Ferret’s findings Tuesday, Aug 27 2013 

Five ferrety posts you may not have seen yet! Apart from a few relatively new posts that you may not have seen yet, take time to check out these vintage wonders that have been read only by a lucky few:

  1. Spice up your life! In which Ferret extols the virtues of ginger.
  2. Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares! In which Ferret wonders how far the outbursts on this popular show are staged.
  3. Food Book Review: Food and Philosophy. In which Ferret muses over many deep foodie questions, including the criminality of pickiness and whether food critics’ views are really ‘truer’ than ours, or if they’re just more eloquent.
  4. Restaurant Review: Georgia Brown’s. In which Ferret visits this heartland of Southern American cuisine.
  5. Wake up and smell the coffee. In which Ferret sings the praises of its chosen coffee machine.

Time-travel back through the annals of FFW and enjoy 🙂


Food Book Review: Vegan Pizza (Julie Hasson) Thursday, Aug 22 2013 

–The blurb–

Vegan Pizza is filled with 50 modern recipes from easy-to-make pizza dough (including spelt, whole wheat, and gluten-free crusts), creamy dairy-free cheese sauces, vibrant-flavored pestos and spreads, and meatless and wheat-less burger crumbles. Also included are inventive toppings and pizzas that run the gamut from comfort food pizzas like Chili Mac Pizza, Barbeque Pizza and Eggplant Parmesan Pizza, to fresh vegetable-laden pizzas like Sweet Potato and Kale Pizza, Corn, Zucchini and Tomato Pizza and Asparagus, Tomato and Pesto Pizza. There is even a chapter dedicated to dessert pizzas too, from Babka Pizza, to Berry Pie Pizza and Coconut Caramel Dream Pizza. With helpful information and tips on equipment and techniques, Vegan Pizza shares the secrets to fabulous, easy-to-make, dairy-free, meat-free thin-crust artisan pizza that tastes like it came from your neighborhood pizzeria. Now home cooks everywhere can get baking and make fabulous vegan pizzas in their own kitchens.”

–The review–

As a mostly vegetarian consumer of food, pizza can be a tricky minefield to navigate. Sure, there’s the ever-classic margherita or quattro formaggi. Pizza bianca is another good option, dealing with mozzarella and ricotta. However, these are all quite heavy on the cheese and many cookbooks aren’t that imaginative when it comes to vegetarian pizza options. In her latest recipe book, due out on September 3rd 2013, Julie Hasson takes on the arguably even bigger challenge of vegan pizza. Not only does she have to find a range of tasty toppings that don’t rely so much on cheese, but she also has to make a convincing base. So does she manage it?

First, the toppings. One good way around the cheese (apart from vegan cheese, of course, which you can’t get in France) is to mix things up by using vegan pesto as a base (if you’re making your own pesto at home, this shouldn’t be too tricky to achieve). Thankfully, tomato bases also still feature strongly. However, anyone seeking a book based purely on vegetables will be disappointed: Hasson devotes a whole chapter to the creation and use of meat substitutes (mostly using TVP or soy as a base). Conversely, by addressing the ‘vegan cheese’ element, she passes on actual recipes, not just a list of vegan products to buy – for instance, she creates a creamy “cheese” sauce using tofu and soy milk as a base. Flavourings such as liquid smoke and tahini are also used to help conjure up varied and tasty sauces. Following this, she gets to the classics – but sadly, they all rely on vegan mozzarella-style cheese and some of them use vegan meat substitutes as well. This is definitely aimed at Americans – there’s no way you’d be able to find this stuff in France, even at health food stores (and even if you could, it would be very expensive).

Much more promising is the “farmer’s market pizza” chapter, which offers up multiple mouthwatering options, including asparagus and pesto, corn and courgette, broccoli and sundried tomato, pineapple and jalapeno, and wild mushroom and potato. However, only the sweet potato and kale pizza, and the tomato, cucumber and caper pizza, don’t rely on processed ‘vegan’ cheese, which again is a little bit limiting. The ‘not the usual suspects’ chapter suffers from the same problems as previously, thanks to an overreliance on meat and cheese substitutes. The most promising recipe here is the muffuletta pizza, which uses a tomato, chilli and garlic base and toppings of olives, capers, pickled vegetables, and fresh herbs. The global chapter is more complex than previous chapters in terms of both sheer number and variety of ingredients, meaning that whenever the dreaded ‘vegan mozzarella’ is mentioned, it can be left out. The Bibimbap pizza, inspired by the Korean rice dish, sounds excellent: who wouldn’t love a pizza that has a gochujang base, sesame seeds, garlic, spinach, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and beansprouts? The Thai peanut pizza is equally commendable thanks to its creative use of sriracha, peanuts and peanut butter, broccoli, scallions and agave nectar.

The dessert pizzas are also a wonderful idea that I never would have thought of – even if it isn’t strictly Italian and you’ll find me sneakily substituting the vegan margarine for butter. The berry pie pizza can also be made with no substitutions whatsoever thanks to its elegant ingredient list of berries, sugar, water, cornflour, pizza dough and icing sugar. In fact, most of the dessert recipes can be made by the average human with no interest in vegan margarine.

All of these pizzas are supported by the base. Hasson recognises that this is a classic recipe to not be messed with and sticks with the components of the base that you will find in Italy: flour, salt, olive oil, yeast, and warm water. She also explores other equally interesting options, though, such as wholewheat, spelt, and gluten-free bases, meaning there should be something to suit everyone. All of the recipes are easy to work through, too, and are accompanied by beautiful photographs.

Suffice it to say that this is probably not a recipe book for the beginning vegan, in the sense of far too many specialist products being required to pull these recipes off (the meat and cheese substitutes are one such example, but the tofu and the vegan margarine and the soy milk can prove equally obscure). However, the good news is that vegetarians and even meat-eaters can just adapt the recipes to suit their own needs – by using regular butter or cheese, for example. It’s worth noting that even putting slightly marginal ingredients aside, the book is packed with delicious ideas, and as a vegetarian sympathiser myself (even if apparently I can’t live without cheese), I feel that the message of vegetarianism and veganism is important: we don’t NEED to eat meat, so stand back, experiment with new vegetables or sauces or flavours, and just let the new taste experiences roll in.

other books by Julie Hasson

150 Best Cupcake Recipes (2012)

Vegan Diner (2011)

The Complete Book of Pies (2008)

300 Best Chocolate Recipes (2006)

cross-posted to Bianca’s Book Blog

The Breakfast Bible (Seb Emina et al) Wednesday, Jul 10 2013 

–The blurb–

“When it comes to the most important meal of the day, this is the book to end all books, a delectable selection of recipes, advice, illustrations and miscellany. The recipes in the robust volume begin with the iconic full English – which can mean anything as long as there are eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, black pudding, bread, potatoes and beans involved – before moving confidently on to more exotic fare such as kedgeree, omelette Arnold Bennett, waffles, American muffins, porridge, roast peaches, channa masala from India, borek from the Balkans and pĂŁes de queijo from South America. There are also useful tips like the top songs for boiling an egg to, and how to store mushrooms. Interspersing the practicalities of putting a good breakfast together are essays and miscellanies from a crack team of eggsperts. Among them are H.P. Seuss, Blake Pudding, Poppy Tartt and Malcolm Eggs, who offer their musings on such varied topics as forgotten breakfast cereals of the 1980s, famous last breakfasts and Freud’s famous Breakfast Dream. Whether you are a cereal purist, a dedicated fan of eggs and bacon or a breakfast-aficionado with a world view, The Breakfast Bible is the most important book of the day.”

–The review–

My husband often jokes that he did well to marry a Brit, as the breakfasts in other countries are rubbish. He says this while being French (so no “but what about croissants?” will change his mind) and while travelling extensively around Europe for work (so he has had plenty of time to be won over by other countries’ dubious displays of selections of ham and cheese). However, even he has to admit that the brilliantly-researched Breakfast Bible, by Seb Emina and co, will open up any reader’s eyes to a range of culinary possibilities from around the world.

Beautiful photographs are interspersed with witty (yes, really) puns, historical tidbits, food quizzes, culinary horoscopes and amusing diversionary lists (including songs to eat while cooking/eating breakfast – although somehow they forgot the blindingly obvious Breakfast At Tiffany’s by Deep Blue Something). This, of course, does not stop the range of reliable and easy-to-follow recipes from being centre stage. As well as expanding on one’s knowledge of the full English breakfast (who would have thought that a mixture of oats, yeast and water would lift bacon and sausages to even greater heights?), other breakfast foodstuffs enter stage left to mix up our breakfasts throughout the week (for example, Persian eggs, made with saffron and halloumi, make a nice change).

So the book expands horizons, makes us laugh, and fills our bellies in even more ways than before. So what? What makes The Breakfast Bible different to other food books?

Seb Emina’s accessible and drily humorous style, along with that of his co-writers, is clearly part of it. However, it can’t be the only reason that this book never gets put back on the shelf, taking up permanent residency on our breakfast table to be consulted regularly. On the practical side, it also deals with cooking techniques, such as how to buy your raw ingredients to ensure you’re always getting food to fit your requirements. However, it’s Emina’s unique take on this that makes the book memorable: who else would tell you to not use an egg timer, but instead to cook along with a song, meaning that by the time it’s over your egg will be cooked just how you like it? Short essays on certain aspects of our British breakfasting history (such as class at the breakfast table) also help to give an even rounder and fuller understanding and impression of the meaning behind the meal. All of this takes place without ever feeling chaotic or losing readability. All tastes are also catered for, whether you’re on a health kick or throwing caution to the wind, whether you’re refined or trashy (Pac-Man cereal, anyone?), and whether you’re traditional or adventurous.

Perhaps more important, though, is the non-politically-correct yet inclusive view of breakfast presented by this diverse collection. Perhaps even in time it will help to draw my husband back to his own homeland’s breakfasts thanks to Emina’s recipes for pains au chocolat, croissants, and French toast. Meanwhile, him indoors is just grateful to have been steered clear of the Glamorgan sausage (suffice it to say that hard-core meat-eaters will be very disappointed by what sounds initially like a carnivore’s dream) – and as I sink back into a tea-induced stupor (tea from China, for what it’s worth), I’ll send you on your way with a simple bon dĂ©gustation – and a recommendation to buy this book.

cross-posted to Bianca’s Book Blog

Food Book Review: Food and Philosophy (eds Allhoff/Monroe) Monday, Jul 8 2013 

–The blurb–
“Food & Philosophy offers a collection of essays which explore a range of philosophical topics related to food; it joins Wine & Philosophy and Beer & Philosophy in in the “Epicurean Trilogy.” Essays are organized thematically and written by philosophers, food writers, and professional chefs. Provides a critical reflection on what and how we eat can contribute to a robust enjoyment of gastronomic pleasures A […] collection which emphasizes the importance of food as a proper object of philosophical reflection in its own right.”

–The review–
From vegetarianism to picky eating, and from allergies to fast food, we all eat differently. Sometimes the food we put in our mouths is shaped by things beyond our control, while others are the results of definite choices. In the case of the latter, it seems reasonable to consider the ethics behind those choices. Is it right to say “no thanks” at a dinner party when given a foodstuff you do not like? Should we walk on by the value chicken and pick up a free-range one instead? And what do philosophers have to say about veganism? The collection of essays entitled Food And Philosophy endeavours to find out.

Some of the essays contained within the compendium (edited by Fritz Allhof and Dave Monroe) raise immediate questions. In suggesting that our eating habits are formed by our communities, one of the writers, named Frye, goes on to say that all communities are shaped to be a certain way, which does not seem to account for culinary diversity within communities (although there is perhaps some truth to the argument – in a different essay – that vegetarians in the Western world will more or less come from the same social group). Such loopholes in arguments betray weaknesses in some of the elements of the essayists’ style. Some prioritize basic rhetoric over sophisticated argument, for instance, while others lose focus and lack revolutionary ideas (the idea that eating disorders have their basis in control issues, for instance, is an idea as old as the hills). Nevertheless, the entire volume generally remains very accessible, even though the writers’ individual styles remain apparent. As such, the topics addressed are equally diverse, with anorexia, obesity and everything in between all being covered, meaning that all readers should find something that resonates with them on a personal as well as an intellectual level.

Naturally, however, we all eat selectively, and this element in our diets – that of choice – is discussed extensively throughout the collection. This inevitably leads to the discussion of whether taste is objective or subjective, and the notation of the fact that perceptions of what we “can” or “can’t” taste expand regularly, with the addition of umami to the flavour spectrum being one recent example. The collection’s extensive bibliography further corroborates the notion of endless possibility within this topic of research. The highly interdisciplinary nature of this compilation raises a variety of questions – for example, are so-called ‘experts’ just more eloquent? When we compare food writers’ experiences, are we really disputing their experiences, or just their descriptions? This is further underlined by another essayist’s assertion that foods themselves cannot be positive or negative in taste or flavour; only our individual experiences can be.

This is, of course, not just about linguistics and philosophy (although it’s true that the usual suspects are cited several times: de Saussure, Brillat Savarin, Hume…): for the romantic, the world of literature is frequently cited, with Proust naturally getting a look-in alongside a few more surprise guests such as Jorge Amado and William Faulkner. The ruthless world of marketing is also discussed, with one essayist asking what brands of food really give us (identity, familiarity, and someone to choose for us are all reasons cited). For the analytical, the realm of the psychology of food forces us to question the role of taste and smell in our formative experiences. Other experts point out how historical and cultural context can change the perception of food – think of horse and narwhal as foodstuffs, or the rise and rise of service Ă  la russe. The notions of food as symbols and anchors of our memory, as well as the idea that taste is influenced strongly by culture, are all-pervasive.

Some essays are more grounded in reality than others (with the essay entitled Eating Well perhaps being best for this), while others are swamped by philosophy to the point that they begin to lose clarity. The aim of the collection is not equally at the forefront of all the writers’ mind, with certain contributors losing sight of the philosophical element. Some essayists are calm and logical, while others are schmaltzy; some are academic and methodical, while others take on a more aggressive, Michael Moore-style tone of reportage. However, what most of the essays culminate – perhaps not intentionally – in a link to Plato’s famous story of the shadows in the cave. It is strongly suggested that foodies and laymen alike are ever on a quest to find out about the ‘real’ food that is creating the ‘shadow’ of what we are able to taste – and this concept proves a helpful gelatine in binding this highly recommended collection of essays together.

perfect partners
Wine and Philosophy (ed. Fritz Allhoff)
Beer and Philosophy (ed. Steven D Hales)

cross-posted to Bianca’s Book Blog

Books about tea and biscuits and cake Sunday, Mar 27 2011 

…and of course I could go on with that fantastically vague description.

We all agree, surely, that the wonderful but at times overwhelming world of Tea and Things To Eat With It can get a little tricky to navigate. Reading informative but entertaining books on the subject is certainly one way forward.

The following book reviews were originally posted to my book blog but I thought that you lot would like to see them too 🙂 Enjoy!

–The blurb–
“Put a cup of tea in your hand, and what else can you do but sit down? This wonderful new book is a celebration of that most British of life’s cornerstones: taking a break, putting your feet up and having a breather. There is, however, a third element that any perfect sit down requires and it is this: biscuits. As Nicey so rightly points out, a cup of tea without a biscuit is a missed opportunity. Finding the right biscuit for the right occasion is as much an art as it is a science, and it is a task that Nicey has selflessly worked on for most of his tea drinking life. From dunking to the Digestive, the Iced Gem to the Garibaldi, everything you’ll ever need to know about biscuits is in this book, and quite a lot more besides. Is the Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit? And have Wagon Wheels really got smaller since your childhood, or have you just got bigger? […]Nicey and Wifey’s Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down does exactly what it says on the biscuit tin. So go on. Take a weight off, put the kettle on, and enjoy.”
–The review–
Ever since e-publishing and the web in general took off in any serious way, there have been worried whispers among teachers, librarians and other book-lovers regarding the future of the beloved book. However, with popular web editions increasingly coming off the web and into people’s hands in the form of physical copies (you only have to look to Belle du Jour and Petite Anglaise for examples of this), for now at least it appears that we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down, by Stuart Payne, is one such book. Initially conceived as a website to catalogue information on currently available biscuits and to mourn the passing of biscuits from days gone by, and for people to get into deep conversations on this subject, it has now come off the web and appeared before us in real book form. Sales of this have probably enabled the author (and his co-contributor, referenced in the book only as Wifey) to sit back, relax, and enjoy their new-found wonga, as the website itself has not been active now since 2008. While it remains available now for consultation, this may not be the case forever, and so it does seem to be distinctly advantageous to have a real book at our fingertips as an encyclopaedia for all biscuity matters.
While that description may seem slightly overblown, the deceptively slim-looking book truly has encyclopaedic qualities. It contains everything you could ever want to know about biscuits old and new from around the world (and, to be honest, in some cases, more than you ever wanted to know – in some places it becomes wildly detailed), as well as giving information about tea, the history of tea, the best way to drink it, and what to drink it with. Cake is also given a passing mention somewhere towards the back. All of this is laid out very methodically and articulately, making it a handy reference tool.

But, further to this – even if it is slightly politically incorrect to judge a book by its cover – it is certainly not boring, as perhaps one would expect from (you guessed it) the fun-loving cover design. Stuart Payne’s piercing wit shines through at every turn, making the reader’s quest to find out more about biscuits as entertaining as it could possibly be. Accessible and intelligent without being patronising, and with a good dose of humour along the way, this is a one-of-a-kind, detailed book which will find a place on any bookshelf in the land – even in houses that don’t normally have bookshelves.

–The blurb–
“An irresistible collection of traditional teatime recipes and charming stories from the world famous Ritz Hotel.”
–The review–
You may have noticed by now that I am becoming a tad obsessed with tea, given my reading of this and Stuart Payne’s missive within a very short space of time. I also noticed this occurring when somebody at work was asking me about tea, for me to say “Oh, I don’t know very much about it really” only to rattle off quite a few quite specific pieces of information, including about my own favourite type of tea (Lapsang Souchong) and how to prepare the tea.
So books like this are really for entertainment just as much as for knowledge, although by the end of this one the reader is rightly confounded by the apparent lack of link to the Ritz (in spite of its title). Apart from the book possibly being sold there, and the hotel being mentioned from time to time in the book’s earlier sections, the book really is just about tea and cakes and the history thereof in general rather than it being anything to do with the place in particular. Still, it’s not as if it matters terribly in the end, as it still makes for a satisfying and informative read as well as being lightly entertaining. The humour, tone, typeface and illustrations are all so genteel that I did in fact wonder if this was a modern reprint of a book from a bygone age; however, it was written in the mid-2000s. Whether it is intended to be satirical or serious is therefore something that comes into play but does not really matter all that much when all is said and done – much like the book’s premise itself.
Slim and concise, it is packed with information, humour, cake recipes, history and anecdote, as well as quotations from various luminaries on the subject of tea and tea-drinking. It is all highly British with its sense of “this is how you pour the tea” and “oh, but that will never do”, and all without seeming too preachy. We marvel and drool with awe at the recipes and descriptions that are included and immediately make up our minds to spruce up our own afternoon teas; in reading the history of this British institution, too, we feel proud to be imbibing a little history in our cups and feel inclined to go beyond the humble tea bag. It is, in short, aspirational and delicate while continuing to be cuttingly witty in unexpected places. In addition, its well-written, precise and slightly coy style helps in transporting us to days gone by.
A faultless and unpatronising book which not only educates, informs and entertains but also introduces us to the work of Helen Simpson – which, it seems to me, would be well worth seeking out.
Other works by Helen Simpson
Four Bare Legs In A Bed (1991)
Dear George, and other stories (1996)
Hey Yeah Right Get A Life (2001)
Getting A Life (2002)
Constitutional (2005)
In The Driver’s Seat (2007)
In-Flight Entertainment (2010)