Category Archives: Book Reviews

Lucious, mysterious, lavender brownies

I’ve long thought cooking with flowers was a little too precious for my style.  It seemed so Martha-like and made me conjure up images of a mesclun salad sprinkled with pansy petals– the kind that would be served at a baby shower luncheon in the Hamptons. 

But recently, I reviewed a book called The Scented Kitchen that may have changed my mind.  Because it’s winter in Australia, about the only flowers available right now were lavender so I tested the author’s recipe for lavender smoked salmon (it’s a keeper) and then made lavender brownies for dessert.

The recipe for lavender brownies wasn’t in the book, but I took the author’s advice  to do my own floral experimentation.  So I used an Alice Medrich brownie recipe and for the regular sugar I substituted lavender sugar, which I made by pulsing lavender flowers and sugar in the food processor.

Granted, the basic brownie recipe is a terrific one, but adding lavender takes them to a new level.  There’s a whiff of lavender as you bite into the brownie, but unless you know it’s in there, it’s one of those aromas that you can’t quite put your finger on.  The lavender even seemed to add a spicy note to the brownies which  developed their intensity and richness.

And even though I did feel like I was channeling Martha maybe just a little while I was making these, there’s nothing precious about them.  They’re dark, mysterious and darned near perfect.

Book Review: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennfer 8. Lee had been on my radar since earlier this year when an article adapted from the book ran in The New York Times where Lee works as a reporter, so I enthusiastically jumped at the chance to read and review it when it was finally released in Australia.*

The premise of the book, which delves mostly into Chinese American popular culture, is brilliant and proof that truth is stranger than fiction.  Jennifer Lee began researching fortune cookies after 110 people won the 100,000 dollar second prize in the Powerball lottery in 2005 – many of them by picking numbers that had been printed on the little slip of paper in their fortune cookies.  This sent her sleuthing to the restaurants that gave out the fortune cookies, the factories that made them and ultimately to their origins which is actually in Japan. 

Like Lee, I also have an obsession with Americanized Chinese food, and more particularly with a distinctive regional variation in the town where I grew up, so I read her descriptions of Crab Rangoon, Szechwan Alligator and Chow Mein sandwiches with great relish (and slight horror in the case of the Chow Mein sandwich).

But The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is about more than just Fortune Cookies, because as Lee followed those cookies down the rabbit hole, it led her to write a book that is a buffet of stories about the globalization of Chinese food-particularly American-style Chinese food and the people who make it. 

Lee also writes about the genesis of Chop Suey in a chapter called “The Biggest Culinary Joke played on one Culture by Another”.  Other chapters deal with Soy Sauce packets, the trapezoidal take-away cartons with the wire handles and General Tso’s Chicken- a dish, that for all intents and purposes, exists nowhere in China.

What’s really refreshing about Lee’s approach to this food, is that she makes no judgments of authenticity.  She says “Authenticity is a concept that food snobs propagate, not one that reflects how people really cook and eat on a daily basis”.   As a Chinese American, the Americanized versions ARE authentic to her.  When she finally does track down General Tso’s chicken in Taiwan, it’s nothing like the dish to which she’s become accustomed in the U.S.

The author is at her most compelling, though, in chapters when she tells the stories of the Chinese immigrants who have helped make Chinese food ubiquitous in the United States.  They’ve left homes and families for a strange new place with hopes of a better life-some nearly lose their lives on the voyage and wind up in immigrant detention centers, families fall apart under the stress of running a restaurant, and others face unimaginable danger making deliveries; sometimes they’re beaten and robbed-a few even lose their lives. 

My only complaint about these immigrant tales is that Lee seems to fixate on the doom and gloom.  In one chapter called “The Mystery of the Missing Chinese Delivery Man,” she writes: “Death is only the lowest point in what is almost universally the miserable existence of a Chinese Restaurant Worker.”   It almost makes Kafka sound cheerful.  Certainly there are plenty of Chinese who have immigrated and made fortunes working their way up through the massive Chinese restaurant industry or at least had jobs in Chinese restaurants before finding success in other businesses.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles also has some editing errors and some needless repetition in places, and I think the author at times tries too hard to be profound or poignant.  On a tour of a factory that makes take-out cartons, she laments the piles of rejected cartons  saying “I understood why their loss was so unsettling: these boxes were stillborn-purposeless”.  A statement like that is a bit over-the-top considering the plight of immigrants she’d written about a few pages before.

Initially, I felt Lee had dropped the ball by ignoring Fortune Cookies after her first two or three chapters, but when they re-appeared in the middle an again at the end of the book, I was actually a little disappointed to be returning to that topic.  It turned out I’d had my fill of them earlier in the book and I found stories of other food and people much more satisfying when all was said and done.

Like many culinary works of literature, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles uses food as a metaphor.  This book is also the author’s search for her own identity as a second generation Chinese American.  Everywhere she goes, Jennifer Lee is recognized as being Chinese, but she is also distinctly American-just like the fortune cookies that launched her journey of culinary-and ultimately personal-discovery.

Despite a few minor shortcomings, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles is a delightful book.  It’s a pretty quick read, even though it’s almost three-hundred pages long.  Not only is the book sprinkled with interesting trivia that you can use later to impress your friends, you’ll likely walk away with a much better understanding of the food served at your favorite local Chinese restaurant.  More importantly, the next time you go,  this book may make you look the people who work there in the eye, and for the first time really appreciate everything they’ve done to keep you well fed.

  

*This review is adapted from one I did on the Gastronaut program on Radio Adelaide.

 

What’s Hot: Real Food. What’s Not: This Book.

It’s been a while since this book came out, but after reading a lot of rave reviews about How to Eat Like a Hot Chick, I felt it was my duty to keep people from wasting their money buying it and time reading it.

The book’s got a catchy title, but is proof that you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  Within seconds of opening it to a random page it quickly became clear to me that I don’t want to be a hot chick if I’m required to accept the food advice dished out by authors Jodi Lipper and Cerina Vincent.   Although these two—who I will admit are hot chicks— do dispense some useful information in a casual, light-hearted girlfriend kind of way, it’s far too inconsistent and is often a case of too little, too late to make this a book for people who like real food.

 

First, the good points:  The authors offer a bit of sane advice on how to eat on a date and major diet pitfalls like high calorie drinks and salad bar items that will sabotage your best intentions. 

They also bag the fruit-denying Atkins diet, give good cautionary advice on seemingly healthy cereals that are riddled with sugar, and wisely tell us to skip nutrition bars and have a huge pile of fruit instead for the same amount of calories that’s in one measly bar.

 

That said, much of the rest of this vulgarity-laced book has me wondering what these women REALLY know about food, and the short answer to that is seemingly little.

For instance, they call eggs “dead baby chicken fetuses”, which is not only a bit offensive but shows their ignorance of egg production. 

 

They also tout spinach as a super-food encouraging us to eat pounds and pounds of it—but only the bagged kind and not “…the giant clump of leafy raw spinach that’s full of dirt and mud.  We like to know our food comes from the earth but we don’t want the earth along with it.”  Obviously these chicks are too hot to spend a couple of minutes soaking spinach in a sink full of water, and they enjoy paying lots of money to relieve themselves of that major inconvenience.

 

 My other problem with their bagged spinach obsession is that they trivialize the E. Coli contamination of bagged spinach in the U.S. a couple of years ago that sickened hundreds, killed 3 people and left 31 others with kidney failure.  They call the very real E. coli outbreak “nonsense” and claim that “a little contamination never hurt anyone.”

 

The hot chicks are inconsistent with some of their advice, especially when it comes to olive oil.  In one chapter they claim to “detest” it, but in another, they’re using it on fish.  They command all chicks to skip dressing their salads with olive oil and just use balsamic vinegar, or if they must, a good light salad dressing.  If you’re going to use a light dressing, which usually has an ingredient list longer than my arm and about 30 calories per serve, why not use a 40 calorie teaspoon of olive oil with the balsamic?

 

The authors are also addicted to non-stick cooking spray and say to use “lots and lots” when sautéing their beloved spinach.  It may come as news to them, but cooking spray is actually oil, and if you’re using “lots and lots” it’s going to have the same amount of calories as an equal amount of olive oil.

 

Interestingly, although they “detest” olive oil, they “love” salt— which, if you pile on the sodium to compensate for using flavorless butter and oil substitutes, won’t that make you retain water and bloat, making you a not-hot chick?

 

The first page I turned to when I opened How to Eat Like a Hot Chick was my initial indication that this book would have some serious flaws.  When the authors declared their love for Parmesan cheese, even the kind that came in a giant green canister, I squirmed a little and actually hoped they would redeem themselves.  And they tried.  In the final pages of the book, they have a shopping list which contains Parmesan cheese and they recommend buying it fresh instead of the big green tub, but it was just too little, too late.   Lipper and Vincent had offended my real food-loving sensibilities too many times.  If this is truly the way to eat like a hot chick, then I’d rather be an average chick any day.