Book Review: The Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais

This is a book for foodies, especially ones that are fascinated by the French restaurant business.

I like how Ligaya Mishan of the New York Times describes the book:  “Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille.

Hassan is a Muslim Indian who leaves his native country after tragedy hits his family. His larger than life father directs his family in a culinary journey across Europe, eventually settling in France and opening Maison Mumbai, a flamboyantly Indian restaurant in a small town in the Alps.  Across the street, Madame Mallory is the proprietress and head chef at a well respected Michelin two star restaurant.

I wish the story settled here with the relationship between the young Indian man and the classically trained French chef, because the pages devoted to their relationship are the best parts of the book.

But the book follows Hassan as he climbs the French cooking ladder, gaining Michelin stars along the way, and making friends in the French food industry.

Rags to riches isn’t a bad storyline, but I think this book has so much more potential than this simple story of ascent.  As the story left behind Madame Mallory, I grew more and more dissatisfied, anxious for it to return to her and the small town in the Alps.  It never did, even though she’s fondly recalled throughout the story.  Her reach into Hassan’s life never completely disappears.

Another peeve of mine is how Hassan abandons his rich Indian culinary heritage once he begins training in the classical French style. I was looking forward to hybrid Indian/French cuisine and instead got a return to the most classic French style possible.  Hassan had so much more to offer!

There’s one powerful spiritual moment for Madame Mallory that is so poorly depicted (and understood by the author), that I was very put out.  Mallory has an encounter with Jesus in a roadside chapel, but the author doesn’t realize that’s what’s going on.  It’s a powerful, transforming moment that changes the entire trajectory of the book, and the author gives credit to an inspirational painting. Only Jesus is capable of that kind of transformation in someone’s life. But sadly, he doesn’t get the credit.

Despite my minor annoyances with the book, it is truly enjoyable and a great chance to dive into the world of high cuisine, with a focus on supreme quality ingredients and extravagant preparations.  Read it for the relationship between an old French chef, stuck in her ways, and a young Indian boy with a unique gift for preparing food.

If you’re considering purchasing this book as a result of this review, please consider using my link to Amazon, so I get referral credits to purchase more books to review.

Published in: on September 28, 2012 at 3:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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International Cooking Lessons

Lizzy and I were in the produce section of the grocery store yesterday, sorting through a big pile of mangoes that were on sale, and I started chit chatting with two ladies who were doing the same thing. We were all buying several mangoes and discussing how we could use them (my plan was for salsa, baby food, and museli). One woman was from India, and she had a whole list of uses for them, including pickling them. I announced that I’d love to learn how to cook Indian food, and in a moment of bold presumption, asked this total stranger if she’d be willing to teach me to cook it. And without missing a beat, she said she would. I gave her my name and phone number, and I’m hoping she decides to call.

I normally don’t go around asking strangers to invite me over to their home. But what can I say, I love ethnic food, and I’m willing to make a fool of myself in order to learn how to cook it from a native.

I’ve taken Thai food cooking lessons from a former missionary to Thailand, Congolese cooking lessons from some refugee friends, a rustic Italian cookery lesson while in Tuscany, and I learned a ton about Swiss cooking while visiting my best friend over there. And I’m always on the lookout for more international techniques and flavors.

I think what I like most about the experience is that each culture has its own unique food preparation methods that say a lot about the people in that culture. When I learned Thai cooking, my teacher showed me how to measure water for the rice, with my index finger. Typically accustomed to getting out the measuring cups, this method blew me away. But when you think about it, can you really imagine a woman making rice in a straw hut using measuring cups? Our American kitchens are stocked full of gizmos that we think we can’t live without. But really, to make basic things, you have more than you realize, literally “on hand.”

My friends from the Congo taught me to make fufu, a staple in Africa that varies largely across the continent. Her version was made with rice, and some flour. She used an electric stovetop and a large stock pot to make it but was complaining how it didn’t turn out right without a flame and a thicker pot, like she used at home. Her strong arms beat the fluffy mixture into submission, a process that took awhile. As I watched, I realized that a lot of strength and effort went into this daily process, but it was one that was essential for their daily diet. I gained a greater appreciation for the strong African matriarch, whose food preparations reflected her tenacity, drive, and power.

In Tuscany, I watched my host go out her back porch to the herb garden and gather many ingredients for the meal we were about to make. She made a panzanella, a rustic bread salad, using all the ingredients that were in season at the time, and leftover bread. Even hard bread gets resurrected, nothing goes to waste. All her ingredients were growing a few steps away, including the olives trees that produced the olive oil. A recipe in a cookbook would tell me to gather certain ingredients, but it wouldn’t capture the immediacy and utility of such a recipe for that time and place.

I’m trying not to stand next to the phone, hoping my Indian neighbor decides to invite me over for a lesson. In the meantime, maybe I’ll go shop at the Asian food market nearby to see if I can invite myself over to some little, old Chinese, Japanese, or Korean woman’s kitchen.

Published in: on April 29, 2011 at 5:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Swiss Mac and Cheese: Knöpfli

It’s time to introduce another Swiss food.  This one involved some mess making in my kitchen, but I think the recipe is a keeper, in the end.  It’s called knöpfli, and it’s the Swiss equivalent of mac and cheese.  Don’t ask me to pronounce it, by the way. I sound like I’m sneezing when I try.  But you make the pasta from scratch, and the cheese is, of course, Swiss.

Chari made this dish for me when I was in Switzerland. It’s a favorite in their home, as it is in many Swiss homes around the country, especially for the kids.  I’d seen it in the grocery stores, just under a different name (spätzli) and wondered what in the world it was.  It looked like little globs of dough, which, it turns out, it is.  Thankfully, those little globs get covered in butter and cheese, making them much more appetizing.

Before I left Switzerland, I purchased a knöpfli pan, so I could make the dish for Dan at home.  The instructions were all in German, French, and Italian, like everything else in Switzerland, but I figured I could manage it okay with my translator in hand at home.  Last weekend, I tried it out for him, and he came home to me literally covered in dough, cursing at the pot of congealed dough, slightly burned and throwing an overall hissy fit.  He was patient with me, took some pictures, and generally got out of the way while I figured out how in the world to make this stuff.  Chari made it look so easy.

Here’s what I learned.

Ingredients:

2 1/3 cups of flour, sifted
3 eggs
100-200 ml of water (1/3-2/3 cup)
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp butter, cold and sliced into pieces
¼-1 cup of Swiss cheese, grated (Emmental, Appenzeller, etc)

Directions:

In a medium bowl, add the flour.  In another bowl, mix the eggs, 1/3 cup water, and the salt.  Slowly add a little water and mix well as you add.  You want a consistency that isn’t too runny but also will go through the holes in the knöpfli pan with little force.  If you need it to be more runny, add more water and mix.  My recipe (the one from the pan) recommended that it sit for 30 minutes until it formed bubbles. I let it sit, and bubbles never formed.  Maybe they have different types of flour in Europe that bubbles.  I’m going to make the resting part optional.

You might be thinking, “That’s great Amy, but how in the world am I supposed to make this without the pan.”  It’s a bit harder, granted, but there are options here in the States.  For example, the steamer insert on my rice cooker would work just fine.  Many pans have steamer inserts with holes in them that are just about this size.  Just make sure the surface is flat, so you can scrape along it.  My husband came up with the idea of using a cheese grater, the kind that’s flat, especially the ones that come attached to a bowl (Ikea has a great one for this).  Take it off the bowl and use the underside (the dull side) for the dough (I’d be very curious to hear if this works, if any of you try it). You can find kitchen scrapers of various sizes at most kitchen supply stores.

Next, you’ll need to get some water boiling in a tall pot, ideally one on which you could rest your knöpfli pan.  I discovered that you shouldn’t have the water level either too high or boiling too hard. You don’t want to produce too much steam to cook the dough too fast or to scald you while you’re scraping.  But you want the water level high enough to cook the dough in the pot.

I used a measuring cup to dump about 1/3 of a cup of the dough at a time on the pan.  I needed to make sure that I was quick to scrape it, or it cooked to the surface. I also found out that a little kitchen spray, such as Pam, between batches, did a great job keeping it from sticking (In the pictured version, I hadn’t yet figured out this tip and was having an awful time with things sticking.  Also, I had too much steam.).

Once the dough drops through, I picked up the pan and scraped the underside to remove any little bits that didn’t make it.  Then, I stirred the globs that were in there, to make sure they didn’t stick to the bottom of the pan.  That’s another reason you want the water level high enough, so the dough doesn’t stick as badly on the bottom.  When they’re cooked through, which only takes a matter of about 30 seconds, they’ll all swirl around on the surface of the water.  I used a slotted spoon to scoop them out onto a plate.

Between batches, I’d load on a slice of butter and a handful of cheese.  The cheese and butter would melt on the hot pasta.  Here, you can use as much cheese as you’d like.  I probably used about ½ of a cup of Emmental in total, but people who want more cheese could add a lot more.

At the end, I’d add the remaining cheese and serve it while hot.  Freshly ground black pepper atop works great, and depending on how much cheese and butter you add, you could add a bit more salt as well, to taste.

The dish was a hit in the Letinsky home, and now that I know how to make it, I’m sure it will be a regular side dish around here. I won’t exactly call it health food, but it’s nice when paired with healthy foods.

Bon Appetite!

Published in: on September 12, 2008 at 10:25 am  Comments (8)  
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Swiss Fondue

How could I talk about Swiss food without mentioning fondue?  Technically, I didn’t have fondue during this last trip to Switzerland.  The reason is probably quite surprising to most of my readers.  Mainly, it’s not official fondue season.  Sure, you can find it in some touristy places year round, but the Swiss don’t tend to eat fondue unless it’s colder out.  Winter is prime fondue time.  A burbling pot of molten cheese tastes best on a chilly day, anyway.

In the states, we’ve gotten some of the fondue craze, so we’re familiar with some of the different forms of fondue out there, especially chocolate fondue, served for dessert (or in my case, any old time).  But, the Swiss eat several different kinds of fondue, some which you might not have experienced before.

There’s the classic cheese fondue which typically includes the hard Gruyere cheese mixed with the softer Emmental or Appenzeller.  It’s melted and mixed with wine or kirsch and served over a flame in an earthenware pot, like this one, which Chari and Chris brought back for me one year. 

A brief intro to fondue pots: they come in several materials.  For cheese, look for earthenware, which is traditional.  But, you can’t make chocolate or meat fondue in it.  For that, you need the metal kind, with the top tray that lets you rest your fork in it.  Technically, there are different forks for the types of fondues, with the bread one having 3 tines, and the meat ones having 2 tines. Although some fondue pots are electric (and probably the best for beginners and occasional users, since they are easy, Teflon coated and therefore easy to clean, and can be used for all forms of fondue), most use sterno fuel, which can be purchased in liquid or little gel pots. 

 I prefer the pots of gel, which are single use and have less mess.  I found the gel pots at Crate and Barrel here in the states at a really good price, 3 pots for under $5, which seemed like the best deal around. 

I learned that many Swiss don’t make the fondue from scratch but consider the boxed mixes perfectly satisfactory, and after trying a few myself, I have to agree that they’re fabulous.  I took a few home in my luggage and was pleased when customs didn’t confiscate them.  You can find some of these mixes in the States, but not all stores carry the authentic Swiss ones, which are superior.  The American versions aren’t typically as good.

While most Americans will stick to dipping white bread in their cheese fondue, the Swiss will use a variety of veggies, in addition to their artesian loaf bread.  I prefer lightly steamed mushrooms or boiled new potatoes, but cauliflower and carrots work great too.  With all those veggies, it’s a healthy meal, isn’t it?

When you eat fondue, it’s a good idea to drink wine with it. According to the Swiss, it keeps the cheese from congealing in your stomach. Basically, it helps you digest the huge quantity of cheese you just ingested.  Not sure about the medical basis to this, but it certainly tastes nice, when consumed in moderation, of course.

I haven’t yet tried it, but another popular way to do fondue is to cook meat in a metal fondue pot (different than the earthenware cheese one).  Fondue chinoise is a pot of broth, and you dip various meats into the boiling broth to cook it, before you dip it in a selection of dipping sauces (ie. dill or curry). Fondue Bourguignonne is also a meat dish, but the cooking liquid is boiling oil.  That one isn’t so kid friendly, or waistline friendly, if you ask me (Hey kids, let’s play around a vat of boiling oil!). 

To make the traditional, homemade version of Swiss cheese fondue, here’s a basic recipe.

Ingredients:

1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half

½ lb grated Gruyere Cheese (approx 2 cups)

½ lb grated Emmental or Appenzeller cheese (approx 2 cups)

1 ½ cups dry white wine (Swiss Fendent is best but a Sauvingon Blanc or Chablis would work.) (For a stronger wine taste, go up to 2 cups, but you probably need more cornstarch to make the texture right in the end)

1 tbsp cornstarch

2 tsp kirsch (Swiss cherry liqueur)

a pinch of nutmeg

Directions:

Use your fondue pot directly on your stovetop to prepare the mix.  Before you get started, you might want to get the sterno going on your fondue setup wherever you’ll be eating.  You’ll transfer the pot there when you’re done. 

Rub the inside of your fondue pot with the garlic clove.  Discard the rest or float in the mix. Your choice. The rub seasons it and keeps the cheese from sticking. 

Next, over medium heat, get the wine to a simmer. (At this point, I’ve seen several recipes add a tablespoon of lemon juice.  I cannot fathom why.)

Mix the cornstarch and kirsch in a bowl and set aside.

Here’s the tricky part.  Slowly add the mixed cheeses and stir as you add, careful to avoid clumps.  If it starts boiling, turn things down. No boiling allowed. 

Once the cheese is melted, slowly add in the mixed kirsch and cornstarch.  Everything should thicken shortly. Add your pinch of nutmeg to season.  I’ve also seen white pepper used here as well.  Some recipes have added powdered mustard, but I don’t think that sounds very nice.

Promptly remove the pot from the stovetop and transfer to your prepared sterno setup.

Make sure that you monitor the sterno’s heat to keep the cheese from boiling.

Dip your bread and veggies in the cheese and enjoy.

Rösti

I’ve been back from Switzerland for two weeks now, and I must admit, there’s some food that I can’t get out of my head.  I thought I’d introduce you all to some more Swiss food favorites, since I’m craving them something fierce.  In the next several days, I’m going to do posts featuring a Swiss food and a recipe for preparing it. Bon appetite!

First off, let’s talk about potatoes.  I thought the Irish loved potatoes, but if you ask me, the Swiss are the ones that have the most uses for them.  In particular, they use them in Rösti, their national hashbrown like dish that’s served at any meal. 

Chris and Chari took me to an authentic Rösti restaurant, where it was the main menu item. I got to experience the different ways the dish is served.  The pictured version has ham and Appenzeller cheese in it.  Yum.  But, I saw versions with chopped onion and diced bacon.  The Zurich version adds cumin and onion.  It’s also very common to add fried eggs on top. 

If you’re a cook like me who likes to find creative ways to use leftovers, this might be a good recipe for you.  Let’s say that one night you do steak and boiled potatoes.  A couple nights later, you can use the leftover potatoes in a Rösti that will be a very different dish. 

Here’s how to make Rösti

Boil unpeeled potatoes and refrigerate to cool, preferably overnight.  The next day, grate them with a course grater.  Now, the fun part.  Heat a heavy skillet with butter or lard over medium heat (nobody said this was low fat).  Press down the grated potato firmly with a wooden spoon.  The challenge is to flip the whole thing to brown the other side.  Chari suggests sliding it onto another plate.  You’d mix in the onions or other ingredients prior to browning.  As you can see from the version I ate, the cheese can be melted on top, but it’s often chopped into little slices and cooked in the potatoes as well.  Serve piping hot.

Published in: on August 28, 2008 at 10:24 am  Comments (4)  
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My Easy-Bake God

I caught myself worshiping an Easy-Bake oven today. Perhaps that needs some explanation.

Easy-Bake ovens have been around for years. I had one. My mom had one. The principle is simple. Follow the directions on the packet of Easy-Bake ingredients, pour it into the Easy-Bake pan, shove it in the Easy-Bake hole with the Easy-Bake stick, and watch a 75 watt light bulb do the cooking for you. After way longer than today’s child’s patience can handle, say, a whole 30 minutes, your lumpy, doughy cake emerges. Then, you get to feed it to your parents, who gleefully accept it and promptly hide it in the nearest potted plant.

Maybe these aren’t as popular as they were when I was a kid. After all, today’s girls aren’t getting trained in domesticity as much. For playtime, they get Insurance Adjuster Barbie and CEO dress up clothes.

It’s idiot proof cooking, provided you follow all the instructions. Even then, it’s hard to mess it up. Each recipe has 2 ingredients: the mix and water (but sometimes, dirt or fingernail polish might be substituted in a pinch…it turns out about the same).

I caught myself treating God like my old Easy-Bake Oven. I wanted something: to get a specific book published. I lined up all the required ingredients, the ones that I’d read about. I prepared them exactly as directed and shoved them in the oven, expecting my perfect product to come out in the end. Instead, I didn’t get my book published. I’m still working on it, and my Easy-Bake God didn’t work it out for me.

“Why can’t it just be easy?” I found myself asking Him.

God chose to respond by reminding me of my little oven and its crappy cakes. I don’t want a God who works like that. Not only does the product stink, the process gets old in a hurry. You can only Easy Bake for so long; then you grow up and want an Electrolux.

God’s not going to do what I want, just because I found out the winning combination of words and actions. He’s not a kitchen appliance. He’s a father, who listens to his child, but he doesn’t give her every single little thing she asks for. And even if He does, the child often has to work hard for it.

So, when I next catch myself wanting this whole process to be easy, I’ll remember how awful those little cakes tasted, and look forward to savoring the sweet taste of success, God’s way.

Can you Handle the Heat?

One thing I missed while living in Vermont was honest to goodness Thai food.  Sure, we had restaurants that claimed to be “Thai,” but they found that in order to stay in business in New England, they had to make their food as bland and tasteless as the rest of the New England fare (sorry folks, but it’s true). 

So, I got pretty good at making homemade Thai food, since that was the only way we’d get anything close to authentic.  If our eyes didn’t water, it wasn’t hot enough yet.  It helped that I’d had cooking lessons from a friend who was a missionary in Thailand, as well as some cooking classes at the community college where I worked. 

Here’s what I know about Thai food, the traditional stuff.  It’s a balance of flavors:  hot, sour, salty, bitter, and sweet.  To have a true Thai dish, you must have a balance of ALL these elements.  Too much sour, and you pucker up like a prune.  Too much sweet, and you turn into, well, the typical American teenager.  Too much heat, and you’re too busy assuaging your mucus membranes to notice much else.

When I teach people to cook Thai food, I like to start out with a simple appetizer, one that combines all these elements:  Mieng-Khum.  Basically, these are little wraps, rolls of cabbage, lime, or basil leaves, filled with a variety of pungent ingredients.  The options include elements from all the taste categories.  There are dried shrimp for the saltiness, chopped ginger, chillies, and onion for the heat, chunks of lime for sourness, toasted coconut for sweetness, and the leaves, chopped peanuts, and lime rinds provide the bitter. It’s up to each person to decide how much of each ingredient to roll within their leaf. 

If I’m teaching a group of Americans how to cook Thai food, inevitably, they’ll resist putting any of the “hot” elements in the wrap, especially those scary looking Thai chilies.  I usually have to throw a hissy fit to convince them to try it, and then, they finally begin to understand the whole concept of balance.  After a few practice wraps, they start gauging how much each flavor will contribute to the appropriate balance that they want to achieve.  And heat must be a part of it.  You need the heat to be complete.

We Americans, we just don’t like the heat. I don’t know when we became pansies, but sometime in our nation’s history, we decided that peppers were painful and wrong.  We forgot that the pain is all part of the overall scheme of pleasure.  It’s just one of the flavors, designed to be balanced with all the others.

Our food tastes have translated to our lifestyles (or visa versa).  We spend much of our lives avoiding pain.  We can’t take the heat, so we do everything we can to secure our comfort, forgetting that sometimes pain is part of life, it is part of the process that makes life worth living. 

The apostle Paul could handle the heat. He was a man familiar with pain and suffering, and he encourages us to view our suffering in the context of God’s work in our lives, to be joyful, in the midst of pain and loss: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).  Sure, suffering, all by itself isn’t a lot of fun, but when you mix it with the sweetness of salvation, you end up filled with complete joy.

So, I’ll take mine with three stars, just as long as there’s plenty of sugar, lime, basil, and fish sauce in there for balance.