The BookPage Assignment That Keeps on Giving

July 26, 2010

In an earlier posting to Mysterious Orientations (Rittererry Clitic, The Middle Years, Batting Cleanup, from November 8, 2009), I chronicled my days as a duffer chef, courtesy of a BookPage assignment to review a batch of cookbooks, an area of endeavor that was well out of my comfort zone at the time. Back then I was capable of making pretty decent coffee, goosing up bottled spaghetti sauce with veggies and ground sausage to give it the semblance of homemade-ness, and cremating any sort of meat on the char-becue, but past that I was pretty hopeless.

All of that changed when I acquired a couple of large boxes of cookbooks from the BookPage office somewhere back in the mid-nineties. There were books from all over the world: Burma; Brazil; France; China; Japan; Africa; the South Pacific (most of which still grace my kitchen bookshelves). Lots of scrumptious sounding recipes as well. I have to say, though, that I was most attracted to books with lush color photographs of what the finished result should look like (this gave me an idea of what I should be striving for), and none filled that bill better than the series penned by noted chef James McNair. There are lots of these books (I have about a dozen and there are at least that many more): salads; soups; chicken; beef; vegetables; rice; corn; and pizza, to name but a few. The directions are easy to follow, and the pictures look like something straight out of National Geographic (McNair, clearly possessed of many talents, is also the man behind the camera).

Naturally, like all cooks, I adhere to the directions only to a point, adding or subtracting according to my taste or that of my audience (backing off on the chili peppers is a must for my mild-food-eating Canadian family members, for example). Two spicy ethnic salads, modified from McNair recipes, have become staples at my table, both in Canada and Japan. The first, a Mexican-inflected bean and corn salsa, goes as follows:

2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed

2 cans Green Giant peaches and cream corn (it’s crunchier and sweeter than other brands, in my experience; not quite as good as fresh corn, but a quick and easy alternative), drained and rinsed

2 large tomatoes, diced

1 bunch green onions, chopped

Cilantro (to taste; I chop up a good-sized handful of leaves)

Cumin (to taste; a dash or two should suffice)

Put all of these in a bowl together, awaiting the dressing.

The sauce or dressing for the bean salad is quite simple: mix balsamic vinegar (50%), oil (25%) and water (25%) in a cruet; add three teaspoons (more or less, to taste) of the adobo sauce from Herdez canned chipotle peppers; shake well, and pour over the bean/corn mixture. Also, if you live in the US and can get Good Seasons Italian Dressing mix, that is a nice addition to the sauce (sadly, this fine stuff is not available either in Japan or Canada, so I have to improvise with oregano, thyme, and so forth, with slightly different results each time). Refrigerate for an hour or two and it will be ready. It is great with tortilla chips, or you can put it in a wrap with spiced chicken or pork; the possibilities are endless.

The second one is a sort of Thai cole slaw, with a dressing that has a bit of a satay flavor about it. Actually, as you first put a forkful into your mouth, it tastes virtually identical to American-style cole slaw, but as the spices reach the back of your tongue, there is a strong flavor of Siam to be savored.

Chopped cabbage (I usually cheat and buy the pre-chopped packaged cole slaw at the supermarket, but you can chop up one whole cabbage if the spirit moves you)

1 cup mayonnaise (Philistines can use Miracle Whip)

1/3 cup smooth peanut butter

3 teaspoons red chili oil

1/3 cup sesame oil

1 lime (squeezed)

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

1 tablespoon oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

Salt and pepper to taste (perhaps one teaspoon each, then adjust as necessary)

Gently mix all these ingredients (except the cabbage) in a blender or mixing bowl, and pour the sauce over the chopped cabbage (the sauce will be about the consistency and color of a butterscotch milk shake). Chill for an hour or so, and you’re good to go. Oh, and a handful or two of chopped peanuts scattered over the top of the salad is quite nice as well. McNair opts for unsalted roasted ones, but I prefer the salted ones; he will likely outlive me.

I’d like to note here that I have taken some shortcuts with respect to McNair’s recipes; I have no doubt that his are tastier, but mine are definitely quicker, and they garner compliments on both sides of the world. Also, perhaps some improvisation will prove necessary, when (as often happens both in Canada and Japan) key ingredients are unavailable; improvisation is a wonderful thing in any event, and I thoroughly encourage you to add or subtract anything to suit your taste.

If you try these two salads and like them, be sure to be on the lookout for McNair’s books; both the books themselves and the recipes inside will wow you, guaranteed. If you don’t like them, it is likely that any shortcomings in the recipes are mine, not James McNair’s.