Several months ago I noticed that in my stack of new cookbooks were three cookbooks with cheap board bindings: the front and back covers were made of raw cardboard. This looked like a gimmick for the publisher to cut down on production costs but still price the book as a hardcover. Two of the books might have had an excuse for such a cover. Alton Brown’s Feasting on Asphalt: The River Run is about a motorcycle trip by a group of men along the Mississippi River; perhaps the raw edges of the cardboard cover reflect the grittiness of motorcycles, asphalt, and guys. Mr. Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Seasons by Matt Wilkinson is a vegetable cookbook; the cardboard cover might be intended to bring to mind nature and the dirt in which vegetables are grown. The publishers of these books also attempt to ameliorate the unsatisfactory consequences of a raw board binding: the corners of the cover of Feasting on Asphalt are rounded, and those on Mr. Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables are bound, photo-mount style. I can think of no reason for the third book, Maria Elia’s Full of Flavor: How to Create Like a Chef, to have a board cover. The corners of the binding are not protected, so if anyone were actually to give this book any serious use (which is not going to happen in our house), the cover would soon be worn in a very unattractive way. But since we all know that we cannot judge a book by its cover, a look at the insides of these books is in order.
Mr. Wilkinson (henceforth referred to as “Matt”) of Mr. Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables is Australian, and if I knew anything about the Australian food world I might be able to say that his credentials listed on the back cover are impressive. However, my only experience of food from Australia is through cookbooks, and for some reason, a lot of Australian cookbooks have left me a bit cold. But I haven’t given up on Australia yet, and vegetable cookbooks always interest me. Furthermore, this cookbook had a positive blurb from the awesome David Chang of Momofuku (“vegetables have never been as tasty”) and on flipping through the book, there seemed to be interesting recipes, such as “Salad of Cauliflower, Smoked Salmon & Strawberry”, and so the cookbook ended up on my shelf. I never tried the cauliflower, salmon and strawberry salad, but I was pleased with the recipes I did try. Australian cookbooks have moved up a notch on my cookbook list.
My favorite recipe, and the recipe that made much of the other food I tested from these three cookbooks palatable, is “Grated Carrot, Preserved Lemon, Raisin & Ginger Pickle” (page 83). The name of this recipe lists its main ingredients, leaving out only the shallots. Vinegar and wine are brought to a boil, then everything is dumped in. I chopped the carrot in the food processor rather than grating it because I was too lazy to get out the grating disc and then have to wash it. This salad was refreshing and tangy; I hesitate to call it a pickle since it is for instant consumption. In my version of the recipe, given below, I call it “Carrot and Raisin Salad on Steroids”. Comparing this salad to the usual wimpy mixture of grated carrots, raisins and mayonnaise is comparing Hello Kitty to Godzilla. [Go to the recipe.]
“Spinach, Mustard Greens & Baked Ricotta Cheese” (page 176) is an unremarkable variation on creamed spinach. I have not done much cooking with mustard greens, but I hoped that they might pump up the spinach a bit. I used Jennifer Perillo’s homemade ricotta, which I have been using more and more of lately. The recipe called for eggs, which I hoped would give a souffled texture. The end product was good enough, but more curdy than souffle-like, and bland. However, when I ate it with Carrot and Raisin Salad on Steroids, it was quite good. Another good complement to this dish would, I expect, be sriracha.
“Spicy Eggplant Braise” (page 130) needed no extra flavoring. In this dish, eggplant is doing what it does best: absorbing olive oil and bathing in a tomato sauce. I used a lot less olive oil than Matt called for, but the eggplant was still adequately unctuous. How good eggplant dishes are depends on how good the eggplants are; so it is a pleasure to cut open an eggplant and find no bruises, and no discolored seeds, as was the case with the eggplant I used in this dish.
I have only watched snippets of Food Network, and that was about ten years ago when I was going through a phase of getting up at three in the morning and working out with exercise tapes; in between tapes I would watch Food Network. Thus I have never seen Alton Brown in action, nor have I ever seen any of the Food Network series on which this book, Feasting on Asphalt, is based. The series and the book chronicle a food road trip from south to north on the banks of the Mississippi. Alton and his motorcycle gang stay off the highways and explore the byways for the indigenous peoples and their food. His interactions with interesting people probably come off better on film than in the book, but there are good photos of the people he meets, more entertaining than the photos of Alton posing (but I suppose that is what his fans like). He finds some interesting food; unfortunately, once I eliminated all the meat recipes, there was not that much for me to try. (The book only has 40 recipes.) I was tempted by the recipe for “Red Beans, Rice, and Filé” (page 54), but I would have had to order filé powder, and, to do it right (according to Alton), Camellia red kidney beans. The recipes with which I was left were not very interesting or thrilling, although there might be one or two good ones I missed.
“Vegetable Borscht” (page 177), from the Russian Tea House of St. Paul, Minnesota, looked promising: vegetarian, and, according to Alton, not too beety. Not only did this soup not taste much of beets, it did not taste like much of anything. Even adding lots of salt did not help. The recipe made an enormous amount of soup, and there is still plenty in our refrigerator. There would be even more if not for Carrot and Raisin Salad on Steroids, which rescued this concoction from the bland and uneventful Sargasso Sea of soups.
The beet soup called for half a cabbage, so with the other half I made “Delta Cole Slaw” (page 97). The recipe is supposedly an amalgamation of the slaws that Alton and his crew encountered at various barbecue places. This is a simple slaw, with cabbage, carrots, and sweet pickle relish in mayonnaise, seasoned with a small amount of vinegar, salt and pepper. I suspect that most of the slaws Alton came across on this trip had a lot more sugar than the little bit contributed by the sweet relish, but no matter. I used a lot less mayonnaise, and more vinegar, and came up with a perfectly acceptable slaw, the type of slaw I like to put between two slices of bread with some cheese and heat in the oven until the cheese melts.
I shall always be fond of Feasting on Asphalt for being the source of the most disgusting recipe I have ever made and enjoyed (sort of): “Koolickles” (page 80)! I hope I am not alone in having a certain fascination for disgusting recipes; recipes whose list of ingredients is so improbably horrible that there is the hope that the result might so transcend bad as to be good. Such a recipe is “Koolickles”. Alton’s recipe calls for a gallon jar of dill pickles, two packs of cherry Kool-Aid, and a pound of sugar. I cut down to a smaller jar of pickles, half a pack of Kool-Aid, and a lot less sugar. In the photo you can see the result: pickles glowing with the carcinogenic Red Dye 40. But, along with Alton, I was surprised: these things didn’t taste half bad. And why shouldn’t they taste good? Sweet and sour is a classic great taste, and Kraft must put some appealing artificial flavors in Kool-Aid: there has to be some incentive to “drink the Kool-Aid”. With Koolickles, we can now “eat the Kool-Aid”. [Go to the recipe.]
Having read my A. A. Milne, even the poetry books, as a child, I never had any desire to eat rice pudding, and fortunately no one ever tried to make me eat any or even ever cooked it. But after reading Raymond Sokolov (as an adult), I became somewhat interested in rice pudding. As I recall, according to Sokolov the point of rice pudding is not the rice, but the milk, cooked and condensed. Alton gives us a recipe, “Riz au Lait” (page 48), that he says is “the best example of rice pudding I’ve ever tasted,” so finally I made rice pudding. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t all that good, more a problem with rice pudding itself than with this particular recipe. There are all sorts of ways that I would rather get my dessert calories.
“Dough Pudding” (page 107) was a curious dessert. You roll strips of pie crust dough up with sugar, cinnamon, and butter, place in a baking dish, and pour sweetened milk over it all. Then bake. I was worried that the milk would not cook down, because I did not think that the end result was supposed to be soupy, but eventually it did cook down into a thick caramel-like sauce. The dough spirals had a very nice texture, but overall the dish was just not particularly tasty, and this was not the type of food for which Carrot and Raisin Salad on Steroids could rescue.
Full of Flavor did not work for me. I was curious to see what other people’s reactions were. Amazon had no customer reviews, but I did find a glowing review on the blog Pip Cooks the Books (but Pip was less enthusiastic about Mr. Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables). Full of Flavor is arranged by categories of the main ingredient: beef, game, oily fish, stone fruit, etc. Maria has lots of suggestions for variations to her dishes, both in recipe notes and in an appendix to the book. Good intentions, but I found that the recipes were not so much full of flavor but rather devoid of flavor. Could this be due to the restaurant cook’s need to enable their customers’ unadventurous palates? I doubt that I will try more recipes from this book, but if I do, I will be tempted to double or triple the flavor imparting ingredients.
Dukkah is an Egyptian nut and spice mixture that for some mysterious reason is very popular in Australia. There are as many different formulations for dukkah as there are people who make it. In her recipe, “Spiced Carrot Purée with Dukkah” (page 126), Maria gives us her version of dukkah with almonds, coriander, cumin, sesame seeds, salt, and pepper. She goes heavy on the coriander, which I think may be a mistake. The carrot purée is really quite lightly spiced; a lot more harissa would have helped. The dominant flavor was carrot, from which the other flavors fled. I did not care for this dish.
“Halibut, Orange, and Olive Tagine” (page 90) was better, but still a disappointment. I am not a big fan of halibut, so I used mahimahi, which happened to be on sale at Whole Foods Market. The sauce promised to be puttanesca-like with its olives and garlic, and I thought that the orange would add an interesting accent. As it turned out, the orange was completely overwhelmed by the tomatoes and I could not detect it, and the garlic and olives could easily have been doubled. I ended up fishing out pieces of fish and covering them with Carrot and Raisin Salad on Steroids for a tasty combination. Who knows: if I had used halibut, this dish might have been perfect, but I think not. Interestingly, blogger Pip approved of this recipe.
“Plum Fool” (page 179) is simply whipped cream folded into a sweetened purée of plums. Plums are a fruit that I, for one, need to appreciate more: they have a beautiful color and taste really good. This recipe was quite inviting in its simplicity, and it was a very nice dessert of the smooth variety. However, the texture was not quite what I wanted; it was too soft and flabby. I was hoping the pectin naturally occurring in the plums would help firm up this dessert, and I even added a tiny amount of guar gum in hopes of stabilizing the whipped cream, but I never got the texture I was seeking. It may be that the texture of this dessert was exactly what it was supposed to be, but it was not quite satisfactory. [Go to the recipe.]
I thought about trying more recipes from this book: “Smoked Mackerel, Asparagus, and Noodle Salad with Ginger Miso Dressing” (page 76)? “Orange and Sumac Scented Quinoa” (page 112)? “Roasted Butternut Squash Filled with Caramelized Puy Lentils and Feta” (page 118)? But I decided that I had given Maria her chance, and there are too many cookbooks still waiting to be explored.
Carrot and Raisin Salad on Steroids
Adapted from Matt Wilkinson, Mr. Wilkinson’s Favourite Vegetables
1⁄2 cup apple cider vinegar
1⁄2 cup rice wine vinegar
1⁄3 cup white wine
2 inch piece ginger, peeled
1⁄2 preserved lemon, peel only
2-3 carrots, peeled
1⁄2 cup raisins
1⁄4 teaspoon ground coriander
11⁄2 teaspoons salt
Put the vinegars and wine in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Roughly chop the shallots, ginger, and lemon peel and put them in the food processor. Pulse until they are minced. (Alternatively, do this by hand.) Add the carrots and pulse until the carrots are in uniform pieces of the size you want. For the last few pulses add the carrots. (Alternatively, grate the carrots.) Put the vegetables in a bowl, pour the vinegar and wine mixture over them and stir in the coriander and salt.
Adapted from Alton Brown, Feasting on Asphalt
1 1 pint 8 ounce jar kosher dill pickles
1⁄2 packet unsweetened cherry Kool-Aid
2⁄3 cup sugar
Drain the pickles, reserving the liquid. Mix the cherry Kool-Aid and sugar into the pickle juice until dissolved. Cut the pickles in two, and repack into the pickle jar. Pour the red pickle juice back into the jar to cover the pickles. There will probably be some juice left over. Let the pickles and juice sit in the refrigerator for a few days.
Adapted from Maria Elia, Full of Flavor
1⁄2 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean
2⁄3 cup cream
Pinch xanthan gum (optional)
Cut the plums in half, remove the pits, and place in a small saucepan with the sugar and two tablespoons of water. Split open the vanilla bean, and scrape the seeds onto the plums. Add the vanilla bean to the saucepan. Simmer until the plums are cooked and mushy. Remove the vanilla bean and plum skins, and force the plums through a sieve. Let the plums cool with the vanilla bean added back in.
Whip the cream with the xanthan gum, if you are using it. Once again, remove the vanilla bean from the plums. Fold the plums into the whipped cream. Spoon the fool into individual dessert cups.