I’ve Got a New Cookbook in My Clutches…

…and I loves it.

The cookbook in question is Nigel Slater‘s The Kitchen Diaries, and it comes highly recommended to all of you, particularly if you’re on a voyeuristic food diary kick like me.  The book’s subtitle explains it all: A Year in the Kitchen with Nigel Slater;  that’s right, it’s pretty much a year-long food diary, so it’s basically my dream cookbook — with Mr. Slater’s excellent writing acting as amuse bouche.

I had first read Mr. Slater’s words in Toast, his creatively-structured memoir; each stage in his childhood, adolescence and adult life is characterized by what he was eating at the time, whether it was bread-and-butter pudding, jam tarts or — yes — toast.  In The Kitchen Diaries, Mr. Slater does something similar but instead of telling the story of his life in food, he chronicles his year, right down to a day in March where he “[fails] to notice there is bugger all to eat in the house.  At seven thirty [he dashes] to the corner shop, returning with a can of baked beans, a bag of frozen fries and some beers.”

That’s right: Mr. Slater does not lie.  Who hasn’t been faced with that?  Of course,  Mr. Slater also has  days where he cobbles together meals with what he’s cleaned out of his pantry (white bean and tarragon soup on May 9), the bounty he plucks from his garden (July 15th’s zucchini cakes with dill and feta), and what he’s toted home from the Marylebone farmer’s market (celeriac and walnut remoulade, and a coffee and walnut cake on November 28).

Regardless of what he’s cooking in his lovely-sounding kitchen — “…the doors to the small, narrow kitchen opened out on to the garden… I cook with the doors open on even the wettest day. The smell of spring rain as I chop and stir brings with it a gentle freshness and energy” — it’s Mr. Slater’s superb writing that makes The Kitchen Diaries read as exactly that: a highly personal journal that happens to focus on food.  I can’t even dream of one day possessing such skills myself, though I know I can turn to this (cook)book for inspiration.

But forget about what I think, and read what the writer himself has to say*:

It is always difficult for an author to name a favourite book from their own backlist, but when I am asked I invariably choose The Kitchen Diaries… an account of more or less everything I cooked in the course of a year, presented as an illustrated diary… Some say it is  worth the price simply for the brownie and the double ginger cake recipes, both of which seem to have gathered something of a following. I rather like the pork and lemon meatballs myself (April 20th).

I’ve got a few recipes bookmarked to try, and once I do I’ll be giving you an update.

* from nigelslater.com

These Might Just Be The Best Meatballs Ever.

Is that kind of a bold statement?  I don’t care.  I’m not going to take it back or apologize for it, because these meatballs are It. It being delicious, lush and better than any other meatball I’ve ever had.

So there.

My dear dear friend Monique gave me the Ottolenghi cookbook for my last birthday, and I’d been dying to dive into it for a while.  Monique and I have several things in common, one of which is our absolute fervor for food, and another one being having Lebanese fathers*, so when she told me I was going to love the London restaurant’s gorgeous book of recipes, I didn’t doubt it for a second.  I’ve Post-It-ed exactly sixty-five recipes to try, and the following was my maiden voyage.

The reason I chose the beef and lamb meatballs as my first Ottolenghi recipe to try was simple: I thought Keith would like it.  I of course cook for myself, but when there’s someone else who’s going to be eating for your food, I think it’s only polite to take their tastes into consideration.  Besides, I happen to love Keith very much, so I try to avoid presenting him with foods he dislikes, no matter how much I enjoy them, like olives, fish and mushroom-heavy dishes.  The only time I don’t think about for whom I am cooking is when I’m feeding more than six people.  Then I focus more on pleasing myself, because it’s sometimes too stressful to account for so-and-so’s aversion to onions and such-and-such’s fennel-phobia.  I do, however, accomodate vegetarians and those with food allergies.  I just don’t have patience for picky eaters at my dinner table.

Jeez, I’m totally off-topic.

What’s interesting about this is how beautifully the tahini sauce in which the meatballs are baked adds an intense richness to the already-luscious lamb.  It’s not even remotely overwhelming, but completely complimentary instead.

Also complimentary is the lemon zest and parsley garnish, which I forgot to sprinkle on until after I had snapped this photograph, so I’ll leave you to imagine cheerful specks of bright yellow and green dotting the dish.

One last thing before I get to the recipe: these meatballs smell amaaaaazing, and not even just at the baking stage.  I made both Keith and Melissa stick their noses into the bowl of raw meat and inhale before I shoved them out of the way so that I could do the same.  Then when they come out of the oven… mm mm mm.

Beef + Lamb Meatballs Baked in Tahini, from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Makes four to six portions, though four of us devoured these without any leftovers.

for the meatballs:
¼ cup stale white bread, crusts removed
¾ pound ground beef
¾ pound ground lamb
3 garlic cloves, crushed **
¼ cup flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 ½ teaspoon ground all-spice
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 egg
2 tablespoons olive oil

for the tahini sauce:
2/3 cup tahini paste
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup white wine vinegar (I had only champagne vinegar, so that’s what I used)
1 garlic clove, crushed
A pinch of salt

for the garnish:
grated zest of ½ a lemon (I love lemon, so used a whole one)
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley

  1. First make the tahini sauce.  In a bowl, mix together the tahini paste, water, vinegar, garlic and salt.  Whisk well until it turns smooth and creamy, with a thick sauce-like consistency.  You may need to add more water.  Set aside while you make the meatballs.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400°.  Soak the bread in cold water for 2 – 3 minutes until it goes soft.  Squeeze out most of the water and crumble the bread into a mixing bowl.  Add the meats, garlic, parsley, salt, spices and egg; mix well with your hands.
  3. Shape the meat mixture into balls, each roughly the size of a golf ball.  Pour olive oil into a large frying pan and heat it up, being careful that it doesn’t get too hot or it will spit all over while frying.  Fry the meatballs in small batches for about 2 minutes, turning them around as you go until they are uniformly brown on the outside.
  4. Put the meatballs on a paper-towel-lined plate to soak up the excess oil, then arrange them on a single layer in an ovenproof baking dish.  Place in the oven for 5 minutes, then carefully remove to pour the tahini sauce over and around the meatballs.  Return to the oven for another 10 minutes.  The tahini sauce will take on a bit of color and thicken up, and the meatballs should be just cooked through.  Transfer to individual plates (or a serving dish) and garnish liberally with lemon zest and parsley.  Serve at once.

Note: The Ottolenghi cookbook is published with Metric measurements.  I own a digital scale and so didn’t have any problems, but converted the measurements as closely as possible for an American cook.  If you would like the original measurements, leave me a note in the comments and I’ll reply there.

* I suppose mine is technically Lebanese-Armenian, or Armenian-Lebanese.  No matter.
** I always put twice as many cloves of garlic than suggested, but then type up ingredients exactly as they were originally printed.  It’s a preference.

The Year of the Cookbook.

In 2009, I accumulated more cookbooks than in any other year.  Some of these were presents, one was a hand-me-down and others I purchased myself.  Even though I’m no Carol Blymire, cooking my way from beginning to end of cookbooks, I’ve got to say yet again that there are few things I like to do more on dreary day than thumb through my books, Post-It-ing recipes I plan to try.  There are also few things more satisfying that cooking one of those recipes and having it come out perfect, but that’s another story.

I love cookbooks, and here’s why:  cookbooks are like promises, and like secrets, the kinds you make and keep  with your friends on the playground after school before you walk home.  When you’re in the midst of one, it’s the most precious thing in the world and you feel an amazing sort of camaraderie with your promise-makers and secret-keepers.  That’s how I feel, anyway, as though these chefs and authors and cooks are gifting me with treasured information.  It doesn’t matter than hundreds of thousands of people also have copies of these books, by the way.  I still feel trusted.

At any rate, here are the cookbooks I’ve collected thus far.  I’ll be updating the list as I get my hands on more, it certainly won’t be with the frequency that I revise my “What I’ve Read” lists.

Art Versus Craft.

Last week, I sent my friend Ben in LA a box of cookies. I had baked a ridiculous amount of several different types: chocolate cherry chip, madeleines, hazelnut-anise, olive oil and, of course, Medz Mama’s cookies. Since I knew Ben wouldn’t mind eating my leftovers, I packed up a sampler and headed to the post office. When he got the cookies, Ben phoned to say thanks and we had a nice little chat, so I was surprised to get another call a few days later, after he had tried each one.

“Krikey,” he said, “you could sell these.”

When I heard that, I felt a thrill; what a nice compliment! Once I had thought about it more, however, my excitement quickly faded. After all, I hadn’t invented the cookie recipes, nor had I put my own twist on them. With the exception of Medz Mama’s cookies, I had pulled my miscellaneous cookbooks out of their cupboard (and in the cases of the olive oil cookies and the madeleines, I had gone to Mark Bittman and Heidi Swanson respectively) and dutifully followed the instructions to the letter. The result was an abundance of homemade cookies, to be sure. But should I have truly received the credit for making them?

(A quick deviation from the plot: I’ve made mention of my love for Top Chef in the past; what I failed to bring up is my love for Tom Colicchio. Perhaps love is a strong word; obviously I don’t know the man, only his television persona. Regardless, he is my favorite judge on the show. I appreciate his no-nonsense, straightforward demeanor, and I like how that mentality comes through in his cookbook Think Like A Chef.)

In this month’s issue of GQ, there is a short piece with Colicchio, done in Q+A format (my favorite). In it, he says the following:

If you just follow recipes, you’re not teaching yourself how to cook. Once you understand technique — how to roast something, how to braise, how to sauté properly — you won’t need recipes anymore. You can start cooking your own food.

Is Colicchio right? Can you not learn how to cook by reading and trying recipes? Obviously, you need a basic sort of understanding when it comes to the fundamentals, and I know I can thank my mother for teaching me that. That said, is what Colicchio is describing the craft of cooking, or the art?

To me, running alongside a recipe shows the understanding of the craft, while inventing a unique recipe is the sign of art. When it comes to cooking, I most certainly lack the artistry. I’ve never claimed to be a good cook; if anything, I’ve claimed to be able to follow a recipe really well. This past Easter, I served two entrées and four side dishes that I had never made before, as well as a whole string of desserts whose recipes seemed interesting; I’m pleased to report that everything ended up tasting exactly as intended. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t items that cause me to lose culinary confidence, because I’m nervous about roasting a whole bird and I find the idea of using yeast a bit terrifying. (At least I’m not alone.) But does this mean I don’t know how to cook?

This past Sunday I had book club over for brunch; at the last minute I decided to bake scones, which I hadn’t ever done before. Since I didn’t have my cookbooks handy when I made up my mind, I turned to Google and found a recipe. The result was so lovely that I baked a second batch immediately after my friends had left. Here’s a photo of the wet ingredients meeting the dry, which I snapped because the cranberries simply looked so pretty, with the white cream puddling in their little crinkly wrinkles.

If the delicious product I turned out of this bowl means that I can’t cook (or bake), then that’s fine by me.