On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Chinese American food writer Jen Lin-Liu, founder of a cooking school in Beijing, is looking for her next project. She decides to travel the Silk Road from China to Europe, eating noodles, meeting chefs, and researching the origins of pasta. No, Marco Polo didn’t bring pasta to Italy from China, but both countries have similar noodle dishes. Jen has recently married American writer Craig, and isn’t sure how her desire to travel will affect their marriage, and where they will settle down to live as a couple. Traveling to western China, she asks two chefs from the cooking school to accompany her, and they eat and cook their way west. On the rest of her journey, sometimes her husband accompanies her, and for a while his parents, but the rest of the time she travels alone. Her journey includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. She meets hospitable people almost everywhere, and enjoys many home-cooked meals and access to restaurant chefs and kitchens. A variety of regional foods are vividly described, and a number of recipes are included. While the spices and meats change, many of the dishes are quite similar. Unexpectedly, rice and flat breads replace noodles for a good part of the trip.
As much a memoir as culinary travel narrative, Jen is curious about the role of women in the different countries she visits, and how they mix work, marriage, and raising a family. She learns that even seemingly modern men expect their wives to be very traditional, and that mother-in-laws rule in Central Asia. There is a funny scene when Jen doesn’t take her Western mother-in-law’s good advice, and is sorry the next day. In Iran, Jen and Craig feel uneasy, partly because they are required to have a government sponsored tour guide. After reaching Istanbul, they fly home to Beijing for the winter. Jen returns in the spring to visit Turkey, Greece, and Italy, where Craig joins her for the end of the journey. No questions about the origins of pasta are resolved, but many excellent meals are enjoyed along the way.
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman
I like cookbooks. I select them for the library’s collection, and I also collect them, skim them, look at the photos, flag promising recipes, and bake or cook recipes from each. But I don’t generally read them out loud. Deb Perelman’s entertaining first book, The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, was meant to be read out loud. She is young, has a tiny New York City kitchen, a husband, and a toddler. She also loves to cook and entertain, and find new dishes at a restaurant and then experiments (or obsesses) with getting them just right in her kitchen. Her wildly popular blog, smittenkitchen.com, is full of recipes and observations on food and life. In the cookbook, the notes for each recipe are often hilarious, and guaranteed to make you hungry. I’ve already tried a few recipes, and my coworkers at the library agree that Deb’s Brownie Roll-Out Cookies are delicious.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
As many sweet and savory treats are prepared and enjoyed in the winter, it seems like a good time of the year to learn about the history of food by looking at the tools and equipment used in cooking and dining. British food writer Bee Wilson describes important inventions over the centuries, and how our tastes in food have changed along with the equipment. The first big inventions were roasting spits and clay pots. Wilson describes the evolution of the stove and refrigerator, appliances we would struggle without today. Chopsticks versus eating knives reveal the difference in culture, and how a cuisine that began by conserving fuel by quick cooking in a wok now consumes billions of disposable chopsticks annually, many now made in Georgia. Many cooks occasionally enjoy using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor can save large amounts of time and labor. Why do American recipes use measured amounts while other cultures give weights? Wilson has a theory. Even the grating of nutmeg and cheese get their turn here, as does an amusing look at the spork. And who would have guessed how much forks changed during and after the English Civil War? I really enjoyed Wilson’s look at food and history. Readers might also enjoy At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, and John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk.
Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, With Recipes by Elizabeth Bard
Elizabeth is an American journalist living in England when she meets Gwendal at a conference. His hippy parents live in Brittany, but he’s a Ph.D. student living in a tiny studio apartment in Paris. The pair fall in love, Elizabeth moves to Paris, and feels like a fish out of water. The food is delicious, but the language barrier and culture differences make for a rough and lonely transition. Elizabeth is frustrated at the red tape that makes it difficult for her to work, learns that in Paris the customer is not always right and struggles as a freelance writer, while Gwendal is completely unambitious, although he’s the one who ends up visiting Hollywood. The meeting of Elizabeth’s Jewish mother and Gwendal’s mother is a great scene, and Elizabeth describes the people, settings, and food vividly. Eventually Elizabeth realizes that she can cook and write about food and life in France as a career and finally settles in, but not without losing a new family member. Many memorable meals are described, with recipes. Visit her blog for photos and more recipes. She comments that her husband hasn’t eaten hot food in three years because she’s always taking photos before serving meals. This book was published in 2010, but I missed hearing about it then; I’m happy my sister recently suggested that I read Lunch in Paris.
John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk
John’s mother Susan is an herbalist, but a religious zealot stirs up a village mob to drive John and Susan from their village in 1625. They retreat to Buccla’s Wood, where Susan teaches John to read and he learns about herbs. Susan dies after a hard winter, and young John is sent to Buckland Manor to work as a kitchen boy. John works and sleeps in the kitchen, learning all the different work stations beginning in the scullery, catching occasional glimpses of Lady Lucretia, Lord William’s daughter. John, who has a real gift for cooking, works his way up to assistant cook. Lucretia has issues with food, and goes on a hunger strike when her father arranges her marriage to Piers Callock. John helps prepare dishes to tempt Lucy’s appetite, and is attracted to Lucy.
As Lucy’s marriage approaches, the English Civil War ensues. Sir William, Piers, and the men of the household, including the cooks, go off to war. When they return, John becomes Master Cook and the religious reformers have control of Buckland Manor.
I haven’t mentioned all the mouthwatering descriptions of food, including spectacular pastries, that are prepared in the vast kitchens of Buckland Manor. This is a real treat for foodies and Anglophiles. Learn about the author’s inspiration for the book here.
Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
Eat My Globe: One Year to Go Everywhere and Eat Everything by Simon Majumdar
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg
Mediterranean Summer: A Season on Frances’s Cote d’Azur and Italy’s Costa Bella by David Shalleck
Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes by Shoba Narayan
Passion on the Vine: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Family in the Heart of Italy by Sergio Esposito
Plenty: One man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon
Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way by Molly Birnbaum
The World in My Kitchen: The Adventures of a (Mostly) French Woman in America by Colette Rossant
Made by Hand, by Mark Frauenfelder
“This is the real secret of life–to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan Watts
These days a lot of people are interested in DIY/Do It Yourself. Sometimes that interest turns into action and sometimes it’s a dream. Making something yourself or doing a job you’d normally pay someone else to do can be scary. Mark Frauenfelder was intrigued and fascinated by all the amazing creators he met as the editor of Make Magazine but he was afraid to tackle projects because he thought he didn’t have the right skills. But all the makers he talked to told him to just jump in. They hadn’t been experts in the areas they started tinkering in–they just learned as they went. So Mark spoke with what he calls Alpha Makers–the people forging their own paths, doing incredible things, and serving as inspiration to others–and started taking the leap himself. Eventually he had chickens, a chicken coop, bees, homemade food and drinks, and new confidence in his handy work. Along the way he learns about overcoming the fear of failure and embracing failing as an important learning experience. Mark’s job keeps him tied to a desk for most of the day and the time he spends building and making gives him much-needed time to think and a sense of accomplishment he’d been missing. He gets to spend more time with his young daughters in a more fulfilling way than just watching TV or everyone playing iPhone games. It’s not all joy and enrichment, though. Chickens get hurt, bees take over, and Mark’s wife complains that he spends too much time with projects and not enough with his family. He learns balance and compromise as much as any other skill.
Anyone interested in DIY would learn from Made By Hand. It’s all the inspiration you need to try something new–be it building a cabinet, learning to draw, or making your own kimchi. Mark makes the case for DIY being more important now than ever and his failures and victories should give any wannabe maker the courage they need to get started.
If you’ve been bitten by the DIY bug, check out Make Magazine or any of their collected editions (you can order a few through SWAN). You can read more about Made by Hand, find an excerpt, and watch an interview with Mark on the Made by Hand site. Ready to get started? Mark’s cigar box guitar tutorial is free on the Make website.
An Everlasting Meal, by Tamar Adler
The subtitle of this remarkable book is “Cooking with Economy and Grace,” which is what attracted me to the book. This is not a cookbook, but a book about making the most of whatever food you happen to have on hand. I think of myself as a frugal person, but Adler takes frugality to a different level.
For example, I think it is frugal to take a smallish piece of meat (perhaps a boneless, skinless chicken breast) and prepare it with some delicious vegetables and have a very nice meal. Adler finds it challenging to approach the meal in a different way—she thinks of gelatinous bones and marrow and broth, and adding the peels and leaves and “ends” of vegetables, ending up with several delicious meals instead of one very nice one.
The author suggests using instinct when cooking. Trusting your instinct. Practicing until you have it just right. She says, “Those are the fundamentals: cook your meat until it’s done, not a minute longer. If your broth tastes too thin, let it go on cooking; if it’s too salty, water it down.” (p. 12).
Adler recommends tasting your boiling, salted water, whether you are preparing vegetables or pasta. I have been cooking for many, many years, but I have never, ever tasted my boiling water. After reading this book, I will probably taste boiling, salted water.
There are recipes scattered throughout the book, but the main idea is for the cook to be philosophical and inventive when cooking and making the most of what you have on hand in the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry.
I found this to be a thoroughly enjoyable book!
To read the first chapter of An Everlasting Meal, visit the publisher’s web site.