Sunday, March 24, 2013

Book Review: America's Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook

My mother has an old step by step cookbook that includes photos. Each recipe is a classic where each stage is described with clinical efficiency and the newest in colour photography for the times. It was like reading a laboratory experiment from high school. Photo of completed product, list of ingredients and apparatus, followed by the methods.

America's Test Kitchen DIY Cookbook is a descendant of that style of cooking instruction. This cookbook is about canning, curing, churning and brewing according to its cover. This fits firmly into the urban homesteading or hipster cooking demographic. I find myself in a curious position right now. I am going to come to the defense of hipsterism and food.

The hipster generation, studied in the wild, grew up in the age of the plethorization of television channels and the rise of the internet. So much older programmes were required to fill these new channels, creating a nostalgia for a time that was unlived by the viewer. Nostalgia used to be expensive but now nostalgia is cheap, at least until DRM or some other scheme takes place. They are the last generation of mass media before it falls apart.

The second issue to bring into the mix the high unemployment that requires the hipster to find cheap retro items and use their skills to supplement income. They are no longer consumers due to not being able to afford those choices of brands but rather mix, sample and remix and repurpose. Whether it is to change an old item into something new or to make, grow or trade stuff, there is a perception of choice. This choice between competing cheap items whether food or clothing is discovered or adapted to show individualism. Think etsy or food trucks or the taco craze. Being first or being original is the currency.

This reminds me of a ruralization of the city rather than an urban homesteading. It appears as a movement against mass market coupled with distrust and ability to manipulate electronic media. This mastery plus a resurgence of other older skills serve to satisfy in the absence of climbing the corporate ladder. Sharing large becomes possible with the internet, using facebook groups, kijiji, craigslist and other forums.

This cookbook gives the skills from the memories of grandmothers' that never happened. Maybe I am wrong and it is just the new youth rediscovering everything like it is the first time and they are being douchy. Regardless, end of digression and now back to a more traditional book review.

There are a ton of useful recipes for everyday things that are preserved or fermenting in some way: Sriracha, Wine Vinegar, Oven-Dried Tomatoes, Bacon Jam, Refrigerator Jams, Kimchi, Paneer, Feta Cheese, Bacon, Duck Confit and Beer. Aside from those above that split into six categories of rotting foods of some sort, there are two additional chapters on snacks and sweets.

The organization in the book is great. It moves from technique to technique starting with simple ones in a chapter to more advanced as the chapter goes on. It has a novel like progression to help build confidence in the person cooking. The head notes in this volume contrast tremendously from the magazine. There is less of a statement of perfection that often crept into the magazine and more of the personal stories of the testers and why they preferred this recipe or technique to another one.

The collected wisdom that sits in the conversational tone of these recipes would be invaluable for a beginner into the old world traditions of preservation. If you have been around the block, you probably have a version of these recipes somewhere. The difference is in the delivery. The pictures provide comfort and there is enough explanation for you to rely on the techniques and begin to use these techniques for other purposes. It is missing a little of the clinical and scientific bent of the previous generations self-help cooking books. I miss that. I suppose that is why we have Robert Wolke and Harold McGee.

Look, if you are starting out on this whole journey of rediscovering old methods for whatever reason: frugality, environmentalism or nostalgia, then this book could serve you well.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

WTF an alfajores?

It's a cookie. Post done.

Okay, maybe a little more information is needed. If you troll through the internet, you will find all sorts of information on this delectable morsel. The explanations range from small tubes of confection to filled cookies. Much like looking up any other national cookie such as shortbread or those maple leaf shaped cookies, it is fair to say that Argentina has claimed the alfajores as its own. Sure, others have made them but it is just not the same.

An aside... I was trying to find  national cookies and started searching using Scotland's National Cookie and ended up with all the government websites informing me that they used cookies on their websites. So, goes to prove just how much of a sweet tooth those Scots have, they even have cookies with their internets.

The Argentinian version is two soft shortbread like cookies with dulce de leche in the middle and either covered in white chocolate or dark chocolate or rolled in coconut. The cookies are crumbly with a soft texture that is achieved using cornstarch or using a recipe that gives you that sandy soft texture. Of course, jam or cajeta can be used, but the caramel of dulce de leche is probably the most popular.

Both cajeta and dulce de leche are versions of caramel made with milk products. I make dulce de leche using the condensed milk in a dutch oven with water method. Just watch the water levels.

What made me write this post is the happenstance of seeing this cookie at one of my many local cafes, Cake Town Cafe. The version of alfajores that I got really impressed me. The cookie was crumbly with an aftertaste of orange zest or maybe orange flower that perfumed the slightly runny, soft dulce de leche. The cookie was so soft that it felt as if the sweet, caramelly center of the cookie was holding the cookie crust together with the sweetened coconut on the outside edge. This is one of those cookies that you wouldn't change. Any change would render it a totally different creature. Think of flavoured shortbread versus straight up shortbread.

My wife, who does love a good cookie or two, only wished that there was more caramel. I would have used unsweetened coconut but neither of us would turn down another cookie. Our quibbles are equal to the tribal fighting of whether my grandmother would make a better shortbread versus her mother's shortbread recipe. Nonsensical arguments that could lead to the breakup of a small country or the creation of generational rifts never to be knitted back together. Needless to say, this is one of those national edible treasures that you must try or buy or get an Argentinian friend to make.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Book Review: dirtcandy

I read cookbooks like a novel with a beginning, middle and end. The way the book is arranged tells a lot about how the author approaches the subject. Often, the preface opens with what the book will be about or approaches to cooking followed with an introduction to techniques, equipment needed, and any special ingredients. This is pretty standard.

Lately, there has been a push towards more porny books with huge centrefolds, closeups of food with gelled lenses. Many head notes describe the food in Penthouse forum detail along with the author's first time. This book, dirtcandy, kicks the shit out of these standard narratives by providing a real narrative. It is a cookbook told in a graphic novel format. This is part confessional a la Daniel Clowes and part Powerpuff Girls.

Here is, finally, a cookbook that has the same feel as the first time I read Kitchen Confidential. It seems as if it is a true peek into a restaurant. There is no glamour here. The monkey in the room is that this is a cookbook about vegetables made at a New York restaurant. Dirty secrets such as; why not to start a restaurant, expensive salads, vegetarianism's evil beginnings (and continued negative stances), and illegal workers take up most of the illustrations. There is a sense of movement and excitement in the panels that are more than just plain exposition. The graphic novel portion is fun to read by itself.

I appreciate someone saying that vegetables don't have to be boring and salads generally suck. I am not a vegetarian but I love vegetables.  It was nice to see an approach that started with what you have to do differently to get great flavours from veggies. The secret is to remove the water. Simple. It makes sense. I've dried tomatoes to make a powder and then used this to make ketchup. Who hasn't? Amanda Cohen's recipes are more like guideposts to making great food. Most are a step to making a larger plate of food, each adding a layer of experience to a plate but she explains how these work together.

The larger recipes that bring these pieces together allow for options but with the explanation of why the small pieces are there. Texture, acid, colour and repetition of a taste element all play large in the composition of the plate. Smoked Cauliflower and Waffles (with Horseradish Cream Sauce) consists of smoked cauliflower + waffles + horseradish cream sauce (separate recipe) + maple arugula salad (optional) + cauliflower bits (optional) + pickled cauliflower (optional).

More importantly, these recipes look as if they taste good. I don't buy many recipe books due to an already large size bookshelf that threatens to fall down but if a book offers something interesting, it can sometimes make its way onto it. This does mean getting rid of one of my more tried and true books. Last year's additions were 50 Shades of Chicken and Modernist Cuisine at Home, one for funny narrative and the other for technique. I already have stalwarts such as Vegetable Love by Kafka, an encyclopedic tome by type of vegetable but I have nothing like this.

I will be buying this cookbook and maybe never cooking a damn thing from it. However, the section on salads alone, suggests an approach that will help me construct better food. This will serve as a reminder on how to do this. Already, it has me looking at everyday items differently. I found a partially sprouted grapefruit seed in my grapefruit and tasted it. I think with a little pickle, it would add a citrusy acidic element to a salad or a contrast to a baked grapefruit.

The link that I provided to the cookbook is their website that includes a blog. I've started to go through some of the posts and think that this may be my current food crush to speak in terms of the new pornography of food.

Oh, I forgot about the recent interview with Serious Eats - here.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Restaurant Review: Big House Pizza

Sometimes when you are trying to review a place, the attitude of the owners and servers defeat you. Big House Pizza is a new pizzeria at Danforth and Donlands that serves pizza, bread, wings, salads, fries and patrons of local bars.

The place is big on puns and flavour. One of their pies is named the John A. MacDonald that includes, (and I quote); Ground All Beef Patties, Special Sauce, Lettuce, Cheddar Cheese, Pickles, And Onions On A Sesame Seed Crust. Stop humming. I know you are doing it. My kid states that this is better than a Big Mac but I pretend not to understand what he is talking about.

Their pies that state that they are hot as in spicy hot not temperature hot are, at best, a medium heat for those accustomed to a little something something. Most disappointing pie in this vein was the Buffaloes Have Wings? Now, I am going to moot this criticism and the one that follows as well. This place is quick to respond to criticism. It  is quick to suggest changes and make efforts to fulfill reasonable requests. For example, I had originally looked at the Wing pizza and was a little iffy due to the ranch dressing. I hate the stuff. The cook at the time was a little hesitant to remove the cooling liquid as how could you properly replicate the wing experience without the sauce. Okay, he didn't say that directly but you could see it in his eyes. Also, they still gave the sauce to me on the side. Some places would do this grudgingly without pointing out their reason for having the pizza this way. They care about their food.

More importantly, when I mentioned the issue on twitter, they were more than happy to let me know that they had homemade hot sauce available. The sauce is good...soooo, that criticism cannot stand.

Okay, so after having a slice and some fries, I decided that this shop was good enough to order some for my boys. The next pizza night, I ordered a John Candeyed Ham (another pun. Who knew?) with ham, sausage, bacon, back bacon and some things that were not meat. A lot of toppings on these pies require a thicker crust, so if you are a fan of thin crusts, this place is not for you. My wife liked it but wished there was more sauce. Next order, I asked for more sauce without a problem. This attitude of compromising with the customer without compromising the food happens too seldom in Toronto.

Look. This place has restaurant pedigree. The owners are opening another restaurant out west soon and I hope this place does not suffer because of this. The basic premise is good ingredients on a crust with sauce enough to hold it into place. The flavours are typically bolder to cut through the doughiness of a thicker crust and could sit as flavours for a main course.

Remove the crust. Change the ingredients around a little and add a starch and you could have a meal. I am focussing on their pizzas but their fries are really good. The Greek fries were cut to resemble eggplant slices and served with olives, feta and fried veggies. They are smart enough not to call any of the fries poutine but rather let them be their own thing.

This isn't a destination pizzeria but rather a really smart neighbourhood joint that understands its customers and the area. The prices are reasonable for this mixed income area. I am surprised that no one else has stepped up to pair with the Only Cafe before now. It is only time before these two places start menu pairing with beers and pies. I, for one, will be the better and heavier for it.

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