Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Spice Literacy

UPDATE: Here is everything in a pot with a bottle of white wine. I think it ill be good. Sure is beautiful. Nouveau Conditum Paradoxum.

To illustrate how to administer a taste test and develop some statistically significant data to my food policy class, I emptied out the spice drawer the other day and had them sniff and taste a wide variety of spices. Admittedly some were pretty obscure, and I anticipated that a few spices no one would get. Medieval cassia buds I don't think anyone would recognize nowadays, though the taste should be familiar, even to 18 year olds.

The hypothesis I was testing was whether US born students would have less experience using or seeing whole spices than foreign born students, of which I have a lot in this class. It's not exactly a question of deskiling since few have a lot of experience in the kitchen, but merely familiarity with ingredients and what they look like whole. Or at the very least smell and taste recognition, since many of these they definitely would have eaten before.

There were 18 students and 25 spices. The average number of correct answers in the class was 3. The highest score was 7 and the lowest 1. Not surprisingly 14 (77.7%) recognized a pepper corn. And 16 (88.8%) recognized a cinnamon stick. It was true cinnamon, incidentally. But the numbers fall off dramatically after that. Only 9 (50%) could recognize (by taste and sight) chili flakes, even though they came out of a pizzeria packet. 3 (16.6%) identified cloves. 2 (11%) knew star anise, though they were broken, so maybe that threw people off. 2 knew fennel seeds. And only one person in the class (5.5%) could name one of the following: juniper, bay leaf, Sichuan pepper. None one could identify vanilla, which really surprised me, or mustard seeds, or coriander, cardamom or saffron. Or even nutmeg.

Obviously we were dealing with much too small a statistical sample to be significant, but the highest scores were indeed from foreign-born students. Expectedly, the Chinese students recognized things more common there, like star anise, Sichuan Pepper corns and chili, and one got 5 correct, a Student born in Mexico recognized the highest number (7), with a few names in Spanish, but that's fine. The Korean students and an Indian student scored about the same as everyone else. But not suprisingly, American students did the worst on this. I'm not sure what it proves beyond inexperience in the kitchen, which I knew was the case, but even inexperience with flavors and knowing what they look like. They were all surprised when I told them the long shriveled black thing was vanilla; they could recognize the smell but not name it. Remarkable huh?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Matzoh Balls

In the event that I have generated confusion, the image below is gefilte fish being poached. Apart from the shape, they look scarcely different from matzoh balls. Regarding which I must admit I have always been an ardent advocate of dense cannonballs and I think I even included a recipe for them in The Lost Arts. But I think I might actually be going over to the other camp to join the denizens of the light, aethereal and fluffy. Yesterday I was about to mix up a batch as I do customarily and I thought why do I always make maztoh balls like this? Last year they were literally leaden and took a week to digest. Time to try something new. I readily confess I had no bloody idea what I was doing here, moreover I violated a cardinal rule of the holiday as you will see. If like me you don't mind breaking rules to get something done, do try these. Start with a good pot of chicken stock. Then mix a cup of matzoh meal with 2 tablespoons melted duck fat, 3 eggs, a sprinkle of salt, a teaspoon of baking powder, and about a quarter cup of Sierra Nevada. (I know, illicit, but tastes so much better than seltzer). Add more meal until they are barely rollable. Make walnut sized balls and drop one by one into simmering stock. They will rise. After about 30 minutes add in chopped parsnip, carrots, celery and onion and a generous amount of fresh dill. Continue cooking for another 30 minutes. The matzoh balls will be huge, poufy like clouds and delicate in flavor. If you must play by the book, use bubbly water. I can't wait to try this exact same recipe with good homemade breadcrumbs next week. OH just imagine beef broth and stout in the dumplings, with a hint of allspice. I might need to do this now and just forget the bread of affliction.   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Gefilte Fish and Matzoh Balls

If like me you have already begun preparing for Passover tomorrow night, please take this earnest advice. You must begin with Slim Gaillard. Play it loud. Then get yourself two pounds of white fleshed fish. I like cod, but carp is even better. It must be fresh. Obliterate with your knife into a fine paste. Add a handful of matzoh meal, an egg white, some salt. Keep it simple. Poach these in a simple fish stock, maybe with some dill, a sliced shallot, and carrot. Strain the fume before poaching your quenelles. After about 15 minutes on the barest simmer remove them to a capacious glass jar, reduce the stock and pour over the fish and refrigerate until tomorrow. Serve with horseradish of course, and for true officionados, the gelatinous goo, i.e. bugger snots, that happily form if you've used fish bones in your stock. I only eat this once a year. Why not more frequently? I wish I knew.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Patrick's Day

I think this may be an entirely novel way to make corned beef. I've been playing around with clay lately, variations on beggar's chicken, with pork and other meats wrapped in lotus leaves, then clay. I didn't think lotus would taste right here, so this was just parchment paper, after the brisket luxuriated a full two weeks to cure in the fridge. Then the paper parcel was wrapped in white clay and baked at 350 for about 5 hours. Left to rest for another day in the fridge to firm up, then sliced on my new manual crank German slicer. They are rather fetching wouldn't you say? Paired with a tart week old sauerkraut, on a sour 100% rye made with a brand new starter and some Russian dressing. Pretty damned good. The bacteria are very happy that it's gotten warm here. I'll be eating this myself for a week, at least. Anyone up for a sandwich out there?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How to Publish a Food Book: Part One, The Right House

There are several different types of publishers, but increasingly the boundaries are becoming less distinct, so a trade press might do a popular encyclopedia, an academic press might do a book on gastronomy, and reference publishers are increasingly doing anything. But in general the markets still hold true, though electronic publishing may make all this obsolete in coming years. Some publishers simply do not fit into these neat categories, such as small private presses that may publish anything they think they can sell. Also note, publishers routinely buy up other publishers, so often one will be an imprint of another house, or a list may be completely subsumed as Berg has been by Bloomsbury.

Every type of publisher requires a formal proposal to get started. This should include an “elevator talk” introduction as a hook and at least several paragraphs of description, why this book is important, and why it will sell. Why it should be published right now? Keep in mind, it is always about profit for a publisher, they wouldn’t be in business if they thought otherwise. Usually a detailed chapter synopsis and sample are required and always a projection of the targeted audience, competition and what makes this book different. I also usually tell people do this only if you have to. Writing a book can be an immense joy but it is also a remarkably long tedious and at times insufferable process, especially when you get to proofreading and indexing. Research and writing is the fun part, but by no means the whole process. Let alone marketing, which increasingly will depend on you. To get started it is important to know the different kinds of publishers and to choose the right house:

1. Academic Press

Audience: Primarily to academics and college libraries but also foodies increasingly
Examples: University of California Press, Columbia, Oxford, Illinois, Chicago, Toronto, plus those like Berg, Ashgate, Routledge, etc.
Type: Monographs, specialized studies, essay collections and sometimes pedagogical works like handbooks, readers, historic reprints, reference works.
Process: Write proposal and usually a sample chapter and submit directly to acquisitions editor who then sends it out for anonymous peer review. Approval by an editorial board may also be required, sometimes after presentation of the completed work. The completed work will be sent for peer review. This may take several months and reviewers may request revisions, sometimes extensive. The reviewers can also reject it. Advantage is expert feedback, but the long wait, narrow market and generally small print runs and minimal royalties means one does this mostly for professional reasons. But such books rarely go out of print and sometimes they sell well. Remember also you must never submit this type of book to several publishers at the same time.
Royalties: There is almost never an advance, royalties are minimal and paid out after publication. For monographs around 8% is typical and given high price, you may make a few thousand dollars. Most authors do this for promotion and tenure rather than profit.

2. Trade Press

Audience: Primarily to General Public, via bookstores and amazon
Examples: Penguin, Simon and Shuster, Northpoint, Ten Speed, Clarkson Potter, Random House, Scribner’s, Ballantine, St. Martin’s, Rodale, Reaktion
Type: General Food Writing, Cookbooks and Food Issues books, Guidebooks, Memoirs
Process: These almost always require an agent, which itself can be difficult to secure. Agent submits and negotiates with publishers and takes a cut of royalties. Contracts may come with an advance, and editor usually provides feedback directly. Advantage is large print run, competitive pricing and sometimes good marketing. Profit is the primary motive here, but few food writers can make a full time living this way. Some authors hustle their books themselves with speaking engagements, but the formal book tour is a rare thing nowadays except for celebrities.
Royalties: An advance for a well known author can be above $20,000. Those that sell well may even earn royalties after the advance is “paid out.” New authors are usually offered considerably less.

3. Reference/Textbook Publishers

Audience: Primarily to Library Market and Students
Examples: ABC-CLIO/Greenwood, AltaMira, Sage, Springer, Thomson/Wordsworth
Type: Reference Works, Encyclopedias, Textbooks, Books within Food Series, but increasingly all types of food books.
Process: Write proposal and submit to acquisitions editor or series editor hired by the publisher. Rarely peer reviewed, though often must pass a library board. Both editors offer feedback. Limited market and small print runs mean smaller royalties, but generally easier to break into than academic or trade presses. Expensive books mean limited audience as well.
Royalties: Quite small, though sometimes an advance of a thousand dollars or so can be arranged. Profit is not the motive, usually professional prestige and notoriety. Contributors to encyclopedias sometimes receive nominal payment by contract, or a copy of the work, though sometimes neither.

4. Specialty Presses

Audience: Foodies, Culinary Historians, Academics
Examples: Prospect, Southover, Applewood
Type: Historic Reprints, General Food Writing, Sometimes Cookbooks, Conference Proceedings
Process: Write directly to publisher with ideas, which are approved or rejected quickly. Sometimes this is exactly the place for books that seem to fit nowhere else.
Royalties: Normally minimal.

5. Self Publication

A few people manage to get away with this, putting up their own money, hiring a designer and photographer, doing all the marketing themselves. The advantage is you keep all the profit. But you also have to be willing and able to do everything yourself.

There are also ways to do this easily with self publishing programs and companies that specialize in this. Community cookbooks are the most common, but increasingly other types as well. The advantage is you keep a significant part of the profits. The disadvantage is it is very hard to sell such books, even with electronic distribution, kindle, and the like. Do this only if you must see your book in print and really don’t care if many people read it. There are even academic quasi-self published outfits like Mellen. Few people take them seriously, because it is assumed you simply couldn’t get a publisher. This is not, however, always the case. And sometimes excellent books are self published. A better way to get exposure, is a good website or blog and simply forget about paper.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Saint Cyril Cocktail

I have been playing around with almond milk lately for my forthcoming book on nuts. Things like nogs, gin fizzes, anything that needs a milky touch. This one I think is the best, at least for this season. Take one shot frozen vodka, one shot almond milk, a half shot of mastic liqueur (it is very sweet) and just a drop each of rose water and St. Germain. Amaretto would probably be better, honestly. Shake with ice and strain into a glass. You simply must make your own almond milk - just raw peeled almonds pounded or processed with very hot water, left over night and strained and squeezed out through a cloth. It is absolutely delicious. The drink is named for Saint Cyril, Greek apostle to the Slavs.  

Monday, March 4, 2013

Couch Potatoes

In my freshman food policy seminar we've been talking lately about all the insidious ways the food industry designs and markets new products. Mostly junk food, convenience food and products purporting to confer health benefits. We agree in general that they're addictive, designed to make you overeat, and they are ingeniously advertised to trigger a wide array of emotions including fear, guilt, lust, competition. I thought it would be fun to have the students design their own products. They came up with things like snortable powdered soda for budding coke fiends, a men's weigh loss product in the form of hot sauce that contains parasitic nematodes that eat your food while inside you. I love that one. But another really hit home. It was one student's idea inititally but we all sort of ran away with it.

So, imagine a food designed to be hand held, to eat in front of the TV, on your computer, while gaming. It looks exactly like a small potato, and more or less is. But inside is a full savory meal. The potato is already mashed and within there might be turkey and gravy, roast beef and onions, ham and cheese. They're shelf stable until microwaved, in an ingenious egg carton like container, so you eat several and they can be placed on a table without rolling away. Maybe a four pack. Great for parties too, because a finger food. I was about to make a prototype this weekend, but then hesitated. DO I make it in an actual scooped out potato, so it would be more or less like a stuffed baked potato? Advantage: your hands stay clean and it looks exactly like a potato. OR do I make a potato shaped croquette and deep fry it? Crunchier exterior, but hands a little greasy. And making sure they don't collapse might be a problem. But the latter sounds tastier.

What do you you think? Couch potatoes with the skin or without?