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Entries in review (16)


Pardon the interruption

My apologies; I had said that the review for Marty's World Famous Cookbook would be up today. However I foolishly made the statement without looking at the weather forecast. Little did I expect that the remnants of Hurricane Ike passing through Southern Ontario last night would leave us without power for the last 21 hours or so; with no leads on when it will return. I'm currently posting remotely, and will be back as soon as possible. Ours is only a minor inconvenience, with only a refrigerator of food to worry about; my best wishes to those who have been truly effected by this storm. Cheers.


Quick fixes; reviewing Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking and Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals

Eric Akis' Skillet Mac and Cheese (yes, I know, I used penne and I served it in ramekins; I am quirky like that).

It is interesting how the world works sometimes. Just before our household grew from three to four, I was offered the opportunity to review not one, but two books on the subject of quick meals for busy cooks.

Everyone seems to be talking about how hard it is to find the time to cook. Sandra Lee has become a household name thanks to her "semi-homemade" mantra, Donna Hay has two books devoted to "instant" cooking and entertaining, and almost every magazine on the shelf is emblazoned with promises of "10 meals in under 10 minutes" or "faster takes on family favourites." Of course, there is also the juggernaut that is Rachel Ray, promoting under-30 minute cooking through her multi-media empire.

What is even more interesting is that, as it happens with any campaign, there are factions in the quick-cooking industry. Some believe it best to simplify the ingredients and methods while others make use of prepared foods to do some of the work for you.

As luck would have it, the two titles that came across my desk, Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals (Whitecap, 2008) by Eric Akis and Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking (Ebury Press, 2008) by Delia Smith, each represent a side to these seemingly divergent approaches.

Because I received these books pretty much simultaneously, and because of their similar subject matter, I could not help but compare and contrast their styles as I looked over their content. And so, I thought it might be interesting to review these books side-by-side, as this really is such a huge market in the food world right now and this was an opportunity to study the two camps of this "fast" food movement.

I have chosen to break my analysis down into categories, for ease of quick comparison.

The authors and their philosophies
Eric Akis, food writer for the Victoria Times Colonist, seeks to inspire the home cook to tackle cooking after work or preparing meals ahead of time. His is straightforward and simple cooking, with (mostly) short ingredient lists and quick-to-prepare instructions. While there are a few intermediate recipes in terms of procedure and cuisine, Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals focuses on giving the reader a repertoire of basic meals that allow for personal variation and are most likely appealing to a larger audience.

Akis positions himself staunchly against packaged and/or processed convenience foods. His introduction spells out his feelings quite specifically, mentioning his concern that too much sodium and preservatives in packaged foods can compromise the palate, and that the frequent use of what he calls "instant" meals colour children's perception of what food is supposed to taste like. His aim is to take the stress and worry out of midweek meal preparation, believing that with a well-stocked pantry and shortcut recipes even the busiest person can find scratch cooking a pleasure instead of a chore.

Six years after retiring from the cookery world, famed British cookbook author and television personality Delia Smith returns with the reworking of her 1971 debut How to Cheat at Cooking. In contrast to Akis' manifesto, Smith features recipes that promote grocery store shortcuts (specifically in the form of prepackaged foods and already-prepped ingredients) that are then used in the assembly of other dishes.

She considers the ability to produce meals, with minimal effort and time invested, a liberating experience. Smith encourages the use of the storecupboard and the freezer, seeing these to be invaluable resources to the hurried cook. Why stir slowly-caramelizing sugar, when someone else will make it into toffee and jar it for you? The same goes for slicing onions, grating cheeses and making tomato sauce. But this is only the beginning; Smith proudly dons the currently-unfashionable mantle of one who takes premade a step further, introducing the reader to tinned minced lamb, purchased pancakes, sachets of risotto and, what looks to be Smith's favourite ingredient - frozen mashed potatoes. She not only uses these ingredients, but she is also exceedingly particular about them; indicating the exact product, by brand name, that should be used in the recipe. Substitutions are frowned upon.

The books
Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals seems to follow the style of the predecessors in the Everyone Can Cook series (it should be noted that I am not very familiar with the other titles). Vibrant colours and casual settings reinforce Akis' comforting home-cooking style. The photos, shot by Michael Tourigny and styled by the author himself, are cropped closely with the food usually filling most of the frame. Clearly laid out and easy to read, each recipe header includes the preparation time, cooking time and number of servings - a helpful tool for the truly time-starved.

Even though the book's sections can be a bit kitch in their titles ("Splendid Sides" and "Nifty Noodles", for example), they do cover a good deal of subject matter. Chapters on pantry staples, types of meals, various cuisines and cooking methods, offer the reader a well-rounded course in quick-cooking basics. That said, the more experienced cook may find this book to be too limited in its offerings. While it is not explicitly aimed as a book for beginners, notes on subjects such as what makes a vinaigrette and how to purchase fish might be redundant to some. Furthermore, dishes like breakfast parfaits are simple enough that they hardly require a recipe.

Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking is a very pretty book; the typeface, the layout and styling all work together beautifully to create a very modern, slightly spare aesthetic. It is beautifully designed by Vanessa Holden, and John Kernick's evocative photography accompanies almost every recipe. The result is a cookbook that looks pared down, refined, and very much in keeping with prevailing trends in cookbook and food publications.

After a lengthy section of introductions that outline in detail Smith's thoughts on shopping and cooking, the chapters are arranged in a loose interpretation of seasonal divisions and food for specific moods. For example, "Cool!" is the chapter containing recipes for the balmy days of summer, while "Capers in the Larder" explores the possibilities of the pantry. As to be expected, "Asian Express" and "Pronto Italiano" cover dishes from their respective cuisines. The book finishes with an extensive list of suggested ingredients to always keep on hand, and there is a repeated notation throughout the book that this list is kept up-to-date on Delia Smith's own website.

The recipes
Eric Akis has filled this book with dishes that would appeal to a wide audience. These are comfort-food basics, with few exotic ingredients or complicated techniques. Pastas, soups, stews and sweets are all well represented. Casual and satisfying, Akis' food is the sort you would want to eat curled up on the couch after a long day.

The chicken-fried steak with pan gravy is rich and hearty, with a simple white sauce as the decadent counterpoint to crispy double-dredged steaks (dried sage is a particularly nice addition to the coating mix). Chickpea Burgers are kept moist thanks to tahini and grated vegetables, and are well-seasoned with cilantro and curry. The fish tacos are family-friendly, especially when topped with the optional homemade guacamole. Fresh and bright with lime, the creamy spread goes beautifully with Akis' marinated baked fish. Tangy and creamy, the Easy-Peasy Lemon Pie would be far from daunting to the novice baker, and the results match up well against more complicated versions.

Of particular interest was the roux-less Skillet Mac and Cheese (pictured, above). Promising a cook time close to that of most boxed macaroni and cheese dinners, it comes together first on the stovetop and is then quickly blitzed under the broiler for a crust similar to long-baked recipes. While the dish did not offer the same creamy, savoury depth as more labour- and time-intensive versions, it was a reasonably good stand-in for a midweek meal.

While far from ground breaking, Akis' has compiled a solid set of recipes that can be prepared by a novice cook.

In Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking the recipes are far-reaching in their scope. Moroccan Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Chickpeas appears alongside Caribbean Chicken with Salsa and Chicken and Leek Pot Pie. Asparagus with No-Panic Hollandaise turns the original on its head, opting out of the time consuming vinegar reduction and then emulsification for a tangy mix of crème fraîche, lemon, egg yolks, softened butter and cornflour. With less fat and no risk of splitting, the sauce did provide the unctuous mouthfeel of Hollondaise without the stress of its preparation. Sprightly Vietnamese Spring Rolls are stuffed with prawns, crunchy vegetables and herbs, and studded with peanuts; these are perfect for a light lunch or snack. Chocolate mousse is not out of Smith's reach; hers is made with ricotta cheese blended with crème fraîche for its base and is delicious but light. I had hoped to try the recipe for chocolate cake that called for 6 discs of mashed potatoes as an ingredient, but I could not find the kind required.

Herein lies the problem that comes up over and over again in Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking; as the author has been so adamant in her instruction to use brand name products, those in areas where these are unavailable are seriously disadvantaged. A worldwide audience may be unable to source products from the UK and Europe easily, rendering many recipes useless. Substitution is at times impossible as trademarked spice blends are used as the primary seasoning or the measurements are based on the portion size of specific products. If similar-sounding items can be found to swap in, it is uncertain how close result would be to the dish that Smith had intended.

This reliance on prepared foods sometimes seems unnecessary and almost creates as many problems as it solves. Although time is saved in the kitchen, even Smith herself admits that shopping takes longer as trips to multiple shops is necessary to find the particular brands.

Finally, the brand-particular favouritism inspires a new type of food snobbery (something Smith admonishes in her introduction); Italian packets of risotto are assumed to superior to a domestic product and onions sliced and softened in Spain are essential. But how can one with good conscience, in a world where concerns of carbon footprints and the support of regional agriculture are paramount, actively choose imported ingredients when local might be available and possibly taste better than those from abroad?

The conclusion
As much as I am tempted to consider these books mutually exclusive, neither truly are; there is a large middle ground. Though Eric Akis rallies against packaged foods, his stance is not without exception. He uses canned beans, pestos, curry sauces, bought stocks and tinned fish. While we may not think of these as convenience items, they do technically fall into that category and are likely to be staples in most homes. At the same time, Delia Smith includes recipes that are completely homemade and that simply employ tricks to expedite the preparation process. And in an ironic coincidence, these two books include recipes for the same dishes.

Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals is a good beginner's guide to easy meals that can be prepared in a short time. Akis' approach is friendly and easy to follow, making it an accessible resource for those looking for healthy home-cooked meals. His tips are relevant and those packaged ingredients used are readily available.

Smith gives the readers time-saving reworking of well-known recipes, even as she expands the uses of prepared foods with the book Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking. Poshly presented, the book appeals to the foodie at heart, but one without the time, the desire or possibly the skill to prepare meals from scratch. She positions herself in a field outside of television cookery or vaulted art; Smith calls this an opportunity to "revolutionize your life" - with canned bisque firmly in hand.

Either way, it is evident that there is a desire to make food preparation faster, it is up to the reader (or the cook) to decide their speed limit.

Skillet Mac and Cheese
Excerpted with permission from Everyone Can Cook Midweek Meals by Eric Akis (Whitecap, 2008).

Preparation Time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 9-12 minutes
Makes: 4 servings

Here's a quick stovetop way to make macaroni and cheese and still have the heavenly crust of an oven-baked version. I serve it with whole wheat dinner rolls and a platter filled with raw fresh vegetables, such as celery, carrot and cucumber sticks, broccoli and cauliflower florets and cherry tomatoes.

2 cups (500 ml) macaroni
2 cups (500 ml) milk
3 tablespoons (45 ml) all-purpose flour
1/4 (1 ml) teaspoon paprika
2 cups (500 ml) grated cheddar cheese
salt and white pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook until just tender, about 6-8 minutes. Meanwhile place the milk, flour and paprika in a bowl and whisk until lump-free, Pour into a 10-to-12 inch (25 to 30 cm) nonstick ovenproof skillet and set over medium heat. Cook the mixture, whisking frequently, until it gently simmers and begins to thicken, about 5 minutes. Mix in 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of the cheese; season with salt and white pepper. Cook and stir until the cheese melts; reduce to low heat. Place an oven rack 6 inches (15 cm) beneath the broiler; preheat the broiler.

Drain the cooked macaroni well and mix into the cheese sauce. Stir in a little extra milk if you find the consistency too thick. Remove from the heat. Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup (125 ml) of the cheese overtop and place under the broiler until it's nicely browned, about 3-4 minutes.

Eric's Options
• To add some protein to this dish, mix in a can (6 oz/170 g) of chunk tuna, drained well and coarsely flaked, or 1 1/2 cups (375 ml) of cubed ham or cooked chicken.

Recipes from Delia's How to Cheat at Cooking

A selection of recipes from the book can be found here.

Cover art courtesy of Whitecap Books and Ebury Press, respectively.


A master's work; a review of Chocolate Epiphany

François Payard's Chocolate Meringue Tarts in miniature; photo courtesy of Deep Media.

When I was little, I took piano lessons to little success. Even though I could manage to replicate notes on the page, I never had the 'sense' for the keys that makes one feel in ownership of the music. Nonetheless, I would spend the requisite time practicing on the keyboard at home, repeating the disjointed notes over and over until I hoped I had mastered them.

It was during these practices that my father would sometimes wander into the room and take over the keys; though wholly self-taught, he had such an ear for music that he could easily reproduce my melodies in their entirety. What's more, he would infuse them with nuance and a character deeper than the notes themselves.

In that simple exercise I saw what it mean to be an artist.

I had a similar feeling of revelation when I had the opportunity to review François Payard's third book, Chocolate Epiphany (Clarkson Potter, 2008). Though a fairly-proficient home baker, I could not help but be awed by the chocolate creations featured within. From the straightforward to the fanciful to the elegant, Payard (with Anne E. McBride) presents confections as beautiful as they are delicious.

Though focused solely on chocolate, the book covers a surprising breadth of recipes. After the helpful introductory guide, breakfast and brunch dishes are offered first, followed by chapters highlighting specific dessert forms (cookies, cakes and mousses, among others). The recipes encompass both the traditional and the unexpected, with classic favourites placed alongside inventive combinations of flavours and textures. There is no prejudice regarding chocolate varieties, with white, milk and dark all given the opportunity to shine.

As to be expected with his pedigree, the acclaimed pastry chef, James Beard Award winner and owner of a collection of pâtisseries/bistros includes recipes that are somewhat intimidating at first glance. These require a good deal of patience, reasonable skill and, in many cases, specialty equipment.

For example, the American Opera Cake calls for no less than four separate component recipes and three pages of instructions. That said, the expertly-detailed steps allow for stunning results that merit the effort. Between the chocolate cake layers Payard ingeniously switches the classic coffee buttercream filling for a peanut version alternated with a decadent peanut butter ganache. If that was not enough, a dark chocolate ganache is finally poured over all. The finished cake is a masterpiece of textures and a show-stopping celebration dessert to say the least.

Equally impressive are the Chocolate Pavlovas with Chocolate Mascarpone Mousse. Here Payard innovates by reconfiguring the form from a simple flat base into a full sphere of meringue filled with liqueur-laced mousse and topped with a flourish of mascarpone cream. Again, this is a recipe that one should carefully read before attempting, but the instructions are well laid out, concise and easy to follow.

Amongst these rather grand recipes Payard sprinkles in some beatifully-simple ones. Triple Chocolate Financiers (recipe) are a perfect little treat alongside coffee, Chocolate Rice Crispies are a bit of kitchy fun, and Chocolate Blinis elevate breakfast to a whole new level.

I was particularly fond of the Chocolate Meringue Tart (pictured, above). A cocoa makeover of the lemon meringue version from his childhood, Payard creates a recipe that is easy to assemble but with outstanding results. His Sweet Tart Dough comes together quickly and is a joy to work with. It is baked until golden, then filled with a luscious dark chocolate filling and crowned with peaks of scorched Swiss Meringue. Absolutely delicious.

One caveat, I did end up with an excess of filling even though I followed the recipe to the specific weight measurement of each ingredient.

Rounding out the contents is an indispensable chapter of basics; buttercreams, Crème Anglaise, doughs, and often-used base cakes are explained here, with tips and tricks usually only learned with years of experience. For those wishing to replicate the exquisite decorations that adorn many of the desserts, there are also step-by-step directions to creations like chocolate fans, drops, sticks, and shards.

The sumptuous photographs by Rogerio Voltan are tempting to say the least; with tightly cropped images that beautifully convey the various textures and elements of the recipes. My only complaint is that I could not find photo captions for the desserts featured on the chapter cover pages. While this information is included in the general index, the omission of labels alongside the specific images might be frustrating to those who find it difficult to match the photos with the corresponding recipe.

Nonetheless, Chocolate Epiphany is decadence at its best; truly an opus of cacao bean, with a Maestro's passion and expertise leading the way.

Some recipes from the book can be found online here and here.

Cover image courtesy Clarkson Potter.


Outlying tastes: a review of Beyond the Great Wall

Can a cookbook be more than just an instruction manual? What if it could also be a travel journal, photo essay, cultural study, political commentary and a love letter to a country and its cuisine, all in one?

Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's latest book, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China presents the reader with all of that and more, wrapped up in a gorgeous (albeit heavy) package. For those familiar with these James Beard award-winning authors or any of their other five works, it is not surprising that this new title is a distinctive entry into the cookbook genre.

The third in what seems an unofficial series, Beyond the Great Wall is an exploration of the marginalized cuisine of China's non-Han people. It follows a similar template to their previous books that featured the foods of Southeast Asia and the Subcontinent; an encyclopaedic introduction sets out the historical, geographic and cultural foundations for the rest of the book, with meticulous attention to detail and helpful illustrations whenever appropriate.

From there the recipes (organized in sections such as condiments, rice and by various proteins) are interspersed with the authors' travel journal entries and evocative location photos. These essays and images, the former written over a span of 25 years and featured chronologically, continuously bring the reader back to the book’s anthropological leanings, as it follows Alford and Duguid’s personal experiences with a country, its cuisine and its people. Their reflections are poignant vignettes, capturing intimate moments frozen in the otherwise kaleidoscopic pace of change China has experienced since the mid 1980s.

While it could be considered their most political book to date, Beyond the Great Wall still manages to refrain from obvious agenda; the authors’ diary-style entries are offered as spontaneous impressions without context to specifically steer the reader’s opinion. Nonetheless, their inclusion does create a tension in the narrative as one cannot help but consider the juxtaposition of these traditional recipes and compelling images against Alford and Duguid's reflections on contemporary realities.

All of this aside, the heart of this book is the food. With its imposing stature (the book is a substantial 376 pages and a coffee-table worthy 11.4x9.6x1.5 inches) it would be all too easy to simply consider it an art object and never think to try a single dish. The food photography is simple, rustic and stunning, as captured by Richard Jung. My only wish would be that there were more of his images, as the dishes that are featured look nothing short of mouth-wateringly good.

That said, the recipes themselves are wholly accessible and too tempting to resist. Extensive headnotes provide additional inspiration, including detailed instruction, personal anecdotes on preparation, and ingredient sources and substitutions where necessary.

This is not the cuisine of central China; there is no mention of char siu or Beijing's famous roast duck. Many recipes require only a handful of ingredients and are well-suited to the kitchen of the home cook, with little required by way of speciality equipment.

Mongolian Lamb Patties (pictured, recipe below) are rich without being overly unctuous; the heaviness of the meat is undercut by fiery bits of ginger and garlic, along with a good handful of bright herbs. The grilled result offers a golden brown exterior with a satisfying bit of crunch and against a moist and flavourful centre. I served these alongside the Market Stall Fresh Tomato Salsa (from the Guizhou province), a surprising four-ingredient wonder that cleaned the palate beautifully.

I have to admit a deep and personal love of dumplings of all kinds; steamed, in soups or fried, I adore them all. You can imagine my excitement then as I poured over the dishes featured in the chapter on noodles and dumplings. Steamed Tibetan Momos, succulent parcels beef or lamb, could be dangerously addicting. The deep-fried version feature salty goat's milk cheese encased in a golden crust; perfect little bites to serve alongside the myriad of suggested condiments and a cold beer.

I had been wholly ignorant of the presence of tandoors and Indian-reminiscent nan in Xinjaing (home of the Uighur people) or another variation in the Pamir Mountains (home of the Tajik). The former version, stamped decoratively with a studded device, is baked at a high heat until golden and boasts a flat centre and a puffed rim. The latter is much more soft and pliant, due to a yoghurt-fortified dough and longer rising time.

There were other discoveries too; I would not have expected the absolutely straightforward Deep-Fried Whiting and Dai Grilled Chicken, or the simplicity of a Napa and Red Onion Salad from Inner Mongolia.

The list goes on. The recipes are thoughtfully-arranged for variety of textures and tastes; with each chapter the reader is inspired and intrigued again and again. As a fitting end, the book finishes with an afterword on travel with suggested itineraries, a comprehensive glossary and source guide.

Beyond the Great Wall is both absorbing and enlightening; the food makes you want to eat, the vistas make you want to travel, the stories make you want to explore and the faces make you want to understand. A wholly-satisfying journey is bound within its pages, and one feels benefited for having taken the trip.

Mongolian lamb patties
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Available through the recipe section of Alford and Duguid’s official website labelled, as Savory Lamb Patties; scroll down for the details.

Note: Please consider making a donation to campaigns in aid of those effected by the recent devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan province; the Canadian Red Cross is just one of many international organizations co-ordinating relief efforts.


Martha, Martha, Martha; an addendum

You know a new cookbook is a good one when you find the excuse to bake twice in one week, just so you can try another recipe.

(As labelled in the book) Milk Chocolate cookies from Martha Stewart's Cookies. Thin and crisp at the edges but still tender at the middle, these cookies have just enough deep chocolate flavour to feel a treat but not overly-indulgent; a dangerous trait, to be sure. In my opinion the cookies I took out after about 11-12 minutes, rather than the recipe's instructed 15, were the perfect balance of chewy and crunch - but this is a matter of personal taste.

To read a full review of Martha’s latest cookbook, please see my previous post.