Thursday, January 30, 2014

Time-Life Quintet of Cusines: Bulgaria and Romania

Romanian stew after adding the last vegetables
On January first, restrictions were lifted for Bulgarians and Romanians who want to work in the Netherlands, Great Britain, and other European countries. Of course, they've been here for years already, working in all kinds of industry, including IT which is where I've met them, but now they don't need special work permits. The Poles are also here and if it weren't for them, you wouldn't be seeing fresh produce from Holland, because Dutch agriculture relies on the pickers that come from Eastern Europe.

Fortunately, these cuisines are touched on in the Quintet of Cuisines, the cookbook I cam currently concentrating on. So in their honor and giving pride of place to the vegetables they help to bring to our tables, here are a couple of recipes from Bulgaria and Romania.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Time-Life Quintet of Cuisines: Netherlands

When asked, I can be a bit disparaging about typical Dutch food. It seems to be so dominated by variations of stamppot, which is mashed potatoes mixed with some other vegetable and served accompanied by a piece of meat. The classic is boerenkool met rookworst, which features kale as the vegetable and a smoked Dutch sausage as the meat. And there's hutspot (potatoes, carrots, and onions), and hete bliksem (potatoes, apples, and onions), and endive stamppot, and spinach stamppot, ... you get the idea. Of course, the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, so it's certainly very nutritious, and it is classic comfort food for many.

Personally I blame Calvinist Protestantism, which long dominated Dutch society. It's serious, dour stuff with no tolerance for frivolities like fancy cooking and the pleasures of the table. I'm not sure how the delicious baked goods like speculaas fit into, but most of those were originally Christmas treats.

But I could be entirely WRONG! Because tonight I prepared baked flounder (Schol uit de oven) and it was super—both simple and refined in flavour. It is not complicated to prepare, but the result has a lovely balance between soft white fish, crunchy gratin, and a hint of acidity from the lemon that was applied to the fish a half an hour before it went into the oven. This is definitely going into regular rotation!

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Time-Life Quintet of Cuisines: Switzerland

The Quintet of Cuisines volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series has got to be the weirdest assortment of kitchens, ranging from Northern Europe to North Africa: Switzerland, the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, and North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria).

I haven't read the whole book yet so I think I'll defer the big review in hopes that the last three chapters will be better than the first two. This has less to do with the recipes than with the nature of these chapters. They concentrate on meals eaten with friends in restaurants, hotels, or at home, and seem much more about the writer and his wife than about the culture of the countries. And the sense of a whirlwind, breathless visit to each of the countries gives such a sense of afterthought to this volume.

The recipes are much more appealing. Tonight, I tackled two classics of the Swiss kitchen: Emincé de veau (Veal strips in wine and cream sauce) and rösti (Fried shredded potato cake).

Update 2014-03-15: I've also made the Zwiebelewähe, a rich cheese and onion tart made with Gruyere and Emmental. If anyone wants the recipe, I can post it.

Cooking Project: Time-Life Foods of the World

My friend Kaye recently started a two-year quixotic project to read and cook from the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series that was published in the late 60s and early 70s. Each of the 50+ books was an exploration of the cooking of a country or regional cuisine, with discussions of culture, history, recipes, and lots of photos. And it was accompanied by a spiral bound booklet of recipes.

Not surprisingly given the times and the origins, the series has a strong American emphasis. No fewer than 8 of the books deal with American cooking (!), with only one volume each for China and India, and none for Turkey, all cuisines with a rich heritage and strong regional differences. But it was part of a movement that opened the kitchens of Americans (and Canadians) to the world. What we now eat and what can now buy in an ordinary supermarket bears no comparison to what was available in 1969. And this series was part of that shift.

Along with some other interested crazy cooks, I'm joining Kaye on this project. We plan to read, comment, discuss and cook our way through as many of the 25+ books as we can in a monthly to 6 week cycle.

One problem: I didn't have the books. I did have the recipe booklet for Cooking of India, picked up in a second-hand store in PEI, but that was it. So I started ordering a few of the books via Amazon, but it was hard to tell whether I was ordering the hard-cover book or the recipe book or both. The complete sets were available but only in the States and the shipping costs to Europe were astronomical. But I then found a Canadian supplier that had almost the complete set and could ship to Canadian addresses for a reasonable price. My sister now has them in her custody and I will bring them back the next time I visit Halifax. I know, it's crazy, but cooking is my hobby. And as we all know, hobbies give us permission to be a bit crazy.

In the mean time, the few books I had already ordered have arrived and I can start cooking. Watch this space!

(And if you want to join us, let me or Kaye know. Kaye can invite you to the Facebook group she started for this project.)

Friday, January 3, 2014

Corn Bread Tamale Pie

Joy of Cooking is probably the essential American cookbook (just as heavily used by Canadians, of course). Before the Internet made it easier to find out how long to cook turkey, or what to do with cauliflower, Joy of Cooking was giving us the low-down. It has appeared in many editions since 1931, not all of them equally popular. I have two radically different versions--one dating from 1975 and another from 1997.

I really like the 1997 version, which featured recipes influenced by many other cultures, as well as vegetarian dishes. But there are downsides. Gone are the boldface headings that made scanning the index so easy, and the sans-serif typeface that made the text so legible. Now I have to peer at fractioned quantities to see whether it is 1/2 cup or 1/3 cup of flour or sugar. Apparently in the wider world of middle-American cooking this edition is not popular--too chef-y, pretentious, and time-consuming. No shortcuts like using canned soup for a casserole sauce instead of making your own (!).

But I still like the older edition too and apparently the recent edition has moved back to this model. I regularly turn to it for inspiration and information, as evidenced by the broken spine and the index that is falling apart. I recently returned to it for a vaguely remembered meat pie with a corn bread topping that I wanted to adapt for vegetarian use.

This recipe is definitely not pretentious. It is a simple, tasty supper dish that looks attractive and freezes well.