Something to Read: Flavors of Hungary

30days

One of the things I love about where I live is my close proximity to a whole bunch of bookstores. There’s a new one opening this week, even, and it’s on my way home from work! The convenience is incredible. One of the bookstores also happens to have a Twitter account and they post when they get new stuff in. One day last spring they posted – right before payday! – that they’d just received a whole bunch of used cookbooks, some of them classics. I was there the next day, before they’d even finished sorting through the stacks.

There were the usual things, the Jamie Olivers and the Ina Gartens and the Nigellas, and some interesting things, like a Jacques Pepin book on healthy cooking from 1994 (which I happened to already have for some reason) and a few westcoast- and Pacific Northwest-specific books I wanted but not enough to pay the asking price for. And then I found a book on Hungarian cooking, which I don’t know all that much about, and it was beautiful and kind of funny. It’s called Flavors of Hungary: Recipes and Memoirs and it’s by Charlotte Biro. I bought it before the clerk at the bookstore could figure out how much it was really worth. “15?” he said, and I snapped it up right there.

hungary_biro

Buy it for the recipes, love it for the memoir bits.

My basic concern is not to waste any part of the food. For having owned abundant estates, I knew how to manage well. For having experienced poverty, I learned the importance of economy. There is a saying that “you can save only when you have.”

Biro started out as the daughter of a wealthy family and the wife of a high-ranking official with the Credit Bank in Hungary; her life was shattered by war – her home was bombed by the Germans and she lost everything but her family cookbook. She was imprisoned with her husband while trying to escape the country in 1949 after the country fell to communism, and finally emigrated to the US where she joined her brother and daughters in 1957. Flavors of Hungary: Recipes and Memoirs pulls together those family recipes she saved during the war, brought with her to prison, and then took with her when she moved to America.

I did some research, and this book is worth more than the $15 I paid for it that sunny Saturday. Even better, the recipes are as authentic as it gets. They are economical, require very few spices, and, as it turns out, are delicious. There are the recipes you might expect – goulash, schnitzel, pickles – and quite a few recipes for dishes you might never have encountered, but will certainly love. One of my favourites is Korhelylves, or “Hangover Soup,” which is, as Biro writes:

This soup is named after the famous Hungarian actor, Ujhazi. It was his favourite.

One of the most famous coffee houses in Budapest – called “New York” – specializes in catering to the after-theater crowd. From midnight until morning, they serve hangover soup, chicken broth, and pork and beans. The elegant setting of the restaurant is the meeting place for all the prominent people in art, music, literature, and the theater.

Well, I’m sold. You can make this with your leftovers if you’re having ham this weekend for Easter. Plus some sauerkraut and sausage, if that’s not something you usually have on hand? (I’ll be making a visit to my favourite European deli.)

Hangover Soup (Korhelylves)

(Serves 4 to 6.)

  • 3 slices bacon
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 tsp. Hungarian paprika
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 or 2 ham hocks
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 x 16 oz. can of sauerkraut, washed and drained
  • 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 pint sour cream
  • 1/2 lb. Polish sausage, chopped into bite-size pieces

Brown bacon in a Dutch oven or heavy 3-quart pot (with a lid) over medium-high heat. Remove the bacon from the pot, but leave the fat. Reduce the heat to medium and brown an onion slowly, until it is golden and translucent.

Add paprika, water and ham hock(s) to the pot. Simmer for 90 minutes or until the meat is tender. Remove the hocks from the liquid. If there is meat remaining on the bones, pick it off and set it aside.

Add the tomato, green pepper, and sauerkraut and cook for an additional 20 minutes.

In a small bowl, stir together the flour and sour cream. When thoroughly combined, add this to the soup with the sausage and any meat reserved from the hocks. Taste, adjusting seasonings to taste.

Serve hot, with additional sour cream on the side.

 

Something to Read: An Alphabet for Gourmets

30days

We put a clean cloth, red and white, over one of the carpenters’ tables, and kicked wood-curls aside for our feet, under the chairs brought up from the apartment in Vevey. I set our tumblers, plates, silver, smooth unironed napkins sweet from the meadow grass where they had dried.

While some of us started to bend over the dwarf-pea bushes and toss the crisp pods into baskets, others built a hearth from stones and a couple of roof-tiles lying loose and made a lively little fire. I had a big kettle with spring water in the bottom of it, just off simmering, and salt and pepper and a pat of fine butter to hand. Then I put the bottles of Dezelay in the fountain, just under the timeless spurt of icy mountain water, and ran down to be the liaison between the harvesters and my mother, who sat shelling from the basket on her lap into the pot between her feet, as intent and nimble as a lace-maker.

I dashed up and down the steep terraces with the baskets, and my mother would groan and then hum happily when another one appeared, and below I could hear my father and our friends cursing just as happily at their wry backs and their aching thighs, while the peas came off their stems and into the baskets with a small sound audible in that still, high air, so many hundred feet above the distant and completely silent Leman. It was suddenly almost twilight. The last sunlight on the Dents du Midi was fire-rosy, with immeasurable coldness in it.

“Time, gentlemen, time,” my mother called, in an unrehearsed and astonishing imitation of a Cornish barmaid.

I read An Alphabet for Gourmets one summer when I was 20 or 21 and working for a place that exported cars to the US, back when the exchange rate was favourable for that kind of thing. It was my first non-retail job; I’d never realized before that how much sitting you could do and get paid for it.

On a good day, I’d drive some nice car down to the Seattle Auto Auction, sit around for a couple of hours, and drive some other car back. On a bad day I’d be stuck in a white cargo van with no rear-view mirrors and a sense of worry, or I’d be in one of those silly giant pick-up trucks when a snow-storm struck and remain stranded on the I-5 with not enough money for gas to get home. There was a lot of driving, but also a lot of waiting, and so in those lulls I’d read MFK Fisher. She always got me through.

an-alphabet-for-gourmets-fisher

While How to Cook a Wolf  is a book for simpler, leaner times, much of the rest of Fisher’s work is lush and decadent, and even when she’s describing something as simple as peas, there’s extravagance in the details. You want to go to there, wherever it is (most likely France). The way she writes, it’s as if the whole scene is set in that late-August evening light that’s so yellow that the shadows are blue, so golden that everything just sort of sparkles. It’s all like that, verdant, even when it’s nighttime or raining. She’s wonderful. Her life is the stuff of paintings and good poetry.

My bias is showing. She’s one of my favourites.

If you can find The Art of Eating, her selected works, buy it. I picked up my copy in that San Francisco bookstore I told you about before; it was another trip, but I never learn and picked up that book and a couple of other similarly dense, heavy books to lug around until Nick finally got sick of my complaining and carried the bag for me. If all you can find is An Alphabet for Gourmetsthat’s fine; you can collect the others as you find them. It’s a good one; that and How to Cook a Wolf will get you started.

Since we’re talking about peas, kind of, here’s a recipe for one of my favourite summer sides; it’s not a Fisher recipe, but it’s a good one and sort of fits the theme I was kind of going for (French, peas).

Peas with lettuce and mint

  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 cups shelled peas, preferably fresh but frozen will do if you get those little baby peas
  • 1/2 head of romaine or green leaf lettuce, cut crosswise into ribbons
  • 1/2 cup chicken stock
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp. finely chopped mint
  • 1 tbsp. heavy cream

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add your minced shallot, and cook until translucent. Add the peas, lettuce, and chicken stock, and cover. Cook for three minutes, until the lettuce has wilted. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with mint.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a serving dish. Drizzle with cream.

This dish is nice with cold chicken or grilled fish; I quite like it as a side with barbecued Sockeye salmon and buttery steamed new potatoes.

Something to Read: Eat, Memory

30days

It’s been five days since I had my wisdom teeth out and my mouth still throbs with a dull, insistent ache. I haven’t eaten a satisfying meal in what feels like forever, and nobody is interested in indulging me as I whine about it. These are the worst of times. I am not exaggerating, I don’t care what Nick says. Also we have ants. And I’m almost out of pills.

I am having a hard time mustering a kind word or the slightest enthusiasm for anything, so I’m phoning it in tonight, and leaving you with a poem and a recipe for Sole Meunière, a wonderful thing and a meal I could probably eat if someone else would make it for me. The poem and the recipe both come from Eat, Memory, a book of culinary essays from the New York Times, assembled and edited by Amanda Hesser.

eat_memory

The Fish, by Billy Collins

As soon as the elderly waiter
placed before me the fish I had ordered,
it began to stare up at me
with its one flat, iridescent eye.

I feel sorry for you, it seemed to say,
eating alone in this awful restaurant
bathed in such unkindly light
and surrounded by these dreadful murals of Sicily.

And I feel sorry for you, too –
yanked from the sea and now lying dead
next to some boiled potatoes in Pittsburgh –
I said back to the fish as I raised my fork.

And thus my dinner in an unfamiliar city
with its rivers and lighted bridges
was graced not only with chilled wine
and lemon slices but with compassion and sorrow

even after the waiter removed my plate
with the head of the fish still staring
and the barrel vault of its delicate bones
terribly exposed, save for a shroud of parsley.

Sole Meunière

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. oil, such as canola
  • 2 fillets of sole
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 tbsp. unsalted butter, diced
  • 2 tbsp. white wine
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 tbsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Place the flour in a wide dish, such as a pie plate. In a large skillet, heat oil over high heat.

Season fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge through flour.

Cook in the oil for two minutes, the flip and cook the other side a minute more.

Pour off the oil in the skillet and wipe clean with a paper towel.

Place the pan back on the heat, and add the butter. Cook the butter until it has melted and turned golden. It should smell faintly nutty. Add the wine, and boil for 20 seconds. Add the lemon and parsley, and cook another 20 seconds. You’ve just made a beurre blanc. It is fabulous. Pour it over the sole and eat immediately. Serves two.

Something to Read: How to Cook a Wolf

30days

There are times when helpful hints about turning off the gas when not in use are foolish, because the gas has been turned off permanently, or until you can pay the bill. And you don’t care about knowing the trick of keeping bread fresh by putting a cut apple in the box because you don’t have any bread and certainly not an apple, cut or uncut. And there is no point in planning to save the juice from canned vegetables because they, and therefore their juices, do not exist.

In other words, the wolf has one paw wedged firmly into what looks like a widening crack at the door. (How to Cook a Wolf, page 66)

No other book has been as inspirational or as significant in both my cooking and my desire to write about food as MFK Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. It’s a book about cooking (and remaining happy) in the absolute bleakest of times – during war, under ration, or when one is limited by finances, shortages, or long, cold seasons. It was written in 1942, then revised in 1954, and it remains timeless in its advice and good sense. It’s also beautifully written.

mfkfisher

It’s not very long – you could probably read it in a weekend. And it’s just so sensible. Gas and electricity are expensive – why not spend one evening making enough soup to last a week? Meat and eggs aren’t always affordable – why not make a meal of corn grits and vegetables? What we’d now call vegan cooking is, in this book, just what you do when you don’t have much else. There are also good tips for working with cheap cuts of meat and offal, recipes for dinners in which eggs are the main course, and instructions for making mouthwash and soap.

Even if you don’t make the recipes, they are a great jumping-off point. Many of the recipes call for things like rabbit and pigeon, which are expensive proteins now and not likely to be in your fridge or freezer anyway. But you can adapt, and stew a tough bit of beef, or cook up chicken thighs or make a meatball or turn your leftovers into something else entirely with a long cook in a bright sauce and a low oven.

It’s also about redefining dinner – dinner does not have to be meat, potatoes, and some boiled vegetable. I don’t know how many times our dinner has been some manner of grain porridge topped with steamed spinach or asparagus and a poached egg; it’s something we eat all the time, not just when we’re broke (but also when I’m lazy, when it’s raining too much to walk to the store, when I just feel like a poached egg and something green …). It’s a good book, and a short book, and not preachy. Where some of Fisher’s other writing is more indulgent, How to Cook a Wolf is a reflection of the time it was written and quite sensible.

I’ve actually made her War Cake a few times, while not at war but certainly without eggs or milk or butter. It’s a nice thing to have when you are 22 and your parents are coming to your damp basement apartment for tea and you want to look like a grown-up but can only afford half the illusion.

If you already have a bit of fat and buy just what you need for this recipe out of the bulk bins, it will cost you just a few dollars to make and you’ll end up with a loaf you can slice and toast or muffins you can freeze. It’s very adaptable as well, so feel free to make substitutions based on what you have in your cupboards already.

War Cake

  • 2 cups flour, white or whole wheat
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 cup shortening, oil or bacon fat (always save your bacon fat)
  • 1 cup sugar, brown or white
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. other spices, such as ginger, cloves, mace, etc.
  • 1 cup chopped dried fruit, such as raisins or prunes

Lightly grease a 9″x5″ loaf pan. Set aside.

Sift together your flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.

In a pan over medium-high heat, combine the rest of your ingredients, and bring them to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for five minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and cool its contents completely.

Add the dry ingredients to your cooled wet ingredients, stir to combine, and pour into your prepared loaf pan. Bake at 325°F for about 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the loaf comes out clean.

You can also make this recipe as muffins; reduce your cooking time to 20-25 minutes.

 

Something to Read: Food and Trembling

30days

I have so many cookbooks and books on food that my collection has its own shelf. We don’t really have room for it, but I’m quite happy to have a shelf full of books I don’t really have room for and won’t hear complaints about my hoarding, so Nick copes. My dream is that someday I will have a kitchen with two small rooms attached – one large pantry, the other a tiny library with a lamp and a desk and a chair. What a wonderful hiding place that would be! It would lock from the inside and maybe there would be a snack cupboard and a small electric kettle.

I wanted to tell you about some of these books. Between work and Toddler and all the little projects that turn into great big things I have to do, I have fallen out of the habit of working on things I’m actually excited about. So for April, while I am trying to wrap up a couple of things, I figured I’d get back into the habit of putting words on web-pages and talk books with you.

Yesterday, Alice B. Toklas; today, a strange Canadian named Jonah Campbell. His blog, Still Crapulent After All These Years, is one of my favourites. His December 24, 2013 posts, a “drink-by-drink Christmas eve exploration of Charles H. Baker’s 1939 cocktail compendium book, The Gentleman’s Companion,” had me all riled up and inspired and searching my local bookstore for a good drinks book of some glamorous vintage. Now that we have reclaimed Christmas Eve from the urgent familial madness that strikes us each November/December, I might go exploring my own book next year.

campbell

Campbell’s book, Food & Trembling, was an impulse buy when I had a giftcard and my neighbourhood store had no other books of food writing I didn’t already own. The back cover asks “What mysteries lie beneath the subtle perfection of the BLT? What is the etymology of the ‘croissant’? Why did I drink all that scotch?” and describes Campbell as “metalhead, misanthrope, unrepentant good eater,” and I was sold right then. I may never meet him, for he is in Montreal and airfare is expensive, but he seemed like my kind of people.

The book is good. It’s filled with little snippets, like his blog, and his words are like fatty bites of meat, all chew and savour, always with a little left on your tongue afterward. There aren’t really recipes. He is over the top and chaotic at times, but he is amusing and clever and I always get swept up by that.

“For whatever structural reasons, I seem to end up, as I am currently, drunk and alone in my brother’s house more often than my own (correction – getting and staying drunk and alone), and as such, a notable amount of my writing has emerged flanked by his giant cats, toy robots, tastefully arranged clutter, and just the right number of decorative bottles that I have somehow never managed to capture in my own life. The first week, more or less, of my blog’s existence, my late-night discovery of Julia Child’s twenty second omelet recipe, probably a bunch of stuff about fennel and/or rapini, because cheap fennel and rapini season often coincides with my brother needing a cat-sitter; I cannot discount this house in the framing of my creative production.”

It’s the kind of writing I really enjoy, the kind of thing you might devour in one or two long goes. If you buy it, and you read it, make sure you have chips. This seems important. Chips. Lots of them.

Julia Child’s 20-second omelette