Beach reads for foodies

(Tony Fitts)

A menu of summer treats to sate your literary hunger.

Posted: July 23, 2009

Foodies, people pleasantly preoccupied with all things food-related, stick to their obsessions, even on vacation.

The perfect foodie beach rental has a well-equipped kitchen, access to markets selling fresh fruit, produce, and fish, and proximity to restaurants where accomplished city chefs have established outposts.

Likewise, the perfect foodie beach bag contains prime kitchen lit: books on food history, essays on sustainability, food-centric fiction (call it foodtion), and sentimental food memoirs, or foodoirs.

Foodoirs are celebrity confessionals or tell-alls. In more sentimental varieties of the foodoir, the author embarks on an emotional journey, returning to his or her ancestor's roots (and perhaps, by extension, root vegetables). Many have recipes, too.

Foodtion, on the other hand, might include mysteries, but romance novels are more numerous. Usually, a protagonist learns the hard way that the surest path to happiness is through his/her lover's taste buds. Feminist versions end with the protagonist remaining single but enriched.

Alternatively, the protagonist may journey to France or Italy (Spain/Morocco/Indonesia/Argentina, where will it end?) in search of new and enticing ingredients (double entendre intended.)

I can vouch for the fact that such fairy tales can come true: In the fall of 2007, I rented a house in Umbria with some foodie friends. We had a series of cooking lessons. My friend, Dana, fell in love with the instructor, a former Sardinian sheepherder - and she's still in Umbria with him. Really.

Here are our recommended foodie beach reads for 2009.

Nonfiction, essays:

1. An Edible History of Humanity, by Tom Standage (Walker & Co.). The author of the best-selling A History of the World in 6 Glasses turns to food, examining how changes that were either caused, enabled, or influenced by food helped transform societies around the world.

2. Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter (Penguin Press). The author was raised in the country but yearns for city life. Wondering if she can raise her own chickens anywhere near museums, bars, and convenience stores, Carpenter struggles to strike a sustainable balance in her life.

3. The Food of a Younger Land, by Mark Kurlansky (Riverhead Books). The best-selling author of Cod and (separately) Salt takes a page from the lost files of the Works Progress Administration to see what folks ate during the Great Depression.

4. The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, by Robyn O'Brien (Broadway Books). From soy to corn, peanuts to probiotics. How to tell which foods are true villains and which have been unfairly vilified.

5. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham (Basic Books). The scientist/author suggests cooking is what sets humans apart from animals, and explains how the chemical changes in food caused by heat helped the human brain evolve.

6. Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows, by Kathleen Collins (Continuum Books). An entertaining look at the history and evolution of television cooking shows. It examines how the shows shifted over time, involving more men and children and mirroring societal changes.

7. What We Eat When We Eat Alone, by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith Books). Confessions of solo diners - some sad, others funny, still more that are downright helpful.

8. Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, edited by Amanda Hesser (W.W. Norton & Co.). During her tenure as the New York Times Magazine's food editor, Hesser showcased the food-inspired recollections of some of the country's leading writers. This collection of 26 of the best of those stories features the work of poet Billy Collins and novelists Ann Patchett and Kiran Desai.

Foodtion

1. Entertaining Disasters: A Novel with Recipes, by Nancy Spiller (Counterpoint). Spiller's fictional heroine is a food writer, identified only as FW, who fakes her way through dinner parties. Her "Extreme Unction Raspberry-glazed Cheesecake" sounds good.

2. The Lost Recipe for Happiness, by Barbara O'Neal (Bantam Books). Young Elena Alvarez, who is haunted by an accident of which she was the lone survivor, arrives in Colorado (with faithful canine companion Alvin and a batch of grandmom's recipes) to look for a restaurant job and a romance.

3. Tomato Rhapsody: A Fable of Love, Lust and Forbidden Fruit, by Adam Schell (Delacorte Press). A contrived saga set in Tuscany and written in a style ripe with wordplay and bawdy humor.

Foodoir

1. A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table, by Molly Wizenberg (Simon & Schuster). An Oklahoma native, Wizenberg wises up on a trip to Paris; later she meets and marries a reader of her real-life blog, Orangette. The two make wonderful Pistachio Cake with Honeyed Apricots together.

2. Bittersweet: Lessons From My Mother's Kitchen, by Matt McAllester (Dial Press). A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter survives war-torn Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul, and Kosovo but struggles to find an emotional connection to the mother he lost to mental illness decades earlier. She lives on in her recipes.

3. Hungry Monkey, by Matthew Amster-Burton (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing). When a restaurant critic becomes a stay-at-home dad, he discovers alternatives to purees and kids' meals.

4. Let Me Eat Cake, by Leslie F. Miller (Simon & Schuster). This eight-tiered tome explains how cake began as a Norse word in 1230, evolved as a holy trinity of flour, sugar, and eggs, and emerged as this author's absolute obsession.

If you're still not sated, pick up Holly Hughes' annual collection of Best Food Writing (DaCapo Press). The 2009 version won't be out until October, but the 2008 edition contains essays by Michael Pollan, Calvin Trillin, and The Inquirer's own Rick Nichols.


Pistachio Cake With Honeyed Apricots

Makes 8 servings

3/4 cup shelled raw pistachios

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup whole milk

1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

5 ripe apricots, halved and pitted

1 tablespoon honey

1. Set an oven rack to the middle position, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter a nine-inch springform pan, and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper. Butter the paper, then dust the pan lightly with flour.

2. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the pistachios until very finely ground. Take off the lid every now and then and rub a pinch of the ground nuts between your fingers: if they feel too coarse, keep going, but if they feel fine, like sand, they're ready. Add the flour, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt, and pulse once or twice to mix.

3. In a measuring cup, combine the milk and vanilla.

4. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the flour mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk, mixing at low speed to just combine. Do not overmix. If any streaks of flour remain, use a rubber spatula to fold them in. Pour the batter into the cake pan, and shake the pan a bit to ensure that the batter is evenly spread.

5. Arrange the apricots cut-side up on a cutting board or countertop. Using the tip of your finger, smear a blob of honey into the center of each, dividing it evenly among the ten halves. Gently arrange them cut-side up on top of the batter.

6. Slide the cake into the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. The apricots will have sunk into the batter, but don't worry: they will reveal themselves in each slice. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then run a thin knife around its edge and release the sides of the pan. Continue to cool the cake until you are ready to serve it. Serve warm or at room temperature.

- From A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg (Simon & Schuster, March 2009)

Note: Before you assemble this cake, be sure to taste one or two of the apricots. If they're on the tart side, you might consider doubling the amount of honey.

Per serving: 593 calories, 17 grams protein, 49 grams carbohydrates, 30 grams sugar, 39 grams fat, 113 milligrams cholesterol, 588 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.


Shrimp Lamaze (a la Patty)

Makes 10 to 12 servings

3 pounds raw or cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/2 cup chili sauce

1/4 cup Indian relish, such as Heinz

1/2 of a jarred or canned pimento, chopped

1/4 of a green pepper, diced

1 teaspoon finely chopped scallions

2 tablespoons finely chopped celery

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

1 tablespoon mustard

1/8 teaspoon paprika

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon A1 or Worcestershire sauce

1 hard-boiled egg, diced (optional)

1. If using raw shrimp, parboil them. No further cooking will be required.

2. Put all of the other ingredients together and add to the shrimp. Stir gently. Do not use too much sauce; just enough to coat the shrimp.

- From Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table (Norton, 2009)

Per serving (based on 12): 223 calories, 24 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 5 grams fat, 193 milligrams cholesterol, 428 milligrams sodium, 1 grams dietary fiber.


Boston Baked Beans

Makes 8 servings

2 cups dry white pea beans (navy beans)

1 scant teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 medium onion, peeled

4 pork spareribs, or 8 baby back ribs

1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar or molasses

2 teaspoons dry mustard

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. In a large bowl, soak the beans in two quarts of water for six hours. Drain the beans and put them in a large pot. Add the salt and enough cool water to cover two inches above the beans. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the beans are just barely tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain well.

2. Bring another pot of water to a boil. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. In the bottom of a large casserole with a tight-fitting lid, place the peeled onion - yes, whole - and spareribs. Spread the beans on top. In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar (or molasses), mustard, and black pepper and add this to the beans and pork. Pour in just enough boiling water to cover the beans, put the lid on, and bake, occasionally adding more boiling water to keep the beans covered, until they are tender but not falling apart, four to five hours.

3. Remove the casserole from the oven. Season the beans with salt. Pull the meat from the ribs. Discard the bones and excess fat and stir the meat back into the beans. With the lid off, return the casserole to the oven and let the beans finish cooking, uncovered and without additional water, until the sauce has thickened and is nicely caremelized on top, about 45 minutes more.

- Adapted from The James Beard Cookbook, From Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table (Norton, 2009)

Per serving: 553 calories, 29 grams protein, 55 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams sugar, 22 grams fat, 77 milligrams cholesterol, 313 milligrams sodium, 12 grams dietary fiber.


Steamed Kale with Sesame Oil and Rice-Wine Vinegar

Makes 1 serving

1 bunch curly green kale

2 to 3 teaspoons dark sesame oil

2 teaspoons rice-wine vinegar

Salt

Red pepper flakes

Toasted sesame seeds (see note) or gomashio

1. Slice or pull the kale leaves off the stems. Throw the stems away, as they will never become tender, and then wash the leaves. Steam the kale over boiling water until it is tender, about 12 minutes. Take a taste to make sure and then dump the cooked kale into a bowl.

2. Toss the kale with sesame oil and vinegar to taste, then season with salt and a few pinches of red pepper flakes. Toss again with a teaspoon or two of toasted sesame seeds, or serve with gomashio.

- From What We Eat When We Eat Alone, by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith, 2009) 

Note: To toast sesame seeds, put them in a dry skillet over medium heat. Once the pan becomes hot, start stirring or flipping the sesame seeds until they become golden, then remove them from the heat and turn them onto a plate immediately, so they don't keep cooking in the heat of the pan.

Per serving: 313 calories, 15 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 10 grams sugar, 13 grams fat, no cholesterol, 195 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.


Scallops With Slivered Asparagus and Lemony Wine Sauce

Makes 2 servings

12 ounces asparagus

6 large sea scallops

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons butter

1 fat scallion, the white part with a little green, finely chopped

1 tablespoon chopped parsley or chervil

Grated zest and juice of 1 Meyer lemon

Splash of white wine

1. If the asparagus is thick, peel the stalks. Don't bother doing that with thin asparagus. Slice the spears diagonally up to the tips (if you're doing this well in advance, put the asparagus in a bowl, cover with a damp towel, and refrigerate until you're ready to cook). Peel off the opaque muscle of the scallops, if any is evident, and discard.

2. When ready to cook, put up to eight cups of water to boil for the asparagus. Add salt, then add the asparagus and boil until tender, about three minutes. Drain the spears just before they're ready as they'll continue cooking in their heat, then return them to the pan and toss with a little of the butter and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

3. Simultaneously, melt a tablespoon of the butter in a skillet. When the foam subsides, add the scallops. Cook over medium-high heat until golden on the bottom, about two minutes, then turn and cook the other side. When done, divide the asparagus between warm plates, then nestle the scallops on top.

4. Add the remaining butter, scallion, herbs, and lemon zest to the pan, allow the butter to melt and foam, then add the splash of wine and a squeeze of lemon and let it all sputter and boil. After about 30 seconds, turn off the heat, add a little pepper, and spoon the sauce over the scallops and asparagus. Serve with crusty bread to capture the juices.

- From What We Eat When We Eat Alone, by Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin (Gibbs Smith, 2009)

Per serving: 222 calories, 17 grams protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 416 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Contact staff writer Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211 or dmarder@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at www.philly.com/inquirer/columnists/dianna_marder/.

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