SCIENCE, ART AND SEAWEED IN THE KITCHEN, THE JOY OF VEGETABLES AND PICTURING THE WINE WORLD.
A MONTH OF READING.
That sums up my latest round-up of recently published food and drinks books and, as usual, a golden oldie or hardy perennial plucked from my shelves.
Fans of the great Harold McGee may have greeted Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat (Canongate) with some scepticism, given that the American scientist must have covered this ground, and elegantly to boot, in his monumental On Food and Cooking, published in 2004. That book is essential reading for anyone who works in a restaurant kitchen and highly recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand how cooking works.
Samin Nosrat, who has been described as “the next Julia Child”, comes at the subject from the perspective of a chef (she has cooked at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in California). The result is a book that’s considerably more visual than McGee’s and therefore more cheerful to handle and to browse. Another difference is the presence of recipes that both demonstrate the principles described and help with making the understanding of them stick in the mind.
The book concludes with a list of cooking lessons in which recipes are listed under headings such as “Salt…seasoning from within”, “Heat…layering heat, browning, turning tough into tender” and so forth. There are passages on knife skills, smoking, getting the most out of grains, umami, fermentation and just about everything you have ever wondered about.
Colourful, loosely drawn illustrations add cheer and this large volume invites browsing rather than reading from cover to cover. It’s a little over-written, which I find is often the American way, and, to be frank, if you have Harold McGee on your bookshelves and like your food science explained concisely, maybe stick with him.
As for me, I think there’s room for both in my kitchen library.
I have come to eschew sugar most of the time although a Saturday morning croissant with raspberry jam is never out of the question. I am surprised at how quickly I adjusted to the minimal carbohydrates that I consume on most days of the week and how much sweeter sweet things taste when I do indulge.
Ice creams, Sorbets and Gelati by Caroline and Robin Weir (Grub Street) is not going to be used much in my kitchen but I’m very glad to have it. It’s monumental, exhaustive and immensely detailed and covers the history, development, theory and practice of what my parents’ generation called “ices”. There’s a chapter entitled “What is Good Ice Cream?” and a plethora of recipes, not all of them sweet.
Although I have made only one recipe (blackberry, because it’s such a great year for them and I’ve never had blackberry ice cream), I am intrigued by instructions for building a classical knickerbocker glory or an American parfait (with diagrams), the engineering of “Bombes and Moulded Ices” and the instructions for making “the mother of all meringues”.
A milestone book and no serious home cook should be without it. For a pastry chef, it’s essential.
Seaweed, just out from Grub Street, is a translation from the Norwegian, has been compiled by four friends and comes at a time when we are only starting to discover marine vegetables. There are superb photographs of dishes but the pictures of actual seaweeds are rather loose watercolours which makes identification, for a novice like me, rather difficult. However, tagliatelle with sea lettuce pesto and blueberries sounds attractively Nordic even if a gin seaweed tonic and seabelt martini might be a bridge too far for me.
More familiar vegetables feature in Joy Larkcom’s The Salad Garden (Frances Lincoln). Despite my rather oversized collection of books about the kitchen garden and my reliance on the great Shewell-Cooper and Joy’s many other books, this new offering is rapidly becoming my first port of call. The title is a little misleading in that it’s not all lettuce and oriental greens but also deals with kale, cabbages, herbs, potatoes, carrots and much more. It even deals with parsnips, a vegetable that I’ve never considered in a salad context. Generously illustrated with photographs and compiled in Joy’s customary concise, almost telegraphic style it may lack lyricism but it’s packed with sound, scientific and practical advice. I rate it as her best yet, which is praise indeed.
In Cork Dork (Allen & Unwin) Bianca Bosker, a self-described amateur drinker, decides to become a sommelier. Jay McInerney has written “this hilarious, thoughtful and erudite book may be the ultimate answer to the perennial question of whether or not wine connoisseurship is a scam.”
Actually, it’s none of those things. I got to page 49 before deciding that I could no longer wade through the overwritten, leaden prose, the desperate seriousness, the imperative to stretch what might have made a 3,000 essay into over 300 pages of tedium.
How pleasant, by contrast to turn to Rupert Croft-Cooke’s Port (Putnam, 1957), a book I first encountered in the RDS library in Dublin when I was thirteen. It’s evocation of a landscape and an industry as it was then introduced me to the romance of wine. When I found it recently in Henry Pordes on Charing Cross Road (and paid too much for it, so glad was I to have chanced upon it) I was surprised to find that there are no illustrations. Croft-Cooke’s ability with words was enough conjure up vivid images for the young boy I was then. It’s a complete delight and will make you thirst for a glass of good port.