Thursday, April 28, 2011

A cookbook digression.

I have this feeling that some people who read this blog are like me and enjoy cooking as well as eating. I began cooking as a means of self-preservation when I was a teenager. My father traveled a lot, and was away from home much of the time. My mother was a school teacher, and she left for work early and came home late. Unfortunately, as an adolescent and young teenager, I was hungry basically all the time.

So, one day after school, I opened the refrigerator out of desperation and decided to cook something for myself. I don't recall if it was successful or not, but it probably filled me up because I continued to cook. Then, I had a mini-epiphany: I discovered that I could cook ... whatever I wanted to eat! Not what was plopped down in front of me. I was off and running.

I became enamored with spices, and went through the predictable process of making chili so hot I couldn't eat it, and assorted other failures resulting from my mantra of the time: "If a little is good, then a lot is a whole lot better." I suspect some of you may have done the same thing. I guess it's a rite of passage for would-be cooks. And, after my teenage appetite subsided, I discovered that I enjoyed the creative process of cooking, and the satisfaction I got from preparing really nice meals to share with my friends and family.

For me, eating good food and drinking good wine with your friends is a simple thing, but an important one in life.

At any rate, I thought I would do something a little different and pass along some information about a few cookbooks that I've been using for years or just discovered and enjoy.

A new discovery: The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh (2004, Broadway Books). Lots of great photos of early Texas eateries along with their recipes. The guacamole recipe alone is worth buying the book. I picked up a used copy online for something like $2.

One thing this book has changed about my cooking is that I now make all my own tortilla chips and taco shells. For the latter, you simply heat some peanut oil in a skillet, drop in a yellow corn tortilla, cook briefly on both sides, lift one side with tongs to create the V-shape, the tortilla hardens as it fries, you then drop the lifted side down into the oil and let it fry briefly, take it out and drain on paper towels, and stick in the oven to stay warm. Done. All this in about 30 seconds. The taste is better, the shell is still pliable and a little chewy, and fewer preservatives. Nice.

For Chinese food, it's just tough to beat Irene Kuo's The Key to Chinese Cooking (1980, Knopf). So many good recipes; many of which can be prepared in under ten minutes. Just a great cookbook.

Another wonderful book is Thai Home-Cooking from Kamolmal's Kitchen by William Crawford and Kamolmal Pootaraksa (1985, Plume -- an imprint of Penguin Books). This contains my absolute favorite soup in the world, Kung Dom Yam or Hot and Spicy Shrimp Soup.

You make a roasted red curry (Nam Prig Pao) for the soup in advance, and, friends, when they suggest that you prepare the curry mixture outside on a grill because "... a very strong odor will develop when you are frying the dried shrimp and shrimp paste ...," they're not kidding. Do it. The soup is worth it. And, the curry keeps for months in a closed container in your refrigerator.

I really don't think you can beat Julia Child and Simone Beck's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

And for Cajun food, I've gone through two copies of Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen (1984, William Morrow). There are so many good recipes in this book it's just amazing. The cooking process tends to be elaborate and time-consuming, but the results are almost always worth it. I now cook Brabant potatoes pretty often as a result, and people love them. The seafood filé gumbo is fabulous (and the standard by which I judge all other gumbos), and I've never met anyone who didn't swoon over the roasted pork with oyster dressing or the barbecued shrimp. They're really that good.

So, for you cooks out there, I hope you'll try one or more of these books and see for yourself just how good they are.


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