Sunday, July 18, 2010

Honey-nut Lavender Sundaes

Ice cream sundaes make a great dessert on hot summer days: they’re cold, refreshing, easy to make, and everyone has their own favorite recipe. Recently, I discovered a fabulous product at one of our local specialty food stores that makes a great sundae. It is Omak Gida brand Honey Nut (balli cerez) from Turkey, and it contains bee pollen, coconut, honey, and a mixture of nuts (specifically, hazelnuts, walnuts, pistachios, pinenuts, peanuts, and almonds). If you live in the Hartford, Connecticut, area, this is available at Tangier (668 Farmington Ave., West Hartford, CT 06119-1810), a great store that carries a lot of really interesting products. It is also available on-line from CafĂ© Anatolia: their listing for “Balli Cerez (Honey Nut)” includes photographs of the jar, with a detailed close-up that shows the intricate arrangement of sliced nuts, layered in rows, that first caught my attention (

Putting a spoonful or two over vanilla ice cream makes a really excellent sundae (I used Trader Joe’s Super Premium French Vanilla), but there are a couple of ways you can make it even better. The first is to sprinkle on a little bit of dried lavender, an herb that has been popular in Mediterranean cuisine for centuries. The idea of adding it to the honey nut sundae was inspired by a perusal of Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible, a favorite book I have raved about before. Their entry on lavender lists both ice cream and honey among the pairings in bold capital letters, a designation reserved for the best flavor matches. They also list almonds, pistachios, and walnuts as good matches, and under their entry on “nuts – in general” (page 234), they give the following quote from Jerry Traunfeld with The Herbfarm in Woodinville, Washington:

“Lavender works well with all sorts of nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts, pistachios, and walnuts. The one nut it doesn’t work well with is chestnuts.”

An important caution is not to use too much: as Jill Norman notes in her book, Herbs and Spices (DK Publishing, 2002), “Lavender is very potent and must be used sparingly.” I sprinkled a few dried lavender flowers on our honey nut sundaes and the result was delicious. Norman notes that if you grind the flowers together with sugar, you get a stronger flavor since the process extracts the oil from the flowers, which is absorbed into the sugar.

We obtained our lavender flowers from a friend (thanks, designwrite), which is the way chef Paul Gayler recommends obtaining them – i.e., in the wild or from your garden – in his book Flavors (Kyle Books, 2005). He also notes that if you purchase lavender flowers at a market, they have sometimes been treated with pesticides or fragrance enhancers since lavender is a popular ingredient in custom-made soaps; if you are not sure whether this is the case or not, Gayler recommends washing the flowers thoroughly before use. Lavender packaged especially for culinary uses is available from a number of different sources, including Penzeys Spices ( and Amazon (search their Grocery & Gourmet Food Department with the keyword "lavender"). In fact, Amazon offers lavender in a variety of different forms: as 8 oz. packages of culinary lavender, as lavender syrup, lavender sugar sparkles, lavender honey, lavender extract, and various lavender teas.

The second variation on the honey nut sundae – with or without lavender – that can make it even better is to serve it with a nut-derived liqueur. One that goes especially well with a lavender honey-nut sundae is Faretti, described on the label as essentially a liquid biscotti whose “delicately layered taste … combines hints of nuts, citrus and fennel in a symphony of flavor.” That was the first accompaniment we tried, but the sundae went about equally well with Nocello walnut liqueur and the almond-based Amaretto di Saronno. Another good choice should be the hazelnut liqueur Frangelico, but we haven’t had a chance to try that combination yet. Finally, a really intriguing possibility is the pistachio liqueur Dumante, but our favorite supplier of spirits had just sold their last bottle when we went to inquire about it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Prose Poems and Mumbleberry Pies

This past Wednesday, my wife and I went to the reading and performance at the Hill-Stead Museum’s Sunken Garden Poetry and Music Festival in Farmington, Connecticut. It was a hot evening at the end of a hot day and the musical group CONCORA started things off with a collection of “summer music,” broadly interpreted: toward the end, they did an operatic rendition of Donna Summers’ Hot Stuff. It was fascinatingly different, reminding me of the time I heard Wooly Bully sung in Greek.

After the music, three featured poets read: the New York State Poet Laureate, Jean Valentine, and the first and second-place prize winners in the 2010 Sunken Garden Poetry Prize competition, Ginny Lowe Connors from West Hartford, Connecticut, and Kate Lebo from Seattle. Because it so directly relates to the theme of this blog – and because it is a delightful collection – this post is about Kate Lebo’s chapbook, A Commonplace Book of Pie. This short little book includes 10 prose poems about pie, a few relevant quotes (ranging from Jonathan Swift to Carl Sagan), four pie or piecrust recipes, and a small collection of questions and comments (e.g., “What is your favorite pie? Circle all that apply,” followed by 33 alphabetically ordered answers ranging from “apple” to “vanilla cream,” with some unusual entries in between, like avocado, Hoosier, and rhubarb custard). The author also maintains a food-related blog, Good Egg (, where she offers her thoughts on life, good cooking, and a lot more pie recipes (there’s even one for “mumbleberry pie”).

The fact that her chapbook consists entirely of prose poems invites a brief discussion of the form: what exactly is a prose poem? As the name implies, it is essentially a very “prosey” poetic form, but to give a more satisfactory answer I need to digress briefly on the larger question of what exactly a poem is. Many of us were introduced to poetry in terms of traditional verse forms like the sonnet, which had a fairly precise definition: a sonnet was a 14 line form, with a specified rhythm (e.g., iambic pentameter), and a specified rhyme scheme (e.g., the end of the first line rhymed with the end of the third line, etc.). Then, at some point, many of us encountered the more vaguely defined world of “free verse” poetry: lines no longer had to rhyme, neither the number of lines nor the number of syllables per line were fixed, and indeed, most of the “rules” we came to think of as defining poetry were relaxed to the point that it became much harder to know exactly what a poem was. (This has even happened with sonnets: in William Barnstone’s The Secret Reader – a collection of 501 sonnets – he includes many that adhere to the traditional rules, but also a number that violate some rules while retaining others. A particularly interesting example is “Talking with Ink,” consisting of 14 lines with a classical rhyme scheme, but each line has only two syllables; another unusual example is “Gospel of Desire,” which also has 14 lines and adheres to a classical rhyme scheme, but with a regularly varying number of syllables per line.) A key feature that distinguishes both free verse and formal poetry from prose is that poetry is organized by lines. In their entry on “poetry,” the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton University Press, 1993) notes:

“What most readers understand as ‘poetry’ was, up until 1850, set in lines which were metrical, and even the several forms of vers libre and free verse produced since 1850 have been built largely on one or another concept of the line.”

The key feature of the prose poem is the abandonment of lines, typically resulting in text organized into one or a few paragraphs. In their entry on the prose poem, the Princeton Encyclopedia observes that:

“Its principal characteristics are those that would insure unity even in brevity and poetic quality even without the line breaks of free verse: high patterning, rhythmic and figural repetition, sustained intensity, and compactness.”

The recent collection, No Boundaries, published by Tupelo Press in 2003, provides a nice illustration of the range of the prose poem’s structural and thematic possibilities. Edited by Ray Gonzales, the collection includes ten poems each from 24 contemporary American poets; among these contributors are Robert Bly and Russell Edson, both mentioned in the Princeton Encyclopedia’s entry on the prose poem, and Charles Simic, whose prose poem collection, The World Doesn’t End, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1990. Simic’s collection by itself provides an extremely illuminating and entertaining view of the possibilities inherent in the form, with examples ranging from a single sentence about “the Great God of Theory” to a short vignette about a grandfather’s wordless, jealous feud with Sigmund Freud over a pair of shoes in a store window. Probably my favorite one from the collection begins with the following sentence:

“Margaret was copying a recipe for ‘saints roasted with onions’ from an old cookbook.”

Each of Kate Lebo’s prose poems takes a specific type of pie for its title, and all meet the Princeton Encyclopedia’s “sustained intensity and compactness” criteria cited above: none is longer than two paragraphs, and each one presents a unique view of the selected pie and/or its fans, abounding with quirky tidbits and commentary. One of my favorites is the “Lemon Meringue” poem, which gives a highly dubious history of the pie involving nuns in Portland, Oregon and the boxer Muhammad Ali. Lebo also makes excellent use of traditional poetic aural devices like alliteration, assonance, and consonance, as in this sentence from “Pumpkin Pie:”

“It could be hollowed and hallowed and filled with soup and served in a bistro to people who do not smash pumpkins.”

Another great example, from “Apple Pie,” is the following sequence about apple seeds, “carried afar in the bellies of birds and bears and other four-legged, fruit-eating animals …”

All in all, A Commonplace Book of Pie is a very enjoyable little literary snack. The only problem is that it has left me craving a Hoosier pie. More about that later.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why You Need Several Asian Cookbooks

I have been a big fan of Asian cooking for a long time, and a dish that my wife and I both like a lot is Pad Thai, described by Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion as “Thailand’s most well-known noodle dish.” It came as an unpleasant surprise, then, to look through several Thai and Asian cookbooks that had a whole bunch of really great recipes, but no Pad Thai. The experience highlights one of two key reasons why it is important to have more than one Asian cookbook. The other reason has to do with finding unfamiliar ingredients.

The first reason it is important to have multiple cookbooks – for any cuisine you like, but especially for Asian cuisine – is that, as the Pad Thai example illustrates, your favorite cookbook for a particular cuisine may not have all of your favorite recipes from that cuisine. As a specific, non-Asian example, the movie “It’s Complicated” left us craving croque monsieur, which featured prominently in the story line. When we looked for a recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia Child, we were quite surprised not to find it there. Ultimately, we did find a very good recipe for croque monsieur in The Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. Ironically, it turns out this book also has a Pad Thai recipe that we never thought to look for when we were craving it some weeks earlier. Because Asia is larger both geographically and culturally than European countries like France or Italy, the problem of finding all of your favorite Asian recipes is even more challenging than finding all of your favorite French or Italian recipes. Fortunately, there are some really excellent Asian cookbooks available, and I have listed three of them here, along with a fourth book to help with the ingredients problem.

My three current favorite Asian cookbooks – mostly acquired after the Pad Thai craving episode – are The Food of Asia (Murdoch Books, 2009), The Essential Asian Cookbook (Murdoch Books, 1997), and Culinaria Southeast Asia (Tandem Verlag, 2008). All three of these books are large format (roughly 8.5 by 11 inches), and lushly illustrated with color photographs of Asia, key ingredients, and the completed dishes. Also, each book covers the cuisines of a range of different Asian countries: Culinaria Southeast Asia focuses on Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, The Food of Asia concentrates on China, India, Japan, and Thailand, and The Essential Asian Cookbook covers all of these countries, along with The Philippines, Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Pakistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka. Since Culinaria Southeast Asia does not discuss Thai cuisine, it is not surprising that Pad Thai does not appear there, but it is surprising that the dish does not appear in The Food of Asia, either, since that one does feature Thai cuisine. (That said, the “noodles and rice” section of the book is about 40 pages long and it includes a lot of fabulous dishes I had never heard of before, ranging from Thai “stir-fried noodles with holy basil” to “crossing-the-bridge noodles” from China.) Fortunately, there is an excellent Pad Thai recipe in The Essential Asian Cookbook, complete with a mouth-watering photograph of the finished product.

I mention the Pad Thai example, not as criticism of these excellent cookbooks, but to illustrate the nature of the problem: Asia is an enormous place with a long cultural history, so no single book, no matter how good, can hope to capture it all. The second reason you need more than one Asian cookbook is that having multiple sources can be an enormous help with the ingredients problem. In fact, this second problem has two important practical components: first, how to find an ingredient you don't have, and second, how to decide what to substitute if you just can’t find it anywhere. For example, since they both discuss Thai cuisine, both The Essential Asian Cookbook and The Food of Asia give brief descriptions of “holy basil.” In the glossary of The Essential Asian Cookbook, a main entry on “basil” begins by noting:

“Three varieties of basil are used in Asian cooking; all of which are very aromatic. If any are unavailable, substitute fresh sweet basil or fresh coriander in cooked dishes and fresh mint in salads.”

The entry then goes on to list the three types, including a color photograph of each, the name in Thai, and a brief description. The description of “purple or holy basil (bai kaphrao)” notes that it has “narrow, dark, purple-reddish tinged leaves with a pungent, clove-like taste.” The glossary entry in The Food of Asia is shorter, simply noting that “Holy basil is either red or green with slightly pointed, variegated leaves,” but it does refer to page 228 for more details; that description includes a color photograph, the Thai name “bai ka-phrao,” and the additional information that holy basil comes in both red and white varieties. This description accompanies a recipe for “chicken with crisp holy basil leaves,” described as “one of the most common dishes you will come across in Thailand.” In contrast, while The Essential Asian Cookbook gives the potentially very useful substitution information quoted above for holy basil – information I have not been able to find in The Food of Asia – it does not give a recipe for this “most common of Thai dishes.” So, if you want both Pad Thai and chicken with crisp holy basil leaves, you need both books. (The Joy of Cooking doesn’t list “holy basil” in the index).

Asian grocery stores – some of them quite good – are becoming more common, and this helps greatly with the problem of finding ingredients, but matching what you need with what is available can still be a problem. One factor that is both a complication and something of a simplification is the influence of Chinese culture on Asian cooking. This point is illustrated clearly by Culinaria Southeast Asia: although China is not one of the countries included, the book begins with a discussion of Chinese cooking in Singapore that features 32 color illustrations of different dim sum dishes, each with their anglicized Chinese names (e.g., “Zha nai huang bao: deep-fried dumplings filled with lotus paste, on a garnish of omelet and cucumber”). This is followed by a discussion of China teas (with photographs of nine different kinds, with the names in Chinese characters accompanying each photo) and then a discussion of traditional Chinese herbal medicines and more exotic treatments (dried sea horses, geckos, and monkey head fungi, anyone?), all as a lead-in to soups. In fact, throughout the Singapore section of the book, Chinese characters accompany almost all of the descriptions of dishes, ingredients, cooking utensils, and food art. The color photos of 16 exotic vegetables on pages 56 and 57 include brief descriptions in English, with the anglicized Chinese names and the name in Chinese characters. All of this can be extremely useful if you are looking for some unfamiliar ingredient in an Asian market: if your recipe calls for “bitter melon,” it may be useful to know that the Chinese name is something like either “foo gwa” or “ku gua.”

This last point is the reason that I also particularly like A Popular Guide to Chinese Vegetables, by Martha Dahlen and Karen Phillipps, which may be regarded as a book-length expansion of pages 56 and 57 from Culinaria Southeast Asia. Published by Crown Publishers in 1983, their little book (113 pages) appears to be out of print, but it is still available used through Amazon. Each entry includes a detailed color drawing to help you identify the vegetable, an anglicized Chinese name, and the corresponding Chinese characters, along with information on appearance and advice on selection and cooking. The book discusses about 70 vegetables, ranging from familiar types like lettuce and eggplant to more exotic species like “slippery vegetable” and “dracontomellum,” a little olive-like thing whose name is translated approximately as “man-in-the-moon fruit.” While the primary focus of this book is on identifying and selecting Chinese vegetables, it does include a few recipes with some of the descriptions. Two particularly interesting examples are those given in the “lotus root” entry: the one for “octo-pork soup" calls for “one small dried octopus, ½ pound of pork bones, and 6 to 10 inches of lotus root, well scrubbed.” The other recipe is for “braised pork and lotus,” and it calls for fermented red bean curd (naam yue), noting that if you don’t have any naam yue a possible substitute is equal parts dark and light soy sauce, “but the taste will be completely different.”

So far, I haven’t found the same advice in any of the other three cookbooks, highly as I reccomend them: that’s why you need a small collection.