Book reviews by Kristina Sepetys and Charlotte Peale
There are 146,680 cookbooks listed for sale on Amazon. If you broaden your search to books about “food,” you get 295,406. And these numbers probably don’t include the scores of historical books and pamphlets on the subject. Food and cooking are surely important, but sometimes I do wonder what more can be said on these topics or how recipes might possibly combine ingredients in ways newly imagined.
Which is perhaps in part what makes Dana Velden’s Finding Yourself in the Kitchen: Kitchen Meditations and Inspired Recipes from a Mindful Cook (Rodale, 2015) seem so special. Categorized as “Cooking/Inspiration,” this is a book with no styled photographs or curated resource lists and just a few very simple recipes, which are included mostly to complement and illustrate the author’s essays. Oakland resident Velden is a Zen priest who lived and studied for 15 years at the San Francisco Zen Center, where she was head cook. She’s also been a columnist for the well-known food blog The Kitchn since 2008, and many of her essays there were the inspiration for this collection.
In keeping with her background, Velden has created a quiet, meditative examination of “the internal aspects of being in the kitchen: how to awaken curiosity, how to work with boredom, what cooking can teach us about mistakes, failure, beauty, and intimacy.” It’s a delightful book that highlights personal, contemplative moments like “the way a cup of tea warms our hands,” “the way sunlight came in and lit up the pile of dishes drying by the window,” “the rough skin of a storage potato.” Velden encourages readers to “find out what happens when you open your eyes and engage with whatever is in front of you, right here, right now.” Chapters are just a page or two, easy to read at a coffee break for a bit of calming and centering. Topics include loving your kitchen, patience, posture, learning to live from a bowl of bread, gratitude, and how to be angry in the kitchen.
Velden’s writing reminds me of the well-loved British cookbook and food writer Nigel Slater, who can in a few sentences describe a trip to the farmers’ market or to his garden for a bit of ripe produce and make the quotidian experience seem transcendent. So I wasn’t surprised to discover one of the last lines in the book where she thanks Slater “with a deep bow of gratitude and respect” for inspiration. The line follows a recipe for “A Small Bowl of Yogurt.” She admits that while there are certainly many easier and more efficient options for yogurt, “The point is to find some quiet time, to enjoy the process, and to create a simple ritual that encourages presence and contemplation.” Indeed.
If You Haven’t Been to Camino…
Many East Bay enthusiasts of locally sourced cooking are fans of Camino, the restaurant on Grand Avenue in Oakland known for its high-ceilinged room with brick walls, concrete floors, long communal tables, and massive, roaring fire at the back of the hall. That’s where chef Russell Moore works his magic.
Moore cooked at Chez Panisse for more than 20 years before opening Camino in 2008 with his co-owner, general manager, and wife, Allison Hopelain. They built their reputation around slow-cooked, earnest food made from high-quality, organic ingredients.
But now they offer an intimate peek behind the curtain in This is Camino. Written by Moore and Hopelain with Chris Colin and published this year by Ten Speed Press, the cookbook shows how dishes are conceived, ingredients are sourced, and the larder stocked—a larder that’s as important to the cuisine at Camino as the fire.
“A dish should begin with a glance in the refrigerator. And the pantry,” Moore writes. Unlike many restaurant cookbooks where dishes can challenge home cooks, most of these recipes are very accessible. They do require time, attention, and slow cooking, but not highly specialized skills or tools. It’s what Hopelain describes as “grandmotherly cooking.” In Moore’s words, “The Camino approach doesn’t mean you need a French stonemason to install a ten-foot fireplace in your house. You don’t even need a fireplace. Many of these recipes were born over something far more ramshackle in my backyard, an old rebar we swiped from a vacant lot.”
The book offers more than 100 recipes for dishes and staples made at Camino. We learn how fire is a key element that Moore uses to work his alchemy, turning simple ingredients into deeply satisfying dishes like Spicy Lamb Ragu; Grilled Squid with Fresh Turmeric, Chiles, and Radishes; and Roast Duck Consomme with Herb Dumplings and Wild Nettles.
Moore’s “obsession with reusing and repurposing” is seen in much of what they do at Camino, where they make stock from the bones of the animals whose meat they cook in their dishes, and where scraps that might otherwise be destined for the compost heap become “herb jam” or “egg tea” to infuse dishes with flavor and depth. We get a look into the restaurant larder: “Tubs of fermented cabbage. Prunes soaking in brandy. A jar of pickle liquid. Some Seville orange marmalade. The vinegar barrel.” We learn how those prunes can become Pu-Erh Ice Cream with Poached Quince and Prunes, or how sauerkraut flavors a Chilled Beet Soup with Horseradish and Crème Fraîche.
Moore and Hopelain are principled: committed to doing without if ingredients don’t meet their standards. A bad brush with pigs that weren’t well cared for impressed upon Moore how broken the food system is and led both Moore and Hopelain to vow to “never buy meat if we didn’t know where it came from.” And not just meat. They’ve forged relationships with dozens of farmers like Didar Singh Khalsa of Guru Ram Das Orchards and Tim Mueller and Trini Campbell of Riverdog Farm.
Like a meal at Camino, this book inspires us to care as much as Moore and Hopelain do about where we source our ingredients and how we prepare them. And if we live near the restaurant, we can always go there to experience the magic.
At Play with the Kitchen Spirits
Tarot cards, with their evocative imagery, first began appearing in Europe in the 15th century and were used to play various card games. As with other playing card decks, people found ways to use them for fortune telling, the purpose for which tarot cards are best known today.
Judith Mackay Stirt’s tarot deck, The Cook’s Tarot (Schiffer Publishing, 2015), is a fanciful vision representing over six years of work hand painting with gouache on watercolor canvas pads to produce a deck featuring 78 colorful images with culinary themes. The set comes with a companion guide that explains how to use the tarot, the meaning of each card, Stirt’s thoughts underlying each image, and her associated “Kitchen Wisdom.” For example, the card representing Death features a design of thirteen chickens milling around a large pot with a cleaver and a large wishbone. “The implication,” writes Stirt, “is that those chickens will eventually end up in the pot, thus perpetuating the food-chain cycle of life and death.” And the Kitchen Wisdom? “All endings create new beginnings. The leftovers from one meal can be the foundation for another.”
Stirt currently lives on the island of Gabriola in British Columbia, but it’s to her upbringing in Jamaica that she attributes her love of bright colors, spicy food, and appreciation for the cooks around her.