Thursday, 20 December 2012

Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne et al: Grand Tour Larousse

Okay to round up before Christmas, a few words on Larousse Gastronomique. This isn't quite a book review, more an appreciation-cum-users guide. My main point is that Larousse tends to be ignored or dismissed nowadays, which is a shame. Sure its no longer the Bible of cuisine nowadays (that is, I believe, now called T'Internet). But it's still a wonderful trove of deliciousness to be enjoyed in its own right. I do.

Knock, knock..

Nowadays it is very fashionable to knock Larousse Gastronomique, the famously frumpy French culinary encyclopaedia.

It's outdated people say (true). The recipes don't work they say (also true). Its ridiculously French they say (Good point. The entry on Great Britain rather pointedly claims "British cookery is basically medieval...").

Even after recent attempts to drag it into the 21st century, its publisher's claim to be "authoritative and comprehensive" looks risible. This is a book which has no entry for "sous vide" (even though it's a French term!), but it does provide a potted biography of Marie, Vicomte de Botherel who's only claim to fame is an unsuccessful attempt to install kitchens on buses (it goes without saying that he gets included because he's French).

To be fair, it does have an entry for Nigella, although it actually refers to a Asian spice rather than a buxon English TV personality.

Nonetheless if I had to be locked in a cell for a month with only one of my cookbooks for company, I think I'd take Larousse.

Introducing Larousse Gastronomique

The story of Larousse

Prosper Montagne: This is what sleb chefs looked like
before they started using stylists...
Larousse Gastronomique begins with Prosper Montagne, best described as the Thomas Keller of his day. Along with his (slightly older) contemporary Auguste Escoffier, he was one of the superstars of fin de siecle gastronomy. While not quite as revolutionary as the Big E (think of Escoffier as the Ferran Adria of the age), Montagne was no slouch, cooking his way around some of the biggest kitchens in France, notably the venerable Pavillon Ledoyen (currently Christian Le Squer's three star lair).

Anyhow to cut a long story short, after many decades behind the range Montagne decided to kick back a little and starting writing books. This culminated in the 1938 publication of Larousse Gastronomique, co-authored with a Dr Gottschalk and published by Larousse, leading purveyors of encyclopedias and other doorstops.

What Escoffier did for French cookery in practice, Montagne did for French cookery in print. Larousse was a staggering confection of history, dishes and recipes. The heart of the book is its coverage of French cuisine - from humble to haute. Montagne systematically went through every French region, dish, and garnish in the classic repertoire. He also provides pen-pictures of famous chefs and personalities, and added articles on history and on many notable ingredients (guess what, foie gras and truffles have some of the longest entries).

Lost in Larousse

On paper it sounds quite prosaic but in person the effect is quite staggering. If you are remotely interested in food this is a book you can get lost in.

Consider the duck...

Take your favourite ingredient - let's say Duck. Flip to the entry and you will learn about the breeds of duck (Aylesbury, Barbary, Gressingham, Long Island, Nante, Norfolk, Peking and Rouen). Then you'll hear about notable preparations of duck, which may take you on to an article on Aiguilettes (long-thin fillets of meat - also used for strips of beef). Or to an article on the Tour d'Argent restaurant, a Parisian old-timer famous for serving pressed, numbered ducks (#253,652 went to Charlie Chaplain). There's an anecdote here (and a painting) about the chef Frederic carving his famous canard au sang:
Frederic carving his famous canard au sang
You ought to have seen Frederic with his monocle, his greying whiskers, his calm demeanour, carving his plump quack-quack, trussed and already flamed, throwing it into the pan, preparing the sauce, salting and peppering like Claude Monet's paintings, with the seriousness of a judge and the precision of a mathematician, and opening up, with a sure hand, in advance, every perspective of taste.

For there you might follow an entry to the famous chef Paillard who cooked at the Tour D'Argent in the 1800s, or Claude Terrail who ran the restaurant with an iron fist until his death in 2006. Meanwhile back to the original article on duck it concludes with twenty two different recipes, including a honeyed duck Apicius-style popularised by Alain Senderens, and Rene Lasserre's duck a l'orange.

You don't get that with Nigella.

The many lives of Larousse

Lost in translation...

Family portrait: 2009 edition (rear), 1988 hardback (right),
much-thumbed 1990 paperback (left)
There have been a number of editions of Larousse over the years (for a more detailed treatment see this article). After the original in 1938 the most important revision was the 1984 edition. This gave the text a thorough overhaul, masterminded by Robert Courtine of Le Monde, adding colour pictures and updating it with the latest trends in nouvelle cuisine. The last major update was in 1996 when a culinary committee of the great and the good (headed by Joel Robuchon) overhauled some of the entries, although the changes were nowhere near as significant as those twelve years earlier. There was a further update in 2007.

These changes are reflected in the English editions. The first English edition was in 1961, adapted from Montagne's original. Similarly in 1988 the Courtine version was translated into English (also released as a natty paperback two years later). The Robuchon version made it into anglais in 2001, with an update in 2009. These two are the versions you're most likely to come across today.

Larousse - key editions you are likely to find

Party like its 1988...

La Belle Patissiere
I actually own three copies - a reprint of the 1988 hardback, a dog-eared copy of the paperback version (quite excellent for taking on long backpacking trips), and the 2009 edition which I found going cheap online.

I actually prefer the 1988 version over the more recent versions. For one thing the entries they added to bring it "up to date" are pretty superficial (as I said - articles on Adria, Heston but nothing on sous-vide or spherification; they do seem quite proud to have an article on tonka beans though). For another the pictures in the newer version tend to be pointless Dorling-Kindersley fluff.

In contrast the 1988 is stuffed with fascinating paintings and drawings which where chopped wholesale in the later version. For example the painting of Frederic and his quack-quack above is gone, as is Joseph Bail's ravishing La Belle Patissiere accompanying the Patisserie article (yes I look like that when I make pasta too :-p ).

Non-French food (according to French people)
Also the 1988 still has outbreaks of hilarious French sniffiness which have been shamefully bowdlerised in more modern versions. So you have the article on Great Britain where they point out that out food is basically medieval and the best thing to happen to British cuisine was actually when Careme and Escoffier turned up in London to teach us how to cook.

In the piece of Australia and New Zealand the author goes to great lengths to talk about Aboriginal traditions which include the cooking of such animals as cockchafer grubs, bats and lizards. Kangaroo-tail soup is considered to be a delicacy whilst adding that Fish and shellfish, often giant-sized, are very popular but are not cooked with any gastronomic refinement.

Rather pointedly the page on North American food (actually more like 3/4 of a page - roughly the same space the book devotes to the town of Lyon) begins It would be wrong to dismiss American cuisine as being confined to the fast food and the snack-bar, and to believe that its contributions to gastronomy are limited to cocktails, ice cream, corned beef, and hot dogs. Yeah right...

Now a lot of this has been amended in later versions (the USA gets its own article for a start) but actually I find these sections some of the funniest bits of the book. Its a shame they've been cut in favour of banalities like Far too vast and varied to be comprehensively described in a few paragraphs, the food of the United States is as rich as diverse as its people.

Changing attitudes to American food!

Real men eat salad

Larousse is basically a book about French people saying how great their food is and being rude about everyone else's cooking. Let's enjoy it for what it is! I love Larousse precisely because its a quirky, opinionated snapshot of classic Frenchness. In particular I was very  annoyed to see Lucien Tendret's glorious recipe for a mixed salad left out of the latest edition. In the name of culinary artistry I've reproduced it in full:
Put into a salad bowl some olive oil of the best quality, some white wine vinegar, 4 tablespoons roast turkey juice, 1/2 teaspoon tarragon mustard, the inside of a lobster, salt, and pepper. Stir until the mixture is perfectly smooth. Then add slices of lobster flesh, slices from the breast of a braised chicken and the breast of a roast turkey without the skin, the breast of three young partridges (keep the best slices for decoration), some thinly sliced truffles cooked in an excellent dry white wine, some mushrooms prepared in the same way, and a number of shelled crayfish. Cover with a layer of blanched endive (chicory) leaves. Add a second layer of the mixture, then a further layer of endive. Then on top tastefully arrange the reserved slices of meat, a few strips of ham from which the fat has been removed, a few large slices of truffle and mushroom, a border of shelled crayfish, a tablespoon of capers washed in white wine, and a cupful of stoned (pitted) green olives. Put a mound of thick mayonnaise in the centre with the largest truffle on top. Serve with the finest dry champagne, very cold but not iced.
That's my kind of salad (apparently Jeremiah Tower once served it at Chez Panisse). Mr Ritz and Mr Waldorf eat your heart out...

Living with Larousse

So to close a few more things I've learnt after twenty years of living with Larousse:

Larousse can be really really random

Quite good for picnics, apparently...
Part of the fun of Larousse is that its like rummaging through an elderly uncles very very random attic. The text is sprinkled with little gems, from a culinary appreciation of the Elephant (The feet and trunk are of the greatest culinary interest: their flesh, which is muscular and gelatinous, resembles ox (beef) tongue) to the Street Cries of Paris (Crapois y'a for salted whale meat, apparently) to Queen of Sheba, a chocolate gateau made especially light by the use of potato flour and ground almonds. For all its failings Larousse has a magpie-like mind that should please anyone who confuses significance with obscurity.

Never cook any recipe from Larousse

To be fair the recipes in Larousse are notoriously unreliable. I remember trying to cook French food from Larousse during my gap year in China (I took two books: Larousse and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Shakey never stood a chance). Complete nightmare. Scrambled egg custard for the ile flottante (OK that maybe I shouldn't have tried to thicken the liaison in a makeshift wok). Disintegrating liver dumplings. Never again. Everything they've told you about how unreliable Larousse's recipes are is true.

There are multiple reasons for this. Montagne wasn't writing for home cooks for a start - the recipes are rudimentary at best (very similar to the brief one-para ones in Escoffier actually). I don't think the translations have helped either - sometimes recipes are newly translated for the 2009 edition, sometimes they are recycled wholesale from the 1988 translation (or earlier). With so many authors across so many editions I doubt there's any consistency as to what kind of recipes got in (and whether they were ever tested). If you want a cookbook, read Nigella.

You can read it online. Now

Hit and look up the 2001 English edition. They hit "Click to Look Inside". Normally Amazon offers you a page or two and the author puff. But lo and behold pretty much the whole damn thing is available to browse. Okay there's a page or two they've held back but I figure 90% of the book is there to browse through. Go have a look if you don't believe me.

Get lost in Larousse

Look you can keep Larousse on your shelf and haul it down as an occasional reference when you need to figure out what a Pate de Pezenas is, but that's a waste. Larousse deserves more than that (incidentally, a Pate de Pezenas is a sweetened pie of mined mutton, shaped like a cotton bobbin which is sometimes served as a dessert).

What you should is brew yourself a nice cup of tea and sit down on the sofa with your Larousse and a plate of cooked pork products (preferably crispy ones). You may want to prop up Larousse on a separate table to avoid knackering your knees.

Then pick your favourite ingredient or region and start reading. Every time you find a funny French term or cross-reference to another article flip look it up and continue reading. When the trail of articles runs dry, back up and carry on reading the original article (you may want to deploy Post-Its to keep your place). Continue for an hour. Or two. I guarantee you will come away hungrier than when you started.

As I said at the start, this is the book I'd most like to have if I were locked away for a month. You can use it to embark on numerous culinary voyages, and never have the same trip twice.

And to finish some nice Pate de Pezenas and a glass of wine...

Friday, 30 November 2012

Signatures: Black Cod with Miso (Nobu)

After a couple of weeks of book reviews, a return to my ongoing series on cheffy signature dishes, and  the cookbooks where you can find them...

The Dish

The problem with Nobu's Black Cod with Miso is that its too damn successful.

Black cod is actually a very interesting ingredient - probably the only seafood with less than eight legs which can't be overcooked. And its fatty and delicious to boot. But if you look up recipes for black cod you will find only one.

This one.

It's because it really is that good.

The dish looks very simple. A golden-grilled fillet of fish plain on a plate. If you get it in the restaurant there's a shard of pickled ginger on the side. But once you put your fork to it (look this is Nobu. Doubt you'll be using chopsticks here) oh-my-oh-my. It flakes away into scalloped flakes, not disintegrating like a normal cod. Taste it and each one is a beguiling mix of salt-sweet miso glaze and then the melting-fatty fish. Even if you're have it dozens of times, it still remains a wow dish.

There's a couple of things that make it so great.

The first is the miso glaze. Now contrary to popular belief Nobu didn't invent this. Marinating fish in a mixture of miso, alcohol and sugar is an age-old technique in Japan. It was originally used as a preservative - sea-fish would be pickled in miso or in the lees from sake-brewing to preserve them for the long journey to the capital. Nowadays of course the miso is there more for taste than preservation, but its definitely nothing new.

Nobu didn't invent the idea of grilling it either. Once the preserved fish had got to its destination, grilling  (Yakimono) was a quick and easy way of preparing it. After all Nasu Dengaku (miso-topped aubergine), an izakaya stand-by, is pretty much the same thing done to an eggplant.

Oi! Keep that pot of Miso away from me I tell you!!
What Nobu did do however is stumble on the idea of pairing this with Black Cod, an unusual fish he came across in Alaska. Black Cod - or sablefish - is a very unusual fish. Unlike most fish we eat, it lives in very deep water, between 1000 and 9000 feet down. This gives it a very special physiology - to adapt to the extreme pressures the flesh is saturated with a great deal of fat, which acts as a sort of natural antifreeze.

Why is this important? It's because it gives it particular lip-smacking texture which is the source of its other name - butterfish. Apart from the Chilean Seabass (which has a similar stygian habitat) this is almost unique amongst the fish we eat. Perhaps a nice piece of grilled salmon belly can match it, but that's much oilier. What so special about the Black Cod is that the fat does leach out, it just remains soaked into the beautiful, moist flesh.

It is the fattiness which makes Black Cod so well suited for this dish. Much as you pair savoury-fatty foie gras with a sweet fruit chutney, the savoury-sweet miso glaze is a perfect foil for the buttery Black Cod. It's one of the great food marriages. And Nobu was the bloke who discovered it.

Respect is due.

The Recipe

The only problem with this dish is it costs you a whacking great £42 a plate at Nobu's London outpost, only its only $32 in New York (hmmm, I wonder if its worth doing a Economist-style Big Mac Index to figure out currency overvaluations for the jet-set?). But the good news? Provided you can get your hands on the fish this one's a snip to do at home.

As far as I know the recipe features in two of Nobu's books, and an interminable number of random recipe sites (Google "black cod miso recipe" and you'll know what I mean). It was originally published on p124 the 2001 Nobu Cookbook  pioneer of the Haute Asian Fusion (HAF) genre (viz Tetsuya Wakuda, Susur Lee, Alan Wong and Momofuku). It's pretty much foolproof.

Hmmm. How much Sake again?
The first step is to make the Saikyo Miso marinade (recipe on p172). Basically boil together a tub of white miso, some sake, mirin, sugar and then let it cool. One warning - the recipe in the original book omits the quantity of sake; other sources say it should be the same quantity as the mirin (150ml), which is what I always use.

This gives you a great big pot of golden-yellow miso sauce. More than you need for the recipe. Stick it in a bottle and keep it in the fridge - given the amount of salt and sugar in it the stuff is pretty much indestructible. Whip it out whenever you have any grilled meat you want to gussy up (it's great on grilled lamb chops).

Then take a cup or so of the miso sauce and brush it onto the fish. At this point the book marinades the  fish for 2-3 days (perhaps a hat-tip to the old days of preserving the fish), but its just as good if you cook it immediately. Grill the fish skin-side up til its browned and then whack it into a 200c over for 10-15 minutes (alternately I grill the fish til browned on both sides and skip the oven bit).

Now normally when you grill fish it goes dry pretty damn quick. But the great thing about the black cod though, is that with its extreme fattiness it remains moist no matter how much damage you deal to it. This piece of protein is pretty much idiot proof, and will brown long before you can ever overcook it  (especially given the amount of sugar in the glaze).

After that you're done. Plop it on a bowl of nicely steamed short-grain rice and your in salty-sweety-buttery black cod heaven!

The Book

Book cover front and back: Note hilariously cheesy quotes from random 90's slebs (click on the pic to zoom in). My pick: Everything tastes so clean, PURE and unique. There is so much choice from marinated tofu to tangy mushroom salad, and of course the gold leaf sake is a must. --- Jude Law and Sadie Frost.

A few thoughts on the book itself (I'm focusing on the original Nobu Cookbook here; the recipe also features in 2004's Nobu Now, but I've always found that volume much less exciting).

Returning to it over a decade later this volume has aged very well. Okay Nobu's Persil-white Nike trainers and relentless name-dropping is a bit 1990's (Princess Di: I was struck by the firmness of her handshake when we first met, and her mentioning that she had read about me; Kenny G: I could tell form his performance, from the way he mingled with the audience, that he really loved his work and enjoyed entertaining fans).

However the tightly-packed text and stately layout are surprisingly fresh, even when books like Alinea and publishers like Phaidon (a curse on all their houses) have since raised the bar.

But the book works above all because its a moving and personal story. Today we're familiar with Nobu the culinary magnate, Nobu the HAF chain-restaurant operator (back in 2001 he only had the 13 restaurants...). But the opening pages of the book take us back to a different Nobu. Nobu the indebted young restaurant owner, standing in the snow one Anchorage night and watching his only restaurant burn down:
An unforgettable night
There is one night that for me is unforgettable, one scene that I can't get out of my mind. It is branded onto my eyes. To remember what happened that night is to remember despair. Even now, the memory is as vivid as the events of yesterday. It was the hardest night I ever lived through. But perhaps because of it, I learned to be thankful and to find the courage to take a sure step forward.
Anchorage, in a whirl of light snow. In that increasingly snowbound town, silver with the settling flakes, flames shot up in an orange blaze. I stood rooted under the falling snow, silently waching the building burn down. Having rushed to the scene from a party at a friend's house, I was only wearing a T-shirt, yet I didn't feel the cold, nor anything else. The cinders from the burning building flew up into the sky, and some landed on my cheeks. They must have been hot, but I wasn't conscious of it at the time.
It was my restaurant that was burning; it had only been fifty days since it opened.
In many ways this reminds me about about Thomas Keller's vignette on the importance of rabbits contained in the original French Laundry Cookbook. In brief: Keller wants to find out how to kill, skin a rabbit. Supplier turns up with twelve bunnies, does one and leaves the rest for chef to take care of. Having to kill eleven screaming rabbits in time for dinner service teaches Keller a deeply personal lesson about the cost of his ingredients:
... but that first screaming rabbit not only gave me a lesson in butchering, it also taught me about waste. Because killing those rabbits had been such an awful experience, I would not squander them. I would use all my powers as a chef to ensure that those rabbits were beautiful.
Nobu's Alaskan nightmare is that sort of story, which tells you more about the chef than eating his food ever will.

But back to the book. The other great thing about the book is that its packed with iconic recipes. A decade on we forget how revolutionary a lot of this stuff was. New-style sashimi (drizzled with smoking hot oil at service) and bracing seafood ceviches seem to passe now (in London we've now got a whole restaurant named after the damn stuff!). But in those days it could have been food from the moon.

This is fusion food done right - foreign influences are assimilated but always with Nobu's own zesty style.

Part of this is the words (or, alternately the dodgy translation - note this is an English version of a  volume originally published in Japanese in 1998). A mayo with a dash of chilli oil becomes "Creamy-Spicy Sauce" topping grilled scallops (p37). What looks like an uncooked soy hollandaise (no I don't know how that works either) is rebranded as Egg Sauce, and looks absolutely immaculate napping spinach-wrapped sea urchin (p42).

Part of this is also playfulness - trompe l'oeil dishes of abalone or squid cut to resemble soba (p24) and conchiglie pasta (p82). A slightly gothic deep-fried bone-ring garnishing a sole (p123). And a torchon, not of foie gras but of monkish liver (having once cooked through a kilo of the stuff I can say yes it does have the look and taste of foie gras, but a kind of weird fishiness).

This is a book with personality. And a book that's fun. Even so many years on I still rate it - along with David Chang's Momofuku book - as my pick of the HAF genre.

Enjoy the weekend.

Afterword - Getting hold of Black Cod: As I said the only problem with this recipe is getting hold of the Black Cod; most of the other ingredients you should be able to track down in any Asian grocery (although for Miso you might have to go to a specifically Japanese store). In London at least Selfridges and the Atariya empire sell Black Cod (Atariya even sell it ready-miso-marinated). It's not cheap but costs less than in a restaurant, and the richness of the meat means a little goes a long way. 

No idea about availability on the other side of the pond but I assume its easier to source in North America. It looks like those enterprising Canucks are moving into Black Cod aquaculture - hopefully that will bring prices down further.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Fat by Jennifer McLagan: The Fat of the Land

Fat: An Apprecation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan is a love letter to lard, a ballad to butter and a tribute to tallow. McLagan, originally an Aussie but now based in Toronto is a woman on a mission. And that mission is to make you eat fat.

By fat she means animal fat - as opposed to vegetable oils. Butter, schmaltz, foie gras, suet. It's all good.

Published in 2008 by 10 Speed Press, the guys who also brought you the Alinea Cookbook and Charlie Trotters multi-volume gastro-porn odyssey (hmmm, is this a Chicago thing?), this is really three books in one.

Sacred Cow Abattoir

The first book is a manifesto in favour of fat. Animal fats, she argued, have been wrongly demonised over the last fifty years. Now is the time to reclaim their deliciousness.

Let's be clear this isn't a joyless preachy book - if you want that read anything by Joanna Blythman (the worst kind of food writer - someone who cares more about being right than about things being delicious). McLagan makes her point - both in the introduction and throughout the text. But she doesn't harp on about it.

The point she makes is a good one. Fat has simply had a very bad press since the 1950s. As people have lived increasingly sedentary lives their waistlines have expanded. As their waistlines have expanded they've looked for somebody to blame. And that crock of lard on the buttery shelf has been a convenient target.

She argues that doctors have been too quick to draw a straight line between heart disease, cholesterol and animal fat. This lead to them exile of lard and butter from the kitchen in favour of cheap, vegetal trans-fats (margarine is a dirty word for this woman) which do more to harm than heal. As Roberta Pollack Seid puts it: We have essentially transferred our fear of the diseases we believe fat will cause into the fat itself.

At the same time fat has been assailed by the rise of the modern idol that thin is beautiful (You can never be too rich or too thin, the Duchess of Windsor opined) has made the consumption of a nice slab of lardo as socially acceptable as chucking a dog on a barbecue (for more on that check out Schwabe's Unspeakable Cuisine).

The reality is that really fats are good for you, French people who gorge themselves on foie gras live longer and putting bacon fat in your mayonnaise is the best thing that could happen to you.

She also includes an excellent demolition of the anti-foie gras lobby (in a nutshell, ducks aren't people, gorging isn't unnatural and foie gras isn't diseased. Pass the Sauternes dear...).

Right I'm sold. What next?

The Fat's in the Fire

If the first book is a manifesto, the second book is a volume of recipes which practices what she preaches. The main body is broken out into four chapters - Butter, Pork fat, Poultry Fat (duck and chicken mainly) and Beef & lamp; lamb. In each she gives a short intro detailing the lipid in question, before presenting a clutch of related recipes.

Now let's be clear, those of your expecting Nitro-Infused Lard Gel, with Cryo-Shattered Duck Scratchings and Suet Foam will be disappointed. The recipes on the whole feature well prepared classics, rather than cutting-edge gastronomy (maybe an opportunity missed here? I'm sure there's room for a short skit of maltodextrin and how it can turn oils into soils...). Yes there are occasional off-the-wall concoctions (the bacon baklava on p119 jumps out). But on the whole the recipes aren't going to be anything new. So we have cassoulet, duck confit (mais non!), butter palmiers and shortbread. Steak and kidney puddings with a suet-laced pastry. Even a recipe for spaghetti carbonara.

Crackling Brittle. Quantities: "Makes more than enough"
But don't get me wrong. This isn't a boring book. Lots have neat twists without being revolutionary. She whips up a mayonnaise using bacon fat rather than oil (p101); perfect for streaking through the ultimate BLT. Cornish pasties are encased in pastry made with beef dripping (p201). A praline is made with spiced pork crackling rather than almonds (p121); I don't know if its salt, sweet or snack but I know this is what I want when the big game is on! And best of all her Chicken Kiev is not only stuffed with sweet herby butter, but fried golden brown in an inch of lard.

Anyone who fries a Chicken Kiev in an inch of lard is right in my book. (Any vegetarians feel free to leave the room now...)

She also devotes a notable amount of space to the neglected art of making desserts and sweets with animal fat; not only butter but also lard, suet and even bone marrow. In my mind its lard that makes the flakiest of pastries (pop down to Chinatown and snaffle an egg tart if you disagree). And good hard suet is essential for the honour and glory of the English table - its steamed puddings. Indeed, Suet puddings get full-spectrum treatment here, and I was pleased to see a recipe for the fabulous polvorones of Spain, a lard-based cookie so flaky it powderises on the lips (p114). There is also a fascinating confection of rice pudding made infused with vanilla and rum, and enriched with a slick of bone marrow. And of course that bacon baklava.

Impeccable sauces sources
McLagan is also unafraid to steal from the best. As I said little of what she presents is original cooking, and she frequently credits impeccable sources for her recipes. Her method to Hollandaise sauce (add all ingredients together rather than scrambling the egg first) is taken from Harold McGee's The Curious Cook. Her potato puree (or should I say butter puree with potato) uses a recipe from Joel Robuchon. Her rillettes (both duck and pork) are adapted from the The Moro Cookbook (interestingly she adds the juices back to the shredded meat, but not the rendered fat). One slightly random point - she draws on UK and French sources much more than American ones (unusual for a Toronto-based Australian, although to be fair she has spent a lot of time in France).

Chewing the Fat

So this is both a manifesto and a recipe book. But thirdly it is also a book of Fat Lore. As well as recipes the chapters are larded (pun intended) with boxed-up capsules which provide a kaleidoscope of little fat-related anecdotes.

So on page 35 we hear about bog butter, long-forgotten caches of butter or tallow buried to preserve them in acidic bogs and unearthed hundreds of years later ("sometimes edible, it not particularly palatable"). On page 103 there is the story of German artist Joseph Beuys who created sculptures such as Unschlitt/Tallow (1977) which required 20 tons of mutton fat. There is an explosive capsule on nicro-glycerin (p165) which is prepared - you guessed it - from animal fat (2.2kg of fat per 450g of dynamite apparently).

Other interesting ones are a digression Salo, an alleged Ukrainian "delicacy" (I've tried it. It isn't), a paean to schmaltz (the rendered chicken product, not the style of music) and the story of the author's hopeless pursuit of the fat-tailed sheep.

Just occasionally these anecdotes verge towards irrelevance (digressions into the Fat Man atom bomb and Fats Waller have little to do with food apart from the word "fat" in their name), but in the main these provide fascinating little snippets into the wide world of fat.

She also throws amusing fat-related quotes into the margin. e.g.
  • My idea of heaven is eating pate de foie gras to the sound of trumpets - Sydney Smith (hear, hear!). 
  • A Russian is still a Russian even if you fry him in butter (Finnish) (you need to understand about a century of Russo-Finnish warfare to get this one). 
  • If you are afraid of butter, as many people are nowadays, just put in cream - Julia Child (Julia - my kind of gal!)

Bringing Home the Bacon

As the French diplomat and gastronome Talleyrand put it:
Can you inform me of any other pleasure that can be enjoyed three times a day, and equally in old age as youth?
Let's be clear. This isn't a book which will change your life. McLagan hasn't discovered a revolutionary new philosophy of food or a stack of new cooking techniques. But what she has produced is an excellent volume that exposes society's fallacies about fat, teaches us how to enjoy it and keeps us amused as it does does so. In the words of the old BBC motto it educates, informs and entertains.

More than enough for me! Pass the rillettes...

PS Also note that she's just got a new book out on offal , which I spotted in my recent Foyles bookshop-run. Worth checking out. Before Fat she wrote another book called Bones pretty self explanatory). If I recall not quite as gripping as this one (I think I passed on it at the time anyhow), but again if that's your thing...

Friday, 16 November 2012

Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter: The Hacker Way

One thing to Like about Facebook

Down to his last 11 bil...
For those of you who follow the stock markets, Facebook's recent IPO hasn't been its finest moment. Since debuting at a heady valuation $104bn, the company is now worth 42% less than it was in May. I understand poor Mark Zuckerberg is now down to his last $11bn. Lawsuits are already flying.

But if one good thing did come out of the whole mess it was Zuckerberg's Founder's Letter, which was included in the initial IPO filing. In it he laid out his vision for Facebook and the culture which brings it about. Just as Google used its 2004 Founder's Letter to set out the mantra "Don't be Evil", Zuckerberg believes in "The Hacker Way".

Setting aside your view on whether Zuck is a privacy-snatching scumbag (I tend to sit in the "yes" camp), there's much to admire here. As he says:
The word “hacker” has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world. 
The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.
There's more, but in a nutshell the Hacker way is questioning, meritocratic and "can-do" attitude which is always trying to push the boundaries. Which believes "Done is better than perfect", and that "something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete".

So what's this got to do with cookbooks?

Well the answer is Jeff Potter's slug of culinary hacksomeness: Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks, and Good Food.

Don't ask what. Ask how and why

This isn't your usual celebrity cookbook. Jeff Potter doesn't have a posh restaurant or a michelin-starred diffusion chain (although he did get a TV gig on the back of this book). He's a old-fashioned IT geek and food nerd who decided one day to write a book.

And he didn't go through your usual publisher either. Rather take his cook to a culinary powerhouse like Artisan, Quadrille or [a curse on all their houses] Phaidon, Potter went to O'Reilly Media. This is a specialist tech publisher best known for publishing haute-geekologie texts like The Cathedral and the Bazaar (the canonical gospel of the open-source movement) or gripping blockbusters like Learning PHP, MySQL, JavaScript, and CSS, 2nd Edition (and yeah I'm sure if I read it this blog would look a lot better!).

And finally he doesn't think like your usual cookbook writer either. As he says:
At our core, though, all of us geeks still share that same inner curiosity about the hows and whys with the pocket-protractor crowd of yesteryear. This is where so many cookbooks fail us. Traditional cookbooks are all about the what, giving steps and quantities but offering little in the way of engineering-style guidance or ways of helping us think.
What you get is a book which doesn't just follow the recipe, but wants to understand where the recipe came from, why it works and how it can be improved. That is that Hacker Way.

Thinking not only about what works together, but why
it works together (click image for full table)
How does he do it? The book is laid out in three main sections. The first section deals with the stuff you should know before you turn on the oven: What sort of cook are you? What is your basic kitchen setup? How does physiology (and psychology) of taste work and why do flavour combinations come together? This is probably the weakest section of the book, but a necessary evil.

The second section is where he really gets going, analysing the key Variables which affect cooking - time, temperature and air (many chefbooks are full of hot air, but this is the first one which devotes a whole chapter to it...).

But its in the final two chapters where Potter really kills it, as he addresses the more, er, "creative" things you can do in the kitchen. He splits this into two chapters - one on chemicals ("software", as he calls it), and one on equipment and gadgets ("hardware"). This contains the stuff most recognisable from the Heston/El Bulli/Noma world of molecular gastronomy. With a vengeance.

But that's not all. Potter also gives dozens of recipes to demonstrate the principles. Note this isn't primarily a cookbook - the recipes standalone are distinctly uncheffy (although I am quite taken with the Calamari Crackling on p202). But what they do is practice what he preaches, by introducing startling new angles on old favourites. A chocolate cake is microwaved in 30 seconds flat. Duck confit is made without any duck fat. A Tiramisu recipe is repurposed as an engineering time/activity chart (via Cooking for Engineers)...

A new way to Tiramisu...

But that's not all. The text is also broken up by over twenty interviews giving expert insight on a variety of topics. Food science demi-god Harold McGee opines on Solving Food Mysteries. Le Bernardin patissier Michael Laiskonis chips in on Pastry Chefs. And don't miss Jeff Varasano's eye-popping digression on Pizza (if you haven't heard of him before, this is a man who's iconic pizza recipe runs to over fifteen thousand words). So as well as Mr Potter's wisdom you basically get a culinary boot camp thrown in for free.

Great hacks

But it's the hacker mentality that's at the heart of this. And this is a book full of great hacks.

Hacking is a mindset more than anything else. As Zuckerberg said, its the result of combining constant questioning with continuous iterative improvement. Potter also throws in the idea of "functional fixedness" - mentally restructuring your world so you use your tools in ways their designer never dreamed of.

This can be something as simple as slapping a few rubber bands on the each end of a rolling pin to allow you to roll a pizza dough out to a uniform thickness, or roasting peppers in a toaster. Or it can be as wild as clipping the lock off your oven and short-circuiting the electronics so you can use its 800c cleaning cycle to bake pizza (it worked, but Potter had to upgrade the oven door to missile-grade PyroCeram glass to keep the heat in).

This book is full of great hacks. If you don't feel like overclocking your oven, he explains how to make a Lego Ice Cream Maker. Or if a $450 Sous Vide Supreme is out of your price range he gives step-by-step instructions about how to lobotomise a slow-cooker with a thermocouple to create your own home-made sous-vide rig.

Julia Child eat your heart out.

But what's also refreshing is the hacks aren't just there for shock value. There are also simple things. For example Potter shows you how to calibrate your oven with a bowl of sugar (sugar melts are 177c, giving a precise reference point for oven temp). He outlines how to mill your own flour. And he sagely points out that the most overlooked but useful thermometer in the kitchen... is nothing more complicated than your hand.

Real science

The hacks go hand in hand with exposition. Everything Potter does is underpinned by hardcore food science (I'd expect nothing less from an engineer and a nerd). And this is a great book on food science.

The middle section, on Variables, gives one of the clearest explanations I've seen about how temperature affects food. And more important it isn't only how hot the food gets, but how long it stays hot. The idea of a time-temperature curve, and how it affects different cooking methods, is beautifully laid out in Chapter 4:

And he doesn't shy away from the nasty stuff. There's a whole section on foodborne illness for example, helpfully split out into sections on "Bacteria" and "Parasites". He gives great advice on how to avoid Bacillus Cereus and tapeworm, although unfortunately to nail both of them you need to both freeze your food and heat it above 60c. Tricky.

(And while not quite food science, but he also throws in a brilliant game-theory inspired cake cutting algorithm to make sure no-one complains about getting short changed.)

The highlight of the book though is the last two chapters. As I mentioned already, Chapter 6 deals with "software" (chemicals and additives) and Chapter 7 with "hardware" (food gadgets FTW).

The section of food chemistry goes through all the usual suspects you've seen popping up on A Heston Blumenthal TV show, with a clear explanation and practical examples. Potter is careful to put everything into a clear context.

Take colloids for example. While they may sound like a species of alien parasite, in fact they are simply a mixture of any two substances - gas, liquid, or solid - uniformly dispersed in each other but not dissolved together. Basically a suspension of A in B, or as he helpfully summarises:

Attack of the Killer Colloids...
There. Now you know. Chocolate is a Colloid.

If you don't know your Methylcellulose from your Maltodextrin then this is the place to come (Methylcellulose melts as it cools. Maltodextrin melts in the mouth). But what's also great is that Potter doesn't get carried away with his rocket science. He makes the very helpful point that using chemicals in food is nothing new, and backs it up by showing how salt, sugar, acids and alcohol are equally important in food science (Bacon-Infused Bourbon anyone?).

What a shockingly good recipe!
The last chapter on Hardware is the one with the really fun hacks - the overclocked pizza oven and DIY sous-vide machine all feature here. But there is also a comprehensive twenty-page teach-in on the techniques behind sous-vide cooking ranging from "standards" like 48-hour low-temp beef brisket to cute applications I haven't seen elsewhere, like using sous-vide to temper chocolate (one of the trickiest jobs in the pastry kitchen). Plus there's a bit of stuff on rotary evaporators, foam guns and anti-griddles, but I guess that's pretty much par for the course.

Better than Modernist Cuisine?

Of course when you have any book which deals with food science the elephant is the room is Nathan Myhrvold's five-volume, 24 kilogram opus, Modernist Cuisine (the only item in my collection that works better as a bedside table than a cookbook). While Cooking for Geeks covers much of the same ground, at 412 pages versus 2,438 for MC it's hopelessly outgunned in terms of depth.

But the funny thing is I think that Cooking for Geeks is actually the better book on food science.

You see its the Hacker Way in action. Modernist Cuisine represents Myhrvold's set-piece assault on the subject, where he brute-forces the problem with sheer weight of resources. To write his book he set up a fully staffed lab, including a hundred-ton hydraulic press, a rotary evaporator and an ultrasonic welder.

In contrast Jeff Potter had two feet of counter space plus a 2" x 4" board hanging across the sink. So rather than throwing money at the problem he falls back on his wits and his hacks. It reminds me of the (apocryphal, alas) story about NASA spending millions of dollars designing the absolute perfect Space Pen, and the Russians just using a pencil.

Reading them both, I actually find Cooking for Geeks gives a simpler, clearer and above all more fun explanation of what makes cooking tick. Our Nathan may have billions of dollars, dozens of experts and an autoclave, but Jeff has "Real Science, Great Hacks and Good Food".

I know which one I'd rather have...

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Signatures: Pig's Trotter Stuffed with Morels and Sweetbreads (Koffmann, MPW, Novelli, Ramsay)

Another entry in my series on signature dishes, and their reincarnation in various cookbooks. For previous entries of this type check out my posts of Tetsuya's confit trout and Eric Ripert's tuna with foie gras.

Memories of Gascony

Pierre, and former piggy friend
Braised pigs trotter stuffed with sweetbreads and morels is the signature creation of Pierre Koffmann, the Gascon chef who won three stars at La Tante Claire in London.

Although Koffmann closed La Tante Claire in 2004, he's now happily back fronting Koffmanns, which serves well prepared bistro deluxe food and offers an excellent value table d'hote. (I thoroughly recommend it next time you have a family do - we managed to squeeze 18 for Sunday lunch and they were happy to do the cut-price set menu with no silly charges for room hire. For what was effectively a function in a five star Park Lane hotel that was bargainous)

Most importantly though, is that the menu still offers his utterly iconic pigs trotter.

I've had this dish a couple of times. First at La Tante Claire, where I remember it a lip-smackingly rich and meaty plate; wonderfully substantial for a posh restaurant. I had it again at Marco Pierre White's Oak Room - much they same apart from it was enlivened with a shower of finely diced truffles (which, to be honest, didn't add much). I may have also had a variation at Jean-Claude Novelli's Maison Novelli in Clerkenwell (I certainly remember a slab of his Cassoulet Terrine, which was winsome but slightly stodgy).

The carte from Koffmann's glory days at La Tante Claire. Interesting it cost £28 at the *** Tante Claire back in the day, and costs exactly the same today at his Knightsbridge bistro deluxe.

The dish

The dish itself is a fascinating mashup of rustic bourgeois cuisine and old-school haute. As far as I can tell it was invented by Koffmann himself (you'd be surprised by how many "signature dishes" were subtly swiped from elsewhere), combining the Gascon home cooking of his roots with the technical skills he learned under the Roux Brothers at Le Gavroche and the Waterside Inn.

The recipe itself is readily available. Koffmann has it up on his website here (scroll down the page). It was also published in a number of books including Memories of Gascony, and Richard Bramble's Star Chefs Cookbook. The best version I have is from an in-depth masterclass in trade rag Caterer and Hotelkeeper, which I've reproduced here (click on image for larger version):

The trotter skin itself is a peasant preparation - an old-school exercise in using every part of the beast. It is braised for three hours in a mix of stock and various forms of booze (an haute cuisine touch - I doubt many Gascon mamans have veal stock, brandy, port and madeira lying around) until it reaches a melting softness. This gelatinous texture is one of the unusual features - you sometimes find it in country cooking (a nice warm Tete de veau springs to mind), but is very unusual in high end kitchens (where generally the rule is "if in doubt puree and add more butter").

The trotter is then stuffed - not unprecedented (there's nothing I love more than a good sticky Zampone) - but certainly unorthodox. The stuffing however is straight out of Escoffier - a mousseline made with chicken breast enriched with cream, then studded with morels and chunks of veal sweetbread. It's the sort of thing you expect to find served in vol-au-vent cases, garnished with cocks combs and named after a aristocratic French dissolute.

After that it's quite simple. Wrap the stuffed trotter in foil, steam for fifteen minutes to reheat and serve with a nice bit of demi-glace and some spuds (pureed of course, with plenty of butter - this is a haute cuisine dish after all!).

While time consuming (as this meticulously-documented attempt shows), it isn't actually a massively technical dish (apart from boning the trotters). It's definitely something which could be attempted at home, and nowadays most of the ingredients are readily available (pigs trotters and sweetbreads are the only ones you will need to order ahead). If you want more tips Michel Roux gives a thorough demonstration in this video.

The many lives of the pigs trotter

As I implied at the start, this is a much-imitated dish. Not surprisingly, the recipe comes up in a number of places in addition to Koffmann's own books. Marco Pierre White's White Heat has an early version, and he pays due homage to its creator. In terms of overall method he sticks very closely to the original, apart from braisng his trotters in a much hotter oven (220c rather than 160c). He also he amps up the demi-glace with chicken legs, and adds lemon juice to balance the acidity. In the book he garnishes with morels and onions although as I said, he's not afraid to chuck in the odd truffle or two.

Marco Pierre White's Braised Pig's Trotter 'Pierre Koffmann' (click for bigger version)

J-C Novelli. Brylcream
is optional.
The recipe also surfaces in Jean-Christophe Novelli's kitschly-titled Your Place or Mine: Cooking at Home With Restaurant Style (does that mean you need to have a Brycreamed Frenchman in the kitchen too I wonder?). Novelli freely admits he learned the recipe from MPW, although he makes a few tweaks of his own. The trotters are braised for longer at a lower heat (150c for six hours rather than 160c for three) and the filling goes slightly off-piste, substituting beef daube & black pudding for the sweetbreads & morels. In fact he presents the dish more as a template than a definitive version, noting that he adds all sorts of different fillings depending on the day of the week:
Sometimes I also put in Toulouse sausage which has been poached, skinned, diced and then fried. I might even add some suateed wild mushrooms and foie gras or some confit ox tongue or Morteaux sausage. On another day I might add some pork from a pot au feu.
I have no arguments with any of that!

Novelli's Pigs Trotters 'Suivre Mon Humeur' (click for bigger version)

Finally there is one other variation, which is probably less known.

In 1998 when La Tante Claire relocated from Chelsea to the Berkeley Hotel, Gordon Ramsay moved into its old site (where he holds three Michelin stars to this day). When he relaunched, Ramsay included a little hommage to Koffmann on his menu, with a starter of crispy pigs trotter and served with quails eggs and shaved truffle.

Happily the recipe is included in his 2000 volume A Chef For All Seasons. Although he doesn't credit him, the dish is recognisably Koffmann's. The trotters are braised, trimmed and stuffed with chicken mousseline, shredded gammon and sweetbreads. However rather than presented whole they are then chilled and sliced into medallions which are pan-fried at service.

It's a more obviously cheffy presentation - not only because of the truffle but also by opting to crisp up the trotter rather than having a more challenging gelatinous texture. However I can say from first-hand experience it is still absolutely delicious - as he says in the book, its basically a very posh bacon and eggs.

What's not to like?

Gordon Ramsay's tarted-up pigs trotter dish (click for... oh well you know the drill)

Afterword - a few comments on the books mentioned

Memories of Gascony by Pierre Koffmann: I've blogged about this one before so I'll keep it brief. Childhood memories and French country cooking, with knobs on.

The Star Chefs Cookbook by Richard Bramble: A series of pen-pictures of leading UK starred chefs (circa 1998) including Koffmann, Nico, MPW and their protegees. I don't normally recommend compilation books but the portraits are useful and include a lot of insightful information. Also most chefs feature their signature dishes so its a good way of getting hold of a bunch of signature dishes in one hit. Finally a number of chefs appear who hadn't written much elsewhere, e.g. Martin Blunos of Lettonie (who's signature scrambled duck egg with caviar is included), Aaron Patterson of Hambleton Hall and Philip Howard of The Square (until he published his recent cookbook this was the only place I knew which had his lamb and shallot puree recipe).

White Heat by Marco Pierre White: Another one I've written about before. In a nutshell, seminal, gripping but oh so very 1980s.

Your Place or Mine by Jean-Christophe Novelli: Chefbook from a restauranteur who briefly made it big in the 1990s before the recession did it in for his over-leveraged restaurant empire. Opening the book to research this post I'm actually surprised how well it has aged. It remains an accessible place for tarted-up French food; his most common schtick is to reimagine a traditional dish in a new form (e.g. his Cassoulet Terrine). Another interesting artifice is to take one basic ingredient (e.g. braised lamb shank, piperade, confit duck) and give two or three different recipes of varying levels of cheffiness and difficulty.

A Chef for All Seasons by Gordon Ramsay: One of Ramsay's better books, from when he was still working with amanuensis Roz Denny and before he started writing crappy TV tie-ins. In essence it documents the food at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay while he was gunning for his third star; a number of the recipes (e.g. the pigs trotter dish, the sauteed foie gras with peach chutney, the tarte tatin) I happily remember from that time. The best bit though isn't actually the recipes, its the introductory essays  which detail what the restaurant gets up to in each season. Another book which has aged well.