More Holiday Books 2014

During the next few weeks, I will be cooking from and reviewing some of the year's best books for gift-giving. They mostly are personal selections from chefs whose work I know well plus a few I don't know at all. I always am enamored of cookbooks from Phaidon, Artisan, Chronicle and Ten Speed Press, but am impressed this year with the quality and variety of cookbooks published by smaller presses; Monkfish and Interlink among them. In addition to their more obvious purpose, cookbooks are great sources of inspiration and bedtime reading. They are often the gifts we don't give ourselves but, like a good box of chocolates, we're thrilled to be the recipient. Happy Holidays!

2014-12-10-FreshCookingfrontcover.png Fresh Cooking by Shelley Boris Monkfish Book Publishing, New York , 2014, ISBN: 978-1-939681-15-7

The subtitle of this compelling book - a year of recipes from the Garrison Institute Kitchen -- tells the tale of a talented chef cooking for hundreds of guests in a beautiful monastery on the Hudson. Garrison Institute, created by inspired thinkers, Jonathan and Diana Rose, has served as a beacon for the world's great spiritual and educational leaders, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama who has dined there on several occasions. Shelley Boris, the chef at Garrison for more than ten years, has wowed me with her intelligent, countrified sensibility since my first visit a decade ago. There have been many visits since and I was honored when asked to write the foreword to her book. Shelley's compassionate approach to cooking, deeply rooted in the seasons, is always mindful of the communal table - which is literally how one eats in the Institute's massive sun-lit dining room. From her large gracious kitchen, Shelley delights in the daily planning of her menus, each a short story revealing something immediate in nature. January brings her comforting Onion Soup with Sprout Creek Cheese and Sour Rye Toast, baked white beans, and crimson quince blanketed in phyllo. May is more spontaneous and carefree - braised lamb and rhubarb chutney, rice with sorrel, garlic chives and mustard greens, and strawberry shortcakes. The book's recipes range from simple creations - pan-quiche with cauliflower and cheddar, savory chickpea cakes with tahini sauce; winter root vegetable salad with sherry-hazelnut dressing - to dishes that require slow seduction to coalesce their flavors -- Thai-style eggplant curry with coconut milk, lemongrass and shiitakes, and braised spicy lamb with apples. Other standouts are Shelley's breakfast scones - the best I've ever had -- and her dizzying array of addictive vinaigrettes -- carrot-lime, ginger-grapefruit, pear-beet, creamy shallot.

Personal and idealistic, she calls her repertoire friendly-to-meat eaters: rich in vegetables, yet not strictly vegetarian. "We flip the typical equation," she purports. "Rather than cutting back on meat, these recipes help you think about where you want to add meat and fish to your diet." Nice. Family-style and deeply practical, she rids her recipes of extra steps and superfluous ingredients in order to focus on the essence of each dish. Working within a limited budget became a driving force of creativity and resulted in recipes that are inexpensive to produce. This is exactly what a home cook desires and why she decided to write the book in the first place. Perhaps it will sit nestled next to like-minded tomes such as the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, Perla Meyers' The Seasonal Kitchen, and Moosewood cookbooks - older iconic examples serving as game-changers in the way that people think about, and connect to food and cooking in a larger context - where taste and ethics need not be at odds.

2014-12-10-5748539_311781.jpg Mexico, The Cookbook by Margarita Carrillo Arronte Phaidon Press, New York, 2014, ISBN: 978-07148-6752-6

When authors such as Arronte compile cookbooks about a national cuisine as vast as Mexico's, the goal is to produce a well-rounded exploration that evokes and authenticates, the inherent spirit of a nation's cultural foodways. Margarita Carrillo Arronte, Mexico's global ambassador for all things culinary, has certainly accomplished this along with the remarkable design team at Phaidon Press, headquartered in London with offices in New York City. This massive tome, feeling like a work of art or runway fashion statement, is undoubtedly among the most beautiful books this year. Replete with 650 recipes and 200 photos, the book draws inspiration from various sources, some from which have been altered to the author's own taste by adjusting ingredients, measurements or methods. Ms. Arronte wants the dishes of her homeland, and its many regions, to be cooked and experienced by audiences who have not yet plunged into the depths of mole (mole-lay) making - including an intriguing beet mole - to the more familiar tamales, enchiladas, and fresh fish Veracruz-style, to the less familiar rabbit with prunes and chili, ox tongue in pecan sauce, and birria, a fragrant lamb soup from Jalisco. Much admired in Mexico for the last 35 years, Ms. Arronte has owned restaurants and food companies, hosted television food shows, researched and taught all over the world. She is a formally trained teacher, turned chef and activist, involved in the decade-long effort to have traditional Mexican cuisine recognized with a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity designation.

Although I wish that head notes were included with each recipe, I understand how daunting a task this would be. The recipes, both classic and traditional, with a swath of contemporary recipes from restaurant chefs, feel mostly accessible - but some ingredients - specific chilies, epazote, avocado leaves -- may be hard to find. This does not diminish the book's pleasures. Part of Ms. Arronte's research is to delve into other references and oral traditions for inspiration and to re-create recipes that are considered seminal in the development of the cuisine. This is the true nature of recipe transmission and the way that dishes evolve and national cuisines are created. There is an extensive bibliography that includes the important work of Mexican culinary guru, Diana Kennedy. It is a great gift to go hand in hand with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate, in bed if not in your kitchen.

Tastes of the Week

May 14 thru May 21, 2012 Okay, it's really true that I had one of the best meals ever, in a casual, non-fussy way, last week at Il Buco Alimentari on Great Jones Street. Despite my skepticism over the hypnotic-glowing review in the NY Times, I came away with similar feelings. I was seduced by the food and by the very essence of the room and its intention. I don't know anything about the chef but he has a lot to be proud of. It felt as though I was in Italy, in some magical place with a cuisine of its very own. Grilled succulent octopus with fresh green almonds, candied kumquats, and farro with a drizzle of some yogurty sauce. Who cooks, or thinks, or executes like that? A triumph. As were the hip "fish sticks" (I just made myself lol) of salt cod, re-moistened to perfection, batter-fried and served with a lemony aioli. Note:  I just found out that the "salt cod" is actually "house salted cod" which made the texture so remarkable and alluring. (It's important to do your homework.) Having lunch with Shelley Boris, who owns a sleek catering company in Garrison, New York, and who also is chef of the Garrison Institute, and who has cooked for the Dalai Lama, and was the exec. chef at Dean & Deluca in its heyday, made lunch especially fun. We both thought the tiny crispy artichokes with preserved lemons & parsley looked like a small bouquet of antique flowers; and that the homemade ricotta with sugar snaps, pine nut granola (!), and mint was pristine and "lactate" and the essence of spring. A few drops of acidity would have helped. The spaghetti with bottarga was unctuous in a good way and everything washed down very nicely with a large carafe of rose from Channing Daughters Winery from Bridgehampton. A very pleasant surprise and it went extremely well with the dish that everyone is talking about! A sublime sandwich on crusty homemade bread filled with roast porchetta, arugula and salsa verde. Its herbal, porky juices drip down (or up) your arm. Wonderful sorbetti and gelati, but an exquisite panna cotta with 10-year aged balsamico really stole the show. Years ago I had a version as good -- but not since -- and I wrote about it for the New York Times.  It was made by Meredith Kurtzman who was the pastry chef at Esca at the time. She has been at Otto for some time now. And what about the chef?  Justin Smillie. Definitely a guy to watch. He worked at Barbuto and the Standard Grill which explains some of his cooking majesty -- simple, sophisticated, sensational -- but there is definitely a style to call his own.

I like to eat lunch with friends. And so there were two more this week to enjoy. One was at Jeanne & Gaston on 14th street between 7th and 8th avenues. Created by the chef who owns Madison Bistro, this new boîte is really attractive, as are the Europeans who go for lunch. I hear it's really hopping at night when the big garden is illuminated and beautiful. The place had a real French vibe although the undefinable pastry of the Alsatian Tarte Flambée turned out to be a tortilla. But who cares? Spread with good creme fraiche, slivers of sweet onion and blanched bacon, it tasted delicious after a good crisping in a hot oven.  It made for an ample lunch and was only $12 -- lovely with a glass of wine. My friend's camembert omelet, served with mixed greens and great french fries was only $15. There is a lovely story, and photos, about the chef's (Claude Godard's) grandfather who was a respected chef himself in France. A nice find.

And, as always, a lovely spinach, beet and bucheron salad at Marseille.

Lunch makes dinner improbable some days. Enjoy your tastes of the week.

A Retreat

As you are reading this, I will be away on a retreat focused on a new discipline called "contemplative care" at the Garrison Institute in Garrison, New York --a beautiful monastery located on the banks of the Hudson River.  This three-day retreat is based on meditative practice, teachings, and silence, and is related to the work I do with hospice.  During these three days, why not browse the blog -- there are 75 consecutive posts (surely you have missed a few!) -- and choose three you most enjoyed.  Let me know your thoughts.  Perhaps you will even try a new recipe, or two.  I will be back in touch on Monday with renewed energy.  A thought while I'm away.  Think about cooking in silence.  I often do.  You will be amazed how resounding the "sounds of cooking" in the kitchen can be.  Namaste.

Morning Meditation

I have written today's entry in advance as I am at a retreat at the beautiful Garrison Institute (a former monastery) on the Hudson River in Garrison, New York. The Garrison Institute, the brainchild of our friends Jonathan and Diana Rose, is a center for contemplation, action, and transformation.  "It is a unique center for leaders, activists and professionals on the front lines of social change to reflect, grow and deepen the connection and insight with which they engage the world."  This particular retreat is called The Whole of the Path: Virtue, Mind-training and Wisdom -- cultivating generosity, integrity, attention and compassion.   And while this experience is not about food...in a way, it is.  Shelley Boris, who heads the kitchens at Garrison, is a very gifted chef.  Her intelligence and compassionate approach to cooking is felt by everyone there.  Shelley is always mindful of the communal table -- which is literally how one eats in the massive, sun-lit dining room.  The food is elemental and deeply connected to the earth from which it comes.  Most of it local, some grown on the vast property, sustainable, and always nourishing.  And while I enjoy eating alone most of the time, it is also nice to share stories and experiences with others around the table.  Food is ritual here, three times a day, and in itself is a meditation.  Hopefully Shelley will share some of her recipes with me so that I can share them with you.  Each meal has its own virtues but I think I like breakfast best.  Her cheese biscuits (with scallions) are the best I have ever had and her food is generally so compelling that you feel virtuous with every bite.  And the coffee (thank goodness they serve it!) is good and strong.

I look forward to being in touch with you again on Monday morning.  Meanwhile, I leave you with a recipe for the weekend: Cheese Strata with Prosciutto, Basil and Spinach This is my recipe for an assemble-ahead dish that’s perfect for a weekend brunch.  You assemble it the night before (or early in the morning) so that the layers -- or striations -- of bread, cheese and spinach soak up the egg-and-milk base.  Baked for 1 hour, the result is custardy, rich and quiche-like.  If you don't eat pork, you can substitute smoked turkey for the prosciutto, or leave it out altogether -- just add a bit more spinach.

3-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter 16 slices firm white sliced bread, crusts removed 8 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto 8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled 4 ounces provolone cheese, shredded 1/4 cup finely minced scallions, white and green parts 4 ounces fresh baby spinach 1/2 cup finely julienned fresh basil 5 extra-large eggs 2 cups half-and-half 1/2 teaspoon Sriracha or hot sauce

Butter a 12-x-7-inch glass or ceramic dish with 1/2 tablespoon of the butter.  Cover the bottom with 6 slices of bread, plus 1 slice cut in half to fill the spaces.  Evenly cover the bread with half the prosciutto.  Sprinkle with half of the feta, provolone, scallions, spinach, and basil.  Repeat to make a second layer.  Cut the remaining 2 bread slices into 1/4-inch cubes; scatter over the top.  Beat together the eggs, half-and-half, and hot sauce.  Pour over the strata; press down firmly with a spatula.  Melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter and drizzle over the top.  Cover; refrigerate 5 hours or overnight.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Uncover and bake 1 hour until golden.  Serves 8.

From my book, “Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease”