Friday, May 29, 2009

Esquire's Handbook for Hosts

I recently stumbled upon a 1949 edition of Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts in an op shop. It was a rare find, I could hardly contain my excitement – I couldn’t believe my luck when the volunteer asked for $1 for the book. I did a little private jig inside, paid my $1 and set off my merry way. It’s been such an interesting read, dipping in and out of this book that I thought I’d share some bits and pieces from the book.

The chapter on kitchen equipment that a man-host needed made me take notice. We are talking late 1940s here – I was expecting the list to read something like this: wooden spoon, big frypan, saucepan, potato masher, carving knife, bread and butter knives and a wooden chopping block. Here are necessities Esquire recommended that a ‘man’s kitchenette should contain’:

A kettle, a set aluminium saucepans preferably with long handles, a frying pan, a roasting pan, a double boiler, at least one earthenware casserole, a wire sieve, a wire salad basket, an egg beater, mixing bowls, three kitchen knives, a small wooden chopping board, a vegetable brush, a wooden spoon and fork, a spatula, a long fork, a grater, a funnel, a pepper mill, a pair of scissors, an aluminium measure, a basting spoon, a coffeepot, a teapot and a wooden salad bowl…a pressure cooker is helpful for vegetables, onion-chopper to wire whisks, a good can opener, a good toaster, a waffle iron and a good coffee-maker that does it work at the table make a good kick-off.

Special equipment included: skewers for shish kabab, alcohol-flame chafing dish for almost anything dressy. Deep-fry kettle and basket, rolling pin, pastry board, baking pans, special molds for baba au rum or the like; small, shallow frying pans for crepes Suzette, an omelette pan.

I don’t even have half of these items in my own kitchen and I live in the twenty first century! What an eye-opening list of must-need items. Perhaps the sophisticated post-war man was a lot more capable than we first imagined. It certainly blows away my stereotypical image of the 1950s man coming home to his wife who waited hand and foot with slippers ready, pipe and tobacco primed, with dinner warming in the oven. Perhaps this was what bachelors had – not married men. Married men didn’t have to worry about their own meals, of course, their wives did all the chopping, dicing, baking and roasting. It was the single man who needed to deck out his little kitchenette for he was out to impress with his cooking skills and cocktail-making abilities to woo the single woman.

For table ware, it was even more interesting and actually, surprisingly quite strict – modern china and linens with simple and striking designs (preferably devoid of pink rosebuds) , with streamlined silverware were recommended. Esquire recommended tablecloth or runners in solid colours with contrasting borders, or resplendent with your monogram in big, bold letters. ‘Peasant designs’ apparently allowed for a lot of latitude. A man may have used gay Czechoslovakian linen cloths in raucous plaids or checks. ‘Your china may be Mexican pottery, Californian pottery in vivid sun-drenched colors or French Provencal or Italian pottery’. The modern 40s man may have even allowed himself such whimsies:- wooden-handled cutlery or salad forks with bright painted handles. I wonder if a single woman who had dinner cooked and laid out for her on dainty pink rose plates sitting on gaudy table runners who have thought her date a little fruity – would she have run away a mile?
As for your pantry shelves in your bachelor pad – these were Esquire’s emergency stock: butter, flour, sugar, salt, pepper, onions, oil, vinegar, baking powder, gelatin, Parmesan cheese, coffee and tea, cocoa, mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy sauce, Hungarian paprika, curry powder, capers, bay leaf, garlic cloves, vanilla, caraway seeds, raisins, rice, macaroni, black peppercorn, nutmeg, prunes, brown sugar and arrowroot.

These I thought were pretty solid ingredients to have in any pantry – the prunes and arrowroot perhaps a little old-fashioned but nevertheless, caraway seeds, garlic cloves, Hungarian paprika and capers are all very exotic and impressive. I would have been impressed if a man opened his cupboard and had all those ingredients on his shelf!

And if he serves you tongue tidbits* as a starter on plain white china – you know you’re in for a real saucy night!

* Tongue tidbits, by the way if you’re interested in making for a truly authentic 1940s canapé goes something like this (a la Esquire):

Spread English mustard, red pepper and olive oil on sliced tongue. Then pack the slices together and put the whole business in the icebox until the mixture soaks into the meat. When ready to serve, pull the slices of tongue apart and fry in butter. Serve hot, with thin slices of bread.

(Recipe can be found on p. 23)

Crazy for noodles

Those of you addicted to noodles will know that there are several things in life that really satisfy – and noodles is one of life’s little satisfactions. For some, it’s chicken noodle soup – home-made, not the canned variety, mind you. To me, few things comfort like a bowl of nutritious Vietnamese pho. A plate of smoky Malaysian char koay teow can also tip me over the edge into nostalgia and feeling like I’m home. Nothing beats a good robust laksa either. Imagine my delight when I chanced upon Terry Durack’s book, Noodle, at the library.

It may be an oldie but it’s definitely a goodie. Despite the curious, overblown font size throughout the book – the photographs by Geoffrey Lung are beautiful. The book is broken up into useful sections: First section ‘noodle i-d’ helps readers identify the type of noodles available. Durack describes the general mouthfeel of the noodle, where they’re commonly used, what names they disguise themselves in different countries (very useful), how they’re sold and packaged and lastly how to cook them. The other half of the book is recipes. Noodle recipes are broken up into countries, covering China, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia, India, etc. There are traditional recipes i.e. wonton soup with fresh egg noodles, pad thai, and some glammed up, modernised noodle twists like bang bang chicken noodles, cross the bridge noodles. The recipes are easy to follow, earthy, not pretentious and very multicultural. The book is interspersed with quirky little narratives about the act of noodle-making, the history behind famous dishes, and the magic of longevity noodles. The book ends with Durack instructing on ‘basics’ like tempura batter, laksa paste, Sichuan chilli oils, and homemade udon and egg noodles. Noodle makes a good reference book as well – something definitely to have on your cookbook shelf.

All snooty dining and haute cuisine aside, “Terry Durack tosses truffles and caviar to one side to declare his obsession with the world’s most nutritious and nurturing food: the proud, brave, democratic people’s noodle. ‘I’m over the rare, the exotic, the extravagant,’ he claims. ‘Noodles are the future’”. So you heard the man, find your nearest pho restaurant or ramen shop and slurp those slippery things with abandon.

The world according to Ferran Adria

A Day at elBulli: an insight into the ideas, methods and creativity of Ferran Adria is one of those intimidating tomes you don’t want to carry around for too long in your bag. The damn thing feels like it weighs about 10kgs! The folks at Phaidon have gone all out in producing a spectacular and aesthetically interesting book on the culinary maestro. The book is broken up into a kind of a diarised-day-in-the-life of elBulli, down to five minute intervals in the day. The day starts at 6:05am and finishes at 2am. A Day at elBulli charts Adria’s creative processes and development stages of his dishes. The book is visually appealing and kept interesting with the interspersion of smaller inserts of text and photography. Staff are even named and photographed. It even goes as far as describing Adria’s criteria for choosing his produce and the provenance of produce. Foodies who want to know how a successful restaurant runs its reservations systems will be fascinated to discover that elBulli receives 2 million requests each year; and only 8000 places are ever released. The reservations manager explains how a complicated preferential system for new and old customers, considerations for diners who will travel around the world to eat at this gastronomic temple. Having said that there is no prejudice against local Spanish diners either, a percentage of places is set aside for the locals who want to dine at the temple. Just reading about the amount of emails and phone calls they receive about reservations boggles the mind.

The photographs of Adria, his brother, Albert and their staff in the kitchen and dining rooms feel authentic and impromptu. A lot of the shots look untouched and everybody looks natural, like no camera was present. Foodies with a penchant for food porn will no less find this, extremely pleasurable! Come closer for intimate shots of the making of pistachio freeze-dried foam, ogle at the caramelisation method of encasing pumpkin seed oil in an edible caramel vessel. The shots are amazing and the experimental techniques used in this high-tech kitchen are even more amazing. There are even shots of several of the lucky 8000 guests who have managed to score a place. Extremely happy people embarking on a culinary once-in-a-lifetime adventure for the night – lucky bastards! For those who have a kitchen laboratory at home and a liquid nitro tank on hand, there are recipes to be read very thoroughly and made. For those of us who don’t have access to a kitchen laboratory, or 200 pounds to spare, or incredibly lucky to score a reservation – this is probably the next best thing to being there. A Day at elBulli is 527 pages of pure indulgence and a good insight into what makes Ferran Adria tick.