Thursday, August 19, 2010

Movie Review: Big Night

Big Night
Studio: Sony Pictures
ASIN: 0767802535
Rating (1 to 5*): ****

Big Night is a touching, small movie starring the likes of Tony Shaloub, Stanley Tucci, Minnie Driver and the incomparable Isabella Rossellini in a relatively small but beautifully acted role.

When this picture came out in 1996, the critics raved, and that resulted in a good deal of disappointment. This movie is a small and rather arty film. Stanley Tucci, co-writer as well as star of this little film, says that this story is "about the struggle between art and commerce and the risk of staying true to yourself." That is what defines this movie.

This is the tale of two brothers who are struggling to keep their lovely little restaurant afloat in 1950s New Jersey. Secondo, the younger and more US savvy of the brothers, approaches their competitor for advice. He strikes a rather Faustian deal with him, staking the survival of their place, and their continued stay in America, on a single dinner party: a big night.

The brothers, their friends and their guests cook, serve and consume one of the finest on-screen meals in the history of cinema. The love, joy and fraternity of the dinner guests is palpable as romance blossoms and dies and hope grows, fails, and grows again.

The music deserves special mention. It is a combination of popular Italian music, popular American music from the 50s and swinging Louis Prima tunes. You will want the soundtrack to play in your kitchen for the next month.

Reviewers were too good to this movie. Audiences seemed to expect a blockbuster when it is, in fact, a beautiful little movie. The story is slow-paced and told gently. There are no car chases or gunfights. It is an excellently acted picture, and it draws the sympathetic audience in completely. There is, of course, a central, spectacular feast that will make any devout foodie want to create a vast dinner party. Look up a good timpano recipe and let the wine flow in rivers.

Book Review: Cooking Club by Dina Guillen and Michelle Lowrey

Cooking Club: Great Ideas & Delicious Recipes for Fabulous Get-Togethers by Dina Guillen (Author) and Michelle Lowrey (Author)
Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Sasquatch Books (May 5, 2009)
ISBN-10: 1570615608
Rating (1 to 5*): *****


As my good friend, the brilliant chef Brian Quinn, says, "The fundamental ingredient in any recipe is love." In every way, that is the truest thing I know about cooking. And eating. It is reflected in the care and consideration put into cooking, obsession with only the best quality ingredients and with the interaction that we have with our friends and loved ones over the dining table. The breaking of bread is a fundamental concept of Christianity, but, conceptually, it predates Christianity and may well go back to the earliest times.

These ideas are entirely lost in this go-go fast food era. There is no love in a Big Mac.

These ideas are not, however, lost on Dina Guillen and Michelle Lowrey. In their book, Cooking Club, they offer not merely a collection of recipes. Recipes are certainly here: excellent recipes in a broad range of difficulty and complexity from the very simple to the seriously advanced. But that is not what Cooking Club is about. This book tells the story of the founding of their cooking club, a group of friends who meet regularly and cook and dine. They gather about the table at one of their homes or at a destination, and they eat and drink together, sharing the joy and laughter, wonderful food and friendship. This is what the art of cuisine is all about.

I was lucky enough to do a brief interview with Dina and Michele about a year ago for Style Magazine in Folsom, California. The joy that these two ladies share is evident. To borrow an image from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, life is their buffet, and they eat in big bites! This is the kind of book that excites the reader, in this case, to entertain. After reading through, I wanted nothing more than to have all my friends over for a feast.

Buy this book. It is an absolute treasure. If you are very lucky, it will help you to found your own cooking club, and set you on your way to a life of joyful dining.

From Cooking Club, p. 92
Grilled Artichokes with Herb Vinaigrette
Makes 8 servings


8 large artichokes
1 lemon, cut in half
1/4 cup plus 1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup palsamic vinegar
1/2 cup chopped fresh basil
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


To prepare the artichokes, cut the stem flush with the base, and cut off the tight top leaves to remove the prickly tips. With a pair of scissors, trim each side leaf to remove the prickles. Rub the cut parts of the artichokes with the lemon as you work to prevent discoloration.
Put the artichokes in a large pot and add cold water to cover. Add the 1/4 cup of salt to the water, then weigh the artichokes down with a heavy dish or bowl. Bring the water to a boil and simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until a paring knife easily pierces the heart of an artichoke. Drain the artichokes upside down and allow them to cool. Cut the cooled artichokes into quarters and scoop out the choke with a spoon. Set the artichokes aside.
To make the herb vinaigrette, combine the oil, vinegar, basil, parsley, garlic, pepper and the remaining teaspoon of salt in a large bowl. Add the artichole quarters and toss to coat. Let the artichokes marinate for 1 hour.
Prepare and heat the grill to medium-high heat. Remove the artichokes from the bowl, reserving the vinaigrette. Grill the artichokes until they are lightly charred, about 3 minutes per side. Arrange them on a platter, and pour the reserved herb vinaigrette over the artichokes.
UPDATE: Dina and Michelle will be signing copies of Cooking Club and their first book, The Plank Grilling Cookbook on  Saturday, August 21, 2010 at Borders Books in Folsom, California. If you are in the neighborhood, please come by and visit!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book Review: Le Guide Culinaire by Georges Auguste Escoffier

Escoffier: The Complete Guide to the Art of Modern Cookery [Hardcover] by H.L. Cracknell (Translator), R.J. Kaufmann (Translator)
Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (June 15, 1983)
ISBN-10: 0471290165
Rating (1 to 5*): ****

The bane of every cooking school student, Le Guide Culinaire  is the aptly named textbook for all who aspire to greatness in the kitchen. I have known chefs who say, with a sense of casual aplomb, that they disposed of their copy the day that they graduated cooking school, and others who claim that they have not seen their copy for years, but that does not raise my estimation of them. For this guide to cooking encapsulates all of what we consider "classical French cuisine".
I will grant that we no longer have need for butter laden sauces on everything we eat, and the animal fat content of many of these recipes is not in line with our current lives, and that limits some of its applicability to our era, but the codification of the greatest cuisine in the world more than makes up for this shortfall.

Le Guide was first published in 1903. It went through some updates until the iconic 1921 edition came out. It only took 76 years for the 1921 edition to be translated into English, though outtakes and summaries have been available longer. The edition that is generally embraced by cooking schools is the Cracknell & Kaufman translation, which is a wonderful work in itself. It is a bit cost restrictive, but, when it comes to the apex of the art of fine cuisine, what is money? The binding is fairly heavy, to withstand years of steady use in the kitchen, the print is clear and the margins are suitably wide for rich annotation by the owner.

If you really want to know how to build a Fond Blanc de Veau or a Glace de Viande, this is the indisputable source. You may find simplified methods elsewhere, but if you want the authentic article, Le Guide is where you go.

Le Répertoire de La Cuisine: A Guide to Fine Foods [Hardcover] by Louis Saulnier
Publisher: Barron's Educational Series (December 31, 1977)
ISBN-10: 0812051084
Rating (1 to 5*): ***

One of the extraordinary things about Le Guide Culinaire is the fact that there is a simplification of it available in the form of Le Répertoire de La Cuisine. If Le Guide is aimed at serious cooks who know the craft before attempting the recipes therein, Le Répertoire is aimed at the very experienced cook. This book uses the same numeration of recipes that Le Guide does, and it gives ingredient lists, but no proportions and no methods. It is an all-encompassing memory aide for the cook who really knows how to make the recipes, but who cannot remember the 5012 ingredient lists in the book. I have seen this amazing little book, dog-eared and oil stained, in the tool boxes and knife rolls of cooks at nearly every restaurant where I have worked. This is a truly indispensable tool for the professional, and it is a handy accessory for the experienced home cook as well.

Le Guide Culinaire: Do you need it? Probably not. If you are a devout foodie, you will enjoy reading it and you are bound to learn much from it. No, we do not eat the fantastically ornamental foods of the turn of the 20th century anymore, but for that very special dinner, if you produce some element from Escoffier's repertoire, you will firmly establish yourself as the king or queen of your local food circle.

The dish that follows is not in Le Guide Culinaire, as such. The sauce, however, is. It is recipe number 112, Sauce Currie à l'Indienne – Curry Sauce (Indian Style). Bear in mind, this book was written before the era of readily available international cuisine. Escoffier was adapting traditional Indian curry recipes for the tastes of his primarily British patronage. I am a curry aficionado, and this one, though inauthentic, fills a niche among my favorites. This is a curry for when you want to impress the in-laws. If you have any curry haters in your acquaintanceship, serve them this and they will be well on their way to getting over it. Escoffier recommends that this sauce be served with fish, shellfish, poultry and egg dishes. Because of its strong flavor, I am a huge fan of it served with grilled chicken. Serve with a good quality chutney and pilaf and a cold rosé wine, such as a Sancerre. Summertime eating never had it so good.
Poulet a la Currie à l'Indienne

Serves 4


  • 2 chickens
  • 1/2 oz. good quality butter (such as Kerrygold or other European style butter)
  • 2 1/4 oz. finely sliced onion
  • Bouquet garni of parsley stalks, thyme, ½ bayleaf, mace and cinnamon)
  • 1/2 tsp. curry powder, or more to taste
  • 1 cup, coconut milk
  • 1 cup, rich chicken stock
  • 1/4 cup, heavy cream
  • Fresh lemon juice


Butcher the chickens into quarters, leg and thigh and boneless breast and wing. Remove the bones from the thighs and remove the end portions of the wings, leaving the drumettes attached to the boneless breasts. Season with salt and pepper and put aside.

Prepare a grill for the chicken.

To make the sauce:

Heat butter in a saucier or sauté pan; add onion and bouquet garni; cook together without color until the onion is translucent and the herbs and spices are fragrant.

Sprinkle with curry powder and moisten with coconut milk and chicken stock. Simmer together, very gently, for 15 minutes. Strain through a fine sieve and finish with cream and a few drops of lemon juice.

Cook the chicken:

Grill the chicken. Cook skin side down over high heat, monitoring carefully. You want strong grill marks and a touch of char, but you do not want it to burn. Turn the chicken to the cooler side of the grill and cover, allowing to cook to an internal temperature of 170°F on the breasts and 175°F on the thighs.

To serve:

On each plate, put down a base of a good pilaf. If it has a sweet element, such as a touch of fruit, that marries excellently with this sauce. Place a breast/wing and a leg/thigh just below the pilaf, crossing the bones over the rice. Ladle 2 ounces of the sauce over the thigh and breast section, allowing it to pool beneath. Finish with a sprinkling of chopped flat leaf parsley, if desired.

Notes: 1) This recipe calls for chicken stock because we are serving it with chicken. It may be made as effectively with fish stock, veal stock or lamb stock to marry it with the dish being served. If serving the sauce with a variety of meats or with eggs, veal stock is the most neutral. 2) Coconut milk may be manufactured by soaking 1 ½ lbs. of grated fresh coconut in a pint of lukewarm milk, then strain through cheesecloth. If coconut is unavailable, this may be done using chopped almonds as well.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review: The Sonoma Diet by Dr. Connie Guttersen, R.D., Ph.D.

The Sonoma Diet: Trimmer Waist, Better Health in Just 10 Days [Hardcover] by Connie Guttersen (Author), Stephanie Karpinske (Editor)
Publisher: Meredith Books (December 27, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0641975678
Rating (1 to 5*): ****

I have dealt with a significant tendency toward overweight for all of my life. This comes from my personal burden of loving food mated with my fundamental laziness. Now, as it happens, my darling wife also loves food, but she is a dynamo, and she tends to work excess calories off readily. In addition to that, through the years, she has tried a variety of diets and life-plans that are conducive to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. But I hate diets. I do not like the frozen diet foods and the fodder that diet books try to convince you to eat – I am a foodie! I really want good quality food.

Worse than the diets are the "healthy living plans" that forbid all things delicious. They instruct that you should become accustomed to eating construction paper and that all things tempting and delicious are for short-lived fatties. They do wisely recommend vigorous activity on a regular basis, but the eating aspect is hellish.

So, one day, at one of these travelling book fairs, on the bottom shelf of the cookbook rack I spotted a book called The Sonoma Diet. Since I am a fan of all things associated with the lyrically beautiful Sonoma County, and since I also love to ridicule diet books, I picked it up to give it a quick once-over. In perusing its pages I found that much of it is based on the very reputable South Beach Diet, which is, in turn, heavily influenced by the Mediterranean Diet Plan. OK, so far, so good. The South Beach Diet, whilst much of the food is convenience oriented, is a well balanced approach to eating for life – it does not deny much of anything. Like the Mediterranean Diet Plan, it is more about finding balance in what you eat, and less about cutting things out, with the notable exception of garbage. There is no room in any of these plans for much of anything made by Hostess, but that is alright by me.

Then I got to the recipe section of the book. The diet and the recipes are laid out in three phases – Wave 1 is the acclimation portion of the diet, Wave 2 is for continued weight loss, and Wave 3 is the way to balance food for your life. If you fall off the wagon for a bit – go on a cruise or opt for the butter poached lobster at The French Laundry (and who wouldn't?) – it is easy to back off to an earlier wave to drop a few, or a number of, pounds, and you are back on track.

And the recipes are fantastic. Everything in Dr. Guttersen's book is about fresh ingredients. We really leverage our local farmers' markets heavily to acquire the fresh and ripe vegetables, fruits and herbs that we eat in this diet. Since we live in the northern end of the beautiful Sacramento Valley in California, we are blessed with fresh local fruits and vegetables no less than ten months per year.

The fantastic food is, however, both the best thing about this diet and the stumbling block that some dieters may find with it. Since real cooking is involved, much of the food requires preparation of fresh ingredients and, as such, it may be more time consuming than many wish to, or can, devote to preparation. The way menus for Phases 1 and 2 are written, however, is such that much of the prep for two or three days may be done at once. Additionally, there are times when leftovers from the previous day's dinner are used in the next day's lunch. For example, on one day we had marinated flank steak for dinner, and the following day we had steak & blue cheese wraps using the leftover steak.

I do not always like Dr. Guttersen's recommendations. Omelets, for example, are a staple of The Sonoma Diet in all three waves, which is great – I love omelets. She, however, wants them to be cooked in extra virgin olive oil, and in my view, that undermines much of the joy of a good omelet. I would use extra virgin olive oil as a first choice substitute for whole butter, but, because of the temperatures at which omelets are cooked and because of how wonderfully butter and eggs mate, I really like to cook my omelets in butter. I understand the virtues of olive oil, and the generally exaggerated evils of good quality butter, but that does not matter. I want butter with my eggs.

The good doctor, however, is looking after my health, so I adhere to her rules. And, despite that fact, on this diet I have no significant cravings. Yes, periodically I jones for a Porterhouse cooked rare over charcoal and seasoned with freshly cracked black Tellicherry peppercorns, a generous pinch of fleur de sel and lemon wedges, a side of Johnny Schmitt's Potatoes au Gratin and maybe a scoopful of the roasted carrots and onions the way that they do them at Izzy's; but I crave that stuff when I am normally eating badly.

If I give into those temptations now and then, that is alright – as a wise man once said, "It's not what you eat on Sundays that makes you fat. It's what you eat every day that makes you fat." This diet is an amazingly good way to eat every day. It is appealing to people who love good fresh food and who love to cook, but who need to watch their food intake.

Here is an example of one of our Wave 1 friendly recipes from The Sonoma Diet, p. 180: 
 Beef and Mushroom Kabobs 
Prep: 25 minutes Marinate: 30 minutes to 1 hour Grill: 8 minutes Makes: 6 servings 
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried oregano, crushed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (1 teaspoon minced)
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin or boneless sirloin, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces fresh mushrooms
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  1. For marinade, in a medium bowl combine vinegar, oil, the water, shallot, oregano, thyme, garlic, the ¾ teaspoon kosher salt and the ½ teaspoon pepper. 
  2. Season meat with additional kosher salt and pepper. Place meat in a self-sealing plastic bag set in a shallow dish. Pour half of the marinade over the meat. (Reserve remaining marinade for vegetables.) Seal bag; turn to coat meat. Marinate meat in refrigerator for 30 minutes to 1 hour, turning bag occasionally. 
  3. Place mushrooms and cherry tomatoes in another self-sealing plastic bag and set in a shallow dish. Pour remaining marinade over vegetables. Seal bag; turn to coat vegetables. Marinate at room temperature for 20 minutes. 
  4. Drain meat and vegetables, discarding marinade. On twelve 10-inch skewers*, alternately thread beef, mushrooms and tomatoes, leaving a ¼-inch space between pieces.
  5. For a charcoal grill, place kebobs on the rack of an uncovered grill directly over medium coals. Grill until desired doneness, turning kabobs once halfway through grilling. Allow 8 to 12 minutes for medium-rare doneness (145°F) or 12 to 15 minutes for medium doneness (160°F). (For a gas grill, preheat grill. Reduce heat to medium. Place kabobs on grill rack over heat. Cover and grill as above.) 
 Nutrition Facts per serving: 220 cal., 11 g total fat (4 g sat. fat), 70 mg chol., 177 mg sodium, 4 g carbo., 1 g fiber, 25 g pro.*Note: If using wooden skewers, soak them in water at least 1 hour before using.
Broiler method: Place kabobs on the unheated rack of a broiler pan. Broil 4 to 5 inches from the heat until desired doneness. Allow 8 to 12 minutes for medium-rare doneness (145°F) or 12 to 15 minutes for medium doneness (160°F), turning once halfway through broiling. 

When we do this recipe, I opt for the tenderloin. This goes against my natural inclination when it comes to kabobs, as they are traditionally a peasant food, but this is so delicious with tenderloin that I just cannot resist. Because I am using good quality tenderloin, I prefer to undercook it a bit. Also, we have access to some high quality baby portabella mushrooms, so we use those instead of white mushrooms, and they are fantastic on the grill.

In short, this is the best diet I have ever encountered for those who like to eat. It works, and there is no feeling of deprivation.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book Review: Clémentine in the Kitchen, by Samuel Chamberlain

Clémentine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain (Author), Ruth Reichl (Introduction)
Publisher: Modern Library; Revised edition (February 20, 2001
ISBN-10: 0375756647
Rating (1 to 5*): *****

Samuel Chamberlain (aka, Phineas Beck) and his wife, Narcissa (aka Diane), were fascinating people. He wrote a number of books on architecture and on historical interiors, and, with his wife, he produced three travelogue/cook books published by Gourmet Publishing in the 1960s. He also wrote a wonderful little book called Clémentine in the Kitchen that is again available through the Modern Library Food series of books.

Clémentine in the Kitchen tells the story of the American Beck family living in France in the years prior to World War II. Because they live in France, they fall in love with food, and once their appreciation of the local food begins to blossom, they are blessed with the presence of the talented French cook, Clémentine. Through her years of service to them, the entire family quite falls in love with her and they are utterly spoiled by her wonderful cooking and her delightful demeanor.

This book is a delightful read, and readers will fall thoroughly in love with Clémentine and with the Beck family, and they will share their heartbreak when they part. It is a short book, good for an afternoon's read, and the special treat is that the last third of it is recipes! Much of the mouthwatering food lovingly described in the book has a recipe offered as well, making this a treasure trove for lovers of real French cuisine. Please note, however, that the recipes are written in an old-fashioned style, instructing the method of preparation and giving ingredients as the method progresses. As a result, cooks will have to read through the recipe and make notes in order to prepare their mis-en-place. This style of recipe writing, though antiquated, is one that I am quite fond of, though it does not lend itself to speed in the kitchen.

From Clémentine in the Kitchen, p. 89:

 Boeuf Bourguignon

For four people: In an iron cocette or heavy casserole, bubbling with 2 tablespoons of hot butter, brown 2 pounds of good lean stewing beef cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes, a few pieces at a time, until the meat is "closed." Remove the pieces to a bowl as they are browned. Stir a tablespoon of flour into the juices in the cocette and simmer, stirring, to make a roux brun. Add salt and pepper and 1 1/2 cups of good red wine.

Brown apart in a skillet 2 coarsely chopped onions in 1 tablespoon of butter. Return the beef and its juices to the cocette and add 1 carrot, another onion, 1 clove of garlic, and 2 shallots, all finely sliced, and a bouquet garni, a piece of cracked veal knuckle, and the browned onions. Add then 1/2 cup of Madeira and enough water to bring the liquid just to the level of the meat.

Put the lid on this poetic ensemble and allow it to simmer very gently, covered, for 2 1/2 hours or more, until the meat is tender and the sauce is a rich, dark brown. One half hour before the dish is done, add a liqueur glass of brandy and 1/4 pound of raw mushroom caps. Finish the cooking with the lid on the cocotte, unless you judge the sauce not to be reduced enough.

Steamed new potatoes are the best companion piece, and so is a vigorous red wine, such as Corton Pommard, or California pinot noir. A cold winter's night can be brightened in many ways, but rarely in a more earthy and satisfying manner than this.

Ruth Reichl, the last editor of the now defunct and much missed Gourmet Magazine, wrote an introduction that not only prepares the reader for the joyful reading experience at hand, but ties it to her own life in such a way that readers experience the story that much more personally.

I love this book. It is one of my favorite summer afternoon reads, and it breaks my heart that it is so very short. It is a true gem of foodie literature, and it should not be missed. Read it – you too will fall in love with Clémentine!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Kitchen Shelf

The things that I love are the preparation and consumption of food and books. I think that they represent both sides of my family; my beloved and sainted mother remains one of the finest household cooks that I have ever known. She grew up in a house with a mother who was a Swiss trained cook and who cooked in aristocratic English homes in the late nineteenth century.

My dear and much missed father, on the other hand, had trouble boiling water for his own tea, but he was well educated and the best read person that I have ever met. I grew up in a home with 10,000 volumes covering the walls, ranging in content from the classics of great literature and historical tomes to the hundreds of murder mysteries and local color novels spanning the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We had leather-bound editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica dating from 1885 and 1968.

And cook books.

My mother had shelves of beautiful cookbooks. Magical tomes filled with arcane formulae that were paths to joy and wonder. Ways to clean and cure snails and make soufflés that were light as clouds. Books in English and in French and handwritten books filled with notes made by her mother and grandmother before her were on those shelves, and they were treasured before all others. Whatever I wanted to eat, no matter what the cuisine or the level of skill and knowledge required, I needed only request it of my mother, and it would be done.

One could travel the world through those shelves. My father's books of the world and of history and my mother's books on cooking were a means by which I could go anywhere and anywhen. Those shelves are no longer available to me, but I have tried to rebuild them to a small extent in my home and my heart. I am still looking for a 1920s edition of Ali-Bab's Gastronomie Pratique, the book from which I learned my limited French.

Whilst I am tracking that volume down, I hope that you will come and journey with me through some wonderful books on food. I will do lots of cookbook reviews, but it will not stop there. This blog is devoted to all sorts of books on food: Cookbooks of every sort, old and new, books on food science and technique, fiction with strong foodie appeal and foodie movies too. We will read and review books and test recipes report back to you on the best and the brightest. And we will get some authors of great new cookbooks to guest blog too!