Saturday, March 21, 2009

Book Review: Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser

New York Times food writer, Amanda Hesser’s tale of meeting and marrying a man she calls Mr. Latte is a cross between a novel, an autobiography, a cookbook, and some of the most tantalizing food writing I’ve ever read. Though each chapter can be looked at as a self-contained story, describing an event in the author’s life, always involving food, they collectively chronicle the progression of Hesser’s relationship with her husband, from their meeting to their marriage. At the end of each chapter are a few recipes of the foods described in it.

The reading is light, but the characters are vivid and lovable, and the food is maddeningly tempting to read about. It’s kind of a food-lover’s Sex and the City, only instead of Mr. Big, we have Mr. Latte, and instead of a lot of sex, there is a whole lot of food. As I read, I gorged myself on the descriptions of various dishes and meals, going back to reread passages about salt-crusted shrimp that you eat whole, shell and all, slow-cooked ginger duck, appetizers of foie gras and jam on bread, roasted beet and Vidalia onion salad, braised oxtails, chicken liver pâté, and oh, I could go on. I read a lot of food-writing these days, in the form of blogs, books, and magazines, and I have to say, though I love it, I do get a little sick of it sometimes, and a little desensitized to even some of the most well-written descriptions of food. Not with Hesser’s writing, though. I devoured this book in two days, and could have gone back for seconds.

That said, I did not love every aspect of this book. I found Hesser to be elitist at times, and couldn’t help but be annoyed at certain points in the book. In the fifth chapter, she describes how tiresome it can be to eat at a new restaurant with a group of foodies, yet her own pretentiousness (turning her nose up at Mr. Latte’s suggestion of Merchant’s, an apparently mediocre New York steakhouse, for their first date, for example) would suggest that she is no better. I was a bit put off by how she breezed over her experience of 9/11, focusing more on the food she ate than the impact the tragedy had on her life. If you aren’t going to speak about an event this monumental with any depth, why mention it at all? And I don’t see why in a book about food and love, she devoted nearly an entire chapter to her great drama over buying a Valentino wedding gown on impulse, but then eventually trading it in for a Prada. Who cares?

These really are minor quibbles, though. One has to keep in mind, this is light reading, and it won’t change your life or provoke any heated debates. Hesser never talks about whether or not you should buy organic, or if you should boycott any meat that did not come from a free-range animal. She doesn’t discuss her beliefs on vegetarianism, or foie gras (though she does eat plenty of it). These are all important issues in the world of food, and though I am certain that Hesser has her opinions about them, they simply don’t have a place in this book. Cooking for Mr. Latte is about Hesser’s love for food, about the people she loves, and how the two constantly interact. She reminds us how food can be a comfort and a joy, and how it can be the most vivid part of some of our best memories.

By including recipes, Hesser also allows her readers to literally get a taste of some of the more memorable moments of this part of her life. Though Hesser’s rich knowledge of the culinary world, and occasional pretentiousness about food might seem intimidating, her recipes are completely approachable. Hesser’s stories show how food brings people together, and so these recipes also bring us closer to Hesser and help us to better understand, and perhaps be inspired by, her lifelong passion for food.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

(A New) Mac and Cheese

There are a number of North American comfort food classics that I think nearly everyone has a favorite version of that they believe is the only “real” version of the meal. Trust me, I’ve seen it: arguments beginning over whether meatballs should be made with beef or pork, fistfights breaking out over whether or not there should be peas in shepherd’s pie, and friendships nearly destroyed over whether or not cream cheese should be added to mashed potatoes.

All right, I may be exaggerating slightly, but I know that even as someone who loves to try new recipes and have plenty of variety in my diet, there are certain foods that I can never quite enjoy as much as when they are made the way I like, the way I grew up eating, the way that I, in my heart of hearts, believe is the “right” way.

One of those foods is macaroni and cheese. I like it baked with breadcrumbs on top. I like it made with a mild cheddar cheese. I like it made with a basic béchamel sauce. There are about a million and one ways to make mac and cheese, but I never liked it better than when it was made in this most simple and basic way. Until now.
The September 2008 issue of Bon Appétit had this fantastic macaroni and cheese recipe that I now can’t get enough of. It’s still fairly simple, and incorporates many of the things that I love about my “original” mac and cheese: the breadcrumb topping is still there, only now it’s in the form of panko sautéed in butter with chopped parsley stirred in; the base of the cheese sauce is still a béchamel, only it is started off with some crisped pancetta and sautéed onion; the cheese is still cheddar, only this time a sharper version is used and combined with parmesan, and—and this is the real key to the brilliance of this dish—mascarpone. The mascarpone helps balance out the sharpness of the cheddar and parmesan, and also adds an incredible richness to the sauce.
The rest is done just as I’ve always done it: combine the sauce with cooked macaroni (shells work well here too), top with the panko, and bake for about thirty minutes.
We had this on a Wednesday night with Caesar salad, and though the macaroni and cheese was not the precise version I had been loving for years, it was true comfort food that I’m sure I’ll love for years to come.
Mac and Cheese with Pancetta
From Bon Appétite, September 2008
Makes 10 servings (I always halve this recipe)

8 tbsp. butter, divided
4 oz. thinly sliced pancetta, coarsely chopped
1 cup finely chopped onion
3/4 tsp. dried crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup flour
3 1/2 cups (or more) milk
2 1/2 cups coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 8- to 8.8-ounce container mascarpone cheese
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 lb. orecchiette, or large elbow macaroni

Melt 1 tbsp. butter in large deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add pancetta; sauté until crisp, about 5 minutes. Add onion, sauté until tender, about 5 minutes. Add crushed red pepper and garlic, stir 1 minute. Stir in 3 tbsp. butter, allow to melt, then add flour and stir 1 minute. Gradually whisk in 3 1/2 cups milk, simmer until thick enough to coat spoon thickly, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Whisk in cheeses. Whisk in more milk by 1/4 cupfuls until sauce is thick but pourable. Season with salt and pepper.

Melt 4 tbsp. butter in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add panko and stir until very light golden, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Cook pasta in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain well. Return pasta to pot. Add warm cheese sauce, toss to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to prepared baking dish. Sprinkle crumb mixture evenly over. Bake until heated through and topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Joy of Beans

Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart,
The more you eat, the more you …

Oh, all right, I won’t go there. Lucky for you, it is not this negative side effect of eating beans that I wanted to focus on. I was hoping to talk a little more about what I believe are the top three reasons why beans should become a regular part of your diet:

1. They are hella good for you.
2. They are hella cheap.
3. There are about a million and one ways to prepare them, so they can also be hella delicious.

I can understand if you’re not usually a bean kind of person, and that the whole legume family might seem a little bland, and just no match for a decadent steak dinner. Sure, they’re totally different, but if done right, I think they can be equally satisfying. The great thing about beans is that they are so versatile, and lend themselves so well to experimentation.
I made this bean stew using a recipe from a CIA cookbook as a jumping-off point, but changed a few things around to suit my tastes, and to use what I already had on hand.

Start with some diced up veggies—I used carrot, celery, onion, garlic, and tomato—and sauté in some olive oil.
Now, throw in some seasoning. Indian spices pair beautifully with beans, so I used some curry powder and some ground cumin. Stir them in and cook for a minute or two until it’s really aromatic.

Now, add your beans. I used canned garbanzo beans and light red kidney beans, but pinto beans, black beans, and cannellini beans, to name a few options, would all be delicious in here. If you’re using canned beans, don’t forget to drain and rinse first. I also added a chopped red bell pepper and some vegetable stock and brought it up to a simmer.
I covered it and let it simmer for about half an hour. Once you’re ready to serve, taste it and season with salt and pepper. I used very little salt, but quite a bit of pepper. Then, I threw in some chopped parsley, cilantro, and mint. The herbs added a delicious brightness to the dish, definitely worth getting fresh herbs for.

I served the stew with rice seasoned with lemon and cilantro, and it was a delicious, nutritious, completely satisfying and inexpensive meal.

Three Bean Stew
Adapted from the Culinary Institute of America’s From Our Kitchens
Serves 4

2 tsp. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, diced
2 medium carrots, diced
2 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped (use canned when tomatoes are out of season)
1 tbsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 cup canned kidney beans (drained and rinsed), or dried (cooked and drained)
1 cup canned garbanzo beans (drained and rinsed), or dried (cooked and drained)
1 cup vegetable broth
1 cup diced bell pepper
1 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. chopped fresh mint
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, onion, celery, and carrots and sauté, stirring from time to time, until onion is light golden, about 5 to 6 minutes.

Add tomatoes and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes. Add curry and cumin and sauté 2 minutes.

Add beans, broth, and bell pepper. Increase heat to high and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Check occasionally and extra broth if necessary to keep the stew moist.

Stir in parley, cilantro, and mint. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve.