Three Books Worth Digging Into This Fall
Next to a wine-braised coq au vin at a cozy French bistro, there are few things I enjoy more on a cold evening than sitting on the couch with a glass of wine and good book. This fall, I'll have plenty of opportunities to do just that with some new volumes from local authors or, in one case, an author who once had a long, local presence.
First up is the debut of The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook, a recipe collection from Seattle-based food writer Kim O'Donnel, who first dipped her tasting spoon into the world of vegetarian cooking with her Meatless Monday feature on the A Mighty Appetite blog on washingtonpost.com. After 12 years at the Post, O'Donnel left the paper last year to, among other things, focus on the Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook, which officially hit stores yesterday.
It's a home cook-friendly project, both approachable and cautiously adventurous, with recipes like O'Donnel's meatless take on cassoulet (!) in which beans take center stage or her Maryland crab cake in which chickpeas stand in for the famous Chesapeake crustacean. The book is broken down by seasons.
"It wasn't hard to eat meatless once or even thrice a week, but committing to it week in, week out, well that was a different story," O'Donnel e-mails me, in advance of her trip to the District next week to promote the book. "It really took the involvement of my WP blog readers to keep me honest, as I tested a new recipe every week for the meatless feature. The great revelation for both me and my husband was how interesting and diverse meatless eating and cooking could be, how eating this way was a gateway to the cuisines of the world. Indian, Thai, Lebanese, Caribbean, Italian, for starters."
O'Donnel isn't an evangelist here — well, maybe she is, but she's not an annoying one who assumes a moral high ground over her creeping vegetarianism. She's an avowed meat eater, in fact, one who understands the benefits of occasionally passing on the animal proteins. "Most of us meat lovers, this one included, know we could stand to lower our cholesterol and drop a few pounds," O'Donnel writes in her intro. "Our problem isn't believing the data, it's the fear of change and the threat to our very personal relationship with food."
O'Donnel makes the gradual shift to vegetarianism easy.
If Post spirits writer Jason Wilson has any mission with his forthcoming book, Boozehound, due out Sept. 21, it's to inject some intellectual rigor into a form of journalism too often drunk on its own superficial prose. Check out this small excerpt on absinthe and the media's bipolar treatment of the spirit, first deifying it, then demonizing it:
As I observed this phenomenon, I thought, 'Well, duh.' Americans mostly don’t like the taste of licorice. Absinthe is flavored with anise, giving it a strong licorice taste. These two basic truths pretty much ensured that the spirit would never be enduringly popular in the United States. So presenting the sleight-of-hand notion that absinthe was ever 'cool' before being reported as 'uncool'—essentially hyping absinthe, then twelve months later calling it overhyped—is breathtakingly shallow even by the usual standards of lifestyle journalism. It smacks of high school.
"I hope Boozehound gives a sense of how dynamic and exciting the world of spirits and cocktails has become over just the past few years. Still, it's important to remember not to take cocktails too seriously. I think learning about and understanding spirits provides an interesting way to think about culture, social history, fashion, trends, etc. But, I mean, we're talking about bartending...not curing cancer. I hope this book reminds people that drinks and drinking are, above all, fun."
No one, let alone me, needs to tell you about Joan Nathan's importance to the world of Jewish cooking. The D.C.-based writer has been thinking deeply on the subject for decades, back when some of us (well, me) were still trying to work through the narrative complexities of Elton John. Nathan has covered Jewish cooking from many different perspectives, but until her new cookbook hits shelves in late October, she had never surveyed the Jewish cooking in France.
Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France is exactly what it says. I've been flipping through the uncorrected proof for a couple of weeks now and have been impressed with the stories Nathan has collected — the painstaking lengths to which Paul Bocuse went to cook kosher or the painstaking lengths to which French chateaus go to produce kosher wine, or even the pain-in-the-butt prayers that once had to be recited before you could eat dill.
"Dill is such an important flavor in Jewish cooking that the French eleventh-century Biblical commentator and Talmudic scholar Rashi wrote that if dill is used for flavor, a special blessing over the earth must be recited before tasting it. If, however, it is simply added to decorate the dish, it is not intended for food value, so just a general prayer over food must be recited."
So you might be asking yourself the same question I asked while reading Nathan's book: How is Jewish cooking different in France from, say, the United States? Here's her response to me, via e-mail:
"Jews have been cooking in France almost 2,000 years. As Jewish food is geographical, there is French Jewish provencal, Alsatian, Southwestern, Eastern European, and North African food. That said, the food differs from American Jewish food in that American food generally is more packaged and Jews have bought into this "progress" from the Industrial Age. So American Jewish food has become Americanized. Take processed cream cheese in cheese cake. In France, a cheese cake is closer to its European roots, using farmers cheese as it has been made for ages."