New cookbooks make food fresh and fun
One of the most interesting cookbooks out this spring isn’t really a cookbook: it’s more about meal inspiration. Flipping through it will make you laugh out loud and never look at fried eggs the same way again.
It’s called Funny Food: 365 Fun, Healthy, Silly, Creative Breakfasts (Welcome Books). While it includes the odd recipe for eggs, it’s essentially a picture book containing colourful serving suggestions. The compact hardcover is an appropriate size for balancing on the kitchen counter, but it wouldn’t be out of place on the coffee table as it’s so enjoyable to read.
The author, Bill Wurtzel, takes playing with your food to a whole new level. He has been making whimsical breakfasts for his wife and co-author, Claire, for 50 years, and the book is a collection of his creations. For example, Wurtzel takes two sunny-side-up fried eggs and places black-olive slices on the yolks for eyeballs, cherry-tomato slices to the sides of the whites for ears, and a bagel at the bottom as a beard. Add a few other edible touches, and voilà! An eggy face sure to delight.
Fried eggs aren’t the only canvas. Wurtzel makes people out of pancakes, trees out of corn flakes, and centipedes out of hard-boiled-egg slices. Cottage cheese becomes the hair for a pineapple face, banana slices are the eyes for peanut butter on toast, and a bowl of oatmeal takes its identity from strategically placed nuts and dried fruit.
A naturally creative guy, Wurtzel is a part-time art director by day and a jazz guitarist by night. He started making his breakfast creations simply for his wife’s amusement. “He can turn any combination of ingredients into a feast for the eyes,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “He looks at a slice of melon or some fried eggs, and sees something that no one else would see—a head, an arm, the wheels of a bicycle, the wings of a butterfly—waiting to be discovered.” Indeed, one of the photos shows a plum carved into a replica of the Mona Lisa.
But while the latter requires finicky knife skills, the vast majority of funny faces are easy to replicate at home. (The more complex ones are laid out in step-by-step photos.) Perfection isn’t the point: fun, healthy breakfasts are. In fact, the Wurtzels now use the play-with-your-food hook to teach workshops to New York schoolchildren that promote healthy eating habits. This book may just be what your kids need to learn to love breakfast.
Another New Yorker, Nobu Matsuhisa, also has a new cookbook out that emphasizes presentation. The chef at Nobu New York City, who also has over two dozen other restaurants, is behind the gorgeous Nobu’s Vegetarian Cookbook (PIE Books). The photos of his sophisticated dishes also make a visual feast, but these ones have detailed recipes to back them up.
Nobu emphasizes umami, the fifth savoury taste, throughout the book. “Umami is found not only in animal protein but also in kombu kelp, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes, and many other plant sources,” he writes, “so that by carefully combining them you don’t even need meat or fat for flavor.”
While some recipes are straightforward, such as a watercress salad with watercress dressing, many are quite involved. These include nigiri sushi topped with a variety of kombu-cured vegetables like lotus root and purple daikon instead of fish, as well as multicoloured soba in which cilantro, red bell pepper, or black sesame tints the noodles. There are also some intriguing recipes using yuba, a delicious protein-rich “skin” that is skimmed off of soymilk.
While the edibles look fantastic, they don’t appear easy to execute. Many require multiple complex steps but yield just one or two servings. The recipe for dashi-marinated eggplant yields just “one bite-size portion” after deep-frying and marinating; it hardly seems worth the trouble.
If you’re into heartier fare, pick up A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen (Clarkson Potter). Written by Hugh Acheson, who is from Ottawa and trained in French culinary techniques, this isn’t your typical fat-laden southern cookbook. Acheson fell in love with the American South and now lives in Athens, Georgia, where he runs several restaurants. His book puts a fresh spin on traditional southern cooking with an emphasis on vegetables, simpler meats, and fish. It’s an appealing take, with recipes such as risotto with okra, country ham, boiled peanuts, and ramps. There are also dishes that might not be in your West Coast repertoire, such as hominy grits and collard greens.
I made the recipe for black-eyed peas and rice called Hoppin’ John with delicious results. However, the recipe’s introduction gave a faulty cross-reference to the page for ham-hock stock, which I later made. Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag should take this book to the test kitchen to see if this is an isolated mistake. The artichoke and spinach gratin looks promising, as does the watermelon limeade for summer…worth trying, for sure.
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