Spam, Burns, and Bourdain

The Ramones are dead. Black Sabbath is playing their farewell tour. Anthony Bourdain is a doting father. We're getting old. But not too old to cook a great meal.

The original Ramones — Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy — are dead. Black Sabbath is on their farewell tour. Anthony Bourdain, whose Kitchen Confidential forever scared readers off the Monday fish special, is a doting father with a new cookbook, Appetites.

Appetites is an idiosyncratic compendium of the foods Bourdain enjoys cooking for his family — daughter Ariane and mixed martial arts fighting champion wife, Ottavia Busa. Yet as the book went to press, Bourdain and Busa announced their congenial divorce. Even as this puts a different spin on matters, Bourdain’s touching devotion to his daughter and her best friend Jacques keeps the book’s theme — family happiness, Bourdain style — intact.

Appetites is neither a classic nor conventional cookbook. It’s not organized seasonally or really even by meal; don’t expect prettified chapters presenting elaborate breakfasts, lavish lunches, or photography courtesy of the “arranged dishtowel school”. A section entitled “Fight!” offers a single recipe for an Açaí Bowl. Evidently this stuff is quite restorative after a morning practicing Brazilian jiujitsu. “Party” covers what one might serve at such an event — think Chicken Satay with Fake-Ass Spicy Peanut Sauce or The Grill Bitchs (sic) Bar Nuts. “Hamburger Rules” offers two pages of musings on this crucial topic, sans recipes.

“Thanksgiving” does offer recipes, alongside practical tips for surviving this most stressful of holidays. In lieu of a dessert chapter, readers are advised to eat Stilton, accompanied by a glass of port. There are more standard chapters on sandwiches, meats, and pasta; the book concludes with instructions for making stocks. Just don’t expect to learn how to prepare a standing rib roast or bake a layer cake here. Appetites isn’t that kind of book.

Nor is Appetites for beginners or what Julia Child dismissively termed “flimsies”. These are recipes requiring serious skills, with plenty of deep frying, pasta making, tripe-wrangling, and octopus handling. Even the most confident cook faces some unusual ingredients, here. Want to make the Korean Fried Chicken? You’ll need to hit the Korean market first to pick up gochukaru (ground Korean red pepper), gochujang (Korean fermented red pepper paste), and cheongju (Korean rice wine). Planning to whip up a batch of Sarwak Laksa Paste? After you’ve located all 19 ingredients, you’ll need to grind, heat, and stir each in a wok. Bourdain calls this “a labor of love”. Or insanity. Whatever you call it, weeknight cooking it’s not.

Recipes like New England-Style Lobster Roll, Gaufrette Potato With Smoked Salmon, Crème Fraîche, and Caviar, Ravioli of Salt Cod With Lobster Sauce or Poulet En Vesse: Homage A Mère Brazier, which calls for four ounces of foie gras and four black truffles, are for well off television stars or those with trust funds. Proles like your reviewer, in the interest of making her mortgage payment, must skip these recipes, however delicious they might be.

All of this said, serious home cooks will seriously enjoy Appetites. The indelicate humor characterizing Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, is well-evidenced here. Consider this brief headnote for Candied Sweet Potatoes: “Put those goddamn marshmallows away.” That third slice of bread in club sandwiches? Possibly invented by the Nazis, the sure path to “a plate full of broken dreams”. The “Thanksgiving Tactical Primer” is full of helpful hints, including the preparation of a “stunt turkey”, leaving you, the cook, with ample time alone to:

“…smoke a little weed, sit there in front of tv in your underwear, and enjoy a nice roast turkey sandwich with some reheated stuffing and gravy.”

Into the kitchen. Like so many classically trained chefs, Bourdain is increasingly drawn toward Southeast Asian cuisine. While trading his chef’s whites to become a professional traveler/eater has doubtless influenced Bourdain’s palate, he’s far from alone in his culinary passions. Chefs as disparate as April Bloomfield, Gabrielle Hamilton, Yotam Ottolenghi, and David Tanis have worked and trained in the French-Italian vernacular. Yet all include Asian recipes on their restaurant menus and in their cookbooks. In Appetites, this means the aforementioned Kuching Laksa, a bowl of spicy noodles, and its attendant 19 ingredient spice paste.

Sidelined by dental surgery, your reviewer settled for preparing Do Chua with Herbs, Scallions, Sprouts, and Egg. Do Chua is a Vietnamese pickle of slivered carrot and daikon, mixed with a little sugar, salt, and sherry vinegar. Easy to make, possessing the compelling Southeast Asian taste combination of hot and sweet, sour and salty, do chua keeps for weeks in the refrigerater. It’s delicious all by itself, or mixed with the remaining salad ingredients — easily found items like basil, scallions, and hard boiled eggs — or stuffed into a Banh Mi.

Bourdain’s Banh Mi recipe calls for Spam, an ingredient your food snob reviewer had never bought, much less eaten. I wasn’t even sure where to buy it. It turned out the upscale market I’d patronized for years carried the stuff. There it sat, shelved high above the imported ventresca tuna and canned Alaskan salmon-sustainable, of course. Buying it felt disreputable, akin to purchasing farmed fish, or Peruvian tomatoes. Spam! I breathed deeply, reminded myself I was writing an article. Was I ashamed of my purchase, or my snobbery? Both.

In the safety of my kitchen I opened the iconic tin. An alarmingly homogenous, fleshy pink square plopped onto the cutting board. After the reading the ingredient list — surprisingly benign — I expected Spam to taste like salty ham. In fact it tasted of little at all. Banh Mi gets it flavor from lightly sauteéd chicken livers, ample butter, that do chua, cilantro, mayonnaise, and just enough red pepper to make matters zippy. Would I make this again? Absolutely. Would I include Spam again? Hell, no.

I’m a firm believer in deep frying as restaurant activity. Restaurants, after all, have access to professional ovens capable of reaching charnel house temperatures. Further, restaurants have access to large, extremely dangerous pots of oil, which (poorly) paid people may dip foodstuffs into, achieving shattering levels of crispness. Afterward, restaurants may call professional hauling outfits to schlep their used cooking oil off the premises.

The home cook has none of these assets. The home cook has an inferior oven, an old frying pan, and carpal tunnel syndrome, causing burns when she forged ahead with the next recipe.

Bourdain writes The Macau-Style Pork Chop Sandwich may be “the most delicious thing in the book”. As I haven’t cooked every recipe in Appetites, I cannot vouch for this statement. I can tell you it was an enormous hit in our test recipe household of two. Nor does it ask for too many oddball ingredients, although black vinegar may be hard to find. If so, use another kind. Do risk the burns and inevitable mess to make this. It’s basically breaded pork chops fried at scary temperatures. The seasonings lean pan-Asian: soy sauce, sesame oil, Chinese rice wine, and garlic. The results, whether you stick them between slices of white break or eat them with cutlery, are truly worth the price of the book.

Cast Iron Grilled Chicken is a wonderful introduction to the amazing alchemy that is chicken cooked in a protective coat of yogurt. Here, said yogurt is mixed with a tablespoon of cumin and 15 — yes, 15 — cardamom pods, a goodly glug of olive oil, oregano, and black pepper before reposing in the fridge. You are then instructed to grill your chicken, assuming grilling is a possibility. If not, place your chicken on a ridged grill pan, cook it stovetop, and finish it in the oven. The results are amazing — simultaneously tangy and silky, a fine approximation, Bourdain promises, of great street food without any of street food’s sometimes unpleasant aftereffects.

The misses in Appetites are ultimately a question of taste (no pun intended), at times costly ingredients, and at times, the photography. I dislike food porn. Here, the many shots of food literally being stepped on by shoes, boots and bare feet — in an attempt to be artsy — in my mind rapidly crosses the line from juvenile silliness to plainly offensive. Wishing to be subversive is one thing. Bad taste is another.

The above are hardly reasons to strike Appetites from your must-have cookbook list. If you are serious about the business of cooking, from finding those exotic fermented peppers to setting up your mise en place to cooking said dish to serving your guests to chowing down, Appetites offers a whacking good time. There’s lots to learn here: have you ever made Buddae Jjigae? I sure haven’t. In a world crammed with too many oversimplified recipes, a Kuching Style Laksa asking us to pull together 19 f*ing ingredients is a refreshingly demanding request. So is asking us, finally, to put those damned marshmallows away.

Photo of Anthony Bourdain courtesy of Ecco Press

RATING 7 / 10