One or the other (or both) of the books I’m suggesting this month look like cookbooks when wrapped. Technically, they are culinary reference books: think dictionaries for cooks. Both have fascinating information for the folks on your list who just love to cook or bake. We all know one or two of those. They frequently get cookbooks for gifts, so surprise them with one of these.
The reason I say that “open me last” should be on the gift tag is simple: once these books are opened and the recipients start flipping through the pages, you’re going to lose them. Perusing the contents, usually short paragraphs, is addictive. And, if the gift recipient is expected to produce a gala breakfast, the family might end up in the drive through line at Mickey D’s. Ergo: you’ve come to the perfect last-minute Christmas or Hanukah gift(s).
Yes, these two reference books are catnip to anyone interested in food. At least that’s what happens to me every time I open one to reference a food, a regional recipe, a classic restaurant, or trends in ingredients or techniques. I get my answer, and I can’t help it if my eye goes down to the next entry...and then the next...and so on. And I keep each handy for those times when I’m waiting for a return phone call, or the cable guy, or dishwasher-repair person who has promised to materialize between one and five. Also—dare I mention in this column devoted to home cooking—the pizza delivery vehicle? (And when the pie arrives you will put a shower of that good Parmigiano-Reggiano that you hoard, along with the superior anchovies from Sicily preserved in good olive oil, as your final touch on the commercial pizza, won’t you?)
Hold On, I’ll Look It Up
No question, there are lots of sources for recipes these days. Just go to the Internet or the bookstore. But it’s more difficult to find an illustration of a pasta shape a recipe writer suggests. Or you wonder how to pronounce the name of an ingredient, or how many chopped green onions measure half a cup (for white-part only it’s five bulbs), and what are safe serving temperatures for various meats? These are some of the goodies you’ll find in The New Food Lover’s Companion written by Sharon Tyler Herbst and her husband Ron Herbst (Baron’s Press). Sadly, my dear friend Sharon died a few years ago, but her husband has carried on, revising and adding to the book’s contents. There are now 7,730 entries, alphabetically arranged (from abalone to zwieback) and—from the introduction—“describing food, cooking techniques, herbs, spices, desserts, wines, and the ingredients for pleasurable dining.” It is a treasure, and especially useful for an enthusiastic new-to-cooking friend. (By the way, Ron has also written the excellent Wine Lover’s Companion.)
For example, the appendix in Food Lover’s is chock full of great info. I have many cookbooks from the U.K., so I find the metric equivalents and a dictionary of English vs. American terms jolly good. (Over there it’s butter muslin, here it’s cheesecloth; there you have corn our, and here cornstarch. Fascinating.) There are charts in the book that illustrate each cut of meat, and a listing of which type of apple works best for baking, for pies, and the like. But wait, there’s more. Did you know that calamari is squid? Hoisin sauce is reddish-brown, sweet, and spicy, and made with soybeans, garlic, chile peppers, and various spices. And I cherish the long illustrated list of pasta shapes and names. So useful.
The book was first published in 1987 with 3,000 entries, and then again, the entries expanded, in 1990, 1995. The current “new” edition (2013) is the fifth.
As for the pronunciation guide, for each entry I checked my favorite, and, for me, that was an Italian appetizer known as bruschetta. For years it has bugged me when anyone says “broo-SHEH-ta” instead of the correct “broo-SKEH-ta.” I know this because at one time none other than Elizabeth David, an Englishwoman and masterful writer of Mediterranean recipes, corrected me. One does not forget that. She then said dismissively: “It’s merely garlic bread, the toast rubbed with a peeled garlic clove and—maybe—a cut tomato.” Well, guess what? The book says both are correct. If only Ms. David were still around.
The five-page pasta glossary is such fun. Who knew (except an Italian) that linguine (lihn-GWEE-neh) means “little tongues.” And if you ask for “little mustaches” in Rome you’ll get mostaccioli (moh-stah-CHYOH-lee).
You will need a large handbag or a capacious briefcase to schlepp this bulky book to your next restaurant meal. Go ahead, confound the wait staff.
Now, on to our next book, The Lexicon of Real American Food, from Jane and Michael Stern, the duo who brought you the Roadfood books, and published in 2011 by Lyons Press.
Food at’s Part of Everyday Life
As you might guess, the Lexicon is quite different from the Herbst book, but in a funny way. The entries are listed alphabetically and range from “American Chop Suey” to “Wonder Bread” to “Ya-Ka-Mein.” The latter—also called Old Sober “for its power to cure a bout of drunkenness”—is an African-American dish made, surprisingly perhaps, with noodles. The phrase “who else would tell you these things?” is one that would nicely describe the book’s contents. I could, and have, wallowed in it for hours.
Again, this is a fascinating collection and though it isn’t truly a cookbook per se, it contains quite a few recipes. The book is also filled with profiles of cooking personalities. Julia Child and James Beard get (and deserve) two pages each; others the Sterns have encountered on their gastro-travels get one. I love these stories, especially the one about Frank Pepe who came to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1925 from Italy, and, by accident, took over a bakery that made bread and pasta. He started making crisp-crusted “tomato pies.” On the crust he put tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and grated cheese. Anchovies were the only other option. They were an immediate hit, and the lore is that this is where pizza in America started. Ask any Yale grad and it will be confirmed.
250 Miles for a Hot Dog
I was immediately drawn to the book because of a personal memory. Back in the ’50s my Dad would get an urge to have a Nathan’s Famous hot dog (or three or four). This meant a drive from Albany, down the (not yet completed) beautiful Taconic Parkway, over the Whitestone Bridge into Long Island, and down to Coney Island. He’d double park by the stand, thrust money into my hand and, as the eldest of four, off I’d go to the counter at Nathan’s Famous to get the dogs—so good back then—and the orange drinks. As I recall, it took several trips. After this, Dad drove up Surf Avenue and usually snagged a parking space under the boardwalk. We’d file out of the car (Mom didn’t participate in this gastronomic treasure hunt) and totter up the ramp to see the sea and the many food booths lining the boardwalk. On the way up we heard the robust cry from one eatery just off the boardwalk: “Appiza! Appiza!”—but it was pronounced differently to reflect its Neapolitan origin. Think “uh-Beetz.” The “p” was replaced by a “b” and the final “a” was gone. When I read that in one of the Stern’s columns, seventy years dropped away. Boy, that tomato pie was great. (Maybe the salt air helped?) I had one of those “I-Bitz,” as I called it, while the younger contingent went around the corner and in a few minutes returned with towering pink cotton candy wands.
The Taconic in those days was a winding road and those curves on the return trip were daunting for some. The less said the better.
On their travels, Jane and Michael visited our region. Following their comments, let me sketch a food-tour for you. Let’s sample first the pitza (not a spelling error) that’s found in the Hazelton, Pennsylvania, area. It’s got a soft crust spread to the edge with cheese and topped with a sweet sauce. It’s “moist and soft” when served fresh, but a “set aside” makes it better. Make a detour south to Philadelphia and have a cheese steak at the birthplace of that now-widely-copied creation. Learn the right way to order it: “wit” or “witout” onion.
Next go north and stop in Binghamton for a spiedie, a variant of “meat-on-a-stick” and first made circa 1937 by an Italian immigrant. The book gives a recipe for this using lamb.
If you’re truly hungry then perhaps a side trip to Rochester for their famous “garbage plate.” Head west for Buffalo wings, “invented” in 1964. To make your own, cut the wings in half creating drumettes, pan-fry them, and serve them in a buttery hot sauce along with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks. For dessert, stay in Buffalo for sponge candy. And, closer to Elmira, the authors cite the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher as condemning white bread as “soulless” with this observation: “What has been the staff of life for countless ages has become a weak crutch.”
“In 1946,” sayeth the Sterns, “Robert Blake, a University of Pennsylvania prof, [hurrah, I’m a class of ’63 grad] created something unusual to serve at a dinner for the state’s governor." Later he moved to Cornell and the recipe (pictured above) was used at the State Fair. We’re told it’s been a hit for over five decades.
- 1 large egg
- 1 c. vegetable oil
- 2 c. cider vinegar
- 2 Tbsp. salt
- 1 Tbsp. poultry seasoning
- 1 tsp. pepper
- 1 chicken, disjointed
Beat the egg well in a medium-sized bowl. Whisk in all remaining ingredients, except chicken. Set aside a cup of the sauce to use for basting the chicken as it cooks.
Rinse and pat dry the chicken parts. Make this totally local and place locally procured chicken in a shallow dish such as a CorningWare roaster or a Pyrex 9x3 pan. Coat the chicken with remaining sauce. Cover the dish (with foil if necessary), refrigerate for 24 hours.
Grill the chicken over a medium fire, basting frequently until an instant-read thermometer reads 170-180 degrees inserted in the meat, not touching the bone.
Conversation Starters Galore
There are loads of conversation starters throughout the book. For instance: Did you know that Thousand Island is the only dressing named for a region of the United States? And Twinkies are named after a shoe? The Twinkie-Toe brand, as a matter of fact. Whoopee Pie consists of two dark chocolate cakelike disks with a marshmallow fluff filling. The story goes that, when first served, the eater shouted “whoopee.”
Maybe you’re shouting that now when you realize you’ve come to the end of my story of two terrific books that make great gifts.
And I wish you the happiest of holidays.