The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander

I bought this when it first came out and then I bought the second edition as well. Perhaps this will speak better than words as to the estimation with which I hold The Cook’s Companion.

Still. I like words, and I’m a bit shocked to discover that I’ve never written about this book. It is, in my opinion as the chief household cook, as a person who loves to read cookbooks, and as a bookseller of cookbooks over the years, one of those classics which will be with us in a hundred years’ time.

The aim of the author was to appeal to ordinary folk and so it is full of things that anybody can do. Its Australian bent discusses food from that local perspective, ingredients by class, what one should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do with them. Its generous layout permits margin notes, small ideas which are as important to the book as the more lavish recipes which take most of the page. Grate apple, says one such note. Breakfast is strong toast, generously buttered, with the apple on top. Cinnamon, of course. I discovered this in a period where I didn’t eat sugar and it was a revelation as a simple, healthy dessert breakfast. Alternatively, I discovered, mash banana and have it the same way instead. This book is not about slavishly follow it, you will also think for yourself. One thing will come from another.

On my personal blog, where I keep my cooking notes, amongst other things, quite a few of my favourite things start off as recipes from this book and then take a direction to be something else as well, or instead. Her recipe for Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad is a wonderful summer dish, but how about deconstructing it? I turn it into something one puts together at the table, rice paper rolls. The engagement, both with the food and each other that takes place in those sorts of meals is special.

Or take her Italian Olive Paste. A revelation to me, I was astonished at how good it was. Alexander has suggestions as to what to do with it, but I offer my own. It becomes part of a sauce for spaghetti, which is tuna based.

There were a couple of reasons I wanted the second edition. One was that I have used the first so much that it is covered in the evidence. Some pages look like Jackson Pollock’s got at them. Now I have another copy that will remain pristine for ever. But the second reason was curiosity to see what’s been revised, corrected, changed. No book can be this big and detailed without having the odd mistake. Living in Melbourne and sharing the cooking for Christmas one year, I decided to make the avocado mousse of the first edition. It was an inedible disaster. The best reason not to make it, if you haven’t already discovered, is that the recipe is not in the second edition. It was that irredeemably flawed.

To end conventionally, that is to say with dessert, The Cook’s Companion shines here too. Easy banana cake is one of those cakes that can stand a few days hanging around – though it has a tendency not to. Her sponge topping is a perfect way to dress up stewed fruit in winter. I serve it with creme fraiche or strained yoghurt, but here it’s with Gruyere double cream, what else in Switzerland?

apple with sponge topping

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Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery

I guess if you live in parts of the world that don’t have proper summers you wouldn’t understand that in Australia there are often long periods of those months where you simply can’t cook. It is too hot for both the process and the result. After a while you long for the cold and the possibilities of cooking that become so much wider. Now as winter begins in Melbourne curries are very much on my brain.

This book changed my life. It was the first cookbook I read that explained the processes going on. Why do you fry the onions this much and not that? Why fry the yoghurt until all the water in it has disappeared and then add water? I love to understand what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, so this book was a revelation to me. I was about thirty when Claire gave it to me, and before long I became a ‘good’ cook, though it was still a long time before I learned how to cook toast. I can see that to some extent the reason for the depth of explanation in this book is that Indian cooking is by far and away the most profound, complex food in the world. The average Italian cookbook, in retrospect, I understand says nothing much about process because there really isn’t much to say. A few basic rules to be repeated over and over, if I may generalise. Indian cooking could not be more different.

This recipe was the first Indian dish I made. Rogan Josh. The most important thing to take note of is the gradual incorporation of the yoghurt, ensuring each spoonful is blended in very well before continuing with the next. It is this that ensures you don’t get a separated/curdled sort of result. Patience! There is no point rushing this. And, please. Full fat yoghurt, not that horrible stuff that’s like dishwater.

As usual with Indian meat dishes, make extra and freeze. It’s silly not to.

Red lamb or beef stew: Rogan Josh

Prep time:
30 mins
Cook time:
2 hrs 20 mins
Serves:
4-6

Ingredients

• 2 x 2.5 cm ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
• 8 cloves garlic, peeled
• 4 tbsp water, plus 300-450ml
• 10 tbsp vegetable oil
• 900 g boned shoulder or leg of lamb, or stewing beef (chuck) cut into 2.5cm cubes
• 10 cardamom pods
• 2 bay leaves
• 6 cloves
• 10 peppercorns
• 2.5 cm cinnamon sticks
• 200g onions, peeled and finely chopped
• 1 tsp ground coriander
• 2 tsp ground cumin
• 4 tsp bright red paprika, mixed with 0.25-1 tsp cayenne pepper
• 1.25 tsp salt
• 6 tbsp natural yogurt
• 0.25 tsp garam masala
• freshly ground black pepper

Method
1. Put the ginger, garlic and 4 tbsp water into the container of an electric blender. Blend well until you have a smooth paste.

2. Heat the oil in a wide heavy pan over a medium-high heat. Brown the meat cubes in several batches and set to one side. Put the cardamom pods, bay leaves, cloves, peppercorns, and cinnamon into the same hot oil. Stir once and wait until the cloves swell and the bay leaves begin to take on colour. This just takes a few seconds. Now put in the onions. Stir and fry for about 5 minutes or until the onion turn a medium-brown colour. Put in the ginger-garlic paste and fry for 30 seconds. Then add the coriander, cumin, paprika-cayenne and salt. Stir and fry for another 30 seconds. Add the fried meat cubes and juices, Stir for 30 seconds. Now put in 1 tbsp of the yogurt. Stir and fry for about 30 seconds or until the yogurt is well blended. Add the remaining yogurt, a tablespoon at a time as before. Stir and fry for 3-4 minutes.

3. Now add 300ml water if you are cooking lamb and 450ml if you are cooking beef. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil, scraping in all browned spices on the sides and bottom of the pan. Cover, turn heat to low and simmer for about an hour for the lamb and 2 hours for beef, or until the meat is tender. (It could be baked, covered, in a pre-heated 180C/gas 4 oven for the same length of time or until tender.) Every 10 minutes or so, give the meat a good stir. When the meat is tender, take off the lid, turn the heat up to medium and boil away some of the liquid. You should end up with tender meat in a think, reddish-brown sauce. Spoon off the fat. Sprinkle garam masala and black pepper over the meat before you serve and mix them in.

Many of the recipes in this book are now a regular part of my Indian cooking. I can’t recommend it highly enough for somebody starting out who needs to be spoonfed. But that’s not to say you won’t get a lot out of it if you are experienced. It’s a classic.

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

The last Leon I read was in 2010 and I really thought I’d call it a day. It was Through a Glass, Darkly and was irritatingly thin on plot, but big on fillers – politics/environment. A couple of weeks ago, however, I spotted this for a couple of francs at a church sale and couldn’t resist. Had things changed?

Well, yes and no. I can’t even say this one’s thin on plot. It has virtually no plot whatsoever. But it seems much less didactic than Through… It’s a melancholy meander through what I think of as the outback of Venice, the islands and their lagoons, in the oppressive heat of summer. The environmental issues are the more effectively presented by being done in a gentler way.

If you are looking for a whodunnit or a police procedural that has your heart beat pumping away, this isn’t it. But in the most quiet of ways, I did find this hard to put down. If you want an authentic slice of Venice with an environmental subplot that is, alas, entirely believable. Indeed, I wonder if the controversy over the poisoning of workers and lagoons which resulted in a not guilty verdict for the Porto Marghera plant, was the inspiration.

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte

To begin with a mea culpa. Even though I knew Catte was fighting against the stereotypes, I still expected this book to be a sort of coffee table book one might find described in Stuff White People Like. A sumptuous publication in large format comprising artistic black and white photos of…weird poor people. Nice white people could talk about how awful it all is and how they wish they could do something about it. (Pass the organic vegan caviar, please.)

What did I ‘know’ about Appalachia before I read this? Image one: said black and white pictures. Image two: fiddle music. Image three: Deliverance. So yeah, not just fiddles, banjoes too.

As a consequence of this, if somebody had asked me, I would have guessed that Appalachia was small. It fits the homogeneity of the sense of the place. See? Place. Place is small. It’s a thing that’s clearly identifiable. Wrong word. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

One of the first things I found out, opening this small book, is that Appalachia is huge, encompassing many States and many millions of people. It would seem obvious, just from that fact, that it isn’t going to be homogeneous. This book is out to fight that, explaining how it has happened so that you understand why you’ve been duped.

It’s sort of an enraged lament, explaining the process of how we got to a particular point in US history which I hadn’t heard of before I read this book. Hillbilly Elegy. On Goodreads over 60 of my friends have read it, compared with a tally of four for this volume. Let’s lament just a little louder then, as we realise how many people have bought into the prejudice of Vance’s best seller.

There is a book coming out soon, Unwhite: Appalachia, Race and Film by Meredith McCarroll who says “Its central argument is that Appalachian people in cinema have been portrayed as phenotypically white, but using the same tropes that have long been used to portray non-whites in film.” If only that were it, films getting it wrong. The heartbreaking point of Catte’s volume is that this is a universal tendency, founded long ago, entrenched by those whose interests are served by it, and supported by the academic community which might largely hang its collective head in shame.

One of the more wrenching moments of a book which is full of them, is to find out that at Catte’s alma mater, not only has Hillbilly Elegy become required reading, but it has been put together with a deal to buy one of those books of photos which maintains the false image. For Catte on Hillbilly Elegy, which will give you a taste of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia go here. Eugenicists like Vance’s message. It makes you wonder what sort of educational culture presides in the US of A.

This is no reference book. It’s venting spleen, written in a way I assume she would not write with her historian’s cap on. There are no references, but a detailed reading list for where to go next. In a short, small form, it succinctly puts the reader in the shoes of those who live in this vast area. She makes you part of the action as she describes the long history of labour fighting capitalism, of capitalism cozying up with the academic sociologists and such like, of environmentalists – that is to say, ordinary people turned into activists by their foes – fighting for the preservation of the sweetness of the mountain areas as they are destroyed by coal production, amongst other evils. You watch the pregnant woman next to you being kicked by strike breakers. You watch sociologists agreeing with capitalists who want people off their own land, that it is for their own good to take them from their homes. You watch ordinary people being literally defined as cases for forced sterilisation because it makes it a moral imperative to take them from their homes, whether that be to rip mountains apart to mine coal, or to preserve areas for rich white people to take their vacations.

If you want a nuanced, if angry, view of this exploited expanse of the US, this is an excellent place to start, and it will guide you as to where to go next.

Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions by Christian Lander

These books are hilarious and really, the most hilarious thing about them is that white people think they are hilarious. Why is that?

I mean, it’s all true. But why doesn’t that mean that white people DON’T find it funny?????!

Read this morning:

To fully understand why white people love [Adult Swim] so much you have to understand the world of ‘under-ground animation,’ which is something that has been beloved by white people since Fritz the Cat. The more hard-core white people (single white men) will often take their passion for this type of animation so far as to attend an ‘Alternative Animation Festival,’ often held at movie theatres you thought were long abandoned.

So true! I took a couple of white men to a Fritz the Cat movie in Sydney ages ago now. It was held in a cinema in Glebe which was in the process of being condemned. Indeed, we all had to sit in the balcony level, I believe because it had been decided, all things considered, that it was better to fall than be fallen upon. Frankly, I thought the chances of falling were pretty good: any time anybody did something as vigorous as cross their leg, the entire balcony structure shook.

And, on the subject of bread:

It would be nice to believe that a white person has a choice in bread or cereal, but in reality they don’t.

When a white person is asked ‘Whole wheat or white?’ they are legally prohibited from saying ‘white.’ Watch them at any sandwhich shop or restaurant where they are given a choice. It is so ingrained in their heads that when presented with a list of options they will not let the waiter continue after he has said the words whole wheat….

Though they strongly prefer whole wheat bread, white people will eat white bread when there are no other options. And they will generally enjoy it, making the best of a bad situation.

When this happens you might be tempted to tell white people that being forced to choose white due to a lack of options sounds like your collegiate dating career. It is recommended that you avoid this, as white people might find this offensive. Not because you were forced to date white people, but because it will remind them that they are going to have to get their fibre from something else.

Following on from that, one of the things I find odd about white people is that although they do their very best to make sure people in refugee camps get more rice and water, they themselves think that they, white people, and their dogs should have the very very best modern scientific diet letting them live the very best life for longest. That would be hilarious, but somehow…

I don’t know. I guess somewhere Christian Lander makes that funny too.

Now You Know by Michael Frayn

The last Michael Frayn novel I read was Skios and I spent the book feeling like I was reading a movie pitch (albeit a long one). Maybe it would have made a good movie, but it failed as a book, perhaps because of these conflicted purposes.

The other day I discovered, sitting in the bookshelves, unread as yet, Now You Know. Written (or rather, published) twenty years before Skios, and shortly after the splendid A Landing on the Sun, I had great expectations. Which were unmet.

Why did you start doing this, Mr Frayn? Having your cake and eating it. Writing novels with an eye to the stage? Don’t write novels if that’s your plan. I read this, thinking just like Skios, that it was the detailed plan for a play. A play this time, not a movie, which was more the sense I got with Skios, maybe because it had an exotic location. This time felt wrong because the characters spoke in some way characters speak in a play and not in a novel. I can’t say exactly what that means, it’s just my intuitive reaction. I kept seeing some stalwart of English TV playing the main character. I kept wanting to speak his lines out loud – see, lines. That’s how it felt. And at the same time, none of the characters took form in my mind’s eye the way they should in a book. It’s like I need to see the play in order to flesh them out.

And sure enough, now that I’ve put the book down and checked, it did become a play not long after. And sure enough, it didn’t work as a play either.

Okay, okay. Frayn is a wonderful writer who has churned out fantastic stuff in many walks of the printed medium. They aren’t all going to be Landings on the Sun. This one’s a bit of a trick, if you ask me. It is hard to put down and yet at the end you feel like the rabbit’s disappeared and you still want to know how.

 

 

 

A Landing on the Sun by Michael Frayn

This piece was written in 2009.

When I read this book I could see nothing in it but the idea that you have been given this gift of life and you have to do the right thing by it. That to give up on finding love and happiness is to scorn this gift.

And yet…maybe the very opposite is true. Maybe what I should have seen is the idea that you should stay where you are, that the miserable life you know is better than the unknown dangers of the happiness and love you could choose to seek.

And yet…maybe it is simply thus: the best whodunnit ever.

There is a sex scene. Even though I’ve read the book twice, I forgot this until rereading it a third time today:

I got back into my own bed. The point is that you raise your hand if you can see someone else with red hair. Serafin raises her hand. Summerchild raises his violin. I raise my trombone. I begin to play with great pleasure. The secret, I discover, is in the long, regular strokes of the slide. I laugh as I play – it’s so easy and so delightful. The sunlight flashes on the bell of the instrument. It swells in the lovely warmth, and pulses, and melts, and all the sweetness of the world comes bursting out…

I am wide awake as I get out of bed this time, and the appallingly cosy warm wetness around my shrinking genitals turns soberly chill as the night air strikes it. I look very levelly at myself in the bathroom mirror as I wait for the water to run warm, and the same old face I went to bed with looks levelly back at me. My beard is trim and grey again, not wild and red. I think we are both shocked and surprised, my face and I. This hasn’t happened to us for a number of years. What’s going on? The great muddle of the world, the great muddle of the past, is reaching out for us, reaching into us, and we don’t like it.

My face has stopped looking at me, though, I realise. I think it’s thinking about something else. About how insidious, how overpowering, how irresistible that forgotten sweetness for one moment was.

Generally I’m pleased that Frayn has so much to say that he can leave the sex altogether for the many writers who face the daunting task of empty pages and not nearly enough to put on them. Yet I read this and think even sex is something he could make better than it is.

Having thought about this book for months, and reread it several times against my own principles, I fail to see an adequate way of reviewing it.

I have this strong sense it is an important book that everybody in the world should read. Perhaps the bottom line is that if you are miserable and wish to stay where you are, it will comfort you. It won’t make you feel less miserable, but it will make you feel like you are better off than the crazy people. If you are miserable and believe that you should seek love and happiness, it will make you see with clarity and certainty that anything is worth that.

And if perchance you are one of those lucky people who is quite content with his lot, you will nonetheless be delighted by a charming and amusing account of human nature.

I have this strong sense that the world would be a better place if everybody read this book. But maybe I have to feel like that, having given up one life in search of another. Mostly I believe in the optimism I took from it. But there are days when I sit and wonder, Jesus, Michael Frayn, what the fuck have you done to me?

On those days I want to reword the definition of happiness as put forward by Summerchild as he and Serafin set upon an investigation into the nature of happiness. Eventually it becomes simple and clear to them. Summerchild says:

I should say that happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be anywhere else.

Yes. To be sure. If you are happy that is so clearly true. And yet….there are these days where I wonder if it is enough to say happiness is not being where you don’t want to be? Would that do instead?