Monday, May 30, 2011

Read Now: How Italian Food Conquered the World

Any food writer knows who John Mariani is. Much-loved folks in the industry have mixed feelings toward him. I had just read Mariani's blunt review of Grant Achatz's new memoir, Life On The Line, and all the back-and-forth that ensued following that (like this article and this oneand this one). I also had just finished Bourdain's Medium Raw; there were no nice words for Mariani there either. And I had SaltySeattle's tweet stuck in my head; she declared : "he is a self-aggrandizing idiot who lives under a rock." I do respect Achatz. And Bourdain. And love Linda.

I was now curious. I am intrigued by a controversial character. I have a special place in my heart for talented people who are unaffected by criticism. And I respect anyone with a career as impressive as Mariani's. You have to hand it to him. No one gets where he is without talent and serious hard work.

April 7 in Boulder. Me- standing by the bar waiting for a friend. Mariani - by the hostess' table holding nothing more than a glass of water. He looked like his picture- an older man with potentially grumpy tendencies - (stereotyping, I know). Frasca hosted a dinner for Mariani's new book How Italian Food Conquered the World. He came over and we talked- for a good while. The man was approachable and conversational. He asked that I contact him if I had any questions about the book, about traveling, about writing. Naturally, I had questions. He responded promptly and when I had more questions he ask that I call him. Intimidated as I was, I still got the same warm, kind Mariani on the phone. So what's the controversy about?

My guess is that it is about a very opinionated man who wants simple food, who fears gimmicks, who rejects flash and glamour in food. Along the way, he has run over those who threaten the simple order of food. Close-minded? Maybe. Committed to authenticity and tradition? No doubt. The book made it more clear. It simmered down Mariani's essence to reveal a deep commitment to simplicity in food, a desire to celebrate the roots and history behind it.

How Italian Food Conquered the World is a compendium of everything remotely connected to Italian food dating back to its early beginnings- prior to the existence of the modern day country and language. Mariani covers entire threads of culinary history, restaurant anecdotes, stories of Italian chefs, food producers, entrepreneurs, and recipes with ease. He skips around from one topic to another gracefully.

The tone of the book is almost that of a documentary narrated in the voice of a social and cultural anthropologist who tries to understand the process through which the world came to create, develop, and appreciate Italian food as we know it today. That is good and bad. It is good because of the instructive voice gives the material covered authority but bad as it gets sometimes overly academic.

The range of information covered by the book is fantastic. From the impact of politics on the food culture under Mussolini to the major transformation of Italian food through the exposure created by a non stop flight NY to Rome in 1958, any aspect of Italy's history gets a fair shake and seems to seep into the process through which we fell in love with Italian food. Movies and shows are covered, from La Dolce Vita to the Sopranos. Production of refrigerators and consumption of pasta per capita are reported accurately. The history of Delmonico restaurant empire, originally a family business started in the 19th century, is covered in depth and so is the creation of the Caesar salad, a make-shift dish put together in Tijuana by an Italian immigrant who ran out of food before dinner service. With each page, you learn something new and surprising, and you want to just keep turning the pages.

The book is without a doubt a must-read for anyone interested in all the ins-and-outs of Italy's gastronomic history. It is an instructive and enjoyable read and could make a fabulous present (or Father's Day present if you are in the market for one).

Mariani shares fabulous recipes in the book. What he doesn't share is his preferred cocktail recipe, a classic Daiquiri, the proportions of which he printed on the back of his business card. Here it is.

Daiquiri, a classic recipe

Ingredients: 1 freshly squeezed lime (emphasis in the recipe), 1 teaspoon sugar, 2 ounces gold rum.

Shake ingredients together with ice. Strain into a chilled martini glass.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Cookbook: Straightjacket or Teacher?

The cookbook: straight-jacket or teacher? What is it to you? What is it to me? Does it instruct or stifle? Does it inspire creativity or limit it? Does it motivate or just provide a crutch? Does it excite or does it bore?

My cooking history is mostly cookbook-free. I grew up in a house where three multi-course meals were cooked every day from scratch. We had one cookbook. One. It lived in the pantry and was seldomly used. When used, it served more as a reference, a loose guide, than a manual to be closely followed. I bought that same cookbook, a newer paperback edition and moved it across the ocean with me nearly ten years ago. For years, I still hardly used it. But slowly, I started to rely on it and other cookbooks more. My cookbook shelf stays small- I purge the ones that collect dust and use the 25 or so books I find inspiration in. Sometimes I use them for this blog.

Why? Couldn't I just make up a recipe and write it up here? Couldn't I just share the dishes, the majority of dishes I cook that are completely improvised, the dishes that I cook day-to-day, the dishes that are quick and complex at the same time? Couldn't I get all creative on you and defy what the cookbooks say, liberate myself from them? Of course I could.

But I am a geek. I study everything. It is how I learn. I study and read about how to read and study. I read about how to parent, how to write, how to blog, how to taste. Books are my teachers; I will always be a student. I did not go to cooking school. I never worked in a restaurant. I learned all I could from my family role-models, but there came a time when I wanted more. And that is when the cookbooks filled a need. I began to listen, to follow, to train myself. I learned and still do every time I open one. I crave and revel in each step of the never-ending learning curve that it is cooking. I recognize there is a lot to learn.

For teachers, I picked my personal role models- people whose life philosophy I believe in, people who inspire me. I love simple, I respect tradition, I get excited for a twist. Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, and Jose Andres dominate my cookbook shelf. They are masters of their craft- of simplicity, of technique, of tradition. The lesson I learn from them is to improvise only after learning the fundamentals, to innovate after mastering the history. They are not icons of cooking because they walked in a kitchen one day and whisked together an amazing new dish, but because they made the elementary cooking second nature, refined foundational recipes, and advanced essential cooking techniques to the next level. Following their recipes is my way of learning from them.

Many times, I share some of their recipes with you. I make those dishes several times before I write about them. It takes a few tries to understand the author's goal and it also takes a few tries for me to find my own twist, create my own experience to share. Some of the recipes are simple, some intricate. Some I probably could have created myself. But no matter how deep I dug in my cooking knowledge, no matter how much I tried to recount the few times I had it, and no matter how hard I tried to imagine reconstructing it, I could never figure out how to make kimchi. And I wanted to make kimchi. So Momofuku's recipe came in handy. Here it is!

Napa Cabbage Kimchi, Momofuku (this cookbook is pure genius!)

Ingredients: 1 small head of Napa Cabbage, outer leaves discarded; 2 tablespoons kosher salt; 1/2 cup sugar; 20 garlic cloves, minced; 20 sliced of peeled ginger, chopped; 1/2 cup kochuharu-Korean chile powder (probably an Asian market is your best bet for this); 1/4 cup fish sauce; 1/4 cup light soy sauce; 2 teaspoons jarred salted shrimp; 1/2 cup sliced green onions (greens and whites); 1/2 cup julienned carrots.

Cut the cabbage in half lengthwise in half, then the halves crosswise into 1 inch pieces. Sprinkle the salt and a couple of tablespoons of the sugar. Toss and let it sit overnight or for at least 6 hours.

In a bowl, make a brine by combining garlic, ginger, chile powder, soy sauce, shrimp, and the rest of the sugar. Combine and try to allow the sugar and chile to dissolve. If too thick for them to dissolve, add water, 1/4 cup at a time, until the brine is creamy but still thick as a creamy salad dressing. Stir in the green onions and carrots.

Drain the cabbage and pour the brine over it. Mix it well and cover it tightly. In as little as 24 hours, but better in 2 weeks, the kimchi will be ready. It gets funkier and funkier- generally a good thing until, well, it gets too funky. Eat it before that happens.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Roses, Eat'Em

I ranted about Mother's Day last year here. And I feel like it is appropriate to do it again. Maybe it will be an annual tradition. I do like annual traditions, particularly if they involve rants on over-commercialized made-up holidays.

Make no mistake: I love celebrations. I love saying I love you to those who matter. I love recognizing them, spoiling them, making them feel on top of the world for a day or every day. I love dedicating a whole day to just doing that. I do love Mother's Day. I just hate what we are making of it - the cheap meaningless jewelry, the soulless Hallmark cards, the thought that someone might actually take the woman who gave birth to him to the Country Buffet for the Mother's Day brunch special.

I will not give you a list of what to buy for Ma. I say make her a stiff drink. She needs it. Maybe this one or this one. A drink and flowers. Always get flowers. Even if Ma says she doesn't want flowers, go ahead and get flowers. Even if you think she really doesn't care about flowers, get flowers. Always- just a good rule. Let's make it even safer - get roses. And then make this custard with them!

Rosewater Creme Caramel with Primrose Sauce & Black Pepper Tuiles, a Charlie Trotter recipe

Rosewater Creme Caramel
Ingredients: 1/2 cup heavy cream; 1/4 cup whole milk; 1/2 cup sugar; 2 teaspoons orange zest; 1 whole egg; 1/2 the yolk from another egg; 2 teaspoons rosewater; 2 tablespoons water.

Put the cream, milk, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and orange zest in a non-reactive pan on medium heat. When it comes to a boil, remove from the heat, cover, and steep for 30 minutes. Return the mixture to a boil. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg and egg yolk well and begin adding the hot cream very slowly. If you molest this process, your custard will break and bye-bye creme caramel! Temper the eggs patiently by adding the hot mixture gently while whisking. Mix it well together then strain through a fine mesh sieve. Add the rosewater and mix well again.

Caramel: combine the remainder of the sugar and the water in a small heavy-bottomed pan and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes until it is deep golden brown and, well, caramelized.

Brush 4 small ramekins (2 to 3 ounces) with canola oil very lightly. Pour a small amout (1 tablespoon) of the caramelized sugar in each ramekin swirling immediately to coat the bottom of each dish.

Pour the custard in the ramekins and bake at 325 degrees in a water bath for about 50 minutes to 1 hour or until the custard is set. (how do you know it's set? check on it after 50 min; gently touch the top; does it feel set? i.e. does it have the texture and feel of a custard?) Remove from the water bath and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Primrose Sauce

Ingredients: 1/4 cup simple syrup (make your own- half water, half sugar, bring to a boil, and cool- see? easy), 1 blackberry, petals of one large or two smaller primroses.

Combine the ingredients in a blender, and puree until very smooth, about one minute.

Strain well through a fine mesh sieve. Reserve until ready to serve.

Black Pepper Tuiles

Ingredients: 1 1/2 tablespoon unsalted butter; pulp of 1/2 Madagascar vanilla bean; 2 tablespoons flour; 1 egg white; 3/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper.

Over medium heat, melt the butter and the vanilla pulp and let it cool one minute or two. Whisk the remaining ingredients into the butter and pour into ziploc bag. Make a very small hole in one of the corners of the ziploc bag and pipe the batter onto a silpat or non-stick baking sheet in the desired shapes (hearts!). Bake at 350 degrees for 4-5 minutes or until light brown. Let them cool and store at room temperature airtight.

You will have more tuiles than you need, but the good part is that (1) they are tasty, so don't hesitate to eat them, and (2) you can choose the ones that came out the best for actually using on your dish.

To serve: remove the custard from the ramekins by gently loosening the sides with a knife. Invert each custard into a shallow bowl. Gently. There will be caramel sauce dripping out. Keep it. Move the custard carefully onto the serving plate. Spoon a little rose sauce on top of it and drizzle a little caramel sauce on the plate. Top with one of more tuiles.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Doubts, Margarita

It has been over a year, nearly 100 posts, and I am still questioning myself with each post. Is this an interesting rant? Is it an enticing recipe? Do they belong together? Why do they belong together? Am I too detached? Too personal? Do I sound like I am writing in my journal (please shoot me if I do!)? Why would anyone read this and not the thousands of other blogs? Is my manicure good enough for the next photo shoot? You know- important questions.

There is no way for me to explain exactly how much I struggle over writing, over what I post, how I say it, how little, how much, how strongly. Masochism perhaps. It is the struggle I am drawn to because I am about to dive into more of it. Big changes in the life of French Press Memos are upon us - soon to be shared with you- very soon.

Right now, as hundreds of questions and thoughts and plans and ideas run frantically through my head, I feel like I have found the cure to quieting down my mind, my worries, my doubts. Tequila. I do not advise you (or I) do shots, but a nice margarita serves a variety of purposes this week: (1) calms down the restless mind, (2) pretends to honor and celebrate Cinco de Mayo, (3) helps Ma deal with the circus that has become Mother's Day (trust me, Ma needs it).

The French Press Memos Margarita

Ingredients: 2 ounce tequila, 1 ounce Cointreau, 1 ounce fresh squeezed lime juice, 1/2 ounce simple syrup.

Mix the ingredients together in a cocktail shaker with some ice. Shake it well. Like you mean it.

Drink up, relax, and come visit again soon.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.