Monday, May 4, 2015

A Tale of Two Cookbooks

With luck, my couscous will look like this.
Last week, I read this essay by novelist Michael Chabon about a family trip to Morocco. Long story short, they ate so much couscous that they managed to get bored of it. It's been ages since I've eaten couscous, so now I have a hankering.

I'm not talking about the grain itself. It's unremarkable, though I do like how quickly it cooks. What I mean is the full dish - meat and vegetables served over couscous. It's kind of like pot roast or beef stew, but with different flavors. Which is probably a completely unhelpful description unless you've had couscous and know what I'm talking about.

I first had couscous when visiting a friend in France in the 90s. We spent the weekend in her friend's country home and our host made us chicken and vegetable couscous. It was good.

Side note: France has a food delivery service called Allo Couscous, which translates to Hello Couscous. Take out wasn't as much of a thing there as it is in the States, so everyone was excited that you could order food over the phone now. There's also Allo Pizza and I don't know how many other versions.

There are no Moroccan restaurants near me, so I've decided that the defunct pizza place should become a Moroccan takeout joint, along the lines of Curry in a Hurry. This will never happen, but I wants it anyway.

Back home, I've had couscous at Cafe Mogador, in the East Village. It's a bit of a hike form the subway, so I've been too sickly to go. They have a location in Brooklyn that isn't conveniently located to my apartment. Unless we get a car, and NYC car insurance rates are way too high for that to happen any time soon. Not even for couscous.

But I've been feeling a bit better lately, so I decided to cook some couscous. I started googling recipes, but immediately remembered that I own two Moroccan cookbooks, and maybe I should justify the space they're taking up.

I put them both on my Amazon wish list in healthier days when I did most of the cooking. (Things have shifted so much that when I suggest to HA that "we" try a new recipe, he assumes that he'll be doing all the work.) I guess I picked them because they were highly rated. They are Cooking at the Kasbah by Kitty Moore and Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert. 

Couscous and Other Good Food has no pictures, at least not of the food. Which is annoying and disappointing. And not surprising considering that it was published in 1973. That was the style then. Though Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking lacks photos, and I can still picture what each dish is supposed to look like. Maybe it's just that I'm more familiar with French cuisine than Moroccan.

It's considered one of the definitive works on Moroccan cooking, yet a 40 year old cookbook can't help being vintage and outdated. Vintage cookbooks are fun, but they usually include ingredients that are no longer available, or reflect tastes that have changed. (18th century Americans and Brits loved food that tasted like roses. 21st century Americans think that shit tastes like perfume.)

Wolfert describes the traditional method of steaming couscous (the grain). Morse does that to, but her recipes call for the instant variety because ain't nobody got time for that shit. Wolfert teaches the reader the complicated process of making warka, a light, flaky pastry that is so difficult to make that even in the 70s, Moroccans would buy theirs from artisans instead of trying to make it. She does mention that phyllo makes an adequate substitute. Morse reports that modern Moroccans buy their warka at the market and goes straight for the phyllo. Because modern Americans have shit to do.

I have two recipes in Morse's cookbook flagged, including a meat and veg couscous. As for Wolfert's book, I don't know if I'll ever use it. I may hold on to it so I can read it as travel writing. But I really do prefer cookbooks with photos. I wonder if it's just that I'm used to the modern way of including lots of photos in cookbooks. Or am I insecure about my cooking skills and need the validation of comparing my dish to the picture in the book?

What about you - do you cook from cookbooks without photos?

1 comment:

  1. Great post--very amusing. I don't cook at all (let alone from cookbooks, with or without pix), but I enjoyed reading it as sociology.


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