Cookbooks and Cooking

In today’s New York Times, Kim Severson writes that “Written Recipes Undergo a Makeover” which argues that in today’s modern cookbooks “instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism in ways Fannie Farmer could not have imagined . . . they teach the reader to be a more intuitive cook, a cultural change that reflects a nation that is cooking better than it has in decades.”  (Editor’s Note, I will not embed any more links to New York Times articles, since readers inform me that you need to be a paid subscriber to open some of the links.)

While this is a well-balanced article – only if you read the entire article – the underlying proposition is that today’s modern cook requires and receives more information to help them become a “more intuitive chef.”  Indeed, Ms. Severson argues that today’s cookbooks are focused on stories that relate food to use and cooking techniques that allow home chefs to become more creative.

Does Ms. Severson’s proposition hold water?  Maybe, but observing popular cooking on TV or YouTube doesn’t make for inspired cooking anymore than learning the theory of brick-laying makes you a better bricklayer.   Consistently great cooking requires practice to refine techniques and to help the “inspired” chef think outside the box.

I’ll site just a few examples from my experience to illustrate the point:

  • I once watched Martha Stewart prepare a paella on one of her TV programs.  While I might call her preparation a fish and chicken rice stew, it lacked the subtlety of an authentic paella.    In short, it was a disaster and you didn’t need to taste it to know why.  Sure, there are hundreds of instructional videos on YouTube on how to make paella, but does anything taste like an authentic paella that Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali had prepared at La Matandeta?:

  • I once watched an Iron Chef some years ago in which popular TV cooks, Giada De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray, were paired with Mario Batali and Bobby Flay.  To refer to Giada and Rachael as anymore than sous chefs in this exhibition would be an insult to most any serious chef.  And yet, these two  “inspired” chefs each have their own cooking program on TV and now teach technique to others.  Doesn’t make sense to me!
  • When I worked in the stationery industry, we would often buy “cookbooks” at the Gift Show in New York for resale at Christmas.  Sadly, we needed to judge the book by its cover (the title and sometimes the author), since the staged food photography and the recipes hadn’t yet been written.  And yet, these are the cookbooks from which future generations of chefs will draw their inspiration.  I think not!!

Having cooked for well over 50 years, I am not averse to inspiration but feel that every home chef that truly wants to feel more confident in the kitchen needs to practice, practice and practice.  Learning from “true” cooking experts is far better than watching popular TV programs.   For instance, my sister-in-law practiced making bread daily for well over 2 years, before she decided she had become proficient.  She insists that she is still learning.  Mind you, bread has only four ingredients:  flour, water, salt and a touch of yeast.

In any event, I have prepared a list of my 5 favorite cookbooks for those who want to jump-start the learning process.  For those interested in the “whys” of cooking, I would strongly recommend a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated.  (Editor’s Note:  Don’t bother with the cookbooks, but the bi-monthly magazine is very good!)

Tapas and Paella at Toro in Boston

I rarely eat Spanish food anymore after a dreadful dining experience at a local (Greenwich) tapas bar, Barcelona.  It’s not that the food was that bad, it’s simply that the music was so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself think.  Granted, this is not a major obstacle for the younger generation who prefer to text their social “friends” rather than hold a conversation with the person sitting across the table.  Nevertheless, I suspect that those over 40 and the hard-of-hearing would find Barcelona somewhat challenging. As such, it was with some degree of trepidation that Thérèse and I dined at Toro in Boston with our dear “old” friends from Madrid, Jane and Rafael deGuzman.

Apparently, Toro is a chain of attractive tapas bars in the northeast.  Chef Jamie Bissonnette is the architect of these delightful and attractively priced restaurants.   Chef Bissonnette  has just received a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best Chef, Northest, 2013.  Based on our visit to Toro Boston, this nomination is clearly merited.  Congratulations.

paella at toro

Empty Paella Dish with Marrow Bone

As a way of apologizing for the vast amount of food (and tasteful sangria)  that was consumed (see below), I would just like to say that we had a lot of “news” to catch up on.    I’ll list some of the menu items (with brief commentary):

Lunch at Toro Boston

Tapas

  • Pan con Tomate – toasted bread with tomato, garlic, Spanish olive oil and sea salt.  (Comment:  Personally, I prefer the bread a bit thicker, but great taste.)
  • Tortilla Española – Egg, potato and onion omelet with alioli.  (Comment:  Very tasty.  Well seasoned.)
  • Datiles con jamon – Medjool dates filled with Marcona almonds and Cabrales blue cheese, wrapped in Jamon Serrano.  (Comment:  A standard tapa that was quite authentic and tasty.)
  • Pimientos del Padron – Hot green peppers with sea salt.  (Comment:  These were served hot – fried – and were delicious.  Some are spicy, but most rather tepid for the inexperienced Boston tongue.)
  • Gambas al Ajillo –  “Griddled” garlic shrimp with cascabel chiles.  (Comment –  Fresh and delicious.)
  • Patatas Bravas –  Fried potatoes with alioli and spicy tomato sauce.    (Comment – I am not a big fan of this dish, but the other diners enjoyed them.)
  • Asado de Huesos – Roasted bone marrow with radish citrus salad and oxtail marmalade.  (Comment – Loved it, but sadly not much marrow for such large bones.)

Paella –  Yep, we had a paella for 4.  It was not an authentic paella (chicken, rabbit or duck but no shellfish) but is was delicious.  You can tell that you are eating a decent paella when it is crispy on the bottom (not burnt) and the broth is fully incorporated into the rice.   As the photo above illustrates, there was not much paella left so clearly it appealed to our over-served group which waddled out of the restaurant.

Cheese and Dulce de Membrillo – For dessert, we were served a portion of Manchego cheese with quince preserve.  The Manchego didn’t have a lot of flavor and we were served a minuscule portion of quince preserve.  (Comment:  From my perspective, the dessert was the only shortcoming of the meal, but hardly worth mentioning).

Drive on Jeeves.

 

Paella and Las Fallas

When I think of paella, I think of the Las Fallas festival which is held in February in Valencia, Spain.  In fact, Las Fallas celebrates St. Joseph’s day, a Saint who some irreverent Italians believe is the Patron Saint of the “cornutos.”  To me, it is one of the truly original festivals in Europe.  Judging from the picture below, it doesn’t seem to have changed much in the last 30 years.

Fallas in Valencia

The three day festival goes something like this:

  • Each day at noon in the main square, explosives are detonated for about 5 minutes.  No color – just an ear-numbing series of blasts.  At the end of the display, the smoke fills the square and, quite frankly, seems like some sort of an aphrodisiac.
  • During the day, you wander around Valencia checking out the 300 or so Fallas: large paper mache statues replete with sexual and political innuendos and a humorous look at the latest scandals of the year (no doubt, Spain has had more than its fair share this year).
  •  On Saturday (I think), they close down a street and hold a paella cook-off  for teenage couples.   This is my favorite event, but they have many other activities around the city.  Each couple is provided identical ingredients and dry wood to cook their paella over an open fire.  Relatives of all ages – mostly grandmothers – shout instructions and encouragement (“more salt” . . . “less oil” . . . “the fire is too hot!”) as these chefs-in-love roll out their culinary masterpieces. A trio of judges picks the winners and spectators are encouraged to sample the paellas.  It was a revelation to discover the disparity in outcomes with cooks using exactly the same ingredients.  Most were tolerable – but hardly great – and a few were largely inedible.   In any event, it was great to see these young culinary talents doing their best to produce the Valencia paella.
  • At the end of the festival, the Fallas are burnt to the ground in a great orgy of fire.

Paella originally comes from Valencia.  Traditionally, this exceptional rice dish contained no shellfish, and most purists believe that a “real” paella should include only chicken or duck or rabbit or some combination of the three.  If properly prepared, the traditional paella is exceptional, but most “contemporary” dishes feature a variety of shellfish.  In a recent New York Times article, Mark Bitman correctly referred to paella as “rice with things.” Sadly, most people don’t know how to prepare a paella as I watched Martha Stewart butcher it on national TV.

There are hundreds of variations of paella and I would be foolish to suggest that one recipe is better than another.  Nevertheless, there are some characteristics that I consider essential in a well-cooked paella:

  • A paella tastes better over a wood fire.  Failing that, the use of a BBQ grill (make sure you have two) is generally a reliable substitute.
  • Always cook the chorizo in the oil before adding the chicken.  Unless you are a vegetarian, chorizo adds much of the flavor to the rice.
  • Depending on what broth you use (chicken or fish or vegetable base) you should make sure it is hot (just under boiling) I recommend adding it in two or three large batches to give it time to be incorporated into the rice.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY:  The broth must be entirely boiled off – it is almost impossible to burn it.  The broth should be fully incorporated into the rice.  When the bottom of the paella dish is mostly dry (i.e. no surplus liquid), reduce or eliminate the heat, and cover for about 20 minutes.  Ideally, there should be a slight crust on the bottom of the pan.   Personally, I prefer to saute the rice first like you would in a risotto, but the Spanish Zen Master brings the broth to nice boil and then adds the rice.  Certainly, a lot easier.  Notice how the “crusted” rice hangs on the spoon in the video.  That is the ideal consistency for a perfectly cooked paella.

Found below is a video from Mario Batali’s On the Road which demonstrates how an authentic paella is made (fish since Gwyneth is a vegetarian).  The video is in Spanish, but pretty easy to follow;


 

It’s best to eat paella in Valencia, but give it a go with this lovely instructional video from Mario.