50 posts categorized "Books"

03 September 2012

The diplomacy of dinner

I've just read two very different but good books. Accepting the inherent risk of judging them by their covers, the WWII history and Dutch novel couldn't be more different. As it turns out, they share a central theme: the power of the table as a diplomacy tool.

The Dinner by Herman Koch is the narrator's perspective of one meal, eaten with his wife, brother and sister-in-law. The meal takes place in what is clearly a fayn dayning restaurant in Amsterdam. The narrator, Paul Lohman, is keen to be anywhere but the restaurant he is in, he longs for the ribs and fries at the cafe nearby, rather than the plates of white space he is served, but this is a meal he cannot afford to miss. The reason is that the turn of conversation at dinner will determine the future of people very close to both couples. There's an awful lot riding on the niceties of the meal, the way the wine is poured and whether anyone has dessert. 

The book is a devastating read, as a parent and brother, I found it quite disturbing. Koch beautifully unfolds the story and carefully lays out how both families ended up where they are. Whilst the situation is ultimately extreme, it drives home the fine line between madness and parenting.

I didn't find Cita Stelzer's Dinner with Churchill particularly beautiful to read, the editing was rather cack handed, but the argument is well made. Churchill was convinced of the importance of a good meal in diplomacy.  

Winston was a bit of a gourmand. He wanted the best of everything and largely got it. He was it turns out a stickler for the seating plan and was a dab hand at interior design if dining room at Chartwell is anything to go by. He clearly viewed matters of stomach as synonymous with matters of state. 

Both books make a persuasive argument that sitting down over a meal is one way try to win an argument. The formalities determine a rhythm and it takes hard work for there to be no conviviality when decent food and wine is involved. However, what The Dinner and Dinner With Churchill make clear is that however good the victuals and libations, what ultimately matters is who you are dining with. Your enemy is your enemy however many courses there are.

08 June 2012

My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out

It may be the height of vanity, but I have always wanted to appear in a book. It was a simple wish I thought would never be fulfilled.  I never really gave much consideration to whether it would be fiction or not, I'd be the hero or villian.  

It never dawned on me I might be named in a compilation of a restaurant reviewer's worst meals.  That wouldn't be great. And yet my dream has come true in My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways To Have a Lousy Night Out, Jay Rayner's latest offering.

I think it must have been vanity that drove me to such inky dreams because even with this ignomy heaped upon me, I am still thrilled to be there.  It was with a tingling sense of doom that I came to the Blooms review.  I had been guffawing at the awfulness of his meals at some terribly misconceived restaurants, and then it dawned on me that I had been with him on that fateful night in Golders Green.

In the introduction to the book Jay notes the perverse delight of bad reviews.  He is right, they make for good reading.  Perhaps that is because we're not the ones doing the eating, or the paying, we can vicariously enjoy someone else's disaster.

So much comedy is reliant on cruelty, but for it to be funny rather than gratuitous takes careful scripting and delivery.  A bit like a review.  In this little compilation of his Observer reviews, Rayner delivers.

No doubt, if you're a restaurant on the receiving end, you're unlikely to get the humour and will forever be haunted by this appalling critique of your love and joy.  Although that assumes the owners of the disasters care. 

Every one of the twenty reviews has a common feature, bad food.  Service, decor, location all vary in quality and Jay's appetite for them, but if you serve him bad food, prepare to be ripped apart.  And so it should be.  It takes a very particular masochist to willingly hand over money for an awful meal.

A word on the format.  I think that some will complain about only being able to buy this as an ebook.  Others will wryly note that they can get all Jay's reviews for free from the Observer, so why fork over £1.99.  To address the former, no doubt it is because you can get them for free that they are chosing to limit the cost of publishing this compendium.  And to the latter misers, I'd point out that journalism costs and this is Jay's career so fair enough he should be paid for it.  I assume that the Guardian Media Group get some sort of cut as they must own the copyright to the reviews, but I also assume that the sums of money involved are not huge.  A feature of journalism today.

So don't moan.  Download the book and enjoy the fact that you didn't have to eat those meals, but someone with a decent way with words did.  If you are a restaurant owner then read and learn the simple lesson that if you serve your customers good food, you will avoid being mentioned in volume two.

25 September 2011

Keep food writing focused

It seems that every cookbook is the same as the last.

There are the obligatory breakfast recipes that will include a version of çılbır, then a few pages on snacks, perhaps some suggestions for lunch that will include mackerel and then dinner, no doubt split between the quick, post-work-I'm-too-knackered-to-cook suggestion, to the dinner party option, via the thick chunky soup for an autumnal night. 

I recently wrote about Tea with Bea, Bea Vo's attempt to shed some light on how she makes such delicious cakes.  In the book's introduction she says she was initially sceptical about writing a book because she felt so much of it had been written before.  She then realised that cookbooks should be about "a particular chef's point of view".  This struck a chord with me.  So many cookbooks seem utterly pointless.

Then recently, over the last few months, I've read some books and magazines that I've enjoyed and hope has been restored.  None of them included spicy egg and yoghurt recipes, or thick chunky soups.  In fairness, not all of them were cookbooks.  They all had one thing in common, single mindedness. It felt to me as though the author was trying to leave the reader with one point, and every page hammered that home.

Setting the Table: Lessons and inspirations from one of the world's leading entrepreneurs is not a cookbook at all.  Written by Danny Meyer, owner of a slew of well regarded New York restaurants, ranging from the venerable Gramercy Tavern, through 11 Madison Avenue to Shake Shack.  Meyer's point is very simple, restaurants are about hospitality and that's the complicated bit.

Obviously these are the views of just one man, but I would guess others who run restaurant groups might well agree.  Thinking of UK restaurant groups such as Caprice Holdings, Gordon Ramsay Holdings or even the mini Arbutus Restaurant Group, service is of a very particular standard.

If I was a more diligent sort, I'd read a load of restaurant reviews and analyse the frequency and tone that hospitality is mentioned.  But I'm not, so I'll go with instinct instead.  I reckon that if there's bad service it always gets written about - perhaps two paragraphs worth in an average review - and if there's exceptional service, it might get a line and a half.  Most times though, it will barely get a mention in a review because it is solid and is not deemed to merit comment.  

If anyone can be bothered to prove how correct I am (or incorrect, unlikely) then it would seem that reviewers take service for granted because that is what we expect.  

Meyer seems to be saying that if we do take it for granted when rating a restaurant we're missing a trick.  If the hospitality isn't good, then nothing else will be either, however proficient the kitchen.

When reading Setting the Table, I did hanker for a bit more food writing and a bit more of the grit of running a restaurant, but it made a change from some of the self-serving twaddle some UK proprietors foist upon us.  Meyer's success seems to be built on firmer foundations than some of his UK counterparts, which adds legitimacy to what he has to say.  It's all about service kids.

Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work also falls into the single minded category.  Written by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot (who I interviewed a few years ago) it is a reflection of their years behind the stove cooking together and forever posing simple questions of their ingredients and recipes, along the lines of why? and how?  All this questioning has resulted in a book that builds on their very successful blog.  

The book gives home cooks, even the fairly timid, tools to make their food more interesting and be able to explain why it is better.  They give you building blocks and ideas to ensure you start questioning the norms you associate with food.  

For example, I made their preserved lemons using a freezing and thawing technique.  This required no more hi-tech equipment than a freezer and freezer bag.  But it got me wondering about cell structures of other fruit and veg and how they might react to a similar preserving technique.  What about preserved apples, or would they go too mushy?  How about using the method to flavour and preserve potatoes, could it break down the cell structure sufficiently so you can eat them raw? Perhaps these are culinary disasters waiting to happen.  Perhaps they're little more than intellectual wankery.  Either way it has got me thinking and that is what I want from a book.

Mark Bittman is the author of numerous books about food and a columnist on the New York Times.  He has embraced the digital publishing era with gusto and in particular has started publishing on Amazon's Kindle Single format.  These are basically long articles/short books available on the Kindle or via the Kindle app.  It's an interesting way to publish cookbooks, because not all books are weighty tomes and some suit a smaller format.  I think that Bittman's Kitchen: What I Grill and Why (Kindle Single) is one such example.

In the introduction, Bittman describes the book as 'idiosyncratic' because it is effectively just a compendium of what he loves to cook.  It is therefore an indulgence for him.

Bittman is at pains to say that his book isn't a 'how to'.  But it is, just by stealth and gentle wiping of the reader's brow.  He assures you that your equipment is probably fine.  He gives a few tips on how to ensure what you're serving is properly cooked.  He gives the obligatory list of what you should have in the cupboard.  He then goes on to give some really rather lovely looking recipes, that you know, given his experience, are going to be well written, will work and will taste good.  Being a journalist, he also gives the requisite pre-recipe blurb on why that particular recipe made the cut into the book.

So for the miserly cost of £0.72 you're getting a well researched and written recipe book about just one facet of cooking. You will have decent meal and learn quite a bit about grilling. The same cannot be said for many books currently flooding the market.

31 August 2011

Bea's Vegan Chocolate Cake

I don't really bother with desserts.  It's not that I don't have a sweet tooth - I do, as much as the next fat man.  Rather, I have a technical problem with them. Specifically, the prohibition under the laws of kashrut to mix milk and meat.  

Whilst we're banned from combining milk and meat in recipes - nyet to chicken kiev for example - we also have to wait an extended period of time between eating meat and eating dairy products.  The gap I observe is 3 hours.  Which is why I don't really bother with dessert.  Dessert is all about milk, cream or butter, so really what is the point.

Some people get around this by going to town on the multitude of substitutions available but I consider them to be abominations.  I also think that generally after a relatively heavy meal, some fresh fruit or sorbet is not the end of the world.

But I have hankered for some time after a decent dessert that I can pull out of the bag when necessary. Something beyond lokshen pudding (bread and butter pudding, without the bread or butter) or almond cake in orange syrup (a Sefardi/Spanish favourite).  And I just may have found one in Tea with Bea: Recipes from Bea's of Bloomsbury.

As the name suggests, this is the first book from Bea Vo, owner of the eponymous Bea's of Bloomsbury. Over the years of blogging, tweeting and eating I've got to know Bea fairly well.  I can tell you this about her: her cakes are outstanding, she's a voracious collector of cookbooks, she's a great source for sourcing hard to find produce and she knows her way around the restaurant industry.  I implore you to try her cakes, if that fails buy her book so you can try them yourself, or if that fails, just follow her on Twitter.  Unlike others, she doesn't spend her time self-promoting and is happy to engage in fairly broad ranging debate, when she's not baking.

So, I bought the book because I'm a fan and an acquaintance.  I also was hoping to learn a bit more about baking from it because I haven't had much experience and I'm not very good at it.  

Flicking through the book from back to front, as I always do with new cookbooks, my eye was caught by the Vegan Chocolate Cake.  At first, I was a bit horrified.  Bea is not a lady who panders to whims and I feared she had sold out to the whiny-brigade.  It then dawned on me that I have a claim to be a member of that particular army and Bea might just be a saviour and perhaps I could overlook my substitution snobbishness and accept soy milk in a recipe.

The cake was a revelation.  The sponge tasted of Oreos - a good thing - and the icing was simply very rich chocolate.  It was delicious.  

I should admit that whilst it tasted lovely, mine looked like a disaster, a reflection of a few issues I had baking it.  For example, after making the chocolate mousse filling/topping, it looked like someone had staged a dirty protest in our kitchen.  Further, being an impatient baker and egged on by a young child, I decided to layer on the chocolate icing before the cake had fully cooled.  Therefore I cut the sponge before it was cool and put chocolate on top of warm sponge.  Not very accomplished.

As per Bea's note at the start of the recipe, you don't need to bother telling people it's vegan when you give it to them, it might put them off.  Then again, this does have its advantages, such as there's more for you to eat and in my experience the sponge benefits from a being a day or so old.

The recipe I give below is for my version of the chocolate cake.  The main difference with the one that Bea has in the book is that I'm lazy.  I didn't include the raspberries, strawberries or crystallised violets she suggests incorporating into the mousse.  They do sound good though.

Serves 8-12

For the cake

  • 23cm round cake pan, greased and baselined with parchment paper
  • 275g plain flour
  • 100g natural cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 450ml unsweetened soy milk
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 320g caster sugar
  • 320ml sunflower oil
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract

For the mousse

  • 800g good quality dark chocolate, chopped (or in my case smashed) into pea-sized pieces
  • 600ml hot water
  • lots of ice - I used about 400g

Preheat the oven to 160C, gas mark 4.

Put the flour, cocoa powder, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl and sift twice through a sieve.

In a separate bowl, whisk the soya milk, vinegar, sugar, oil and vanilla extract.  Pour into the flour mixture and stir until well combined.  I took that to mean a consistent colour throughout the mixture.

Spoon the lot into the prepared cake pan and bake in the preheated oven for 40-55 minutes.  Bea suggests that you can test when it's done by inserting a wooden skewer into the centre of the cake.  If cooked, the skewer should be crumb-free when you pull it out.  She also says that when the cake is ready, if you press the middle of the cake it should spring back, rather than sink.  If it does sink, or your skewer is crumb-laden, return the cake to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes and check again.

Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from pan, probably with the aid of a knife and cool on a rack for 1 hour.

While it's cooling you can make the mousse.

Put the chocolate in a large, wide heatproo bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.  Don't let the base of the bowl touch the water.  Leave the chocolate until it is melted, then stir with a wooden spoon until smooth and glossy.

Remove from the heat.

Pour the hot water into the bowl of chocolate and mix until nice and smooth.

Sit the bowl in a dish filled with ice cubes.  Using an electric whisk, quickly whisk the chocolate and water mixture thoroughly and quickly until a stiff mousse forms.

Don't forget my warning about the dirty protest.  The kitchen re-decoration wasn't helped by my mousse not thickening.  So, as per Bea's suggestion, I melted more chocolate and whisked that in quickly and suddenly it became a mousse.

She suggests that if it gets too thick, you can add a touch more warm water, or espresso, or whisky to thin it out.

Then cut the cake horizontally.  She suggests 3 layers, but I didn't risk it and opted for two.  Then again, mine was in a near state of collapse given my haste and refusal to let it fully cool.

You then spread the mousse between the layers and on top of the cake.  If you're using the various berries and sweets, now's the time to add them.

Eat and enjoy.

09 December 2010

I Can Cook

I have many memories of cooking with my mother as I grew up. The kitchen was the centre of the house and meals were loud affairs with a fair few generations screaming at each other.

I remember clearly baking biscuits that I expected the family to devour.  These same biscuits were alternatively used as clay pigeon targets.  I considered the kitchen a place of experimentation and like Escoffier before me, regarded sauces as a key element of my repetoir.  A particular favourite was dijon, tomato ketchup and worcestershire sauce.  A real highlight was creating a concoction that I swore blindly to my mother I had seen my brother make and was delicious.  It consisted of using the magimix to blend some uncooked wurst, matzo and haimisha pickles together.  This dish was quite unique in just how vile it turned out.  To her credit, my mother let me make mistakes like this.  She also insisted I eat the lot and clear up.

So I made mistakes, but I learned from them and most importantly I learned from her and the confidence and knowledge I gained has stood me in very good stead.

I'm a sucker for journalists sucking their teeth as the country goes down the plug hole and if statistics are to be believed, in the UK we're watching more food TV programmes than ever, but cooking far less.  If that's the case then I think, there's no programme more important than CBeebies' I Can Cook.  Silverbrowlette is mildly obsessed with it.

It is possible this is because her 3am feeds were consumed in front of some rerun of 'Floyd on...' or one of Rick Stein's many outings.

It could also be because the programme is fun to watch and she's figured out that cooking is a lot like mucking about with paint or play-dough, but more tasty.

I've read some criticism of the show along the lines of the presenter being too annoying, the songs too catchy.  But this is kids TV afterall.  What stands out, are the long term benefits of the show.  The religious fervour of hand washing is helpful to ensure that we don't all have to end-up with snotty, dripping noses.  The trips to the well manicured gardens ensure that some kids at least will understad that potatoes start in the ground, rather than the crisp factory.

Recipes can be a bit odd, such as the pizza with grapes on it, but the olive rolls are actually quite tasty.  We are lucky, our daughter generally is not a fussy eater.  However, on those occasions when she does play up, the easiest way to get her to tuck in, is if she was involved in making it in the first place.

There was particular delight in our household when Mrs S realised that an I Can Cook cookbook has recently been published.  It was Silverbrowlette's best Chanukah present and ours if it prevents re-runs of my early disasters.

Undoubtedly, there will be some (inverted) snobs who will claim that a show recommending the use of polenta is disconnected from the real world.  That is no excuse for failing to introduce new ideas to children.  In my experience kids are only too happy to experiment and try new things if they get given the opportunity. 

I don't understand the smugness of parents who take such delight in claiming they never let their kids watch TV.  Some TV is very good, it's also part of our world and our kid's world.  In my entirely unprofessional opinion, you are only going to enhance your child's development by letting them spend 15 minutes watching an episode.  Failing that, can I recommend just spending some time with them cooking?  It's surprisingly good fun.


29 November 2010

Keys to Good Cooking

image from www.amazon.co.uk Few people are held in such high reverence in the world of food as Harold McGee.  It's a given that his On Food & Cooking is 'the most thumbed', 'splattered with sauce' or 'falling apart from overuse' in every chef's book collection. 

Given his exalted status, a new book by McGee is going to forment much excitement.  As I opened the envelope of my review copy of Keys to Good Cooking and I realised what was inside, I'm fairly certain I let out a slightly camp 'Oooooh'.  Then I opened it and I let out a more Eeyoreish 'Ohhhhh'.

After the excitment of On Food, this seemed rather flat, all a bit pedestrian.  To continue the cartoon theme, a bit Noddyish.  I hadn't bothered to read any of the blurb about the book, I just knew this was more from the great McGee. Surely, this was an epilogue to On Food, he'd made new discoveries and this book was the exposition of that.

I was wrong.  If anything, it's the prologue.  Or at the very least, it's the simplified, spare version of On Food & Cooking.  It's a doorstep like it's big brother, but it is no chef's book.  It is the home cook's bible.  I'd say, having delved into it, that it could be the most important book written for the home cook for many years. 

The science of food - that McGee is in large part responsible for propogating - beloved by the the professional and keen amateur cook is complex and confusing.  I think it can all seem rather cliquey and knowing.  This book cuts through all that to the core issues.

It tees itself up as helping the reader to understand their recipes but it is not a recipe book.  From what I have read, and I'd be lying if I said I'd read it cover to cover, it does just that.  It explains why a sauce will curdle, and why it's a wise move to add lemon juice to artichokes, in a very accessible way.  I think the ideal way to use it, is find a recipe you like and then read the relevant section in Keys on each of the key ingredients.  Anyone doing this on a regular basis will be hard pressed not to be a better cook.

True, if On Food was read in the same way, I think one's cooking skills would improve immeasurably.  But On Food is not a book for everyone.  Keys is.

Whenever I'm asked what book any kitchen should have, my stock response has been The Cook's Book.  Its combination of insight, technique and recipes is exceptionally useful.  I'll now add Keys to Good Cooking to that very short list of must haves.  I can't recommend it enough.

23 August 2010

Podcast with Nathan Myhrvold

image from www.silverbrowonfood.comIt is fairly clear that I was sceptical of the merits of Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.  After the fact, I thought I should probably give Nathan the right to reply and asked him if he'd do an interview with me, which he graciously accepted. You can listen to the interview below.  It's also available in iTunes.

Having spoken to him and read the new excerpts I'm more convinced.  I understand what he's trying to do and it's a massive task: it's codifying a particular method of cooking, from soup to nuts.  He knows it's a risk, but credit to him, it's a risk that he's taken on entirely himself, even setting up his own publishing company.

I do still have an issue with the price, which is now at $500 on Amazon, compared to $421.87 when I wrote my original piece two weeks ago.  I accept Nathan's argument that restaurant meals are easily that expensive and the pleasure is fleeting, whereas this will be around forever.  However, restaurant meals at that price are meant to be rareified and I can't overcome my inherent bias that books are meant to be democratic and accessible to all.  At that price they're certainly not, and I can't imagine many cash strapped British libraries are going to put in their orders anytime soon.

The level of research that has gone into the book is clearly outstanding.  Particularly interesting was learning more about the content of the book.  I was pleased with the passion with which he spoke of the coffee chapter and delighted to hear that James Hoffman of Square Mile Coffees had consulted on the chapter and praised it so highly.  I also think the way they've thought about recipes is very clever, see page 6 of this pdf for more - it's an example of the way they approached the whole task with a blank sheet of paper.

I did feel a bit guilty when I asked Nathan if in the water chapter they'd dealt with it as a drink.  There is a pause after I ask the question and he admits that is something they forgot.  Hopefully, Nathan was not reminded of Dr Johnson as I fleetingly was.

Finally, before we get to the main event, I really have to apologise for the appalling sound quality.  I need to sort out a more sophisticated way of doing these podcasts.

Link to mp3 of Nathan Myhrvold podcast
Anthony Silverbrow - Silverbrow on Podcasts