Books & Cookbooks

En Cuisine avec Alain Passard

En Cuisine avec Alain Passard

France has a vivid culture of comic books and graphic novels, which are grouped under the general term bande dessinée (literally, drawn strip), often shortened to BD and pronounced bédé. It is a remarkably rich and diverse genre, with titles to appeal to all ages and interests, from kids’ comics to historical sagas, from humorous social commentary to science fiction.

My father has an extensive collection of them, one that filled an entire room in the apartment where I grew up: from floor to ceiling, shelves groaning with several thousand albums he had amassed since his teens, reflecting a passion he further fueled by weekly expeditions to the specialized bookstores of the Latin Quarter.

My sister and I were shaped by this. From the moment we could read we started reading bandes dessinées, and while other children watched television (we owned no tv set, our parents were not interested), we spent our childhood and teenage days ravenously working our way through these storytelling gems, constantly discovering new age-appropriate (and sometimes age-inappropriate, but no less educational) series to delve into.

It was still a time when most people viewed the genre in a mildly disparaging way, believing it boiled down to silly little drawings to keep the kids entertained, but we knew better.

Some series I read and re-read dozens of times, and for a very long time, they were the primary window through which I saw the world, the stories they told and the characters that inhabited them leaving a deeper imprint on me than any book I ever read or movie I ever watched.

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Blood, Bones & Butter

Blood, Bones & Butter

I have an ambivalent relationship to food memoirs.

On the one hand, a book that’s entirely devoted to food and food experiences should have my name all over it. On the other hand, I deal with food so exclusively and so intensely all day and all week long that when I sit down to read at night or on weekends, I sort of want to read about other lives entirely.

And this is one of the reasons why I so enjoyed Gabrielle Hamilton‘s memoir.

Blood, Bones & Butter is a food memoir in as much as the author is a food professional — she’s the chef and owner of Prune, a small and highly popular restaurant in NYC’s East Village* — but it is, in truth, a lot wider in scope than “the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef,” as the (somewhat clunky) subtitle reads.

I won’t reveal anything about the arc of her life story: I like to know as little as possible about books before I read them so I’m not about to spoil this one for you, but let’s just say (and I’ve provided links below if you want to know more) that it hasn’t been the smoothest of rides.

And the book she has drawn from it is the rawest, most plainspoken, no-holds-barred memoir I have ever read. It is marvelously engrossing, and it pulls you in with the author’s naked honesty and the way she looks back at her life, dark passages included, with no glossing over, retracing her steps without making excuses or trying to shed a flattering light on herself.

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Podcasts For Food Lovers

Whenever I walk, bike, or metro my way somewhere, whenever I busy myself in the kitchen or sit down for a lengthy fava bean peeling session, I rely on podcasts to keep me entertained.

Although there are a few I listen to that are not food-orientedThis American Life being my unrivaled favorite — you won’t be surprised to hear I lean toward those that discuss cooking, eating, and the cultural or political ramifications of both activities.

I can’t be alone in this, and I’d like to share those podcasts I listen to regularly.

Naturally, if you have favorites of your own to recommend, I’m always happy to add new ones to my rotation!

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Two Treats for Bread Bakers: 52 Loaves + Yakitate Japan

52 Loaves + Yakitate!! Japan

Bread baking is one of those activities that can quickly become obsessive, like knitting or playing red dead redemption. It’s not really something you can remain casual about, not if you want to improve your skills, so you find yourself combing through forum discussions, bookmarking blogs and websites, buying books — anything to satisfy your thirst for knowledge and inspiration.

I say it’s fine to embrace such a harmless obsession — unless you start to ignore your infant’s cries because your loaf needs shaping — and I’d like to share two cool things to fuel it.

William Alexander’s 52 Loaves

Subtitled “One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust,” 52 Loaves is a memoir that tells the story of a middle-aged man who decides to bake a loaf a week during one year, to try and recreate the superlative loaf he’s once tasted.

I received it as a review copy, and I admit I was dubious at first — it had the potential of reading like a self-important, overblown tale — but that’s probably because I’d never read anything by William Alexander before: it turns out he’s a funny, relatable, and (sometimes painfully) honest writer.

Divided into 52 chapters, the book documents the baking and life lessons he learns over as many weeks, from his inaugural doorstop loaves to his first attempts at sourdough, from building his own wood-fire oven to growing his own wheat and milling his own flour (!), and finally to the apex of his story, an unexpectedly moving episode I’m not about to spoil for you.

It is an engaging and instructive read with great rhythm, and if you’ve been on your own quest for good home-baked bread, I think you’ll find it as engrossing as I did. It is the book I was reading in Japan and well, I blame William Alexander for making me miss Mount Fuji while riding the bullet train.

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Lamb and Orange Khoresh Stew

Lamb and Orange Khoresh

A favorite from the archives, this post was originally published in April 2009.

I know little about Persian cuisine. I do know it is a multifaceted one, that its flavors are refined and its roots run deep, but I have never been to an Iranian restaurant nor an Iranian home — though now that I think about it, one of the Middle Eastern groceries we went to in California may have been Iranian — so this Persian stew (that’s what khoresh means) was a foray into uncharted territory for me.

And as far as forays go, this one was positively thrilling: I don’t think I’ve ever cooked a lamb stew so brightly flavored and so subtle.

Petits Larcins culinairesWhat prompted me to make it was a little book I recently bought, called Petits Larcins culinaires (“culinary petty thefts,” but it sounds better in French). It is written by a well-known and very likable figure of the Parisian food scene, Claude Deloffre. Claude has a passion for (and a crazy-extensive collection of) cookbooks, and for a few years she ran a specialized bookshop/gallery on rue Charlot, called FOOD*. In this book, her first, she writes about her lifelong relationship with cookbooks and the ones that have meant the most to her, and she shares a few recipes “stolen” — hence the title — from her favorite authors.

As any successful anthology will, this one makes you want to go out and buy each and every one of the books she evokes — were it a website, it would have an “Order All” button — and among the recipes I flagged to try, one of them sprung forward with particular force: it was this stew, on page 63, which Claude simply introduces under the name, Khoresh.

I wasn’t familiar with the term, but the recipe itself — a dish of lamb stewed in citrus juice, garnished with candied orange peel, mint, and pistachios — sung to me like a mermaid. We were to have Pascale and her husband David over for dinner a few days later, and there was now little doubt about what I would serve.

I altered the recipe just a bit — I used a little less sugar and butter, but more vegetables and more meat, as the amount given seemed insufficient for six, and I added saffron — but overall, I followed Claude’s lead, and found the process easy and pleasurable.

We are at the tail end of the citrus season and the first new carrots are appearing, so now is the ideal time to try this. And if it seems a little supererogatory to candy your own orange peel, I hope I can persuade you to do it anyway: the crisp, caramelized strands sit at the juncture between the sweet, the savory, and the bitter, thus summing up the different facets of this dish and acting as the perfect garnish.

* She eventually had to close it in late 2006; cookbook fanatics in Paris now turn to La Cocotte or La Librairie Gourmande to fill their needs.

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