folklore.  The recipes span almost the entire culinary repertoire.  Additionally, there is a useful section on 'How to make and store kitchen ingredients' which includes how to make Persian noodles, caramelize raw nuts, remove bitterness from orange peel amidst other tips.  I have collected a few other Persian cookbooks but this is by far, the most impressive one yet.

In case, anyone feels like Middle Eastern food is too traditional, there is the "Modern Flavors of Arabia" (Suzanne Husseini) which would appeal to the modern Arab woman.  Some of the most stylish and sophisticated women I've met are Arab and they remind me of who the book would connect with.  Husseini hosts a successful cooking show in the Middle East.  Gladly, her existence comes to show the rest of the world that the Middle East should not be portrayed as simply a war- torn region stagnating in ancient history but one of a progressive society striving to move with the times.

Friday, March 7, 2014

2013/2014 Cookbook Choices - When America First Went Revolutionary

One of the most interesting children's books I've read is called "Thomas Jefferson's Feast".  It is based on true facts that Jefferson loved gourmet food, often gave fancy dinner parties and introduced ice cream, tomatoes and macaroni pasta to America.  Needless to say, he became my favorite American president.

Currently, my daughter is in 4th grade and is studying about colonial America and the Revolutionary War.  Last Christmas, her grade performed a Christmas play that depicted celebrations in colonial Williamsburg.  It was an enchanting concert and evoked happy memories of our visit to that town, where we ate at restaurants that purposely lacked electric lights in the dining room to give us the sense of the era.  In January, for a school project, a few of her classmates made syllabub, spoon bread and  Sally Lunn.

Two books which elaborate more on this definitive moment in American history are "Revolutionary Cooking" by Virginia Elverson and Mary Ann McLanahan; and "Dining with the Washingtons", edited by Stephen McLeod.

Both books delve more into the habits and practices of that time.  "Revolutionary Cooking" breaks down chapters into 'Breakfast', 'Dinner', 'Supper and Tea' and 'Drinking' and describes the lifestyles and
habits of cooking and entertaining.  These are all important insights into history and I've urged my daughter to read the book.  In fact, it would make for great family reading so that everyone can learn something new about something old.  There are illustrations of utensils, pots and equipment drawn from  actual objects in museum collections.

The recipes are adapted from old cookbooks written in the 1850s, as well as those from family heirlooms. What is reassuring to know is that Elverson had to decipher 'a gill of this' or a 'dipper of that' and I can relate to her because I too, had to figure out 'a bowl of water' or '20 cents of chili' in quantifying my mother's recipes ingredients.

"Dining with the Washingtons" contains more lavish pictorials and is a hardbound copy ready made for the coffee table.  While similar in interest, the book contents center around the first President's entertaining and hospitality from his private estate, Mount Vernon.  The recipes are grander - fricassee chicken, 'forced beef tenderloin', roast duck and Yorkshire Christmas Pie.

Why am I drawn to these books and why would I write about them on a blog largely focused on the Peranakan culture?  Because we all have our specific cultural history to tell and it is worth learning how others tell theirs. Perhaps one day, someone could do the same anthropological study of our Peranakan cooking and eating habits on a similar scale.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

2013/2014 Cookbook Choices - Everything Australian; Some Things Essentially Thai

"The Cook's Companion" by Stephanie Alexander is a hot book.  The second edition from 2004 was out of stock and proved elusive for a very long time, even from resellers. Thankfully, a new edition has come out.  The book declares itself to be 'The complete book of ingredients and recipes for the Australian kitchen'. With a cover illustrating a rainbow of bright, happy colors, it definitely conveys the cheerful, carefree demeanor of Australians.

Alexander added more recipes to make the tome a 1000-recipe encyclopedia of the common ingredients that should be found in a pantry Down Under.  So the chapters are arranged alphabetically according to ingredients.  These include abalone, bacon, dill, pears, rock lobsters, scallops, tropical fruits, zucchini and squash and for the more Crocodile Dundee types, kangaroo and wallaby, rabbit and hare or brains. Within each chapter, there is an array of recipes that pay homage to the various ethnic groups that now make up the Australian demographic.  Beef would include beef daging rempah as well as Yorkshire pudding.  Short informal recipes are printed on the margins to suggest variations and at the end of each chapter, there is a cross-reference for additional recipes listed in other chapters of ingredients which can be found in the same dish.

The front section is an exhaustive thesis on kitchen equipment, basic definitions and measurements, praise for the trusted farmer and an argument against genetically modified products.  

This is a classic book favored by many well known chefs and would surely be in their cookbook collection, which probably explains why there weren't that many to go around.

 Going northwards up the arc of the Pacific Rim,  Thai food has always been a treat, especially when the winter is this cold.  "The Principles of Thai Cookery" is an authoritative cookbook penned by Chef McDang.  Otherwise known as ML Sirichalerm Svasti, he is a junior member of the Thai Royal Family and an experienced chef and restaurant owner who now represents his kingdom's cuisine as a food ambassador and consultant.  Here, Chef McDang takes the reader through the fundamentals of Thai cooking with focus on the key ingredients such as rice, chilies, herbs and spices. The dishes are broken down by the cooking techniques, sectioned into individual chapters such as grilling, frying, boiling or steaming, then criss-crossed by regional differences such as the North or South.

It is the kind of textbook I gravitate towards to study in-depth and master the art of a cuisine that parallels one close to my heart - both which produce a palate of spicy and tangy flavors.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

2013/2014 Cookbook Choices - The Artistry of Chinese Cuisine

I collect old Chinese cookbooks that feature elaborate displays of banquet dishes.  Those cold dish platters with the carved phoenix.....that sort.   These days, the cookbook snob talks about "Modernist Cuisine", the super-expensive book series that brims with clear, in-your-face photos of food as art.

But one should not let go of two fabulous books that rival the fine artistry of gourmet cooking as depicted in "Modernist Cuisine" or even, "Eleven Madison Park".

"Da Dong Artistic Conception of Chinese Cuisine" (literal translation of its Chinese title) is a cookbook published by the well-received Peking duck restaurant chain in Beijing, opened after my expat time there.  It is helmed by the chef Da Dong.  With the city moving along at lightning speed, I don't know where the quality of "Da Dong" ranks these days in the pantheon of Peking duck restaurants, both legendary and new.  I visited one of the Da Dong restaurants in 2011 and had spotted the book on my way out.  I hesitated to impulse buy and then, regretted.  I never fought through the traffic jam to revisit the place  to obtain a copy.  Yet, I kept thinking about the book.  A year or two later, I gave the American Express concierge a challenge to see how amazing their service was, and was not disappointed.  They contacted their Beijing office, tried to ship it over, could not, but found me the English title so that I could order the book on Amazon which I then did, under "Big Dongs Chinese Image dishes: The Four Seasons".

The photography is beautiful.  The food styling is contemporary and an art form.  I don't know if I'll ever really cook out of that book but by just looking at it, I marvel at the transition from the Beijing I knew (where the display of banquet food was bland) to the present day where dishes are served up as if Salvador Dali had plated them.  Indeed, in the first few pages, Da Dong admits and waxes philosophical about Maslow's theory of food as a basic need, eventually progressing to food as a higher art when the 'social and economic development reaches the highest level at the self-realization stage'.

A more recent publication is "Dim Sum", written by Janice Wong in collaboration with a dim sum chef Ma Jian Jun.  Janice Wong is a Pierre Herme-trained pastry chef who also worked with Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz.  Their influences show through.  She dissects the definition of flour and categorizes dumplings into 'crystal skin', 'elastic skin', chewy skin', 'matte skin', 'stretchable skin', 'transparent skin', 'sticky skin' and 'nest dumplings'.

Again, the photos are gorgeous but additionally, the listed recipes cover the breadth of the popular dim sum platter and more.  There are steamed 'xiao long bao' for sure, 'nai huangbao' custard buns, my favorite Shanghainese 'shen jian bao'  and the homey 'pork and chive' dumplings (or Dumpling 101 in my case). But Wong does not stop there. She covers 'Not Flour' and includes porridge, roasted pork belly with crispy skin, beef balls, radish cake, yam cake etc.  Being such a dim sum aficionado and going through this book,  I am tempted to try out a recipe each day.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

2013/2014 Cookbook Choices- about Singapore

So the Oscar season has wrapped up.  But I thought that we could continue our discernment of fine productions by looking at a few of the cookbooks I picked up this year.  There were so many impressive ones that I will be posting a few of them each day for this week.  The daily selection will be categorized by a common theme they share.  

Today's is "Singapore & Penang street food" by Tom Vandenberghe and Luk Thys.  It comprises more than 60 original street food recipes.  This genre has become very hip and on a recent visit to 'Kitchen Arts and Letters' bookstore, there was a front display of street food books from around the world.  Vandenberghe has travelled frequently to Asia and has given workshops in his cooking studio.  Thys is a talented food photographer (no easy feat) who captured familiar street food in its authentic context.

Flipping through the book, the images brought back accurate depictions of home and transported me back to my local environs without having to hop on SIA.  It covers char kway teow, black carrot cake, oluak, beef kway teow soup, chicken rice, Hokkien mee, Katong laksa, curry puffs among many, many others.  The book also includes dishes from Penang.  A great compare and contrast study to Singapore's hawker selection.

Buy the book if you find it and keep it for posterity.

Another book - a plug for my publisher - is "The Little Singapore Cookbook" which is an abridged compilation of Wendy Hutton's classic, "Singapore Food". You will often find it in the Changi airport bookstores.  A good gift for the newly-inducted Singapore visitor - a little souvenir to remember all that wonderful food consumed during her sojourn.

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