Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nothing beats free

When it comes to cookbooks, we economical epicureans often find ourselves in quite a predicament. They beckon to us, the same way red wine does, and we cannot resist. They are expensive, sometimes upward of $40, especially the pretty, famous, or encyclopedic ones, but we rationalize them as a necessary expense, or at least a sensible, self-improving one. Yet -- and this may not apply to all economical epicureans, just the capitalized Economical Epicurean -- we rarely maximize their utility. We may refer to the same four recipes again and again, neglecting the remaining four hundred. Did we really pay $40 for four recipes, we sometimes ask ourselves in horror?

Then, we realize, we are using the first person plural rather peculiarly, and so we scratch our head, think maybe it's time to seek therapy, decide it's too expensive, and revert back to "I."

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the cookbook-buying success I've had at used bookstores and book sales. Among my better finds are Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Madhur Jaffrey's Indian Cooking, Pam Anderson's The Perfect Recipe and How to Cook Without a Book (ironic title, I know), and Molly Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook and Enchanted Broccoli Forest. But such successes were the result of a combination of simple luck, hawkish bargain-hunting strategy, and occasional violence. Most of the time, if a cookbook is good, its owner wants to keep it, and so the good ones seldom end up on the $5-and-under shelf.

For this same reason, the library is a great place to find cookbooks. It doesn't seem to occur to people that you even can borrow cookbooks from the library, and why would you want to anyway, many cooks might wonder. Cookbooks are reference items, and what use is a reference item if you have to return it in three weeks? Note, for example, how the reference books in the library are not in circulation. But for those of us who are promiscuous with our cookbooks -- using them a few times, then moving on to the next pretty hardcover -- checking them out at the library is the most economical way to bake our cake and eat it, too. You could also treat library cookbooks as test drives: if the thought of returning a particular cookbook sends you into depression, you might as well buy it. At least you know you are paying for something you will actually use. I, for one, have paid full price for way too many cookbooks that turned out to be lemons. If only I'd had the good sense to test-drive them first.

On recent trips to the Rockville and Kensington branches (both part of the Montgomery County system), I encountered the entire collections of just about every celebrity cookbook author whose newest release you might see propped up on a display table at Barnes and Noble. From Nigella Lawson to Mark Bittman to Rachael Ray, they were all sitting there, glitzy covers in need of a good dusting, rarely if ever reshelved. More exciting for me, one of those annoying cookbook snobs, was what I'll call the NPR collection -- cookbooks with a scholarly approach, one that is more concerned with a recipe's authenticity than its ease. (I can't believe I just wrote that.) These books can be hard to find in bookstores, but at the library they're as ubiquitous as loud cell phone conversations. By the way, since when did librarians stop enforcing the quiet rule?

Anyway, at the 'brary you'll find Claudia Roden's Arabesque and New Book of Middle Eastern Cooking, Diana Kennedy's many books on Mexican food, Peter Berley's outstanding vegetarian cookbooks, and Cecilia Chiang's recent The Seventh Daughter, with recipes from her famous Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. If you're really high-falutin', you could borrow the roughly 200-lb Larousse Gastronomique, which retails for $75. Also, just about all of the America's Test Kitchen and Best Recipe books are in circulation, so I can finally outfox that smug, bowtie-bedecked Chris Kimball, who's always hitting me up for more money.

I was most pleased to find the entire collection of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's beautiful cookbooks, based on recipes they've encountered on their years of wandering through Asia. I started with Seductions of Rice because of the sexy title. It's full of great anecdotes, gorgeous photographs, and, oh yeah, a lot of rice, which indeed is a lot more seductive than I had previously thought. I made one of the first recipes, a scorching hot chili paste based on a version that Alford and Duguid encountered in the hometown of Mao Zedong (certainly a spicy character in world history). I had every intention of using Mao Chili Paste in another Seductions recipe, the Spicy Cucumber Surprise, and tossing it with some rice and beans to make a full meal. Unfortunately, the cucumber in my fridge had turned into Fuzzy Blue Surprise. Ergo, my recipe is a full departure from Alford and Duguid's, but still uses Mao Chili Paste, and is -- if I may say so myself -- a delicious, healthy, and inexpensive dinner. I just may buy Seductions of Rice, or maybe I will just keep renewing it till the Montgomery County Libraries hunt me down.

Recipe: Mao Chili Paste
Adapted from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid's Hot Chile Paste from Seductions of Rice. Dried red chilis are very cheap, especially at Asian grocery stores. Alford and Duguid, who seem pretty trustworthy when it comes to the cuisines of Asia, say this is better than any store-bought chili paste they've ever tried. It's extremely hot, so if you don't like spicy food, don't even go near it. Just being in the kitchen while it's on the stove will make anyone's eyes water. I halved Alford and Duguid's recipe, and my proportions are below. Makes about a half cup.

1/2 C loosely packed dried red chilis, rinsed
1/2 C boiling water
1/2 t salt
1/2 t sugar
1/2 T peanut oil or vegetable oil
2 T minced shallots (optional)
1 t rice vinegar or cider vinegar

Place the chilis in a medium bowl, pour the boiling water over them, and use a wooden spoon to press the chilis into the water. Let soak for at least 20 minutes or up to 2 hours. Transfer the chili/water mixture to a food processor or blender and puree; add the salt and sugar and puree again. Set aside. Heat a wok or heavy skillet to medium-high heat and add the oil once the pan is very hot, then add the shallots, if you are using them, and stir fry for about until soft, 2 minutes. Add the chili mixture and stir fry for another 20 seconds, then remove from heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow it to cool, then transfer to a well-sealed container, where it will keep well in the refrigerator.

Recipe: Spicy Rice and Beans Surprise (pictured at top of post)
Inspired by Spicy Cucumber Surprise, also from Seductions of Rice. The Cucumber Surprise sounds great, so if you have a cucumber handy, just chop it up and stir fry it with all the ingredients for a couple minutes. I used red rice and chickpeas because I had some already, but you could use any rice or beans for this dish. Makes two servings.

3/4 C rice
2 C water
1 C chickpeas, soaked overnight and boiled for an hour and a half or till soft
1 T peanut oil
2 t ground ginger
1 t sugar
1 T soy sauce
1 t Mao Chili Paste (less for a milder version)
1/2 t salt
2 T chopped basil or cilantro (optional)

In a heavy medium saucepan, boil the water. Rinse the rice in a strainer and add to the boiling water; wait for it to return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low-medium, and cook, stirring occasionally, till the water is absorbed and the rice is slightly soft. Remove from heat, fluff with a fork, and let sit a few minutes. In a frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat; once it's very hot, add the garlic and stir fry for a minute. Add the beans, ginger, sugar, soy sauce, and chili paste and stir fry another minute. Remove from heat, and stir the bean mixture into the rice. Add the salt and basil or cilantro, if using.


Mike said...

The astringent burning in my sinuses caused by the frying chili pepper fumes was my first clue that this recipe was truly authentic.

Daniel said...

Completely agree in how it's easy to under-utilize our own cookbooks. I did the math in my home and realized that I'd left something like 80% of the recipes completely untouched in my collection of cookbooks.

That's why I created Cookbook Exploitation Month--every April I tell my readers to pick up one of their underused cookbooks and choose some new recipes out of them.

Heading to the library is a great idea too, but there's usually a gold mine of even more convenient recipes sitting right there on your cookbook shelf.

Casual Kitchen

DEO said...

Mike - You need to help me finish it!

Dan - You are so right about our under-used cookbooks! In addition to the lemons I've bought, I have some really excellent ones that I don't use nearly enough. But, sometimes we need something "new" to give us a boost of inspiration -- better to borrow something for free from the library than buy a book at the bookstore that we may or may not end up using.