Ink: November 2014

Foodie book reviews

November 1, 2014

InkIssue 9: November/December 2014
Prune — By Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2014)

Prune — By Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House, 2014)

About five years ago, on the eve of leaving a three-year stint in New York City, my sister and I had one of those unforgettable, life-altering meals at one of the city’s most celebrated and yet understated restaurants, Prune. I remember the tiny bowl of crispy, salty-fried chickpeas that came as a surprise starter. So simple, so perfect.

Next came the deep-fried shrimp toasts, which I have always dreamt of recreating. Our entrees were both exquisite, too, and the service was impeccable. Prune is the rare restaurant where expectations are always met and often surpassed. Gabrielle Hamilton, its head chef, has achieved this through consistently high standards and pickiness, which shines through in this book of her kitchen secrets.

Written as if to instruct a new line cook, the recipes here are straight from the restaurant kitchen’s notebook. The pages are adorned with coffee and sauce “stains,” and pieces of tape that appear to have been slapped on the pages instruct on how to multiply batches for eight, 16 or 32 people. While the purpose of this is presumably to prep a busy dinner service, it‘d be helpful when hosting a dinner party, too.

Scribbled notes accompany nearly every recipe, such as “When you butcher fish, PLEASE: Don’t shingle. Leave skin on; tweeze pin bones out. Reserve skeletons and heads for family meal. Donate last 4” of flat tail end to family.” It’s rather fun to be scolded by Hamilton, as if you were a member of her staff.

Many recipes make use of unusual meats or cuts that might be tough to find in a supermarket. Grilled blade lamb chops are brined in salt water and rosemary, and whole rabbit is roasted with pan drippings, for example.

Other recipes are more accessible yet still  distinctive in their execution; an artful Greek salad is topped with a slab of feta, pork butt is stewed with creamy hominy and salsa verde, and farmhouse chicken legs are braised in hard cider.

A section on “Daily Prep” includes restaurant gems like preserved lemon butter, homemade chili flakes, and simple smoked tomatoes with Berbere spices. A “mixed-meats stock with walk-in detritus,” which Hamilton refers to as “mutt stock,” makes use of any scrap of pork belly rib bone, foul carcass, or chines from lamb racks. The same method can take longer at home, but bones can be stored in the freezer until enough have accumulated to make a rich stock.

The vegetable section is especially useful to the home cook, offering simple yet succulent preparations of farmers’ market offerings. Soft-cooked zucchini are spiked with green onions and poblanos. Roast beets are nestled on a blanket of fresh silky aioli. Fresh pumpkin wedges are slow-roasted with ginger beer and brewer’s yeast. A simple dal is paired with cardamom-braised chard and “gunpowder”—a toasted cayenne and cumin spice mix.

The book refreshingly demonstrates that good restaurant cooking doesn’t have to be about fancy machines and trendy, impossible-to-find ingredients. Fresh quality ingredients and time-honored methods do the trick just fine. Now if you’ll excuse me, that shrimp toast recipe is calling my name.

Stilwater: Finding Wild Merry in Outback — By Rafael de Grenade (Milkweeed, 2014)

Stilwater: Finding Wild Merry in Outback — By Rafael de Grenade (Milkweeed, 2014)

A conversation with Arizona-native Rafael de Grenade must be pretty intense. She’s seen things, and her descriptions of those things will haunt you for days. As a teen, she began working for Cross U Ranch in the Santa Maria Mountains, “riding, shoeing horses, and branding cows.” Later, she trained as a land steward and a scientist; in her 20s, her work led her to live at Stilwater Station, in northern Australia.

Along with a real-life-cowboy gang of ringers and stockmen, her task at Stilwater was to wrangle cattle in this wild and beautiful landscape. Her ethereal descriptions of the landscape belie the perilous environment and the sometimes brutal life of the cattle rancher.

“Mudflats and mangroves patterned the gulf country, and we each had our own, less visible, emotional topography. I thought the reason the red cow had died in front of me, with one quick slam into the gate, was that I needed to write of her death. I needed to pause in the raucous tumult of loading and find the words of poetry that would be a strange prayer for this one death among thousands. I needed to brush one hand on the red swirled hair of her forehead before turning back to the cattle in the race. The wild wasn’t tender when it came to life and death. This cow had been born beneath some gnarled bloodwood in the gulf country forest to live among the heat and flies of the coast, only to die suddenly in a chute because people wanted their will imposed where they thought there was none.”

Hesitant though she was about the morality of the cattle business, de Grenade didn’t waver, but carried out matter-of-factly each task she was given. She looked on with an unflinching eye as a cohort castrated, dehorned, and branded a writhing calf, swiftly and casually, dabbing its searing wounds with iodine before turning it loose. Later, she held a bag as another worker dumped in chunks of fresh wallaby meat to be used as bait to catch crabs—having just killed the wallaby’s joey in its pouch, still clinging to a teat.

Her reflections on the intensity of her situation demonstrate how such raw sights can’t help but change a person, particularly one of such a tender age. “The crocodiles in the black water would be witness to my metamorphosis, if I made it through alive,” she writes.

Somewhere along the way, de Grenade begins to accept the violent imperatives of the business, finding beauty and mercy in the harshness of the operation. When an older cow is killed for food, she reflects, “We would all eat, nourished by that animal that was made mostly of grass and sky and salty air.”

De Grenade delivers a captivating memoir with Stilwater—a sensitively written record of a fearless young woman’s wanderings.

The Meat Hook Meat Book: Buy, Butcher, and Cook Your Way to Better Meat — By Tom Mylan (Artisan, 2014)

The Meat Hook Meat Book: Buy, Butcher, and Cook Your Way to Better Meat — By Tom Mylan (Artisan, 2014)

At first glance, The Meat Hook Meat Book is a coffee table book for foodies—those seeking “cred” by proving their knowledge of Brooklyn’s trendiest butcher shop. It also happens to be a supremely witty and entertaining guide to eating meat more sustainably and economically, cooking it better, and understanding under-appreciated cuts of meat.

Many cooks struggle with the thought of spending more money on locally sourced meats from local butcher shops (although some of us wish we had the option). In Tucson, you can buy local meats from Tucson CSA, farmers’ markets, and the UA Meat Sciences Lab. But even if it is more expensive, Mylan argues it’s well worth the cost if you know how to buy and work with meat. Even if all you know how to do is toss meat scraps in a pot and make stock, it will still make you feel pious.

As Mylan notes in his delicious-looking beef pastrami recipe (which takes two weeks to cure), the recipes in this book are not meant for the “uncommitted.” Many of them require rolling up those sleeves, pulling on a “butcher bra” (a chain mail protective apron—for the record, you don’t actually need this for most recipes), and prepping your kitchen for a little blood spatter. But most of them, including the lamb belly pancetta that will run you seven days, seem like they’d be worth it.

Then there are the recipes that can be done in a day or less. The campagnella, a wine and tomato based ragu, utilizes a cheap heel of beef with tendon, and looks drool-worthy. (If you want to be really legit, spend the hours it’s bubbling away making fresh pasta and pulling some fresh greens from your garden for a salad). The Fat Kid Burger is simple enough too—grind your own meat incorporating bacon into the chuck, and then top the burger with Funyuns and American cheese.

The section on poultry offers a helpful how-to on breaking down chickens, and a guide to a stress-free Thanksgiving. Mylan recommends brining your bird (so worth it, if you haven’t before), whipping up a foie gras grease gravy (not everything in here is pious), and putting the leftovers into a turkey tamale pie.

Whether they’ll be displaying it on the coffee table or actually using it, this book would make a great holiday gift for the meat lover in your life.

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.

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