Friday, August 8, 2008

Summer and Cookbooks and Whatever

For some reason, this week seems to have been impossibly busy even though really I have gotten almost nothing done. Or it seems like it. Haven't even been able to do the one thing that I really wanted, try to get up a racquetball game (ok. I am able to do this. I haven't gotten around to it.). And we're on Day Whatever of pouring down rain, so the yard is totally going to hell, which normally I wouldn't car about but since we had Overpaid Student Minion working on it for the first part of the summer, I slightly care about at least trying to keep it tidy. Tidy-ish.

What I've mainly been doing lately is cooking. Here's the thing about eating low carb for me... it used to be that I would really crave food. If you asked me something like, if you could eat absolutely anything, and you could have all you wanted of it, what would you eat?... well, there would be lots of answers. In carb-laden, butter-dripping, detail. These days... I don't really even know. Mostly I'd like something that I hadn't had before that someone else made. There used to be all these things that I always felt that I wanted MORE of . I never felt satisfied.

It's taken a while, but these days, I mostly feel satisfied with a whole lot less. Of course, this is a constant battle with the head gremlins who think that my stomach is far larger than it is or that we would derive some intense pleasure from stuffing our (collective) face for a few hours. And the boredom gremlins, who think that food is entertainment. But a lot less is just fine, and it makes me feel better, and, well, normal. But the "bad" thing about this is that there's nothing much I want to eat. I get bored with everything so easily. And then I end up eating things like... oh, nothing but cold chicken, or something like that, which isn't exactly what you'd call nutritionally balanced.

So I've been investing a lot of time lately into fussing with food. Making new things. And reading cookbooks. And, of course, since I'm pretty much intrinsically grumpy, getting annoyed by cookbooks. So I have two selections to complain about today...

The first one is Jamie Oliver's Cook With Jamie, which is subtitled, "My Guide to Making You a Better Cook." I bought this book partly because I like Jamie Oliver, and partly because quick flip-through yielded a bunch of things that looked worth trying, but partly because it claimed to be a book that would improve your cooking technique no matter what level of cook you were. Now, this is not by any means a stupid book, and I am a pretty good (though not what I'd call high-level) cook, but this book is really basic. I read the whole book... not every recipe, but all the technique parts... and I have to say that the only thing that I actually learned from it is one new word, spatchcock, which is apparently what you can call it when you butterfly poultry. So I think that the idea that this will improve your technique is not all that likely if you are already pretty competent. Which is ok, but, hey, don't sell it that way if it's not going to do anything for me, all right?

There are a bunch of great-looking recipes in this books, and I really should save comment until I've made some of them, but I have two really specific complaints about this book.
1. Someone did kind of a weird job of translating this for the American market. I speak pretty fluent British, and it's obvious to me that someone did some editing. Rocket has been changed to arugula, courgettes have been changed to zucchini, that kind of thing. But otherwise, the general buying advice in this book is really not at all suitable for most people in most places in the U.S. Yes, if I were in the U.K., I would probably buy my produce at the local farm market, and I would probably go to the local butcher, and I would have a FAR better chance at getting seafood that had recently been near the sea, and so on (although I admit to a lingering fondness for Waitrose). But in the U.S, in most areas, that is Just Not Possible. The nearest "butcher" to here, for example, is about 35 miles, and it's really not what Jamie has in mind, either. Farm markets are easier, this time of year... but only from late June through September. Food realities in the U.S., although getting better, are not what you'd like them to be. (By the way, what on earth is Jamie thinking of when he says "a chilli?" Roy? Anyone? I mean, if you go into the store in the U.S., there are about 10 kinds of chili peppers of different kinds, each with different properties.)
2. Editing. You cannot use the words "lovely" and "brilliant" in every sentence. They kind of lose their punch.

I'll report back after I actually cook something. The pictures are nice!

And for my next set of complaints... José Andrés, Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America. I bought this book because I've been enjoying the PBS series, Made in Spain.
José Andrés is a chef of considerable charm and enthusiasm, and I don't know that much about Spanish cooking, which looks yummy, and the companion cookbook is not out yet. This is a nice cookbook with great pictures and lots of interesting stories and cultural information. BUT. Thing #1 is that quite a few recipes contains ingredients that are not easy to find, and there is no list of acceptable substitutions. Certainly substituting isn't ideal. But sometimes it's necessary.

My other objection is kind of philosophical. Michael and I argued about this, sort of, the other night. Cooking is an art. I rarely, if ever, measure things that I've cooked before, I modify recipes freely, and I appreciate how difficult it is to write down a recipe when really you are doing most things to taste. But, hey, when I buy a cookbook, I want what I make to come out looking exactly like the picture if I follow the directions exactly. On the program, it's pretty obvious that
José Andrés is a "little bit of this, little bit of that" chef, but unfortunately, that doesn't translate all that well to a cookbook that is trying to teach a kind of cooking with which the reader is probably not familiar. Example: two days ago, I made the recipe for Rabbit with Cherries (p.248). I'd never had rabbit, and they have started carrying it at the not-so-local store, and so I thought, what the hell, let's give it a go. Since I'd never made this before, I followed the directions pretty exactly until I realized that if I continued that way, I was going to have rabbit soup. The proportions on the sauce are way off, easy to fix if you're aware of it, but I see no way in hell that following the directions gets you to something that looks anything like the picture.

By the way, review on the rabbit... yummy but not worth the $30 I had to pay for it. I think that I could make this recipe in a pork tenderloin variant; I'm going to try that later in the week and post it if it comes out well.

If you want a cookbook that is absolutely fantastic for recipes that do come out exactly right, I always recommend Jacques Pépin, Fast Food My Way. Excellent book.


Roy and Hazel said...

Hi Nina,
I'd say mostly its those little green or red "birds eye" chillis (That's what they're called here anyway.) that are available. In my local Sainsburys supermarket today, there was a choice of just 3 kinds of chilli.

Nina said...

Hm. I have NO idea what those are. We have green jalapenos, green serranos and poblenos, light green Hungarian wax peppers, orange Scotch bonnets (round and VERY hot), and Italian sweet peppers.

I have to solve this mystery. :-)

Nina said...

Yay, I figured it out. I think. They're the small Thai peppers. We usually don't get these fresh at all here, though they're easy to find dried... hm, something to add to the garden list for next year! (And check the Asian market...)