Sunday, February 1, 2015

Food Gurus by Stephen Vines [book review]--and Sesame and Dukkah Cubes

Food Gurus: 20 People Who Changed the Way We Eat and Think About Food by Stephen Vines is a collection of essays about people who have impacted food today. The figures examined range from Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481) to current food personalities including Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, and Alice Waters.

The book covers a diverse collection of cooks, chefs, and writers. Platina was (arguably) the person who first created cookbooks and popularized the idea of cooking from a recipe. There are a handful of French greats included, such as Georges August Escoffier, Fernand Point, and Antonin Careme. More recent figures are Delia Smith, Elizabeth David, Julia Child, Dr Atkins, and Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonald's.

I enjoyed reading that Escoffier (1846 - 1935) pioneered the idea of serving food in courses. Prior to this, food at the French stately houses was presented with all the dishes brought to the table at once. Escoffier thought that serving the food in courses would mean that the table was less crowded and that each one could be eaten at the temperature at which it was meant to be served. Escoffier is also credited with creating an incredible 10,000 dishes (which were published in numerous weighty volumes), yet he also expounded in one of his books that "the number of alimentary substances is comparatively small, the number of their combinations is not infinite, and the amount of raw material placed either by art of by nature at the disposal of a cook does not grow in proportion to the whims of the public."

Escoffier moved on from serving statesmen to running restaurants at fancy hotels. He worked at the Savoy Hotel in London and invented the Peach Melba in honour of the Australian singer Nellie Melba, who lived at the hotel. Escoffier had seen her perform a piece called the Majestic Swan, so he created a dish of peaches served on ice cream and encased in a block of ice shaped as a swan.

The book includes recipes in most chapters, which are chosen less to be used by the reader and more to be indicative of each person's food contributions. My Kindle version of the book didn't include an index of these, so I compiled a listing of the recipes in the book. Some are clearly out of reach of the home cook. For my part I intend to soon make Alice Water's baked goat's cheese salad, a staple at her California restaurant, Chez Panisse. It's a simple bed of crunchy seasonal lettuce topped with oozing, herb marinated goat's cheese.

I also created these sesame and dukkah jelly cubes--they are a savoury snack based on a recipe by Ferran Adria. He is a contemporary chef who ran the El Bulli restaurant, which was for many years said to be the best restaurant in the world. Adria invented molecular gastronomy, though he preferred the term "deconstructionist". His style of cooking is about "taking a dish that is well known and transforming all its ingredients, or part of the; then modifying the dish's texture, form and/or its temperature. Deconstructed, such a dish will preserve its essence... but its appearance will be radically different from the original's". He works with foams, frozen savoury items, and many unexpected combinations.

I am not sure I have eaten many things like Adria's cooking before! So I decided to try these savoury jelly cubes, based on a recipe from the book. They turned out a bit strange, if I'm honest. I wasn't sure how to serve them so I ended up eating them with a snack plate of vegetables. I think they would make extremely posh appetisers, each one placed on a leaf of crunchy radicchio. I'm glad I tried something new and I can see how thrilling it would be to think of novel ways to cook and prepare permutations of more accepted dishes.

Sesame and Dukkah Jelly Cubes
makes about 20 cubes
adapted from Food Gurus

Dukkah is an Egyptian mix of toasted nuts, seeds, and spices. It can be bought at many large grocery stores or you can make your own using this recipe. You will need a candy or espresso thermometer for this recipe.

2 c (500 ml) full fat milk
4 t gelatine powder (or two 9 g gelatine sheets)
2 T sesame oil
1/4 c (4 T) dukkah powder

Prepare a loaf pan by draping it with plastic wrap that hangs over the sides.
Put 1 2/3 c (400 ml) of the milk into the freezer until it reaches 3 C (about twenty minutes).
If using gelatine sheets, rehydrate them in a small bowl of cold water.

Put 1/3 c milk (100 ml) into a small saucepan and whisk in the gelatine powder or add the drained gelatine sheets. Add the sesame oil.
Turn the pan to low heat; whisk while  the milk heats to 40 C.
Pour the hot milk into a mixing bowl and add all the cold milk. Whisk to combine.
Pour into the prepared pan, cover, and place in the fridge for two hours or more.

After two hours, cut the jelly into cubes.
Spread the dukkah on a shallow plate and dip two or three sides of each cube into the dukkah.
Serve cold.

Vines admitted (in a very interesting interview) that he had to be subjective about choosing his twenty personalities. I was also subjective, dipping in and out of the book based on my whims. I am looking forward to reading some Elizabeth David with the Kitchen Reader group in March; she seemed like a controversial and intriguing food writer.

In February, the Kitchen Reader club is reading Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller (chosen by Amanda of Omar Niode Foundation). I'm keen to find out more about "evoo" and I wonder if I will learn how to pick a good bottle without being ripped off. Would you like to join us?

Related: I made the baked goat's cheese salad from Alice Waters' restaurant Chez Panisse, which was mentioned in the book.

Who would you name as your "food guru"?

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