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....