The New Food Lover’s Companion, by Sharon Tyler Herbst

I don’t cook, but I do eat. And while I may not be a gourmand in the strict sense, I appreciate fine food.

Ten years ago, on a bit of a lark, I picked up the second edition of The New Food Lover’s Companion, by Sharon Tyler Herbst. Anyone under the illusion that this is a book about eating in good company had better check the contents before making the investment. This is a reference work that works for me. The second edition boasts “comprehensive definitions of over 4000 food, wine and culinary terms.” Entries are arranged alphabetically and many include cross-references. Most important, there are guides to pronunciation for terms that are less familiar. Don’t know how to pronounce “coquilles St. Jacques”? Turn to page 147.

My copy is bound in 715 pages that open easily to the term I’m looking for. I refer to the book on those rare occasions when I’m trying to understand some exotic recipe. More often, I turn to it when I’m simply curious about what I’m eating or have eaten. Sometimes I skim for something that sounds delectable or adventurous. Just about every time I consult it for a specific term, I find myself checking out other entries. If were writing a novel, it might come in handy as a source for foods to mention or describe. A mystery novel, for example, might reveal that the victim of a crime had been poisoned from eating an unripe May apple. (Before her culinary debut with a book called Breads, Sharon Tyler Herbst wrote mystery fiction.)

This isn’t a book to read cover-to-cover. But that doesn’t disqualify it from inclusion in my Reading Jag posts. Here are some samples of its uses.

What are “floating islands,” also known as oeufs a la neige (not to be confused with ile flottante)? That burning question is answered on page 221.

Huckleberries proliferate in the Great Northwest. But how do you tell a huckleberry from a blueberry? Easy. Count the seeds! The huckleberry has ten small, hard seeds in the center of the berry. There are many more seeds in a blueberry, though they are hardly noticeable. See page 287.

Eating utensils and cooking tools are described. There’s a paragraph on the ice-cream scoop, for example.

There’s information here about cooking techniques, like induction cooking or making a soufflé.

What are those cookies you enjoyed so much at your friend’s big fat Greek wedding? Could they have been kourabiedes?

How are you when it comes to beer terms? Do you know the difference between a stout and a pilsner? What about ale versus lager? Can’t keep track of the different wines or sort out the various cheeses? You’ll find two pages for the entry on “wine,” including a lengthy list of terms defined elsewhere in the book. The general entry on wine also includes basic information about wine storage and serving temperatures. The entry that follows next is about “wine bottles,” addressing the various sizes: split, half bottle, magnum, double magnum, Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah, Imperial, Balthazar, and Nebuchadnezzar. (I’m not making this up.) The “cheese” entry spans two pages, and nearly a half page of terms for cross-reference.

At a loss when picking out an artichoke at the grocer? Consult The Food Lover’s Companion, page 21.

I didn’t know that “apples come 2 to 4 per pound, depending on size.” Did you? Which apples are best used for cooking? For “out-of-hand” eating? What’s the difference between a Golden Delicious and a Red Delicious, besides color? (For one thing, the Reds have five knobs on the bottom.) I’ve eaten Granny Smiths, Gravensteins, and Mcintosh apples. But there are others I wouldn’t know by name: Criterion, Jonathan, lady, Macoun, May, Newton Pippin, Rhode Island Greening, and Stayman apples. The May apple sounds most intriguing, and the Jonathan sounds especially tasty.

Fish presents special problems for the novice. At a favorite seafood restaurant in Laguna last week, my brother-in-law asked me about the taste of swordfish, one of my favorites when it isn’t baked dry. What could I tell him? Herbst is concise and on the money—swordfish is mild-flavored, with moderately fat, firm, dense and meatlike flesh. Of course, that’s more or less what I said.

The end pages of the book include a copy and explanation of the “Food Guide Pyramid,” produced and distributed by the USDA, guidelines for “Understanding Food Labels,” a “Profile of Fatty Acids in Commonly Used Oil,” “Approximate Smoke Points of the Most Commonly Used Cooking Oils,” an “Additives Directory,” an “Ingredient Buying Guide” showing equivalents in various metrics, a list of “Emergency Substitutions” for the cook who discovers he or she needs an ingredient that isn’t available, a list of “Common Measurements and Equivalents,” “Approximate Metric Equivalents,” charts for converting to and from metric, temperature equivalents and terminology, conversion times for microwave ovens based on wattage, adjustment guide for high-altitude baking, a chart displaying “Approximate Boiling Temperature of Water at Various Altitudes,” a list of “Comparative Baking Pan Sizes,” a chart showing “Candymaking Temperatures and Cold-Water Tests,” a 14-page “Herb and Spice Chart,” detailed diagrams for specific cuts of lamb, pork, veal, and beef. There’s a list of “Consumer Information Sources” about specific foods and wines and a bibliography that comes to thirteen pages. Whew!

Quotations: On Food

A Meal Without Wine Is Breakfast

—Title of a book by Sharon Tyler Herbst

Sources for Quotations about Food and Beverages

What Is It about Licorice?

I like it. The women in my life (my wife and two daughters) don’t. I’m OK with that, but I don’t get it. For me, “licorice” means licorice, pure and simple. “Black licorice” is redundant. If I offer someone licorice, I’ll say, “Would you like some licorice.” But if someone offers me licorice, it’s possible they mean “the red kind.” So I ask, what kind of “licorice”? It’s almost always “the red kind,” and I usually say, “No. Thank you anyway.” And if I am most sincerely polite, I don’t add, “By the way, that’s not really licorice.”

Experience tells me that Red Vines are the most popular of “the red kind.” That’s what the women in my life keep on hand. I’m on my own to keep a stash of the real thing.

So what’s the real thing? Well, to begin with, it’s black. And—surprise, surprise—one key ingredient is . . . licorice, or licorice extract. The substance is extracted from the root of a plant whose botanical name is Glycyrrhiza glabra. The root is believed to have medicinal uses, but it is most often enjoyed in the confection known as licorice candy.

My friend Lucas says he likes the Goodyear brand, for the ingenuity they’ve demonstrated in making tire rejects into something quasi-edible. Thanks to another friend, Kristel, my current favorite is Australia’s Darrell Lea Traditional Licorice, available at Trader Joe’s. Contrary to popular lore, licorice candy is not necessarily tough to chew. The Darrell Lea brand can be masticated with ease, because the bite-size chunks are soft. It contains no trans fats and is cholesterol-free.

The distinctive taste of real licorice derives from the use of molasses, wheat syrup, and, of course, licorice. But texture is just as important to the quality of the experience. It should be chewy, without sticking to the teeth. Bite-size pieces are the right-size pieces, filling the mouth with flavor that lasts long after the candy has been chewed up and swallowed.

Eating licorice in moderation is one of life’s simple pleasures. And Darrell Lea Traditional Licorice makes my list of Favorite Things.

To participate in an informal poll, let me know if you enjoy licorice (not “the red kind,” but the real thing), and if so, what brand you prefer.

A book about “Licorice”:

Licorice: Webster’s Timeline History 1872-2007

Description: Webster’s bibliographic and event-based timelines are comprehensive in scope, covering virtually all topics, geographic locations and people. They do so from a linguistic point of view, and in the case of this book, the focus is on “Licorice,” including when used in literature (e.g. all authors that might have Licorice in their name). As such, this book represents the largest compilation of timeline events associated with Licorice when it is used in proper noun form. Webster’s timelines cover bibliographic citations, patented inventions, as well as non-conventional and alternative meanings which capture ambiguities in usage. These furthermore cover all parts of speech (possessive, institutional usage, geographic usage) and contexts, including pop culture, the arts, social sciences (linguistics, history, geography, economics, sociology, political science), business, computer science, literature, law, medicine, psychology, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology and other physical sciences. This “data dump” results in a comprehensive set of entries for a bibliographic and/or event-based timeline on the proper name Licorice, since editorial decisions to include or exclude events is purely a linguistic process. The resulting entries are used under license or with permission, used under “fair use” conditions, used in agreement with the original authors, or are in the public domain.

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