On Cookbooks

Seasonal, local cooking is never boring.  Every week there's a new ingredient coming in, an old one gone for another year.  Small farms grow varietals you may not know, foragers find wild edibles you would never in a million years think to pluck from the Earth and pop in your mouth. Times of abundance leave you scrambling to preserve, pickle and freeze, while the winter months challenge you to find one more damn recipe for squash and greens.  For all of these reasons, it's not uncommon to peek your head inside Mossback's kitchen and find each of us with our nose in a different cookbook, foraging for inspiration, forging new menus, learning new tricks.  We inevitably have our favorites, the go-tos, and have become pretty discerning critics.  Now, in the season of giving, I thought I would share some time-tested recommendations; because everyone knows someone who loves to cook, and that person can always use a really good cookbook.  

First, a few notes on picking and using cookbooks in general:

1) Not sure if you're holding a gem?  Flip through and just look at the ingredient lists.  Do you see a lot of pre-made ingredients, like "1 can Tomato Sauce", "1 Tbsp Southwest Seasoning", or even worse "1 Store Bought Frozen Pizza Crust"?  That one's aimed more at easy meals than interesting tastes and techniques.  If you notice a lot of recipes referencing other recipes, such as "1 Tbsp Za'atar (see page 35)", then you've got yourself a book that doesn't skip the important stuff.  

2) Judge a book by its cover.  I'm not ashamed to say that I often scour books for inspiration without reading a word.  A nice picture can spark an idea, can tell you how to blend colors and flavors, and even tell you a lot about how to cook a dish.  If the pictures make your mouth water, it’s a good start.

3) You are a jazz musician and the cookbook is your sheet music.  A recipe will tell you one way to make a dish, and once you’re armed with that knowledge you can adapt it to fit your particular needs and whims.  Maybe you aren’t even making that particular dish, but it has an interesting idea about contrasting flavors, or maybe you never thought to let the onion burn a little in the pan to add a bitter, smokey note; now you can use that in anything else you want!   Be loose and open minded is all I’m saying.*

 

Ok, with that out of the way, here are a few cookbooks in the Mossback kitchen that we couldn't live without:

 

Plenty” By Yotam Ottolenghi- We actually have three of his cookbooks on hand, including “Plenty More” and “Jerusalem”.  Every recipe has something to offer, and some pages have so many food stains on them that we all know them by heart.  “Mr. Good and Plenty”, as we call him, has a knack for taking age-old, traditional recipes, and giving them a vibrant, innovative feel.  “Plenty” and “Plenty More” are both vegetarian, and the fact that I didn't realize that until I had cooked several recipes is a testament to their creativity and usefulness. 

 

 

 

Bar Tartine: Techniques and Recipes” By Nicolaus Balla and Courtney Burns- of the eponymous San Francisco restaurant and bakery.  This one is chock full of crazy, time consuming projects for the extreme do-it-yourselfer.  There’s a recipe that calls for cooking garlic for two weeks until it turns black and smells of caramel, pages on drying and grinding all sorts of interesting spices, kefir making and soda recipes.  The beet-brined King Salmon roe we made a few weeks ago was a variation on a recipe out of this book.  So, so much to learn in here, and very well put together.  We pull this one out when we're feeling really ambitious.

 

India: The Cookbook” By Pushpesh Pant- This is the definitive tome on the subject, and has enough recipes to keep you busy for the rest of your life.   Curries, pickles, chutneys, paneers, kulfis, lassis, its all here. Each recipe with an exhaustive list of spices for you to track down and get familiar with: black cumin, fenugreek, asafetida, and each one gets proper treatment.  We’ve yet to find a bad recipe, and with over 1,000 of them in here, it may take us a while.  The shear quantity of recipes makes this a great resource when you want as many possible ideas of how to use a particular ingredient.

 

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The Food Lover’s Companion”  By Ron and Sharon Tyler Herbst- Ok, not a cookbook, but possibly the most thumbed-through book in our library.  It's a dictionary of food terms.  I learn something new every time I pick it up, and it’s settled many a kitchen debate.  We call it simply “the book”.  Come across a word you don’t know in some recipe?  "Look in the book!"  The entry is then generally read aloud to the rest of the kitchen.  Sure you could look it up online, but the internet lacks the gravitas and authoritativeness of “the book”.  Sometimes I like to look up terms I already know, because those can be some of the most interesting entries.  “Egg” is a particular favorite of mine.  Not to mention, it’s harder to casually flip through the internet.  Yes, you could google Kopi Luwak... but would you?  I have left a copy of this book in every kitchen I have worked in.  It's a must have.

 

Alright, what are your favorites?  Anything we should add to our shelves?

 

*This does not work with baking.  When baking, the recipe is still your sheet music, but this time you're a classical pianist.  There's still room for interpretation, but the rules are much stricter.  I’m a better jazz musician than I am a baker.  I chalk this up to a left-brain-right-brain sort of thing.  Pam is responsible for 80% of all the delicious baking to come out of Mossback, Ray makes up the rest.

Ok, sure. But Why?

Mossback started with what many in the restaurant business would consider an hilariously inadequate budget.  For the first week we cooked out of a dorm fridge, a cooler, a panini press on a folding table and the old electric oven/range that came with the house.  Bit by bit we've acquired a refurbished line fridge, an undercounter fridge from a falafel joint in Everette that we turned into a bar with six beer taps, actual sharp knives and enough other odds and ends that we can pretty convincingly play restaurant.  We are still using that electric range, though, and one of the four burners gave up the ghost months ago.  Looking forward, we'll need to run propane into the kitchen, get a professional (used) range, and put in enough refrigeration that we can start buying whole animals from our farmers, and put up more of the seasonal harvests for winter use, when all anyone has is leafy greens and sweet potatoes.  For these reasons, we've been opening up to the idea of private investors.

Of course, the first thing a business-minded individual would say, upon looking at our operating expenses, is: "why the hell are you paying so much for food?".  Or perhaps: "you know you could get a case of eggs for one fifth of the price you're paying, right?".  And they would be right.  We are going far out of our way to pay more money for just about every ingredient we use, making our profit margin slim by the standards of an industry famous for being next to impossible to make money at.  While pondering the best way to answer those questions, I realized that I take for granted, being surrounded by such a great community of radical farmers, chefs and producers, that everyone has read everything by Rachel Carson, Bill McKibbon, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, and on and on.  But there are undoubtedly folks out there who aren't familiar with the economic, environmental and communal ethics that drive us, and others in our community, to do what we do.  People who probably think "local" and "sustainable" are just two more among the latest in a long history of yuppie food geek trends and buzz words.  

With that person in mind, I've been carrying on a conversation in my head between Mossback and Clueless Possible Investor.  Here's the most succinct way I've come up with to justify our stupid business practice:

As an investor, you have to always be looking further down the road than the person next to you. You have to have tremendous patience for a tremendous return.  You know that making money in the long run means spending money up front.  A local food web, and indeed our restaurant, is built on these same principles. Only we're not looking a few years down the road, we're looking way down the road!  No quick buck is going to distract us from building something that can truly last.  That's what "sustainable" means, after all.  To prove that the current modis operadi of our food system is unsustainable, these next two paragraphs are really important:

The food industry's common practices are inherently unstable in the long run.  Mega farms are growing food in places that can't sustain the crops, supplemented by diminishing water from over-tapped rivers and aquifers, relying on petroleum based chemical fertilizers, petroleum based chemical pesticides and petroleum based chemical herbicides, picked and processed by under-payed and ill-treated migrant workers, then transported across the world in gas-powered trucks, boats, trains and planes with petroleum powered refrigeration to warehouses with more trucks and refrigeration, until they finally make it onto the truck that takes the food to whoever is going to cook it for whoever is going to eat it, and statistically, throw 40% of it away.

That system is destroying top soils.  It's polluting the environment, it's diminishing the genetic diversity of our planet, it's forcing the small farmers who care for and foster the land out of business because it's artificially lowering the cost of goods.  It's a system built on the assumption that fossil fuels are forever (and forever subsidized), water will always flow, the environment can absorb whatever we dump into it, and migrant workers can't get lawyers or they'll be deported.  So far, that's all proved to be true.  To quote the man who jumps off the top of a 30 story building, as he passes the 10th floor: "so far so good!".

So yes, we could get all of our ingredients for a fraction of what we pay, but we're looking to invest in something that will last, even if it means paying a bit more in the short term.  We're lucky enough to live in an area with enough hard working, like minded people, and in a temperate and fertile region to boot, that we don't have to look too far for good ingredients grown sustainably.  For that matter, we don't have to pay that much more, because those farmers aren't trying to get rich either, they're also building something to last.  And the people who come to our restaurant?  They're willing to pay a little extra to support a sustainable food web.  Nobody is buying a yacht any time soon, or a used Honda Civic for that matter, but in the long run we'll all be better off for it.  That's why we do what we do.

And just to say it, even though it's obvious, even though it's trite and overstated, even though it feeds the stereotype of the yuppie food geek.. food that's grown sustainably, grown for flavor instead of durability, food that's picked ripe and hits a cutting board the same day.... tastes better.

Field Trip Fund

Being such a small restaurant, we run a pretty tight and efficient crew.  How all of these people ended up here, fitting in exactly where they need to, we have no idea, but that is one gift horse we won't be looking in the mouth.  We have in this great group of people what corporate strategists call "synergy", but we just like to call it "our damn fine team."

For months now our front of house staff has been putting a portion of their tips each night into a jar in the kitchen labeled "FIELD TRIP FUND".  This week, we cashed that jar in and hit the road, headed west.

Crystie Kisler, Finnriver

Crystie Kisler, Finnriver

Our first stop was Finnriver, the wonderful farm and cidery in Chimacum, Wa.  There we met with Crystie Kisler, who showed us around the farm and cider operation, and filled us all up with delicious ciders.  We recently put their Dry Hopped Cider on tap, and are pleased to announce that we picked up a case of Honey Meadow Cider, which is backsweetened with local honey and infused with lemon balm and camomile, and we all loved it.  It won't last long on our drink menu, and they don't make much of it....  Thanks to Crystie and the team for the hospitality!

Right around the corner, we had to visit Spring Rain Farm.  We get all of our chicken from them, as well as some greens, and recently duck.  Farm manager Molly Fallon took some time out of her ridiculously busy day to give us a tour, which involved lots of happy roaming birds, some very impressive hoop houses full of melons, tomatoes and eggplants, and a Wonka-like collection of berry varieties: gooseberries, currants, boysenberries, raspberries, youngberries and many hybrids in-between!  Farm owner John Bellow stopped to say hello as well, with a truck full of rabbits.  We've loved doing business with them, love their ethics and products, and really can't wait for their fruit to ripen.

 

Molly Fallon, Spring Rain Farm

Molly Fallon, Spring Rain Farm

We finished off the evening at Ajax Cafe for live music, bottles of wine, cocktails, dinner and silly hats.  It's wonderful working with such great friends, and we're already thinking about the next field trip.

Pretzel Logic

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There was a time, not too long ago, when Pam wouldn't want to be in the kitchen at all when Leslee was making pretzels, because of a very understandable fear of sodium hydroxide.  Remember that scene in Fight Club?  The chemical burn part?  That stuff is what makes our pretzels so crusty and delicious.  It's also called food-grade lye, which sounds nicer, but is still the chemical equivalent of drain cleaner.  You form your dough into whatever shape you want (we like little golf balls) and then dunk them in a mixture of lye and water.  It effects the Maillard process by altering the ratio of sugar to protein in the crust and blah blah blah.  It's pretty fascinating stuff which could easily lead you deep down into an internet time warp of chemistry and baking were to you look it up.  

Don't worry about the poison, though, it all bakes off in the oven, and the end result is a crisp brown crust, and that distinctive pretzel smell wafting throughout the whole restaurant.  These days, not only will Pam be in the kitchen for pretzel time, not even wearing a respirator, she's doing the dunking!  I just wanted to take a second to acknowledge that.  Way to go Pam!

Our stairway doubles as a recipe book and doodle station

Our stairway doubles as a recipe book and doodle station

Primavera

What better way to kick off Summer in the Pacific Northwest than a big plate of fresh veggies?  The beginning of the season of abundance!  The time of year when all of our farmer friends stop sleeping for months on end.  Why? Vegetables!  Yes, "primavera" refers to spring, but our growing season differs slightly from Italy's.  We received today the year's first load of squashes and zucchini from Persephone and Broken Ground Farms, as well as broccoli from Full Tilth, and Walla Walla spring onions from Around the Table.  The plan is to blanche, then lightly sautée everything with some garlic, deglaze with a white wine, add a splash of cream to hold the sauce together, salt, pepper, then toss in some fresh tagliatelle.  Once it hits the plate, a chiffonade of basil and that's it.  June on a plate.  Let the veggies speak for themselves, just don't mess 'em up.