Taste 101: A Lifetime Course in Cooking

doc00422620150708091002By Stuart Mitchner

First things first, whatever the opposite of “foodie” is, I’m it. While my wife may also make faces at that precious little word, she fits the dictionary definition and then some of “a person who enjoys and cares about food.” Say the name “Yotam Ottolenghi” and her face lights up. Say it to me and I go “Duh?” My wife came of age in Los Angeles eating Mexican food along with other ethnic fare. I grew up in Indiana eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. If it were possible to estimate my consumption of PB&J, I might rate a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Until I met my wife, an artichoke was as alien to me as an ottolenghi.

VIBRANT VEGGIES

I spent a year in India without eating curry. Not until after the marriage vows did I take the spicy plunge, and now it’s the one thing I can cook without the help of a cookbook. Yet here I am, contemplating Yotam’s latest, Plenty More (Ten Speed Press $35). The subtitle says it’s about Vibrant Vegetable Cooking. If you look through the big full-color world of images between the covers, some 339 pages, the vegetables are nothing if not vibrant. They do everything but dance on the page. You can get drunk just looking at them. In fact, just looking at the one-word chapter titles on the contents page becomes an activity in itself. You get Tossed, Steamed, Blanched, Simmered, Braised, Grilled, Roasted, Fried, Mashed, Cracked, Baked, and Sweetened. Which, now that I think of it, is one way of describing what happened to me in India and on the way there and back.

In his introduction, Ottolenghi says he gets his inspiration traveling. “A trip to Tunisia is a waste of time” unless he “comes back with the ultimate method for making harissa.” He’ll cut short Christmas on the beach in Thailand to “search through swarming Bangkok alleys for the elusive best-ever oyster omelet.”

Which shows why adventure is the favored analogy for the culinary graces. Thanks to my wife’s passion for exotic cuisines, a year of her cooking is a vicarious world tour. What I can’t do is match her enthusiasm for the aesthetics of the served dish. When a waiter lays an entree before me as if it were a work of art, my inner-reverse-snob dares it to transcend or at least live up to its pretentiousness. Like, if you think you’re so beautiful, prove it. While I can’t warm to the notion of elegantly and imaginatively arranged displays of food as works of photographic art, Jonathan Lovekin’s photography of the dishes in Plenty More is stunning enough, I suppose. But I wonder if even gourmets can look at these culinary pin-ups with genuine hunger in their hearts. Lovekin’s gaudy portrait of Crushed Carrots with Harissa and Pistachios doesn’t look half as good as it sounds.

AMONG THE TOP TEN

Two books among Publishers Weekly’s Top Ten Cookbooks for Spring 2015 are Maureen Abood’s Rose Water and Orange Blossoms: Fresh & Classic Recipes from My Lebanese Kitchen (Running Press $30) and Kristen Miglore’s Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook (Ten Speed $35), which the New York Times calls a “Dummies’ Guide to the Most Famous Recipes of All Time.” Another way to see Genius Recipes is as a greatest hits compilation featuring stars like Alice Waters, Craig Claiborne, Eric Ripert, Martha Stewart, April Bloomfi eld, and Julia Child. As the foreword by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs says, “These are the recipes that inspire you to change how you cook a standard dish, that become the recipes you cook for the rest of your life.”

Another newly released anthology, Kate White’s The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook: Wickedly Good Meals and Desserts to Die For (Quirk $24.95), offers escape from the art for food art’s sake style through recipes by Lee Child, Mary Higgins Clark, Harlan Coben, Nelson DeMille, Gillian Flynn, Sue Grafton, Charlaine Harris, James Patterson, Louise Penny, and Scott Turow, among others. Ms. White is no stranger to the genre, having written six Bailey Weggins mysteries as well as four stand-alone novels of suspense.

EATING NEW YORK

One book I’m recommending for both the cover image and the content is Robert Sietsema’s New York in a Dozen Dishes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt $22). Of course what the title claims is impossible. Or is it? Listen to Anthony Bourdain: “A big, fat, juicy slice of what makes New York City the greatest city in the world—by the dean of food critics… When you visit a city, you should always ask yourself, ‘What do they do that’s better than everywhere else? What’s special? Iconic? Unmissable?’ If you’re talking New York, the answers are here.” From Ruth Reichel: “Nobody knows—or appreciates—New York restaurants better than Robert Sietsema. But this wonderful book is not really about food; it’s an entirely new way to see this city. If you live in New York, or ever plan to visit, you need this book.”

web 4PRUNE

Speaking of New York, someone with roots locally who has made a name for herself in the big city is Gabrielle Hamilton (viz. the Hamilton Grill in Lambertville), the chef/owner of Prune bistro in Manhattan’s East Village and the author of the bestselling memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, and now Prune (Random House $45), “one of the most brilliantly minimalist cookbooks in recent memory,” says Publishers Weekly. The New York Times calls it “Fresh, fascinating . . . entirely pleasurable,” noting that the author “has nonchalantly broken countless rules of the food world,” not least “the rule that restaurant food has to be simplifi ed and prettied up for home cooks in order to produce a useful, irresistible cookbook. . . . the closest thing to the bulging loose-leaf binder, stuck in a corner of almost every restaurant kitchen, ever to be printed and bound between cloth covers. (These happen to be a beautiful deep, dark magenta.)”

CLOSER TO HOME

Before chef Josh Thomsen parted ways with Princeton’s popular farm-to-table restauarnt Agricola, he and Kate Winslow and Steve Tomlinson put together the Agricola Cookbook (Burgess Lea Press $30). According to culinary legend Alice Waters, “Josh Thomsen has a wonderful ability to bring forth the best fl avors from each season’s ingredients. Agricola’s recipes are simple, robust, and full of life—and celebrate farm and farmer.” My wife has yet to try any of Agricola’s recipes at home but we both have been back to the bar for the restaurant’s secret weapon, a cheeseburger on toasted potato bun, with aioli, Highway One (old-style Fontina) cheese, house-made pickles, hand-cut potato fries, and red beet ketchup. It seems we’ve come a long way from the humble cheeseburger we shared at a Berkeley greasy spoon the night we met.