Listen to the Music

CCI28042016_2I was born with music.

My Dad was a failed music major (he didn’t want to learn violin), and an accomplished amateur church organist. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to him play the ancient pump organ in the antebellum chapel in our backyard. Later, he adopted a reed organ from a deconsecrated Catholic Church and rebuilt it in our basement. When we moved to Georgia, the organ got the master bedroom. I grew up to a soundtrack of Bach’s Preludes and Fugues.

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Dad playing the organ

There was classical music, but Dad also loved his German music (yes, complete with accordion). Heino was a particular favourite. Mom was partial to Gordon Lightfoot, especially “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which she must have played a million times.

My Uncle Chuck played piano, organ, and accordion — an instinct I seem to have inherited from him.

I grew up with the usual exposure to pop and rock, with a little country mixed in. I started playing clarinet when I was 11 and later added saxophone. I loved playing classical music, but yearned to play jazz. Dad reckoned if I ever ran away, he’d find me busking on Jackson Square in New Orleans. He’s probably right. In the end, I was either too shy, too lazy, or lacked the confidence to pursue a musical career. When I started university, I packed up the instruments. But over the years to come I explored a world of music.

As a consumer of music my taste has always been eclectic. It is easiest to explain my musical taste by identifying the music I don’t like: ABBA. I’ve told Simon that if I am ever in a vegetative state and he has to decide whether to pull the plug, he should sit by my bedside and play ABBA. If I don’t immediately wake up and tell him to turn that sh*t off, I’m gone. There. Is. No. One. Home.

Please don’t troll me. I don’t think less of you because you love ABBA. My best friend loves ABBA. My husband at least likes ABBA. My dogs would probably love ABBA if I allowed it to be played in the house. Chickens, too.

You hate Brussels Sprouts? Well I love them. There’s no accounting for taste.

I especially love various kinds of soul music, by which I mean, music that expresses the deepest elements of a people’s history, spirituality, and identity. Cajun Zydeco. Appalachian Bluegrass. Portuguese Fado. Memphis Blues. Gypsy Swing. Kletzmer. Reggae. Ska. Dixieland Jazz. New Orleans Funk. Motown. Gospel. I haven’t had much experience with Hip Hop, except in Africa, but I surely do understand its power.

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These Hip Hop musicians in Senegal founded the grassroots political movement “Y’en a mare” – enough is enough — that were pivotal in bringing democratic change to their country. Music has power!

In short, If it reaches into your heart, makes you want to dance, or weep, or praise the lord, I love it.

In the aftermath of my first dance with the black dog, in the early 1990s, my Video tapes of The Color Purple and Terminator II (the one where Linda Hamilton, playing Sarah Connor, goes all gansta on a psychiatric ward), and my Wynona, Willie Nelson, Francine Reed, Lyle Lovett, Gypsy Kings, R.E.M., and k. d. Lang CDs kept me going through many a dark night.

Eventually, the clouds lifted and for the next two decades or so, I collected more and more wonderful music to love from places like Bali, Senegal, Ghana, Kenya, and New Zealand. Maori music gives me goosebumps. The Maori musician I heard playing guitar and singing “Born on the Bayou” at the Riverbank Market on Easter Saturday made me stand still and say, out loud, like a prayer, “God, I love this country!” And then I put some coin in his guitar case.

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Learning drumming in Sobo Bade, Senegal

Depression is a thief. And somewhere along the line, depression stole my music. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened. It probably came on in stages. My father died and I couldn’t bear to listen to Bach. Organ music sent me into gales of tears. Normal grief? Probably.

Then, sometime after Simon and I got married, I changed divisions at the company where I worked. My new office was in the SCIF — the Special and Compartmented Information Facility, basically, a safe in which highly classified materials, discussions, and people are housed out of the reach of prying electronic eyes. Being effectively locked in my office all day, with no windows (technically, there were windows, but we weren’t allowed to open the blinds), and no access to personal electronics, meaning no iPods and no music CDs, felt like a daily flashback to the psych ward. I was in a sustained panic attack for two years.

Suddenly, music wasn’t soothing, it was searing. I quite literally couldn’t bear it. Looking back, I realise the black dog had been slowly, quietly, shadowing me just waiting for the opportunity to knock me over. We moved to New Zealand, my anxiety shot to previously unknown levels, I stopped sleeping and, eventually, my psyche crumbled under the pressure. Again, for the second time, I had to find a way to want to live.

But I didn’t, I couldn’t, turn to music. I had hundreds of CDs of music I love, and I couldn’t face them. It was as though sound, especially music, might make my head explode. Anhedonia — the inability to derive happiness from things you love — is a well known symptom of depression. But this was something else. It was as though the part of my brain that processed music had somehow been disconnected from my pleasure centres and grafted onto my fight or flight centres.

Of all the cruel things depression has ever inflicted on me, this was the worst. Even when I lost the ability to enjoy eating — and I did — I could, at least, get a positive sense of achievement by cooking for others. I find giving dinner parties is actually an excellent depression coping mechanism. Provided I could get myself to the grocery store (which wasn’t always easy because I had also developed a grocery store phobia), I knew I could chop, sauté, boil, and bake and beautiful food would ensue that my friends would happily come eat. I didn’t have to talk. They’d do the talking. I just had to provide the raw material — food, music — and a party would happen.

But no music? How do you heal in silence? I read loads of books. I worked with a wonderful, caring therapist. I took my crazy pills. I cooked. And eventually, I started this blog.

Then, one day while I was back in the states, I got it in my head that I would learn to play the accordion. The idea had been floating around in my head since I heard a local group, The Wellington Sea Shanty Society, on Radio NZ on International Talk Like a Pirate Day. I could play the accordion. After all, the accordion isn’t really music, right? My friends keep telling me that. But I’ve always loved the accordion. I even enjoyed watching Lawrence Welk with my Grandparents! So I bought a used accordion on Trade-Me for about $300.00. It was waiting for me when I got home. And I went online to find an accordion teacher.

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I’m not, and probably never will be, a great accordionist. But Katie is a great teacher. One day, no so long ago, she was explaining the Circle of Fifths, or maybe it was chord progressions, and something flashed in my head. It was . . . joy! Katie gave me my music back. I think I laughed out loud. I’m sure she thought I was crazy. But then, I am.

JOY! Music and joy! I have my music back! Our “box room” now looks like the Big One has hit, with CDs strewn all over the floor, sorted into piles that mean something only to me. I found myself wanting to share my music, with Katie, with Simon, with the chickens, with anyone who will listen.

Don’t be surprised if I run up to you one day, waving a CD, or my iPod, and saying “You have to listen to this music!”

And CJ loves it when I sing! I promise you, he’s the only one who will ever love to hear me sing. My music is giving him joy.

It is as though I have five years of backed up music clamouring to be let out. My accordion has turned out to have seasonal affective disorder and all the keys have gone sticky. So until I can get a newer, less temperamental one, I’m learning on a digital piano. I’ve ordered a music journal and music staff paper. I’m not talented, but I’m most certainly enthusiastic. I have been, to quote C.S. Lewis, surprised by joy.IMG_0418

A few days ago, I got Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry. Terry describes himself as “Alice Waters meets Melvin Van Peebles.” For each (marvellous) recipe, he includes a “suggested soundtrack” — a song or an album “to be enjoyed while cooking and eating.” He wants to “bring the culture back in agriculture.”

I’m down with that!

Music goes with food, and food goes with music. There is music I love to cook to, music I love to eat to. Music for warm summer picnics, and music for cold, windy Wellington winter nights. I want to tell you all about it!

I have my music back. I want to dance. I want to sing. I want to cook. I want to eat.

I want to listen to the music.

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The Eleventh Cookbook of Christmas: The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook

Jack Bishop

I am a simple soul. I wear jeans and t-shirts. I prefer Chucks to heels. I don’t wear make-up.  And my favourite ice cream flavour is vanilla. Less is more. When watching Masterchef, I am frustrated when the judges and contestants yammer on about “technique” and “plating.” And what is the point of foam? My cooking mantra is “Let the food be the food.” DSC01787My favourite foods are simple: mashed potatoes with butter, salt, and pepper; tomato sandwiches with tarragon mayonnaise; pasta with sautéed vegetables and a little parmesan; pizza margarita with sweet tomatoes, basil from the garden, and milky, fresh mozzarella cheese. I am also a great believer in cooking what’s in season. There is nothing more delicious than a perfectly sun-ripened tomato; and there are few things less appealing than a pale, flavourless winter hot-house tomato — no amount of technique will make it taste good.  I defy anyone to come up with anything more exquisite than an ear of sweet corn straight off the stalk with a bit of butter, salt, and pepper.

I prefer food that is only one degree of separation from the soil.  I’ve dined at three-Michelin-starred restaurants, but too often the experience left me cold.  DSC01792I appreciate the art and science behind modernist cuisine, but I cannot warm to a dining experience that puts so much technology between me and the food. I’m suspicious of “fusion” cooking that confuses me with too many moving parts. Dining in the dark? Spare me. If a recipe has forty steps, I reckon that is about 35 steps too many. I don’t have a single squeeze bottle in my kitchen, unless you count the ones Simon’s HP Sauce comes in.  As my adorable partner put it, I have no time for precious food.

A few years ago, I  spent a month in Sancerre, a picture book medieval walled city in the Loire valley. 1929893_15495843409_3121_nI was immersing myself in French at the Coeur de France Ecole des Langues.  Every morning, I walked into town and bought my food for the day.   A croissant or petit pan au chocolate for petit dejeuner. A baguette at the boulangerie, a handful of haricot verts and champignons at the greengrocer, a wedge of cheese here, a bottle of wine there. We went on a field trip to a chèvre farm where I milked my first goat.1929893_15495833409_2522_n  Most days, I lunched at the Cafe des artes, where the friendly staff would patiently suffer my feeble French (I’m sure I saw their ears bleed). Once, I had a long and spirited argument with the veg vender from the market about George W. Bush. He loved him. I didn’t. 1929893_15495858409_4008_nI rarely ate dinner out. My evenings were given over to homework and working on my vocabulary by watching badly dubbed episodes of NCIS and CSI. And I cooked, simply, and with whatever looked good at the market on the day. It was spring, so the market was teeming with some of my favourite things: asparagus, tiny artichokes, and haricot verts.

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The Bubbles were pretty nice, too!

My neighbour, Anita, and I spent a long weekend in Paris in 2011. I think she would agree that one of the best meals we had there was a simple omelette, salad, and a glass of house red wine at a corner cafe near our hotel. I had a similarly memorable meal in Giverny, just outside Monet’s house. In Lisbon, sardines grill over open wood fires all over the city, and the aroma is tantalising. My favourite meal in Brussels was pommel frites with mayonnaise.

I visited Venice briefly in 2013, and spent much of my time wandering around side streets and exploring the fruit and vegetable markets. I got lost. I got hungry. I stopped for a plate of linguine con vongole and a glass of Orvieto at a cafe at the edge of the vegetable and seafood market. I walked more. I got lost again. I met a lovely man who made carnival masks. I chatted with another artist selling his watercolours outside one of Venice’s ancient churches. I bought two. I walked more.

Got lost more. Ate lemon gelato. Finally, having managed to find my way back to the train station, hot, footsore, and happy, I drank the best mug of beer I’ve ever had. The most expensive, too, but that didn’t matter. It was a golden day.

The Kale Whisperer’s Eleventh Cookbook of Christmas, Jack Bishop’s The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, honours the beauty of simple food.  This book is full of the kind of simple, fresh food that I love: polenta, pasta, and rice with seasonable vegetables; frittatas, tortas, and pizza; salads and bruschetta. Bishop is an editor at America’s Test Kitchen, and he provides plenty of good, practical advice.  His step-by-step instructions mean the recipes here are manageable by even a beginner. I particularly appreciate the serving suggestions that follow each recipe. None of these recipes require any special equipment. Not a foam canister in sight.

I probably cook from The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook more than any other single book on my cookbook shelf. I especially enjoy it in the summertime, when no one wants to eat hot, heavy food. Packing a picnic for an outdoor concert? This is your cookbook. One of my favourite picnics consists of a vegetable frittata (my favourite is the Zucchini Frittata with Parmesan and mint), the Roasted Potato Salad with Herbs and Red Wine Vinegar, and a loaf of crusty country bread. I am a huge fan of pasta e fagioli, and Bishop’s version, with lots of garlic and rosemary, is among my favourites. I also love the Chickpea Soup with Fennel and Orange Zest. I have borrowed that flavour combination — chickpea, fennel, and orange — as a pizza topping, too.

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Jack Bishop wrote another excellent cookbook, Pasta e Verdure (Morrow, 1994). Sadly, it is out of print, but there are used copies for sale on Amazon. In it, Bishop presents 250 recipes for simple pasta and vegetables. The books has chapters for 27 different vegetables, so if you come him from the farmers’ market with fresh, spring favas, or all you have for dinner one winter night is some pasta and cauliflower, you can find something delicious to cook. I often use Bishop’s flavour combinations as pizza toppings. If you can put it on pasta, why not pizza? Each chapter opens with advice on how to choose, clean, and store each vegetable. Many of the combinations he presents here have become standards for me: the hot pink sauces (tomato + red pepper flakes + a little cream) is a particular favourite. My mother used to make what we called “crummy spaghetti”, which was simply spaghetti tossed with bread crumbs toasted in a little butter.  Bishop has several scrummy variations on that theme: Spaghetti with Wilted Spinach and Breadcrumbs and Linguine with Asparagus, Toasted Breadcrumbs, Lemon, and Garlic. My biggest deliciousness surprise was the Fusilli with Shredded Brussels Sprouts, Orange, and Almonds. Think you hate Brussels’ Sprouts? You won’t if you try this!

Let me finish by mourning another much-loved but tragically out-of-print cookbook: Marlena Spieler’s The Vegetarian Bistro (Chronicle Books, 1997). Spieler does for simple French cooking what Bishop does for Italian Vegetarian cooking. I haven’t even bothered to flag the “to cook” recipes here, because I can literally open the book to any random page and happily cook whatever I find there, knowing it will be delicious. If you can track down a used copy (they are available on Amazon, too), buy it. Then cook the Lentilles “Dom Perignon” (Lentils cooked in Champagne — don’t worry if you don’t have left over bubbles, it works with any dry white wine). Just lentils, shallots, garlic and white wine.

Simply. Delicious. Food.

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The Tenth Cookbook of Christmas: Delia’s Vegetarian Collection

Delia

It is almost Christmas and I am remembering Christmases past. Christmas with my father was a winter wonderland. When I was very small, we had a very large spruce tree in our front yard. Every Christmas he would string those big, old-fashioned coloured lights on the tree so Santa could find our house from way up high in the sky. CCI22122015Every night, before bed, he would pack me into my red snow snuit and we would stand out in the cold and admire the lighties. Those are some of my earliest memories.

For several years after Dad died of Alzheimer’s disease, I couldn’t bear Christmas. My Mom made it through two more Christmases, and she couldn’t bear them either. The two of us would hunker down in her little apartment at the assisted living facility and watch endless versions of Jane Austen on her VCR. How many times did we watch Colin Firth dive into the pond at Pemberley? Oh, hundreds!Darcy I stopped laying down new Christmas memories when Dad died. For me, Christmas was about family, and our little family had dwindled to one.

Don’t get me wrong. I am blessed with a wonderful extended family on both sides, and I love my cousins like siblings. But, I have written before about the importance of chosen families, and I have such a lovely one that I want to celebrate them. There is Dorothy from Norwich, who was my roommate through a nearly three-week adventure in Palestine in 1993. My soul sister, Joani, in Virginia — check out her excellent blog, http://unorthodoxunhinged.com.  And my besties, Susan in Virginia and Elizabeth in Oxford. We three musketeers have shared so many adventures. Now we are joined by my beautiful fairy goddaughter, Alex.

I’ve traveled all over the world with my Elder Sis, Katy, and I’ve drowned many a sorrow with our bro, Tony.

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With Katy and Tony, after drowning a sorrow or two

And I cannot leave out my sourdough starter’s foster parents, Mary and Wade. In Athens, there are Carolyn and Kline, and Nash and France who all supported my parents, and then me, in their final years. Nash and France adopted my Dad’s beloved cockapoo, Maxwell, and gave him the loving retirement he so richly deserved. Nash still keeps me posted on the goings on at my old high school. Pete and Anita, our dogs’ uncle and auntie, are soon moving from Virginia to Minnesota — near my family in Northern Wisconsin.

My Southern Hemisphere chosen family is growing and multiplying, too. Thanks to Julian and Anna in Sydney, I have a new “niece,” Ayla. Peter is the crusty old uncle I never had. I did have an amazing Uncle, Billy, but he was too funny and loveable to qualify as crusty. Carl is the pesky little brother I never had. Chris has long been Simon’s chosen family in New Zealand, and now he’s part of mine.

I discovered the Kale Whisperer’s Tenth Cookbook of Christmas, Delia’s Vegetarian Collection (BBC Books, 2002) while visiting another branch of my chosen family in Sydney, the lovely Lise, her husband Cahn, and my “nephew” Jacob and his brand new baby sister, Eliana.

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Pizza by Jacob, I’m pretty sure those are slices of beetroot, not pepperonis!

Having essentially invited myself to visit en route to the United States earlier this year, I would not have been surprised (or disappointed) to dine on take away food. But Lise, despite juggling an active (and, as it happens, sick) three year old and an adorable six-month old, spoiled me with delicious and beautifully prepared vegetarian fare from Delia’s Vegetarian Collection. Even before I left Sydney, I ordered myself a copy from fishpond.com. It has already become a favourite in my kitchen, too.

There haven’t been any celebrity chefs or cookbooks with lots of gorgeous, full colour illustrations among the The Kale Whisperer’s Twelve Cookbooks of Christmas.  It’s not that I have anything against celebrity chefs or beautiful photographs of food. It’s just that I find those sorts of cookbooks, for the most part, disappointing. It’s as though they are written for people who don’t cook and don’t really intend to start, but who want to have some attractive cookery books as accent pieces in their designer kitchens. And I’ve had some real disasters. Take the celebrity chef cookbook I bought most recently, which shall remain nameless. So far, not a single recipes I’ve tried has worked as advertised. I ended up serving my beloved a zucchini pie with raw rice. Do these people even cook the food they put into their cookbooks? A word of advice: if the directions don’t make sense to you (trust me, the liquid from the zucchini will cook the raw rice), they probably don’t make sense. I’ve had good experiences with the few Jamie Oliver recipes I’ve downloaded, but I haven’t bought his books either because, frankly, I find him a bit preachy and annoying.

But Delia is different. How can you not trust and respect a woman who is willing to make a public spectacle of herself in support of her beloved Norwich Canaries?

Would I make a spectacle of myself in support of my beloved All Blacks? You betcha. In fact, to hear Katy tell it, I did that already while watching the 2012 Rugby World Cup Final with a group of Aussies in Bali.

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Offering up a word of thanks in Ubud, Bali

Which brings me to a digression. I had a long argument with myself (I do that — it’s an introvert thing) about whether or not to include Julia Child’s original Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961). I really think every cook should read it, often, but I don’t actually cook from it very much. Julia is pretty meat-centric. That said, I just got out my copy — which was previously my mother’s copy — and it fell right open to the recipe for Soufflé au Fromage. My Mom made heavenly soufflés. I don’t. But seeing as the book is out, and I accidentally bought 32 eggs at the farmer’s market last week, I think I’ll give it another shot, with Julia on my shoulder.IMG_0275

But back to Delia. This is a gorgeous book. If you are looking for a gift for your favourite vegetarian, and want to split the difference between useful and pretty, this is your book. The illustrations are stunning. There are a few I’d like to tear out of the book and hang on the wall. And the recipes work. I have a massive rosemary bush in my herb garden, so I can make the Tuscan Bean and Pasta Soup, all year round. Simon grew up in the UK, and this book has vegetarian versions of his childhood comfort foods, including Shepard’s Pie, Spinach Pasties, and Not-Pork Pies (which will please our Kune Kune pigs). Everything Lise prepared from Delia’s collection was wonderful, and only tasted better for being made with love and eaten in the best of company.

I’m not folding down the corners of this book, but it is full of multicoloured post-it flags. I gave up on the cheese chapter. I’ll just cook, and eat, my way through the whole thing. There are two oven-baked risottos, for those nights when your feet are tired or you have blisters on your thumbs and don’t want to stand at the stove and stir. I rarely cook sweets — neither of us eat them much — but as soon as I send this off, I’m headed out to the garden to see if I have enough rhubarb for the Rhubarb, Almond, and Ginger Crumble.

Wait. I just re-read the recipe for Crumpet Pizzas, with blue cheese, walnuts, olive oil and sage. I’m off to the grocery, now, to buy some crumpets. The rhubarb will have to wait.

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The Ninth Cookbook of Christmas: The Thug Kitchen

Thug Kitchen

 

logo-parentaladvisoryToday is Monday. As my hero, Bloom County’s Bill the Cat, would put it: Blech! Ack! Thbbft! Granted, it’s the Monday before Christmas, not your usual, run-of-the-mill, shoot the alarm clock Monday. Still, Monday is Monday. Before I had a nervous breakdown and opted out of the rat race, I’d start dreading Monday about 5 pm on Saturday. The biggest advantage of Monday holidays was that I could enjoy spending half of Sunday with a pot of coffee and the Sunday New York Times without a pit in my stomach. I was a Monday hater of the first order. So much so that I started hating Sunday because all I had to look forward to on Sunday was Monday. I hated Monday even when I was enjoying my job.

Bill did it better

Sorry, Miley. Bill really did do it better.

My lunaediesophobia — yep, there’s a word for fear of Mondays — was to do with the prospect of having to drag my self out of my safe, restorative little introvert cave, put my happy mask back on, and gather the energy to play the role of an extrovert for another week.

It only makes sense to introduce my Ninth Cookbook of Christmas, Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a F*ck (Rodale, 2014), on a Monday. This is a cookbook with a Monday sort of attitude. But it is also a cookbook that should come with one of those “explicit language” labels Tipper Gore made the record companies put on Death Metal and Gangsta CDs. Gordon Ramsay has nothing on these guys. I am not shy about foul language, so it doesn’t put me off. When I was a military history graduate student, we employed the f-word liberally as noun, verb, adjective, and adverb. I had to go through f-word detox before I re-entered polite society. And I can still let rip under the right circumstances (and I find there are a lot of right circumstances), much to the chagrin of my gentle, non-swearing husband. A recent study found that a large vocabulary of profanity indicates a larger than normal active general vocabulary. I heard this on Radio New Zealand — rnz.co.nz — so it must be true. I can swear in more than one language. I must have a gargantuan vocabulary, despite the fact that my Facebook word cloud says the word I use most often is “accordion.”Gordon Ramsay

Even if you are squeamish about the f-word, please try to get past it and get this cookbook. Especially if you are vegan, but even if you are not. Even if you have impressionable children and have to hide your copy in your underwear drawer. Even if the only way you can cope is to black out all the bad words in your copy, which will wind up looking an US Air Force response to a Freedom-of-Information request for documents on the aliens at Area-51.  Why? Because it is far and away the most awesome f-ing vegan cookbook in the whole f-ing universe. That’s why.

I am not vegan. At least not yet. I still eat eggs and dairy, but I struggleGo Vegan with both. I can resolve my misgivings about battery chickens and my suspicion that in New Zealand, as in the US, the “free-range” designation on eggs is dubious by keeping my own chooks. But it is highly unlikely that we will adopt our own cow. And recent exposés concerning cruelty in the New Zealand dairy industry make it increasingly difficult to look the other way. not your milkSo, I try to cook vegan often and am constantly on the lookout for amazing vegan recipes so that, if and when we make the leap, I will have a solid cooking foundation. Most of the time, I am disappointed. Thug Kitchen, and the website from which it is compiled, http://www.thugkitchen.com. is a standout, a mother-ing awesome standout.

What is so awesome about Thug Kitchen? First of all, these are Thugs on a mission to liberate their world from crappy food. As they point out, “there is an aura of elitism surrounding eating well, and so many people tend to associate health with wealth.” Why do I love this book? The intro says it all: “Welcome to the Thug Kitchen, bitches. We’re here to help. We started our website to inspire motherfuckers to eat some goddam vegetables and adopt a healthier lifestyle. Our motto is simple: Eat Like You Give a Fuck.”Swiss Fucking Chard The Thugs really are speaking to an audience of people who probably never cooked and quite possibly never ate food that didn’t come from a drive-in, a box or a can. The thug life is about overcoming struggles, disadvantages, and bad influences to succeed and thrive despite any obstacles. The Thug Kitchen is “a fucking wake-up call. This for that section of the grocery store that you avoid. This is for the drive-thru lines so long that they block traffic. This is for ketchup and pizza qualifying as fucking vegetables. This is for everyone who wants to do better but gets lost in the bullshit.” The Thugs understand what Jamie Oliver doesn’t: Have a f-ing sense of humour!

Then there is the food. It doesn’t strive to be cute and clever, and it doesn’t rely on play meat. This is vegan food jam-packed with flavour and attitude. Every recipe I’ve tried in the cookbook has been f-ing delicious. So far, my favourites have been soups and tacos/burritos. Eat no AnimalsThe Thugs are absolutely spot on when they warn that the Chickpeas and Dumplings could cause a “f-ing food coma.” It really is that good. So is the Wedding Soup with White Bean Balls and Kale, a more than plausible veg version of traditional Italian Wedding Soup — especially if you make it with the Garlic Broth from the Kale Whisperer’s Fourth Cookbook of Christmas, Mediterranean Harvest, which you will have bought by now.

The Mexican-style recipes are kick-ass. The Roasted Chickpea and Broccoli Burritos are regulars at our house, as are the Roasted Beer and Lime Cauliflower Tacos with cilantro coleslaw. In honour of this week’s festivities, I’ll make them with purple cauliflower because I am a woman who is willing the push the boundaries.

And the BBQ Bean Burritos with Grilled Peach Salsa is the bomb, even when peaches are out of season and you make the salsa with strawberries and tomatoes instead. Got a Superbowl Party coming up? Thrill and amaze your friends with Thug Kitchen’s Pineapple Guacamole. In fact, don’t wait for the Super Bowl, that over a month away! Make it right f-ing now!

The Roasted Sriracha Cauliflower Bites with Peanut Dipping Sauce are a satisfying stand-in for Buffalo Chicken Wings.

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The Kale Whisperer’s Buffalo Cauliflower Pizza

Don’t believe me? Try them. The cauliflower bites also make a dandy pizza topping with a little blue cheese and chopped celery. I also use the spicy chickpeas from Thug’s Spiced Chickpea Wraps with Tahini Dressing — a sort of deconstructed felafel — as a pizza topping. And how can you not love a cookbook that recognises that Sriracha is a major food group?

I cannot sell my adorable soul mate on kumara (sweet potato), which isn’t a huge problem since I’m not much of a fan myself. But if you are a kumara fan, the Smoky Black-eyed Peas with Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Collards (or Kale) are the absolute f-ing bomb.  If you aren’t, make the peas anyway and eat them on a white potato. Or maybe some polenta/grits. I just thought of that. I’d try it this very f-ing moment, if I didn’t already have a Complete Beet Pizza in the pipeline.

And pizza does count as a f-ing vegetable when it has beets on it.

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The Eighth Cookbook of Christmas: Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant

Sundays at Moosewood

I first made rumpledethumps for Christmas dinner in 1990. I made rumpledethumps for every subsequent Christmas dinner for at least 16 years at the request of my father. I’ve also made them for the occasional Thanksgiving dinner as well as for countless cold winter nights curled up in my jimjams after particularly stressful days. Before I met the love of my life, Rumpledethumps nursed me through several broken hearts and other singleton tragedies. Rumpledethumps are my chicken soup.  Rumpledethumps have the advantage of being both fun to say (really, try to say rumpledethumps without smiling) and delicious to eat. And they combine two of my favourite foods: mashed potatoes and brassicas. My rumpledethumps recipe comes from the Kale Whisperer’s Eighth Cookbook of Christmas, Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, by the Moosewood Collective (Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1990).

As I sit here on the last Sunday afternoon before Christmas, waiting for Paul and Oliver to come shear the alpacas (our new pre-Christmas tradition), I’m paging through Sundays at Moosewood and being reminded of meals I’ve cooked and countries I’ve visited. This book is a compilation of recipes from the Moosewood Restaurant’s Sunday “ethnic nights.” Sunday is pizza night here, but if it weren’t, I could prepare a meal honouring the alpacas with Chilean Garlic Soup, Torta de Papas, Ensalada Olimipica, and Pan de Navidad. Maybe I’ll do that next year, if the shearing isn’t on a Sunday. Rules are rules. Or perhaps I’d try to recreate the delicious Apfel Kuchen Simon and I ate when we visited the German settlement of Fruitillar during our too-brief visit to Chile in 2012.

When I first bought this book, in 1990, I hadn’t yet discovered the joys of those handy little, bright coloured Post-it flags for tagging recipes to try in a new cookbook.

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Sometimes I colour code my flags: say, pink for must try immediately, green for ways to cook things I can never find recipes for. Trouble is, I usually forget the code.

 

In those days, I folded down the corners. I can hear all you bibliophiles groaning, but folded corners are far from the worst abuses my cookbooks suffer, what with all the drips, splashes, and the occasional dog attack. As I look at my copy of Sundays, it seems like every other page is turned down. I’ve tried many of those recipes. Others, I’ve yet to get around to making. But I don’t remember a clunker from this collection, and that it saying something.IMG_1233

Sundays at Moosewood is organised into 18 regional chapters, that include countries or regions from every continent except Antarctica, plus a few very useful appendices. Now that my consciousness has been raised, I note the absence of a Pacific Islands chapter. But this is likely to reflect the fact that Moosewood never had a Pacifika chef. Chile, China, Finland, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico and France (Provence) all get their own chapters. Africa is divided into sub-Saharan and North African chapters. The British Isles, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia are treated regionally. The Jewish diaspora gets its own chapter, separated again into Ashkenazi and Sephardic recipes. And from the United States, New England and the Southern US are singled out for special attention. I’ve relied heavily on the Southern US chapter over the years.

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Cocola salad traditionally involves cherry Jello, canned cherries, crushed pineapple, chopped pecans, and cream cheese. I live in horror of jelled anything, but try it if you feel brave.

It includes a vegetarian version of that beloved (said with a touch of irony) Southern Christmas favourite, Cocola Salad. That’s how Southern it is.

In addition to rumpledethumps, among the pages in my copy that are either curly or to which the book opens on its own are: Yellowman’s Banana Lime Bread, Mu Shu Vegetables with Mandarin Pancakes, Buddha’s Garden (with my favourite vegetarian stir-fry sauce), Hernerakkaa (Finish Yellow Split Pea Soup), Dal and Tomato Kachumber (a sort of Indian salsa), Mother Wolff Soup (a Jewish paprikash), Sopa de Lima (Mexican Tomato, Lime, and Tortilla Soup), New England Corn Bisque, My Favorite Philippine Breakfast (a sort of fried rice concoction with vinegar, pickled peppers, and a fried egg that is also excellent for dinner on a night when you need comfort food and all you have in the pantry is rice, eggs, and a jar of jalapeño peppers). I wonder if that last has a proper name in Tagalog. Maybe one of my Fillipino readers will tell us.

The appendices are useful, too. The menu planning section, in addition to a nice collection of suggested menus, includes a page of Related Cuisines so you can mix and match on your own. It also includes a few examples of how to build interesting menus combining divergent cuisines. There is a Guide to Ingredients, Techniques, and Equipment and my all-time-favourite-ever-in-a-cookbook appendix, What We Mean When We Say, “One Medium Onion. . ..”

New Zealand produces enormous leeks. Giant_Leek_Photographic_Prints.jpgIt would not be an exaggeration to say that in the high season, the leeks here approach the size of a baseball bat (but not a cricket bat). When I come across a recipe that calls for “4 leeks, white and light green parts only,” that could easily amount to about a ton of chopped leeks. Okay, maybe not a ton, but a lot more than you’d get from your standard, American, grocery store leek. What We Mean helpfully tells you that 1 medium leek = 3/4 cup chopped or 3 ounces (85 grams).

Do you ever find yourself, wanting to throw your arms in the air and cry “what the hell constitutes a medium zucchini?” as you cope with summer zucchini ranging from wee ones with the flower attached to a giant suitable for Wallace and Grommit’s Giant Vegetable contest? Wallace and GromitHere’s your answer: 1 medium zucchini weighs 10 oz (285 grams). The most useful thing I’ve learned from What We Mean: a medium bunch of spinach leaves, 10 ounces (285 grams) of fresh spinach by weight will turn into 1 cup (236 ml) of cooked, squeezed dry spinach. There are also weight equivalents of various cheeses and nuts by volume and a handy customary / metric conversion chart.

If you love to travel, but don’t always have the money or the time, Sundays at Moosewood is a good way to wander the globe in your own kitchen. Or just to explore new cuisines without having to buy a new cookbook. All the Moosewood Collective books are good, but this one remains my favourite.

Now, off to Chile to shear the alpacas, then back to Naples to eat some pizza.

 

The Seventh Cookbook of Christmas: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible

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I want to be Australia’s next Masterchef. This is highly unlikely for at least two reasons. First, I don’t live in Australia. Second, the Masterchef competition is extremely vegetarian unfriendly. Last week, the contestants were required to essentially butcher a lamb carcass. One of my favourite Masterchef moments occurred in the 2014 competition when nearly-vegetarian Renae Smith reacted the way I have would when she discovered a whole eel in her mystery box — tears, panic attack, and horror.  It was clear she wasn’t going to be able to go through with her cook when my favourite contestant of the seasons, Colin Sheppard rode to the rescue and offered to give up some of his cook time to clean and filet the horrifying primal beast. Filleted, the meat didn’t trigger her phobia, and Renae was able to cook. I was heartbroken when Colin went home.

Which points, perhaps, to a third reason I’ll never be Australia’s (or anyone else’s) next Masterchef: Colin, 51, was referred to as “Pappa”. A similarly gentle male contestant, Richard Harris, 55, chose eel for an invention challenge because he reckoned the other contestants might find it intimidating. Richard was eliminated from 2015’s New Zealand Masterchef to questions about why he waited until it was too late in his life to pursue his dream. <sound of gnashing teeth and forehead pounding on desk> Colin and Richard: You are Masterchefs in my heart!

Masterchef New Zealand has been cancelled; so, it looks like I must settle for being an armchair master chef. When the contestants are set invention tests or mystery boxes, Simon and I play “what would you cook?” This works out nicely for me, of course, because my imagined masterpiece is always tastier and more spectacularly beautiful than anything the contestants put up.

OK. Today’s mystery box ingredient is: KALE. What would you cook?

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The Kale Whisperer’s Seventh Cookbook of Christmas will help you figure that out, whether you are practicing for Masterchef, or not. Although, if you are, I would advise studying this book front-to-back and side-to-side. Karen Page’s The Vegetarian Flavor Bible (Little Brown, 2015) is subtitled “the essential guide to culinary creativity.” And it is all that. This is my second non-cookbook Cookbook of Christmas, but if I had to pick a desert island cookbook, this would be it. With this cookbook, you don’t need cookbooks at all, really.

Page’s goal in compiling this guide, which is both informative and simple to use, was to provide useful nutritional and health information for those seeking to either to become vegetarians or shift to a whole-foods, plant-based diet, with our without occasional meat. Her first two chapters — For the Love of Plants, and Maximizing Flavor — make the case for a plant-based diet and chronicle the shift of vegetarian cuisine from the counter-culture to the mainstream. Of particular interest to me were the comments from some of America’s top chefs who, increasingly, are shifting toward culinary styles that depend more and more heavily on vegetables as the focus rather than the background.

Page’s discussion of the key elements of flavour in vegetarian cooking is eye opening, even for the most experienced cook, and has vastly increased my confidence as an improvisational cook. The formula? Flavor = Taste + Mouthfeel + Aroma + The X-Factor (senses + heart, mind, spirit).  She even has a handy “craving” table.  Vegetarian? Craving crab dip? Add some kelp and Old Bay Seasoning to your favourite white bean dip. Miss that magic zing of anchovy paste? I know I do. Use dark miso paste. I’m not a fan of play meat, so her suggestions of tofurkey and Soyrizo leave me cold. But most of the suggestions here are at least worth a think.

All this information is fascinating, and important to know, but the part of  The Vegetarian Flavor Bible  that you will use often — in my case, daily — is the “A to Z Listings.” It is truly exhaustive. You won’t find some local specialties here. No feijoas but you will find their cousin, guava. So far, I haven’t stumped this list. And I’ve tried. Each listing starts with some general information: nutrient concentration, season, flavour, volume (flavour loudness), what it is, nutritional profile, cooking techniques, tips, and botanical relatives. Look up Kale, and here is some of what you will learn: kale is a leafy, green vegetable, it has an extremely high nutrient content, it’s bitter but can be sweet in winter, it’s 72% carbs / 16% protein / 12% fat,  and 1 cup of raw, chopped kale has 35 calories and 2 grams of protein. Kale likes to be blanched, boiled, braised, grilled, slow cooked, marinated, pureed, eaten raw (but I’m not a fan, unless its very young and tender), sautéed, stewed, steamed and stir fried. Kale’s cousins include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, radishes, and watercress.

What you will also learn is anything and everything that matches well with kale. Page built her flavour suggestions through an exhaustive compilation of  recommendations and wisdom of hundreds of American cooks and chefs specialising in cuisines from around the world. There is a ranking system for the flavour matches. Flavour matches recommended by at least one expert appear in normal type. BOLD CAPS indicate recommendations made by a larger number of experts. BOLD CAPS with an asterisk (*) are what Page calls “Holy Grail” pairings — most highly recommended by the largest number of experts. Particular types of preparations (soups, casseroles) and cuisines use of an ingredient appear in italics. Those in bold italics or BOLD ITALIC CAPS are those most highly recommended for the particular ingredient.

What will I cook with my Kale? Were it winter, I might make a hearty soup or my favourite lentil and kale spag bol. But it is early summer here in New Zealand, so I’m thinking a frittata or stir-fry. Maybe a salad. I look up kale and find that some of its strongest flavour partners are beans, chilli, garlic, lemon, olive oil, and red onions. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t care for raw kale, no matter how long you massage it. But if it is young and fairly tender, all it needs is a quick blanch. I’m thinking a salad of blanched kale tossed with a dressing  of lemon juice, olive oil, some thinly sliced new season garlic, a pinch of dried chilli to give it some bite, salt and pepper. I’ll marinate some white beans in the same vinaigrette (minus the chilli)  and some chopped fresh oregano from my garden and a thinly sliced red onion. Then I’ll make a composed salad of the dark green kale, the white beans and red onions, with some crispy parmesan croutons made with the end of the loaf of sourdough bread I baked last week.

I’ll let you know if the judges like it!

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The Sixth Cookbook of Christmas: Twelve Months of Monastery Soups

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I am a spiritual seeker. My mother always called me her “otherworldly child.” My favourite movie, for a while, was “The Song of Bernadette.” I read St. Augustine’s Confessions and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as a teenager. The interfaith nature of Merton’s spirituality has shaped my own spiritual journey to this day.  In the spring of 1977, Dr. John Granrose took our Honors Ethics class on a field trip to visit the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a Trappist monastery near Conyers, Georgia. That day has stayed with me all these years. Ever since, I’ve felt drawn to a quiet life of contemplation. That appeal of that lifestyle was, I remember, exemplified in the meal the brothers served us at their guest house — vegetable potage, monastery cheese, and rustic bread. While my faith in organised religion has evaporated over the decades, my yearning for the quiet contemplative life has not. Many years later, now that I’ve stepped away from the noise of my career as a defense analyst, I am beginning to live a quiet life of contemplation. Thinking and writing about food is bringing me the peace and happiness that organised religion or proximity to power never did.

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The Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Conyers, Georgia

In cooking, as in life, sometimes the greatest beauty is found in simplicity. For me, the simple meal of soup, cheese, and bread is restorative in a way that no other meal can be. When loved ones are sick, or sad, we make them soup. When I’m sick and sad, I want someone to make me soup. Before she died, my mother was sick and sad — for too long — and our friends Kline and Carolyn brought her matzo ball soup. I will never forget that soup. It might not have cured all that ailed Mom, but it restored me and my Dad and was, quite simply, my most unforgettable soup. It tasted like love. Thank you, Kline and Carolyn.

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Alex and her fairy godmother making matzo balls

A few years later my Goddaughter Alex borrowed a book from the library called How Many Matzos Make a Soup?  She loved it. I haven’t been able to track it down, but I remember the punch line was that what makes a good soup isn’t the number or size of the matzos, but the love that goes into making them. Inspired by the story, and my duties as fairy godmother, Alex and I made our own matzo soup. It was delicious.

As a child, I loved Marcia Brown’s classic children’s book Stone Soup. I was captivated by the notion that with an onion here, a carrot there, it was possible to create food for a village. It’s not that different from my frequent Saturday morning ritual combining trimmings from this week’s purchases (leek and green inion tops, celery leaves, a carrot or two) with the things that didn’t make into last week’s dinners (slightly past their prime mushrooms, the other halves of onions, pea pods, a lonely potato) in the stock pot to simmer away.  In its way, soup is the secular equivalent to the feeding of the five thousand. With a handful of beans, a potato, and onion, a carrot, and some garlic, I can make a warm, tasty, satisfying meal.  IMG_0249

As I’ve traveled over the years, my most memorable meals have involved simple soups: Portugal’s Caldo Verde (just potatoes, kale, and linguica), Thailand’s gorgeous Tom Yom soups, Pho from Vietnam, miso soup  from Japan, and the hearty bean and vegetable soups of Italy. Singapore’s Night Market offers too many options to name, as do the Bistros of Paris and the Pubs of England. I’ve loved nettle soup in Scotland and seafood chowder on Stewart Island. I can’t say I loved the goat neck soup in Ghana, but I certainly loved the generous spirit in which it was offered. And the simple bean and vegetable soups prepared by out Masai cook at Freeman’s Safaris in Kenya were the perfect end to hard day on the Mara.

The Kale Whisperer’s Sixth Cookbook of Christmas, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila-Latourette’s Twelve Months of Monastery Soups (Triumph Books, 1996), encompasses both my fascination with the contemplative life and my love for soup in a unique and tasty way. This is not strictly vegetarian, there are a few recipes that include a bit of meat or seafood, but most of those can be easily adapted to vegetarian versions. Obviously, you probably won’t want to make the Shrimp Soup de Luxe without shrimp. On the other hand, one of my favourite recipes here is the French Cream of Lentil Soup, calls for two strips of bacon, but it is just as delicious without the pig. I’ve cooked it both ways, I can personally vouch for that. The book is peppered with notes and quotes about soup, things that go into soup, people who make soup, and people who eat soup. If you aren’t Catholic, you will still love this book. If you aren’t Christian, you’ll love this book. If you love soup, you’ll love this book. This is another cookbook you’ll want to read, cover to cover.

Monastery Soups consists of twelve chapters: one for each month of the year. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you could probably cook right through the book chronologically. Down here in the antipodes, you’ll have to work inside out. Brother Antoine took care to match ingredients to availability. And as the gardener at Our Lady of the Resurrection Monastery in upstate New York, he understands locavore cooking. Ever wondered what you could do with those gorgeous greens attached to your bright red radishes you couldn’t resist at the market? Brother Antoine has a soup for that: Soupe Pelou. It’s delicious. Is your garden overrun by sorrel? He has five soups for that. The recipes are simple and come from all around the world. Adapted from the monastery kitchen, they don’t require fancy equipment or exotic ingredients. These are weekday soups, not simmer on the back of the stove all day soups. Some vegetables, some herbs, broth, wine, garlic and a pinch of salt. And love; lots of love.

Some of my earliest childhood memories involve soup: chicken noodle with oyster crackers, cream of tomato with cheese toast, potato soup with lots of celery from the German restaurant I only remember as “the potato soup place.” I’m sure the very last meals I’ll enjoy will also be soups. And so many soups — humble and glorious — along the way. To paraphrase T.S. Elliot, I will measure out my life in soup spoons.

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The Fifth Cookbook of Christmas: Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads

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Today would have been my Dad’s 93rd birthday. He wasn’t a vegetarian. His favourite foods were: fried eggs (sunny side up), Campbell’s Pork and Beans (Mom spiffed them up with green peppers, mustard, and various other secret bits of magic), and pretty much anything made with ground beef. According to family legend, Mom and Dad went in with friends once to buy a steer. When the butcher called to find out how they wanted their half cut up, Dad told him to just grind the whole beast into hamburger. Fortunately, Mom was able to intervene. Dad was an avid gardener and produced bushels of tomatoes, green peppers (capsicum), tender little yellow crookneck squash, okra, eggplant, raspberries and figs. But, at heart, he was a meat-and-potatoes sort of guy.

Like most meat-and-potatoes guys, Dad also loved bread. Good, hearty, stick to your ribs, Olde Worlde bread: rye, pumpernickel, crusty Kaiser rolls, and the absolutely delicious, chewy hard rolls from the Black Forest Bakery in Athens, Georgia. When our family moved from Virginia to Georgia in 1967, we entered the black hole of bread. European style bread simply didn’t exist. Not even mass-produced rye bread. Certainly not the kind of peasant breads that work your jaws and have the fortitude to mop up the remains of a hearty soup. Roman Meal Bread was the closest to whole wheat available. Our choices were pretty much Sunbeam (“It’s batter whipped”) and Wonder Bread. It was at this point that Mom went back to baking bread in a serious fashion.

It wasn’t easy. These were the days before supermarkets sold Bread Flour, and most flour sold in the South was made from soft, summer wheat. Flours like White Lilly are indispensable for making biscuits, cornbread, and cakes, but lack the complex gluten structures that are needed for hearty, crusty European loaves. Eventually, Mom found a commercial source of hard wheat flour, which she bought in twenty pound bags and she was off. Every three weeks or so, I’d come home to a kitchen full of dough and the smell of fresh baked bread. It was heaven. Some would go in the freezer, but Dad and I usually devoured at least one loaf on the spot.

Mom was famous for her breads. At the Annual Christmas Auction at St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church, her “coffee cake of the month” and “bread of the month” offerings raised a pretty penny. When she teamed up with our friends Kline and Carolyn to offer a catered German dinner party, folks pulled out their check books and dug deep.

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One of the legendary St. Gregory’s Auction German dinners, cooked and hosted by Carolyn, Kline, Dad, and Mom, circa late 1980s

At this time of year, she’d be in full Christmas Stollen baking mode. She was famous for her stollen — the traditional german fruited bread that is baked and sugared to look like the Christ child’s swaddling clothes. This is NOT fruitcake, it is Christmas manna. Mom’s recipe came out of her head — handed down from her mother and aunt. In mid-December, our kitchen became an assembly line, with sweet, fruity loaves at various stages of development. While I’m no longer big into Christmas, I still honour this one family tradition and bake a batch or two around Christmas time from Bernard Clayton’s recipe. stollenIt tastes like my childhood and makes me happy, a little bit sad, and very grateful. And when it is a little stale, its makes the best toast ever.

I reckon today is an appropriate day to add Bernard Clayton’s New Complete Book of Breads to the Kale Whisperer’s Twelve Cookbooks of Christmas. My well-worn copy is the 1987 edition. There have been subsequent revisions, the most recent in 2006, that incorporate newer technology, like bread machines. But the basic spirit that makes this cookbook an all time great remains.

Bernard Clayton gave up a high-powered journalistic career in New York and Chicago after a mystical bread experience during a bike trip around Europe in the mid-1960s. He moved to Bloomington, Indiana, worked for Indiana University, and pursued his fascination with bread. His wonder at the art and science of bread making shines through this book. He prefaces many of the recipes with an introduction, perhaps describing the bread’s history, how it fits in to the wider world of breads, and how he discovered it. Clayton was not professionally trained — he taught himself to bake — and the un-jaded joy of the gifted amateur is contagious. I defy you to pick up this book and not immediate begin tagging recipes. This is one of those cookbooks you’ll want to sit down and read, cover-to-cover.

In addition to the Christmas Stollen (my copy automatically opens to that page), I love the Dilly Casserole Bread (a 1960s staple), the Sour Dill Rye Bread (which uses pickle brine as the liquid), the Portuguese Sweet Bread, and the German White Bread with Caraway. My New Zealand sourdough starter, which has been going for two years, now, began with his Honey Starter.  Our sourdough starter is like a member of the family. It’s less demanding than the dogs. It only needs is to be fed and cuddled once a week. And it doesn’t have accidents in the house. I had to leave my previous starter in the US when we moved to New Zealand.

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My New Zealand Honey Sourdough Starter, freshly fed and happy

The Ministry of Primary Industries here was unlikely to look kindly upon a glob of dough teeming with microbes, no matter how yummy. It found a happy home with my friends Mary and Wade. They let me visit when I go back to Virginia. Mary gave up baking bread for Lent one year, so I know she is a good mother (and her dogs are way better behaved than mine).

 

This is the most comprehensive handbook for the home bread baker I’ve ever found. It was written based on thousands of hours of Clayton’s own trial and error in his own home kitchen. I’m reasonably confident that there is nothing that a home baker needs to know about bread making that isn’t in this book. If you try to bake bread, and something goes wrong, Clayton will tell you why. Most of the recipes include separate instructions for mixing the doughs by hand, in a stand mixer, or in a food processor.

My copy does not include bread machine instructions or recipes, which is fine by me. If you want to make bread, make bread. Don’t be afraid of it. Hold the dough, knead it, throw it, slam it — as Clayton advises, “don’t gentle the dough” — watch it rise, punch it down, knead it some more, and feel it come to life under your warm touch. Bread making, unlike some other kinds of baking, is very forgiving. And much cheaper than therapy.

And nothing beats a slice of hot, fresh bread with butter. It tastes like love.

 

 

The Fourth Cookbook of Christmas: Mediterranean Harvest

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It’s Tuesday. I need to use up the two pounds of asparagus I bought at the market on Saturday. My plan to pickle it has been foiled by my inability to find dill seed in the Hutt Valley. (This year, I’ll remember to hang on to the end-of-summer dill flowers.) So, I just whipped up a batch of fresh pasta to make Asparagus Pasta with Herbed Béchamel, a recipe from one of my all-time favourite cookbook authors, Martha Rose Schulman. Under the circumstances, it seems appropriate that today’s cookbook recommendation is her Mediterranean Harvest: Vegetarian Recipes from the World’s Healthiest Cuisine (Rodale, 2007).

While I consider myself a culinary adventurer when it comes to trying new cuisines, I must confess that my heart lies in Italy. For me, food is merely a delivery system for olive oil and garlic. One of the very first cookbooks I ever bought was a Gilroy Garlic Festival cookbook. Schulman’s recipe for garlic broth — which, I promise, tastes almost exactly like chicken stock — is worth the price of the book all on its own. It’s my failsafe for when I need vegetable stock and the freezer is bare. It’s also a good way to use up slightly past its prime garlic. You know, the ones with the green shoots about an inch long. As my Dad used to quip, no one needs to worry about vampires at my house.

Come to think of it, though, I’m also quite fond of vampires. REAL vampires — Dracula, Lestat, Barnabus Collins, and Spike — not today’s domesticated, broody teenage angst vampires. Which reminds me, you must immediately get on Netflix and add What We Do in the Shadows to your watch list. It is the perfect marriage of old-world Vampires and new world New Zealand. Nosferatu meets The Flight of the Conchords. It will make you want to move here, just for the vampires. And the werewolves. And there really was a bar called The Big Kumara, but it’s closed now. Sorry.

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Now, where was I?

Mediterranean cuisine is among the most vegetarian-friendly in the world, given its emphasis on fresh ingredients and simple preparations. Mediterranean Harvest is by no means limited to the food of Italy. It includes recipes from around the greater Mediterranean region: Algeria, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Egypt, France, Greece, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, Morocco, Spain, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. The book is organised topically — Breads, Little Foods, Pasta, Sweets, etc. — rather than geographically, but there is a list of recipes by country in the back. The lion’s share of the recipes here are French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and Turkish, but it does include some important outliers. Schulman includes a (slightly) slimmed-down version of one of my favourites, Persian Rice, that uses four tablespoons instead of the usual quarter pound. In my opinion, it needs fresh fava beans or baby limas mixed in, but you can do what you like.

My favourite chapter is “Little Foods: Starters, Snacks, Mezze, and More.” Here’s where you will find all those delicious little tapas and other tidbits that are such fun: filo pastries, dips, spreads, and marinated things. A few of these, a cold bottle of prosecco, and some lovely fresh strawberries and you have a party. Okay, maybe a few bottles of prosecco. I’ve been over hummus since 1993 when I traveled to Palestine and ate hummus every breakfast, lunch, and dinner for nearly three weeks. You’ll find traditional hummus here (if you really must), but also some nice alternatives: White Bean Brandade (a vegetarian version of the classic French white bean and salt cod puree), Turkish Hummus (spicier, with no tahini), and Fresh Fava Bean Puree. There is also a useful section of suggested toppings for bruschetta and crostini.

Do you love risotto but never make it for company because you don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen stirring over a hot stove during cocktails while your guests are snarfing up all antipasti? Schulman will tell you how to cook it part of the way in advance, reducing the final prep to 15 minutes. And her easy polenta will save you the ordeal of stirring polenta (in one direction only) for 30 minutes and blistering your thumb. Perhaps a purist could tell the difference, but I sure can’t. Except that I don’t have a painful blister on my thumb.

While I’m on the topic of polenta, a word about grits. If you adore grits as much as I do, and live outside the Southern US, polenta can be your saviour. You can do pretty much anything with polenta that you can do with grits. It’s not going to be the same as real, stone ground grits; but it will be way better than <gasp> instant grits. On Masterchef Australia last year, the eventual winner — Brent Owens — made grits out of popcorn. I’ve been meaning to try that. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Sadly, if hominy exists in New Zealand, I haven’t found it.

Martha Rose Schulman is also a food columnist for The New York Times. Her focus has long been on healthy eating, and her column, like Mediterranean Harvest, is replete with meatless, lower fat versions of classic international dishes. But don’t mistake healthy for worthy and boring. I have her recipe box bookmarked in the Times Cooking app on my iPad. (If you don’t have the Times Cooking app yet, download it immediately. Even if you aren’t a vegetarian.)

Every vegetarian cookbook collection should have at least one good Mediterranean cookbook, mine has several, including others by Schulman. Her newest, The Simple Art of Vegetarian Cooking (Rodale, 2014), is prettier — with loads of lovely colour photographs.  But in terms of culinary breadth and basic kitchen knowledge, Mediterranean Harvest is a must have.

And Remember: eat garlic every day to keep the vampires away.

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The Third Cookbook of Christmas: The Food Substitutions Bible

Food Substitutions

So, you just harvested your rhubarb and you are making The Smitten Kitchen’s delicious rhubarb snacking cake (Smitten Kitchen Rhubarb Snacking Cake), and you discover that you don’t have any ground ginger. What do you do? Cry? Immediately jump in the car and drive to the supermarket for a can of ground ginger that you might never use again? Leave it out and hope for the best? Any or all of these could work, but what I recommend is that you pull down your copy of David Joachim’s The Food Substitutions Bible, turn to page 236, and discover that you can substitute ground ginger with: minced crystallised ginger (rinsed to remove the sugar), minced or grated fresh ginger, or ginger juice. You will also find that, failing those options, you can very the flavour slightly with pumpkin pie spice, ground allspice, or ground cardamom. I’ve tried the cardamom, which works nicely, as well as the fresh and crystallised ginger options. And don’t forget to double the crumb topping.

The Kale Whisperer’s Third Cookbook of Christmas is not a cookbook at all, but it is absolutely indispensable. Really. If you have a kitchen, and you do anything more in it than boiling eggs, buy this book immediately, if not sooner. Speaking of eggs, turn to “Egg, Whole” in this handy guide, and you will find that 1 large egg = 3 tablespoon (45ml) of egg yolk and whites = 1 3/4 ounces (52g). This is important information to have on hand if you 1) live outside the US and have no idea if 1 large egg = 1 standard size 6 or size 7 New Zealand egg, 2) you live in the US but only have jumbo or medium eggs in your fridge, or 3) you use your or someone else’s free range barnyard eggs and your hens are creative souls who lay whatever size egg they feel like laying.

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Does your typical carton of barnyard eggs look like this? Here’s the solution!

While any kitchen, vegetarian or not, could benefit from the wealth of information easily available in The Food Substitutions Bible, it is a godsend for any vegetarian or vegan cook. Vegans, for example, will find that they can substitute 1 cup (250ml) of whole 3.5% milk with a similar amount of soy, rice, almond, or oat milk. It will also remind them that they may need to compensate for added sugar. It also suggests vegan substitutes for eggs, butter, and honey. With this book on hand, it is a relatively simple matter to convert non-vegan recipes to vegan.

I live in New Zealand, but most of my cookbooks were Born in the USA. Not infrequently, I discover that key ingredients for some of my favourite recipes are simply not available here. Take cake flour. Cake flour is not a thing in New Zealand. But I have learned the hard way that substituting cake flour 1:1 with all purpose flour in a recipe that calls for cake flour can be a recipe for disaster. What to do? Look up cake flour and you’ll find that you can substitute 1 cup of cake flour with 1 cup (250ml or 142g) minus 3 tablespoons (45ml) all-purpose flour plus 3 tablespoons (45g) corn or potato starch (corn or potato flour, as they are known here in NZ). You’ll need to sift the flour and starch several times before you do your final measurement, and your cake might not have as fine a crumb, but it’s a pretty darn good substitute.

making-cheeseAnd what if you are making a potato and tomato gratin, and your recipe calls for a topping made with 1 cup (4 oz; 120g) of grated Gruyere cheese, but you don’t want to lay out the cash for an expensive chunk of Gruyere for a weeknight dinner? Look up Gruyere, and you’ll find that you can substitute Comte, Beaufort, or Emmental. OK, still pricey. But you know that Emmental is a Swiss-type cheese, so turn there and you find that, yes, indeed, you can substitute Jarlsburg (usually cheaper than Emmental) or Swiss cheese. I find the cheese substitutions particularly useful here in New Zealand. It can be difficult, and expensive, to buy the more obscure regional cheeses. And even if you can find Riccotta Salata, you might not want to shell out for it for an everyday meal.

If all this doesn’t convince you to run immediately to Amazon.com or Fishpond.co.nz to order (NZD$39.49 on fishpond; sadly, it is not yet available on Kindle — go to Amazon and complain!) a copy of The Food Substitutions Bible, let me close the deal. You want to make an apple pie. You go to the market and are faced with umpteen different varieties. Which one makes the best pie apple? What variety makes the best applesauce to go with your Hanukkah latkes? Grab your copy of FSB, turn to the back, and you’ll find a comprehensive guide to “Picking Apples.”

Do you have Celiac Disease? Can’t eat gluten? You will find here an exhaustive table of alternative flours that tells you 1) their best uses (yeast breads? quick breads?), 2) their gluten content (medium, low, gluten-free) and 3) their flavour.

Do you live in New Zealand and want to make pickles? Turn to “Trading Salts” and you’ll find that you can substitute Kosher Salt (not widely available here) with coarse or flaked sea salt. Thank goodness, your pickles won’t get cloudy and soggy from using iodised table salt!

For expats and those who don’t keep every possible size and shape of pan in their kitchen, or those who find a recipe that calls for a 28oz can of tomato puree and live where tomato puree comes only in metric cans, there are numerous useful tables: Can and Package Size Equivalents, Pan Size Equivalents (will a Bundt cake recipe fit in my Tube pan? yes), Temperature Equivalents (what is an “extremely hot oven” for pizza in metric? 260C), and Volume Equivalents (what the heck is a metric “pinch”, or a non-metric “pinch” for that matter? less than 1/8 teaspoon, or .5ml).

Downsize your spice rack. Go ahead and buy those organic free-range medium eggs when they are on sale. Don’t buy a quart of whole milk when you only need 1 cup. Don’t pay the outrageous supermarket price for creme fraiche. Buy this book instead.

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