Book Review: The Dim Sum Field Guide

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Dim sum is the Chinese version of small plates and offer a large variety of food types. The Dim Sum Field Guide: a taxonomy of dumplings, buns, meats, sweets, and other specialties of the Chinese teahouse by Carolyn Phillips covers about 150 different types of foods that may be found on the trolleys in a dim sum restaurant. Each entry has is two pages – one with a black and white illustration, also done by author Phillips, and the second page a playful description following the field guide style with “genus” (name of the dish in English, Mandarin, and Cantonese), “identification”, “sauce or dip” that is usually paired with the dish, “nesting habits” (how you are likely going to see the food arranged), “origins”, and “species” (similar dishes). Phillips, who has written a recipe book on Chinese food called All Under Heaven, lived in Taiwan for eight years and worked as a Mandarin interpreter back in the states before retiring to work on her food writing. (Explore her writing here.)

The illustrations are charming, though color would probably be helpful for a few of the dishes with complicated linework, and include a cross-section view of the food to give an idea of dimensions and proportions. They also indicate what type of meats are associated with each dish as well as which dishes are vegetarian and vegan, which is very helpful. The book is broadly categorized into savory versus sweet with a few subcategories.

Overall, the book is a lot of fun to flip through and informative, and I would recommend looking over it before going to dim sum to feel more familiar or after if you wanted to learn more about particular dishes. I would only take it to the restaurant with a patient group of friends. Dim sum is a pretty fast-paced environment, and I can’t imagine a waiter being particularly patient if you stop the trolley to flip through the book for each dish before ordering.

While reading the book, I found myself not thinking so much about dumplings and taro root but about the complicated relationship between exposure vs ownership of cultural foods. Something in Phillips’s writing makes me a little hesitant, uncomfortable, and un-trusting (when she writes of “the Chinese people,” I cannot help reading your people). She has a post listing the twelve points she believes Chinese restaurants must follow “in hopes of an epicurean Reformation” that is silly bordering absurd. I understand it must be difficult to devote oneself to another culture’s cuisine (is there a right way to do it?). Beyond the language barrier and geographical barriers, there will be those calling you a fraud from both sides. To publish anything, really, is to open yourself to scrutiny. All in all, I do believe that Phillips’s love for Chinese food is honest and without ulterior motive.

So to address my personal discomforts, I hope to continue having conversations with patient friends and people more thoughtful than myself about what it means that a white woman is publishing only Chinese cookbooks, why are there so many white people writing about Asian food (and conversely why shouldn’t there be?), what does it mean for food to be authentic anyway, why do Asian foods seem so vulnerable to becoming trends recently (from pho to matcha to poke bowls), and what is the right? best? appropriate? way to appreciate food with particularly strong cultural ties.

Related:

Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition

How it feels when white people shame your culture’s food — then make it trendy

An Eater’s Manifesto For Chinese Restaurants

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

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Review: Martha Stewart’s Vegetables

Sorry for the radio silence over here, friends. I was feeling pretty uninspired all of October, I don’t think I even finished a single book. And then this past week has been a doozy, hasn’t it? I am emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I have been pottering around the kitchen and taking a lot of naps. I thought I’d focus some of my energy away from politics and the news by adding what I hope becomes a regular column about Learning to Cook. Here, we will be doing our usual cookbook reviews, but also (hopefully) sharing other recipes and stories with you as well. What better way to start a culinary adventure than with Martha Stewart?


Martha Stewart, domestic and culinary goddess, recently released a new cookbook on Vegetables. I have been searching for ways to bring more veggies into my life. While I love salads and stews, sometimes you just want something different. Do not be fooled by the title, this is not a book for vegetarians. I was a little disappointed by this, because while veggies are in every recipe, they are not necessarily the star of each meal. I don’t need Martha to tell me I can add onions to a stir fry, do you?

The book is organized by types of vegetables – flowers, tubers, legumes, etc. While I can understand this categorization, I think I would have preferred the book to be organized by season. (I know, I know, you could also argue that different types of vegetables are also a form of eating seasonally.) There are photographs of each recipe, which I really loved. The food is all beautifully plated and presented – the photographs alone are worth flipping through the book to look at.

The first recipe I tried was her Roasted Pork Chops with Sweet Potatoes and Apples, because I was feeling the autumn crisp in the air and excited for fall produce. I’ve shared the recipe below, along with some of my notes:

Ingredients:

  • 4 bone-in pork chops, each about 1 inch thick (about 2 1/2 pounds total)
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1/3 cup apple-cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 2 apples, preferably Honeycrisp, thinly sliced, seeds removed

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat; swirl in oil. Cook chops until golden brown, turning once, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Remove all but 2 tablespoons fat from skillet.

  2. Reduce heat to medium. Add potatoes and onion; season with salt. Cook until golden in spots, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar and cider. Cover and simmer, stirring a few times, until potatoes are tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with caraway seeds. Return pork and juices to skillet; tuck apple slices between chops. Roast until a thermometer inserted into thickest part of chops (without touching bone) registers 138 degrees, about 10 minutes. Serve pork, vegetables, and apples with pan juices.

Jessica’s Notes:
I am not especially a fan of sweeter dishes. I generally prefer savory, spicy, & salty things. That being said, this recipe made some very juicy and tender pork chops. I think the combination of sweet potato, apples, and apple-cider vinegar was a little too much for me. I think next time, I would replace the sweet potato with normal potatoes and throw in some jalapenos or star anise for an extra kick. The recipe suggests you could use apple juice instead of apple cider vinegar, but I think the acidity of the vinegar is really necessary. As I’ve been cooking more and more, I have become feeling more confident about modifying recipes. I might try tweaking and writing my own recipes in the future.

The recipes in Martha’s book range from very simple salads to slightly more complex meals. I think it’s a pretty safe choice for beginner cooks like me, because you could slowly build a repertoire that you feel confident about. There are a wide range of recipes, so there will be something for any palate. I like that there are a manageable number of recipes, so that you don’t feel completely overwhelmed the way you might when you’re browsing online.

***

I would recommend this book to people who love beautiful cookbooks and who are looking for ways to incorporate more veggies into their lives. However, like most recipes, a lot of these are available on Martha’s website.

  • I’d like to thank Blogging for Books for sending me this book in return for an honest review.

Book Review: A Super Upsetting Cookbook about Sandwiches

Tyler Kord is the chef of the No. 7 Sub restaurants in New York and author of A Super Upsetting Cookbook about Sandwiches.

The New York Times said I might be “the Willy Wonka of submarine sandwiches,” but I prefer “Sandwich Batman”.

Kord comes off as an irreverent sort of guy, but the sandwiches look delicious. The text in the cookbook includes quips, sarcasm, and notes from the editor left in for humor. The writing is a bit sophomoric, but the real content are the recipes, right? (How much value do you place in non-ingredient bits of a cookbook?)

The sandwiches are definitely more creative than what you can get at Subway, and so are their names (“The Battle on Pork Chop Hill”, “Lazaro’s Revenge”). They’re divided by what the main component is — you are probably thinking this means what meat but one section is dedicated to broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, and another to muchim, a Korean brining/seasoning mix.

Included are directions for how to make a great but simple main component (how to make your own chorizo sausage, roast a chicken, and anything else needed) as well as recipes for sauces and sides that you might want with your sandwich — chips, salads, coleslaw, etc.

Overall, I think these sandwiches are very inspiring and require a bit more work than your usual ham and cheese. The book is also pleasantly well-organized, and I appreciated the extra recipes at the end. I would recommend this book to adventurous sandwich-lovers. Below is the recipe I am most looking forward to trying (though there are many close seconds).

This is a Chicken Sandwich
Makes 4 of the best sandwiches you ever had

  • 1/2 cup Special Sauce
  • 4 kaiser rolls, split in half
  • 2 cups shredded Roasted Chicken
  • 4 large slices Fried Eggplant
  • 6 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced into 4 thick slices
  • 2 loosely packed cups of arugula

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review.

Book Review: Food with Friends

Food with Friends: the art of simple gatherings is a recipe book by Leela Cyd, who is a self-proclaimed “food, lifestyle and travel photographer and storyteller.” As can be imagined, the photos are beautiful. In the introduction, Leela states that she emphasizes “food that looks and tastes good.” It shows in the photos. I would argue she is bigger on style than substance. (How many flower petals do you really need to eat?)

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The book has a touch of whimsy throughout from the ingredients to the garnishes to the table settings. The love she has for her life shows through in the writing. The collection of recipes are nicely eclectic (South Indian Kesari Bhath, Socca Cakes, Matcha Egg Cream, Challah Bread) as a result of her travels and include a lot of dishes and ingredients that I’ve never experienced. The dishes are unique, beautifully presented, and will probably delight any dinner guests.

The general flaws of the book are few; it leans heavily to sweets (not such a bad thing) and the chapters are arbitrary, why put Hazelnut Tea Cake with Plums under “potlucks & picnics” instead of “teatime”or “desserts”?

This book is as much about lifestyles as it is about food. I think I would have liked the book much better if I didn’t read any of the non-recipe texts. The very distinctive feeling I get from this book is that it is not actually food for friends so much as for people who are active on social media in whom you delight in evoking jealousy by presenting some over-garnished side dish. You say loudly how simple it was to throw together while everyone else tries to find the best light for their Instagram photos.

Bottom line: If you’re a good friend, I make you bacon and various potato dishes and burritos over-stuffed with good things. If you’re a frenemy, I’ll give you the Warm Olives and Spa Water.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review

Cook Book Review + Recipe: Lucky Peach 101 Easy Asian Recipes

101 easy recipes
I have been a distant admirer of Lucky Peach for a few months now, ever since I flipped through a few of their magazines at an independent bookstore in Boston this summer. I found the magazine hip, interesting, and just the right amount of an approachable pretentiousness. I’ve also decided that one of my new ongoing goals is to become a better cook. That being said, I jumped at the chance to review Lucky Peach’s new (and first) cookbook: 101 Easy Asian Recipes.

I thought that I would test Lucky Peach’s recipe for “Chineasy Cucumber Salad” and compare it to my mother’s recipe. Although my mother’s recipe is better in my opinion (she uses garlic instead of sesame seeds and peanuts and we add a splash of soy sauce.)

Makes about 2 servings, easily multiplied.

1T Chikiang vinegar
1t Sichuan chili oil
1t sesame oil
1t turbinado sugar
1/4t kosher salt
3 Persian or Kirby cucumbers or 1 English cucumber
1t toasted sesame seeds
2T crushed roasted unsalted peanuts
2T cilantro leaves

1. Whisk together the vinegar, chili oil, sesame oil, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl until the sugar dissolves. Set the dressing aside.

2. Halve the cucumbers lengthwise. (If using English cucumbers, remove the seeds with a small spoon and discard.) Set them cut-side down on a cutting board and lightly smash them: Give them a couple angry thwaps with the side of a cleaver (or a large chef’s knife) until the cucumbers crack in a few places. (For less drama, just press down on them with the side of the knife.) Cut the abused cucumbers crosswise into 3/4-inch-thick half-moons.

3. Toss the cucumbers in the dressing, portion them onto plates, and top each serving with sesame seeds, peanuts, and cilantro.

My thoughts on the cookbook:

  • I am so thrilled that Lucky Peach even includes smashing the cucumbers with the side of a butcher knife or cleaver. I remember learning how to make this with my cousin and gleefully wreaking chaos in the kitchen.
  • I never thought that a cookbook could be written in a “fun” way, but I found the instructions easy to read, follow, and copy.
  • However, I found some of the photography kitschy, such as the meta-iPhone-taking-a-photo-of-food-at-the-dinner-table-shot.
  • Also, a few of the recipes were just a bit too glib – there’s a recipe for “sliced oranges” which would be okay, if it were the only one-item-recipe in the book, but shortly after, there’s a recipe for baked yams. I think I would have told Lucky Peach’s editors that it would be okay to stop at 99 or 100 recipes, there’s no need to force it!
  • I liked that the cookbook truly included all sorts of Asian recipes. There’s a lovely mix of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Malaysian cuisine. There may even be more that I haven’t recognized yet.

***

I would recommend this book to anyone who’s a beginning chef, interested in learning more about Asian cuisine or a fan of Lucky Peach magazine. It might even be fun to read through like a book during a rainy hungry day.

Additional Resources:

This Week in Review – 07/10/2015

This Week in Review

Picasso in his Studio

J.K. Rowling’s outline for Order of the Phoenix

This weekend, I’m going to a Taylor Swift concert(!!!), celebrating a friend’s birthday, and cramming for exams – I hope your weekend is filled with sunshine, soft pillows, and lots of snacks!