Double Secret Cookbook Probation

It’s past time that I confessed to a slight cookbook problem.

Promiscuous is not too strong a word. I’m entirely too cavalier about absorbing them to into my world. How I instantly fall in love with them – maintaining them ever so  briefly in their place of honor atop my living room end table. How I try, in, vain, to live vicariously through their dishes and how I sometimes try to rudely step into their unattainable inner world, where chutney maintains its luscious color and every plate is impeccably garnished. How I eventually set them aside when something new comes along. I was even at the point where I made an agreement with myself not to buy any more for a while.

But there are few that stick around. The best ones are trusted friends I can count on for candid, straightforward counsel. One or two are a source of excitement and drama. Some I simply click with. There are Beautiful People who might someday invite me to their parties. And several were just in the right place at the right time.

And some just plain inspire me.

I now own two cookbooks by the partnership of Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. In reading through them, you realize what a fine line there is between inspiration and seismic jealousy. Based out of Toronto, the two authors (and their two sons – it’s a “real” partnership as much as a literary/culinary one) spend significant time traveling through Asia, taking mesmerizing pictures and laying out vast, rich maps of ancient and richly diverse cuisines.  I’ve had Hot Sour Salty Sweet for several years now, and, candidly, I’m still in awe, despite my occasional embarrassment at having to explain why I own two types (Vietnamese and Thai) of fish sauce.  I recently picked up Mangoes and Curry Leaves, which details their many travels on the Indian Subcontinent.

I guess it only occurred to me this past week WHY these books have struck such a chord with me.  Even taking into account artistic license, most of the authors’ recipes seem to recreate meals served to them under humble, even odd, circumstances.  Dishes served by accident while staying in a stranger’s home during a village stopover.  Stuff thrown together by gracious hostel owners or in a village watering hole light years from the paths you and I walk every day.  In other words, these meals are not “affected” as much as they are immersive – and they speaks to not only a culinary straightforwardness but to wise, simple, richly lived lives, the sort I, in my own small way, try to emulate.

Anyway, This is my favorite dish from the book, so far. Over the last month it’s become virtually my go-to spud option.  I love the blending of familiar and exotic. Not to mention the fact that the ingredients are inexpensive and the meal almost cooks itself.

Potato Curry (tweaked slightly from Alford and Duguid’s Mangoes and Curry Leaves)

Serves two as a side dish, or one as a main course

6 egg-sized Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into apricot-sized wedges
1 small onion, julienned (recipe in the book calls for shallots)
1 medium tomato, or two roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 or more cloves of garlic
2 T of fat. Ghee, vegetable oil, butter, whatever.  Bacon fat would be SO wrong on about five different levels, but I’m sure the final dish will taste good
1/2 t salt
1/4 C water

Spice mix:
2 green chiles (or one or three or zero) – seeded and chopped
1 t ground coriander
1 t ground cumin
1/2 t black mustard seed. You can crush or grind, I just throw them in whole.
1/2 t ground turmeric

(this spice mixture, by the way, when combined with three T of peanut oil, is a great marinade for chicken)

Equipment note:  The recipe as printed in the book calls for a wok, but I think this dish works much better in the cast iron skillet that I hope I have by now talked you into buying.  The potatoes will keep in contact with the cooking surface for longer, giving them a nice sear, which will create nice flavor contrast with the depth of the spice mix.  Yes, I know.  Cast Iron.  Water. Tomato.  Just trust me.  You’ll be fine.

Heat the fat of your choice in your skillet over medium-high heat.  When the skillet is hot, toss in the spuds, stirring to coat them with the fat. Cook for five minutes, add the onions and garlic, along with the salt, cook for another five, stirring frequently.  Add the tomatoes, and stir a few times to combine thoroughly.

At this point, the spuds should be starting to brown, and whatever moisture was in the tomatoes will be boiling vigorously.  Stir in your spice mix.

(by the way, I LOVE this moment in the preparation.   Up until this step you’ve basically been making home fries. You’ve added tomato, but the smells should still be familiar and even comforting.  But once the spices are added… EVERYTHING changes.  The union of cast iron and ground spices instantly supernovas in your kitchen, and… it just smells… deep and rich and different and otherworldly and makes you think for a second about selling your possessions and spending the next twenty years loitering on the beach near Goa.

Anyway, make sure the spices are integrated through the mix, drizzle the water into your skillet, scoop once, lower the heat to low, and cover.

Simmer for about ten minutes.

Check the potatoes for doneness, add a touch more water if need be.   The potatoes should be starting to fall apart, the starch binds perfectly with the moisture, rendering the final product oozy and comforting.

Serve immediately.

3 thoughts on “Double Secret Cookbook Probation

  1. it is amaze-balls to me that you have two types of fish sauce, *i* don’t even have two types of fish sauce. you’re hardcore & i dig it.

    now do you eat this with rice, naan or just plain?

    i realize you’ve detailed a cookbook-owning problem but may i suggest two more? Songs of Sapa and Secrets of the Red Lantern. the books are lush with wonderful vietnamese home cooking that reminds me of my grandmother and what i believe i’d be chowing on if we hadn’t become boat people in 1979 and the stories made me cry.

  2. Lan,

    Thanks as always for reading. I looked up the books in question, but immediately had to close my web browser when a reviewer called Secrets “Pho-nominal.” I just couldn’t.

    In the book, the curry is served with chapatis, but the authors indicate that for full on Atkins pleasure, one can eat it over rice.

    And to me, fish sauce is fish sauce. I bought two at Jungle Jims a while back thinking they might have subtle, you know, fish saucey nuances. Heh.

    And I still owe you an answer to your previous question about my entire “routine.” It’s… complicated. Originally it was just going to be a decision to give up meat, but I decided to throw “90% of my refined sugar” into the pit, and THAT is what has been tricky. I’m more regularly than ever (exercise bike, walking, tai chi-esque stretching in the morning, but a lot of times this finds me just incredibly hungry. My body feels a world better even two weeks or so into this, but there have been more than a few difficult days/nights.

    I appreciate you thinking about me. :)


  3. oh that jackass “pho-nominal” review slays me… anybody who does a play on that beloved word kills a puppy or kitten in the world. (OMG, i just looked to see who it was, IT WAS NPR!)

    keep at it darling jeff, i am not going thru what you are exactly but i am going thru a lifestyle change and well… it hurts and it sucks and i know it’s good for me.