Saturday, November 06, 2004

Grasshopper mind

The s.o. often accuses me (rightly) of having "grasshopper mind," a phrase he either learned legitimately in his Tae Kwon Do training or picked up watching reruns of Kung Fu, I'm not sure which. Hop! Hop! Hop! Sometimes it's a little bit hard to follow me through a conversation. My mind is all over the place.

That's how I am today, so this post shall reflect it.

First item: It is sunny and in the 50s today. This is notable because only in the last couple of days have we really begun to feel the chill of winter--or what passes for winter here--in the air. Until recently, it's been shorts-and-tee-shirt weather. But don't scoff. There's something about the lay of the land in Greene County that makes it about three times as windy as Athens in the wintertime. We actually have to take down our windchimes every year because of the incessant clanging. And it gets cold at night--sometimes even into the teens. That weather is on its way, mark my words.

Second item: I drove past a Baptist church on the way to the grocery store the other day, and its sign said "THE WAY TO HEAVEN: TURN RIGHT, GO STRAIGHT." Grrrrrrrrr...what a nice, conciliatory post-election gesture.

Third item: Once upon a time I wrote a quiz that asked a question about My Top Five Cookbook Authors of All Time. That wasn't really fair, because of course I've never listed them. But I feel the urge to do that today. The list won't come as a surprise to readers of my recipe blog.


5. Neelam Batra
How can I deny a spot on this list to the woman whose 1,000 Indian Recipes gave me the ability to make my own baingan bhartha and vegetable samosas with deliciousness rivaling a good Indian restaurant? The person who made it suddenly seem not only possible, but easy, to make tandoori chicken on the charcoal grill? The goddess of chaat masala and tamarind paste? I know Madhur Jaffrey is the first lady of Indian cooking in this country, but I cast my vote for Neelam instead, because somehow she seems to understand what I need to know.

4. Anna Thomas
She wrote the original Vegetarian Epicure--a landmark book that has nevertheless become completely useless because of its heavy dependence on cheese, butter and cream. I'm not against using those things, but 1970s vegetarian cookbooks tended to describe food that was heavy enough to sink a battleship, and hers was the epitome of the genre. But in 1996 she wrote The New Vegetarian Epicure, which is absolutely indispensable. The flavors are vibrant and clean. She lives for farmer's markets. Thomas lives in the southwestern U.S., and it shows: Polenta, tamales, chiles, nopalitos, tomatilloes, etc., figure very prominently. When she's not cooking southwestern fare, she's roasting vegetables or whipping up world-class risottos and salads. You can have my copy of The New Vegetarian Epicure when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.

3. Jamie Oliver
Yes, he is a caricature of himself--maybe even a little bit of a pompous ass. Yes, he is kind of a one-trick pony (dinner at JO's house: olive oil, flaky sea salt, lemon zest, fennel, and a little more olive oil). But his enthusiasm is infectious and his food is simple and delicious. Anyone who roasts ducks with rhubarb and ginger is A-OK in my book. And if it weren't for him, I never would have discovered the Borough Market, nor sucked down a fresh raw Mersey oyster, nor devoured the best focaccia of my life at Fifteen.

2. Deborah Madison
Her Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is a masterpiece. It's one of the few cookbooks that's so trustworthy that I will try a recipe for the first time when guests are coming. It's the source of my oat scones, my migas, my leek and potato soup, my guacamole, the s.o.'s naan...I could go on and on. And what's even better is that the cookbook is organized according to ingredients, so if you have a vegetable that's fresh and ready-to-use, you can browse for something to make with it.
Madison also wrote the America volume of the Vegetarian Table series. There you can find excellent creamed cabbage, spiced quinces, persimmon pudding, cooked greens, Concord grape pie, and the world's only really good vegetarian hoppin' john recipe.

1. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
I discovered Hugh F.-W.'s River Cottage cookbooks in a bookshop in London. We don't get his TV programs here, and the books aren't "translated" for our market. And to be honest, his books are not as across-the-board useful as many I've seen. I mean, when am I really going to bake a casserole of pig cheeks and ears, or make a sausage out of a goose neck? When will I serve Snipe on Toast? But that's what makes him so special: dogged reliance on only the freshest and best-tasting ingredients, plucked from the hedgerows and farms of Dorset. His writing inspires me to go one step farther, to make every meal as special as it can possibly be. He introduced me to the never-ending wonders of growing my own sorrel. He taught me how to make perfect crepes. He showed me how to make REAL batter-fried fish. He gave me a recipe that turns the cheapest, toughest lamb cuts into one of the finest meals I know how to make. Anyone who thinks British cooking isn't any good hasn't read this guy's work. He is the best there is.