Struggling with weight gain is my lifetime preoccupation. That's because I am frequently eating out - not at restaurants but in the homes of my very large family, friends in my community, week-long wedding celebrations, social and cultural events, religious festivals, etc.
Currently, I have been enjoying the very best vegetarian Indian meals at Hindu temples from April 4 during Ram Navmi, the nine-day celebration of the birth of Lord Rama. What makes this type of eating much more interesting than eating at restaurants is that you get to talk to the cooks about their recipes and their culinary tricks. They will tell you the best places to buy the ingredients. They will even tell you personal stories related to various items on the menu, where they got the recipe, who likes the dish, when they first cooked it, how they have made improvements to the recipes. And the conversation continues from there. You cannot get any of this at a restaurant, where there is little to no interaction with the cooks and the recipes are guarded under lock and key.
In this column, I aim to highlight some warm, entertaining and interesting culinary memoirs. Oh, and these books have some recipes as well.
Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved my Life by Kim Severson, food writer for the New York Times, is an emotionally rich, funny, multilayered memoir with inspirational profiles of eight influential female cooks who changed the author's life. In Severson's story, we follow her journey from awkward adolescent to adult who channelled her passions into failing relationships, alcohol and professional ambition, almost losing herself in the process. Finally, as Severson finds sobriety and starts a family of her own, we see her mature into a strong, successful woman and we learn alongside her.
In the voice of Giller Prize-winning author, Austin Clarke, the recipes of Barbados come alive in Love and Sweet Food. This delightful and entertaining historical social documentation ranks among the finest of culinary memoirs and is as savoury as Clarke's fiction. His childhood stories brought back many memories as I also grew up in a British Crown Colony. It is hard to put this book down once you start reading it.
"Whenever I start dating someone new, I just can't hold back. No matter how often my girlfriends warn me, 'Take it slow, let him win you over, don't give it away so quickly,' I just can't resist - I have to cook for him." So confesses Giulia Melucci, former VP of PR for Harper's Magazine, in I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti. From failure to fusilli, this irresistible book tells the story of Melucci's fizzled romances and of the mouth-watering recipes she used to seduce her men, smooth over the lumps and console herself when the relationships flamed out. She suffers each disappointment with resolute cheer after a good cry and a bowl of pastina , and has lived to tell the tale so that other women may find a better recipe for love - or at least go to bed with something good to eat.
Other culinary memoirs worth reading are Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (if Disorderly) Life by Suzanne Beecher, beloved creator of DearReader.com and Laughing with my Mouth Full: Tales from a Gulf Island Kitchen by Pam Frier, food columnist for the Victoria Times Colonist. Mireille Guiliano's bestsellers French Women Don't Get Fat and French Women for all Seasons: A Year of Secrets, Recipes and Pleasure are also great reads. Next time you are in the cooking section at your local library, search out some of these culinary memoirs. And, when you try some of these recipes, you can pretend that you are talking to the author sitting across the dinner table.
A LITTLE TASTE
Here are two recipes which you might try and stories that go with them.
Camping was big in the mid-1970s. Not tenting but sleeping in the camper. During those camping trips, I enjoyed reading cookbooks and magazines and trying out new recipes (on the days I did not make roti and curry in the camper). It was at Princeton, by the river with beautiful stones, one of our favourite campsites, that I tried this recipe from the Gourmet magazine. I forget the name of the recipe, so I will call it Quick and Easy Scalloped Potatoes (no baking involved):
In a large pot, boil 5 to 6 large potatoes (russets are best). When they're cooked, peel the potatoes and cut them into 1-inch cubes and set them aside.
In a large saucepan, melt half a cup of butter over medium low heat. Add 1 cup chopped onions and cook until the onion is soft and light brown. Add about 2 cups (more if you want) of sour cream (fat-free is fine) and mix well until the sauce bubbles.
Add the potatoes, salt and freshly ground black pepper, and half a cup of chopped fresh parsley or chives (whatever is handy). Serves 4.
In the mid-1980s, I was in summer school at UBC and required the services of a babysitter, in this case a teenager, to look after my two young sons. One hot July afternoon, after seven hours of Shakespeare, when I went to pick up the boys, the babysitter's basement suite was full of musicians as her mother, a singer, was practising for a concert. Naturally, there was food, so I stopped in to listen to the singing and have dinner. One of the tastiest items on the menus was Curried Zucchini in Sour Cream Sauce. I have since shared this recipe with many women in the Fijian community and have received rave reviews. Here, I have modified the recipe for the Western kitchen:
Chop 4 medium-sized zucchinis into half-inch squares. Do not peel skin entirely, just scrape the skin to leave some of the green.
In a saucepan, heat 1/3 cup canola oil over medium low heat. Add 1 cup chopped onions, 1 tablespoon each minced fresh garlic and ginger and 1 teaspoon each of cumin seeds and black mustard seeds. Cook until the mustard seeds begin to pop.
Add the zucchini. Add 1 teaspoon each salt and turmeric. Add chilli flakes or powdered chillies (as much or as little as you desire). Cover pot and cook until the zucchini becomes soft. Check regularly to ensure that the curry does not burn.
When the zucchini is almost done, add 1 large chopped tomato and cook for 2 to 3 minutes. Add 2 cups of sour cream (fat-free is fine), mix well until sauce bubbles and garnish with 1 cup chopped fresh coriander leaves. Great with rice and salad or with roti or pita bread.
A Good Read is a column by Tri-City librarians that is published every Wednesday. Teresa Rehman is community services librarian at Coquitlam Public Library.