December 17, 1997
Naturally, I think that any of the books I've written about for Corby's Table this year would make a wonderful holiday gift, and I hope you'll scroll down memory lane to look at each and every one of them. Here are a few more books not to overlook during last-minute, frenzied shopping -- and also during more casual browsing while you're returning gifts.
Jeffrey Steingarten, the food columnist for Vogue magazine, very graciously introduced me at a recent discussion panel by saying, "I often think he's my second favorite food writer." Everyone's first favorite, it went without saying, is Steingarten. He has a voice like no one else's: corrosively funny and skeptical (of food fads, dieters, and "healthy" foods), and passionate (about researching ingredients and recipes). When I read him I forget how much I'm learning -- even on subjects I've spent a great deal of time thinking and reading about -- because I'm having such a good time. If you have an eye out for literate entertainment, buy The Man Who Ate Everything.
Pie Every Day is a book of enormous charm which demonstrates the theory that the best food writing is inspired by deep needs that have little to do directly with food -- in this case, the travails of being a writer raising two sons in Brooklyn. Pat Willard learned the culture of pies as a child in Atlanta, and they have carried her through adulthood and have helped her boys to be comforted, content children and responsible young adults. This may seem a large claim for pies, but just a few minutes of reading the book will convince you.
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Previously in Corby's Table:
A book to help one get wise to the whys of cooking.
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound
What's more, it's full of easy and very appealing recipes for pies, which I
admit to loving perhaps above all other foods. Here's a typical chapter
opening: "December always comes as a surprise to me. I'm never quite prepared
for the onslaught of cheer or for the guests I invited to come over way back in
the unruffled days of November. This is the time of year when pies -- in all
their versatility -- show me their true worth and remind me, once again, why they
were baked in such vast quantities in the olden days." The recipes will make
you see pies as the solution to just about any of life's maladies.
Willard doesn't shy away from lard, which immediately wins me, since it's
hands-down best for flaky pie crust. And every chapter seems to have another
variation of lemon pie, which should be enough to win over anyone. Willard
even has a lemon pie crust similar to the Italian pasta frolla, which gets lightness and oomph from a secret pinch of
baking powder: try it.
Many of my friends are construction masochists, and this most frequently takes the form of redoing their kitchens. What provokes these months-long bouts of dropcloths and plaster dust and hotplates and microwaves escapes me, but it seems to keep already busy people happily busier. Anyone contemplating any kind of structural work on a kitchen should buy Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels, and Replacements, by Jan Weimer, the longtime food editor of Bon Appetit (the subtitle is "Without Murder, Suicide, or Divorce"). I've long been a friend and ardent admirer of Weimer's, and finally know why it took her years to complete this book: it's comprehensive and amazingly packed with information, all of it useful, from initial dreams to interviewing workmen, to planning and ordering equipment, to fixing mistakes, to ushering the dream into reality. Diagrams and (pretty) color and (grainy) black-and-white photographs fill the book, as do long checklists, source guides, and "personal" picks of Weimer's favorite materials and appliances. I've given two copies as gifts in the past month. My friends have grabbed hold of them as the lifelines they are.
A recent browsing trip to my favorite bookstore revealed that one of the food books I most treasure has been reissued in a handsome paperback edition printed on beautiful, heavy, deckle-edged paper. Chez Panisse Cooking is by far the best of the books from that pivotal restaurant in Berkeley, because it was written by Paul Bertolli, long its chef and now chef at Oliveto, in the neighboring town of Berkeley (my favorite place to eat in the Bay Area). Not only does Bertolli know the secret of simple food -- to which many people aspire but rarely with his focus and success -- but he is an eloquent, unfussy, disciplined writer. His chapter on natural sourdough bread remains the best thing written on how to capture yeast to make your own sourdough (which need not be sour, just richly flavored). His ways with vegetables, fish, and meat are the kind of food that set me to dreaming in any season. Every cookbook library should include this book.
It's hard for me to keep my mind on the pages of Flavors of Puglia, because I fall instantly into a reverie of the region of Italy that most pulls my heart. Its colors are more vivid and its flavors purer, as Nancy Harmon Jenkins, who thoroughly understands Italy and has embarked on a series of books that will bring it home to American kitchens one region at a time, points out. The pasta is better, too, since only hard durum flour is used, even though it requires elbow grease for rolling and shaping by hand. (I wrote my own serenade to the area's charms in "The Pull of Puglia" [April, 1994, Atlantic]; no one writes more mystically about this southernmost region than the English sorceress Patience Gray.)
Jenkins's recipes are simple and elemental, and often rely on fava beans (fresh or dried), fennel, tomatoes, mussels, clams, and pasta -- to name several ingredients that are unparalleled when they are of Pugliese provenance. Along with orechiette with broccoli rabe, the flagship dish of the region, an easy dish of pasta with mussels and beans shows Puglia's earthy, saline way of cooking. The design of the book is restrained and elegant. Any passionate Italophile must add this to the list of must-have books I've already described this year: Recipes from Paradise and In Nonna's Kitchen. Sometimes I even prefer reading about these places to being there, or at least try to convince myself I do.
If anyone asks what the most important book of the year is, I don't hesitate. Well, maybe I do for a moment, while I resist replying, "Why, the new revised and updated paperback edition of my Joy of Coffee, of course." But the answer is the ur-Joy, Joy of Cooking. I was quite an active participant in the overhaul of America's classic cooking encyclopedia, which hadn't been touched in more than twenty years -- a Herculeaen task involving phalanxes of cookbook writers and experts of all kinds. I wrote the chapter on coffee, tea, and hot chocolate, and edited a good deal of the manuscript. Sadly, neither I nor any of the dozens of other contributors receives a penny in royalties, so I can objectively say that I think this is a necessary and invaluable reference work for anyone -- the book you need in your kitchen as urgently as you thought you needed the old Joy, a completely different sort of book for all its charm.
This edition is contemporary, and far more instructive than the previous versions, taking into account the style Julia Child originated, which tells you the underlying reasons for the various steps. Although a few things are missing (complete chapters on candy, preserving, and pickling, which are to be issued as separate books), what's here is thorough and masterly. The chapters on meat, fruit, custards, and frostings and fillings are each worth the price of the book; they are superior to nearly any other single book on the subject at hand. "Little Dishes," a collection of ethnic foods that shows how and what we want to eat today, is also terrifically appealing and useful. Here are recipes for a hearty basic beef stew and a perfect rendition of the Jewish classic pot roast, Tzimmis, which works as a template for any pot roast.
-- Corby Kummer
Excerpt from Pie Every Day, by Pat Willard (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
Andy has used this crust for all kinds of fruit fillings. I have used it for a simple custard pie and, omitting the sugar and vanilla, for a shrimp tart recipe. Andy disagrees with me on the shrimp, but try it and decide for yourself who's right.
2. Stir in the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough just comes together. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap and gather the ends together, forming the dough into a disk. Wrap with the plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes.
3. Divide the dough disk into 2 pieces, one slightly bigger than the other. Wrap the smaller piece in plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator. Roll out the bigger piece on a lightly floured surface until it's slightly larger than the pie pan. Drape one end of the dough over the pin and gently lift it up, then slip the pan underneath the dough and lower it into the pan. Press the dough gently -- and quickly -- against the sides of the pan. Leave about an inch of dough hanging over the sides of the pan and cut any excess away. Refrigerate the crust for at least 30 minutes before either filling or prebaking .
4. If you are making a pie with a top crust, after you have filled the pie, take the smaller disk from the refrigerator and roll it out onto a lightly floured surface until it's a little bigger than the pie. Drape one end of the dough over the rolling pin, lift it gently, then drape it over the top of the filling. Press the edges together and crimp to seal. Slash a few vents across the top of the crust to allow steam to escape and bake the pie according to the directions in the recipe you are using. (If you are not making a pie with a top crust, either freeze the second dough disk or make an extra bottom crust.)
Excerpt from Flavors of Puglia, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins (Broadway Books)
I came across the funky little restaurant called Gambrinus on the fishermen's docks in Taranto's Citta Vecchia one blustery day in early December when this combination of pasta, beans, and mussels seemed just about perfect. The oldest part of Taranto, the Citta Vecchia is perched on an isthmus between two great harbors, the Mar Grande and the Mar Piccolo. Although the Mar Piccolo is a branch of the Ionian Sea, it is almost enclosed and its brackish waters are fed by citri, underwater springs of fresh water. This makes the Mar Piccolo a perfect place for the cultivation of mussels and oysters, which in fact has been going on here since ancient times when Taranto was a flourishing capital of Magna Graecia.
The mussels grown and used in Taranto, naturally, are Mediterranean black mussels, now being cultivated in the Pacific Northwest. But if you can't get black mussels, Atlantic blue mussels, the kind commonly available from fishmongers, will be just as satisfying.
Scrub the mussels in running water and cut away their beards. Discard mussels with gaping shells or any that feel suspiciously heavy, an indication that they're full of mud. Place the mussels in a pan with the wine and set over high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until all of the mussels have opened. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Strain the liquid in the bottom of the pan carefully through several layers of cheesecloth and set aside.
When the mussels are cool enough to handle, remove the flesh and discard the shells. (The mussels may be cooked ahead of time and they, and their liquid, kept refrigerated until ready to use.)
When ready to proceed, gently sauté the garlic in the oil in a soup kettle or saucepan set over medium-low heat. When the garlic is soft but not brown, add the tomatoes and cook for about 10 minutes, or until the tomatoes are soft and starting to disintegrate. Stir in the cooked beans with their liquid and simmer gently while the pasta cooks.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and drop in the pasta. Cook, partially covered, until the pasta is almost done, about 10 minutes. Drain and mix with the beans; add the strained mussel liquid. The consistency should be saucy rather than soupy -- if there is too much liquid, raise the heat and cook down briefly. Gently stir in the mussels and cook over low heat for about 5 minutes, or until the mussels are thoroughly heated and the flavors have melded. Stir in the parsley, basil leaves, salt to taste (the mussel liquid may be quite salty), plenty of black pepper, and serve immediately.
Excerpts from Joy of Cooking, by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker (Scribner)
By altering the vegetables or the proportions, the recipe variations are limitless. For a fresher flavor, add more vegetables or herbs toward the end of cooking. For a deeper flavor, use a few spoonfuls of meat glaze to enrich the sauce.
2 pounds boneless stewing beef, such as chuck, short-rib meat, or bottom round, cut into 2-inch cubes
Season the meat with:
1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried herbs (thyme, marjoram, savory, oregano, and/or basil)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Dredge the meat with:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour.
Shake off any excess flour. Heat in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat:
2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil, bacon fat, beef drippings, or other fat
Add the meat in batches and brown on all sides, being careful not to crowd the pan or scorch the meat. Remove with a slotted spoon. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of fat from the pan (add more if needed). Add:
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/2 cup chopped carrots
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/4 cup chopped leeks (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped garlic (optional)
Cover and cook, stirring often, over medium heat until the onions are softened, about 5 minutes. Add:
2 bay leaves
1/2 to 1 teaspoon of the same herbs used to season the meat
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Add enough to cover the meat at least halfway:
2 to 3 cups beef or chicken stock, dry red or white wine, or beer
Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer over low heat until the meat is fork-tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
2 to 3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
3 or 4 boiling potatoes, peeled and cut into l-inch chunks
2 turnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
Cover and cook until the vegetables are tender, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and skim off any fat from the surface. Taste and adjust the seasonings. If you wish, thicken the sauce by stirring together and whisking into the stew:
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons kneaded butter (Softened butter mixed with an equal quantity of flour)
Simmer, stirring, until thickened. Garnish with:
Chopped fresh parsley
The Yiddish word tzimmis has come to mean "fuss," as in "Don't make such a tzimmis." Tzimmis is basically any form of meat, potato, and vegetable casserole, sometimes including fruit. A really excellent, old-fashioned tzimmis requires patience, as it has to be cooked very slowly for a long time, basting from time to time so that all the flavors meld together. This recipe is for tzimmis with potato knaidle, potato pancakes in the form of a dumpling.
Heat in a large Dutch oven over medium heat:
2 tablespoons chicken fat or canola oil
Brown both sides, about 5 minutes each side, of:
One 2- to 3-pound brisket
2 onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Cook until lightly browned, 10 to 15 minutes. Deglaze pan with enough water to cover the meat. Add:
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated or ground nutmeg
Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the meat is tender. At this point, the meat can be sliced and returned to the pot or left whole.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Add to the pot:
2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch rounds or julienned
3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch wedges
1/3 cup brown sugar
Juice of 1 lemon
Cover and bake in the oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, basting from time to time, until the vegetables are tender. Taste for seasoning. If the liquid in the pot is very watery, or there is a lot of it, you can thicken the liquid. Heat in an ungreased skillet until lightly browned and nutty-smelling, being very careful not to burn, 3 to 5 minutes:
2 to 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Add 1 cup of the cooking liquid, mix until smooth, and return the mixture to the pot.
For the potato knaidle, combine:
3 large potatoes, grated, liquid squeezed out
1 small onion, grated
1 tablespoon matzo meal or flour
1 tablespoon chicken fat or oil.
Mix well. Drop heaping tablespoonfuls of the knaidle on the vegetables and in the pockets of stew (not covering the stew). Bake, uncovered, for 30 to 60 minutes until the knaidle are cooked through. Serve immediately.
Copyright © 1997 by Corby Kummer.
Recipes from Pie Every Day by Pat Willard. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, North Carolina 1997. Hardcover, 267 pages. ISBN: 1565121473. $28.50. Copyright © by Pat Willard;
Flavors of Puglia by Nancy Harmon Jenkins. Broadway Books: New York 1997. Hardcover, 262 pages. ISBN: 0553066757. $25.00. Copyright © by Nancy Harmon Jenkins; Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer et al. Scribner: New York 1997. Hardcover, 1136 pages. ISBN: 0684818701. $30.00. Copyright © by the Joy of Cooking Trust.