Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Grilled Whole Chicken in a Jacket of Flavors

I picked Marcus Samuelsson's "Yes, Chef" to be the August/September selection for Cook the Books, the online foodie book club that I and a bunch of my best food blogger pals host every other month to share our favorite foodie books and inspired dishes. 

I found this to be an interesting book on several levels. First, my curiosity was piqued about this Ethiopian-Swedish-American chef I kept reading about and its a riveting and tragic story of how his severely ill mother walked 75 miles carrying 3 year old Marcus (then Kasshun) and toting his older sister along from their rural Ethiopian village to a hospital in the capital city of Addis Ababa. His mom succumbed to tuberculosis, and not knowing the siblings had any other relatives, a sympathetic nurse contacted aid workers who arranged for the pair to be adopted by a family in faraway Sweden. 

The book is quite a coming of age story; Marcus has a circuitous journey from youth to manhood, and it takes a lot of nudging from his adoptive parents and from his own maturation to look outside of his narrow focus on his career ambitions. He is very open in the book about his youthful immaturity, especially about how he initially rejected acknowledging the daughter he sired in his twenties. For someone who is still relatively young, he's had so many interesting cultural experiences and I liked the peek into Swedish rural culture and winced at the brutality behind the scenes of the haute cuisine hotel and restaurant kitchens in which he toiled.

I also found the author's description of schoolboy bullying and other incidents of racial discrimination very moving. His term "race wounds" to describe the effects of these acts on people of color was something I have kept thinking about. I grew up in an interracial household and while I experienced incidents of prejudice, it was as a white person; someone who could shrug it off later when I was back in the safety of my family and later when I returned to majority status at school and in the wider American society. But "race wounds" is a powerful term and a good way of thinking how those of us with brown and black skins must armor ourselves to go out in the majority (for now) white public.

Marcus' adoptive mother was definitely not his culinary muse. She viewed cooking as a daily chores, so her meals were routine and geared for convenience and short cooking times."She made pasta as not even a prisoner would tolerate it, with tinny tomato sauce and mushy frozen peas. She served roast pork from imaginary Polynesian shores, with canned pineapple rings and homemade curry whipped cream." !!!!

Luckily, Marcus had a Swedish Mormor (grandmother) with her "own little food factory", who pickled, preserved, jammed, butchered and preserved food for her well-stocked larder. I relished his stories about racing home from Saturday soccer practices to help Mormor Helga prepare the family dinner.

Another aspect about the book that appealed to me was the chef's cooking advice. He was always experimenting in the kitchen and trying to break out of haute cuisine strictures to "chase flavors', layering on different tastes and textures to create masterful dishes. It is this layering of flavors and textures and breaking out of accepted flavor palettes that inspired me after reading this delicious book. I decided to amp up the Grilled Whole Chicken that Dan and I have been savoring on our gas grill this summer. We love roast chicken, but often find that the breast meat dries out, some of the skin does not crisp up and the wings (my favorite part!) burn when we attempt a grilled bird. 

Our remedies? Grilling the chicken upright on one of those vertical cookers helps crisp up all the skin. Covering the wings with foil protects the wings from carbonization. And perching the bird atop a tin can (many people use beer cans, but we find a sturdier black olive can does not tip over as much) full of boiling marinade circulates a moist perfume inside and outside the fowl so that the white meat stays deliciously juicy. 

While I normally marinate grilled chicken in a mixture of olive oil, white wine and fresh minced herbs and garlic, I decided to layer on some more flavors: smoky (smoked paprika), earthy (ground cumin), spicy (hot pepper sauce) and umami (sauteed sliced mushrooms to accompany the sliced chicken). I think Marcus Samuelsson is onto something. This just elevated our simple grilled chicken to another level. 

You can check out what other Cook the Books participants thought of the book and cooked up from its pages after the Sept. 30 deadline, when I will post a roundup of all the posts. And please do join us in reading and cooking from our next book selection, "The Hundred-Foot Journey" by Richard C. Morais, due Dec. 2nd. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Cooking with Dried Cherries inspired by Robin Mather's The Feast Nearby

The current selection for the online foodie book club, Cook the Books, is

The Feast Nearby: How I Lost my Job, Buried a Marriage, and Found My Way by Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering, and Eating Locally (All on Forty Dollars a Week), by Robin Mather, Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2011.

Cook the Book host Debra of Eliot's Eats selected this collection of essays which relates how the author kept calm and carried on -beautifully- after an earthquake shift in her life. In one week her longtime husband announced that he wanted a divorce and she was laid off by the newspaper where she was a veteran food journalist.

The book is stuffed with good information on raising chickens, bartering (she swapped homegrown vegetables from her neighbor for a snug, handknit hat), grocery shopping locally, preserving and canning, roasting and grinding your own coffee. I learned a lot and enjoyed her down-to-earth writing and recipes. There's a lot of richness in living and eating cheaply, seasonally and well.

Each essay has a recipe finale. There are great frugal recipes featuring lots of variations of rice and beans. Some are simple standards, but others are unusual and tempting, like Mujadara (rice and lentils perfumed with cumin and parsley), Oxtail Stew, and Fassoulia (green beans stewed with lamb shanks and tomatoes).

Mather is a Michigander and relates one chapter about using the local bounty of cherries. I had never experimented with dried cherries before and they were really tasty. They are a bit expensive, like most dried fruit other than raisins, and I had to hide them away from the old man (and myself) after too much errant grazing so I would have enough for Mather's recipe for Peppery Cherry Spoon Bread. You can find a copy of that recipe at this link, which also contains an interview with Mather.

I am not a huge fan of Spoon Bread, as I find it a bit too moist and this version was sort of the same as my past experience, so I think next time I would just make up the recipe as a cheesy, dried cherry-studded polenta and forget the final step of mixing in the beaten eggs and baking it.

But this side dish was very happy on our dinner plate snuggling up next to some sauteed mixed veggies, baked fish and some yellow rice.

Next up for our book club is this sweet read: Sarah-Kate Lynch's "The Wedding Bees". Submissions are due August 3, 2015. Anyone can join in the fun. All you need to do is read the book, cook up something inspired by your reading and blog it up.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Comfort Me with Carrots

Deb of Kahakai Kitchen is the current host of Cook the Books, the bimonthly foodie book club where we read, comment on and cook from the same book. This time round is Ruth Reichl's second memoir Comfort Me with Apples (Tender at the Bone was her first and chronicled her youth as the daughter of legendary book designer Ernst Reichl, although perhaps more ink devoted to her troubled relationship with her difficult mother).

In this volume, the author relates her years in California as she segued from cooking in a hippie restaurant to starting her career as a restaurant critic. Reichl writes very vividly and very honestly. There seems to be no holds barred about dishing about her extra-marital affairs or the exquisite anguish over having to hand over her adopted infant daughter back to the birth parents.

American food seems to have come of age just at the same time Reichl was making her mark in food journalism. She describes her meetings and friendships with so many influential people that shaped modern American cuisine, including  Colman Andrews, Wolfgang Puck, MFK Fisher, Alice Waters, and Bruce Aidells, among others. Such an interesting memoir.

None of the recipes peppering the book particularly grabbed me, but I thought most about how Ruth and her artist husband Doug lived communally at Channing Way in People's Republic of Berkeley in late 70s. Bushy bearded apartment patriarch Nick castigates her new gig as restaurant critic for New West magazine: "You're going to spend your life telling spoiled, rich people where to eat too much obscene food?" You can almost smell the patchouli and alfalfa sprouts.

I was inspired to make a salad that might have appeared on the Channing Way dinner. Carrots are cheap and plentiful all year and would certainly have been available at the local food coop and grocery stores back then. And Nick would probably not have dismissed this dish as being "obscene".

Carrot Salad a la Channing Way

2 lbs. carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch batons
3 Tbsp. snipped chives
2 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley
1/4 c. rice vinegar (cider vinegar works here too)
1/3 c. vegetable oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and run through garlic press

Cut carrots into batons of equal size for even cooking. The skinnier part of the carrot will be cut into fourths, while the thicker, root end will be cut into sixths or more.

Bring a pot of salted water to a vigorous boil. Add carrots and bring to a boil again. Cook carrots until they are crisp-tender, about 4-5 minutes. Not a minute longer! (they will get mushy). Drain in colander and rinse with cold water. Shake to remove excess water.

While carrots are cooking, mix remaining ingredients. Pour this vinaigrette over the carrots. Cover and let marinate for several hours before serving.

Makes 6-8 servings.

This is a very versatile recipe. You could swap out the parsley for dill or cilantro or ground cumin. Chives and garlic can be substituted for small amounts of chopped red onions or shallots. A teaspoon of fresh grated ginger is also nice.

I brought a version of this Carrot Salad to a Superbowl Party and everyone seemed to appreciate this refreshing break from the rich, heavy snacks at the buffet. I usually think of fresh grated or shredded carrots for a vegetable salad, but cooking the carrots first is a nice change and the carrots get a sweeter, mellower taste.

Deb will have a roundup of all the Comfort Me with Apples posts after the March 30 deadline, so do drop by Cook the Books to check it out then. And feel free to join us in reading our next book,  Robin Mather's The Feast Nearby: How I Lost my Job, Buried a Marriage, and Found My Way by Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering, and Eating Locally (All on Forty Dollars a Week). 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sustenance and Desire and HEAT for Cook the Books

The New Year brings another turn at hosting the bimonthly Cook the Books foodie book club, and for my book pick I turned to "Sustenance and Desire: A Food Lover's Anthology of Sensuality and Humor" edited by author/artist Bascove (Boston: David R. Godine, 2004). I have long admired Bascove's book jacket illustrations for Ellis Peters' splendid Brother Cadfael medieval mystery series (her jackets resemble stained glass windows) and the novels of the late Robertson Davies, and when I discovered that she also had literary talents, I sought out this volume.

The anthology contains 77 poems, prose excerpts and short pieces from a variety of authors, from Vladimir Nabokov remembering mushroom picking with his Russian mother to sassy poetry by Langston Hughes to an essay ruminating on cannibalism by Margaret Visser. Interspersed with all these literary gems are some sparkling paintings by Bascove.

For my Cook the Books inspiration, I chose the poem "Hot", by Craig Arnold, whom I sadly found out disappeared while hiking around a Japanese volcano in 2009 and is presumed dead. You can read a full version of Arnold's poem here (or in our chosen book), but in summary, it's a long conversation between two friends who haven't seen each other in a while and had originally bonded over a love of spicy food. When the narrator arrives at his friend's house, he finds that his passion for peppers and food with heat has consumed him. He has parched lips, a haunted look and a fridge full of condiments. Here's the final stanzas:

"He stops, expressing heat from every pore
of his full face, unable to give vent
   to any more, and sits, silent,
   a whole minute.—You understand?
Of course, I tell him. As he takes my hand
I can’t help but notice the strength his grip
   has lost, as he lifts it to his lip,
presses it for a second, the torn flesh
   as soft, as tenuous, as ash,
   not in the least harsh or rough,
wreck of a mouth, that couldn’t say enough."

Dan and I are aficionados of spicy food and we dearly love growing and cooking with hot peppers. We like to grow poblanos and Thai bird chiles and have even had good luck with jalapenos in our Zone 4 garden. But I do not aspire to become a fearsome chili-head that must eat heat with every meal. 

I pored over one of my newest cookbook additions, "Fire and Spice: 200 Hot and Spicy Recipes from the Far East", by Jacki Passmore (NY: Macmillan, 1996) and selected a recipe to try: Indonesian Sweet Corn and Chili Fritters. I had to tweak Passmore's recipe to make it gluten free, substituting buckwheat flour for the all-purpose flour specified in the recipe. The first batch of fritters were hard to flip, though they had a lighter and crispier texture. I added in some coconut flour to thicken things up and the rest of the fritters were easier to handle, but they did get thicker and more pancake-y. Those are the buckwheat-only fritters on the left. 

They were not all that spicy, despite having a fresh red chili pepper in the batter. I did serve them along with a batch of Dan's chunky roasted red pepper and hot spicy pepper relish that he likes to keep on hand in our many shelves of fridgey condiments (maybe we have more in common with the poem's subject than I thought) to up the Scoville units. 

Dan's recipe for his Chunky Pepper Relish is simple, involves a blow torch, and is something that he finds very relaxing. He starts with a couple of red bell peppers, which he prefers to roast with a blow torch while sitting at the kitchen table, listening to tunes. (I prefer to cut them in half, seed them and roast in the oven, but he likes the torch method. Perhaps because it amuses our daughters so endlessly). Then he chops it up, adds in a couple of teaspoons of fresh hot peppers, chopped, 2 cloves garlic, chopped, and a few teaspoons each of olive oil and apple cider vinegar. This gets stored in a glass canning jar and we use it for weeks afterwards.

There's still time to join in this round of Cook the Books. The deadline for reading our selected book, cooking up something inspired from your reading and then blogging it all up is Feb. 2, 2015, Groundhog Day. Not that a groundhog needs to be part of your recipe....