In April our Bibliobites titles usually coordinate with the library’s One Book program, and this year was no exception. Our One Book title, Stronger by Jeff Bauman, features a Chelmsford-raised author and many references to local Chelmsford restaurants and locales. So it seemed appropriate to choose cookbooks that reflect local cuisine, both traditional and innovative.
As far as Boston-area residents are concerned, there isn’t much that’s more traditional than the Boston Globe newspaper. The first edition of their eponymous cookbook was published in 1948 and was called The Boston Globe Cook Book for Brides (one of our members has this same book in its 1963 incarnation!). The recipes in that first book were sourced from the fondly remembered Confidential Chat column, a reader recipe exchange that appeared in the paper for over 100 years. The book we used was published in 2009, and the recipes are “…culled from the cooks who have been writing for The Boston Globe food pages for the last decade.” As most of us realized in using this book, there was much of the familiar, though there were some welcome new twists.
Among the recipes that drew praise was the vegetarian stuffed winter squash, which is stuffed with a delicious mix of chestnuts and mushrooms. Decreasing the amount of bread stuffing called for, while increasing the quantity of chestnuts made it taste even better! The gingery bok choy was super-simple to make but very flavorful; a keeper! Likewise, the baked sweet potatoes with ginger were so easy, but the combination of the sharp ginger and savory soy sauce on the sweet potatoes was outstanding. The lazy man’s lasagna was praised for being delicious and creamy, as well as quick to make and producing a large amount (excellent for leftovers!). The chicken Provencal had a lovely orange-flavored sauce that really made the dish, and the chicken scallopine with lemon, tomatoes, and capers was also enhanced by its citrus sauce. The fish cakes (a traditional and pedestrian dish if ever there was one) were excellent; they were nice and crunchy on the outside with their panko and bacon topping, and you didn’t have to cook the fish before assembling the cakes. Definitely a keeper! The shrimp scampi limoncello was also tasty, though the limoncello was expensive to buy. This recipe would have fit well into the North End cookbook! And here’s a tip for your “excess” limoncello (should you tire of sipping it): one person lavishly praised the yummy limoncello ricotta cheesecake from Ina Garten’s newest book, Cooking For Jeffrey. The recipe is available on the Food Network’s website here. Other baked goods we tried included the blueberry muffins, which are very close to the iconic Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins. The bittersweet-chocolate brownie cookies were praised for their flavor; they featured plenty of chocolate, and had a nice brownie-like texture. At Easter, one person made the traditional kourambiethes but thought her mother’s recipe was better– of course!
There were some recipes in this book that missed the mark. The mac and ricotta was too dry and really suffered from a lack of creaminess. It was bland, too, since the cheeses it called for were both very mild-flavored. This of course led to a discussion of favorite mac and cheese recipes, with most people agreeing that adding mustard to the sauce is a great way to up the flavor overall. The long-cooked short-rib ragu for pasta was way too greasy; short ribs can have this problem, but the recipe’s method didn’t provide information on how to get around this. The sauce did have good flavor, though. The oven-fried fish was pretty basic, and the fish had that typical problem of having a mushy bottom crust, since that’s what sits directly on the baking sheet. The peanut butter cookies were disappointing; they were dry despite containing plenty of both melted butter and peanut butter.
The group agreed that most of the recipes in this book, while often solid, were nothing special. Most of us felt we already had better recipes for many of the dishes; and after trying the book’s version we weren’t motivated to change! And, the seasonings were generally on the tame side; we wanted recipes that had a little more oomph. But, we felt this might be a good basic cookbook, maybe for someone new to the area who would enjoy an introduction to classic New England foods. Most people liked the layout of this book, though some did not appreciate the “paragraph” (as opposed to “list”) format of the instructions. And, as has been true for other titles, the photograph sometimes didn’t match up to the recipe it illustrated. When it came down to votes, most people gave it a 4 (out of 5); our overall average was 3.63.
The North End Italian Cookbook has also gone through many editions; the first was published in 1975, and the one we used in 2013. Oddly enough, despite the fame of the North End and its numerous restaurants, most of the group felt nothing really called to them as they perused the pages. The recipes seemed pretty unremarkable, though there were a few hits. The crispy eggplant sandwiches were delicious and easy to make, though it needed some marinara on the side (why does eggplant always need tomato?). The fresh mushroom soffrito was a very tasty vegetable combination with multiple uses– as a pasta sauce, over polenta, in a sandwich– and it kept well. On the other hand, the pasta e fagiole soup’s beans weren’t close to being tender when the recipe said they should be, and the lentil soup was boringly bland as written. It needed some doctoring with cumin and kielbasa! One section of the book that seemed stronger than the others was the dessert chapter, particularly the cookies. Even if we didn’t make any, these recipes sounded delicious. One member brought in some of the Italian sesame seed cookies, and they were molto bene! Everyone also loved the old black-and-white photos in the book and the author’s short vignettes of growing up in the North End. The book also had a nice format, with most recipes on one page. We just wished we liked the recipes themselves better! This ambivalence was reflected in our voting; many did not vote at all since they hadn’t actually cooked anything from the book, and our average worked out to 3.5, which makes it sound better than it really was.
Next month we’re looking to speed things up a bit with Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Fast. This is a giant book but don’t be intimidated! It’s user-friendly and has something for everyone. Bittman also has a website, markbittman.com, if you prefer to try out some of his recipes that way. Copies of the book are available at the main desk; our next meeting will be on Friday May 26 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. See you there!