Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Heat (Bill Buford)

It’s not exactly a secret that I enjoy books about food. And I rarely tire of them. However, sometimes I read too many of them in a row and I begin to take them for granted. As a friend recently said, you kind of take it for granted if you eat out a lot---the same way you may take a homemade meal for granted, that is, until you’re on a two-week trip serpentining across the country and find yourself in South Dakota, sadly ordering a cheeseburger without the burger to a shocked waiter, in desperate need of a vegetable. And your husband (then husband-in-training) has to take you to a fancy Italian restaurant the next night because you can’t stop crying about how horrible the food has been lately (did I mention he still married me? That’s true love.). And all you can talk about during the fancy meal is how great the vegetables are.

If you are the type of person who believes that Olive Garden equals Italian food, you may have a lot to learn. I don’t profess to be an expert. I’ve had my fair share of frustrating evenings with fresh pasta making disasters in a small galley kitchen (collapsed flour volcanoes, unsturdy giant raviolis). But when it’s not a disaster, it’s divine, with the right texture and elasticity making it worth the trouble.*

I was lucky. I learned to make pasta from someone who learned in Italy, and someone who very much enjoyed entertaining his friends with great homecooked meals. And I was glad to discover in Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford that the method I learned for making fresh pasta was the “correct” method he learns in Italy. Flour and eggs. Nothing else.

Heat begins like many other foodie books, the uninitiated (similar to Michael Ruhlman) taking on the “back of the house” in the kitchen. But the first thing that makes this book stand out is that Buford isn’t in just any kitchen. He’s in Mario Batali’s kitchen, and Mario Batali is one heckuva interesting man: perverse (but somehow in a charming way), larger than life (both in body and in presence), exacting in his food, and the center of attention, and he can probably drink each and every one of you under the table.

And if working in Mario’s kitchen isn’t enough to make a great book, Buford then goes to Italy, to really learn the food, and to learn from those who taught Mario himself. He learns pasta from an older Italian woman; he becomes an apprentice to a butcher in a small Tuscan mountain town (a place that would make me cry as much as South Dakota, as Buford often refers to the lack of vegetables and the “brownness” of the food in the meat-loving region). And this isn’t any ordinary butcher. He’s a butcher with giant hands, a giant voice that signs arias loudly to the crowd and quotes Dante with full force, one who makes what he wants, because he can, because he doesn’t consider himself a businessman, but instead an artisan, and because he wants to continue the traditions of the ways things have always been done.

While reading this book, I subconsciously began cooking a lot more Italian food from scratch (although, really, it shouldn’t have been subconscious, if I had only been paying attention). Last weekend I made lasagna, something I rarely do, and the day before that I made batches of a homemade vegetarian ragu.

So if a book presents an uncensored look at Batali, takes you to Italy, and makes you cook great food, what more could you ask for?

*I have to admit that I didn’t make fresh pasta in that tiny galley kitchen again when we lived in Madison once I had discovered RP’s pasta, a small local business that makes excellent fresh pasta. If there are any Madisonians reading who haven’t tried this pasta, you must! Also, I have heard that the owner of RP’s has recently opened a restaurant, so I would recommend trying that as well.

Next book up: Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements by Paul Strathern

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Healing with Whole Foods (Pitchford)

Healing with Whole Foods is not a light reading book. First of all, its hefty. Second, it uses words like "beta-amyloid" and "xanthine oxidase." But it also presented way more information than I was expecting. In fact, I was expecting the book to focus on what foods would be best during illness, and while that definitely is a part of it, I would say the overall focus is on good health. This third edition also starts with an introduction focusing on the latest diet fads and how those affect overall health. (If you do read this book and read nothing else, read the introduction. It's really informative and interesting.)

I've been a vegatarian for 10 years now, and this book reminded me that even if you're a vegetarian, you can still manage to make some unhealthy choices. Processed foods can really get you, as can sugar. As the title suggests, whole foods are the way to go, and the book gives you excellent scientific data to back up the claims. I also think it's important to remember (and they do say this in the book) that you shouldn't expect to change your entire diet to match the recommended one in here. It's just not feasible for most people, especially in the West (the recommended diet in here is based heavily on Chinese medicine). But beginning to make healthier choices is the best thing to do.

I wouldn't recommend getting this book from the library and expecting to read it all (it's over 700 pages, and I ended up having to skim the last half to get it back in time), but I would recommend getting it from the library to see if this is something you would like to own. I think it would make a great reference book (and there are recipes in the back, some that sound very good, and others that sound like they may be too healthy, such as "Toasted Kasha with Cabbage Gravy,"---I just can't get excited about that).

Next book up: Heat by Bill Buford

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Game Time (Roger Angell)

I used to not divide the year into baseball season and the off-season. Now, when winter drags on in February (when all the holidays are gone and all we're left with is cloudy, gray weather), I have severe baseball withdrawl. But now I've finally figured out how to make it through the off-season (besides contemplating who I'm going to draft for next year's fantasy baseball team): Read about baseball, and specifically, read Roger Angell.

Game Time: A Baseball Companion is a collection of some of Angell's writing from the 1960s to the 2000s. It's a fairly hefty book, but never boring, and always interesting (especially the conversation he has with Ted Williams, which is near the end of the book. Scandalous!).

This is the perfect off-season companion, and one you could return to often. There's Tommy Lasorda, talking about the Big Dodger in the sky, and the debut of the young Julio Franco (currently the oldest active MLB player). There's a great piece on Bob Gibson, and how he may be mainly to blame for the lowering of the mound and the shrinking of the strike zone. There the humble beginnings of the term "walk-off home run," spoken by a player with a knack for an unusual vocabulary. And there's Derek Jeter's fan mail: "Another day, Derek Jeter brought over a letter from his thick daily stack and asked Scott Brosius for help with the handwriting. Then Chris Turner read it, too---there's a lot of interest in Derek's mail. 'I am a sixty-eight-year-old window,' they made out, line by line, 'and I would like you to accompany my eighteen-year-old great-niece to her graduation dance. She is a good person and so are you.'"

Oh, and by the way (this is especially for my dad), I noticed that Angell is wearing a Wooden Boat sweatshirt in his author photo (it took a careful look at the photo to make out the logo but it is indeed Wooden Boat), which is a company that publishes Wooden Boat magazine and also runs Wooden Boat school, of which my dad is a frequent student. So, as if Angell didn't have enough going for him, there's that too.

Next book up: Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford