Previously in Corby's Table:
Summertime and the Grilling is Easy (August 22, 2002)
In Let the Flames Begin, Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby illustrate "how to achieve the perfect dinner cooked in summer twilight." A review by Corby Kummer.
A Kitchen of One's Own (May 1, 2002)
Corby Kummer on Barbara Haber's From Hardtack to Home Fries, a book that intertwines American history with the lives of some enterprising female cooks.
Chic & Simple Cooking (December 21, 2001)
The perfect gift for the unconfident cook with a sophisticated palate.
The Curious Cook (July 18, 2001)
Corby Kummer reviews How to Read a French Fry, Russ Parsons's investigation into the science of cooking.
No Taste Like Home (June 13, 2001)
Corby Kummer extols the simple pleasures of David Page and Barbara Shinn's Recipes From Home, an all-American cookbook.
A Fortunate Crossroads (May 9, 2001)
Corby Kummer on Fred Plotkin's La Terra Fortunata, a portrait of a region with "one of the worthiest and most complex cuisines in Italy."
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic
Atlantic Unbound | December 17, 2003
Two for the Table
Tuna Pâté With Capers
Pressure-Cooker Chicken Soup
Understanding Cheese: An Overview
Swiss Mountain Fondue
ookbooks life-changing? The notion might seem odd. But if a great cookbook can change everyday eating habits and ways of thinking about food, then this year has been unusually rich in life-changing books. I've recently emerged from weeks of reading this year's crop, and the nearly complete results of my gorging can be found in a Christmas round-up for The New York Times. As for which books I would tell people to buy as gifts for friends who are cooks, or as greedy treats for themselves, the top two are little contest.
The Way We Cook
by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven
[Click the title
to buy this book]
400 pages, $27.00
I must confess right off that both are by good friends. Luckily, they're both very good books (not always the case when friends write books). One—The Way We Cook, by longtime Boston Globe columnists Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven—appeared early in 2003, and thus risks falling through the cracks come holiday time. It's the book I turn to for supper inspiration, or when deciding what to pick up at the market.
Julian is a wonderful teacher and cook, full of style and completely in touch with her readers, and Riven is her able and stylish cooking and writing partner. All the recipes work—which could in itself make the book unique, and not just in 2003. There are terrific recipes for entertaining: the tuna pâté with capers, for instance, and smoked bluefish pâté have kept me a welcome guest at people's homes ever since Julian first gave me the recipe several years ago. If, as a food-world truism has it, people use cookbooks again and again for just one recipe, that tuna pâté—incredibly easy but fancy-seeming—is it for me. But the book's wealth of simple, satisfying recipes will become staples year in and year out.
I've picked recipes that will help get anyone through the winter, especially the one the Northeast is shaping up to have. Pressure-cooker chicken soup uses kosher chicken, which always has better flavor than plain supermarket chicken, and the secret ingredient of parsnips to sweeten a quick yet deep-flavored soup. It's served with egg noodles—really the most comforting pasta made, and one that's in need of rediscovery. Chicken curry will be better with kosher chicken breast, too, and is the kind of vaguely exotic stew, with the crunch of cashews and almonds and hints of chili, ginger, and saffron, that is somewhere between a company dish and an ambitious family one. And, of course, there's the tuna pâté with capers, which with almost no work somehow acquires deep flavor after half a day in the refrigerator.
That's this year's must-have cookbook. This year's must-have food book is Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating by Ari Weinzweig. "Isn't there some other store besides Zingerman's?" my editor once asked, brandishing a manuscript in which I had yet again listed the Ann Arbor delicatessen and gourmet store as the source for a food I was writing about. Of course there are other stores. But few pay as much attention to quality and freshness, and almost none pay as much attention to service, as Zingerman's does. Ari Weinzweig, who, with Paul Saginaw, founded Zingerman's (a made-up name), is one of the best researchers and writers on food in this country—in the world, in fact. In any stack of papers I sort through (and I shamefully have dozens in my office), I'll find a copy of the Zingerman's newsletter, detailing the results of Weinzweig's recent researches on, say, vanilla, or Aleppo peppers, or Irish farmhouse cheese.
Weinzweig helped revive the practice of making artisan cheese in this country, and his new book can serve, in part, as an excellent manual on understanding and buying cheese. The book is also full of invaluable information on pasta, olive oil, rice of all kinds, ham, honey, spices ... I know I'll turn to this book all the time, probably for reminders of trips I've had the good fortune to take with Weinzweig, and to remind myself of the amazing notes he took and—luckily for the rest of us—has set down in print. I include here an excerpt from the excellent introduction he gives to cheese, and a recipe for fondue—which our winter practically mandates, and which is another fun dish worthy of revival. Need I say where you can obtain a particularly worthy Gruyère or Appenzeller by mail order?
Excerpts from The Way We Cook, by Sheryl Julian & Julie Riven
Sheryl has been serving this tuna pâté for twenty-five years, and even though it contains canned tuna, one of the most familiar ingredients on the American table, most of the time, guests don't know what's in it. It should be very smooth, be pleasantly hot from cayenne, and have a slight piquant taste from the capers and lemon juice. The pâté must be made with tuna in oil (good brands are imported from Italy). Let it mellow for at least half a day before serving it at room temperature, spread on crackers or pita crackers.
Makes about 1 cup, or enough to serve 4
In a food processor, pulse the tuna and butter until the mixture is smooth. Add the cayenne pepper and lemon juice and pulse again to mix them in thoroughly.
1 can or jar (6-7 ½ ounces) light tuna in oil, drained
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
Pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste
Squeeze of fresh lemon juice, or to taste
¼ cup capers, drained
Taste the pâté for seasoning and add more cayenne or lemon juice, if you like. Add the capers and pulse for 30 seconds, just to distribute them but not mash them.
Transfer the mixture to a small bowl and smooth the top. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the pâté, then cover the top of the bowl with another piece of plastic wrap so the mixture won't dry out. Refrigerate the pâté for at least several hours or as long as a few days and serve.
Sarah (Sally) Shapiro of Providence, Rhode Island, has been making this chicken soup in an old jiggle-top pressure cooker for nearly sixty years. What would ordinarily take a couple of hours takes her 20 minutes. Though neither of us owns much cooking equipment beyond good pots and pans, we both own modern, spring-valve, burst-proof pressure cookers. As Sally says, "The pressure cooker was the greatest gift to women of our age, who had to stay home for hours to cook chicken soup." This is an especially good broth, which you can make in an ordinary pot. One of the secrets is the ratio of chicken to water. Follow the pressure cooker's manual for bringing the pressure up to high.
Remove any pinfeathers and pockets of fat from the chicken. Place the chicken neck, gizzard, and all of the chicken pieces in a heatproof bowl. Pour a tea kettle of boiling water over them. Let them sit for 10 minutes. Rinse the chicken.
1 kosher chicken (about 3 ½ pounds), cut into quarters
2 split chicken breasts
6 carrots, halved crosswise
3 celery stalks (including leaves), cut into 1 ½-inch pieces
3 medium onions, cut into quarters
2 parsnips, halved crosswise
6 stalks fresh dill
8-10 stalks parsley
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon kosher or coarse salt
8 cups water
4 ounces fine egg noodles, for serving
Place the carrots, celery, onions, parsnips, dill, parsley, and bay leaf in the bottom of the pressure cooker. Add the chicken (including the neck and gizzard), salt, and 8 cups of water.
Lock the lid of the pressure cooker in place and set it over high heat to bring the pressure to high. Adjust the heat to maintain high pressure. Cook for 15 minutes.
Turn off the heat. Carefully carry the pressure cooker to the sink. Run very cold water onto the top to bring the pressure down. When it is safe, remove the lid, tilting it away from you.
Let the soup cool for 10 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift out the chicken and vegetables and transfer them to a large plastic container. Discard the bay leaf, parsley, dill, chicken neck, and gizzard when you find them. Tip the soup into another container. Let cool completely, then cover and refrigerate.
Remove the fat from the soup, and transfer the soup to a large pot. Cut up some of the chicken and return it to the soup (or serve the chicken cold, separately). Cut up the vegetables and add them to the soup. Bring the soup to a boil.
In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook the noodles for 6 minutes, or until they are tender but still have some bite. Drain.
Add the noodles to each of six soup plates, ladle the soup over the noodles, and serve.
Variation: Pressure-Cooker Chiken Soup With Tomatoes and Mushrooms
Prepare the ingredients for Pressure-Cooker Chicken Soup and place them in the pot. Add the following ingredients before covering with the lid:
Cook the soup as directed.
½ pound green beans, cut into 1-inch lengths
½ pound portobello mushrooms, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup canned whole tomatoes, crushed in a bowl
Variation: Chicken Soup in a Pot
Prepare the ingredients for Pressure-Cooker Chicken Soup, but add the ingredients, omitting the dill, parsley, and bay leaf, to a large soup pot. Bring the water to a boil, skim the surface thoroughly, and lower the heat. Skim again, then add the dill, parsley, and bay leaf. Cover the pot and simmer the chicken for 1 ½ hours, or until very tender.
Cool and store as directed.
Because we love curries, we were looking for a chicken curry that we could make with supermarket ingredients. On tired nights on the way home from work, we didn't want to make a detour to the Indian market for garam masala and other hard-to-find seasonings. Arthi Subramaniam of the Boston Globe staff, who comes from the south of India, near Madras, came to the rescue with this "regal" curry, an elegant dish appropriate for entertaining. The big morsels of chicken turn rust-colored, and you can taste the aromatic layering of spices, nuts, ginger, and garlic. Serve with Basmati Rice.
Trim any fat from the chicken breasts. Cut into 3-inch pieces. Set aside.
4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves (about 2 ½ pounds)
3 garlic cloves
1 ½-inch piece fresh ginger
¼ cup dry-roasted cashews
¼ cup dry-roasted almonds
2 medium tomatoes, cored and quartered
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cinnamon sticks
2 whole cloves
1 ¼ cups water
2 teaspoons red chili powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon coarse salt, or to taste
¼ teaspoon saffron threads
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
In a food processor, puree the garlic and ginger until they form a paste. Transfer to a bowl.
Without rinsing the food processor container, pulse the cashews and almonds until they are smooth and pasty. Transfer to another bowl.
Without rinsing the work bowl, puree the tomatoes in the food processor until the mixture is smooth. Transfer to the bowl of nuts.
In a deep skillet, heat the oil and cook the onion, stirring often, for 8 minutes, or until it softens. Add the cinnamon sticks and cloves and cook for 2 minutes more. Add the ginger mixture with ¼ cup of the water. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the chili powder, coriander, turmeric, and salt.
Add the nut and tomato mixture and the water. Bring to a boil and add the chicken pieces, turning them in the sauce until the sauce returns to a boil.
Reduce the heat to low and simmer the chicken gently, turning several times, for 10 minutes, or until cooked through. Add more water if the mixture seems dry.
Add the saffron and simmer the sauce for 1 minute. Taste for seasoning, add more salt, if you like, and remove the cloves and cinnamon stick from the sauce. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.
Excerpts from Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating, by Ari Weinzweig
One of the most important things to understand about traditional cheese is that it once was a very seasonal product. As with peaches, pears, or plums, there were seasons when certain cheeses were at their best, other times at their worst, still others, unavailable altogether. In the natural cycle, cheesemaking is tied to the birth and weaning of babies. Most cows, goats, and sheep start the cycle in the autumn, raking milk for their young. Only after the young have been weaned and left to feed for themselves can the mothers be milked on through the spring, summer, and, often, early autumn. This milk is used for cheese, butter, and cream as well as quick liquid consumption. When autumn ends, breeding is again allowed to begin, and until the next spring season starts, no additional milk is available. To this day, Roquefort is made only seven months a year, though adjustments in storage techniques permit a consistent supply to the market.
In recent times, the vast majority of cheese producers in Europe and North America organize their herds to give birth in sequential groups, allowing for year-round milk.
That said, seasonal production is on the way back in some areas, contributing to better-tasting cheese. In Wisconsin, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an aged, firm-textured cheese, is produced only when the cows are eating in open pasturage, from June through October. Shelburne Farms in Vermont lets the animals go dry in winter. Cheese is made when the cows are out on fresh pasture, and the entire herd gives birth in its natural season. (This natural cycle has an extra benefit: it allows the cheesemaker to take some time off!)
To understand a cheese, you have to take note of the topography of the area in which it originated. Dairymen in places with plenty of rich pasturage usually raise cows. Think of England, Holland, Switzerland, northern France, northern Italy, most of the United States, and Canada—all have lots of open space with nice green grasses, expansive meadows, lush mountain pastures—the sort of places a cow would want to hang out. Consequently, the traditional cheeses of those areas are, more often than not, made from cow's milk.
On the other hand, in drier, rockier regions, you're far more likely to find herds of sheep or goats that are able to climb the terrain and can fend for themselves when food is in short supply. Think of Provence, southern Italy, most of Spain, and much of Greece, where you'll find mostly goat's and sheep's milk cheeses.
People in warmer climates have traditionally made fresher cheeses. Why? Because hot weather meant that cheese was difficult to keep for long periods of time. And, historically, those who lived in temperate climates had less need for long-lasting cheeses. Because winters were milder, many fruits and vegetables had longer seasons, and food was more readily available all year round. When the farmers did make firmer cheeses for maturing, they tended to be drier and saltier and hence better suited to survive the hot temperatures. In colder climates, on the other hand, people have tended to make harder, longer-lasting cheeses. These cheeses were made in large, often enormous, forms: in Switzerland, two-hundred-pound wheels of Swiss, or in England, the original sixty-pound Cheddar. They had good keeping qualities, an important consideration since cheese was often one of the only—if not the only—form of protein available during the arduous winters. America is an exception to both climatic and topographical influences. Our cheesemaking patterns are tied more to the locations in which particular European ethnic groups chose to settle. Hence, in Wisconsin we see lots of Swiss- and German-type cheeses; in California, many French and Spanish cheeses.
The role of starter cultures
Starters are the big unspoken "secret" of the cheese world. It's not that anyone in the industry hides their use, but few consumers seem to know they exist and cheesemakers rarely discuss them in depth except with other cheesemakers. Nonetheless, their selection and management can have a huge impact on the flavor of the finished cheese.
A starter does for cheese what a sour does for bread: it introduces consciously chosen strains of bacteria into the mix in order to enhance certain flavor characteristics. Back in the preindustrial era, cheesemakers relied—for better and for worse—on the natural bacterial behavior in the milk to make cheese. Rennet was added to coagulate the milk into curd. But beyond that, cheesemakers used natural bacteria to create the flavor of the cheese. In some cases, this meant making one's own starter by holding back some of the day's whey and letting the bacteria ripen overnight, then using that to "start" the next day's cheese. Even so, the process was rarely very closely controlled, meaning the quality of the cheese varied widely. Some days it worked, others it didn't, and no one understood exactly why. A handful of traditional cheeses today are still made with starters cultured on site by the cheesemakers. Parmigiano-Reggiano, for one, requires that the starters be made in this way.
The need for stronger and more consistent strains of commercial starter cultures grew significantly as pasteurization came into use in the twentieth century. Because the pasteurization process kills off all bacteria in the milk—both the desirable and undesirable ones—it's important for cheesemakers to reintroduce enough bacteria for the needed flavor development in the milk. Hence the trend toward adding prepared starter cultures. Today, the cheesemakers generally purchase starter cultures from labs in powdered form. Because these bacterial cultures help build flavor, the selection and handling of the starters have become meaningful components in crafting a cheese. Cheesemakers often guard the customized combinations of their starter strains jealously.
Here are a few tips that can help you handle your cheese more effectively once you get it home.
Get it cut to order
I'm a big advocate of buying cheese that is cut to order instead of the stuff that's been precut and sealed in plastic for days, weeks, or even months before you buy it. Prepackaging isn't always evil, but I can assure you that the cheese isn't improving while it's sitting in its airtight protector.
Wrap it in paper, not plastic
The best way to go is to keep it wrapped in proper cheese paper. Commonly used in France but still hard to find in the States, the paper has one shiny and lightly waxed side while the other side has a matte finish. The shiny side protects the cheese, allowing it to breathe without drying out. Wax paper is a good, readily available option. Other suitable substitutes include: double-layered parchment paper, medium-weight cotton tea towels; and brown paper grocery bags, cut and then folded around the cheese. Note: don't wrap different cheeses together, as they're likely to pick up aromas from one another.
Store it carefully
One of the best ways to protect the texture and integrity of a cheese is to avoid frequent temperature changes. If you're going to eat the cheese within a day or so and you're in a cool environment, you may be able to leave it right on the counter. If you're in a warmer space or if you're going to keep the cheese longer, it's probably best to store it in the refrigerator. In every case, wrap the cheese properly.
Eat it at room temperature
If you want to serve your cheese at its fullest flavor, put it out on the counter well before you're ready to eat.
Fondue is one of my wife's favorite foods. Why? After thinking for a minute, she said, "It's like sexy comfort food." That seals the deal in my mind.
Fondue pots are available in most housewares shops. They hold heat well and usually come with small stands and burners to keep the fondue warm at the table. If you've got good cheese, a fondue pot, and a few minutes to stir, preparing fondue isn't much harder than heating up a can of soup.
You can serve fondue with just a green salad and the bread that you'll dip into the hot, bubbly cheese. If the bread is a few days old, it will hold its shape better, which reduces the risk of it falling off the fondue forks.
Serves 8 to 10
In a medium bowl, toss the cheeses with the flour.
1 pound Gruyère cheese, cut into ¼-inch cubes, at room temperature
1 pound additional mountain cheese such as Emmentaler, Vacherin Fribourgeois, or Appenzeller, cut into ¼-inch cubes, at room temperature
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 garlic clove, peeled and bruised with the side of a knife
3 cups dry white wine, preferably Swiss Fendant
1 tablespoon kirsch
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
16-24 ounces crusty white country bread for dipping, cut into 1-to 2-inch cubes
Rub the bruised garlic clove over the inside of the fondue pot, then discard the garlic (or reserve for another use). Pour the wine into the fondue pot and bring to a simmer on the stove over medium heat.
Add the cubes of floury cheese, 10 to 12 at a time, stirring gently and constantly. Don't stir too vigorously or you may end up wearing the fondue. When the cheese has melted, add more cubes, stirring gently and constantly. Repeat until all the cheese has been incorporated, about 10 minutes total. The timing will vary depending on the heat level, temperature of the cheese, and your mood.
Stir in the kirsch, remove from the heat, and top with a generous grinding of pepper.
Bring the fondue pot to the table and place it on its stand over a flame.
Using a fondue fork, dip a bread cube into the cheese, turn a few times to coat well, blow on it once or twice so you don't burn your tongue, then eat.
Serve with more of the same wine you used in the fondue.
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More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic
Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.
Corby Kummer, a senior editor of The Atlantic, is the author of The Pleasures of Slow Food.
Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Recipes from The Way We Cook. Houghton Mifflin Company. Hardcover, 400 pages. ISBN: 0618171495. $27.00. Copyright © 2003 by Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven and Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. Houghton Mifflin Company. Paperback, 483 pages. ISBN: 0395926165. $19.95. Copyright © 2003 by Ari Weinzweig