Sunday, November 13, 2011

Margaret Wittenberg’s New Good Food

I recently received a copy of New Good Food by Margaret Wittenberg as a gift, a book that I have admired for some time now, thumbing through display copies when the chance presented itself. As she notes in the book’s introduction, the author is a vice president of Whole Foods Market, so it is not surprising that I discovered it at our local Whole Foods, or that the store carries many of the less common food items she discusses. She begins the book by describing herself as “an intuitive cook” who can visualize how different ingredients play together in terms of flavor, texture, and presentation. She goes on to say (on page ix):

“Although some of my knack is likely innate, much of it I developed through experience, by cooking, observing, listening, and reading.”

The intent of her book is clear: to share this information with others, focusing on a wide range of ingredients that may be very traditional, but not all in the same culture. In just under 300 pages, this book is organized into 13 un-numbered chapters, with the following titles:

• Fruits and Vegetables

• Grains

• Whole Grain and Specialty Flours

• Breads

• Pasta and Noodles

• Beans, Peas, and Lentils

• Nuts and Seeds

• Culinary Oils

• Meat, Poultry, and Eggs

• Dairy Products

• Seafood

• Essential Seasonings

• Sweeteners

Each chapter begins with some general discussion of the topic at hand (for example, the Grains chapter includes a discussion of how much whole grain to prepare: 1 cup of uncooked grain is said to typically feed 2 to 4 people) and most of the chapters conclude with an “Exploring” section that gives brief descriptions of a wide range of ingredient varieties. For example, the section on “Exploring Pasta and Noodles” covers both the familiar, like Italian-style dried pasta, and the more exotic, like pastas made from Jerusalem artichokes, quinoa, and spelt. These descriptions range from a couple of sentences to about half a page. One of the really intriguing short descriptions is that of lotus root soba, a Japanese noodle that is characterized as having “a delicious nutty flavor and aroma similar to that of freshly cooked lotus root.”

One of the most interesting chapters is the penultimate one on “Essential Seasonings,” whose title left me expecting a discussion of spices. While the chapter does begin with four pages on salt, this is not followed by discussions of other “standard” flavoring ingredients like pepper, nutmeg, or tarragon, but instead goes into reasonably detailed treatments of miso, tamari and shoyu, umeboshi plums, and a variety of sea vegetables, including Irish moss, kombu, and sea beans. Besides describing these unusual edibles, the book gives brief but useful cooking instructions. To cook sea lettuce, for example, the book notes that “it’s best to combine it with other ingredients to minimize its slightly bitter taste.” Some of what I regard as more standard “seasoning ingredients” are discussed in the book, but mostly in the earlier chapter on “Fruits and Vegetables,” which devotes about a page and a half to fresh herbs and about four and a half pages to peppers, including tables describing both fresh and dried peppers.

In general, I like this book a lot, in part because of the range of unusual new (to me) foods it describes, including everything from lotus root (which I have seen but haven’t yet had the opportunity to taste) to edible flowers (nasturtiums are described as “sweet, mustardlike”), from teff (a gluten-free whole grain with extremely small seeds) to Tongues of Fire (an Italian bean, said to be a good addition to pasta dishes and soups), from birch syrup (really, from birch trees) to broccoflower (a cross between broccoli and cauliflower; I’m familiar with this one from when I lived in Switzerland: it’s delicious). Just reading through the descriptions makes me hungry and most curious. For example, the umeboshi plums I mentioned above are “made from sour, unripe fruits of the ume tree, which is native to China.” The description (on page 231) goes on to say that these fruits are closer to apricots than to plums (pluots, anyone?) and that their preparation is fairly intricate: they are pickled in sea salt for about a month, dried in the sun, other ingredients are added (dark red shiso leaves), they continue to soak, then they are finally aged in barrels for about a year. In addition, the brine from the plums is sold as umeboshi vinegar to be used as a condiment. Somehow, I have to find these things and try them.

The one potential shortcoming of the book – and this isn’t really a fault of the book, but just part of the challenge of exploring new tastes – is that my favorite flavor pairing book, The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg doesn’t have anything to say about a lot of the intriguing ingredients in New Good Food. In some cases, there are enough “near matches” that this isn’t a problem: while The Flavor Bible doesn’t have an entry for “broccoflower,” it does list both “broccoli” and “cauliflower,” so it shouldn’t be too difficult to look for compatible ingredients common to both lists and try them (for example, cheese is highly recommended for both, especially cheddar, Parmesan or goat cheese, as are unsalted butter, garlic, and lemon juice). The more challenging cases are things like sea beans and umeboshi plums, although a careful reading of both books does come to the rescue here. Specifically, in her chapter on “Essential Seasonings,” one reason that Wittenberg includes so many unexpected (to me, at least) “non-spice” flavorings is that she begins the chapter with a discussion of umami. This “fifth flavor” – in addition to the “standard four” many of us learned in school: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter – is commonly associated with things like mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, and cured ham. To this list, Wittenberg adds “sea vegetables, soy sauce, and miso,” and her chapter emphasizes “umami flavoring ingredients.” This provides the needed link to The Flavor Bible, which has an entry on “umami” (page 355), listing everything from anchovies to walnuts, including some of my favorite flavors of all time: aged Gruyere, clams, Asian fish sauce, lobster, oysters, pork, potatoes, sardines, meat-based sauces, dry-aged, grilled steaks, and truffles. (Now, I have definitely got to find some umeboshi plums to try …).

Finally, it is important to note that, while the flavor pairings are less extensive than those given in The Flavor Bible, Wittenberg’s book does include recommended pairings in many of her descriptions. For example, in her description of the gluten-free grain Job’s Tears, Wittenberg recommends ginger, parsley, onions and chives as flavor enhancers. Similarly, it’s good to know that Jacob’s Cattle Beans make “the basis for a simple salad when combined with fresh herbs and a splash of olive oil.” Hmm,…how about rau ram (Vietnamese coriander), the fresh herb described on page 17 as having a “spicy taste and aroma similar to those of lemon and coriander”?

It is clear that this is going to be a fun manuscript to munch my way through.