Archived entries for review

Book review: Jamie’s Food
Revolution (and some ranting)

Stir-fry

Months ago, I received a copy of Jamie’s Food Revolution. After looking it over — and illegitimately finding a way to watch the TV series from here in Holland (thanks, IP disguising software!), I decided that the best way to review it would be to test it out with the core audience, i.e. inexperienced cooks. Luckily, I had one of those right in my house, in the form of Kyle, my husband.

Kyle, being an all-around brilliant person, knows enough to stay out of my way in the kitchen, especially when I’m, say, on a two week pizza dough experiment binge. This survivalist attitude has unfortunately stunted his cooking skills, so he was the perfect candidate for a basic book like Food Revolution.

The philosophy behind the book is so Jamie Oliver, the real-life manifestation of Ratatouille’s Gusteau: “Anyone can cook!” Looking at the recipes I was pretty skeptical, but I’m pretty fed up with the open a can, semi-homemade style of learning to cook (curse you, Sandra Lee!) so anything that involves totally fresh ingredients is an improvement.

I always approach recipes with a skim-it-over-how-can-I -improve-this approach, or “this-does-not-sound-authentic” assumption, which is directly related to my skepticism about this book’s approach. But, as I said, I’m not the core audience here. The core audience just wants to learn when to put the chicken in the stir fry, not whether the sauce ingredients are authentically szechuan.

The format is fairly simple: the book is broken out into sections, such as pastas, stir fries, curries, roasts, veg, sweets. The front of the book is pretty genius: it gives a basic list of what tools you should have in your kitchen (I agree with all except the food processor), and best of all, a list of ingredients to keep in your pantry to always be able to do some spur-of-the-moment cooking. This is so brilliant: removing the barrier you experience when you come home from work dead-tired, don’t want to go to the store and are about to pick up the phone for takeout. But look! I can make a classic tomato pasta faster than they can deliver that horrible pizza!

This leads me to my latest rant: the general cultural attitude seems to be changing from a perspective of “anyone can cook”, to cooking as an increasingly specialised niche. Everyone has that crazy foodie friend who cures their own salumi or raises bees to make lavender-infused ice cream. (And yes, I do recognise the irony of me writing this.) It’s become this macho, Momofuku-fueled, bacon-jam-infused culture that frankly, is intimidating to the person who can’t even get past making boxed mac and cheese. This goes for ingredients too: if you constantly hear that eight dollar tomatoes and foraged chanterelles are the only way to go, you may end up sighing, start putting away the pans and call in the Chinese takeout. Remember, it’s just cooking. Baby steps.

I had Kyle pick out a recipe, shop for it (of the ingredients we did not have in the house) and follow the recipe to the letter, only asking me for clarification if he didn’t get something. He basically didn’t need to ask me for help. The stir-fries came out beautifully. (Although I had him note my one adjustment: oyster sauce. If you are searching for the secret sauce, look no further.)

Mise

I tried a recipe for Moroccan lamb and found it, not authentic by any means, but easy and with really nice fresh flavors. Again, the point of this book exactly.

Moroccan-style lamb

From the newbie cook perspective, my only big complaints have to do with the book’s design. First, the binding is terrible. This book is really positioned to be a staple, a reference, probably sitting on the shelf right next to your stained copy of Joy of Cooking. After a few times of sitting it open on the counter and paging through it, that sucker is already falling apart. Secondly, the recipe format is fairly atrocious for beginning cooks. There is no numbering, just a single paragraph style with bullet points for the steps (in non-list format!) This made it almost impossible to follow. Design over readability– I’m sorry, totally unacceptable for something like this. Please, next edition, fix this!

I love Jamie Oliver’s philosophy: fresh and from scratch equals healthy (I thought the TV series related to this book was pretty cheesy, but at least it got people thinking about this). I find Jamie himself a little over the top, but I completely admire his sincerity on this issue, and I think he’s a voice that can create real change. This is the book I would give to the student leaving home for the first time, or that person you know who uses their oven to store cookware. They may not whip up a croquembouche, but they’ll make a killer stir-fry.

Chicken Chow Mein
adapted from Jamie’s Food Revolution
The only changes I made to this recipe was to add oyster sauce, make the water chestnuts optional, added optional baby corn, and double the ingredients to serve 4 people (I don’t agree with the book’s assessment about making stir fry in two batches, especially if you have a fairly large wok).

Ingredients
Thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic
1 fresh red chile
2 large skinless chicken breast fillets
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 scallions
a small bunch fresh cilantro
1 bok choy (we used baby bok choy. Gai laan is also good in this)
8 ounces (250g) chow mein noodles
1 heaped teaspoon cornstarch
1 8-ounce can water chestnuts (optional)
a small handful of fresh baby corn (optional)
3 tablespoons soy sauce (I like soy superior)
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 small lime

Prepare your stir-fry

  1. Put a large pan of water on to boil.
  2. Peel and finely slice the ginger and garlic. Finely slice the chile (remove the seeds if you don’t want too much heat). Finely slice the scallions.
  3. Pick the cilantro leaves and put aside, and finely chop the cilantro stalks.
  4. Halve the bok choy lengthwise.
  5. Slice the chicken into finger-sized strips and lightly season with salt and pepper.

Cook your stir-fry

  1. Preheat a wok on high heat and once it’s very, very hot, add a good lug of peanut oil and swirl it around.
  2. Stir in the chicken strips and cook for a couple of minutes, until the chicken browns slightly.
  3. Add the ginger, garlic chile, cilantro stalks, and half the scallions. Stir fry for 30 seconds, keeping everything moving around the wok quickly.
  4. Add your noodles and bok choy to the boiling water and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, no longer.
  5. Meanwhile, add the cornstarch, water chestnuts and baby corn (if using) to the wok and give it another good shake to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom.
  6. Remove from the heat and stir in the soy sauce.
  7. Halve the lime, squeeze the juice of one half into the pan and mix well.
  8. Stir in the noodles and bok choy, with a little of the cooking water to loosen if necessary, and mix well.
  9. Have a taste and season with more soy sauce if needed.

To serve your stir-fry

  1. Use tongs to lift everything into a large serving platter.
  2. Spoon any juices over the top and sprinkle the rest of the scallions and cilantro leaves. Serve with lime wedges.

Book review: ‘Spiced’ by Dalia Jurgensen

The subtitle of Spiced describes it as “A pastry chef’s true stories of trials by fire, after-hours exploits, and what really goes on in the kitchen”. To be honest, I think it makes it sound juicier than it actually is, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.

I actually set out expecting to hate this book. Oh here’s another dilettante checking out of her cushy job to tackle a “life of cooking”. I find the whole belly-of-the-beast restaurant-kitchen and/or food memoir genre to be entirely too crowded, especially because I’ve read a few of the big ones, such as Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Buford’s Heat. Yes, we know you work long hours to succeed in the restaurant kitchen. It’s hard. You get burned. It’s staffed with a bunch of macho jerks. So what can this memoir possibly add?

Two things: diversity of experience, and a woman’s perspective. It turns out Jurgensen is not just a dilettante, but someone who made a major career change to professional cooking long ago. So unlike Heat (which I loved, by the way, don’t get me wrong), it is not a manufactured experience to write about. This gives the story an air of authenticity I did not expect, but which I found refreshing. Her diversity of experience goes from Nobu to Layla to Veritas, with stops along the way with catering companies and even Martha Stewart’s test kitchen. This keeps the story interesting with different descriptions of approaches and kitchen cultures.

This leads to the other aspect I found interesting: the woman’s perspective. We learned from Bourdain that a restaurant kitchen is a variation of a fraternity house, but maybe worse. Reading Bourdain is reading it from the perspective of head frat boy himself. The difference with Jurgensen is that you are hearing it from someone who is the target of the sexism in the kitchen. She doesn’t find it acceptable, but knows she can’t change it. Instead, she quietly tolerates it and, career-wise, seems to seek out kitchens that have less of that element, and also proves that you can still thrive even in a hostile environment.

Some details I could have done without: we know there’s tension between the cooks and the waitstaff, okay already. I also found her romances and sexual exploits to be the least interesting parts of the book as well as gratuitous.
All in all, Spiced is a nice little read. It’s compelling and well-written. It feels genuine, rather than the manufactured experience which is so prevalent in this genre these days.

Links
Dalia Jurgensen has a blog at http://www.myspicedlife.com/
Amazon.com: Spiced



Copyright © 2004–2009. All rights reserved.

RSS Feed. This blog powered by Wordpress and uses Modern Clix.