Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Feeding the Hungry Ghost

If you're familiar with vegan food writer Ellen Kanner's regular Meatless Mondays column on the Huffington Post, you know this woman can tell a great story like no other. Ellen has a gift for putting into prose exactly how I feel about dining and breaking bread and that satisfying nourished feeling I get after savoring the last bite of a delicious meal.

If you're not familiar with Kanner, you'll no doubt fall in love with this spunky little Jewish gal from Miami when you read her new book, Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith, and What to Eat for Dinner (and you WILL be reading it because it's a don't-miss book and a surprising page-turner).

Feeding the Hungry Ghost is a collection of short stories about highlights in Ellen's life that center around food, and each story ends with a recipe. They're organized by the seasons (starts in January, ends at holiday time), so each story focuses on important moments from that time of the year. But the stories span from Ellen's childhood to her adult life.

There was the first time her grandmother Marcella gave her halvah ('"Halvah,' I said. And the name was sweet in my mouth as well, a magical incantation.") and the time a couple in Paris offered to share their bottle of wine with Ellen and her husband in a fancy restaurant ("In Miami, strangers don't offer you wine. Or if they do, I fear they've spiked it with drugs. But on this day in Paris, it seemed like one more bit of magic we were being granted.")

In case you're wondering about that "faith" word in the book's title, it's not a book about religion. Ellen isn't religious. But she is spiritual, and it seems, upon reading this book, that her connection with spirit comes through her relationship with healthy, nourishing whole foods. Take this gem of line, for example:
"Dishes like hopping john and soupe joumou sustain the body because they are made with ingredients that are humble but whole, nutritious, recognizable. They sustain the soul because they have a rich cultural and culinary history. They connect us to our past and each other. This is the real meaning of soul food. It's food that's meant to be shared, that lets you know you're not alone in the universe. And if that's not religion, I don't know what is.
Wow. I've never heard it put that way. But Ellen hit the nail on the head. And this entire book is filled with little (meatless) nuggets of wisdom like that. I rarely highlight passages in books, but this one is now filled with pink and green highlighter.

Not to mention that I want to make nearly every single dish in the book (aside from the ones with fennel, of course ... you know how I feel about fennel, anise, and anything remotely licorice-y). But for this review, I wanted to be seasonally appropriate and choose a dish from the winter chapter. I went with this Turkish Millet and Greens:

Millet, onion, garlic, tomatoes, kale, fresh dill, and walnuts are seasoned with pomegranate molasses. It's delightfully sweet, savory, and tangy all at once. And it reminded me of something my Granny has cooked somewhere along the way though I'm not sure how, as I doubt she's ever used hard-to-find pom molasses or millet. But there was something reminiscent about this dish that I just couldn't put my finger on.

Many of Ellen's dishes are of the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern variety. Since I'm going through a  Mediterranean phase right now, I'm dying to try every one. There's Vegetable Couscous with Preserved Lemon and Olive and a brown rice dish that she calls Rice in the Sahara (with slivered almonds, saffron, red lentils, and dates). But there's also an all-American zucchini bread and a chocolate cake that sound mouth-watering and simple.

If you like stories with your recipes, Ellen's book is the one for you. You get so much more than the little background paragraph in most cookbooks. Ellen lays out her whole life in food, and those stories are sure to help you find deeper meaning in what's on your plate.


Unknown said...

This one great recipe, thanks for sharing it ! Turkey Mince

foodfeud said...

I'm a real sucker for a good food writing book. It's funny - I almost borrowed this from work today but figured I had a lot of reading to work through already...
Glad to hear you liked it.

coconutandberries said...

It sounds like a beautiful book. Love the Middle Eastern recipe focus too- some of my favourite cuisine hails from that part of the world.

T said...

What a great review, you've definitely made me want to read this book.

Cadry's Kitchen said...

Sometimes I prefer the stories around recipes more than the recipes themselves. This book sounds like one I'd really enjoy. I added it to my library queue!

Allysia said...

You hate fennel? Aw, ha ha. :) This book sounds like a gooder, I really like food story books, and the ones I've read in the past are usually very meaty.

bookwormbethie said...

i love foodie books, extra bonus this one being a vegan foodie memoir with recipes. i'm so glad you shared this title, i just added it to my wish list!