Suzi's Blog

Book Review: What’s for Dinner by Curtis Stone

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“What’s for dinner?” is a question that I, and many husbands, present to their lovely spouses. Answers can vary, more than we all might like. It’s not meant to be a stressful question, but it can be. If I don’t know what is planned for dinner, is it fair to presume that Suzen always does? Wives have interests and needs that may include meal preparation but still range far and wide from just “what’s for dinner?” All of us need to help in answering that question for our families.

Curtis Stone’s latest book, What’s For Dinner, gets right to the point. The book is a series of high intensity recipes centered around main courses that respect the work week. Come to think of it, when you ask the “what’s for dinner” question, how often do you get an answer like, “We’ll start with a salad, then a side of carrots, and some applesauce, and then …” No, we don’t think that way. The answer is going to be “roast pork” and maybe with the extension “roast pork with veggies.”

Curtis understands this focus on the main course, the central dish. This book is about main courses seven days a week. Ah, but there’s his twist. He offers up main courses for each day of the week understanding the pace of the week and need for economy on some nights. By Wednesday, we can start to drag, so a one-pot meal is appreciated. On Friday night, the weekend has begun and celebrating can get off to a start with recipes that take a bit more time to give us extra rewards.

Now, for all the nights, Curtis does include a side dish or two, so don’t worry: the complete meal is here with the appropriate emphasis on the protein or the occasional pasta. With representative recipes, here is the week ala Curtis:

  • Motivating Mondays: Chicken Masala with Cucumber Raita; Turkey Meatballs with Marinara Sauce
  • Time Saving Tuesdays: Steak and Bean Stir Fry, Sausage and Mash with Caramelized Onion Gravy
  • One Pot Wednesdays: Slow-Cooked Thai Chicken with Corn and Asparagus, Grilled Lemon-Oregano Lamb Chops with Rustic Bread Salad
  • Thrifty Thursdays: Grilled Ginger-Sesame Chicken Salad, Sliders with Red Onion Marmalade and Blue Cheese
  • Five-Ingredient Fridays: Two-Cheese Quesadillas with Chorizo and Hatch Chiles, Seared Ham Steak and Eggs with Smashed Potatoes and Sourdough Toast
  • Dinner Party Saturdays: Moroccan Braise Lamb Shoulder with Golden Raisin-Lemon Puree, Oven Roasted Salmon with Cauliflower and Mushrooms
  • Family Super Sundays: Steak and Mushroom Cobbler with Gruyere Biscuit Topping, Barbequed Spareribs with Apple-Bourbon Sauce, Curried Lamb Shanks with Carrots, Chickpeas and Potatoes

Born and first educated in Australia, Curtis has traveled the world and appeared on television food shows extensively in the UK and the US. He has written three wonderful books, opened his own restaurant, and created menus for air lines. His experience is as diverse as his recipes.

His culinary approach is contemporary and brilliant. He knows what we like, what we buy, what is in our kitchens. Look again at that list of recipes and you’ll see something important: he’s generating new combination of things you’ve had but not with his accelerated flavor palate. You won’t be hunting in specialized foods market for an exotic ingredient. Your kids will see food this as different yet familiar. You have a fighting chance. And if the kids rebel, they can have pasta and you can have more of the Moroccan braised lamb. Life is all about education.

The recipes here are not 3-ingredients and 3-steps in 10 minutes. There is a reasonable number of ingredients, a dozen or more, and half dozen, or more, steps to create a memorable meal. Memorable. Curtis has assembled what can be called “extended recipes” where some extra flavors and extra time multiply to diverse, rewarding meals.

That very last recipe, the Curried Lamb Shanks with Carrots, Chickpeas and Potatoes, was our first test from the book. I will  post a picture and the recipe in coming days. It is sublime. And the leftovers, the next day on noodles, gives new meaning and respect to that derogatory “leftover” label. Some things do get better with age. Like me.

Look for Curtis’ book, What’s for Dinner, and you’ll have dozens of answers to that important question.

Cookbook Review: Taste [Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good] by Barb Stuckey

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Oh, this book is a joy. I could not have asked for better book. It is going to make everything, and I mean everything better for me. You see, now I know that none of it was my fault. None of it. I can probably blame my mother. It may be too late to sue her, but now I have the perfect excuse for my wife: I like fatty foods because as I kid I had a bad ear infection.

Actually, now that I articulate this, and see it in writing, I’m not sure Suzen is going to believe me. I just finished reading Taste: Surprising Stories about Science and Why Food Tastes Good. I think Suzen needs to read it, too. Golly, for that matter, you should read it. Really. Let me tell you why.

Taste is really about flavor. And food flavor is dependent on our sense of taste [in the mouth], our sense of smell [in the nose], and our sense of texture [back in the mouth]. There are a bevy of nerves carrying information from all three of these senses to your brain when you eat. One nerve, the chorda typani, runs from the tongue to the brain but by the way of the middle ear. If that nerve is damaged, say, from a childhood ear infection, your sense of “flavor balance” can be off for the rest of your life. You will love, love, love creamy, fatty and fried foods as the result.

See, not my fault. Well, author Barb Stuckey would not let me off the hook. Neither will my wife. Taste is about what you taste, why you taste things differently from other people, and what you can do to enhance your tasting experience and enjoy the foods you consume even more.

You may not have met Barb Stuckey, but the odds are you have tasted her work. She has over two decades in food development. She began as a novice, but now has the expertise to explain to you why you taste what you do, and what you can do to alter you taste patterns.

About 25% of us are very, very sensitive to our taste sense, particular bitter flavors.  Another 25% really taste very little. And the middle 50% taste about “on average.” What’s the cause of the difference? Literally how many taste buds you have. Many of the chapters in Taste end with exercises you can do at home to experience different flavor and sensory concepts. One exercise allows you to count your taste buds and see which of those brackets you fall in.

Being in the first 25%, the super tasters, is not necessarily great. As I noted, these are the people who do not like bitter flavors. Ever had a kid who did not like vegetables? Who never grew up to like vegetables? Who could not be bribed? That kid was probably a super taster.

Sensitivity to bitterness is part of our generic heritage. When our ancestors were still hunter gatherers, the hunter guys were ok but those gatherers could kill us. Many plants are not remotely edible, and, if eaten in quantity, will kill you. The hint that they bear ill fruit [or fiber]: they taste bitter.

You tongue has can detect five tastes [not four]: sweet, salt, sour, bitter, and umami. Many of us confuse sour and bitter, but Barb has exercises to erase that problem. And umami? If you live in Los Angeles or New York, you can get an umami burger. For the rest of us, umami is that protein taste that somehow dangles in your mouth: the pucker from soy sauce, the sparkling stimulation from the crust of grilled meat. There are pitches for another 20 items that are also sensed by your tongue, but these five are the ones scientists now believe in.

Those five tastes of course do not begin to explain the sensation of food. 90% of the heavy flavor lifting comes from your sense of smell, but Barb explains why you need both. And why you need texture, too.

You don’t think texture is important? Try a gritty crème brulee. Or, realize this. When Ben and Jerry were creating their first flavors, one of those two geniuses had no sense of smell. Never had. For him, the delight of food came from texture. So, when he made ice cream, he added texture. And that is why you have Chunky Monkey. Texture counts.

In developing foods, Barb has learned the secrets of chefs. To be enjoyed, food needs to be balanced among the five tastes. A bit bitter is fine, too bitter is not. Salt can be added to fight bitterness, cocoa can add bitterness to achieve balance. Vanilla is a wonder flavor helping to pull dishes that are out of whack right back in line. Why is there ginger on your sushi plate? To help you fight off too much umami flavor from the soy sauce and the fish protein.

Taste is filled with facts and insight. Why does diet soda taste so bad? Barb explains and it has nothing to do with sweetness. You could read Taste quickly, in a night, but you won’t because you’ll find the information fascinating. Besides my excuse for loving fatty foods, which I probably won’t get a lot of mileage out of, here’s something that is mileage appropriate. Why does airline food taste so bad? How can that be?

Flavor is dominated by three of our senses: taste, smell and texture. But, vision and hearing matter, too. Take hearing. If you eat in an environment where there is loud noise, you are less able to taste sweetness and saltiness. If you are in low humidity, your sense of taste is diminished. Now, put yourself in the cabin of a jet liner at 30,000 feet. Lots of engine and other noises. Low humidity.

The only thing the airlines can do is start handing out Tabasco sauce. Did you know that only people like capsaicin, the power behind every chile. Barb has some nice stories about experiments with rats and capsaicin. Maybe we humans aren’t at the top of the food chain.

My rambling here just touches on some of the interesting tales you will find in Taste. Barb is far more adept at giving the full story in her charming writing style. Since you eat every day, you’ll find benefits form Taste every day, in every bite, and in every sip.