This 3 1/2 quart round braiser from Le Creuset is definitely in the category of splurge. But I really have to say that this is my favorite thing in my kitchen. I bought mine secondhand (but brand new) for less than half the price, so it is worth looking around on eBay and local listings. I use this for everything from a quick curry to tomato sauce to one of my favorite pilaf dishes. Since it is fairly deep, I also use it for things that need to be fried in a lot of oil. Like all Le Creuset products, it can go from the stove to the oven to the table. And it looks very pretty on the table. If you like the idea of an enameled cast iron braising pan, this is a cheaper option that looks good as well.
Remember when I mentioned pizza dough and not having a pizza stone? Well, Matt’s mom, Susan, gave me a gift of a Baking Steel and let me tell you, this is now an essential part of our kitchen. It has seriously taken our homemade pizza to the next level. I mean just look at this beautiful crust. If you like making bread or pizza dough, I highly recommend getting this. I’m wary of acquiring more kitchen gadgets – it’s not that I don’t want them, but I lack the space – because I often doubt they are truly special and worth having. This one is definitely special, and has more than one use. I haven’t tried it yet but apparently it can be used as a stovetop griddle, which would definitely help me churn out pancakes more quickly. You can get the baking steel through the company directly or from Sur la Table, which is where we got it (it’s the same brand). I recommend just letting your baking steel live on the bottom shelf of your oven. I like putting my toast on it – it gets my English muffins nice and crackly.
If you get a baking steel, you will need a baker’s peel. I have this one, which has great reviews and a handy little leather loop so that it can be hung. The first time you use this, you will be a little freaked out. The key is to dust the peel with semolina or cornmeal, so that the pizza can easily slide off on to the baking steel. Getting the pizza out has been a bit more difficult for us. We tend to use a combination of the baker’s peel and tongs, just to prevent disaster.
To round out this pizza gift, you could also pick up a copy of Jim Lahey’s My Pizza, which features the no-knead pizza dough that we use. Trust me, once you start making great pizza at home, your life will change! Have fun!
What would a gift guide be without some cookbooks, right? I can safely say that this has been my year of cookbook obsessions. I’ve always owned more than a few, but up until this summer, I think I was safely under 100. Well, that has all changed in the past six months or so. I’ve probably acquired about 40 cookbooks this year? To be fair, a huge chunk of that was the 18 editions of the Good Cook series. But I love books and love cooking, so it makes sense that cookbooks have consumed so much of my free time. I also think that the deeper one gets into learning about cooking, the more cookbooks become necessary. I know this is contrary to what many believe – that the best cooks don’t need cookbooks – and that is true to an extent. But short of working in a professional kitchen or going to culinary school, cookbooks are the best way to learn about techniques, culinary traditions, and how to read (and perhaps eventually write) recipes. What follows isn’t a list of this year’s hottest cookbooks but instead the cookbooks that have captivated me the most.
Every Grain of Rice: Simple Chinese Home Cooking is, as far as I am concerned, an essential cookbook for anyone who likes Chinese food. Once you acquire a few key ingredients, such as Sichuan chili bean paste, Chinkiang vinegar, and Shaoxing wine (all easily found at Asian grocery stores), most of the dishes come together insanely quickly. There are several dishes in which you chop a tablespoon of garlic, a tablespoon of ginger, heat those in oil with some Sichuan chili paste, add the main ingredients, and the dish is usually done in under 10 minutes. The focus is on economy, health, and ease of preparation and it wins on all counts. So far I have made the Mapo Tofu, Send down the Rice Celery with Beef, Braised Chicken with Shiitake Mushrooms, Dry Style Green Beans, various dishes of sauteed greens, and this Shanghai noodle dish. All are dishes I want to make again (we probably have the mapo tofu every other week; we had the celery and beef again tonight; I’m making the smacked cucumbers tomorrow, etc.). As you know, I’m a big fan of Jennifer Reese. Now, I could be wrong, but I feel that her book Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What you Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch doesn’t receive as much attention as it deserves. It’s a really clever concept: she calculates the cost (both monetary and in terms of time and hassle) of making items such as bread, butter, cheese, bagels, yogurt, pie, etc. But it’s not just that. It’s a thoroughly charming and personal collection of recipes filled with her witty and sharp insights. One of my favorite recipes is the pound cake, which includes nutmeg and rum. I also just love tucking into this book for the stories that she tells alongside the recipes. In fact, this is probably the most used “general cooking” book in my collection. As a bonus, it’s very affordable.
Prune, on the other hand, is definitely not what I would call an affordable cookbook. In fact, with all its idiosyncracies (no index, quantities for restaurant orders, indecipherable restaurant shorthand) I think one could safely classify this cookbook a splurge. Chances are you might never cook from it. But on the other hand with recipes that include a box of Triscuits and some canned sardines – you might? I have always wanted to eat at Hamilton’s restaurant (and still haven’t) so I am excited to taste it vicariously through this book. I received this book as a birthday gift from Matt and I am very enamored with it so far. This is an incredibly busy winter season for me, so I don’t think I’ll be able to cook much from it until later. One of the reasons for that is that a lot of the quantities will need to be cut in half or more. But I think any avid cookbook collector or person involved in the food world in some way would be excited to get his/her hands on this book. It’s currently on my nightstand.
Speaking of books that do not get the attention they deserve, I want everyone to know about Margaret Shaida’s wonderful The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. I much prefer this cover image and wonder if that edition of the book has more photographs. But the staid nature of the cover above should convince you that this is a serious book, filled with history and recipes collected from home cooks all over Iran and its diaspora. Shaida won the Glenfiddich award for this book and she deserves all the praise. The recipes aren’t fussy – and sometimes they assume certain knowledge – but her recipes are the closest thing I’ve seen in print to the recipes that my family prepares. I think the book hasn’t been promoted adequately stateside and has lived under the shadow of Najmieh Batmanglij’s New Food of Life (which is now called Food of Life). I learned a lot from that book when I first started cooking Persian food on my own, but a few of the recipes are … wonky, for lack of a better word (I don’t own the revised edition that came out a few years ago, so I am only speaking of the original). Furthermore, Shaida’s book offers a lot more in terms of understanding the Persian approach to food. Both are great books and you wouldn’t go wrong with either, but I do feel that Shaida’s book needs to reach more hands.
From a Persian Kitchen: Fresh Discoveries in Iranian Cooking is very different from The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. First of all, I love the focus on regional cooking. It is not a regional cookbook, as Dana-Haeri points out, but she does a wonderful job of including more obscure dishes like lakh lakh (fish and dill rice) from the Persian Gulf region and morgh-e torsh (sour chicken with herbs), one of my favorite dishes from Gilan, my province. These recipes are hardly ever found in other English language books on Iranian cooking. There are also plenty of standards such kuku (Persian frittata) and fesenjaan (a pomegranate-walnut stew with duck or chicken). I haven’t cooked from this book yet – I received it as a birthday gift (thanks, Susan!), but I’m really looking forward to working my way through it.
What are some of the cookbooks you have your eye on? What are some of your favorites?
Over the next week or so, I’ll be sharing some ideas on exciting objects to share with friends and family as holiday gifts, or just things I am interested in that I think you might like. I’m sort of seeing this gift guide as an extended “Friday links.” I’m not endorsing spending lots of money to celebrate a holiday. My favorite way to celebrate the holidays is to make a great meal and sit around drinking, playing games, and watching movies with friends and family. But I love books and kitchen objects, so I’ll give you a few ideas that I might be using.
The first is Labor and the Locavore: The Making of a Comprehensive Food Ethic by Margaret Gray. As far as I’m concerned, this book is long overdue. Gray examines how the labor of farm workers is excluded from discourse of the ethics of local, organic, and seasonal food consumption. From the UC Press website:
In the blizzard of attention around the virtues of local food production, food writers and activists place environmental protection, animal welfare, and saving small farms at the forefront of their attention. Yet amid this turn to wholesome and responsible food choices, the lives and working conditions of farmworkers are often an afterthought.
Labor and the Locavore focuses on one of the most vibrant local food economies in the country, the Hudson Valley that supplies New York restaurants and farmers markets. Based on more than a decade’s in-depth interviews with workers, farmers, and others, Gray’s examination clearly shows how the currency of agrarian values serves to mask the labor concerns of an already hidden workforce.
She also explores the historical roots of farmworkers’ predicaments and examines the ethnic shift from Black to Latino workers. With an analysis that can be applied to local food concerns around the country, this book challenges the reader to consider how the mentality of the alternative food movements implies a comprehensive food ethic that addresses workers’ concerns.
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Required reading for people in the food industry, as well as anyone who considers herself a conscientious participant in food and foodways. I’ll have another gift idea tomorrow.