Sunday, May 4, 2014

Time-Life: Cooking of India

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I adore Indian cooking. What I have learned about Indian cuisine to date comes mostly from Madhur Jaffrey, who has introduced the English speaking Western world to the delights of Indian home cooking. I also had a little recipe booklet from the Time-Life Foods of the World series but it provided no background information.

But that's changed. Through the wonders of the Internet I was able to order the Cooking of India from the Time-Life series, and am learning more about the background and cultural differences between North and South India, at least as they were in the 1960s. The world, and India, have changed a lot since then, but it's still an interesting read. I'm lucky to also have young Indian colleagues with whom I can discuss both food and Indian traditions. I'd love to get their perspective on the world depicted in this book.

Cooking of India was written by Santha Rama Rau as part of the Time-Life Foods of the World series and tackles the almost impossible task of providing an overview of Indian cooking for a Western audience with limited or no experience with Indian food. She has an interesting background with one parent coming from the north of India and the other from the south. It was a progressive, Brahman, middle-class (not to say wealthy, by Indian standards) background.

I think my favourite chapter is the first one, in which she describes her grandmothers' kitchens (probably in the 1940s), one in nothern Allahabad, the other in south-western Mangalore.

The heat of these recipes has been radically reduced to accommodate Western tastes. However, Northern Indian cooking is much milder than that of the south. Not that long ago I ate at the home of an Indian colleague, and her cooking was very mild, and she hadn't adjusted it for me. She said it was a very typical meal for them (a cauliflower curry, eggplant bharta, rice, and chapatis).

I think most of the recipes have been stripped down to their basics, but they are accessible and tasty. You'll find more elaborate recipes and more complex spice mixtures in other books and the internet, but I will be forever thankful to it for introducing me to baingan bharta.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Time-Life: Spain and Portugal

The Spain and Portugal volume of Time-Life Foods of the World was a much more satisfying read than the Quintet of Cuisines. The writer Peter S. Feibleman actually lived in Spain, knew the people, and could write great descriptions of landscapes and cultural events. I think I'd like to read some of his other books, such as his biography of Lillian Hellman, with whom he had a long friendship.

I found the recipes I tried less successful, whether it's because they were simplified too much or whether the food itself is less appealing, or perhaps just poor technique on my part.

I've been to Andalusia and had wonderful home-cooked meals with fresh produce at a lovely B&B (Villa Matilde near Anjar), but I found eating in restaurants frustrating. Oily, mass-produced paella, monotonous salads of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, boiled eggs, tuna, and ham. The overwhelming emphasis on meat, the lack of vegetarian meals, or even vegetables that were not served in oil, made lunches particularly unappealing. It's hot, you want a light lunch and the only vegetable choice is that same old salad! The consequences of mass tourism, perhaps. However, I do remember a delicious supper of sea bass baked in salt in Malaga, and I loved Seville and would like to go back there.

Anyway, back to this book. In general, they call for at least 2 times as much olive oil as I would use, and I cut the amounts whenever I thought it appropriate. Ingredients are simple with very few extra flavourings beyond salt and pepper. In some case, I adapted a couple by adding some hot peppers to give them a bit more kick.

I've not provided the recipes, but will be happy to post if anyone wants them.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Time-Life Qunitet of Cuisines: Summary

The  Quintet of Cuisines volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series is such an odd grab bag of cuisines! Switzerland, Benelux, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, and North Africa

Overall, I found it a disappointing book in terms of a description of the food and culture--too much about the writer and his gourmandizing lifestyle and not enough about the people. Oddly enough, the chapters about Eastern Europe were better because he hadn't been there and was basing he information on other sources, including the government. In the time this book was published, they were Communist countries, hence the travel restrictions.

The recipes, on the other hand, were fine and I have made a number of discoveries that are worth revisiting:
  • I like veal! It tastes like beef but it is milder, more tender, and more refined. My only experience with it before was as a schnitzel, which I still think is a terrible thing to do with such nice meat.
  • Flounder is a wonderful fish, with a sweet refined flavour and soft texture.
  • Rubbing fish with some lemon juice 15-30 minutes before baking is a very good idea
I wanted to make a recipe from each of the five cuisines, but have yet to to do Poland and North Africa. However, in the past I've made the Polish borsht with dumplings, Moroccan bastila (not very successfully), and numerous tagines. There are lots of good looking recipes in this book, so I will want to continue to dip into this volume. As I do, I'll update this blog to maintain a record.

  • Switzerland: Emincé de veau, Rösti , Zwiebelwähe (Onion and cheese tart)
  • Netherlands: Schol uit de oven (Baked flounder)
  • Bulgaria: Kiopoolu (Aubergine and pepper spread)
  • Romania: Ghiveciu National (Veal and vegetable Stew with grapes)

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Time-Life Quintet of Cusines: Bulgaria and Romania

Romanian stew after adding the last vegetables
On January first, restrictions were lifted for Bulgarians and Romanians who want to work in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and other European countries. Of course, they've been here for years already, working in all kinds of industry, including IT which is where I've met them, but now they don't need special work permits. The Poles are also here and if it weren't for them, you wouldn't be seeing fresh produce from Holland, because Dutch agriculture relies on the pickers that come from Eastern Europe.

Fortunately, these cuisines are touched on in the Quintet of Cuisines, the cookbook I cam currently concentrating on. So in their honor and giving pride of place to the vegetables they help to bring to our tables, here are a couple of recipes from Bulgaria and Romania.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Time-Life Quintet of Cuisines: Netherlands

When asked, I can be a bit disparaging about typical Dutch food. It seems to be so dominated by variations of stamppot, which is mashed potatoes mixed with some other vegetable and served accompanied by a piece of meat. The classic is boerenkool met rookworst, which features kale as the vegetable and a smoked Dutch sausage as the meat. And there's hutspot (potatoes, carrots, and onions), and hete bliksem (potatoes, apples, and onions), and endive stamppot, and spinach stamppot, ... you get the idea. Of course, the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, so it's certainly very nutritious, and it is classic comfort food for many.

Personally I blame Calvinist Protestantism, which long dominated Dutch society. It's serious, dour stuff with no tolerance for frivolities like fancy cooking and the pleasures of the table. I'm not sure how the delicious baked goods like speculaas fit into, but most of those were originally Christmas treats.

But I could be entirely WRONG! Because tonight I prepared baked flounder (Schol uit de oven) and it was super—both simple and refined in flavour. It is not complicated to prepare, but the result has a lovely balance between soft white fish, crunchy gratin, and a hint of acidity from the lemon that was applied to the fish a half an hour before it went into the oven. This is definitely going into regular rotation!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Time-Life Quintet of Cuisines: Switzerland

The Quintet of Cuisines volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series has got to be the weirdest assortment of kitchens, ranging from Northern Europe to North Africa: Switzerland, the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, and North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria).

I haven't read the whole book yet so I think I'll defer the big review in hopes that the last three chapters will be better than the first two. This has less to do with the recipes than with the nature of these chapters. They concentrate on meals eaten with friends in restaurants, hotels, or at home, and seem much more about the writer and his wife than about the culture of the countries. And the sense of a whirlwind, breathless visit to each of the countries gives such a sense of afterthought to this volume.

The recipes are much more appealing. Tonight, I tackled two classics of the Swiss kitchen: Emincé de veau (Veal strips in wine and cream sauce) and rösti (Fried shredded potato cake).

Update 2014-03-15: I've also made the Zwiebelewähe, a rich cheese and onion tart made with Gruyere and Emmental. If anyone wants the recipe, I can post it.

Cooking Project: Time-Life Foods of the World

My friend Kaye recently started a two-year quixotic project to read and cook from the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series that was published in the late 60s and early 70s. Each of the 50+ books was an exploration of the cooking of a country or regional cuisine, with discussions of culture, history, recipes, and lots of photos. And it was accompanied by a spiral bound booklet of recipes.

Not surprisingly given the times and the origins, the series has a strong American emphasis. No fewer than 8 of the books deal with American cooking (!), with only one volume each for China and India, and none for Turkey, all cuisines with a rich heritage and strong regional differences. But it was part of a movement that opened the kitchens of Americans (and Canadians) to the world. What we now eat and what can now buy in an ordinary supermarket bears no comparison to what was available in 1969. And this series was part of that shift.

Along with some other interested crazy cooks, I'm joining Kaye on this project. We plan to read, comment, discuss and cook our way through as many of the 25+ books as we can in a monthly to 6 week cycle.

One problem: I didn't have the books. I did have the recipe booklet for Cooking of India, picked up in a second-hand store in PEI, but that was it. So I started ordering a few of the books via Amazon, but it was hard to tell whether I was ordering the hard-cover book or the recipe book or both. The complete sets were available but only in the States and the shipping costs to Europe were astronomical. But I then found a Canadian supplier that had almost the complete set and could ship to Canadian addresses for a reasonable price. My sister now has them in her custody and I will bring them back the next time I visit Halifax. I know, it's crazy, but cooking is my hobby. And as we all know, hobbies give us permission to be a bit crazy.

In the mean time, the few books I had already ordered have arrived and I can start cooking. Watch this space!

(And if you want to join us, let me or Kaye know. Kaye can invite you to the Facebook group she started for this project.)