When I reviewed the new third edition of Jancis Robinson's "Oxford Companion to Wine" in Monday's 30 Second Wine Advisor, my task was relatively simple: I had owned the first and second editions and already knew I loved the book. Recommending it was a no-brainer, the only question being whether changes and updates in the new edition would justify the expense for a wine enthusiast who already owned a previous edition.
But the simultaneous release of Oxford University Press's companion book - the new second edition of the late Alan Davidson's "Oxford Companion to Food" - posed a different question. I had not owned, nor closely read, the first edition, so it was unexplored territory for me. Now that I finally had my hands on the massive volume - an 867-page opus (plus close to 100 more un-numbered, green-tinted preface and appendix pages) weighing in at well over 6 pounds - would I find it as essential for "foodies" as Robinson's similarly hefty wine tome is for "winoes"?
Perhaps Oxford's greatest strength is its breadth: You can look up almost any imaginable food reference, including some remarkably obscure terms. Balut, the Filipino delicacy that features an almost-hatched duck in the egg, gets a full column, as does konnyaku, "also known as devil's tongue jelly, a food extracted from the starchy root corm of amorphophallus rivieri." Right! Browsers will learn fascinating food trivia: The eland, for example, a large antelope with spiral horns, gives fine milk that can be stored particularly well, and its "flesh, especially the hump, is savoury and tender."
That being said, there are omissions, some of them surprising. We read about eland, but not about sabzeh, the Iranian mixed-herb salad that most American and British readers are much more likely to encounter than rice-fattened bobolinks (yes, it's in there) or hump of eland. The article on cheese gets two full pages, not an overly generous space considering that it must cover history, cheese making and cheese cookery; relatively few specific cheeses are mentioned, and the book's coverage of individual cheeses is spotty: You'll find Cheddar, of course, and Spanish Manchego; French Pont l'Évêque is listed, but Epoisses is not.
Pasta gets three full pages - 50 percent more space than cheese - and dozens of pasta shapes are enumerated in the general article, which also definitively disposes of the myth that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China to the amazement of his fellow Italians. However, don't try to look up even such common forms as linguine or fettuccine. They're not listed separately.
Separated by a common language? Of course I would expect a British accent in a volume from Oxford, but the U.S. edition makes no concessions to American norms: The listings for eggplant, arugula and cornstarch merely cross-refer us, respectively, to aubergine, rocket and cornflour, and British conventions like Dr. Samuel Johnson's "colour" and "flavour" aren't altered in the U.S. edition.
Short articles about American cookery gurus Julia Child and James Beard have been added to the new edition, but more modern figures, from Alice Waters to Thomas Keller, France's Paul Bocuse and Spain's Ferran Adria, not to mention culinary television personalities from Mario Batali to Emeril Lagasse, are notable by their absence.
A lot of this, though, is nitpicking: It's a massive book, loaded with intriguing facts and trivia, perhaps as enjoyable for hours of casual browsing as for specific food look-ups that could be as easily fielded by Google. It's particularly important to note, moreover, this this is not a cookbook. If you're seeking recipes or specific tips on kitchen procedures and food preparation, you'll need to look elsewhere.
The second edition, edited by British food writer Tom Jaine (Davidson, the original author, died in 2003) appears to be a relatively modest update, with just 72 new entries (compared with 300 to 400 updates in Robinson's Wine Companion).
Still, if you love food and cooking and enjoy reading about related topics, it's hard to resist this book for the sheer fun of flipping through it and browsing its wealth of food facts and trivia. As I said of the Wine Companion, it's a fine addition to your holiday wish list, and Amazon.com's significant discounting makes it easy. Currently, you can purchase Alan Davidson's "Oxford Companion to Food" from Amazon.com in hardcover for $40.95, a 37 percent discount from the $65 list price.
Turning finally to the recipe, I was intrigued, if a little put off, by Oxford's stern warning that pork "must always be well cooked," noting in rather unappetizing detail the risks of parasite infestation from under-cooked pig meat, but providing no specific advice about cooking time or temperature. This warning seems a bit dated, as even the most conservative authorities nowadays recommend cooking pork to 160F (70C), at which point it may still show light pink at the center; and some experts argue that cooking to a mere 140F (60C) is sufficient to kill any parasites.
I might err on the side of caution at the lower end of that range, but the fact is that pork need not be cooked well-done (and modern lean pork really shouldn't be). Here's an Italian-style pork-chop recipe that I whipped up the other night that involves cooking inch-thick pork chops to a tender yet entirely safe point with just 15 minutes or so in the skillet.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
Two inch-thick pork chops, about 8 ounces (240g) each
1. Season the pork chops generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and set them aside. (I always look for "natural" pork, from local producers if possible. Avoid the slime-injected "moist and tender" commercial pork cuts at all costs, not for safety but for texture and flavor. Oxford, unfortunately, does not address this.)
2. Peel the garlic. Cut one clove lengthwise into two halves; mince the other and reserve, adding an optional shake of dried red-pepper flakes, just enough to add a hint of piquancy to the dish. Assemble and measure all the other ingredients.
3. Put the olive oil and the two garlic halves in a heavy skillet and place over medium-high heat until the garlic sizzles. Put in the pork chops and let them sear on one side, without moving them, for six minutes. Turn them and cook on the other side for four minute. Remove them briefly to a plate.
4. Discard the cooked garlic. Reduce heat to medium, add a little more olive oil if the skillet looks dry, and cook the reserved minced garlic and the red-pepper flakes (if using) until the garlic is aromatic and starts to brown. Add the white wine and the capers, put the pork chops back in the skillet, and return heat to medium-high. Cook the chops, turning frequently, until the wine is reduced to a thick, syrupy glaze that coats the chops. Serve immediately on warm plates.
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