The Cooking Chronicles: Chickpea Patties with Salad

I’m just about finished with Mark Bittman’s Food Matters, and I have to say, I’ve never been more inspired to cook with lentils and beans. Food Matters implores readers to reduce their overall meat intake, citing health benefits, the unacceptable conditions of industrial meat production, and the impossibility of the world to support the growing demand for meat. I respect Bittman’s philosophy primarily because he does not call for a radical shift – instead, he advocates for a gradual change, and a diet that can accommodate meat and other guilty pleasures – just in smaller and occasional quantities. It is an approachable method that doesn’t seek to alienate the public (or worse, be easily dismissed as “elitist”), and of course, it helps that the book contains both practical advice and actual recipes to follow.

I didn’t think I would be attracted to recipes without any photos, but I immediately bookmarked a handful of them, primarily the ones featuring chickpeas, which are my current ingredient-of-the-moment. Bittman’s recipes are also great because he lists dozens of substitutions – that knowledge is often assumed in cookbooks, and I appreciate that he spells it out for readers who need it like me.

I had printed off a recipe from Real Simple a few months ago, and didn’t get to it until this week. It coincidentally features, – you guessed it – chickpeas!

The chickpea patties were to be pureed in a food processor with garlic and seasonings, but as we are without a blender or a processor, we used Mack’s Magic Bullet instead. It worked all right, though for the consistency we were looking for, it was uneven (some too mushy, others left whole). We also ended up incorporating the additives by hand in a bowl, which seemed to work out fine. Our difficulty with the recipe, however, was actually forming the patties – they were on the dry side, and the flour dusting didn’t help. We imagined the patties would cook up crispy on the outside, pan-fried in olive oil, but the reality was that they were simply browned, and warmed through.

Chickpea patties with salad

Served with a fresh salad dressed in just olive oil and lemon, it was a light but filling supper. We are open to suggestions on how to improve the recipe though! Best of all, our supper also meant we were allowed to indulge in chocolate covered bacon without guilt, heh.

Ruth Reichl’s “Comfort Me with Apples”

I haven’t consumed a book this fast since, well, Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires.

Comfort Me with Apples is a much more personal, less food-centric memoir than Garlic and Sapphires. Tracing the manner in which she and her first husband drifted apart, her enlightening, almost other-worldly journeys to Europe and Asia, and her developing relationship with the man who would become her second husband, I admire Reichl’s penchant for detail and confessional honesty. Her words, if I am allowed to say this, are so unexpected from a “food writer”, which is one of the reasons why her compositional risk-taking is so refreshing.

Though Comfort Me is without the theatrical antics of Garlic‘s invented personalities, I enjoyed this book more. Being a part of her world, even as a mere reader, is addictive (Tender at the Bone is on request as we speak). The recipes in this text are great as well, and it won’t be long before I give her version of mushroom soup, or Danny’s lemon pasta, a spin.

I continue to go back to her line which addresses A.J. Liebling’s quote: “The primary requisite for writing well about food is a good appetite.” Reichl’s response:

“Liebling was wrong. Appetite is not enough. And knowledge is not sufficient. You can be a decent critic if you know about food, but to be a really good one you need to know about life. It took the next few years to teach me that. You’ll see.”

Comfort Me with Apples exemplifies the notion that one’s life can be better than fiction. You’ll just have to read it to find out how much better.

Ruth Reichl’s “Garlic and Sapphires”

There are many types of celebrities in the food world, including chefs, restaurateurs, and network hosts. Another group, and one that is almost counterintuitive to include among these revered connoisseurs are the critics who write about food.

One of the most well known critics in the United States is Ruth Reichl. Currently the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet, previously the restaurant critic at the New York Times, and before that, the food editor at the Los Angeles Times, she has garnered a reputation of “democratizing” expensive eats and even expressing guilt about her indulgence in the face of those who can’t afford food at all.

I remember seeing her name here and there, especially on Ganda’s blog, but I didn’t really know that she had written anything other than brief columns until I saw her most recent memoir, titled Garlic and Sapphires, in Barnes and Noble in New York. I bought a copy upon my return to Edmonton, and actually managed to finish the book (my idiosyncrasy as of late is an inability to complete books I begin…shame).

A narrative about her stint at the NY Times, it is a journey through the many disguises she dons in attempts to hide her true identity from restaurants seeking to woo her with the hopes of striking a good review. In the process, she uncovers personalities within that she didn’t know she had.

That arc, in my opinion, is enjoyable, but is also the weakest link of the book. It’s easiest to relate to Reichl when she writes as the fun-loving, down-to-earth woman who simply enjoys good food. But it is also a bit contrived, the reviews and dining experiences carefully chosen to demonstrate the gradual development and learning Reichl went through over her six years at the paper.

That said, I have much to learn from Reichl – beyond wishing for her impeccable palette and appreciation for the expansive edible spectrum New York has to offer, I would imagine many also strive to capture the essence of food with words the way she does. Those who know my tastes know that I do not eat sushi, but after savouring Reichl’s descriptions of the authentic Japanese eatery Kurumazushi, with fresh fish sliced so thin it literally melts on your tongue, even I would consider changing my stance on raw seafood.

Some things I could have learned elsewhere, but was easier within the context of Garlic and Sapphires:

  • Daniel Boulud and Jacques Torres both worked at Le Cirque;
  • Chilean sea bass is also known as Patagonian toothfish; and
  • before handing down a verdict, Reichl would dine at a location at least three times, if not more. This allows a restaurant to have a ‘bad night’, especially when a negative review from the Times can really tip the fortunes of a place, but boy, what a luxury (more than multiple visits by one person, I favour one visit by many people, as can be found in Frank Bruni’s recent review of the Second Avenue Deli).

Even amongst anecdotes of four-star pampering, evenings amongst the elite crowd, and a position that saw Reichl accepting phone calls from Hollywood celebrities to ask for restaurant recommendations, I found myself most drawn to her quiet moments with her too-precocious pre-school son Nicky. Ever-supportive of his mother’s wild guises, and always eager to lend a helping hand in the kitchen, his presence ground the story – and her life – as more than just a byline.

At the end of it, Reichl and I both on the same page on the absolute non-negotiable aspect that eating out is an experience, and any restaurant not catering to this sort of theatre and hyper reality doesn’t understand its diners. In the next few months, I would like to try out some of the recipes included (which she deliberately substituted in place of photos), and (fingers crossed) finish reading her second memoir, Comfort Me With Apples.

“Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures”

I finally finished Vincent Lam’s Giller Prize winning Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures on the weekend. I actually wasn’t aware until I read the press release that the book was meant to be a collection of short stories, instead of say, a stand-alone novel. This does, to some extent, excuse the fragmented and jarringly disjointed way in which the narrative is told. I realize too though that yes, Lam was attempting to capture and simulate the fleetingness of life and physicians’ roles in their patients lives (e.g. Chen’s night shift in the ER), but reading it, I kept waiting in vain for glue to appear between chapters, and for a greater coherence to the overall story.

One of the strengths of Bloodletting is the multitude of voices, as patients, nurses, and doctors all air their perspective. On the other hand, this led to the running weakness of the book – with the exception of Chen and Fitzgerald, none of the other characters are developed to any extent. This forced the reader to make judgments and assumptions based purely on speech, and I ached to understand the motivations behind their actions. In particular, I was left hanging with Dr. Ming, who remained hard and detached even in marriage.

I found the beginning and end of the book the most enjoyable, and really, the valley of disconnectedness in between is really a shame. That said, “Contact Tracing,” the penultimate chapter, is by far the text’s most powerful segment. It would work really well in a 10-1 English class, as it is ground in the SARS reality that most students would remember, and employs some really effective stylistic elements.

It’s difficult not to admire Lam – a family man and full time emergency doctor – I can’t imagine how he found the time to pen this book. It does shed a light on the medical profession that I haven’t encountered before, and is worth a read for that alone, but I was still hoping for something more.

The Incomparable Audrey Hepburn

In a bout of insomnia last night, I was able to finish off The Audrey Hepburn Treasures book that I began a few weeks ago.

When I picked it up off of the shelves, it immediately reminded me of one of my favorite childhood books, The Baby-sitters Club Chain Mail, where every other page contained an actual envelope with a removable letter inside. Similarly, Treasures contains replicas of personal keepsakes from Audrey’s career, allowing the reader an intimate, almost voyeuristic peek at her life. Simply put, Treasures is a gorgeous biography, full of color and dimension, much like its subject.

Written with the assistance of Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund, the book details Audrey’s entire life – from her terrifying days holed up in the basement of her home in Holland during World War II, to her rise from the stage to film, and finally, her dedication to UNICEF in her final years. It is by far the most complete record I’ve ever read about Audrey. As a fan, I’m embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of her career is limited to the films I’ve seen (Sabrina, Funny Face, and My Fair Lady are among my favorites) and a photo chronicle given to me for my birthday a number of years ago. Although I acknowledge that the perspective presented may be rosier and less journalistically-inclined than objective reporters, the book still contains a mass of information new to me. For example, I had no idea that she had a second marriage, let alone a second son, nor was I aware that a starring role as “Gigi” in the theatre was essentially her big break.

Secondly, I found that it became easy to overlook the behind the scenes pictures and family portraits, because the artifacts are so engrossing. What was most revealing to me was a letter to her first husband, Mel Ferrer, describing her days at a convent researching her upcoming role in The Nun’s Story. This may be a case of me trying to force a connection, but the letter seemed to be devoid of emotion, a mere narrative of her day to day activities as opposed to how she was feeling about the experience. This matches up well with a comment Ferrer made about their marriage after the divorce, stating that “‘Audrey never spoke about private, personal things and neither did I. It was kind of an agreement that we had.'” Also of note – a handwritten correspondence from Truman Capote, congratulating Audrey in being chosen to play Holly Golightly in the film adaptation of his novella, despite his well-known belief that Marilyn Monroe was better suited for the part.

Coincidentally, this month’s Harper’s Bazaar features a spread on Natalie Portman modeling the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress. Its famous designer, Givenchy, is auctioning off the garment for charity on December 5th. It is estimated to fetch between fifty to seventy thousand pounds on the block (On an aside: the article uses the curious adjective “gamine” to describe Portman’s beauty, a rather odd word choice).

For fans of Audrey Hepburn, Treasuresis a unique keepsake and provides unparalleled insight into the life of a legend. At regular price, it isn’t cheap, but the book can be seen as an investment. Children of all ages would adore going through the pages, and I can see myself using the book as an example to prompt creative projects in English class, where mementos can speak volumes, sometimes even more effectively than plain text. Overall, this is a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it to those who enjoy biographies and alternative publishing formats.