Slow Cooking, Canning and Master Cheffing: A few new and old books that tantalize the taste buds (or not)
The slow cooker or crock pot is the secret weapon of many-a-working cook. You can load it up in the morning, turn it on, and come home to a house filled with the unmistakable scent of “dinner’s ready!” At the end of a hard day at work, it is hard to imagine anything better. Laura Frankel’s “Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes” is an interesting contribution to the world of kosher cooking for busy people.
Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes
Surrey Books, 2015 (244 pages)
Frankel manages to both explain the realities of day-to-day life for kosher cooking in less than half a page and make it clear that—though she keeps kosher and the recipes in the book are kosher—it is not intended to be a kosher primer. The food should be accessible to eaters from all backgrounds.
I have to admit: The recipes made my mouth water. Poached pears with sweet mascarpone, candied kumquats, Black Forrest bread pudding—I mean, it would take a will of iron to resist the desserts. The main dishes that had me up nights include wild mushroom stroganoff and the roasted parsnip and Jerusalem artichoke soup.
Frankel blends equal amounts traditional Eastern European foods with Mediterranean and North African dishes—lots of Moroccan flavors! For those unversed in Jewish culture, the two largest groups to immigrate to the U.S. came from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi), the Mediterranean and North Africa (Sephardi). The result is a recipe book blending flavors and traditions to really offer a wide range of options for the palate.
Frankel is clearly a mother and used to teaching young cooks at home because her writing style is very clear and straightforward. However, she still tells a story about each dish, which is pretty much how my mother taught me to cook. Readers can learn a lot about the realities of daily life in an Orthodox Jewish home, but they don’t need a working knowledge or interest in Jewish culture to enjoy the recipes.
Frankel is clearly besotted with the slow cooker as the means for a hot meal on Shabbat (when the stove and oven are not turned on). She is equally as impressed with it as an instrument for helping out a busy mother who wants to make a great cheesecake.
Speaking of cheesecake, Frankel has possibly the best cheesecake recipe I have encountered—and the idea of making it in a crock pot completely revolutionized the way I thought about the dessert. She won my heart with her DIY description of how to make a rack insert for a slow cooker (to keep the cheesecake an inch off the bottom) out of a roll of aluminum foil. It’s written with all the genuine problem-solving of a busy woman who needs to make this work—now! She has no time to go out and find the right part to do it perfectly.
One of the major memories from my youth comes with Passover. My own mother spent the week beforehand relentlessly cooking. It seemed like everyday she had another round of dish prepping: marinating, simmering, baking … the list was endless. Frankel’s suggested menus and prep schedule for the holidays have the ring of someone who has been there and found a way to make it work.
I just want to go spend a week at her house because my stomach is growling and my mouth watering just thinking about how great her meals must be.
One of my ongoing resolutions is to cook at home more, and make better, healthier food. The slow cooker is integral to making that happen, and Frankel’s recipes have been exactly the inspiration I needed to get back on track.
Star Chefs on the Road: 10 Culinary Masters Share Their Stories and Recipes
By Food and Wine, American Express Publishing, 2005
I picked up this book hoping it would be 10 brief pieces about food and travel by 10 chefs: Jacques Pepin in Botswana, Bobby Flay in Scotland, Wolfgang Puck in Austria. It looked promising. But, much to my chagrin, the selections are not written by the chefs themselves, but rather are collections of travel articles from Food and Wine, written about traveling with the chefs.
The photography is of course, beautiful, but spending time watching someone essentially work their way through a publicity tour is not captivating writing nor reading. Don’t get me wrong, as a coffee-table book, filled with beautiful pictures, it is a winner. But there is nothing of substance or anything compelling to actually learn more about food, culinary history, practices, or the mind of a chef. One does not become a celebrity chef in our modern world without excellent communication skills. Therefore, I have to wonder why the editors wasted time with an observer’s perspective. I don’t want to hear about Pepin eating; I want to know how he makes it happen.
If readers are looking for a pretty book to give as a gift to someone who doesn’t actually cook, then this is a winner.
Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving
By Cathy Barrow, Norton and Co., 2014
Of all three books, this is my favorite. “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry” is not just another book on water-bath canning. Oh, no. She covers cheese making, curing meats and pressure canning everything from soup stock to fish.
The instructions are simple, straightforward and written with an understanding that some of what she describes is intimidating to try alone at home. With making cheese at home, cooks are basically trying to get mold to behave in a controlled fashion. So, how do we know if thing goes wrong—and then, what do we do?
I love canning, and wish I had time and resources to do more of it. Basically, I am predisposed to love this book. It is not the usual country-farmer canning guide. It’s like a prepper’s survival guide for the hipster, set with beautiful art, conversational writing and a sense it is all possible—even for a novice. Cathy Barrow’s book grew from her blog, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen,” and it reflects a writing style evolved from answering questions and responding to comments. It is beautiful and inspiring.