cookbook porn

August 13, 2006

cookbooks
Sorry for the lack of posting this past month. It may seem like I’m trying to commit blogicide, but that’s really not the case. Summer here in Alaska is busy enough with all of us trying to cram in a year’s worth of sunshine into three months. Add in a house remodel that just would not die, the need to fill the freezer with fish, two weeks of family visits, the (highly) increased wine consumption that goes with two of these things, and you start to realize something has got to give…

I suppose that there is really nothing intrinsically wrong with a cookbook that doesn’t contain full-page glossy shots of raw unfettered food pornography, but as I thumb through the cooking titles on my bookshelf it’s pretty apparent that I’m a sucker for a pretty plate. Lately I’ve picked up or been given a few new titles to add to the library, and only one falls into the food porn category. The others you have to actually read a bit before you get all hot and bothered, but the end result is the same. Thomas Keller seems to be better known for The French Laundry, both the book and restaurant, than he is for some of his other simillar endeavors like Bouchon, again, either the book or the restaurant. This is a large and beautifully designed book of simple (By Keller’s standards anyway) and elegant recipes – over 180 of them. It’s also large enough to serve a small suckling pig of off, so order from somewhere that will ship it for free. Although a true bouchon is defined as a small neighborhood restuarant in Lyonnaise, serving as “the informal keepers of workers’ cooking” the word is often used interchangeably with bistro, and the food is similar fare: simple, hearty food, often fatty dishes with a carnivorous slant: Lettuce nibblers need not apply. One of the reasons that Keller gives for the existence of Bouchon at all is a great one, probably one the most chefs can commiserate with if not emulate: he just wanted a place to eat simply when he got off work.

Kim Severson published The New Alaska Cookbook in 2001 with Glenn Denkler, and somehow I missed it. She’s an ex-pat Alaskan foodie and journalist that has since left Alaska and moved on to bigger and better things, even getting a nod from food god Frank Bruni. Denkler is a chef and culinary instructor and served as the recipe tester, making sure that these ideas could be recreated in the home kitchen. The twelve chefs that contributed their favorites all cook in Alaska, and the emphasis is decidely on showcasing fresh local ingredients. Not everyone outside Alaska is going to have an easy time finding halibut cheeks, fiddlehead ferns, salmon eggs, locally smoked goose breasts, or caribou sausage, but there still are lots of things here that don’t require a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to make work. For us, the fun part is knowing the chefs and the restaurants they come from and the effort all put into new and creative plates. Anchorage, for all its pretentions, is a small town with a limited number of restaurants, chefs, and foodies to appreciate them.

I am not a baker, yet, and I picked up Peter Reinhardt’s American Pie with a bit of trepidation about where it might lead. Sure enough, a week after purchasing the book I’ve also become the proud new owner of a mixer. This isn’t just a cookbook, as it says there on the front cover, it’s also Reinhart’s search for the perfect pie. The first 90 pages are a great read on what Reinhart feels and experiences as he looks for the perfect pizza. He delves a bit into the problem that we all have in trying to recreate the great meals or dishes out of our pasts: I can make the exact same dumplings I grew up eating at my Grandmom’s kitchen counter, but they will never be really the same since it isn’t her making them. Of course we all have our own opinions about where the best pizza is in our town or region, but to get to travel the country and test those opinions as a way of making a living is probably one of the best ideas I’ve ever heard. As with the other Reinhart bibles, this one goes into exhaustive detail about pizza culture, baking, technique, variations, and how to try and recreate at home your version of the foundation of all good pie – the crust. He gives a dozen variations on this, and completes things with the “appropriate” sauces and toppings for a few different pies. While everyone will look at the definition of a perfect pizza from different angles, this is a good place to start. Reinhart is (thankfully) a man obviously deranged and obsessed, and our pizza will be better for it.

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