By Kevin West
Alfred Knopf, 2013
I’m one of those people who read cookbooks for pleasure. I picked this one up from our local library because I was seeking directions for making jam, and had misplaced my Ball’s Blue Book.
Little did I realize until I opened the book that it would be a visual treat with gorgeous photographs, written by someone who knows his way around the keyboard, and with apt poetic snippets to start each chapter.
Kevin West alludes to his Southern heritage in this book, but he now lives in Los Angeles. Blessed with a temperate climate, denizens of his city could find fresh food any time of the season, but West’s aim is to teach us how to use up all that excess. Even if the weather is mild all year, seasons still turn; warm and foggy, hot and dry, damp and even frosty in the winter.
Produce there may be, but fruits and vegetables at the farmers’ markets and home gardens must be picked and preserved at their freshest to allow the full flavor to be savored at a later time.
Like me, West has taken his state’s university cooperative extension course on how to garden in his particular climate. In true master gardener fashion, he has included a very helpful guide to the peak seasons for fruits and vegetables in various regions of the United States. He’s also a certified Master Food Preserver. The recipes are beautiful. They work.
I kept thinking about time as I read this book. The practice of “putting up” food safely in sterilized jars is about three hundred years old. Under West’s guidance, it takes a leisurely hour or two to preserve a flat of strawberries. Time seems so short in our crowded lives, and time taken to home canning could be considered wasteful to some. Yet it keeps rhythm with our ancient need to honor the earth and what comes from it to sustain us. West begins his book with a quotation from the Roman poet Virgil, translated by the American poet David Ferry. In our querulous twenty-first century, it speaks to us still.
0 greatly fortunate farmers, if only they knew
How lucky they are! Far from the battlefield,
Earth brings forth from herself in ample justice
The simple means of life, simply enjoyed.
The 26th December was Boxing Day. That is, the day after Christmas, and in the U.K and the Commonwealth countries, a public holiday. A sort of gathering-of- wits-after- the-madness day. Boxing Day’s origins go back hundreds of years. The word “boxing” allegedly refers to boxes of money or other gifts being given to those who perform various services throughout the year. But why call the day by a present participle – “Boxing” rather than the more active “Box”? Perhaps if the gifts were things rather than money, it would take a long time to pack them up and so a whole day was allowed for this. I can relate. We’re doing a renovation here, and in preparation, I’m packing and packing boxes and boxes and boxes. Books, clothing, Christmas lights and ornaments, and kitchen knickknacks have all gone to Goodwill. I did not inflict my Christmas cake on my family this year. I have given up. After years of trying and often failing to concoct this nutrition – filled fruit cake according to various family recipes, I decided enough was enough. It’s too time consuming. It’s too expensive. It’s too calorie-laden. And Americans hate fruit cake. Now that’s because they have never tasted the true British, alcohol-soaked, immensely satisfying cake. If you don’t have a family recipe, one of my favorites is Nigella Lawson’s from her book, Nigella Christmas (New York, Hyperion, 2009). But it’s too late for all that. Christmas cake must be prepared at least six weeks ahead so the liquor can drench the fruits and preserve its soft, dark richness. I think the problem with those store-bought cakes that everyone claims to hate is that the crystallized fruit stays hard as plastic and about as appetizing in a dry, light colored cake. No wonder it is shoved into the trash can. This year I made a pavlova. If you’re Australian, as I am, the pavlova is a favorite special occasion dessert. It’s rich but not too rich, and actually very easy to make. All you need is egg whites, whipping cream and red berries such as strawberries or raspberries or both. The colors fit the Christmas spirit. Pavlova 6-8 egg whites (depending on number of guests) 1 cup super fine sugar (make by whizzing granulated sugar in the blender) 1 tsp distilled white vinegar Filling 1 pint whipping cream 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar 3/4 lb fresh raspberries, blueberries, strawberries etc. washed and dried with a paper towel. I like to macerate the fruit in 2 tbs sugar for an hour or two before serving, but this is to taste. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Take a pizza pan or cookie sheet and line it with parchment paper. Cut the paper into a 9 inch circle. In your stand mixer, whip the egg whites to a froth, then till soft peaks form. Gradually add the sugar, beating constantly, then the vinegar. Whip it all up till the mixture stands up in stiff peaks. With a spatula, place a big glob of the egg white mixture onto the middle of the parchment circle. Spread it out and create a hilly circle with the rest of the egg whites around the circumference. (Because the whites have been so thoroughly whipped this won’t fall down.) Place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Then without disturbing the pavlova, turn off the oven open the oven door a little bit and let the pavlova sit in the cooling oven for at least another 30 minutes. This means it’s quite okay to go away and forget it for a while. When ready to serve, whip cream with 1 tbs confectioners’ sugar until stiff. With a spatula, lay over the pavlova to the edges. It will look hilly. Then put your fruit in the middle of the cream and serve.
South Wind Through The Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David Edited by Jill Norman The North Point Press, 1999 Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation By Michael Pollan The Penguin Press, 2013 Changing Hands, our wonderful local bookstore, exchanges gently used books for store credit. So imagine my thrill when this weekend, I lugged an overflowing box of books from the car to the store, and received in exchange almost $50 in new purchases. I bought two novels and two cookbooks. I read cookbooks. Yes, I really read them as narrative, not just as recipe holders. So it was with pleasure that I delved into the writing of Elizabeth David and Michael Pollan. My mother cooked from a battered and stained Penguin copy of the British writer Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking. Mrs. David’s chatty, unpretentious books on the cuisine of Southern Europe began to transform the English palate a generation before Alice Waters did the same for Americans. Then again, the English had a harder hill to climb. Returning to Britain from a wartime job in the Middle East in 1946, Elizabeth David was horrified at the deprivation, and the “bleak triumph, which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity” with which rationed food was prepared. She started to write her memories of the sun-drenched food of the Mediterranean. In a career lasting over forty years, Mrs. David wrote nine books and countless articles in a breezy, amusing style. In French Provincial Cooking, she describes “soups delicately colored like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green.” It was in search of similar lively writing that I turned to Michael Pollan’s Cooked. The book follows Pollan’s signature method. A journalist, Pollan interviews people who work rigorously to capture the essence of cooking. Each of his bakers, cheese-makers and fermenters returns to the very basics in an effort to understand the biological and chemical processes by which raw ingredients are transformed into digestible and nutritious food. The recipes are less important here than the descriptions of the years-long apprenticeships that each of these creative individuals undertook. Each was determined to unlearn the time-saving contemporary processed food-ways to return to fundamentals. This is food preparation from scratch, literally, from capturing yeast in the air to allowing bacteria to collect on wooden cheese paddles. Bacteria, which allowed to accumulate, crowd out more harmful germs. This book is the beginning, hopefully, of Pollan’s further investigation into the world of microbes.
I think we can all agree that the anxieties of the past week have fueled a need for comfort food. So I spent Sunday afternoon baking cookies. With the holiday season around the corner, I’m experimenting with ginger. In particular, ginger cookies. A little spice and all things nice. The Joy of Cooking was my baking guide in earlier years. But I’ve come to love a lesser known cookie, the Cornish Fairing, from England. Classic ginger cookies call for up to 3 3/4 cups of flour, two eggs, 1 1/2 sticks of butter, as well as molasses, sugar and spices. I tried these. They turned out floury and unappetizing. Sunday, I tried a batch with less flour, but still, they didn’t have the pizazz I was looking for. Then I found my old recipe for Cornish Fairings. These eggless, light-as-a-feather cookies baked up beautifully. The Cornish Fairing is from Cornwall, where the sweet “biscuits” were sold at fairs. They can be whipped up quickly without the need for an electric mixer. The recipe calls for less than a cup and a half of flour and spices, a cup of sugar, a half stick of butter, and a cup of ginger syrup. American ginger cookie recipes use molasses to provide a rich dark sweetness to the dough. The English recipe is lighter. Traditional recipes call for “golden syrup”. If using, use 3 tsp. ground ginger in the recipe. If you use ginger syrup, use 1 tsp. ground ginger. * Cornish Fairings Adapted from a traditional English recipe. This recipe has no eggs. 4 oz butter 4 oz light brown cane sugar. Could even use a little less sugar if you like. 4 oz ginger syrup or golden syrup 12 oz plus a little bit more of all purpose flour 2 tsp baking soda 2 tsp baking powder 1 tsp. mixed spice or pumpkin pie spice 1 tsp cinnamon ½ tsp salt 1 tsp ground ginger if using ginger syrup, 2 tsp. if using golden syrup. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix up the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Sieve or whisk to bring up the air in the bowl. Meanwhile, heat the stick of butter, the sugar and the syrup in a saucepan until melted. Pour into the dry ingredients and mix. Then, working quickly with floured hands, shape dough into balls about the size of a walnut. If you need more flour, add my tablespoon till the texture feels light yet not runny. Place on parchment sheets on cookie pans. Leave quite a bit of space between each biscuit as they flatten and spread.Press the back of a fork into the dough as it rests on the cookie sheet. Bake for 8 minutes, then move to lower shelf of oven and cook for 2 more minutes. Remove from oven, carefully bang the pan on the counter – this causes the cookie to crack attractively. (It is not really necessary to do this but the recipe says to.) Let cool and harden on the parchment in the pan before removing to a parchment paper lined plate to cool completely. *Both golden syrup and ginger syrup can be found at import stores. I get mine at Cost Plus.
I have some exciting news. My novel, Lipstick On the Strawberry, has been contracted to be published by The Wild Rose Press. Can’t give a publication date yet, but I love working with the team at Wild Rose, so supportive and professional! With that in mind, I’m changing the focus of my blog. My heroine, Camilla, is a British- born caterer. Much maligned, British food has been re-invented in the past generation. As well it should, because the natural ingredients were always there. So watch this space for a new take on old foods, or a revival of some British food treasures. Potatoes For Halloween I’m making mashed potatoes for Halloween. Of course if costumed kids come to the door, they’ll get to scrabble in the big bowl of wrapped candies and chocolates and take as much as they like. But potatoes are actually a treat for us, full of carbs as they are. In fact, they are a pretty nutritious food, which is why, in Ireland, where they grow so well in the cool damp climate, the people came to rely on them as their major source of sustenance. In the 1840s a fungus attacked the crop, with disastrous results. I have three Irish great-great grandmothers. They all emigrated during the Great Famine. In honor of them, I will eat the potato dish “Champ” this Halloween. It’s an old Irish tradition. In ancient Ireland, all the potatoes and other crops were gathered as deep fall set in. The New Year was set to start on November 1, and on its eve, the Celtic people lit huge fires. Praying for survival through the long winter, the Druid priests made sacrifices, possibly even human sacrifices. It seems to have been a night of some terror. On October 31, the souls of the departed left their graves, it was believed, and haunted the living. The people wore costumes (maybe animal heads in the beginning, later more elaborate), to try to trick the ghosts or to disguise their own nasty deeds. The next morning the Celts scraped up of the ashes of the fire and the Druid priests lit new ones to bring in the New Year, Samhain. Feasts were part of Samhain, and on its eve the fairies needed to be fed too. So boiled potatoes were mixed with scallions, chives or parsley and mashed with milk and butter. A bowl of the delicious mash would be lain under a hawthorn bush for the sprites/spirits to devour. Champ is similar to Colcannon, another Irish dish. Colcannon swaps chopped cabbage for chives or scallions, but any way you make it, the creamy dish is perfect for a cold evening. Champ – to serve 4 2 1/2 lbs Russet potatoes 4 oz butter divided into two pieces. 1 cup whole milk or half and half (if making for company, why not go for the rich stuff?) 2 tsp salt 1 bunch scallions, chopped fine 2 tbs chopped parsley Place the scrubbed, unpeeled potatoes in a large pot and fill with cold water to a level just above the potatoes. Add 1 tsp. salt and bring the pot to the boil, covered. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the potatoes can be pierced with a knife. Now heat 2 oz butter in a small pot, and in another pot place the diced scallions and pour the milk over them. Bring to a simmer, but do not boil. Drain the potatoes, saving the water in case the milk is not quite enough for a good mash. Peel the potatoes. (Use gloves if they are too hot!) Put the potatoes back into the large pot and mix in the melted butter with a wooden spoon. Adding the butter before the milk allows it to bind to the potatoes, making them more flavorful. Gradually add the warmed scallions and milk and 1 tsp. salt, and mash. Toss in the chopped parsley. Traditionally champ is served in a large communal bowl. Make a well in the center and place the other 2 oz of butter in the middle. Absolutely yummy! Beats candy any time.