Publishers love to send us cookbooks here at Fork in the Road, and often those books come straight from the chefs at some of New York’s best restaurants. So we decided to share the love, and each week, we’ll feature a new book, a recipe, and a few thoughts on cooking from the authors. Check back every Tuesday for a new book.
50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste
By Edward Behr, 432 pages, Penguin Press, $35
Edward Behr has been thinking about 50 Foods for a long time. “I had the idea for the book about 10 years ago,” the noted cookbook author and editor of The Art of Eating says. “And all during that time, until rather close to the end, I was working on lists of what was in and what was out.” He kept lists of fruits and cheeses, nuts and meats, but the final selections hinged on a sense of balance: “I wanted things that had a little something special about them…That you could extrapolate from and apply the same kinds of advice to other foods.” And they needed to be foods that Behr personally loved and had history with.
So 50 Foods is not a cookbook. Instead, it’s a “guide to deliciousness,” the author says, to eating well, and understanding ingredient and flavor. It’s a book about connoisseurship, about caring for apples and artichokes, chestnuts and chocolates, hams, lambs, pastas and plums — where and when to buy (or grow) them, what qualities to look for, storing, handling, preparing, and pairing each food so as to consume it at its absolute best. Because how an ingredient is treated impacts flavor, and Behr adds historical context that informs why ingredients prefer to be treated in a particular way. For people who care about food, the book informs and fascinates.
See what he writes about figs: “Some varieties show their ripeness by a drop of nectar that appears at the open eye where the petals are attached. The color, according to variety, is green, violet, bronze, brown, dark-purplish, or mixed. The skin and flesh are giving, almost animal-like. Ripeness is essential, yet a ripe fig is so vulnerable and the time between ripeness and decay is so short that a ripe fig can’t be shipped. It lasts only hours. To enjoy figs in an ideal state, you have to be in the warm places where they thrive.” A lusher fig you’ll never meet, but should you find yourself in Turkey in fig season, you’ll know how to pick one.
What is one lesson about cooking and eating that you wish you’d learned earlier?
It was a real revelation when I realized what chocolate should taste like, and that it’s really parallel to coffee. Both of them combine these wonderful fruit flavors with these roasting flavors as well as bitterness and acidity. And when I understood that [chocolate] was like coffee, which I’d come to a long time before, it was suddenly like, ‘That makes perfect sense!’ And then it was really easy for me to identify chocolate that I really liked.
If you could give one piece of cooking advice to home cooks, what would it be?
Oh boy. The most essential thing is — and it’s a funny thing to say; I just wrote a whole book on connoisseurship — but the key thing is, you have to trust your palate. You need this almost contradictory combination of confidence in yourself and humility. But if you can’t trust your palate, you’re lost.
Could you speak for a moment about farm-to-table and nose-to-tail, both very old-fashioned notions of cookery, and where these ideas are headed in modern context?
These ideas are, as you say, really old-fashioned ideas. They’re kind of timeless. Luxury cooking was not ever nose-to-tail; it was only, for the most part, the most expensive cuts…But I think it’s a question that people ask themselves a lot, especially people who are opening restaurants. I think there may be room to go back toward something more traditional, but then it’s almost framed in quotation marks, because there’s been such a break with the past, and even when people, when current chefs, even the most talented ones in North America, reproduce traditional dishes, like French or Italian, they almost never do it in a way that you taste it and say, ‘Oh, I’m in Italy,’ or ‘Oh, I’m in France.’ You don’t do that. Maybe there’s room for somebody who will try to do that a little more, I don’t know. It’s something that isn’t really being done, and if you want to do something different, maybe that kind of going back to the past would be completely new. Some people might say that I would have given that answer any time in the last 20 years.
You live in the country where access to fresh food is arguably easier. What advice would you have for city eaters who want to source great ingredients?
[In New York,] you live in the Hudson Valley, and I think you probably have access to better meats than we do [in Vermont,] as you have access to those little butcher shops that we’re just starting to get here and there. But that’s been a huge obstacle up here. Basically, what you need is a retailer who really knows and cares about the subject of food. So I don’t know that city dwellers are really at a disadvantage; you’re at a disadvantage that you can’t go out and pick the lettuce and bring it indoors to dress it, and you can’t put the water on to boil and then go out and find that old fashioned corn that’s sugary sweet or whatever, or cut the asparagus while the pot is boiling. But other than that, it’s not so bad.
What is your go-to winter seasonal ingredient, and how do you like to use it?
Let’s make a trio of it. How about rye bread, goose, and apples. Goose is just so rich, the fat has just such a rich flavor, and the meat has such a substantial taste, it’s the kind of hearty thing you want for winter. And apples, of course, I like really tart apples because I’m from the northeast, and the further north you go, it seems to me, the more people like tart apples. And that tart-sweet combination happens to go really well with goose. And rye bread doesn’t necessarily have to go at all, but it’s just another one of those really substantial winter flavors.
Red Cabbage with Apples
The taste of braised red cabbage, one of the easiest recipes to succeed with, is impeccable with roast goose, roast pork, or sausages. In fall, it’s even better if you add chestnuts. The way to keep red cabbage from turning blue-gray in cooking is to add acidity, usually vinegar, wine, or tart apples, or all three. A McIntosh apple is fine, but you may prefer a variety that holds its shape, such as Braeburn, Northern Spy, or Rhode Island Greening. If you look up the recipe as given by good cooks and chefs, you see it’s highly variable. And when you make it, you see how forgiving it is in its proportions and possibilities. You can add garlic or a few juniper berrries, use different acids, even lemon juice. The important thing is to taste and adjust as needed. Keep in mind that European wine vinegar is much more acidic than typical North American vinegar. And you can add a touch of sugar, if the cabbage has been stored too long and lost its sweetness or if the bit of braising liquid is too tart. The cooked cabbage holds and reheats well.
1 medium red cabbage, around 2 pounds
1 medium onion, diced
3 tablespoons goose fat, lard, or butter
2 to 4 tablespoons cider or wine vinegar
1 cup white or red wine
salt and pepper to taste
half a bay leaf
a pinch of ground clove
2 tart apples, peeled, cored and quartered
Remove and discard the coarse outer leaves of the cabbage, and slice off and discard the thick outer portion of the exposed ribs. Quarter the cabbage through the stem. Slice each quarter thinly, discarding the pieces of stem.
Cook the diced onion gently in the fat in a large, deep sauce pot, stirring now and then, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add sliced cabbage, vinegar, wine, thyme, bay leaf, and clove. Salt and pepper moderately. Cook uncovered at a gentle simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add a little water or wine, if the cabbage seems dry, or cover the pot. Add the apples and continue cooking until they’re tender, about another 15 minutes. Taste and add salt or more acidity as needed.
Recipe courtesy Edward Behr, images used with permission from Penguin Press