September Books and Fat Cooking
A Maligned Food Is Redeemed
I love how the weather always knows it's Labor Day. We've had the first crisp mornings of late summer and while we'll still have a few more warm days to come, a change of seasons has begun.
When you live in a climate like New York's, changing seasons is always invigorating but it's particularly so in the fall. We swap our closets around (sweaters come out; cotton tees are put away), maybe do a bit of extra cleaning and organizing (I think it's a back-to-school thing), and buy tickets for the new season of theater or opera or Philharmonic concerts. There's always a new crop of books; for me that means I'm counting the days to Dame P.D. James's new Dalgliesh mystery plus a new Philip Roth novel.
In the cookbook category, Ina Garten's new Back to Basics will certainly be one of the most popular new titles when it's released later this month. But in an entirely different direction than Ms. Garten's eclectic approach to home cooking, there's another new cookbook that I think will be both successful and controversial -- and that belongs on almost any home cook's book shelf.
It's called Fat. Written by Jennifer McLagan who also wrote Bones, the book is both a celebration and defense of this much demonized food. Author McLagan is a native Australian who has worked as a chef, food stylist and writer in London, Paris and Toronto. She's obviously a best friend of some very good butchers to have developed the expertise, point-of-view and recipes included in this 240-page hardcover book (Ten Speed Press, $32.50, full-color photographs). From the first sight of the heavily fatted chop on the dustcover and the pale lace of caul fat that decorates the inside cover, this book is unapologetic and appreciative of what it calls a "misunderstood ingredient."
After a highly informative introduction that pushes back hard against the food police and misconceptions about fat, the book is divided into four main sections:
- Butter: Worth It
- Pork Fat: The King
- Poultry Fat: Versatile and Good For You
- Beef and Lamb Fats: Overlooked But Tasty
Each chapter begins with a primer on its subject: traditions and history, nutrition, cooking methods, folklore and facts, and useful details. The chapter on poultry fat, for example, documents health information about monounsaturated duck fat (part of the explanation of "The French Paradox"), plus primers on schmaltz, confit, fois gras, and rendered poultry fats. Ms. McLagan manages to combine culinary appeal with scholarship: unlike most cookbooks, this one cites 101 sources in its four-page bibliography.
The 200 recipes are almost dizzyingly tempting and equally diverse. Many of the recipes are traditional, some are for basics, and still others are inspired. Some examples:
- Browned Butter Sauce
- Murgh Makhani (Butter Chicken)
- Poached Shrimp with Beurre Blanc and Spinach
- Breton Butter Cake
- Pumpkin and Bacon Soup
- Spaghetti Carbonara
- Prosciutto-Wrapped Halibut with Sage Butter
- Miso- and Orange-Roasted Pork Belly
- Gooseberry Pie with Leaf Lard Pastry
- Bacon Baklava
- Duck Rillettes
- Potatoes Sarladaises
- Duck Fat Biscuits with Cracklings
- Cranberry Beans with Confit and Crackling
- Red Cabbage with Goose Fat
- Yorkshire Pudding
- Steak and Kidney Pie
- Lamb Ribs with Flageolets
- Traditional Christmas Pudding
We've been given permission to reproduce two appealing recipes, one old and one new. "Welsh Rabbit" is a very traditional and satisfying English dish of melted cheese and butter that's also popular in France as "Le Welsch." "Duck Breast with Blackberries" is a more modern dish that pairs acidic berries with slices of rich duck meat that can be served either warm or on top of salad greens.
The book is entirely worth just the recipe for "Salted Butter Tart," made with "Sweet Butter Pastry," inspired by Paris bakery star Eric Kayser. It easily and brilliantly combines butter, sugar and salt into a complex, sweet caramel-like filling in a crumbly pastry shell. I made it last weekend and we were swooning.
Ms. McLagan's meticulously researched "Why Fat Is Good for Our Health" should convince anyone who misses an occasional BLT, or a smear of sweet butter on a tender baguette, or a crisp fatty edge of a lamb chop, or the delicate crumble of a buttery shortbread that having fat in our diets is a necessity for our bodies and our souls. And with autumn on its way back to town urging me back into the kitchen, you could twist my arm to agree.