by Clare Ferguson
Published by Laurel Glen
128 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Food to Go
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
Summer is different. Warmer temperatures, less clothes and longer days all combine to make our eating habits different, as well. Summery. Meals eaten -- and sometimes cooked -- out of doors while wearing fewer clothes means we want food that is easy to prepare and won't add so many calories that we can't fit into our favorite shorts. Obviously, summer is not the time to be making long-cooking stews that will spend all day heating up the house while wasting valuable time that could be spent out playing somewhere.
Portable Feasts demonstrates that author Clare Ferguson understands these concepts perfectly. Ferguson has scanned the globe and brought back the very best portable foods from many cultures. And so we have Sheep's Cheese on Bruschetta from Italy, Watercress Sandwiches from Britain, Pork Rillettes from France and Blini with Caviar from Russia. Portable Feasts is not organized by nation, although for sheer international representation, it certainly could be. Rather, Ferguson presents her feasts by type and, sometimes, the location of the feast in question.
We begin with "Picnic Essentials" which describes -- both photographically and with words -- things that the wannabe picnic enthusiast will desire to acquire. There are items here appropriate for everyone from the once-a-year picnic person to the backyard gourmet. Ferguson has picked the best of a busy field and then tells us why. The food portion of the book begins with "Small Feasts" for, as Ferguson writes, "Sometimes one item alone is enough for a splendid little feast." And so we have things as simple as Radishes, French Style (basically, perfect raw radishes packed carefully to be served with butter and sea salt), to small feasts that, for some, would be a whole meal, like Tapenade with Eggs & Baguette. Ferguson recommends using the best modern vacuum flasks to take the next chapter, "Soups," on a picnic. And with soups, Ferguson really lets her creativity shine with recipes like Carrot, Orange & Cardamom Soup and Iced Black Bean Soup.
My favorite from the chapter on "Sandwiches and Wraps" is not a sandwich, at all. As Ferguson says, the Prosciutto and Radicchio wraps are "a miracle of ease and style." This recipe calls for red radicchio lettuce, sliced prosciutto, a cantaloupe and "fresh peppercorns in a pepper grinder." These wraps are then created on site, from prepared ingredients. "Participants take one or two leaves of radicchio, add a slice of ham, a sliver of melon, and a few grinds of pepper. It is then rolled up and eaten." I'd add a glass of a good Riesling and call it heaven.
The "Barbecue" chapter handles its topic as well as I've seen anywhere. In fact, this section alone -- with a little beefing up -- would be worthy of a book, all by itself. Rather than list, as other authors have done, barbecue recipes, Ferguson has grouped her recipes thematically. And so, the Beach Barbecue includes Skewered Shrimp with Harissa, Flambéed Peaches and Potato and Cheese Salad; the Country Barbecue includes Baked Salmon and Wasabi; Chargrilled Asparagus with Fontina & Garlic Tomatoes and Wild Rice Salad.
The "Picnic" chapter is similarly organized, with a Bento Picnic that includes Sashimi of Salmon & Tuna and Miso Soup and a Romantic Picnic with Iced Rock Oysters with Spicy Chipolatas and Tagliatelle with Truffle Butter. Chapters dealing with salads and vegetables, drinks and "Sweet Feasts" round out this nearly perfect book.
Portable Feasts is one of those rare books that combine all the right stuff: the recipes are delectable, creative and extremely easy-to-follow. Though Portable Feasts is clearly meant to help you take food on the road, many of the recipes wouldn't be out of place for a summer dinner party on the verandah or as canapés any time of the year. The book is well designed, which helps make the recipes accessible and the photos, by Jeremy Hopley, are gorgeous and -- agreeably -- make everything look appetizing: even the photos illustrating foods you generally don't like. Certainly, this must be the mark of a good food photographer.
Despite its tight niche, Portable Foods is one of the best cookbooks in any genre I've come across in quite a while. A definite keeper. Now pass me another blini and a stuffed quail. | May 2001
Adrian Marks is an author and journalist.