Ottolenghi: The Cookbook By Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (Ten Speed Press, 2013)
Why, in the Golden Age of the food blog, do we need paper cookbooks? Do they satisfy some antiquated need for holding something in our grubby little hands? If any good, they are destined to become tomato-sauce-splattered, rag tag, and scrawled with notes—hardly worthy of coffee table display.
But I would argue that a physical cookbook can offer a philosophy of cooking in a way that a blog cannot. It represents months of thought, curating, and editing. As a medium of communicating a philosophy of food—both intuitive and learned—Ottolenghi is peerless. (That is, aside from the other cookbooks, Plenty and Jerusalam, written by this London chef duo, which are definitely competitors.)
Ottolenghi was actually the first recipe collection by these two restaurateurs, published in the United Kingdom in 2008, but it only recently became available to Americans. Influenced by both chefs’ hometown of Jerusalem and more classical training in London, Ottolenghi is full of fresh, mostly simple recipes rooted in the anchor Middle Eastern flavors of lemon, garlic, tahini, yogurt, feta, and mint. “Lemon juice can transform boring to exciting in a squirt,” they write. Occasionally, the book calls for more elusive ingredients like sumac and za’tar, and these are generally worth seeking out when recommended.
Ottolenghi and Tamimi are anything but fussy, and possess an admirable sense of restraint. But their instructions are thankfully quite specific and detailed. Their philosophy includes a lot of touch, taste, experimentation, and getting your hands dirty. Shape Eggplant-Wrapped Ricotta Gnocchi with Sage Butter in your hands gently. Take care not to overcrowd Cauliflower and Cumin Fritters in the frying pan. Gingerly wrap Lamb Kebabs with grill-marked slivers of zucchini. “Very (!) lightly dust” your Brioche bowl with flour.
Good food is worth taking extra care, and this book is a Zen master’s effort in moderation and creativity. A gorgeous study in techniques and flavors for the curious chef, Ottolenghi will not disappoint.
One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France By Anne Willan (St. Martin’s Press, 2013)
Anne Willan is not a household name in the vein of Julia Child or Simone Beck, but perhaps it should be. From the same generation, and close friends with the famous cookbook authors (she refers to Beck by her pet name Simca), Willan arguably did as much as either to advance women’s place in the culinary arts and demystify French food. In any case, she generally led a fabulous and enviable life worth reading about.
Willan is best known for her celebrated cooking school, La Varenne, which she opened in Paris in 1975 and later moved to Burgundy, to rival the entrenched Cordon Bleu, which she had attended years before and had found stuffy. While still in her 20s, British-born Willan worked as head chef at Château de Versailles, during a period when it was undergoing renovation and grand dinner parties were hosted there. Later, she decided on a whim to move to America, where she cooked and nannied for Vogue food editor Tatiana McKenna; impressed the legendary New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne with her Shrimp and Cheese Soufflé so much that he offered to mentor her fledgling food writing career; and eventually became an editor herself at Gourmet in its heyday. Later, she worked as the food editor at the Washington Star—in D.C., she befriended then law clerk Stephen Breyer, whose recipe for Strawberry brûlée is included in the book.
In fact, her life reads a little like Forrest Gump—“So, I went to the White House. Again.” So I cooked at Versailles. No biggie. Willan is incredibly humble and candid about her luck and her talents. She chalks it all up to a healthy appetite from birth, constantly referring to her pudginess and her lack of planning what was to come next.
Her memoir is a riotous and entertaining, and, at times, poignant read, studded with old-school French recipes that promise to take all day but will doubtlessly be delicious. There’s a refreshing lack of concern for health—in the era in which she cooked, people simply practiced portion control. Willan includes her own recipes as well as classics like Blanquette of Veal with Morels, Ribboned Bavarian Cream, and Red Wine Risotto. You won’t find anything including kale or coconut oil here, but there’s something to be said for learning the classics. On her Cherry Tomato Salad and Coronation Chicken Elizabeth (with curry mayonnaise—homemade of course), she writes, “Both are what I would call granny food and right back in style!”
The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World By Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)
The first time I tried to make sauerkraut, it rotted. I used two whole heads of cabbage and in the end, the whole gloppy, smelly mess went into the compost. The experience proved to be so frustrating that I didn’t attempt fermenting vegetables again for a year or so. This time, when The Art of Fermentation landed in my lap, I had much better luck.
The truth is, from my personal (admittedly limited) experience, fermentation is primarily trial and error. Even with Katz’s book, I managed to oversalt one jar, and another was oddly spiced. But several jars have been fantastic, and besides, the joy is in the process of experimentation. The waiting. The smelling. The cautiously taking the first bite. It is the eureka moment when you realize that you have cultivated your own little bacterial colony on your kitchen counter, simply by submerging vegetables in salty water. Katz is a gentle and nurturing guide on this journey.
This is Katz’s second tome dedicated to fermentation, and he is generally known as the “it” guru of the field, likely in no small part because of the profound personal quest he has undertaken to fully learn the history and scientific processes of fermentation. Particularly interesting are his chapters on the co-evolution of bacteria existing in the world and in food, and our own human evolution. He gives a persuasive argument as to why we should all be consuming fermented foods with relish, as our guts and immune system need live bacteria in order to function properly. Katz famously has suggested that consuming live-culture foods improves the condition of living with HIV, which he has had since 1981.
Here, he also posits that eating fermented foods is actually safer than eating raw foods, as foodborne pathogens such as salmonella and listeria cannot survive in a stable community of bacteria. In a world where foodborne illness outbreaks are increasingly common, this is something to consider. He also discusses how fermentation can improve digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, and celiac disease, which have become much more common in recent years.
In addition to fermenting vegetables, Katz instructs extensively on the myriad products one can ferment: mead, wine, cider, sour tonic beverages, yogurt, and even beans, seeds, nuts, meat, fish, and eggs. (Eggs? Yes, eggs). In short, Katz has created an all-encompassing introduction to live-culture foods—and probably the only guide to fermentation one will ever need. ✜
Molly Kincaid is a Tucsonan who is obsessed with tinkering in the kitchen and reading cookbooks. Her favorite foods are, paradoxically, kale and pork belly.