Friday, January 20, 2012

In Which I Become an Outlaw Cook with John Thorne

Running a used bookstore for the last fifteen years has educated me about which books are treasured, or perhaps guarded is a better word, by their owners and hardly ever relinquished back into the market. I rarely get any books in the shop about blacksmithing, stained glass or rare coins; such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, The Cat in the Hat and Gone with the Wind don't show up to be traded; and works by a select group of authors and illustrators like Shirley Jackson, W.H. Auden, Edward Gorey, Kurt Vonnegut, Tasha Tudor and Philip K. Dick are seldom brought to our doors.

Add food writer John Thorne's books to this elite list. I was first made aware of his work many years ago by my bibliophilic friend Myra, who asked me to keep an eye out for Thorne's books. After at least a decade, I had yet to find any such titles in my shop or out book hunting, until one day when I was on a holiday in Great Barrington, Massachusetts at Yellow House Books, and spied a copy of  Outlaw Cook (NY: Farrar, Straus, Giroux: 1992), a collection of food essays written with his wife Matt Lewis Thorne. I snapped it up and devoured it with great pleasure over the next several weeks and am waiting to savor another of his books, Mouth Wide Open, which is at the top of my bedside room reading pile.

Now I know why Thorne's books never show up in the shop. They are to be savored and reread, bookmarked and propped open on the kitchen counter, and reread again. I chose Outlaw Cook for the current round of Cook the Books, the online foodie book club started by me, and two lovely blogger friends: Deb of Kahakai Kitchen in Hawaii and Johanna of Food Junkie, Not Junk Food in Greece.  For this bimonthly blog event, participants are asked to read our chosen book, blog about it and cook something up that is inspired by our reading. Anyone can join the "regulars" in this book club by posting and then leaving a comment at the Cook the Books site. The deadline for this round is January 23, 2012, and I am delighted that our featured author, John Thorne, will be reviewing the submitted posts and picking a winner to receive the coveted CTB winner's badge.

Thorne's prose is an interesting mixture of the erudite and the commonplace. One will learn much about a lot of different subjects, and need to look up many things along the way, but the writing is simple and direct and full of great quotes and turns of phrase. There are many intriguing essays in the book which explore different dishes and cultural traditions, some autobiographical asides, reviews of cookbooks and examinations of food personalities. Outlaw Cook devotes many pages to bread baking and outdoor hearths and there's a gloriously evocative chapter on Russians' love affair with mushrooms.

I really like Thorne's approach to trying out a new recipe or ingredient. Once something strikes his fancy, he's on an adventure to study it and make it his own. He reads about it extensively, cooks up many variations and then presents the reader with his findings. Whether it's hunting for the perfect meatball, simple pasta dishes, black beans and rice, pea soup or the best thing to do with a bounty of summer raspberries, there's lots of research and development in the Thorne kitchen and library and plenty of references offered up for further exploration.

As an avid member of the Order of the Stinking Rose, I was particularly entranced by the essay on garlic soup. I've made creamy, decadently rich garlic soups and delicate garlic and rice soups, and thought that covered much of the culinary territory on that subject. Not so fast, says Thorne, with his musings on various Mediterranean permutations of garlicky broths. There's the paprika and saffron-laced Sopa de Ajo of Spain, France's Soupe a l'Ail Bonne Femme studded with potato and tomato, herb-redolent Aigo Bouido from Provence and even a cold Garlic and Walnut Soup with Fresh Goat Cheese.  Most of these soups require a crusty piece of toasted bread sunk at the bottom of the soup bowl, and since my gluten-free breadbaking production neither produces quantity nor quality (witness the hockey puck "fluffy bun"example in the photo below), I turned to my trusty recipe card file for a breadless garlic soup recipe instead.

My garlic soup recipe is of origin unknown, most likely copied out of a cookbook borrowed from the public library during my foodie youth, but I tinkered with it enough to confidently call it my own adaptation. It's a very herb-redolent broth, perfect for bolstering the winter-ravaged immune system  and imparting a warm glow after a day battling the wind and cold. Just be sure to share it with those around you, since "...garlic is the ravisher, dominating those who would eat it, and then crowing that subjugation to the world through the body's every pore." (p. 120)

Herb and Garlic Soup

1 head garlic, separated into cloves
2 quarts water
2 tsp. salt

2 whole cloves
1/4 tsp. dried sage, crumbled
1/2 tsp. dried thyme, crumbled
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. parsley, chopped coarsely

2 egg yolks
3 Tbsp. olive oil

Grated Parmesan

Bring water and salt to a boil and drop in garlic cloves. Boil 1 minute, then fish out garlic and peel. Cut off root tip and cut into chunks. Throw it back into the simmering pot with the herbs and spices.

Bring to a boil again and then lower heat and simmer 30 minutes. Strain soup to remove herbs and then pour broth back into pot. Finely mash the cooked garlic and put back into the soup pot. Bring to a low simmer.

Beat egg yolks with olive oil and add to the soup pot. Gently simmer for 2-3 minutes to let simmer and thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve hot with a sprinkling of cheese on top.

Makes 4-6 servings.

I'll have a roundup of all the Cook the Books posts about Outlaw Cook after the January 23 deadline, so be sure to stop back to see all the submissions. Next up for our book club is Roald Dahl's childhood classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which will be hosted by Deb during February/March. Happy reading and eating!

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Book Review and Some Down Home Russian Cooking with Anna: Heart of a Peasant, by Carol Marie Davis

As proud as I get when my children do something wonderful , I am as enwreathed in smiles when my creative mom finishes a project. Mom's latest endeavor (and second published book!) is the fictionalized biography of her maternal grandmother, Anna Anisovich Olchick, born in the small village of Pristupovschina, Byelorussa in 1886. Anna emigrated to the United States in 1914, after being banished from her family's home in the wake of a horrible accident, and her courage in leaving all that she knew and loved for an uncertain future in a new land is chronicled lovingly in this book. (Anna Heart of a Peasant, by Carol Marie Davis, Sarasota, FL: Peppertree Press, 2011, 108 pages, $12.95).

I grew up hearing stories about my great-grandmother Anna (usually called Anita), from her daughter, my grandmother Sophia, and though I'm sure she told me things that were nice about her well-loved mother, I see to have imprinted on the harsh side of Anita. Grandma told me about how her mother used to punish her by making her kneel for hours on dried corn kernels (how medieval!) and how she used to take care of the ever-burgeoning kitten population around the house by drowning the poor babies in a bucket of water in the backyard. Then there was the embarrassment of having a mother who didn't speak English, who would traipse to the butcher store with my teenaged grandmother in tow, making her speak directly to the butcher and order the weirdest things, like pig's tails and ears. She always seemed like a strange and mean ancestor.

However, Anna had endured quite a bit of tragedy, and other stories of her zest for life unfold in the pages of this biography, so carefully researched by my mom over the course of several years. Mom unearthed fragments about Anna's life in Byelorussia, her long voyage to America, life with her husband and children in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and her talent for gardening, home remedies and cooking. I've filled in many more details about my great-grandmother and after reading my mom's book, I've come to love her, corn kernels and feline atrocities aside.

One thing that has made me feel closer to Anna is her love of gardening and cooking. She always had turnips, grapes, herbs, carrots and garlic in her garden and was adept at preserving the harvest by drying, canning, salting or fermenting them into sauerkraut or homemade wine. I love that my mom included eight of Anna's recipes (updated with measurements and enlivened with some delightful illustrations) at the end of the book, so that readers can try out some traditional Russian peasant fare.

Some blogger friends of mine are going to join me in reviewing Anna: Heart of a Peasant and we are all planning to try out some of Anna's or other Russian recipes. Look for reviews of this book by Deb of Kahakai Kitchen, Heather of Girlichef, Claudia of Honey from Rock, Alicia from Foodycat and Simona of Briciole in the coming weeks, which I will roundup back here at The Crispy Cook next month.

I made up a big pot of Cabbage Soup the other day based on Anna's recipe. I tweaked it a bit to include what I had in the pantry, so this is an adaptation of this hearty vegetarian soup. My comments are in the parentheses).

Anna's Cabbage Soup

2-3 pounds of cabbage sliced into ½-inch strips (about 1 med head)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup of chopped carrots (only had 1 large carrot)
1 large onion, chopped

1 28-ounce can pureed tomatoes
1 small can of tomato paste
½ cup of brown sugar (left it out)
¼ cup of lemon juice (left it out)
1 bay leaf
pinch of black pepper
 (I added 1 tsp. dill seeds)

Heat oil and sauté garlic in a large soup pot over medium fire until garlic is soft, about 2 minutes. Add onion and sauté until soft as well. Add 3 cups of water, carrots, tomatoes, tomato paste, brown sugar, bay leaf and simmer for 10 minutes until carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Take out the bay leaf and discard.

Mash the above mixture in a bowl until it is a coarsely blended. Return the sauce mixture to the pot, add lemon juice, cabbage strips, and 3 cups of water. Simmer until cabbage is cooked about 2 hours. (I like my cabbage crunchier, so I only cooked it for 45 minutes) Add more water to desired consistency. Add pepper (and dill seeds) and serve with a topping of sour cream. (And some brown bread!)

Makes 8-10 hearty servings. 

If I have piqued your interest in this wonderful book, you can borrow a copy from your local library or buy a copy on Amazon or from my mother directly if you would like a signed copy (I'll send you the details if you leave a comment below). It truly is a wonderfully written account of an interesting life and one which I am very grateful has been elaborated for others to learn from and enjoy.

Thanks Mom, from the bottom of my own peasant heart.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Hummus in a Biscuit

This month's baking project for the Gluten Free Ratio Rally is BISCUITS in all their incarnations. My family are all Northerners, so biscuits don't feature as prominently on our table as they do with Southern diners, but we do enjoy sopping up a good soup or stew with a soft, fluffy biscuit now and again. Dan the Breakfast King makes a mean batch of cottony Buttermilk Biscuits, but I hadn't done much biscuity exploration in the kitchen until this month's GF Ratio Rally host, Gretchen of Kumquat, picked them for our group.

I did a little prowling around the 'net and found out that there's an annual Biscuit Festival held in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the bake-off is divided into the categories of Buttermilk Biscuits, Sweet Biscuits, Savory Biscuits and Most Original Biscuits (Fat Elvis Biscuits, anyone?). Savory Biscuits beckoned my further attention, so I took a look at what supplies I had in the baking cabinet and in the pantry and thought I would tweak a standard Baking Powder Biscuit recipe into something savory and maybe even a little sassy. When my bag of chickpea flour (labeled besan since I bought it in an Indian foods market) waltzed into my orbit, I immediately thought of using its rich, beany flavor as part of my flour mix.

Then, since chickpeas usually equal hummus in my house, the idea for a hummus flavored biscuit was born. The idea was to incorporate all those heavenly hummus flavors, garlic, cumin (I used toasted cumin seeds, coarsely ground in my coffee mill for a little extra texture, but you could just use ground cumin if that's what you have on hand), parsley, lemon, olive oil, salt and a little hot pepper, because I like a spicy hummus.

I went to my kitchen cookbook shelf and plucked Marion Cunningham's Fannie Farmer Baking Book down. This was one of my favorite baking cookbooks in my pre-GF days and I've found it to be a good starting point for preparing to convert these very detailed recipes into gluten-free versions. Marion/Fannie's Baking Powder Biscuit recipe (p. 572) proved once again to provide good background information about preparing biscuit dough and I used its' "bones" to work through my recipe.

The other starting point that GF Ratio Rally bakers use is a ratio of primary ingredients (measured by weight, not volume) and for the Biscuit Project we started out with 3 parts flour, 2 parts liquid and 1 part fat.  My biscuits came out quite nicely: they held their shape, rose a little, and had a nice crumbly texture with a CRISPY outside.

I had the idea that fresh chopped parsley and lemon juice would be better in an olive oil dipping sauce, but I think that next time I would mix the parsley and some lemon zest into the biscuit dough instead.

These biscuits really smelled tempting while they were baking and we enjoyed them hot from the oven paired with their dipping oil and softened butter for a hearty winter afternoon snack. Scrumptious! The next day they were the perfect sops for a vegetable curry. Scrumptious II!

Here's a recipe for:

Hummus in a Biscuit

4 oz. chickpea flour
4 oz. white rice flour
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. xanthan gum
1 tsp. granulated garlic or garlic powder
1 tsp. toasted cumin seeds, coarsely ground (or plain ground cumin)
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp. sugar

3 oz. vegetable shortening

6 oz. milk (I used almond milk cause that's all that I had on hand in my house of cereal-chomping teenagers)

Olive Oil Dipping Sauce:

4 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 Tbsp. minced Italian parsley

Stir together dry ingredients above until well mixed. Add in shortening with a pastry blender or two butter knives until mixture resembles coarse sand. You really want the fat mixed in well with the flours.

Add in milk and mix well until dough clumps together. Turn out on a sheet of plastic wrap and cover and chill in refrigerator for 20-30 minutes to let shortening in dough harden up again.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Lightly dust work surface with white rice flour and plop dough down. Working quickly with floured hands, pat dough down into 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into 16 rounds (3 inch diameter) and place on parchment lined cookie sheet. Baked 15 minutes or until they have puffed up and are lightly browned.

Serve immediately with Olive Oil Dipping Sauce on the side or split and spread with softened butter.

Makes 16 biscuits.

Gretchen will have all the links to the sweet, savory and other interesting gluten-free biscuit variations back at her Kumquat blog, so be sure to check back and visit!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2011: A Crispy Cook Year in Review

Another year of experimenting in the kitchen and blogging up my adventures in a Brave New Much More Noticeably Gluten-Free World has come and gone and upon reviewing last year's posts there were a few highlights to share with you:

Best New Crispy Cook Recipe -  My Hearty, Smoky Vegetarian Pea Soup recipe gets the nod for best new thing I concocted, plus extra points for being awesomely cheap eats. In fact, I think I have to go get cracking on a pot after typing up this post.

Best Thing I Cooked Up Courtesy of Someone Else's Recipe - That would have to be Elizabeth Bard's wonderful Raspberry Financiers, a nutty, buttery, raspberry-dolloped French cookie from her book Lunch in Paris, which I read as part of the fun foodie book club, Cook the Books. Incidentally, that three-tiered cake plate was also the coolest craft project I tried all year -alright all decade-, made from some scavenged fancy saucers, a candlestick, sherry glass and glass bowl, all glued up with some ceramic cement.

Best New Thing I Grew in the Garden - Though I truly enjoyed shearing off delicate fronds of chervil for my summer salads and played around with kohlrabi quite a bit, I would have to say that the thicket of lemongrass that I grew from some slender seedlings from my friend Andrea takes top prize. I loved having fresh lemongrass to chew on as I weeded the garden and it made lovely tea and additions to various Asian dishes.

Best Cookbook I Reviewed - There were some wonderful new cookbooks sent to me by various publishers to be considered for review here at the Crispy Cook. Hands down, though, the winner was Laura B. Russell's The Gluten Free Asian Kitchen. I have cooked and cooked from this great book and each dish has added a new dish, ingredient or technique to my repertoire. If you love Asian food and are adventurous in the kitchen and the grocery store, this book is for you!

Best Photo - I think this handsome Broccoli Pasta Timbale shot was the best thing to pop out of my digital camera.  And it was a good recipe too. Have to try that one again soon.

Best New Gluten-Free Product I Reviewed - Here we have a split at Casa Crispy. I and one of my daughters vote for Zatarain's Yellow Rice as the item most likely to make its way into our supermarket cart. I pop it into our rice cooker for an easy side dish that everybody always eats up. Husband Dan and my other sweet toothed daughter vote for Namaste's Chocolate Cake Mix, which gets requested for special occasion cakes and gets brought to friends' houses for a dessert that is so moist and that noone ever suspects is gluten-free.

My Favorite 2011 Post - Though I never thought I'd be a mushroom hunter, let alone find a serendipitously beautiful and lush batch of Oyster Mushrooms in my woefully under-forested backyard, I came out one day during my garden stroll to discover, research and harvest a beautiful specimen that fed us for two suppers.

Along the way I had fun participating with other Capital District food bloggers in a taste test of some Big Kahoona Barbecue and joined other blogger buddies online in various blog events, including Weekend Herb Blogging, Presto Pasta Nights, My Legume Love Affair, the aforementioned Cook the Books Club, and the Gluten Free Ratio Rally. I look forward to more food adventures with them and with you in 2012.

I'll also be reviewing some more books, products and letting you know about gluten-free restaurants, events and other news in the Capital District. There may be more giveaways too, which leads me to my announcement of the winner for the Red Pack Tomatoes Giveaway, which is commenter number 9, Debra. Congratulations Debra! Send me an email at info AT oldsAra togabooksDot com with your shipping address and phone number and I'll forward the information to Red Pack so that you can receive your prize.

Happy New Year everyone!