Tag Archives: book

Sugar and Sweets

23 Jun

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In my formative years as a budding chef and food writer, I did an unusual thing and read the mammoth Larousse Gastronomique, all 1,168 pages with its thousands of entries, cover to cover – or shall I say, from abaisse (a term used in French cookery for a sheet of rolled-out pastry) to zuppa inglese (a Neapolitan pudding). The first English edition appeared in 1971, when I was 17 and already a bartender mixing Negronis in Queens, New York. (For those who might remember, it was the Olde London Fishery on Union Turnpike.)

This memory was triggered when a voluminous book, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets (Oxford University Press, 2015) about the size of a three-pound box of Godiva chocolates, appeared on my desk last week. With more than 850 pages and 600 articles about the arresting history of sugar and sweets, I have decided to repeat my own history and take this encyclopedic work to bed with a cup of tea or a pony of alkermes. Poignantly, this book, too, ends with an entry about zuppa inglese (written by author Clifford A. Wright) with an interesting debate over the dessert’s true origin (is it from Naples as friend and food writer Arthur Schwartz insists, or Lazio, or Tuscany, as others suggest?)

The book begins, not with abaisse but with another nod to the French, a la mode – followed by a three-page entry about sugar addiction, contributed by Ashley Gearhardt. Such is the width and breadth of this alluring new tome. Under the brilliant baton of food writer and historian Darra Goldstein, 265 experts in the culinary world have weighed in with well-researched commentaries about an irresistible subject. A la mode, by the way, translates to “in the current fashion.” According to contributor Carolin Young, “In France a la mode refers to a traditional recipe for braised beef, which at one time was considered a new fashion,” whereas in America the phrase refers to a scoop of vanilla ice cream served with a slice of pie.

Evocatively, the first line of the book’s foreword begins: “I can remember easily the first time I stood deep in a field of sugarcane in full bloom, a field already marked for harvesting. It was spring of 1948, and I had just begun fieldwork in Puerto Rico.” Written by Sidney Mintz (who is 92 and considered “the godfather of food studies”), this triggered another profound memory. The year was 1962 and I was standing deep in a field of sugarcane when I was eight years old. The location was Belle Glade, Florida, where my cousins ran a plantation and owned the local movie theater. I will never forget the sickeningly sweet smell of extracted molasses wafting through the wet heat of the day from the factory nearby. It made me woozy. Which, of course, is what sugar does, and accounts for, in part, why we love it and sometimes loathe it.

The history of sugar is not all sweet. There is much suffering in the quest for this cherished foodstuff. Our hunger for sugar fed the institution of slavery, led to ugly legacies of racism, to the invasion of weaker nations by stronger ones to manipulate sugar prices, and to the exploitation of children and minorities who worked the fields. Bravo to the book’s editors for not sugar-coating the more painful aspects of its past.

Whereas this is an encyclopedia, meant to be dipped in and out of at leisure, it is unlike any other I’ve seen. There are hundreds of illustrations including mouthwatering paintings by Wayne Thiebaud (a personal favorite), Andy Warhol, and Will Cotton, a handful of historical recipes, and more than 600 erudite essays by pastry chefs, neuroscientists, food historians, and chemists, about what has become a grand metaphor for human pleasure. Equally satisfying are the book’s comprehensive appendices – anthologies of films, songs, outstanding pastry shops, and museums around the world, dedicated to our universal, and historical, predilection for sugar and sweets, first evidenced by Eve and an apple.

I’m not sure if I’m more excited learning about wasanbon (the most famous sugar used in traditional Japanese confectionery), or sitophilia (which describes sexual arousal involving food), but lurking between the candy-coated endpapers of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, is something gratifying for everyone.

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child

7 Aug

Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child
By Bob Spitz
Alfred A. Knopf (August 2012)

I knew Julia up close: I cooked for her; shared dozen of meals in a variety of cities; drank vintage wine and listened to music together, and celebrated with friends at book parties, engagement parties and restaurant openings (sometimes our own). I worked in the industry dominated by Julia’s spirit and accomplishments for most of my career as a professional chef. So it was with avid interest that I devoured her life’s story whole. Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child — told with affection and reverence by author Bob Spitz – lifts an American icon from the cauldron of celebrity into a dish of comfort food. The book chronicles an appealing personal journey defined by obstacles, perseverance, and an endearing quest to satisfy her many appetites.

Spitz, who distinguished himself as the über-biographer of The Beatles, is a rightful heir to Julia’s life story. Not only were they colleagues who traveled, ate, and gossiped a bit, but Mr. Spitz’s keen insights and artistry, help tell her story through a historical prism that spans a century. The book, to be released this week (to coincide with what would have been Julia’s 100th birthday on August 15th), illuminates the shifts in culture, cuisine, customs, and class, and examines the struggles of a woman, born in California in 1912, searching for identity. The book is hard to put down, despite its heft (557 pages), but few lives are worthy of such delicious scrutiny.

Julia’s life, while charmed and privileged, came with its own profound struggles for self-identification and meaning. I was struck by the meandering of Julia’s journey – until her thirties, when she enlisted in the war effort as an office worker for the OSS. The underbelly of her early story includes a lackluster attitude towards school (with grades to match at Smith), a spiritual yearning that never seems to materialize, a jagged relationship with her ultra-rich, ultra-conservative father, and the subsequent idealization of men. Despite all of it, what becomes crystal clear is Julia’s extraordinary self-confidence and almost super-human work ethic that continued until her late eighties when she was still master of stage and TV screen. Mr. Spitz, however, does not shine Julia up for public consumption; he keeps her flaws and foibles intact. Julia’s husband, Paul Child, emerges as an equally compelling personality, one who was hugely responsible for who, and what, Julia became. “Paul filled a hole in Julia’s development,” Mr. Spitz observes. Her story is also a powerful look at the allure of food that today is perhaps too available to all of us. For Julia it was that first meal in Rouen, France – a fish, cooked in butter and parsley, with insouciant simplicity, at La Couronne in 1948 — that hypnotized her.

For a Pasadena society girl to ultimately find a calling when nearing 40 is an interesting enough read, but to become a media icon at age 50 is quite another story. All 6 feet, 3 inches of Julia emerged on television in homes all over America, and from that time forward — more than three decades worth — we were treated to indelible images of omelettes, a chorus line-up of raw chickens, bubbling copper sautoirs of boeuf bourguignon, laughter, and learning.

Even more than her recipes, however, was her out-sized personality that served generations of women well beyond the kitchen. (It is interesting to note that Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” was published around the same time as Mastering the Art of French Cooking.) In Dearie, Julia’s multi-generational imprint on what then was our gastronomically myopic culture is expertly textured by Mr. Spitz, who makes Julia’s personal and professional trajectory of targeted historical importance. Whether or not you grew up watching Julia on TV, or ever mastered the art of French cooking, you will no doubt get a vicarious culinary education by the book’s end. Julia’s dining experiences, cooking adventures, and culinary travails are enough to make you swoon.

Julia encouraged Bob to write her story. Unhappy with an earlier biography, Appetite for Life, written in 1997 by Noël Riley Fitch, Julia felt that she appeared lifeless and “already dead.” Gauging by the multitudinous events slated for the 100th birthday celebration of Julia this week, this month, and in the coming months – including an all-day seminar at Radcliffe, the re-opening of Julia’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian, and hundreds of restaurants dishing up Julia’s favorite recipes — Julia has never been more alive in the hearts and minds of those who grew up with her and ate and drank her dreams. Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child is then, a much-appreciated, well-timed gift to us all.

Win an Autographed Copy of Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease

14 Jul

Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease might be most useful in the summer months, so here’s a way for someone to get an autographed copy.

One lucky winner will be randomly chosen on Monday, July 23.  Here’s how you can enter:

1) Comment below letting me know what your favorite summer “go to” recipe or meal is.  If you’d like to share a recipe, so much the better.

2) For an extra entry share this post on Facebook or Twitter and comment letting me know that you have done so.

A few quotes about Radically Simple:

“Chosen as one of the most important cookbooks of the past 25 years.” — Cooking Light Magazine

“Gold’s global palate and talent for distilling a dish’s essentials put her in a Minimal(ist) league of her own.”–Christine Muhlke, New York Times

“Rozanne Gold is the personal trainer of food writers. She wrings stylish, streamlined, fabulous results with inspired combinations.”–Julia Moskin, New York Times

Here are a few recipes for a wonderful summer meal:

Cucumber-Coconut Bisque
This is incredibly refreshing and lasts, surprisingly, up to 5 days in the fridge. Even kids love it. Make sure all the ingredients are icy cold before assembling.

2 large cucumbers, peeled
1 1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup coconut milk, chilled
4 scallions
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint, plus julienned mint for garnish
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1/3 cup finely minced red bell pepper

Cut the cucumbers in half lengthwise and scrape out the seed with a spoon. Cut the flesh into pieces and put in a blender with the yogurt and coconut milk. Sliver the dark green parts of the scallions and set aside for garnish. Chop the white and light green parts and add to the blender with the chopped mint, cumin, and oil. Process for several minutes, until smooth; add salt. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with slivered scallion greens, julienned mint, bell pepper, and a drizzle of oil. Serves 4

Grilled Tuna with Lemony Tahina, Greens & Pomegranate Seeds
This dish is made with both fresh cilantro and ground coriander seed. The first perfumes the fragrant tahina sauce; the latter contributes its aroma to the fish.

1/2 cup tahina
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 medium garlic clove
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
5 tablespoons olive oil
4 thick tuna steaks, 6 ounces each
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 ounces mesclun
1/3 cup pomegranate seeds

Combine the tahina, lemon juice, garlic, and cilantro in a food processor. Process, slowly adding 1/2 to 2/3 cup cold water, until smooth and thick. Add salt and pepper. Drizzle 3 tablespoons of the oil all over the tuna steaks and season with salt. Mix the coriander and cumin on a plate; rub into the fish. Heat a ridged cast-iron grill pan over high heat. Sear the tuna 2 minutes on each side. Keep the tuna very rare. Toss the mesclun with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Add salt and divide among 4 plates. Place the tuna on the greens. Pour the tahina sauce over the fish and scatter with the pomegranate seeds. Serves 4

Orange Flower Strawberries & Mint Sugar
While this recipe can be made all year long, it is sensational right now — when berries are at their peak.

2 pints very ripe strawberries, hulled and halved
1/2 teaspoon orange flower water
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh well-dried mint leaves
1/2 cup crème fraîche
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Toss the berries with the orange flower water and 1 tablespoon of the granulated sugar. Put the remaining 5 tablespoons granulated sugar and mint in a food processor and process until incorporated. Divide the berried among 4 glasses and sprinkle with the mint sugar. Combine the crème fraîche with the confectioners’ sugar and dollop on top. Serves 4

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