Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Five Extremely Useful Food Books

This post lists and briefly describes the five food books I would want to have with me if I were stranded on a desert island without Internet access.

1. What to Drink with What You Eat, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

The authors of this book – published by Bulfinch Press in 2006 and winning that year’s Georges Duboeuf Wine Book of the Year Award – are a husband and wife team who have also written at least six other food-related books, including the next one on this list. In What to Drink with What You Eat, they offer both general advice on wine, food, and wine-food pairings, and specific recommendations, from both directions: what wine goes well with a particular food, and what food goes well with a particular wine. Looking for the best wine to go with bacon? (Pinot Noir is highly recommended, especially New World wines like those from California or Oregon.) Cheese? (The list is 12 pages long, broken down by type: for example, the French white wine Vin Jaune from the Jura region is highly recommended with the French or Swiss cow’s milk cheese Vacherin Mont d’Or; for Monterray Jack, their highest recommendation goes to Zinfandel.) How about Philadelphia cheesesteak? (Suggestions include both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.) Conversely, if a family friend has given you a bottle of retsina as a souvenir of their recent trip to Greece (those who haven’t acquired the taste for this unique wine made with pine resin sometimes compare the flavor to turpentine, not always favorably), you might want to know that it pairs well with feta cheese, Greek olives, and spinach. Even more impressively, this book also gives advice on selecting and pairing other beverages, including tea, beer, coffee, bottled water, sake, single malt scotches, and shandys (beer mixed with lemonade). All in all, a fun read and extremely versatile: the first thing I would pack in that box of books not to be stranded without during the desert island experience (it might come in handy to know that coconut pairs well with Chardonnay, especially a buttery or oaky one).

2. The Flavor Bible, by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page

By the same authors as What to Drink with What You Eat, this book (published by Little, Brown and Company, 2008) begins with advice from former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic on the secret to happiness: “For starters, learn how to cook.” Beautifully illustrated, the book begins by discussing the factors that influence taste (e.g., sweetness, saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and the newest kid on the “basic flavors” block, umami or “savoriness,” much discussed these days on The Food Network), and those that influence our experience of food more generally (things like mouth feel, aroma, and appearance). The idea behind the book is to help the reader step beyond the strict recipe-based “cooking by the numbers” approach (although, with a well-executed, good recipe, the results of this approach can be spectacular) to the development of your own recipes, by choosing ingredients that go well together and avoiding those that clash badly. For example, they note that Kobe beef pairs well with both black truffles and yuzu juice (Don’t know what yuzu is? See either of the next two books on this list.); similarly, the pairing of basil with tarragon should be avoided. They even have entries on fiddlehead ferns (this fairly extensive list was extremely helpful in developing the fiddlehead fern recipe I posted earlier), ramps (again, an extremely useful list), and yuzu fruits (more about that below). Another definite “stranded on a desert island book” (besides a nice oaky Chardonnay, coconut pairs well with fish and curries).

3. Food Lover’s Companion, edited by Sharon Tyler Herbst.

I have the 3rd edition of this fabulous little book (published by Barons in 2001), but there is now a Deluxe Edition (copyright 2009) that I have not had the opportunity to thumb through. According to the newer book’s description, it was updated by Ron Herbst in honor of his late wife and the editor of the 3rd edition, Sharon Tyler Herbst. Based on what I have read about it, I am sure that the Deluxe Edition is at least as fabulous as my well-worn 3rd edition. This is exactly the book you need close at hand whenever you come across any unfamiliar culinary term: what is a yuzu fruit, anyway? (See page 684: it’s a sour Japanese citrus fruit.) What’s in green goddess dressing? (See page 282.) Why can’t you take a durian on Asian airlines? (It’s the “nauseating smell” – see page 208.) And what is a sea bean? (The entry on page 554 refers you to the one on “samphire” on page 540.) Clearly, this is another “desert island book” (The entry for coconuts starts on page 148.)

4. The Penguin Companion to Food, edited by Alan Davidson

If you think of The Food Lover’s Companion just described as a “dictionary of the edible,” this book – published by Penguin Books in 2002 and the winner of a James Beard Award – can be regarded as the corresponding encyclopedia. Larger, longer, and illustrated with occasional drawings, this book lists many – but not all – of the entries in The Food Lover’s Companion, with many others besides. For example, on a trip to Finland last year, friends introduced my wife and I to a jam made from sea buckthorn. Not listed in The Food Lover’s Companion, the entry on page 849 of The Penguin Companion to Food – between those for “sea bream” and “sea cucumber” – notes that the sea buckthorn is a small tree that grows near the sea in Britain, in the Alps, in Russia, and in China. The entry also notes that:

“Jane Grigson, writing in the Observer in 1988, found that with the addition of cream the berries would make an attractive pinkish-orange ice cream.”

(As far as I know, Baskin-Robbins doesn’t have that one yet.) On the other hand, there is no entry for “sea bean,” so you would have to know it as “samphire,” which is described starting on page 827. In fact, you would have to know it as “marsh samphire” (Salicornia europaea) as opposed to “rock samphire” (Crithimum maritimum). The Penguin Companion to Food describes marsh samphire as “more available but less prized” than rock samphire, which the Food Lover’s Companion describes as “available in the United States only through costly import.” If you can fit The Penguin Companion to Food in your luggage, it’s worth taking along on your desert island adventure (the coconut entry is three pages and includes a drawing, as does the yuzu entry).

5. Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide, by Elizabeth Schneider (Harper and Row, 1986)

The first two pages of this book are filled with short but glowing reviews by a range of newspapers, magazines, and people, including Jacques Pepin, Alice Waters, and M.F.K. Fisher. Like the Food Lover’s Companion, a more recent variation of this book is now available than the one I have. Specifically, Schneider published Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference in 2001, which appears to drop the fruits in preference to a wider variety of vegetables; while I can’t vouch for it personally, Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables is so good that I am sure her newer book would also be well worth a place in your desert island luggage. While the 1986 book doesn’t list everything you might want to try – it doesn’t list yuzu, for example – it does list a lot of them, including fiddlehead ferns, ramps (see wild leeks), and sea beans (see glasswort). Each entry typically includes a detailed drawing of the fruit or vegetable, general advice on how to select and prepare it, and detailed recipes (more than 400 of them altogether). There is no entry for coconut, but this book is probably still worth having along on your desert island adventure: after all, you might want to vary your diet by including something like her salad of glasswort, oriental radish, and cucumber (page 208).

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