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It’s been a stressful old week Chez Lemur, with an unreasonable amount of work on my plate. I have only myself to blame: I took on too much, not really thinking through when all the deadlines would happen (hint: at the same damn time) and now I’m regretting my enthusiasm for new projects. It was all the more lovely, then, when an unexpected package plopped through my door yesterday. I order a lot of books, so I figured this would be just another brown cardboard book box from that politically-dubious bookstore but it wasn’t! The package was from a former student, Isabel Machado, a Brazilian filmmaker who now lives in Alabama. I opened it up to find two rather wonderful things.

First, there was a book called The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink. Lots of my American foodie friends will be nodding knowledgeably, as Eugene Walter was apparently very famous, but he is new to me. He lived, as Isabel did until recently, in Mobile, Alabama and he sounds like a rather splendid figure.

He wrote about Southern food and drinks, and was a huge influence on today’s resurgence of interest in traditional Southern foodways. He was also an essayist and something of a personality. In one of his many trips to Rome, he played the Mother Superior in Fellini’s Giulietta degli spiriti! Seriously, you know he must have been a blast. Further evidence is that this book has fully 50 pages of cocktail recipes, including a dedicated chapter on hangover cures.

The second part of the package was a fantastic short film by Isabel and Gideon Kennedy called Grand Fugue on the Art of Gumbo, a  documentary on that most iconic of Louisiana’s dishes that considers both Walter’s legacy for Southern food and the more recent shifts in perception that have seen the growth of high-end Southern cuisine. The film is playing at film festivals right now, so if you’re in the US, look out for it.

I’m looking forward to diving into The Happy Table just as soon as my deadlines are met. In the meantime, it cheered me up immensely to receive such a thoughtful gift out of the blue – and it’s so great to see former students doing well in the world. Now, is it too early to raise a glass to that…?

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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.

 

I’ve often bemoaned my lack of an Asian grandmother to teach me the kind of cooking that I love, but I also really value what I’ve learned from cookbooks. I had a really interesting discussion recently about how we learn unfamiliar cuisines with Eating Asia‘s Robyn and Dish a Day‘s Aaron. Aaron had just completed a fascinating project of cooking a dish every day for a month from David Thomson’s book Thai Food. Despite having lived in Thailand and knowing quite a bit about the cuisine, he found the rigour of following the recipes changed how he thought about Thai cooking. In fact, he concluded that we should all be cooking more from recipes. Those of us who love to cook often think of recipes as props for the incompetent, but in fact, we can get lazy when we throw flavours around, knowing we can easily make something tasty. Following a traditional recipe not only forces us to do things properly, but teaches us the complex foundations of a cuisine through its techniques and processes. Even with a cuisine we think we know, we can become better cooks by cooking from good recipes.

I thought of this discussion when D and J, two of my oldest friends, came to stay this weekend, because I wanted to make a Nyonya feast to celebrate their visit. Sure, I could have thrown together something vaguely Malaysian, based on what I’ve learned over the years, but I was drawn instead to cook more rigorously and to try out some more of James Oseland’s carefully sourced recipes from the wonderful Cradle of Flavor. D is a fantastic cook, and I knew he’d enjoy spending an evening in the kitchen pottering about and watching dishes gradually emerge. I’ve always been a believer in Nigel Slater’s ethos that helping the cook means keeping her company and making sure her wine glass is full, so we settled in with several bottles of red and guests in the dining room within chatting distance of the stove.

I’ve cooked quite a bit from Cradle of Flavor, and it has truly been an education in the cuisines of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Oseland has spent a long time researching the book, and many of his recipes have clearly been patiently teased out of friends and people he has met on his travels. The two I cooked for D and J are Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes (courtesy of a Malaccan acquaintance called Kenneth) and Spiced Braised Nyonya Pork (courtesy of Jennifer Kuan). There’s a sense of knowledge shared here that pleases the researcher in me: Oseland’s book really delves into the foodways of Malaysia, and cooking these recipes carefully as written paid off. We were a bit tipsy by the time the dishes came triumphantly to the table but they were both spectacularly good. And the homey feel of the food (“like a great big hug” as Jennifer Kuan says) definitely translates from Malacca to Brighton. We had a lovely evening with the boys, talking, drinking, and pulling heads off shrimp around the table.

 

Nyonya Shrimp Curry with Fresh Pineapple and Tomatoes

I followed as close to the recipe as possible, but this is what I cooked, rather than exactly what Oseland stipulates. For instance, the original recipe calls for 2 stalks of lemongrass, but our lemongrass is kind of crappy, so I doubled it. I think if your lemongrass is not super fresh, you end up needing quite a bit more to achieve the same amount of flavour. He also offers a range of chili options: I went for the maximum numbers. For his original version, of course, you should check out the book, if you don’t already own it!

For the flavouring paste:

  • 4 stalks lemongrass
  • 3 shallots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
  • 7 fresh red Holland chilies, chopped
  • 4 fresh green Thai chilies, chopped
  • 2 inches fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped
  • 4 candlenuts

For the main dish:

  • 3 tbsp oil
  • 2 cups fresh pineapple, cut in triangles
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 1 ld medium size shrimp (prawns in the UK) in the shell
  • 2 small tomatoes
  • 1 cup coconut milk

First make the flavouring paste. Put all the chopped ingredients into a mini-prep and blend till smooth. You may have to push down bits that remain too big and add a little water if they stubbornly refuse to blend.

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium-low, and sauté the paste. It should sizzle nicely but not aggressively, or it will stick. Cook for 5 minutes until it doesn’t smell raw. Oseland says the oil will separate from the paste but I never manage to achieve this effect. Add the pineapple and mix well. Next add the water, sugar and salt, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes.

Add the shrimp/prawns and stir. Continue cooking gently till the shrimp are cooked, a few more minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 2 more minutes.

Add the coconut milk and stir for another couple of minutes.

As Oseland says, at this point the dish goes a gorgeous orange colour. It’s really awfully pretty. Taste for salt, and allow the dish to rest for 10 minutes before serving. (This is easy if you are drunk and have forgotten to put the rice on until now.)

Serves 6

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