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).

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Great American Condiment

A few years ago, shortly after one of my favorite local restaurants opened, a customer became totally unglued when she learned that ketchup was not available with the steak and pommes frites she had ordered for dinner. Unable to endure ketchuplessness, she melted down like a cranky two year-old, letting everyone in the dining room know that her meal had been ruined beyond redemption and predicting the restaurant’s imminent demise. Fortunately for the rest of us, she turned out to be wrong.

Several years before that, a friend of a friend went with his new wife to Norway to meet some of the in-laws. In honor of the occasion, they served lutefisk, a Scandinavian specialty made from dried cod, soaked for days in water with lye, and then cooked until translucent. It must be said that lutefisk is an acquired taste, like many national or regional specialties (“Comin’ to the muskrat festival again this year, Earl?”), and my friend’s friend horrified his new in-laws by dousing it with ketchup.

What exactly is this quintessentially American condiment that makes it necessary for so many of us to enjoy our food, either at home or abroad? According to the 3rd edition of Sharon Tyler Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion – a great little book that describes everything from absinthe to zungenwurst – ketchup is “a spicy pickled-fish condiment popular in 17th century China.” It was apparently brought to the U.K. by British seamen, where it evolved considerably. One popular version was mushroom catsup, described in Joe’s Book of Mushroom Cookery, by Jack Czarnecki:

“Mushroom catsup originated in English cookery, where layers of fresh mushrooms were salted and skimmed over a period of three days to a week. During this time the salt would extract the liquid from the mushrooms, which would be strained and seasoned. The resulting liquid would be cooked down to a syrupy extract, sealed, and sold as a condiment for meats or for a simple addition to sauces. It is found only rarely today, since this salting method is expensive, not to mention the fact that the catsup is very salty.”

In fact, while it is not readily available on most supermarket shelves, it is possible to obtain mushroom ketchup through specialty food suppliers even here in the U.S (in fact, it appears that Amazon will soon have it available on-line: you can request an e-mail notification from them when it is available). I have a bottle of it sitting on my shelf, “prepared from an original recipe by G. Watkins, Estab. 1830.” The back of the bottle gives a glowing testimonial:

“This rich traditional cooking sauce was the secret of success of many Victorian Cooks with Steak and Kidney Pies and Puddings, Roast Meats, Sauces and Soups.”

Indeed, ketchup recipes can include almost anything. In his book, Pure Ketchup: A History of America’s National Condiment, Andrew Smith includes recipes for 50 different ketchups from the 18th to the 20th century, with versions made from anchovies, beer, cranberries, cucumbers, elderberries, grapes, lemons, liver, lobster, oysters, peaches, peppers, plums, raspberries, squash, walnuts, and whortleberries. Like mushroom catsup, most of these varieties aren’t readily available on supermarket shelves today, either.

According to the FDA’s official definition, ketchup is made with tomatoes. Indeed, tomato ketchup is popular enough that in 1981, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed elevating its status from a condiment to a vegetable. Supposedly, this was to help school districts meet the costs of federally mandated lunch programs, but public outrage led them to abandon the idea. Interestingly, this attempt at reclassification mirrors an earlier, successful one: the tomato itself isn’t even a vegetable, botanically speaking (it’s actually a fruit), although it was classified as a vegetable for trade purposes by the U.S. Government in 1893. While Shakespeare may have argued that “a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” it is clear that he didn’t have a firm grasp of the economic or political implications of classification and nomenclature.

In the end, there is some evidence that ketchup may be on its way out as the national condiment. In his book, Are You Really Going to Eat That?, food writer Rob Walsh describes the following incident at a roadside eatery in Seabrook, Texas. A group of diners at a nearby table were incensed by the lack of ranch dressing for their onion rings. The waitress attempted to explain that the restaurant didn’t have any salad dressings because they didn’t serve any salads, but the diners were still miffed. As Walsh observed,

“Ranch dressing has nothing to do with salad in Texas. Several Texas chefs have told me they’ve been astonished by the rise in the requests for ranch dressing in the last ten years. It’s now used as a dip and a sauce more often than as a salad topping. (In West Texas, some restaurant patrons seem to regard it as a beverage.) I suspect it long ago surpassed ketchup and salsa as the number-one condiment in the state. For a major segment of the dining public, onion rings without ranch dressing are unthinkable – so are pizza, biscuits, and canned peaches.”

Walsh’s unhappy dining companions didn’t give up, repeating their request for ranch dressing until the waitress suggested they go buy a bottle at a convenience store.

Her suggestion gave me an idea. Motivated by the question of what sort of ketchup might be appropriate with steak and pommes frites, I conducted an Internet search. Among my finds was an article on a food fair in Paris that featured – along with chocolate foie gras and a kiwi liqueur – a thick blue ketchup made with black currants based on an 18th century recipe. The developers noted that it tastes somewhat like tomato ketchup because of the cinnamon and other spices they include. One customer thought it would go well with duck. I kept looking.
Ultimately, I found a suitable product sold by French Country Home ( http://www.frenchcountryhome.com/shop/gourmet-selections ), a company specializing in “French products, French hand-crafted items, and gourmet foods from the south of France,” who offer “Authentic 16th Century Catsup:”

“Our artisanal producer has recreated a unique old-fashioned catsup based on a 16th century recipe and is similar to what you may find today in Cajun or north African kitchens. This authentic catsup (NOT ketchup!) is somewhat sweet and subtly spicy. It’s a delicious sauce on its own and also ideal as a base for barbecue and pasta sauces or meat or seafood marinades. Packaged in an old-fashioned 8.8 oz (250 ml) wax-sealed, corked bottle.”

While it is probably not available in most convenience stores (indeed, the website indicates that the company’s office is temporarily closed for renovations), it seems perfect for a French restaurant.

All that remains is the obvious question: “You want frites with that?”

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Tale of Theology, Mystery, War Cakes, Prince Polo Biscuits and Spiced Peacock

Halldor Laxness was an Icelandic author, born in Reykjavik in 1902, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, wrote over 60 books in a range of genres, and died in 1998. Probably his best-known novel is Independent People, the tale of Bjartur of Summerhouses, a man whose rigid notions of independence have consequences about as grim as any in literature. For example, returning from a long journey in search of a lost sheep, he finds that his wife has died alone in childbirth, but – mainly thanks to his dog (“the warmth of her lousy body, hungry and emaciated”) – the child has survived. As he struggles to straighten out his wife’s corpse, he considers his situation:

"This put him in no mean quandary, the independent man, for experienced hands were needed, probably female hands, he himself dared not have anything to do with it. Must he then ask help of other people? The last thing that he had impressed upon his wife was not to ask help of other people – an independent man who resorts to other people for help gives himself over into the power of the arch-fiend; and now this same humiliation was to be pronounced on him; on Bjartur of Summerhouses; but he was determined to pay what was asked of him."

Very much lighter in tone is my favorite Laxness novel, Under the Glacier, published in 1968 and translated into English in 1972 by Magnus Magnusson. This hilarious novel is available from the Random House imprint Vintage International with a forward by Susan Sontag. I have always liked the magical realist style of novels like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude or John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, and I would have to classify this novel in much the same vein. It is the story of an emissary selected by the Bishop of Iceland to investigate strange tales surrounding a rogue priest living near the Snaefells Glacier, the place chosen by Jules Verne for the beginning of his Journey to the Center of the Earth. The story is told in a mixture of first and third person, with the bishop’s emissary usually referring to himself either as “the undersigned” or as “Embi,” an abbreviation for “emissary of the bishop.” His assigned task is to investigate a number of questions important to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, including whether rumors of the Glacier church’s being boarded up are true, why the pastor hasn’t drawn his salary in over 20 years, and why he hasn’t divorced his wife, “even though it’s a known fact that she has never shared bed nor board with him.” Further, Embi’s instructions are to simply report the facts: under no circumstances is he to attempt to understand or interpret what he observes.

On his arrival at the house of Jon Primus, the errant minister, Embi is ushered in by a woman who leaves him alone in the house with all of the doors open. Sitting there in the cold, he considers what he should do:

“He had been sent here only to look for facts. If he had to sit here without food all night, that was as good a fact for his report as any other. It’s about as unscientific as it would be dishonest to stop a scientific process in midstream on moral grounds – for instance, because one’s feet are frozen.”

Finally, at midnight, he smells coffee and the woman returns:

“The woman poured the visitor a cup of coffee and invited him to help himself, then took up position by the door with a stern expression on her face. The coffee had a mouldy taste, and truth to tell I was paralysed by the sight of these innumerable cakes arrayed around such awful coffee.”

Included in this array of cakes – which he estimated to number in the hundreds – were “three war-cakes, so called because they became fashionable during the war.” According to the historical comments given on the allrecipes.com website, war cakes used “ingredients that were available to the average household during World War II.” The website gives a recipe, but the real “flavor” of the war cake is probably best captured by the recipe in M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf, included in her collected volume, The Art of Eating. A note from the publisher indicates that “How to Cook a Wolf was first published in 1942, when wartime shortages were at their worst.” Fisher’s war cake recipe calls for ½ cup of shortening, but she notes that “bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste.”

In summarizing the state of the church, Embi includes the following comments in his report:

“I also note pro tem that the church seems only moderately suited to attracting a congregation. Windows boarded with boxwood, the main door securely nailed shut.”

Later, Embi notes that there are no front steps so that entering the church would be difficult in any case (“Cannot see how members of the congregation can gain entry into God’s House if one excepts gymnasts in the prime of life.”)

The central theme of Under the Glacier is Embi’s journey of self-discovery, complicated both by his general youth and inexperience and by the surreal nature of the life he finds at Glacier. Central mysteries in the novel include rumors of a casket abandoned in the glacier, and the nature of the pastor’s wife, who is rumored to be dead. Theological debates about the necessity of saying something at a funeral are interwoven with discussions of reincarnation couched in terms of geophysics, “cosmobiological induction,” and “bioastrochemistry.” In addition, music is thrown into the mix, with Embi observing one of three itinerant mystics – called The Drop – as he seeks some central musical truth:

“The Drop sat kneeling and touched his lute with long pauses in between searching for the note that can only be sought far back in geophysics. It has been proved that there was a dry spell on earth once for 200 million years. Not a drop from the sky. No life possible. Yet the idea of water, which is the idea of life, continued to live in the deserts of the earth. Perhaps this lute-player had captured a note of the drop that went on falling in remote caverns of the Andes for 200 million years. Let us hope and pray that the music of the absolute is not just yet another variant of the Anglo-Saxon antimusic that blares out from the ghetto blasters of the world night and day.”

As this passage illustrates, Laxness’ novels include biting political commentary, here slipped into Embi’s descriptions with little warning. For example, in a follow-up of his initial encounter with the “innumerable cakes arrayed around such awful coffee,” the undersigned describes the next day’s offering:

“And though a detailed description of such a banquet does not directly concern this report, I cannot but emphasise the crucial change that has taken place since last night, in that a new sensation has now overthrown the war-cakes – foreign wafer-biscuits coated with melted chocolate. These are Prince Polo biscuits of the kind the undersigned was offered this morning at the parish clerk’s, specially manufactured in Poland for the Icelanders. Concerning this foodstuff I refer to Tumi Jonsen the parish clerk. In itself it is no small compliment to the morals of a nation to point out that when it had become wealthy and no longer knew how rich it was, it did not copy the example of other prosperous nations by eating many kinds of steaks and pates on weekdays and spiced peacock on Sundays, washed down with piment and claret; instead, Prince Polo biscuits were all that the nation indulged in as a sweetener after the centuries of black pudding and whale meat.”

Laxness’ commentary is particularly amusing in light of the fact that Prince Polo biscuits remain popular enough that an Icelandic commentator recently joked on the contemporary tourism website ( virtualtourist.com ) that “coke and Prince Polo is the national dish of Iceland.” Concerning “spiced peacock on Sundays,” Alan Davidson notes in The Penguin Companion to Food that peacock was once regarded as essential banquet fare (Cicero commented in the first century BC that it was “daring” to host a peacockless banquet), but despite its historical popularity, peacock seems to have been tough and not particularly good to eat. Instead, the bird’s continuing popularity for 1,600 years seems to have been due to presentation; Davidson notes:

“It is true that there were occasions when peacocks made a wonderful display on the table, feathers fully fanned out, bodies gilded with real gold leaf, flames spitting from their mouths, a sight that would impress anyone.”

Eventually, peacock appears to have been replaced by turkey as the banquet fowl of choice, rarely appearing on menus after the 17th century.

The ironic writing style evident in Under the Glacier is reminiscent of skaz, described by Jeremy Hicks in the introduction of his translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s The Galosh as, “the use of an unsophisticated but highly colorful language put into the mouths of characters who themselves typically tell the story.” The technique is clearly evident in the work of a number of Russian authors, including both Zoshchenko (who I will discuss in a later post) and the generally better-known Nikolay Gogol. Laxness’ technique is not exactly the same, but it comes close in some of Embi’s observations, such as the one quoted above about access to the church.

In her introduction to Magnusson’s translation of Under the Glacier, Susan Sontag notes that this novel is unlike any of Laxness’ others, offering it as the only novel she knows that encompasses all of the nine genres she lists, ranging from science fiction to philosophical novel to sexual turn-on. Overall, she offers the following summary:

“This is a novel of immense charm that flirts with being a spoof. It is a satire on religion, full of amusing New Age mumbo jumbo. It’s a book of ideas, like no other Laxness ever wrote.”

While I can’t claim Sontag’s literary breadth, I would have to add that Under the Glacier is a novel quite unlike any other I have ever read, by any author.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Rise of the Lowly Ramp

Every fall, the annual Punkin’ Chunkin’ festival takes place in Nassau, Delaware. A friend of mine once speculated that this event got its start as the result of a bunch of guys standing around saying things like, “Hold my beer and watch this.” Whatever its origins, the event is now attended by thousands, drawing participants from all over the U.S. The objective is to see how far you can throw a pumpkin, and the techniques used range from gigantic air cannon to medieval catapults and trebuchets (think of a three-story whirligig on giant wooden wheels, designed to chuck boulders over castle ramparts). The 2008 record was set by an air cannon that launched a pumpkin just over three quarters of a mile.

Every spring, ramp festivals take place, most commonly in West Virginia, but also in a number of other states, including Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The plant honored at these festivals – eaten, rather than thrown – is a pungent relative of onions, garlic and chives, growing in North American woodlands from Nova Scotia to Georgia and as far west as Iowa and Minnesota. Like Delaware’s Punkin’ Chunkin’ event, these festivals are pretty down-to-earth affairs, typically held in April or May during the peak of the ramp’s brief growing season. Once pretty much restricted to the cooking traditions of rural Appalachia, ramps have recently ascended to a place of culinary honor and are now actively sought by foodies from New York to San Francisco, bringing prices from $10 to $20 a pound. Like morels and fiddlehead ferns – both of which have about the same season as ramps – these formerly obscure “little stinkers” have also begun to appear on the menus of upscale restaurants. Last spring, my wife and I had an appetizer at a local restaurant consisting of ramps, morels, and fava beans served over fettuccine. It was fantastic.

The April, 2009 issue of Bon Appetit gives some general cooking advice for ramps, along with detailed recipes for ramp and buttermilk biscuits with cracked coriander, ramp and sausage risotto, scrambled eggs with morels, ramps and asparagus, and seared salmon with linguine and ramp pesto. The April, 2008 issue of the now tragically defunct Gourmet gives a recipe for ramp soup, while the April, 2000 issue tells how to prepare both roasted chicken with ramps and potatoes, and spaghetti with ramps, and the 1999 French Laundry Cookbook includes a recipe for fava bean agnolotti with curry emulsion that uses ramps. Also known as wild leeks, ramps are discussed in Elizabeth Schneider’s book, Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide, where she offers the following advice: “Cook wild leeks in just about any way you would cultivated ones, but with discretion, as they are stronger.” She also notes that “although I am told that they are commonly consumed raw in ramp country, I would guess that their pungency would be too much for all but the most devoted.” In addition to these words of general advice, Schneider also gives recipes for wild leeks vinaigrette, shad stuffed with its roe and wild leeks, wild leek and seafood timbales with lime sabayon sauce, and a soup of wild leeks and potato with cheese toasts. Discovering ramps in our local Whole Foods grocery store last spring, my wife and I planned to try this last recipe for ourselves, but we made the unfortunate strategic mistake of not buying the ramps the day we saw them: by the time we checked the recipe and came back a few days later, they were all gone. This year, we were luckier: we grabbed the ramps as soon as we saw them and were able to try Schneider’s soup: it was delicious. We saved one ramp and I used it in the scrambled egg recipe at the end of this post.

Probably the best place to buy ramps is at a local farmer’s market or roadside produce stand, although they are sometimes available in grocery stores. As last year's Whole Foods experience emphasizes, however, it is important to grab them when you see them since their season is short and they have been “discovered” by a growing audience of those seeking new tastes. Ramps can also be ordered via the Internet (see, for example, Earthy Delights at earthy.com ), but again, only during their short spring season.
Of course, to get the full ramp experience, there is no better way than to attend one of the local ramp festivals. One of the biggest is held in Cosby, Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Begun in 1954 by the Cosby Ruritan Club of Cocke County, the ramp festival was undertaken as a publicity gimmick to increase tourism and it seems to have worked. The first year, the festival drew between 5,000 and 6,000 people, and the next year’s attendees included ex-President Harry Truman; in 1959, almost 30,000 people came, drawn in part by the presence of Tennessee Ernie Ford as a celebrity guest. The festival features lots of ramps, of course, along with country and bluegrass music, dancing, and a contest that selects and crowns a “Maid of the Ramps.” The Richwood Ramp Fest held in Richwood, West Virginia claims to be the oldest in the country, dating back to 1939. Their website ( richwooders.com ) features links to a lot of other websites, including those with places and dates for other ramp festivals and recipes from a vast array of sources (everything from cookbooks like Mom and Ramps Forever to Martha Stewart and epicurious.com). Finally, a festival with one of the most unusual ranges of offerings is the Mason-Dixon Ramp Festival, held in Greene County, Pennsylvania, featuring ramp soup, ramp cheese, ramp kielbasa, and ramp wine.

These festivals have their European counterpart in the Calcotades held in the Catalan region of Northern Spain to celebrate calcots, a variety of scallion that is somewhat milder than an onion with an appearance something like a small leek. Their growing season is similar to that of ramps and they are traditionally roasted and served with grilled meats and a spicy dipping sauce. Like ramp festivals in the Southeastern U.S., these Calcotades are unique, local experiences.

Scrambled Eggs with Ramps, Ham, and Gruyere


1 large ramp
3 eggs
1 oz sliced ham
¼ cup grated Gruyere
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

To prepare:

Rinse the ramp well, cut off the root, remove any wilted leaves, and chop into thin slices, including the bulb, stem, and leaves. Saute in olive oil with salt and pepper until soft.
Beat eggs and add to ramps, along with the ham, torn into small pieces. Stir mixture until almost done. Add Gruyere and continue stirring until cheese is melted and well blended. Serve immediately.

I served this dish with slices of a seeded wheat bread from my local Whole Foods that reminds me of the nut bread (nussbrot) I used to get in Switzerland. According to Dornenburg and Page (What to Drink with What You Eat, Bullfinch Press, New York, 2006), eggs and leeks (they don’t list ramps) go well with chardonnay, but their entry on eggs includes the warning, “avoid oak.” This was disappointing to me since my favorite chardonnay is Kendal Jackson’s, which my wine-friends regard as the standard for a “really oaky chardonnay.” Nevertheless, I went with Dornenburg and Page’s suggestion and paired the dish with a Hearldsburg Ranches Sonoma County “unoaked” 2007 chardonnay. Despite my personal affinity for oak, it proved to be an excellent choice.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Whisper of Nutmeg

I recently discovered a novel that seems to have been written especially for this blog: The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. The title refers to a cooking school that the central character, Lillian, conducts once a month, on Monday nights when her restaurant is closed. She and her school are the unifying elements that run through the novel, bringing together the lives of eight students. For the most part, these students are there in an effort to escape from, identify, or deal with troubling non-culinary issues in their lives. Each character - Lillian included - is given a chapter that essentially begins with them stewing in their own juices. As the novel progresses, they simmer and blend together, demonstrating that joys and sorrows - like spices - come in an infinite variety of flavors, no two alike.

While foods, culinary techniques, and vivid sensual descriptions are infused throughout the novel, recipes per se are not. For example, the following instructions are given for preparing stuffed turkey breast with rosemary, cranberries, and pancetta:
"Take ingredients on the prep table, chop as need be. Butterfly turkey and flavor inside and out. Make a package. Send it."
Antonia and Isabelle, the two students charged with preparing the dish decide "we can work with that," but they also decide that the dried cranberries they have been given "need something," so they soak them in sherry. The sherry proves highly effective in reviving both the dried cranberries and certain memories, but not necessarily good ones.

Very early in the novel, we learn that Lillian's father abandoned her and her mother when she was four years old. As a result, her mother "slid into books like a seal into water," leaving Lillian to learn, as early as she could, how to handle all forms of housework:
"But it was the cooking that occurred in her friends' homes that fascinated Lillian - the aromas that started calling to her just when she had to go home in the evening. Some smells were sharp, an olfactory clatter of heels across a hardwood floor. Others felt like the warmth in the air at the far end of summer."
As this passage illustrates, some of Bauermeister's sensory characterizations are superb, especially in her description of Lillian's childhood. Another example is young Lillian's description of avocado as, "wrinkled and grumpy on the outside, spring green within, creamy as ice cream when smashed into guacamole."

One of the things I particularly liked about The School of Essential Ingredients is its form. By giving each character a chapter presented from their own point of view, questions can be posed from one perspective, examined and debated in others, and finally answered in yet another. For example, early on the night of the first class, we see seven complete strangers through the eyes of Claire, a young mother wrestling with questions of just who she really is, beyond her roles as wife and mother. She scans the room forming initial impressions of the other seven, including "a beautiful woman with olive skin and eyes the color of melted chocolate" who turns out to be Antonia, while next to her, "almost hidden in the corner of the room, sat a man whose sadness seemed to have been pressed into his shirt." The general question Claire's initial scan of the room poses - "who are these people?" - is refined into more specific questions as we move through the novel, which are answered in turn, sometimes quite surprisingly.

In one of their last classes, Lillian and her students prepare fondue, and the following description of the results seems an apt metaphor for the book overall:
"Helen prepared a bite and placed the fork inside her mouth, the sharpness of the Gruyere and Emmenthaler mingling with the slight bite of the dry white wine and melting together into something softer, gentler, meeting up with the steady hand of bread supporting the whole confection. Hiding, almost hidden, so she had to take a second bite to be sure, was the playful kiss of cherry kirsch and a whisper of nutmeg."