Cowboy Beans

Hi. Remember me? I hope you do. And I hope you’ll go easy on me when I say that food blogging has been a little bit down on my list of things that have gotten done around here. And for that I’m sorry. After my trip last month to Virginia, a few interviews, a book review from Kristina, a big move and speaking at IACP in Portland, I’m prepared to jump back into my kitchen and get back to what I really love to do.

Oh, and then there’s some news of a book deal of my own I just signed. Needless to say I’m excited. It’ll be loads of fun, a bit silly yet sincere, a place where highbrow meets lowbrow. But much more on this later.

(and remember, you can always find me on twitter, where I’m usually oversharing, tweeting under the influence of rosé, and wondering why my self-censoring filter only kicks in after the 141st character, oh brother…)

But enough about that stuff.

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Book Reviews: Vegetables and Gardening and Sustainable Eating, Oh My!

Welcome to our third installment of cook book reviews from Kristina Gill. It’s a spirited edition, don’t say I did not warn you! However, if you’re like me I suspect you’ll enjoy a personal take on some of the themes dealt with in a couple of the books from one of my most favorite people on the planet. I mean, one of my most favorite opinionated people on the planet. And if you don’t enjoy it, don’t be shy about sharing your opinion.  She can take it!  Take it away, Kristina!

The sun has finally come out after weeks of strange weather, and we have at least a promise of great weather to come.  Each year I promise myself I’m going to go convince the farmer across the street to come help me set up my garden (do it myself??  What??), and each year I never do!  So I have a little stack of books here all about gardening, eating from your garden, and all the things you need to know to get busy dibbling and dabbling…or getting good and dirty and starting a serious garden.  These days the topic of “growing  your own food” is always in the context of something a lot bigger, a moral and ethical sales pitch is in there too.  So I’ve included a couple of those titles for you.

The Conscious Kitchen:  The New Way to Buy and Cook Food– to Protect the Earth, Improve Your Health, and Eat Deliciously by Alexandra Zissu (Clarkson Potter 2010; no photography!)  I’ve been sitting with this book by my bedside for a few weeks, and it has been eating away at my brain.  Figuratively speaking.  This is a little manual about tips on how to live a more environmentally friendly life, in the food context.  I think if you’re moderately informed about the issues raised in this book (food miles, local vs organic, carbon footprint, recycling, etc) you will have a strong reaction to its content.  For now, all I will say is that if you’re easily depressed by learning that you’ve been packing your lunch for the past 10 years in something that has known carcinogens in it, this isn’t your book.  However, if you’re interested in knowing how much of the crap in your house is sending the earth to hell in a hand basket and how to move beyond that (NB: it’s about 99.999% of what you own), this is a great book.  If you’re the kind of person who wants to fit in to this movement, but looks for new ways to morally justify all of your exclusive imported food and wine choices to whomever may challenge you, this is your book.  If, like me, you are mortified, even paralyzed by the knowledge that you thought you were making good choices but apparently aren’t, and don’t really have the means to start over and this paralyzes you even more, yet you feel compelled to try do more or at least KNOW what you’re doing wrong, this book is a wealth of knowledge.  I personally feel that everyone should become familiar with the issues raised in the book, regardless of whether they agree with the author’s opinions and conclusions, and the book is short enough and simple enough to read quickly.  NB:  Using salted water in an aluminum pan in place of silver polish didn’t work for me though!!

Lucid Food:  Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life by Louise Shafia (Ten Speed Press, 2009; photography by Jennifer Martiné).  This IACP award-nominated book is a recipe book, interspersed with tips on how to “make great food that will sustain you and the environment”.  Divided into seasons, so you learn when the “right time” of year is to enjoy different fruits and vegetables.  Although not an entirely vegetarian book, this would be a safe (and cherished) vegetarian resource.  The recipes are elegant and refined, quite varied and refreshingly new.  The spices and combinations of ingredients are Asian, European, and ‘New American’, a small sampling of the world.  The only slight drawback is that if you don’t live in a well-stocked city, finding some of the ingredients will be challenging like barberries, rose petals, sheets of yuba, and so forth.  (And of course since you’re trying to be eco-conscious, you won’t mail order anything, will you?)  But don’t get me wrong– I believe that having a hard time finding ingredients periodically just encourages a curious cook to try out new combinations.  Jennifer Martiné’s gorgeous photography ensures that you’ll spend a lot of time studying the pages of this book, and get good use out of it, whether it’s to learn more about how you can lead an environmentally sustainable culinary existence, or to cook, or both.

On a separate note, and one which I do not believe detracts from the utility of Lucid Food as primarily a cookbook, I must admit I was a bit perplexed at certain assumptions Shafia made in the book.  For example:  “…Many of these [out of season] foods come from countries where labor conditions and pesticide use are unregulated.  This produce is usually inferior to locally-grown fruits and vegetables in both taste and nutritional value,” as if our agricultural sector can boast of better labor conditions or pesticide use…  Shafia also writes, “Some will argue that eating local, sustainable, and organic food is simply too expensive– or worse, exclusive or elitist– and that families on fixed incomes can’t afford to eat this way.  I would like to challenge that misconception right off the bat.” and then goes into the hidden costs of “inferior foods flown in from distant countries”, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, keeping money in the local economy etc.  She, like Zissu, obviously assumes that “affordability” is only monetary.   I guess in her world, if families with fixed incomes just realized how beautiful it is to bicycle around town in between their two and three jobs to smell the roses, stop and dig in some good and wormy compost, and get their employers to give them a break during the day to get in a trip to the farmer’s market, these people would so be with the program.  I don’t know though, because she doesn’t deal with the idea beyond this very superficial and common approach we see so often in these sermons.

The Seasoned Vegetarian by Simon Rimmer (Mitchell Beazley 2009; photography by Chris Terry) Phew!  I needed a break from all the shame.  A break from the advice that I should only be eating food which was harvested during the new moon on Monday. And who better to turn to for that than a Brit.  Simon Rimmer’s book is the equivalent of vegetarian comfort food.  Note:  This isn’t traditional British by any means, but the recipes are indeed very ‘modern’ British.  (Goat’s cheese and onion tart, zucchini fritters with green olive salsa, baked cherry tomatoes with ricotta and basil, falafel, hazelnut and chocolate meringues…)  All the ingredients are typical ones you can find where you do your food shopping, without difficulty.  Technique is simple, creativity isn’t at the level of Lucid Food, but then again, comfort food never is!  Rimmer’s recipes are straight forward and easy to produce.  In fact, this would be a good book for someone who is just starting out in the kitchen, regardless of their preference for eating meat.

New Urban Farmer:  From Plot to Plate:  A Year on the Allotment by Celia Brooks Brown (Quadrille 2010; photography by Jill Mead). So if the first two books really convinced you you should run right out and start an environmentally friendly garden, here you go.  This book is a great little treasure.  It follows the months of the year, starting in March (so I’m a little behind in telling you about it).  For each month’s chapter, it has charts that tell you which fruits/vegetables can be grown indoors / under glass, outdoors, or in containers, and then whether there is a recipe in the book.  The beginning chapter explains the basics of what you will need, and each chapter walks you through what you should be doing at each stage of the month.  It’s a very handy book for preparatory reading and a good reference thereafter, including recipes!

Grow Great Grub:  Organic Food from Small Spaces by Gayla Trail (Clarkson Potter 2009) This book could be the companion to Celia Brooks Brown’s book because it covers all the areas that Celia’s book doesn’t:  this is where you learn where and how to make your garden, how to make your containers, what bugs will be destroying what plants and how to deal with them.  There are recipes here too, but few of them.  There is, however, a chapter on how to preserve and can your harvest.  When I read through this book, starting a few plants on my balcony  before heading into gardening in my yard seems doable.  This book is a companion to Trail’s comprehensive website “You Grow Girl”, which by the way turned 10 this year.  Happy Birthday!  I promise I will do at least 1 plant this spring following her methods!

Mark Bittman Interview: How To Cook Everything To Go!

I keep making the joke that I’m slowly becoming the Rona Barrett of food blogging and I think it’s actually becoming a reality much faster than I thought. And you know what? I’m cool with that. A huge reason why I began blogging was to share stories and the personalities behind the food. Interviewing both Alice Waters and Mark Bittman of the New York Times in one week was such a treat for me and I don’t even have a fancy couch or my own band. At any rate, I gave away a few copies of Mark’s new App called How To Cook Everything To Go earlier this morning and just got off the phone with him.  Want to know what he thinks of his app? There’s an interview for that.

Matt: Thanks so much for the phone chat and this quick interview. Congratulations on the iphone app, it’s a beauty!

Mark: You know, I can’t tell you how little I actually had to do with the app! They did an amazing job and they did it with complete respect for the book. They took the book and didn’t make it better but took what was in it to the level it deserves to be electronically. There’s no e-version of any cookbook anywhere that’s as good as this. It’s incredible. And I can say that because I had such little to do with this app!

Matt: Oh c’mon, Mark. You had everything to do with this book!

Mark: Well, you know I’m very proud of How To Cook Everything but I don’t go around bragging about it. But this, well, it’s not my creation in a way so I can really say how terrific I think it is!

Matt: It is terrific! I got it a few days ago and have already used it several times. When I was walking around the market with it I realized how powerful it really is. You can’t exactly lug your book around the market.

Mark: People have been talking about how to make a cookbook useful on a mobile device and this is probably not the end but it’s a start of an era that people have been looking for. There may be an app that’s as good as this cooking wise but I sure haven’t seen it yet.

Matt: I don’t think I have either.  So now that this seems to really work how do you see the future of what you do?

Mark: I’m not sure it changes. It don’t think it’s going to change the way I use the book, I don’t think it’s going to change the way I write books because we know the benefits of print and also the limitations of print. This is really starting to explore the benefits of non-print in a way that works. This app is as good as or better than any cooking website and it’s on a phone. That’s incredible!

Matt: I think the ability to search is what makes it so powerful. I’ve already kicked the tires and used it to shop and answer questions about a few things. The immediacy of having the information right there is powerful. Being able to access all your recipes from the book is pretty cool, too.

Mark: Right. The search thing works. The shopping list works. The timer works. All of it works. We kicked the tires too and really love the interface.  We kept saying we can do more, we can do more and the team did.

When we began we kept thinking that we’d stick the book in an app but the book had so many unique characteristics to it.  The sidenotes, the techniques, they all took the book to another level. We wanted to explore the boundaries of apps in the same way the book did.  And the proof is in the pudding – it’s selling like hotcakes already!

(How did Mark Bittman know I had pancakes for lunch?)

Matt: Do you own an iphone?

Mark: Yep. But I haven’t had the app any longer than you.  I didn’t have an iphone during a great deal of the development time. I was borrowing one and looking at mock-ups online but I finally broke down and “lost” my blackberry!

Matt: How long did it take to complete the app?

Mark: We were aiming for last Christmas but I’d say about a year. It’s been a long time. Just know that it was because there were so many people working really hard, it’s so dense with so much and it kept taking longer and longer. The result is that it’s quite amazing and gorgeous. People are happy. Even I’m happy and I’m a tough person to please!

Matt: Any plans to turn any of your other titles into apps?

Mark: Well, it’s not entirely up to me. Everything is up for discussion at this time. We wanted to go with the biggest and best possible thing first and this is it. And with this two dollar price (the app is currently $1.99-matt) it’s practically free. I think that’s only going to last a week or two, I’m not sure how long the promotion is on. We all wanted to make the How To Cook Everything To Go app the most powerful possible and also the most powerfully appealing. Whether it gets sliced and diced or if we do a How To Cook Everything Vegetarian app, just know there will be more.

Thanks Mark! And big thanks to Culinate!

Giveaway: How To Cook Everything To Go!

Thanks to Culinate and Wiley, I’ve been playing around with Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything To Go app for the iphone for a few days already. If you are like me, you use his book How To Cook Everything as a guide and as a great way to jump start many meals. Now imagine having all that in an app. Yep, it’s come in handy already, once at the grocery store and again at yesterday’s farmers’ market.

You should read what LA Weekly just said about it.

I’m giving away 5 digital copies of this app to the first 5 people who leave a comment below. If your entry gets hung up in my spam folder and doesn’t show up don’t worry (it happens sometimes!).  You’ll need an iphone and an itunes account to claim the app so make sure to leave your email address with me so I can get back to you. And if you aren’t speedy enough remember that you can purchase the app for $1.99 from the itunes store. It’s still a great deal considering you’ll have the entire book at your fingertips.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to play with my greasy, flour-coated iphone now.

Update: We have our winners! Comments are now closed, hot damn that went fast! But seriously folks, this app is such a fantastic resource and and for $1.99 it’s really a steal. Thanks guys!

A few minutes with Alice Waters

Alice Waters needs no introduction. And I’m not sure I could even put the words together to describe her even if I tried. She’s a force, a pioneer, a woman so essential to conscious eating and good food that anything I say will only fall short. When my friends at Random House asked if I’d like to spend a few minutes interviewing her about her new book In The Green Kitchen: Techniques To Learn By Heart I took about .00928988 seconds to reply. Especially because I am so in love with this book. In The Green Kitchen is a collection of Alice’s essential cooking techniques that I honestly believe should belong in every cook’s library.  It’s not earth-shattering but solid, not revolutionary but complete. And while a book of her techniques alone would make the book worthwhile in every sense, it’s the cast of friends and family members throughout the book that really brings home what she believes in: that good food is a right and not a privilege and that food unites us all.

Our phone conversation was meant to coincide with a web video chat. There were some issues, the video didn’t work, but we forged ahead.

Matt: Hello Alice, thank you so much for taking the time to do this, this is wonderful!

Alice: Well this is a bit disconcerting to me because I thought I would be seeing people as well as talking to them! It feels very strange to all of a sudden just have audio without video. I probably would have spoken differently if I knew I was just having audio.

Matt: Well I even ironed a shirt!

Alice laughs. I made Alice Waters laugh!

Alice: And I have a beautiful bowl of page mandarins right in front of me.

Matt: Oh! Well once again we’re foiled by technology! Hey, at least we’re speaking so that’s great! First, I just wanted to say congratulations on such a beautiful book.

Alice: Oh thank you!

Matt: The book, the techniques, the stories, it’s just something that I think everyone will want to keep close to them. And I’m a breadcrumb freak so I’m so happy to see that!

Alice: Oh you like that tray of breadcrumbs then!

Matt: Indeed I do. I love that tray of breadcrumbs. Those things have opened so many possibilities in my world, the ability to add them to simple things like tomatoes, pasta, I could go on and on, trust me.

I wanted to ask you about working on this book and your writing process. Do you write when you are in the kitchen? Or do you find that you need to shut out the world and sit down with a pen and paper?

Alice: No. We work in a very collaborative way. There are a lot of different voices in this book although the book itself has become my own voice. But I’m kind of looking for people’s techniques and their little ways of talking about things and I wanted to incorporate that when I could. And with this particular book of there are a lot of different people it in. It’s rich from that point of view because you associate certain people with a way of cooking and here they’re talking about the simplicity of a particular dish or a little thing that they use to make it special. I wanted to make that happen for people in this book.

Matt: Speaking of a lot of different people, you share so many personal insights of people throughout the book that we’ve all known and admired over the years. Drake, a chef from Santa Barbara, wanted me to ask you if there are any up and coming chefs or foodmakers that you really respect and admire these days?

Alice: I love these young cooks who are such purists about where they get their ingredients. They go to the farmers’ market rain or shine, they go out to the farm, they’re ready to forage with their friends on the weekend, they are dedicated in a way that my generation certainly wasn’t. And it’s very inspiring. And it’s very political. Like Bryant Terry and Anna Lappé. But we have a whole group at Chez Panisse that is sort of inventing and working on the way of small rather than big, family run restaurants rather than a corporate one and finding that food is part of a wonderful way to love.

Matt: Well, I think we have you to thank for a lot of that, so thank you!

Alice: Thank you.

Matt: Your green kitchen manifesto includes “cooking and shopping for food brings rhythm and meaning to our lives.”  I think that’s one of the most profound things I’ve read in a long time. Could you elaborate on that?

Alice: Well I can only think about my own life, and what it meant to me to go to France when I was 19 and find a way that people lived their lives.  It just seemed so naturally woven into the culture of that place. And everybody seemed to have access to the rituals of the table, the farmers’ market, the seasonality of food, it wasn’t anything rarified. It was something that they were grateful for and took care with and appreciated. So it was a very real awaking for me and I wanted to live like that. I learned that food is a way to build a community in a real everyday way.

Matt: Amen to that.  As a blogger and food photographer I’m just captivated by the creative process and so in love with Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton’s work. What was it like working with them as a team on this book?

Alice: Oh, it was just kind of my dream. To be in my own kitchen, a beautiful day in September and to be able to go over to Chez Panisse, to find the ingredients that we wanted to have photographed, bring them back, put them in the natural light, use the bowls and dishes from my kitchen, and then eat the food! It’s the way that I wish I could really do every book–to be a part of the whole process, not just the conceptual part, the writing part, but really sort of engaged in it all. And the beautiful picture of the beans in the book and the ones of fruit? They were in no way contrived, they were just what was happening here in Northern California at that moment in time. It was a harvest moment and we had something that was just exquisite from my point of view. And I hope it feels that way, that it entices people so that they investigate the fruits and vegetables that we mention in the book and plant them in their own gardens.

Matt: Well it definitely comes through the printed page. It’s just incredibly beautiful. Thank you for your time, Alice!

Alice: And thank you.

In The Green Kitchen: Techniques To Learn By Heart by Alice Waters is available now from Clarkson Potter.  Don’t miss the online video component to the book here, it’s fantastic. A very special thanks to Allison at Clarkson Potter.

Update! There will be a webinar with Alice Waters next Wednesday, April 21st. Chat with her live, ask questions, hear her tips, and interact with this amazing culinary treasure. Click on over to Webex for more information.