It’s deep winter here in Vermont. The snowbanks along the sides of our driveway have formed tall, white walls that grow higher with each storm and now almost reach the low-lying apple tree branches that flank the fence. Earlier this afternoon the already thick sheet of ice on the river cracked loudly, giving both the dog and me quite a start while we were out walking, and sent chilly echoes richocheting through our valley while it settled into an even harder freeze.
These days smoke puffs non-stop out of our chimney as the wood stove has become our favorite pet: a friendly dragon that we feed wood all day long and huddle around in the evening with steaming bowls of stew. It’s at moments like these that tender spring greens seem so far away!
Seems to me that cracking ice, back-to-back snow storms, and nights spent gathered around hearth can only mean two things: it is time to cook and it is time to curl up and read.
So I thought I’d recommend a stack of “Books for Cooks” that I’ve been chewing on for those also weathering the cold temperatures, snuggling up by wood stoves, or perhaps just dreaming about the warm, wide world of food and cooking. They’re a varied bunch of titles, written over a period of sixty years and spanning many continents and cuisines.
One book analyzes the craft of food writing, another is written by the first woman to attend cooking school in the Sichuan province, and one of my favorites, “Clementine in the Kitchen,” tells the story a French cook who returns to New England with her American employers at the outset of World War II. Though very different, all of them are food-focused and enlightening, perfect for a mid-winter’s book-lover’s snack of other cultures and dishes – and occasionally even fresh greens.
Before you start reading though, join me in putting a pot of beans on the stove and starting a loaf of bread rising so that you’ve got a perfect meal waiting for you when you’ve finished one of these appetizing books. And keep dreaming of those spring greens. The thaw is just around the (snowy) corner.
Clementine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlin. I just loved this book. It’s definitely a throwback to a different era but it offers an insight into pre-war France and a different way of cooking, eating and living. Though the main character Clementine is fictional (a composite of several cooks the real Chamberlin family had while living overseas in the 1930′s and early 40′s), she is nonetheless endearing and provides a window and a pair of eyes into another world. This book was the result of a series of columns Samuel Chamberlin wrote for Gourmet Magazine in the 1940′s that described his family’s transition back to living on the North Shore of Boston after nearly a decade of residing in the French countryside – all from the perspective of “Clementine,” their beloved cook. Don’t forget to try the recipe for “Poule au Riz,” a succulent one pot chicken dish simply flavored with thyme, garlic, celery, and onions.
Will Write for Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Restaurant Reviews, Articles, Memoir, Fiction and More by Dianne Jacob. If you are interested in turning your best recipes into a literary career or in further developing your present food writing job, this is a helpful resource. I most enjoyed the chapter on recipe writing which gives direct advice and quotes from renowned editor Judith Jones (who has worked with Julia – yes, the Julia – Madhur Jaffrey, Marcella Hazan to name just a few) and also the ones on memoir and fiction writing. If for no other reason, this is a good book to have on hand for the bibliography. Jacob sites many books (especially mysteries) previously unknown to me on or about food that I am now curious to read.
Eating Korean: From Barbecue to Kimchi, recipes from my Home by Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee. I came away from this book feeling as though I had been one of the many guests at the Lee’s home having eaten on of her mother’s hot pots or steaming seafood dumplings. Lee offers not only well-crafted recipes (she’s written for the LA Times and the Washington Post) but intimate and insightful writing about what it was like to grow up in Korean-American family whose life centered around the kitchen. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the communal activity of kimchi making and about her earliest memories of living in Korea. This will open your eyes – and taste buds – to another way of cooking and living.
Shark’s Fine and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating In China by Fushia Dunlop. This woman is amazing! She’s a hero among curious cooks, a culinary renegade, not to mention an extremely talented linguist and writer. In this dense and satisfying book Dunlop, who is well-known in her native Britain and recognized for her expertise on Hunan cuisine, delves deeply and personally into hidden China, its culinary traditions, its language and customs. This is food memoir at its best because Dunlop truly has an insight into the many facets and complexities of her topic. She is fluent in the language , was the first woman to attend the local elite “Institute of Higher Cuisine,” spends time as a guest of locals in small, rural villages, and has a fearless palate. Not only are there recipes included but there are also diagrams illustrating the different types of cutting techniques and utensils used in Sichuan cuisines.
Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes by Jeffrey Hamelman. As part of my continuing quest to attain culinary enlightenment, I’ve been delving into and kneading lots of bread. Along with flour, salt, yeast and water, this book has been an essential ingredient in my tool bag. Author Hamelman is an excellent teacher: his in-depth explanations and the excellent line-drawn illustrations almost make this more of a text book than a mere a collection of recipes. If you yearn for more of an understanding of the hows and they whys of bread, facts and history, this is the book for you. I’ve heard more than one bread professional say that this may be the best bread book there is. You will put down this book thinking “So much flour, so little time.”
In Late Winter We Ate Pears by Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber. If you’re looking for languorous and luxurious prose and the feeling of being transported to Italy – winding streets, thick stone walls, salty pancetta and all – this is the book for you. Right now. No matter what the season there are recipes, stories, and exotic ingredients to delight all of the senses. This part memoir, part cookbook tells the story of the year a newly-married Heekin and Barber spent in the Italian countryside learning about culture, cuisine and community. Readers will finish “In Late Winter” yearning to visit the intimate Osteria Pane e Salute in Woodstock, Vermont where the authors are dedicated to creating sensuous food and a sense of community for their diners in late winter, spring summer and fall, year after year.
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and an Apprentice to to Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. If you haven’t gotten around to reading this book yet, chances are it’ll be the one that launches you on the path to making your own tortellini. Avid home cook Bill Burford wanted to know how is culinary skills would translate to working in a professional kitchen so he put himself to the test. “Heat” chronicles his year spent in three very different kitchens. His journey first takes him to Mario Batali’s famous restaurant Babbo in New York city where he describes his time spent as a “kitchen slave.” Then he’s off to Italy and the best parts of the book lie ahead. Burford learns how to make homemade pasta with Betta – he’s only allowed to start kneading the dough after first watching her work for ten days (no wonder my pasta isn’t perfect yet!). And then he’s off to Tuscany region to master the art of meat-cutting with a Dante-quoting butcher. Reading this is a real treat, an education in Italian food, and an immersion in the atmosphere of Italia.