Aliza Green’s two books, Starting with Ingredients and Starting with Ingredients: Baking are the two most awkward to handle books that I possess. They are each over 1000 pages, are printed on thick paper, do not open flat, and have a binding that encroaches upon the written material. The worst part about all this is that there is no good reason for the books to be like this. The lines of text are widely spaced; two pages could easily and readably fit on one page. The publishers, though, must have wanted an eye-catching book, one that book store browsers would spot on a shelf, spine out. Even so, the publishers could have had the book decently bound: the latest Joy of Cooking has just as many pages as either of Aliza’s two books, yet is quite manageable. Given this extreme dislike on my part of these books’ production and binding, I was almost hoping to dislike the recipes I tried. As it was, the recipes were quite adequate; some were even good.
The gimmick (other than the unnecessary thickness) of Starting with Ingredients and its companion volume, Starting with Ingredients: Baking is to devote each chapter to a particular ingredient; 100 chapters in Starting with Ingredients and 62 in Starting with Ingredients: Baking. The chapters are alphabetically ordered; in the first volume. Aliza hits every letter: almonds to zucchini, but “X-tras” for x is a bit of a stretch (I would suggest xanthan gum). In the second volume, Aliza goes from “Alcohols” to “Yogurt”, this time skipping a few letters (i, j, k, n, t, u, z). Each chapter begins with a page or two about its particular food item: its history, its use in different parts of the world, the varieties available. There are several boxes in each chapter filled with random factoids, or with useful information about the food item that did not fit elsewhere. All this prose is a bit too light weight to consider these books reference books, but might be enjoyable just to read for pleasure if only these books were not so unwieldy. Each chapter ends with the recipes, with an average of about six recipes per chapter. These books are subtitled “Quintessential Recipes for the Way We Really Cook [Bake]”; true to this subtitle, the recipes are fairly ordinary and unexceptional, which does not mean that the recipes cannot be good. However, I like to look for recipes in cookbooks that are not the way I usually cook.
Let us first consider recipes from Starting with Ingredients.
I had a problem following the directions for “Rumanian Chopped Eggplant Salad” (page 387). Ideally, we are to grill the vegetables for this salad; as an alternative, we may bake the eggplant and broil the peppers and onions. The chopped up vegetables are then combined with raw garlic, oil, vinegar, a little bit of sugar, and salt. I took the no grill path; baking the eggplant was no problem, but broiling the peppers and onion was less satisfactory. The onion just started burning on the exposed parts without cooking elsewhere. The peppers were headed for burnt skin too, which I could have peeled off, but that was not what the recipe seemed to want. I ended up abandoning the broiler and chopping up the onion and peppers in the food processor, then cooking then in olive oil with the baked eggplant flesh. This ended up being a very pleasant dish. The small amount of sugar (one tablespoon for two pounds of eggplant) was a nice touch: the dish tasted much sweeter than I would have predicted.
“Yucaton-Style Jicama Sticks” (page 500) is a very simple recipe. Batons of jicama are dressed with lime juice, cumin, chili powder, hot sauce, and salt. Again, this dish did not really conform to my expectations. With the chili powder (for which I used Korean chili powder) and hot sauce (Frank’s; I’m still out of sriracha), I was expecting a much hotter dish. There was indeed some heat, but it perfectly complemented the sweet crunchiness of the jicama. [Go to the recipe.]
I like to make copies of the recipes from which I cook, mainly so that I do not spill food on my cookbooks, but also to have a record of what I have cooked. However, with these cookbooks, recipes from the middle with the ingredient list near the spine were impossible to copy. Such was the case with “Alpine Mushroom, Celery, and Gruyère Salad” (page 221); nevertheless, I persevered, and just wrote the ingredients by hand on the back of the unsuccessful copy. I should not have bothered. This dish was less than the sum of its parts. Each one of the ingredients would have been better just eaten alone (with the possible exception of the pepper). Furthermore, the recipe made an enormous amount of salad. I halved the recipe, but after one meal with just the two of us, and one meal with guests, there was still lots of this stuff left over. The salad was not inedible; I actually had seconds when we had guests over and I was in a positive frame of mind, but the salad was still not terribly good. By the way, the recipe in the second column of page 221, which was successfully copied, looks as if it might have possibilities.
“Artichoke and Toasted Hazelnut Soup” (page 56) looked quite promising. I have recently discovered frozen artichokes at Trader Joe’s (I have found them nowhere else in Ann Arbor), and I have a recipe for pecan soup (from The New York Times) that I particularly like. However, like the three recipes above, this one also did not conform to my expectations. In this case, the soup was strangely tasteless. I resorted to salt at the table to perk it up. There is a flaw in the copy-editing of this recipe. A listed ingredient is Wondra flour; in the recipe body this ingredient is referred to as “rice flour” (Wondra is made of wheat).
I did not make “Hungarian Mushroom Soup: Gombaleves” (page 595) as a soup. I had the artichoke hazelnut soup, and wanted another solid main dish. Thus I held back on the liquid and mixed the resulting sauce with noodles. Any dish made with noodles, mushrooms, and sour cream is going to please me and this dish was no exception. It was not a stunning presentation, but was hot and filling.
“Timbale of Wild Rice and Sun-Dried Cherries” (page 981), unlike most of the other recipes, turned out exactly as I expected it to turn out. The title of this recipe says it all: wild rice, cherries, and currants are bound with egg and baked. Aliza wants us to cook two cups of wild rice in six cups of broth; this is too high a broth to rice ratio. The cooked timbales did not hold together that well, and one timbale made a very generous individual serving. I think this recipe would have worked better cooked in one large pan.
I did not try that many recipes from Aliza’s baking book since just the two of us do not eat that many baked goods. I was initially planning on baking my weekly bread from Starting with Ingredients: Baking, but none of the bread recipes appealed to me. All of the bread recipes just had too many ingredients. which is not the way I “really bake”, and although I like novel bread recipes, I do not like that novelty to come from a cupboard of add-in ingredients.
One way I got around making too many baked goods was to test the recipe for “Chakchouka (Tunisian Vegetable Stew)” (page 865), which appears in the book as something to put on “Tunisian Semolina Griddle Bread” (page 864) (which I did not make). Aliza’s recipe is not the best version of shakshouka (the more usual spelling) that I have had. It is too heavy with bell peppers. Even so, this sauce was quite good with eggs poached in it.
I am not a huge fan of cornbread, so I prefer a tarted-up cornbread such as “Turkish Savory Cornbread (Misir Ekmedi)” (page 388). This is a basic cornbread, with added olives, feta cheese, red pepper flakes, and dill. The recipe also calls for nigella seeds; I did not add these since none of my regular stops sold nigella seeds, and in this winter weather I am disinclined to go out of my way to get a minor ingredient for a recipe I might not like that much anyway. The recipe turned out fine, yet I suspect that people who like cornbreasd will not like all the extra stuff in the cornbread, and people who do not like cornbread, will not like it that much more with the added ingredients.
“Almond-Crusted Blackberry-Tangerine Pie” (page 161) was very good, although I used an orange instead of a tangerine. I only made this because I found myself with a couple of packs of blackberries that I had gotten for my book group to munch on before I realized that I had the wrong date. Finally, I had found a good use for these cookbooks (other than pressing four-leaf clovers or keeping doors open). I had an ingredient, one with which I do not usually cook, and I needed to do something with it. And so the berry chapter of Starting with Ingredients: Baking came to the rescue. For the crust, Aliza uses her “Butter Pie Pastry” (page 203), with almond butter replacing some of the butter. I like this idea, and think it is superior to using ground up almonds to replace some of the flour. The filling is thickened with tapioca starch. I used very little sugar (at least compared to what I might usually use), and so we did not feel too decadent when we enjoyed this tart. [Go to the recipe.]
Adapted from Aliza Green, Starting with Ingredients
1 medium jicama root
Juice of 1 lime
½ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons chili powder
½ teaspoon ground cumin
Peel the jicama root, slice it into approximately ¼ inch slices, then cut the slices into batons. Mix together the lime juice, salt, chili powder, and cumin. Add hot sauce to taste; I used several vigorous shakes of Frank’s Red Hot. Combine the jicama with the sauce.
Adapted from Aliza Green, Starting with Ingredients: Baking
1½ cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons almond butter
½ teaspoon cider vinegar
3-6 tablespoons water
1 pound blackberries
¼ cup light brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
Juice and grated zest from ½ organic orange
3 tablespoons tapioca starch
1 tablespoon butter
Preheat the oven to 450º. Make the crust. I do this in the food processor, as follows. Put the flour and salt in the food processor bowl (steel blade), and add the butter and almond butter. Pulse until the largest pieces of butter are less than pea-sized. Add the water and pulse until the dough starts to come together. I always end up using more water, rather than less. Form the dough into two balls, one slightly larger than the other, and let the dough rest while you make the filling.
To make the filling, mix all the filling ingredients except for the butter together.
Roll out the larger piece of dough into a circle, large enough to line a 9 inch tart pan. Fit the crust into the 9 inch tart pan; I like to double the edges. Roll out the other ball of dough and cut it into strips for a lattice top. Add the filling, and dot the filling with pieces of butter. Either weave a lattice top, or be lazy and put horizontal strips on top of vertical strips. If you are worried that the tart might leak in the oven, put it on a foil lined baking sheet.
Bake the tart at 450º for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350º and bake until the filling is bubbly and the crust is brown, perhaps another 30 minutes. I like this tart warm with lightly sweetened whipped cream; warm with vanilla ice cream would probably also be delicious.