Food Porn Files

It turns out I like to dabble in Asian and gay porn. Food porn, that is.

In the last few weeks I’ve been slammed with a trove of advanced copies of cookbooks, mostly five-pound coffee-table versions filled with gauzy soft-focus shallow-depth-of-field photography of come-hither canapés and prosaic stories about learning to cook at the feet of mom, grandma or insert-favorite-dead-relative-who-in-reality-almost-killed-you-with-grayish-green-hard-boiled-eggs-and-leaden-fruitcake here.

Out of that stack I plucked out Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh’s, aka The Hearty Boys, “Talk With Your Mouth Full” (release date October 1) and “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto’s “New Art of Japanese Cooking.” Next, I hopped in to bed and started reading. Bed? Well, this is porn, after all. Then again, they shoot a lot of porn on kitchen counters don’t they? Either way, I once read a stat that eighty percent of cookbooks are read in bed, so, what better testing conditions than to start my cookbook journey as most of my readers would.

It turns out Chicago’s unambiguously gay duo, Smith and McDonagh, aren’t very good in bed. Their new book is filled with a trove of unhelpful tips and cutesy, meandering, chapter-leading vignettes. McDonagh’s responsible for most of the pap. His voice wavers between cutesy borscht-belt rim-shot fare to a mother’s scolding. Useless tips abound, including: fan your napkins at cocktail parties and shop at dollar stores to find cool candles and decorations. Smith, on the other hand, plays straight man (not literally) to McDonagh, and his heartfelt recipe introductions aren’t nearly as bad.

Still, for the twenty percent who do cook, McDonagh and Smith’s recipes are like catering cooking marijuana. That is, the book’s a great gateway to cooking for parties. In fact, this book would be the perfect Christmas or birthday gift for the canned Pillsbury-dough and Lipton French Onion-dip-appetizer cook in your life. Featuring mostly slight twists on or straightforward execution of classics, the ingredients lists are reasonable and the techniques accessible. The first recipe in the book, garlicky crostini with caramelized onion and sage whip cream, was featured on their Food Network show last year, and I was inspired to make it for a Christmas party of my own. Folks grabbed at those plates like Wrigley bleacher bums angling for free cups of Old Style.

The cocktail section, which features obscure classics like the Moscow Mule or fruity Pimm’s cup, will inspire even the most jaded of the Grey-Goose-and-tonic set. McDonagh and Smith’s recommendations on planning what and how much liquor to buy are indispensable. Also by encouraging the use of fresh juices, chopped fruit, cocktail bitters and brewed teas in their recipes, McDonagh and Smith fight the good fight against shelf-stable juices and harsh, throat-parching margarita mixes.

Unlike Dan and Steve, Morimoto is a samurai in the sack. The introductory biography to his cookbook, written by JJ Goode, sheds new and engaging light on one of food TV’s most celebrated culinary combatants, including an exploration of Morimoto’s nascent baseball career, his immigrant rise and his “Iron Chef” throwdown with Bobby Flay. Chapter interludes outlining Morimoto’s philosophy and approaches to cooking are inspiring. It turns out he uses only rare shin nori or seaweed from the first harvest of fisherman in Japan’s Ariake bay for its clean flavor and delicate texture. He also polishes his own rice grains and makes his sushi rice fresh each day at his restaurants.

On the other hand, because Morimoto spent years learning how to make rice before he ever picked up a sushi knife, is licensed in preparing deadly blowfish and can peel a cucumber into a continuous ten foot translucent carpet of plant fiber, it’ll be tough for anyone less than a CIA-trained chef to execute some of the dishes.

As Morimoto says regarding using a more authentic rice-paper wrapping for his parchment-wrapped seabass recipe on page 223, “Obviously this would be tricky for you to recreate at home as the paper would burn, so I don’t recommend it.” In fact, with all the foie gras and Waygu beef called for in the book, you’ll also need the pockets of Donald Trump when you’re out shopping for your larder. Some of the recipes, like daikon fettucine, are both easy to execute and the antidote to pasta primavera for the finicky vegetarians in your life.

More than anything I love the book as a document of one chef’s quest to reinvent one of civilization’s oldest cuisines. Morimoto’s genius is that he’s a thoughtful fusionist, taking the best of Japan and mixing it with other cultural techniques and ingredients, including Italy and India (Sushi Rice Risotto, Crab Naan and Bagna Cauda) and America (Morimoto Clam Chowder featuring scallop congee).

“Talk with Your Mouth Full: The Hearty Boys Cookbook,” by Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, $27.50, 224 pages; “The Art of Japanese Cooking,” by Masahara Morimoto, $40, 272 pages.

This article first appeared in Newcity Chicago in a slightly different form.

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