Quite a few of the blogs I follow recommend or review cookbooks. Since I own so many and just keep buying more, I thought I might follow the example of others and write and talk about some of the cookbooks I own.
Many foodies, I know, can read a cookbook as if it was a novel, and I am absolutely one of those people!! When I get a new cookbook I usually read it from cover to cover and then put it away with all the others (maybe it's a possession thing?). Sometimes I mark a recipe with a sticky note or a book dart, other times I just hope I remember that there are good ones in whatever book it is I've just read.
What I'm going to try and do from now on is write about one as soon as I've read it, and it's still fresh in my mind.
So today's review is of the book mentioned above.
This is a very readable book (see comment above re novels). Mark is passionate about sustainable and ethical food production - the book is subtitled Cooking and eating for a sustainable future. In each section of the book Mark talks about the sustainability of the product in question, and these 'essays' are absolutely fascinating to read. The Vegetables chapter talks about food miles and the power of the supermarkets to enforce that only certain brands are available (have you ever seen Russet, La Motte, Atlantic or even Dutch Cream potatoes in any of the big ones??) and only perfect shapes are required (tho this is partly the buyer's fault too, because it's what they demand). Imperfect fruit and vegetables often can't be sold because the farmer's contract with a large chain supplier means he can't sell to anyone else.
Then there are the very interesting recipes in this section - roasted pumpkin with pine nuts and sage burnt butter; roasted beetroot salad with witlof, chives, yoghurt and walnut; broccoli, chili and anchovy taglierini; green papaya salad with snake beans and tomato; steamed asian greens with temari and fried shallots.
There is a very interesting mix of Asian and Western dishes throughout the book. I confess that I'd been a bit worried they'd all be tending towards the Asian side, as Mark is the head chef at Red Lantern, but my fears were groundless and all the Asian dishes sound really tasty and interesting. I'm certainly going to give some of them a try!
The meat and poultry sections were eye-opening. Of course I've seen Food, Inc and read Michael Pollan's book, and watched Jamie Oliver's Bacon special, and been aware of intensive chicken rearing. But I didn't really know that free-range doesn't always mean that the chickens go outside, just that the door is left open for them. But with food and water and shelter inside some rarely go out. Organic farms and farming methods are subject to such intense scrutiny to get and keep their organic certification that this is really the only option for concerned cooks who want to make a statement about ethical food production methods. Unless, of course, you know your producer, as there are some farmers who do actually raise their produce to organic level but just don't have the actual certificate (because being truly organic means no pesticides and no fertilisers).
Biodynamic is the best of all, as even organic means chickens are kept indoors at night and stocked 25k per square metre. Mark says we have to realise that if we want good meat we have to be prepared to pay for it, as the cost of raising organic or biodynamic meat and poultry is much higher for the farmer. Cage chickens are raised to slaughter weight in almost half the time that an organic or biodynamic chicken takes to reach the same weight, so there's quite a bit of incentive to go with the big chains.
More scary still is the lack of genetic diversity. Because consumers like white meat, chickens have been bred to have big breasts, strong bones and a docile temperament. Thus almost all cage chickens in Australia are derived from selective breeding of just three breeds.
The seafood chapter has a very interesting essay on aquaculture and intensive fish farming. Mark has certainly done his research about the different ways fish, as well as beef, lamb and chickens are raised, and the book is recommended as much for these interesting and thought-provoking articles on food production as for the recipes.
What I cooked from Mark's book:
Chicken Braised with White Wine, Thyme and Cream
4 organic chicken marylands
2 Tb olive oil
2 carrots cut into 4cm lengths then quartered
8 french shallots or very small new season onions
1/2 small bunch thyme or lemon thyme
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with the side of a knife
250ml white wine such as reisling
125 ml pouring cream (35% fat)
salt and pepper
pinch cayenne pepper
Brown chicken pieces in oil, skin side down, for 3-4mins until it is brown. Turn over and cook another 2 minutes. Remove chicken and wipe out pan with paper towels.
Return chicken to the pan. Add carrots, shallots, garlic, thyme and wine. Turn heat to high and bring the wine to the boil.
Cover and turn the heat to low. Cook 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes remove the lid, season with salt and pepper and add the cayenne pepper. Cook another 20 minutes on a low heat with the lid off - watch to make sure the cream doesn't boil away.
Mark's recipe said to thicken the sauce with a roux of butter and flour, but I found I didn't need to, as the cream cooked down and thickened and made a delicious sauce all by itself.
Serve with jacket potatoes and a green vegetable.
It was totally delicious, and very easy. I'll be making this one again!
The Urban Cook
by Mark Jensen
published by Murdoch Books.
And here's an interesting post from Mark at their blog site: