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Books on food are one of my favourite things: lots of food lovers read cookbooks for pleasure as much as instruction, and food writing ranges from scholarly to literary, from travel writing to restaurant reviews. Lemur friends D&J gave me a fantastic New Yorker book of food writing last year and I spent happy hours immersed in decades of toothsome prose. And yet, so often food books are where well-meaning gift givers go wrong. I think I understand the psychology. The gifter thinks, ‘oh I know, Ms Lemur likes food and books. I shall buy her a food book!’ And then they buy something that is either the food book of the year and I have it already or something for beginners that I don’t have much use for. Don’t get my wrong, I totally appreciate any and all gifts and it is, ultimately the thought that counts. But as both a gift giver and receiver, I would prefer the money to be well-spent, the present actually cherished and not just what it symbolises. So my suggestions here are books published this year that I think foodies might find intriguing: not so obvious that the recipient will be getting three copies for Christmas and with enough real novelty that your picky eating reader might find something to surprise her jaded palate.

Maria Speck, Ancient Grains for Modern Meals (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £18.90

This handsome book would appeal to health-conscious cooks, but also to anyone interested in sustainable living or just widening their repertoire. It sets out to rescue whole grains from the clichés of stodgy hippie cooking, creating lighter dishes that will appeal to a modern tastes. But for foodies who don’t need to be persuaded of the deliciousness of barley, farro, and millet, there is a wealth of ideas for cooking with these store-cupboard staples. Recipes include salad with kamut, carrot and pomegranate and main dishes such as artichoke and polenta tart. It’s not vegetarian but it has very little meat, and offers suggestions for how to make veggie versions of meat dishes. The photography is gorgeous but it’s not just a coffee-table book. I can imagine loads of my friends cooking from this book.

Luke Nguyen, Indochine. Baguettes and báhn mì: finding France in Vietnam (Murdoch Books, 2011) £17.13

If you’re buying for Asian food lovers (hmm, who might those be?), Luke Nguyen’s new book could be a winner. I haven’t yet caught up with his TV show, in which I’m reliably informed he’s a bit of a twat, but this successful Australian chef undeniably knows his Viet food. I have his one of his previous books, Songs of Sapa, and I’ve found it full of great ideas. I don’t make his exact recipes all that often but I often find myself looking to his techniques and combinations for inspiration. This new book looks to be sumptiously illustrated and maybe a bit food-porny but he’s really passionate about regional Vietnamese cooking. This new book explores the intertwining of French and Vietnamese culinary histories: a politically delicate topic that has produced some of the transnational glories of the Vietnamese kitchen.

Anita Lo, Cooking Without Borders (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2011) £19.13

So you’re thinking of buying a cheffy book. Don’t go with the obvious options of Jamie or Nigella or Gordon – why not try the long-awaited book from the chef of Annisa in New York, Anita Lo. Annisa has a reputation for serving top quality fine dining at a slightly more affordable price, as well as for mixing chef Lo’s Chinese and Malaysian background with classical French techniques and new American simplicity. It’s a mix that gives fresh integrity to the oft-abused concept of fusion. As Lo explains, with her background all food is fusion to her and, in fact, culinary histories are stories of cultural mixing. This approach translates into an appealing mixture of recipes, generally on the fancy end, such as Salmon with Smoked Paprika and Savoy Cabbage, or, on the more Asian end, Softshell Crab with Sweetcorn Custard, Chinese Sausage and Garlic Chives. It’s also noteworthy that Lo is not just a woman in a male-dominated field but an out lesbian, so if you support more LGBT representation in the food world, check her book out!

Brad Thomas Parsons, Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, with Cocktails, Recipes, and Formulas (Ten Speed Press, 2011) £13.52

Although I have a degree in Mixology (yes I do! really – I even have a diploma), I don’t make a lot of cocktails these days. However, I know some people who would love this odd little book, packed full of recipes for home-made bitters and things to do with them. Parsons is clearly an enthusiast and this book is the perfect guide either for the beginner who wants to move beyond Angostura or the seasoned cocktail maker on the lookout for more elaborate potions. He starts with recipes such as grapefruit bitters, pear bitters and, weirdly, coffee-pecan bitters. I really want to try that one. Next are a range of old-school cocktails from the famous (Dark and Stormy) to the obscure (Horse’s Neck, anyone?), and another section of new-look drinks. A final section addresses bitters in the kitchen, with recipes from ham glaze to bitters ice cream. It’s a book that probably appeals best to real cocktail enthusiasts, but if you know someone who takes their liquor seriously, it might hit the spot.

Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, Life, on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat £15. 34

Food memoirs are a burgeoning genre these days and some of them are insanely cheesy. I’m not mentioning any names, but when you cross Sex and the City with Italian recipes, you can come out with some hilarious literary results. Grant Achatz’s memoir is a whole other ball game. As most foodie readers will know, Achatz was just emerging as one of the top chefs in the USA, his Chicago restaurant Alinea announced as the number one in the country by Gourmet magazine, when he was diagnosed with late-stage tongue cancer. He was told he’d need to have his tongue cut out, and that the treatment would destroy his sense of taste altogether. It’s a tough story and potentially an inspiring one. The book might be more for the hard-core foodie, since you probably need to care a bit about the restaurant business to enjoy it, but the story of his illness, determination, and luck gives it a real depth.

Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones and Butter: The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef (Chatto and Windus, 2011)  £6.62

Ok, maybe two memoirs by chefs are too many for this list, but I can’t resist pointing out Gabrielle Hamilton’s book because it’s just so different from Achatz’s. Hamilton is the chef and owner of Prune, a tiny place in the East Village that became pretty fashionable in the last decade. (Hilariously, although I have eaten there, my strongest memory of the place is a misbegotten attempt to blag my way in with the divine Ms P not long after it opened. We claimed to have a reservation that the hostess had clearly lost. She was not having any of it, sadly, and I didn’t get to eat there for another few months. Anyway.) What’s appealing about this book is that it’s not really about the restaurant business or cutting edge cuisine: it’s an earthy memoir of one woman’s messy and interesting life. By turns funny and emotionally intense, it charts Hamilton’s tomboy youth, illegal adventures, and culinary education. Anthony Bourdain calls it “simply the best memoir by a chef ever. EVER.” For that chef to be both self-trained and a woman only makes the story more engaging.

 

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It’s the time of year when we all start panicking about buying holiday gifts – unless you’re my mother, in which case you finished your holiday shopping weeks ago and have already presented wrapped gifts to your incompetent daughter. There’s something about getting Christmas presents from your Jewish mother in early November that delivers that extra measure of guilt with the festive spirit. Also, I should say that really, this isn’t actually the time of year that I start panicking about present buying. That time is called mid-December. (This is why my mother thinks I’m incompetent. Surprise: she’s right!) However, as Thrifty Gal reminded me, people with blogs have to think about these things early, or early-ish. So I have roused myself from the state of complete denial with which I like to approach the festive season and investigated the delicious world of giftage for the food lover in your life. Read the rest of this entry »

Sometimes the universe is just in a good mood. Yesterday, a total stranger stopped me in the corridor to compliment my dress, instantly raising my spirits. And, if that wasn’t enough, someone I don’t know terribly well brought me a gift back from Taiwan of green tea and pineapple cake. It was such a lovely gesture and of course, tapped right into my love of Asian foods.

Since I was already wearing my posh frock, it seemed only correct to have tea and cake when I got home yesterday. The tea is amazing looking, with big clusters of whole, dark green leaves. (It looks a lot like some other kind of dried green leaves, not that I’d know about that…) I wasn’t sure exactly how much tea to put in the pot, and I think to be honest I overdid it a bit since the tea was rather on the strong and bitter side. But it had that distinctive heady aroma of good Chinese teas and I’m sure it will be delicious when I make it a bit less like the Chinese equivalent of builders’ tea.

The cakes, which are a Taiwanese speciality called feng li su, were a revelation. The outer cake is actually a bit like shortbread, but softer and chewy, more buttery than many Asian desserts. Inside is a thick and sweet pineapple jam. Sometimes, Asian sweets don’t entirely appeal to me – this is one of the few areas in which I agree that the French really do win the day – but these little mouthfuls of pineapple, butter and sugar are actually pretty damn good. And, of course, they were made even sweeter by arriving so unexpectedly. Sometimes, it really is the little things that count…

One of the most fun parts of living near a Chinatown, as I used to do, is exploring the world of Asian snacks. From chewy squid sticks to those lychee jellies that were all the rage for a minute, Asian snack foods are inventive and often downright surprising for those of us raised on crisps and chocolate. But while salty snacks aren’t something I eat often, I have remained a fan of some Asian soft drinks: coconut water, aloe juice and honey drinks are widely available and lovely in the summer. But my favourite drink has proven hard to find in the UK, with Asian storekeepers looking perplexed when I ask for basil seed drink. I was unreasonably excited, therefore, to find a version in our local ‘ethnic’ store.

Basil seed drink looks a bit odd – either wonderfully fascinating or disgusting depending on your point of view. Suspended in the sweet drink are hundreds of Thai basil seeds, which turn gelatinous on contact with water and float like little frog spawn. Yum? I love it – it’s a bit like bubble tea, except the seeds are small and give just a little texture to the experience of drinking. You can chew them if you like, although they don’t taste of all that much. It’s more about texture. The drink itself can vary but they’re usually sweetened with honey or just sugar.

I’m wondering about making my own. Seeds are cheap and how great would it be to whip up a pitcher of this stuff for a summer afternoon? I could even grow some basil with whatever I don’t drink….

Pirque is right in the middle of wine country and driving about the area looks a lot like California. Driving around the big houses outside Santiago, you could believe you were in Santa Barbara, while the route out to the vineyards is supposedly reminiscent of Napa. I’ve never been to Napa, but the climate and combination of desert, vineyards, and amazing vegetables certainly looks a lot like the parts of California I have visited. One difference is the mixture of social classes – whereas American neighbourhoods tend to be more stratified and segregated, around here splendid estates rub shoulders with much more proletarian houses and you’re never far from really impoverished neighbourhoods. Whatever the history of real estate development out here, the traveller gets a broad picture of Chilean society just by driving around the vineyard trail.

Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop off at any of the villages en route to try the empanadas or pastel de choclo advertised on signs that seemed to point into people’s houses, as we had an appointment to tour the Santa Rita vineyard at 4pm. On arrival, we were met by a jovial employee and, along with a handful of other tourists, handed over to our tour guide, Soledad. I have to say that Soledad, while quite charming, was not the world’s most informative guide. She tended to rattle through her information and then hare off to the next point of the tour at a speed that was impressive given her 4-inch wedges.

But the winery itself was fascinating even without a lot of facts and figures. Chile’s third biggest wine producer, Santa Rita is a combination of traditional processes and modern mechanisation sufficient to satisfy the how-things-work geek in any of us. Here are the barrels used for the reserva aged wines. They’re made from French and American oak, and only used three times before being sold. Lemur-in-law has several that she uses for her plants.

Apparently after the earthquake last year, lots of these barrels fell down and the floor was swimming in wine. However, the vineyards plan for seismic activity in the way they stack the barrels and bottles, so much less was lost than you might expect. These are bottles of the same high end wine, dusty with age, stacked in some special way to prevent them from breaking in an earthquake.

After seeing how the reserva wines are nurtured in traditional ways, we went back to the twenty-first century to see the all-mechanised bottling facility. There’s something really compelling about watching an assembly line, following the bottles from washing to filling with wine to corking and labelling. It makes me think of Chaplin in Modern Times.

After watching the bottling, the next step was back to the main building for a tasting. We chatted to two American executives who had carved out a day off in their busy week of acquiring a major Chilean company to spend some time touristing, and a Brazilian tourist who seemed to be getting on very well with Soledad, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Sadly, I have no photos of this stage, as I was too busy actually drinking the wine to document it. Sorry! However, we did stop off on the way out to take a walk in among the vines themselves, loaded with grapes for this season’s reds.

Tonight, we’re heading down south to Puerto Varas and Chiloe. Blogging may be sporadic, but stay tuned as I’m sure there will be much culinary adventuring…

Yup, I’m on a work trip to New Orleans, and aiming to devote a decent part of my down time to the culinary and architectural pleasures of the city. I’ve never been here before, although I’ve always wanted to visit, and I’m lucky enough to be here with several friends who either come from New Orleans or know the place well. I arrived last night, which is to say on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras. Not the best timing, and the city is still covered in beads and cleanup crews. But truth be told, I’m a bit scared of heaving crowds and girls gone wild madness, so maybe it’s better I arrive into a slightly calmer city…

I was exhausted after a long and rather turbulent flight, but happily my friends picked me up from the airport and whisked me to Herbsaint, a bistro on Charles Street that focuses on upscale versions of New Orleans and Southern classics. The vibe is relaxed and the mixology is impressive. Our table of cocktail afficionados oohed and aahed over the sazerac and the ginger mint julep, though I was not quite up to joining in. I ordered a bunch of small plates because so many dishes looked good and I was still feeling dopey and indecisive from the journey. (Who am I kidding, I do this all the time…) I started with the gumbo, which was a dark and complex thing of beauty. My New Orleanian friend asked if I’d ever had gumbo before. I realised that while I had many times eaten something that was labelled gumbo on a menu, I had in fact never eaten gumbo before. The depth of a thick, dark roux is something I’ve heard cooks discuss before, but I never really appreciated it until now. It is astonishingly flavourful. This gumbo was chicken and andouille sausage, but I don’t think it really mattered what meats were added. It was all about the roux.

I went on to have shrimp and grits, a dish that’s common across the south, but was especially good at Herbsaint. The shrimp are of course all locally caught and the flavour of ultrafresh seafood is central to what is otherwise a very rich plate of food. The grits are decadently soft and creamy: probably about 80% butter holding the grits together. This was listed as a small plate on the menu but I actually couldn’t finish it because it was so incredibly rich. It was also really delicious.

I also had a special of spicy frogs’ legs served with pickled fennel and carrot, and some kind of peppery sautéed green. The frog legs themselves were delectable – big and meaty but with a delicacy of flavour and texture that suggested they were very fresh indeed. The home pickled vegetables provided a much needed bite of astringency, especially the fennel. I couldn’t quite figure out the greens: the menu called them bok choy, but they were much thinner than any bok choy I’ve ever had. They looked and tasted more like young mustard greens. Whatever they were, they had picked up a smoky quality from their cooking that felt like a more charcoaly version of Chinese wok hei. It was really really good. (They don’t really show up in the picture, as they’re hidden under the frogs’ legs.)

For dessert we ordered a banana brown butter pie with salty caramel sauce that has been on the menu for ten years. It was so popular at our table that it was more or less gone before I had the opportunity to photograph it. I suppose the lack of photographic evidence is the ultimate sign of deliciousness.

This morning I was up bright and early for beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde. (Tip: come at 7:30am to avoid the Disney-style queues of tourists.) I can’t describe how good the beignets are. Seriously. I’m coming back every morning and I don’t care if I do gain ten pounds in four days.

Civet coffee, known in Vietnam as cà phê chồn and in Indonesia as kopi luwak, has become popular in recent years despite or perhaps because of its alarming production method. As you probably know, Asian civets eat the beans (in their ‘cherry’ or fruit form) and, after processing them with intestinal enzymes, they poop them out whole. Southeast Asian coffee farmers harvest the poop, retrieve the beans, and from there go on to make the smoothest, richest coffee in the world. First viewed in the west as scary or hilarious, civet coffee has taken off as a luxury product.

Look how cute they are!

I’ve tried civet coffee (or, as it is called around our house, weasel-butt coffee) a few times and enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure if I was getting the real thing or one of the many fakes that are exported. After all, it didn’t cost that much more than a regular Viet coffee and to be honest, it didn’t taste that much different either. It’s a bit like Blue Mountain coffee: if you’re not drinking it in Jamaica or paying an unreasonable amount, it’s probably not the real thing.

Moreover, friends alerted me to the cruel conditions of many civet coffee farms. While the beans are traditionally foraged, the popularity of the drink has led to civets being kept in tiny cages where their, erm, processed beans are easier to collect. I don’t eat battery chickens and I don’t want to think of my coffee involving cruelty either.

I was thrilled, therefore, to read Karen Coates’ recent article about a scientific breakthrough (ok, slight exaggeration) that has enabled coffee-makers to copy the civet’s digestive enzyme process chemically.  Vietnamese coffee company Trung Nguyen are selling this synthetic civet coffee online in the US and Europe, and they’ll sell you the little metal filters you need to make Viet coffee too. I probably can’t compare Trung Nguyen’s coffee to real cà phê chồn but it was undoubtedly better than the other versions I’ve had: rich, chocolatey, sweet with condensed milk.

Until my trip to Vietnam (hopefully later this year), I’ll be adding un-civet coffee to my regular afternoon routine.

Civet photo by W. Djatmiko. Used under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike 3.0 Licence.

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