Book Review – Mexican Modern

Mexican Modern: New Food From Mexico by Fiona Dunlop

Photographs by Jean-Blaise Hall

Interlink Books 2009

 I am always a little leery of cookbooks that are merely collections of recipes from various restaurant chefs all tied together by some common theme.  These types of books usually are just a hodgepodge of recipes with so many different styles of cooking that there is no clear concept of what the finished dishes are supposed to be representative of.  I was pleased with the recipes contained in Modern Mexican, though I do have some issues with the arrangement of the book.

 Fiona Dunlop traveled through the various regions of Mexico interviewing many of the young, creative chefs that ply their trade at award winning restaurants.  The goal, which was beautifully achieved, was to showcase modern cooking and trends in Mexican restaurants and not just print the typical Tex-Mex chain restaurant style of tacos and burritos.  Each chef has their own dedicated page, with a biography and an in depth interview.  With over 15 chefs contributing many of their signature dishes, the book contains many excellent, cutting edge recipes that a casual observer would be surprised to see served at a Mexican restaurant.  The photographs appear like an episode on the Travel Channel rather than a cookbook and provide the reader with a beautiful image of Mexico.  The pictures of the street scenes are amazing shots showing brilliant colors and provide a real view of the daily rhythm of the market place.

 All the recipes are written using both ounces and grams systems.  This is an excellent format to use to present recipes, as many cooks have been switching to the more accurate and exact method of weighing ingredients.  My wish is that more cookbook authors would use both systems of measurement when presenting recipes.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were very few unusual ingredients called for, could not be readily purchased at a typical American grocery, that needed long descriptions of their origin or a list of specialty shops were they could be located.

 The arrangement of the chapters makes it difficult, if not nearly impossible, for a reader to locate a specific recipe or course where that dish could be served.  The chapters are arranged by City or Region which makes it hard to find a recipe that you want to cook.  If I wanted to make the recipe for Cream of Cilantro Soup, since there is no Soup or Appetizer chapter, I would be forced to thumb through every page in the book until I came across the recipe I was looking for.  In the index the soup is not listed by name or even under cream.  This structure makes a book very frustrating for a cook to use.

 Within each chapter the recipes are not arranged by course or main ingredient i.e. Appetizer or Fish.  Each chapter has an interview with a specific chef then presents the chef’s recipes, which could be from anywhere on the menu, then moves on to the next chef.  This form of presentation is confusing and the book and chapters seem to skip around from dish to dish. If the book was presented in a more traditional format, print all the recipes of a similar type or course together, then the chef interviews could have been sprinkled throughout the book with a reference to their recipes and the page number where they could be located.

 There are many excellent recipes that are easily prepared in a home kitchen.  The Eggplant and Goat’s Cheese Mosaic layers fried eggplant with goat’s cheese and red pepper into a dish that is both tasty and makes a beautiful presentation at the table.  The Fried Squid Rings with Capers and Potatoes is not a Mexican version of fried squid but here the lightly fried rings are served in a broth of potatoes, crushed chilies, capers and white wine.  Sweet Potato and Pineapple Puree was easy to make and was very popular with the kids at Thanksgiving.  The Morelian Cheesecake with Guava uses packaged cookies to make a crust that is then covered in purchased guava paste.  The base is then topped with a condensed milk and cream cheese filling mixture.  If you have never tasted guava before then this dessert would be an eye opening introduction.

 The Morelian Gaspacho is not the typical tomato base gazpacho with fresh vegetables that most people are familiar with.  Here fresh mangoes, pineapple and jicama are flavored with lime juice, orange juice, chili powder and topped with white cheddar cheese.  I am not sure that I would have called this dish gazpacho but no matter what you decide to call it, the words refreshing and delicious belong in the title.  A traditional dish with a modern twist is the Tacos with Shredded Duck and Orange.  In this dish shredded duck meat is cooked in a sauce of garlic, chilies and tomatoes that is finished with white wine vinegar and fresh orange juice.  I was a little skeptical of the mixture of ingredients but the sweetness of the fresh juice offered a nice contract to the bite from the garlic and chilies.

 This book helps to demolish the common belief that all Mexican food is rolled in a tortilla and topped with chili sauce.  The dishes were bright and original while being composed of easy to find ingredients.  Mexican Modern will serve to expand a home cook’s international food experience without being too unusual or difficult.  The main reason that I would rate this book as three spatulas is the method that was used to arrange the recipes within the chapters.  But if you don’t mind an occasional treasure hunt then this book would be a welcome addition to your bookshelf.

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Book Review – Real Cajun

Real Cajun – Rustic Home Cooking from Donald Link’s Louisiana by Donald Link with Paula Disbrowe.  Photographs by Chris Granger.  Clarkson Potter Publishers 2009

 I can’t help but be intrigued by a book that opens with instructions on how to make bacon in a home kitchen.  Upon reading the instructions for Homemade Bacon you start to think to yourself “hey I could do that”.  Without giving away too much information: ten days, sitting undisturbed, curing in the back of the refrigerator and then one hour in a smoker.  Sounds a lot easier then you probably thought.  Don’t worry that this recipe will make too much bacon, every bite of it will get used.  Before reading this book I thought that 60% of the dishes served in Louisiana contain bacon, 30% use shrimp, sausage or crawfish and the remaining 10% use bacon, sausage and shrimp, but I was pleasantly surprised at the variations and different fresh, locally sourced ingredients that are used in traditional Cajun cooking.

 Cajun cooking is not just a piece of meat or chicken coated in some hot spices and cooked in a cast-iron pan until it looks burnt.  The idea of spicy, blackened food as “authentic Cajun” may have been served up for TV viewers and by chain restaurants in the 1980’s, but this is not the type of food an honest Cajun would serve to family and friends.  Link provides us with true, down home, style dishes that his family cooked back home in Acadia Parish.  This means rice, crawfish, gumbo, corn bread and greens in pork fat.  This is the real Cajun food not the generic, citified and over seasoned dishes served to the tourists on Bourbon Street.

 Link is the owner of two very popular New Orleans restaurants, Herbisaint and Cochon.  The James Beard Foundation named him the Best Chef in the South in 2007 and Cochon is listed on many of the “Best in America” surveys.  Link has a solid grounding in the classics, having graduated from the California Culinary Academy before returning home to New Orleans, so his wife could attend Tulane University.

 The 80 photographs give a real feel for what life is like on the bayou.  Link, writing in an easy, conversational style, talks about growing up in the Acadian region of Louisiana and the joy of family gatherings.  There are even suggestions for activities when planning a trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest or what not to do the next time you go turtle hunting.  The way Link talks about his family and friends comes across the page as real love and not as if he was just using them to set the mood for his book.

 The traditional Cajun recipes all start with a brief personal introduction about the dish, contain a list of easily purchased ingredients and excellent, well written instructions to help even the inexperienced cook recreate the dishes.  No Cajun cookbook would be complete without recipes for such dishes as: Smothered Pork Roast over Rice, Crawfish Etouffee, Seafood Gumbo, Fried Chicken, Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya or everything you need for a do-it-yourself Crawfish Boil.

 Cathy’s Shrimp, Corn and Tomato Stew is a hearty mixture served over rice.  The Broccoli, Rice and Cheddar Casserole is a church basement, style classic that is given a new life when Link uses his homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup instead of canned concentrate.  The Cast-Iron Hush Puppies contain a puree of jalapenos, scallions and parsley, which adds a bright fresh taste, as well as green color, to a traditional southern side dish.  Link includes recipes for dessert, and before you ask, no they don’t call for either bacon or crawfish.  The picture of Chocolate Yummy might look like a typical pot-luck type of desert that was quickly thrown together using a box of instant pudding and a container of frozen whipped topping, but the quality of the fresh ingredients, homemade custard and whipped cream elevate this home-style dish to something that you would proudly serve at any family gathering.

 With heartfelt stories of real life in Cajun country and wonderful recipes that are well written and easy to follow Real Cajun easily earns a rating of three spatulas.

Book Review – Yolele!

Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal by Pierre Thiam 

Photography by Adam Bartos 

Lake Isle Press 2008

 I had never seen a cookbook concerning cooking in Senegal, so when I picked up Yolele! I didn’t know what to expect.  Having the occasion to read Yolele! provided a unique opportunity to learn about a cuisine from the part of the world that is usually ignored by the culinary main stream.  The dishes presented in the book seem as if the local people took ingredients and methods from Portugal, France and the Middle East, then combined local produce and spices and mixed it all together to create unique, but still familiar, dishes.  Senegal, being located on the west coast of Africa, has historically been a melting pot of European, African and Middle Eastern cultures.  The author, Pierre Thiam, who owns two critically acclaimed restaurants in Brooklyn, compares the cuisine of Senegal to that of Louisiana Creole cooking, where many different cultures have come together to create something new and delicious.

 The lovely photographs capture the ambiance of the marketplace in Dakar, the capital of Senegal.  The colors of the fresh produce, the pictures of the fresh seafood and the candid shots of street vendor’s food have inspired me to travel to Africa so I can explore the markets and meet the people.  After seeing the vibrant colors of the fresh ingredients I wish there were more photographs of the finished dishes.  When reading the book it is easy to understand why the IACP, last year, nominated Yolele! as one of the year’s best books in the category of Best First Book/Julia Child Award.

 The recipes use readily available ingredients that can easily be found at a local grocery store.  When the recipe does call for a more unusual ingredient the book provides a good description of the new ingredient and suggests some substitutes that can readily be purchased in an American megamart.  I was surprised that so many of the ingredients are common to American kitchens.  The Glossary and Notes found at the end of the book are helpful and can get any home cook quickly up to speed on Senegalese cooking.

Tempra is reminiscent of cerviche, where prawns are marinated with an acid and spices, but here the prawns are grilled first then marinated.  I am generally the most adventurous eater among my friends, but the Grilled Sea Urchin, which sounds fascinating, is going to have to wait for my palate to become a little more mature.  The Fish and Corn Fritters is reminiscent of a Cajun style dish that would be at home in any New Orleans restaurant.  Tilapia and Millet Porridge is a delicious main dish where couscous is cooked to the consistency of a creamy polenta and served with Tilapia that has been simmered in a broth with tomatoes, onions and habaneros.

The Black-Eyed Pea Salad reminds me of a Moroccan style garbanzo bean salad with its blending of beans, peppers, onion, tomato and cucumber.  Thiebou Jen, “rice with fish”, is the national dish of Senegal and is indicative of the Senegalese style of combining various cultures into something unique.  Here fish is served with rice, carrots, cabbage and okra cooked in a spicy tomato sauce.  In the recipe for Plassas, Thiam substitutes Swiss chard, in place of the traditional yucca leaves, as the wrapper for a thick mixture of beef, shrimp and onions.  You can’t cook a traditional Senegalese dinner and not serve dessert.  In the recipe for Banana Fritters mashed bananas are mixed with flour, sugar and eggs then deep fried.  The recipe calls for topping the warm fritters with powdered sugar but I couldn’t stop myself from drizzling some melted chocolate over the top and serving with a scoop of homemade ice cream. 

 Yolele! is a welcome addition to the list of international style cookbooks that I can recommend.  The dishes are not typically found on an American menu but are similar enough that even meat and potato types of cooks will feel comfortable expanding their repertoires to include an African style menu.  The ingredients are user friendly, easy to find and the recipes make a good introduction to a “foreign” cuisine that is not “too” foreign.

Book Review – The Big Sur Bakery

The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook – A year in the life of a restaurant by Michelle and Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gilson with Catherine Price.  William Morrow 2009

 Located in a converted old gas station, on the California coast, is the Big Sur Bakery, one of the leaders of the “slow food” movement.  The slow food movement advocates eating, locally grown, in season, naturally produced food.  This book is a combination of personal remembrances of the restaurant’s founders, interviews with local Big Sur residents, discussions with some organic, local food purveyors, exquisite photographs of the natural wonders found in the Big Sur area and some recipes thrown into the mix. 

 The book, which contains 91 recipes, is divided into 12 chapters – one covering each month of the year.  The individual chapters offer recipes, using locally sourced in season produce and products, revolving around a specific monthly theme.  The best way to explain the construction of the book would be to detail one chapter.

 The chapter that covers the month of April opens with “Dinnertime” which talks about what occurs in the restaurant as the staff is preparing to serve dinner and then how they relax after the rush is over.  Then the reader is treated to an explanation, with beautiful photos, of how honey is made and a Q&A with Jack, a local beekeeper.  Recipes are included for typical April dinner fare, some of the menu items are: Grilled Sardines with Frisee and Whole-Grain Mustard Dressing, Roasted Leg of Lamb with Pesto and Artichokes and Asparagus with Almonds and Grapefruit Dressing.  This chapter highlights both everything that I loved about the book and at the same time all the problems that I have. 

In this chapter there are many spectacular photos, which evoke the natural scenery of the area.  There are photos of the empty restaurant, the bees, their hives and raw honey, Jack the beekeeper, fresh vegetables and the chopping and prepping of vegetables.  These photos are pretty enough to be in a coffee table book that covers the California coast, but there is only one photo that clearly shows a finished dish and that photo is of a slice of Lime Tart.  With 16 photos contained in the chapter why not showcase the finished dishes?  I have a good idea of what a slice of a lime tart would look like but I could use some assistance in visualizing how the finished Grilled Sardine dish should look.

 The recipes are a mixture of easy to make modernized American style classics such as Blueberry Pie, Roasted Chicken or Grilled Prime Rib and more adventurous dishes such as Grilled Oysters or Braised Venison Osso Buco.  The ingredient lists are long but the instructions for each recipe detail every step and you are made to feel confident that, by following the directions, the dish can be recreated at home. 

 After reading some of the recipes a home cook would not be out of line if they are left scratching their head asking “where am I going to find fresh sardines, burrata, rose geranium leaves, macha rosettes or lemon verbena leaves?”  While these ingredients may be common in the Big Sur area they would go on the impossible-to-find-list of most non-locals.

 The recipes titles sound appealing and make you want to run to the kitchen and try them.  The Pork Belly Pizza with Barbecue Sauce and Sweet Corn sounds like a good choice to make for dinner tonight, so I start reading.  Step 1: cure a pork belly in the refrigerator for five days.  Step 2 assemble 13 ingredients so I can make the barbecue sauce, oops wait I have to go to another section of the book and make a tomato sauce that is then used as an ingredient in the barbecue sauce.   By this point my head hurts and I realize we aren’t having the pizza tonight, or anytime soon.  This type of recipe may work well in a restaurant when you have long lead times and a prep staff, but not in a typical home kitchen.  Sure I could recreate a similar dish using off the shelf and pre-made grocery ingredients but then what do I need the book for?

 I don’t want to give the impression that the entire book is full of time consuming, hard to make dishes containing ingredients that you can’t locate.  The recipe for Scones is one of the best I have ever read.  The suggestion to freeze the fruit before incorporating it into the dough so as to minimalize stained dough is brilliant.  The instructions are detailed and specific and even if I had never made a scone before I would feel certain that the scone would turn out as advertised.  In the rustic Pearl Barley with Kale and Butternut Squash the barley is toasted then cooked in beer and stock before being finished with roasted squash and kale.  This dish may take a little time but if you can multi-task the various parts of the preparation then assemble just prior to serving.  The Baked Beans are homey and will remind guests of grandma’s old-style baked beans.

 The ideal buyer of this book would be a cook that will not hesitate to put in the effort to locate some of the more obscure ingredients and loves to spend time in the kitchen preparing elaborate dishes.  Your guests will be impressed when you present the finished dish.  If you looking for a book that can be turned to on a regular basis for family meals then I would suggest that you pass on The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook.

Eggplant Parmesan Soup

While thumbing through a magazine I came across an advertisement from Berolli that contained a recipe for Eggplant Parmesan Soup.  The title and the beautiful photgraph caught my eye and I stopped to read the advertisement.  Some of the most spectaular dishes I have served have come from advertisements so I decided to read on.   Since the recipe was designed to promote Bertolli products it contained a very specific product list in the decsription of the ingredients.  When I read promotional types of recipes a number of thoughts go through my head: did they pick a specific ingredient because it helped create a better dish or because it was on their promotion list, are there substitutes that would taste better, are they trading convenience for flavor, could the idea of this dish be improved.

The concept of Eggplant Parmesan Soup appealed to me.  While I tend to be fairly lazy and have no objection to the  use of prepared ingredients, it tends to be when a fresh item is not available or the pre-packaged is just better than I can readily make.  There didi not appear to be any ingredient in the promotional recipe that could not be changed so I  set off to create my own recipe.

Printable recipe

Eggplant Parmesan Soup

 Ingredients

1 pound eggplant, peeled and diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes

2 cups vegetable stock

2 teaspoons dry basil

2 teaspoons dry oregano

Salt

Pepper

4 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese

4 tablespoons Italian seasoned dry breadcrumbs

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

 Method

  1. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat.  Saute the eggplant, stirring frequently, for about 5 minutes.
  2. Add onion and continue cooking 7 to 10 minutes.  The eggplant and onions should be soft and golden brown.
  3. Stir in tomatoes, stock, seasonings.
  4. Bring to a boil over high heat.  Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes.  Stir frequently.
  5. To serve:  Pour soup into oven-proof bowls, top with bread crumbs, mozzarella and parmesan.  Place under the broiler for about 2 minutes, till the cheese is melted and golden.

Homemade Ice Cream Cake

The family was going to get together to celebrate my daughter’s birthday and her Grandmother, as always, volunteered to purchase an ice cream cake from so as to not get sued please insert national chain of your choice here.  I find most commercial ice cream cakes to be pretty mediocre.  The ice cream is either rock hard or a melting flavorless mess and the quality of the cake and icing are worse than mediocre.  Then to top it all off the price that they charge is way way too high.

This year I put my foot down and said that I would make the cake.  So as to keep peace in the house and appear to be the “compassionate” father, I consulted with my daughter about what she wanted in an ice cream cake.  She explained, in the tone and manner that only 16 year old girls seem to have mastered, that birthday cakes MUST have chocolate cake and chocolate icing.  Her favorite ice cream flavor is Moose Tracks so that MUST be incorporated into the cake.  Now that I have been given my marching orders it is off to the kitchen.

Whenever I am confronted with making a classic type of dish I go to consult a stack of “old fashioned” classic cookbooks that have been either handed down or collected over the years.  For a chocolate cake that would stand up to being make into an ice cream cake my first choice is an old ring-bound promotional cookbook from Hershey’s.  This is the Hershey’s book that my Mother received at the end of a tour of the Hershey’s factory (back when they gave real factory tours not the crappy Disney style ride they use today) in Lancaster, PA during the summer of 1969.  The rest of the world was at Woodstock while I was with my family touring a chocolate factory.  To paraphrase Jerry Garcia, what a strange, strange trip it’s been.

The Hershey’s book did have a recipe for ice cream cake but it called for using a buttercream frosting.  I thought about it for a while and decided to use a chocolate ganache to coat the cake layers.  By using a ganche I solved two issues:  1) a 16 year old wants a more “mature” type of cake and ganache is more “mature” than buttercream and 2) the ganache would serve as insulation so if the ice cream started to melt it would not turn the cake into a mushy mess but it would retain it’s cakey texture.

Printable recipe

Homemade Ice Cream Cake

Inspired by a recipe from a Hershey’s promotional cookbook

 Cake

2 cups sugar

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

¾ cups cocoa

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs – at room temperature

1 cup milk

½ cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

 

  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Spray and line 2 9” round cake pans.
  2. In a mixing bowl combine all the dry ingredients.
  3.  Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.  Beat on medium until well combined. About 2 minutes.
  4.  Stir in the boiling water till smooth.  Batter will be very thin.
  5.  Pour into prepared pans and bake 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
  6.  Cool in cake pans about 15 minutes, then remove to cooling rack to finish cooling.

 Ice Cream Layer

  1.  Take a 1.5 Qt container of ice cream, your choice of any flavor, out from the freezer and let soften on the counter for about 10 minutes.
  2.  Using the same size pan you used for the cake layers, cover the inside of the pan with plastic wrap.  Let the plastic hang over the ends of the pan.
  3.  Pack the ice cream into the lined pan and smooth the top.  Move the ice cream back to the freezer to harden for at least an hour.

 Ganache

  1.  1 c. heavy cream
  2.  2 Tbsp. butter
  3.  2 Tbsp. sugar
  4.  12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, broken into small pieces

Place heavy cream, butter and sugar into a saucepan. Stir frequently and bring the mixture to a boil.

Place the chocolate pieces in a stainless steel bowl. Pour the hot cream mixture over the chocolate and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for about 5 minutes so as to allow the chocolate to melt. Mix thoroughly, making sure all the pieces of chocolate are combined.  Let cool to room temperature.

To Assemble

  1. Pour the ganache over the two cake layers.  Coat the entire top and sides of each layer.  Let the cake layers set up by chilling in the refrigerator for 1 hour.
  2. When the cake layers have set up (the ganache has become stiff) remove the cake from the refrigerator and the ice cream from the freezer.
  3. On a serving platter or a cardboard cake round place a layer of cake, then top with the ice cream, then finish with the remaining cake layer.
  4. Place cake back in the freezer for at least 2 hours.

 Remove cake from freezer 10-15 minutes prior to serving.

Yield 12-16 slices.

Quinoa, Asparagus and Broccoli Salad

I opened the refrigerator door and spotted a jar of the Orange Vinaigrette and two partially empty clamshell containers of yellow and red cherry tomates that I used to make yesterday’s Moroccan Garbanzo Bean Salad.  Hearing my Mother’s voice in the back of my head (telling me that I shouldn’t waste food) I decided to put together a salad that used some of the ingredients that were sitting in my refrigerator.

Looking on the other shelves I came across a bunch of asparagus that I bought a few days ago.  The asparagus, imported from Peru, ( for those who will leave nasty comments about how we should only eat locally produced food, I promise to sing the chorus of  “We are the world” and now everywhere will be considered local) were tossed in the basket because they were on sale and, at that time, I figured that I would come up with some use for them.  Also hiding in the vegetable drawer was a head of broccoli that I am certain I did not buy.  Sometimes my wife buys things at the store and forgets to mention that we now own them.  The broccoli probably falls into the catagory.  On the top shelve was a partially empty, 24 ounce container of Feta cheese that was purchased a few weeks ago at Sam’s Club.

The inventory now sitting on my kitchen counter stands at asparagus, broccoli, tomatoes, Feta cheese and dressing.  Not a bad start.  Since my wife is a vegetarian and I always try to add some substance to dishes,  off to the pantry to see what would go with my selected ingredients.  I found the typical vegetarian staples: quinoa, pearl barley, couscous, TVP, kasha and three kinds of rice.  Being a lazy cook, since it only takes about 15 mintes to prepare, I picked the quinoa.  Any of the gains would have worked nicely, so if something else appeals to you then use that.

Printable recipe

Quinoa, Asparagus and Broccoli Salad

 

Ingredients

1 cup Quinoa

2 cups vegetable stock

1 pound asparagus

1 pound broccoli

½ cup Pignolias (Pine nuts)

20 cherry tomatoes

1 cup Feta cheese

¼ cup orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

½ teaspoon salt

Fresh ground pepper to taste

½ cup extra virgin olive oil

 

Method

  1. In a small pot combine Quinoa with 2 cups of water.  Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer till all the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.  Remove and let cool.
  2. Break off the woody bottoms of the asparagus and cut into 1-2” pieces.  Cut broccoli into bite size pieces.  Steam the vegetables till just al dente.  Let cool.
  3. In a saute pan, on medium heat, toast the nuts till fragrant, about 3-5 minutes.  Don’t walk away as nuts can very quickly go from raw to burnt.  Let cool.
  4. To make dressing combine orange juice, lemon juice, salt, pepper and olive oil in a jar with a tight fitting lid.  Shake till combined.
  5. On a platter arrange a bed of Quinoa.  Top with the steamed vegetables, tomatoes, Feta and nuts.  Pour the dressing over the top.