Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spoon Up and Tune In

My friend Terri loves soup, so I often make it when she visits. Most recently that meant a Tuscan-style bean and cabbage soup garnished with crispy bacon and toasted garlic bread crumbs, just the thing for lunch on a blustery afternoon. Last week, despite being March it was so warm I sat in the single sunny spot in my garden and read for an hour. So it was an Asian inspired chicken soup with bok choy for dinner that night, light and flavorful. Then, this being Toronto spring officially ended. Again. Forget sitting in the garden uploading vitamin D, it was heading for -10. That inspired my first attempt at mulligatawny, the southern Indian classic, a warming combination of chicken, coconut, onions, garlic and stock garnished with yogurt and fresh coriander.

Soup kitchens are synonymous with poverty, but one shouldn’t assume that the soup was always Oliver Twist-type horrible. At a lecture earlier this month at York University mystery writer Maureen Jennings described her research process which included following a recipe for soup that would have been served in 19th Century workhouses. While relying on flour and barley to stretch it to many bowls, Jennings pronounced it delicious.

Alexis Soyer, the Gordon Ramsay of his day, worked tirelessly not just to create soups that could be prepared quickly to attempt to feed the victims of the Irish Potato Famine, but to design portable kitchens and serving systems to reach the greatest possible number of the poor. You can get one of his soup recipes and the details of his dizzyingly complex life in his biography Relish by Ruth Cowen.

Tuning you on

I love my iPod, from my first nano, sleek as a tube of Chanel lipstick and slimmer than a Parisian model to my current 30GB workhorse. I seldom set forth without rings on my fingers and buds in my ears. But what I started out to tell you about is some terrific podcasts about books:

· Book Review – N.Y. Times.com – a weekly summary of what will appear in the NYT book review, interviews with authors, bestseller and publishing industry news.

· Books and Authors – BBC Radio 4 – author interviews, as well as discussions on reading related topics such as trends in translation, and resuming reading after bereavement.

· Books on Guardian Unlimited and The Guardian Book Club – This is a two for one. The first is wide ranging look at books, the state of publishing, poetry and The Hay Festival, which The Guardian sponsors. The Book Club focuses on a single author and work.

I’ll have three more podcasts for you next time. I wanted to leave room to mention Michael Dibdin’s A Rich Full Death.

Dibdin is best known for his Aurelio Zen series. I have been making way through his other works, because alas there will be no more. Dibdin was a master of the epistolary novel and has a Browning-like gift for letting his narrators reveal themselves warts and all while retaining, if not our sympathies, our fascination.

Reading The Last Sherlock Holmes Story and particularly Dirty Tricks, I often wanted to ask Dibdin if he was Browning fan. Now I know. The poet looms large in this book set among the ex-pat community in Florence. A murderer is apparently visiting the torments Dante devised for his Inferno on those he deems to be sinners. Some online reviewers were frustrated by the twists and turns, but I enjoyed – as I always do with Dibdin – his erudition, his blatant love for all things Italian, and his gift for rendering characters that lets you see the muscles moving beneath the skin and into the heart with all its fears and contradictions.

I wanted to end this post with a reverse play on Dante’s “Abandon hope all ye who enter here,” but I confess I’m stumped. Instead I’ll say, “May it always be gazpacho weather with you.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Of Books and Bread

Welcome to the first post of Read ‘em and Eats, which I intend to be a chronicle of what I am reading and what I am cooking. I’ve never wanted to belong to a book club because I’d hate to be told what to read – there are too many books piled about the place for me to be further distracted from my own meandering path. But I love hearing about what other people are reading and look forward to comments that add to the piles beside the bed, in the office, on top of the toilet, spill out of the shelves outside the kitchen . . . you get the picture. Speaking of the kitchen, my lifelong goal has been to be the kind of cook that if you turned up on my doorstep unannounced I could respond with a meal that would be engaging and satisfying – like a good book? So let’s begin.

Let them eat bagels
I had understood that croissant were among the most laborious of breakfast foods. Bagels can’t be far behind. I attempted them for the first time this weekend. Unlike the usual two rises of your regular loaf, bagels not only have multiple rises, they are boiled before they are glazed and baked. I love to knead and bagels are aces in this department.

I did two batches. One the half recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible. As always her recipe was full of intricacies, well-explained and illustrated, and requires commitment on the home baker’s part. If you work to her exacting and preferred instructions this is two day exercise. Was it worth it? Oh yeah. Great crust encases a chewy, flavorful interior.

The recipe for the second batch was from Janice Murray Gill's Canadian Bread Book, which I fear may be out of print; if so, check out abebooks.com for second hand copy. It’s an excellent book for the beginning bread maker and expert alike. This recipe was less complex in process and shorter in working time. The results were also very good, produced slightly bigger bagels, though they weighed the same in both cases. These were closer to store bought bagels in that they were cakier in texture.

Bottom-line, I preferred The Bread Bible bagels (say that six times fast) overall for both taste and texture, but I’d use the other recipe again, not just because of the shorter working time, but because they were great toasted.

Eating for England by Nigel Slater
By pure coincidence I happen to have just finished a food book – and by a man who has a passion for toast, which is the name of his autobiography. This book is a collection of penseés on English food, some as short as a paragraph or two, some running to a bit longer than a page, which makes it a great bathroom book.

Slater is not a trained chef, rather a food lover and thankfully not a food snob – he spends a lot of time on childish delights like store bought biscuits and candy.

The pleasure for this book will definitely be heightened if you grew up English and understand at the gut level, pardon the pun, the delights of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings, jaffa cakes, and the skeleton in my gustative closet, treacle tart. Let me say in closing then, not bon apetit, but “get that down you.”