All posts by Andrea Grant

About Andrea Grant

Andrea Grant is a Children's Services Specialist.

Bibliobites in November/December: Another Dorie Story

Author Dorie Greenspan is a one-woman cookbook industry.  Over the past thirty years she’s written fourteen cookbooks, won five James Beard Awards for them (and was nominated eleven times!), and endeared herself to countless readers who adore her warm, friendly personality as much as her warm, buttery baked goods.  Our group has been in Dorie territory before: we baked Dorie’s Cookies in December 2019, and cooked our way through Everyday Dorie in January 2021.  This month’s title, Baking With Dorie, is her newest, and promises recipes that are “sweet, salty, and simple.”  This book received rave reviews when it was released, and continues to receive gushing praise from reviewers and users of every stripe, so expectations were high.  How did it go for us in the kitchen?

Though most members of our group consider themselves cooks rather than bakers, everyone approached this month’s challenge with gusto (or at least a lot of butter and sugar!).  The first chapter covers breakfast bakes, so let’s start there: one person, an experienced bread baker, made english muffins.  This version was “better than some” and the dough was easy to work with.  The recipe contained lots of helpful information for any novice muffin makers.  Two people made grain and seed muffins, a “really delicious,” not-too-sweet, hearty combination of whole wheat flour, seeds, and raisins.  Fruit and nuts were also featured in pecan cranberry loaf.  The pecans were “the star….loved them.”  But there could have definitely been more cranberries.  Iced honey apple scones with spelt sounded divine, with orange, apple, and honey playing starring roles; but somehow they were “a bit boring.”  And they weren’t as flaky as our baker might have wished.  On the sweeter side of breakfast, breakfast in rome lemon cake had that classic and delightful flavor combination of lemon and raspberry.  It was “very poundcake-y” and kept well.  Unfortunately, despite the thick batter, the raspberries sank to the bottom of the pan, a sadly common problem!

And speaking of cakes, mocha walnut torte was a “huge hit.”  This incidentally gluten-free treat was wonderfully fudgy when cold, and had beautiful chocolate flavor accented by ground espresso.  Cranberry spice squares weren’t as impressive; they were “good….nothing special.”  But they did showcase “nice warm spices.”  Also featuring a “nice mild spice taste,” swirled spiced sour cream bundt cake was “very tasty….spice went well with the chocolate.”  On the downside, the half-cup of sugar in the swirl made the cake stick stubbornly to the pan.  Though steph’s bakewell tart appears in the pie chapter, it’s really more of a cake, or perhaps a mashup of the two.  This classic British treat is swoon-worthy: a rich, sweet, and tart combination of crust, jam, and tender almond cake.  We can only hope that Dorie’s recipe brings it the attention it deserves on this side of the pond.  Szarlotka appears in the pie chapter too, and this torte is also a combination of cake and crust.  The torte is filled with apples and has a crumble topping; it was tasty although the apples never did get quite tender, despite over an hour in the oven!  The method for this dessert was also somewhat cumbersome and convoluted, “I have a recipe for something similar that is much easier and that I like better.”

Ms. Greenspan is known for her cookies, and these were a popular choice for many in the group.  Cocoa caramel biscotti were a big “thumbs up.” The simple chocolate glaze was the perfect accent.  Probably one of the simplest recipes in the book, brown sugar oat squares were a caramelly, toothsome combination of ground oats and brown sugar, and were, as advertised, “easy and fast.”  Two people baked olive oil brownies which were “rich but not dense,” although “[I wasn’t] sure about the raisins.”  Neither the olive oil nor the half-teaspoon of black pepper were very obvious in the finished product, but it was still a good, if not outstanding, version of brownies.  Iced spiced hermits were soft, pleasantly chewy, and spiced with the usual suspects of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg (and black pepper!).  This traditional New England cookie features dried fruit, and sometimes includes nuts, though this version doesn’t.  The recipe made plenty, so fortunately they kept well.  Devil’s thumbprints were a chocolate variation of thumbprint cookies; our baker filled the indentations with ganache, “I would make again!”  The timing seemed off on this recipe; it definitely “needed more” time in the oven.  And mokonuts’ rye cranberry chocolate chunk cookies  were a delicious and unusual combination of rye flour, dried cranberries, chocolate, and poppy seeds.  These were sweet, tart, chewy, and chocolatey all in one go.  A keeper!

The “salty” chapter of the book covers savory bakes, and we checked out some of those recipes as well.  Cheese puffers, a riff on popovers, were “very easy….really good.”  The optional mustard powder really kicked it up a notch and moved these puffs into keeper territory.  Two people made spinach mozzarella pie with parm crumble, which was a hit for both.  It was “very easy” and tasty.  The crumble topping in particular garnered high praise.  Another tart, free style mushroom, herb and ricotta tart was a bit less successful.  The onion-y ricotta and mushroom topping was savory and delicious; but the crust was completely flat, so  the toppings weren’t well contained. And it made a poor leftover, since the ricotta’s moisture made the crust mushy.  But this would be a great appetizer for a group; its cracker vibe seemed tailor-made for people to break off pieces at will. Whip it up quick cornbread was “fantastic” with all of its optional add-ins (bacon, jalapeno, cheese, scallions, herbs); it was “a meal in itself.”  Sounds like a keeper!  Another quick bread, goat cheese black pepper quick bread also hit the spot with its nuggets of creamy cheese and assertive black pepper.  The chopped fresh mint added a bright herbal note, making for a lovely snack or pre-dinner nibble.

As is true of other Dorie Greenspan books, this one is overall a solid choice.  The recipes and the book itself have obviously been crafted with care, and the author’s voice comes through loud and clear in her warm and amusing headnotes.  The book has top-notch production values, with heavy, glossy paper and copious, drool-worthy photos.  A few complaints were voiced: the ingredient lists were in too-small print; some recipes had overly complicated methods; too many recipes contained nuts; and it might have been nice to provide total prep times.  The positives, though, generally outweighed the negatives, which was reflected in our group rating of 3.77 (out of a possible 5).

Please join us for our next meeting on Friday, January 27 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  We’ll be discussing our adventures with Grains For Every Season by Joshua McFadden.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  See you then, and Happy New Year to all!

Bibliobites in October: True Grit

Recipe for a Boston chef: take one chaotic upbringing, add several crazy adrenaline-fueled teenage escapades, a pinch of caution, and a spoonful of insecurity. Stir in heaps of fierce determination and on-the-job learning.  Work all ingredients together 24/7 for about eight to ten years, then bake in a hot, hot oven until it all flames out, or…. it all comes together and you produce James Beard Award winner and local chef and entrepreneur Barbara Lynch.

There are lots of memoirs written by chefs and restaurant workers of all stripes, and our Bibliobites group has certainly gone down that path before. Our October title, Out of Line, fits within the genre, but unapologetically breaks the mold as well.  Ms. Lynch’s path to prominence in her chosen field is unique, and there was plenty to discuss, beginning with her early life in South Boston. Ms. Lynch grew up in Southie in an era when Southie was the  stereotypical clannish enclave with which many of us are familiar. As the second youngest of seven being raised by a single mom in a housing project, she had little supervision and used her freedom in many risky ways.  Some of her exploits were pretty shocking, like the time she and some friends briefly stole an MBTA bus.  Somehow, she managed to stay out of jail long enough to discover a passion for cooking in a high school home ec class.  We were all impressed by the teacher who mentored her and gave her life direction.

Needless to say, Ms. Lynch’s path to prominence in her field wasn’t a traditional one.  As one person commented, “she became successful despite it all.” She learned to cook in restaurants by doing, and by taking on challenges that most wouldn’t dare to try; for instance, talking her way into a job on a dinner-cruise ship where she had to feed 150 people by herself.  It was hard for us to wrap our minds around the idea that she would do this with no training and minimal experience, and even more amazingly, pull it off.  We thought that maybe “she had innate ability,” and it was true that “she had a lot of help” from friends and mentors.  Still, her ability to learn fast and work incredibly hard were impressive.  Since she never went to culinary school, she learned by observation, by doing, and by reading books, which was also remarkable, “how did she learn all that from books??”  Hey, books rule!

In addition to being a highly regarded chef, Ms. Lynch is also a successful entrepreneur, with seven restaurants of various types, all located in downtown Boston. We admired her business acumen (again, learned on the job!), and the fact that “she treated her employees well.” For us suburban types, it’s worth noting that Ms. Lynch has bought a Gloucester landmark called The Rudder, which is set to open soon.

We admired Ms. Lynch’s overwhelming honesty about her life; her personality absolutely leaps off the page. “She’s very intense, like a lot of chefs.” “She is her own society…doesn’t care what others think.” “She had to act a certain way in order to survive and be safe.” A few in our group just plain didn’t like her, though they appreciated her accomplishments. Some disliked her writing; it was “too stream of consciousness” and “scattered.” The author admittedly has ADHD, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that sometimes she “jumped around” in her telling.  And, a few people conceded that memoir isn’t their favorite genre, anyway!

Ms. Lynch writes beautifully about food, and of course mentions numerous dishes she created in her restaurants, so we paired the memoir with her one cookbook, Stir.  This was published in 2009 and contains several of her signature recipes from her first restaurant, No. 9 Park.  Many of these recipes are fairly time-consuming projects (suitable for a rainy or snowy weekend!), but a few people took on the challenge.  The book itself is beautiful, with an extra-large format and art-level photography, all on heavy, glossy paper. Definitely a coffee table-worthy tome! In the kitchen, though, opinions varied. One person was unimpressed; there was “nothing new” and it was “fancied-up basics…no spices…she relies on technique and extremely high quality ingredients.” But, poulet au pain was at least “super easy,” while spinach amandine was “like a light creamed spinach….it was fine.” Roasted winter squash with maple syrup and sage cream was enhanced by the sage cream, a nice, and slightly different, treatment.  On the other hand, another cook who already “loves her (the author’s) food” enjoyed being able to make some of Ms. Lynch’s iconic dishes. Taleggio stuffed prosciutto-wrapped chicken (with fish fillets subbing for the chicken) was “so good” with its creamy cheese and tarragon accent. Lamb stew with sweet potatoes and barley was “the best…a keeper!”  This stew was “pretty easy” though expensive; it had several different spices, so there was “a lot going on!” Pork chops with caramelized apples, celery, and spiced walnuts were “delicious;” and “I felt chef-y….it was fun; simple, easy.” The quick celery salad atop the chops was a fresh, welcome twist. And speaking of salads, B&G coleslaw was a winner; the lemon and Dijon mustard-accented dressing, “…. is now my go-to for coleslaw!” Sounds like a keeper.

One person turned to the dessert section and made homemade apple butter tart, which we happily sampled at our meeting. This was yummy with lots of sweet and tart apple flavor from sliced apples and apple butter, but our cook mentioned that the recipe’s timing was off (it needed significantly more than called for), and the instruction to cover the tart in the oven with another baking sheet proved problematic; the top “wouldn’t cook!” And the kitchen torch, used to caramelize the apples, “made a mess.”  At least a mess is better than a fire!

One of our conclusions about Stir was that recipes, techniques, and ideas that were revelatory in 2009 are pedestrian today. For instance, the idea of using super-fresh, local ingredients is a given now in restaurants and at farm stands, but 13 years ago that wasn’t so common.  Some recipes that were new and exciting then (like the author’s signature gnocchi) can now be found in any decent mid-range restaurant. Still, there’s much that’s fun to peruse, and I personally plan to try out those gnocchi, as well as her iconic Bolognese sauce, sometime this winter when I need a diversion.

When we voted, the cookbook averaged out to a 2.5, and the memoir a 3.5 (out of a possible 5).  Both scores disguise the fact that most votes were strongly on one end or the other, so your results may vary!

We will next meet on Friday, December 9 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room, please note that this is a combined November/December meeting.  We’ll be discussing Dorie Greenspan’s latest, Baking With Dorie. Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  Hope to see you there!

Bibliobites in September: Legume Love, Tahini Trysts

We’re back!  After a summer hiatus, our Bibliobites group met, in person (!), on a sunny September morning.  It was wonderful to welcome members new and old, and catch up with those we’d lost touch with over the past few years.  And we were eager to discuss this month’s title, Dada Eats Love to Cook It by blogger, TV star, and Instagram darling Samah Dada.  The photogenic author has built a following among the many (her Instagram has 266,000 followers) who adore her particular mix of recipes: plant-ish, healthy-ish, and Indian-ish.  Ms. Dada was new to us; and though we’ve been down both vegan and Indian roads before, what did we think of this author’s version?

The book itself is the typical large format that seems to now be the standard; and there are lovely, appealing photos of most recipes. There are also many (too many for some) photos featuring the author, which seems to be especially prevalent in cookbooks produced by bloggers– perhaps readers like to see an author they’ve come to know as a person as well as a cook.  Hence the also-common practice of including personal essays and/or extensive headnotes.  Some loathe this trend, others embrace it; but for now it’s here to stay.  One noticeable quirk of the photography: there are several photos highlighting the author’s beautiful, perfectly manicured hands!  The majority of recipes fit on one page, no mean feat when you consider that precious space is taken up by those longish headnotes.  Though no one in the group complained about it, the print is tiny. That helps to get everything on one page, but does make for more squinting.  Other general negatives: we wished overall recipe times had been stated up front; and directions were sometimes overly verbose.

On to the important part: what did we eat??  Ms. Dada’s book covers breakfast, snacks, main dishes and desserts; but as usual most of us focused on the mains.  There was lots of lentil and chickpea love going on; among the hits were the best dal ever, “really good, phenomenal!”  Another dal, dal makhani, with black lentils and creamy coconut milk, was equally delicious.  Dal saag was a flavorful blend of lentils, tomatoes, and spinach accented by plenty of spice and lemon. Sesame crusted lentil falafel also hit the spot with its yummy lemon-tahini sauce, and “it looked just like the photo!”  Two people tried the classic chana masala; one wasn’t overly impressed, but for another it was “out of this world…such depth of flavors!” Chickpea patties were a tasty and fairly quick first cousin of falafel, with some nice crunch from their topping of fennel and cumin seeds.

From the pasta chapter, lentil bolognese was almost a favorite; our cook liked the concept but felt it needed tweaking.  As in, it actually needed more lentils!  But all in all this was a hearty complement for pasta that was quick and easy to make from standard pantry ingredients.  Spaghetti aglio e olio 2.0 was also a riff on a classic pasta dish; this iteration included roasted cauliflower (our cook used broccoli) and kale.  The roasted veggies added welcome depth, and the kale was a nice twist, too.  On the downside, it “needed more salt,” a problem easily corrected.  Two pasta dishes highlighted eggplant: plot twist all’ Arrabbiata and the unforgettable spicy tomato pasta.  These two were so similar that one could easily have been just a variation of the other.  The eggplant is pureed for the Arrabbiata sauce, and thinly sliced for the spicy tomato pasta, but otherwise they were virtually identical in their components and flavor profile: spicy, tomato-y, and garlicky.  Both were solid choices and easy to make.  If you like your pasta in a salad, turmeric-tahini pasta salad was a keeper, with “lots of flavor!”  The mix of spices perfectly complemented the pasta, chickpeas, and kale.  Tahini dressing tied it all together.

Though veggies certainly are given their due in the main dishes, there’s also a chapter devoted to salads, and one to vegetable sides.  Hits included the crunchy creamy carrot salad (pictured on the book’s cover), with sweet roasted carrots and spicy arugula; and chilled chaat masala chickpea salad, which was “refreshing! easy!”  Turmeric- roasted cauliflower was a winner with its cool and creamy cilantro-tahini sauce, and turmeric provided appealing sunny yellow color to the normally pasty cauliflower.  Kale and romaine za’atar caesar salad “wasn’t really a caesar salad,” though it was pleasing in its own way with “really good” croutons and za’atar-accented dressing.  One definite flop: baingan bharta, a traditional Indian dish of stewed eggplant and tomato, which produced “mushy eggplant.”

Since chickpeas were ubiquitous in this book, two people made pesto hummus.  This was an easily made, garlicky spread that we enjoyed sampling at our meeting.  In fact several group members noted that homemade hummus (of any variety) is very simple to make, and so much fresher than anything from a supermarket. Another delicious success was sweet potato aloo tiki.  These were tasty little patties made from sweet potatoes, pan-fried and served with a slightly spicy yogurt sauce.  The cool, creamy sauce was the perfect foil for the hot, crispy patties.  Though this recipe was in the appetizer section, they made a fine dinner.  One caveat: they didn’t reheat all that well.

For the bakers in our group, there was plenty to choose from.  Date caramel fudge brownies had a dense, gooey texture that was “really good!” The dates were a bit difficult to puree, but other than that the recipe was as quick as any other brownie recipe.  Many of the baked goods in this book utilize coconut oil, and in these brownies the flavor was detectable– so if you don’t like coconut, you’ll need to make a substitution.  Salted peanut butter caramel bars made an appearance at our meeting; these were a rich  layered treat of shortbread crust, peanut butter filling, and chocolate topping.  We couldn’t taste the coconut oil in these, perhaps because there were so many other yummy competing flavors!  Pretzel tahini cookies were a satisfying, almost savory cookie.  Almond flour made them soft and tender; pretzels added a nice crunch and a hit of salt.  If you want to bake for breakfast, you could try rice crispy granola.  This addictive blend featured lots of nuts, seeds, and almond butter.  The addition of crispy rice cereal nicely lightened the mix. A second granola recipe, maple and olive oil tahini granola, didn’t use the crispy rice cereal, but was otherwise so similar that it was essentially a variation of the first recipe.  Either would be a welcome way to start the day.  Honey tahini scones were perfectly flavored with their namesake ingredients, but they suffered texturally from using only oat flour, which made them very crumbly and gave them a pasty mouthfeel.  Still, they were good enough that, “I will try again.”

This title has a pretty well-defined flavor profile (lots of cumin, turmeric, cilantro, cayenne), and some ingredients are used repeatedly (chickpeas, lentils, tahini– I think I went through an entire jar of tahini in the month we used this book).  Those were limiting factors for some.  We certainly enjoyed many of the author’s vegetable-centric combinations, and it was fun (if somewhat expensive) to experiment with non-wheat flours and various sweeteners.  But, the narrow-ish range of flavors made for a book we’d use less often than others.  So despite our successes, our rating reflected a bit of ambivalence; we averaged out to a 2.9 (out of a possible 5).

Our next meeting will be on October 28 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  We’ll be discussing local restauranteur Barbara Lynch’s memoir, Out of Line.  If you want to try your hand at some of Ms. Lynch’s iconic dishes, you can also pick up a copy of her one cookbook, Stir.  Both are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  See you then!

 

Bibliobites in June: Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of…. Salad!

For many of us, salads equal summertime.  In the winter, we may be happy to hunker down with steaming bowls of soup or sturdy casseroles, but when warmer weather (finally) arrives, we’re more likely to crave something lighter.  A cool, crunchy main-dish salad can be the perfect dinnertime solution– substantial without being too heavy, refreshing, and uncomplicated to prepare.  As a bonus, salad components can often be made ahead, and may not require much (if any cooking)– because wouldn’t you rather be at the beach instead of standing in front of the stove?  This month our Bibliobites group gave their salad bowls a workout with The Complete Salad Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen.

As is the norm for ATK titles, the subject of salads is given a thorough discussion.  There’s  lots of general information about ingredients and equipment, and comprehensive (some would say absurdly detailed) headnotes for each recipe.  It’s a pretty hefty squarish tome, printed on thick, glossy paper; and there are inviting full-page photos of most recipes.  But, no matter how fabulous the photos are, what really matters is the yumminess factor– so how did it go in the kitchen?

Most of us focused on main-dish salads; if you’re going to go to the trouble of chopping/cooking/assembling multiple ingredients and making a dressing from scratch, it might as well be dinner.  But, we did make a few side-dish salads: tangy cabbage-apple slaw was a simple, quick, yet flavorful take on this summertime classic.  Tangy, fruity cider vinegar and red pepper flakes really kicked it up a notch, and as a bonus, it kept quite happily in the fridge for more than a week.  Recipes for Sichuan smashed cucumber salad, or pai huang ga, have proliferated in books and on blogs; ATK’s version was “very fresh and light.”  It was a good, simple side that also kept “better than expected,” considering that the main ingredient is intentionally bruised.  And, caesar green bean salad was a “tasty” riff on the popular salad, if “a bit too mustardy.”

When we moved on to main dishes, there was a multitude of choices.  Lentils were featured in spiced lentil salad with butternut squash which was “a good combination….but too much vinegar for me.”  However, for another person, lentil salad with spinach, walnuts and parmesan hit the right notes with its similarly assertive vinegary tang.  Garlic and shallot were the perfect complements in this simple dish.  Black-eyed pea salad with pecans and peaches was a winner that we were lucky enough to taste at our post-meeting potluck.  This was a tasty and colorful combination of creamy beans, sweet and tart peaches, and spicy arugula.  Marinated cauliflower and chickpea salad had all the makings of a keeper, with its veggies and beans complemented with Spanish-leaning flavors of lemon, smoked paprika, and saffron.  However the recipe also called for 3 tablespoons of sugar, which was an “unpleasant,” overly-prominent flavor in the finished dish.   Another Spanish-y chickpea salad was much more successful: pearl couscous salad with chickpeas, chorizo, and warm spices was “a keeper!”  Neutral couscous and nutty chickpeas were nicely balanced with spicy chorizo, raisins, and a simple lemon juice and olive oil dressing.  Two people tried quinoa taco salad; one person didn’t care for the quinoa’s chipotle flavor, but for another it was just right.  Both thought this was a good vegetarian version of taco salad; it had all the usual bells and whistles (avocado, tomato, queso fresco), while the quinoa and black beans provided heft.  And, “it kept well.”  Southwestern black bean salad also highlighted Mexican flavors of lime, chipotle, and cilantro; the result was “delicious…had a little kick!”

Noodle salads were a popular choice for our group; in addition to the pearl couscous salad above, one cook made sesame lo mein salad.  This was “good– but I have other recipes that are better.”  The cucumbers in it were a pleasant, refreshing addition.  Peanut noodle salad was also “similar to others;” it was “a bit too sweet, but I did use less hot sauce” which may have thrown off the flavor balance.  Crunchy bell peppers and cucumbers were cooling additions.

Orzo salad with broccoli and radicchio showcased savory Italian flavors with pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and plenty of Parmesan.  Unfortunately its bright colors faded significantly after a day in the fridge, so it’s not the best make-ahead dish.

Since this was our last meeting until September, we finished up with a potluck lunch featuring several of the salads mentioned above, as well as a highly praised mascarpone cheesecake from one of Joanne Chang’s books.  Thanks to everyone for their delicious contributions!

Though we had a second title for this month (Food52 Mighty Salads), no one had used it.  Some of us had paged through it, and thought it seemed a bit more involved than we wanted.  Overall there was less cooking going on than usual; June is often a hectic month, and some members confessed they were still busy working their way through April’s selection, Half Baked Harvest Super Simple.  That’s high praise indeed!  Our voting for this month’s title averaged out to a 3.75 (out of a possible 5); the general consensus was, as one person put it: “….it was OK, very comprehensive but not innovative.”  But, it’s a great way to start building your salad repertoire, should you need ideas.

Thank you to everyone for your participation this year, through all the ups and downs with which the  pandemic has so generously gifted us.  Your comments, opinions, and expertise are always enjoyed and appreciated.  I look forward to our next meeting on Friday, September 30 at 11 AM.  Have a wonderful summer!

Bibliobites in May: Comme Ci, Comme Ça

What is it about French food that perpetually fascinates?  Is it that European cultural savoir-faire, or the elegance we typically associate with France?  Is it the food itself: not too challenging for most palates, often rich with butter and cheese; and accented with wine and herbs like tarragon or chives?  Is it the vibrant personalities associated with some of its proponents, like Julia Child and Jacques Pépin?  Perhaps all of the above?  Whatever the lure, since Julia Child published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the early 1960s, there’s been a near constant parade of French cookbooks.  Though Americans have often been derided for their love of quick and easy cooking (and their dependence on takeout), this enduring appeal of classic French cuisine tells a somewhat different story.  This month our Bibliobites group took on la cuisine française with NY Times writer and author Melissa Clark’s latest, Dinner in French.

Though Ms. Clark states in her introduction that her food is a merging of France and Brooklyn, there’s a lot more of the former than the latter.  There are twists on many iconic French dishes, but overall they are pretty firmly rooted in tradition.  Interestingly, despite the general fascination with French food, most in our group aren’t all that familiar with it, nor have we made many classic French dishes.  As always, the way out of ignorance is knowledge, so how did it go in the kitchen?

As you might expect from a French cookbook, there’s a chapter devoted to eggs, and one to cheese.  Three people were intrigued by savory gruyère bread with ham.  This loaf made an excellent, cheesy snack or hors d’oeuvre, and it was also “great with a fried egg on top.”  The recipe came together easily, and it also freezes well.  The idea of a savory loaf was new to many of us, but it’s a keeper! Twice-baked cheese soufflés were a riff on the classic; with its multiple components it took “a lot of time.”  However it was tasty, “….not super-light, more like a cross between a souffle and a quiche.”  And speaking of the iconic quiche, sweet potato and bacon quiche with parsley turned out to be a good combination that “grew on me.”  It aged nicely, too.

Vegetables and salads went to France, as well: classic salade niçoise was delicious despite our cook’s avoidance of the called-for olives and anchovies, “I did like it!”  Shaved zucchini and melon salad with mint and almonds was an easy and refreshing accompaniment to many main dishes; but asparagus almondine was “too much work for asparagus!”  We made a couple of heartier veggies, too: roasted cauliflower with brown butter, raisins, and capers was a lovely combination with its raisins and capers.  The brown butter added rich, savory notes.  Sautéed cabbage with gruyère and jalapenos was a meal in itself, with hearty browned cabbage and plenty of cheese on top.  The jalapenos added welcome heat.

Main dishes were of course on tap: roasted tarragon chicken with crispy mushrooms was “really good” with “nice tarragon flavor.”  Our cook added some potatoes to the roasting pan for a more complete, mostly hands-off meal.  Two people tried beef daube with carrots and honey vinegar; depending on who made it, it was either “moist” or “too dry!”  With a full bottle of red wine as the liquid, it had “a lot of flavor” and was “intense– very rich.”  It might be too much of everything; it was “not a keeper.”  But, roasted tarragon shrimp and onions was definitely a keeper, “…my favorite!  Absolutely delicious!”  Hake with herb butter en papillote was another good choice; with copious amounts of butter it was “very rich.”  The fish and spinach stayed moist and tender inside their parchment packets.  Almost-vegetarian lentil stew with garlic sausage and goat cheese was comforting and hearty with its salty, garlicky notes.  Though it certainly wouldn’t win any prizes in the looks department (notably, there was no photo of the finished dish), it was a tasty stew that improved in the fridge.  A keeper!  Pissaladière with tomato, olives, and anchovies was another mostly vegetarian hit.  This Provençal take on pizza features caramelized onions which provided rich, savory flavor.  The yeast dough was enriched with olive oil, which made it easy to work with.  It was a bit of a production to make all the components, but “we really liked it;”  even better, “it looked just like the photo!”

Despite several successes, on the whole, this title wasn’t a huge hit.  A couple of people thought the recipes involved way too much work for a weeknight; and we questioned whether most people would really want to dive into them on your average Tuesday night.  And much of what we tried contained fair amounts of butter and/or cheese– something you might not want in your regular weeknight rotation.  We also thought it  interesting that (in a “family dinner” book) many of the recipes were scaled for 6-8 servings rather than 4-6, though it was true that most made excellent leftovers.  We did appreciate that the author gave detailed instructions on how to prep or make ahead either a whole dish or some of its components.   Though Ms. Clark clearly loves France and French food, she failed to win any converts within our group (well, maybe one person!).  As a result, our voting averaged out to a not-very-impressive 2.25 out of a possible 5.  C’est la vie!

Our next meeting will be on Friday, June 24 at 11 AM.  We’ll meet in hybrid format; please register for either in-person or remote attendance.  Since warmer days are here, we’ll be cooking (assembling?) our way through two summery titles: The Complete Salad Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen, and Food52 Mighty Salads by the editors of Food52.  Choose one or both; copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  See you on the 24th!

Bibliobites in April: Simply Super

In the world of cookbooks, the quest for the perfect dinner seemingly never ends.  Legions of chefs and bloggers continue to produce books promising us a flavorful, foolproof, from-scratch meal without spending hours in the kitchen.  This month our Bibliobites group returned to this well-worn path with Half Baked Harvest Super Simple by popular blogger and Instagrammer Tieghan Gerard.  Did we feel the love?  And more precisely, were the recipes worthy of our time and taste buds?

Ms. Gerard’s first claim to fame was as a food photographer, and the photos in this book did not disappoint.  There are inviting, full-page photos of almost every recipe, a feature we always appreciate.  The font is a bit smaller than we might have liked, but as a result, many, if not most, recipes fit on one page– helpful for cooks with messy hands!  One person noted that this book is available with a spiral binding, super-practical if not quite as sturdy as a regular library binding.  We also liked that the recipes often provided options for method; for instance, you could make a soup either on the stove,  in the slow cooker, or in a multicooker (Instant Pot).  When we got down to the actual cooking, one person spoke for all when she commented that the food was “easy yet amazing.”  So, spoiler alert: this book is one of our highest rated ever!

With all that amazing food, you might think we thoroughly tested plenty of recipes– and you would be right.  Though this book includes chapters on breakfast, appetizers, and desserts, as usual most of us focused on main dishes.  For all you carnivores out there, among the hits were “very tender” coconut chicken tikka masala; though, with 3 tablespoons of garam masala, “make sure you like your brand,” as it’s the dominant flavor.  Staying with chicken, instant chicken gumbo was “spicy….really good,” and it aged well.  Kai’s favorite sesame orange chicken was indeed a favorite.  It had a yummy soy- and hoisin-based sauce and tasted “awesome.”  Three people made white wine braised chicken with artichokes and orzo; everyone loved the combination of artichokes and olives; lemon added “a nice zing.”  Also, “leftovers are really good– if you have any!”

There were other meaty doings, as well: three cooks chose to make quick Filipino adobo, a pork stew with a lively salty, tart, and fruity marinade.  Sun-dried tomato and turkey meatball bake was just plain “wicked good;” as an added bonus, it only dirtied one pan.  Gingered apple pork chops sounded luscious, but called for too much cumin, which overpowered the other flavors.  But, “I would try it again.”

Moving on to fishy territory, browned butter scallops were “quick and easy,” and tasty, too.  But sesame crusted salmon was a bit of a flop– it was “bland” despite the sesame crust, and “sounded better than it was.”  Extra saucy coconut fish curry was so good, our cook made it twice!  The lime and other Thai flavors hit the spot, and, combined with coconut milk, it was all “yum!”  One pot Spanish chorizo, shrimp, and rice pilaf was another dish that was easy and loaded with flavor; spicy chorizo and smoked paprika beautifully complemented the shrimp.  Unfortunately, another shrimp dish, jalapeno garlic butter shrimp, didn’t make the grade– somehow the flavors of garlic and honey didn’t come through.

This title doesn’t neglect vegetarians, either: there were plenty of options to choose from.  Three people made spinach and artichoke macaroni and cheese bake.  For some it was a keeper, “the best ever;” and it had the undeniable virtue of being a one-pot recipe.  But one person felt it somehow didn’t taste cheesy, despite using sharp cheddar.  The addition of spinach and artichokes was definitely welcome, though.  We tried a few other noodle-based dishes: penne alla vodka two ways was easy enough, though it was “a bit too spicy…good but not great.”  Four people made veggie loaded pad see ew, a cousin of pad Thai.  For one person it was a keeper; others thought it was a  solid, if not outstanding, choice, with a sauce that was either “really good” or “needed something!”  We did like being able to customize the amounts and types of veggies to suit our mood and what we had on hand.  It was hard to argue with garlic butter ramen (because how can you go wrong with garlic and butter together?); it was tasty and “so easy!”  However, it was “a lot of butter,” a flaw or a plus, depending on how you want to look at it.  Mushroom “cheese-steaks” were so fantastic that “I made them three times!”  These were very easy and quick to make, and were an excellent leftover.  However the accompanying yum yum sauce was “disappointing– it needed something;” but it was still “my all-time favorite!”

Since our weather in April was on the cool side, we were still making soup: chicken tortilla soup was a “super easy” keeper, with garnishes (crushed tortilla chips, diced mango and avocado) that kicked it up a notch.  Golden butternut squash soup was rich and creamy with coconut milk and savory with shallots, an easy and delicious version of this now-classic soup.  Another classic, broccoli cheddar soup, wasn’t quite cheesy enough, but all was forgiven since the topper of seasoned pretzels was addictive– “really good!”  A couple of veggie sides were also standouts: cacio e pepe brussels sprouts were fantastic, with loads of pepper and Parmesan cheese delivering big-time flavor.   Black pepper buffalo cauliflower bites were “a bit of work” since you had to coat all the flowerets with a sauce and then breadcrumbs mixed with Parmesan, but they were an appealing way to eat cauliflower.  However, the ranch dressing had “too much dill,” though that could easily be adjusted.

There aren’t a ton of desserts in this book, and oddly enough not many of them called to us.  One person tried the chocolate mousse and thought it was “eh!”  The cream cheese in it was hard to incorporate (even when it was at room temp) and left visually unappealing little white blobs in the finished mousse; also, it possibly “needed more sugar?”  All in all, not a winner.  Two people baked the intriguingly named five ingredient hazelnut brownies.  Nutella provides the chocolate and the fat for these brownies; but for one person, the result wasn’t nearly chocolatey enough.  Another baker added the optional chocolate chips (which actually makes six ingredients!) and that definitely improved the chocolate flavor.  They were super-quick to make and had a nice texture, so if you happen to have Nutella on hand it’s probably faster than a boxed brownie mix.   And, though not a dessert, the no-knead bread and pizza dough was an incredibly fast, amazingly good pizza dough.  The special sauce is 12 ounces of beer, which makes the dough soft, light, and easy to handle.  The beer is faintly discernible in the finished product, so if you don’t like beer, that’s something to be aware of.

As you might surmise from all of the above, this title was a runaway success for everyone.  As advertised, most of the recipes were simple, easy to put together, and used ingredients we had or that were easy to find.  Best of all, they were enjoyable to eat!  Ms. Gerard has just published a new cookbook, Half Baked Harvest Every Day, which will likely make its way into our rotation at some point!  Unsurprisingly, when the votes were tallied, we averaged out to a 4.38 (out of a possible 5), one of our highest scores ever.

Join us at our next meeting, on Friday, May 27 at 11 AM as we discuss  NY Times writer and author Melissa Clark’s latest, Cooking in French.  We will meet in hybrid format; please register online to attend either in-person or virtually.  See you then!

Bibliobites in March: In the Kitchen We’re Briefly Vietnamese

It was an exciting day for our Bibliobites group: in March we were able to meet in person for the first time in two years!  The conversation was fast and furious as we caught up with each other and discussed our adventures with Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen.  This month’s title was chosen to connect with the library’s 2022 One Book title, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong.  Most of us are somewhat familiar with Viet food via the many restaurants in Lowell, and the flavors are similar to other Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisines; but for most (if not all) of us, cooking Vietnamese at home was a new experience.  Author Nguyen goes out of her way to demystify ingredients and provide easy-to-find substitutions, and to illustrate commonalities with other dishes more frequently found in the US– so how did it play out for us in the kitchen?

Because of its long history of colonial occupation, Vietnamese cuisine draws on a rich and diverse blend  of influences, including French, Chinese, and American.  Roasted cauliflower wings were an “addictive” mashup of east and west, with crunchy batter-coated baked florets and a savory, spicy sauce for dipping.  Charred brussels sprouts with coconut were “so good– the best!”  Though the sprouts are not a typical Vietnamese vegetable, the “sweet tang” of coconut water, along with fish sauce, brought east and west together deliciously.  Ubiquitous zucchini became a “yummy…very easy” side dish in easy soy-sauce glazed zucchini.  Two readily available ingredients (soy sauce and chile garlic sauce) were all it took to create a memorable, quick to prepare dish.  Baby kale stir-fried with garlic sounded enticing but was a bit tough and bitter, though this may have been the fault of the vegetable itself and not the recipe, “it wasn’t horrible.”  And blistered green beans with bacon, while a very tasty stir-fry, was “a lot of work for green beans…I won’t bother with it again.”

As always, we made lots of main dishes.  Char siu chicken had a complex, slightly sweet marinade; the resulting grilled chicken was flavorful, moist, and “super-easy.”  Two people tried ginger-garlic fish parcels.  The fish was steamed en papillote; it was “pretty good…very easy,” though the flavors were “a bit muted.”  Shrimp in coconut caramel sauce featured a luscious photo that our cook couldn’t resist; but the finished dish was “not very coconutty,” and the sauce took too long to reduce enough to coat the shrimp.  The overall result– “meh!”  Spicy sweet pomegranate tofu made good use of pomegranate molasses, which some of us had bought (and still had lurking in the back of the fridge)  when we reviewed a Middle Eastern cookbook last year.  The tart, fruity syrup perfectly  complemented the tofu and made a nicely sticky glaze, though one person thought it was a bit too tart.  Unfortunately, the flavors in this dish faded appreciably in the fridge, and the lovely magenta color turned an unappealing grayish brown.

Since March is still mostly winter in these parts, we made some soups and stews, too: beef stew with star anise and lemongrass was “really good” with “a lot of flavor,” and like many stews, was even better the next day.  Chicken, lemongrass, and sweet potato curry was an Indian/Viet mashup, as it used the familiar Indian curry blend (according to the author, in Vietnam Indian curry is preferred over Thai).  This was “good” but both people who made it wished it was more lemony; perhaps the lemongrass was overshadowed by the two tablespoons of curry powder!  It made a large potful and also aged well.  Wontons in gingery broth “looked just like the photo” and were “light and tasty.”  The author gives options for both vegetarian and meaty wonton fillings; either way this recipe is “a project,” but a delicious one!  Pho is one of the most iconic Vietnamese dishes (Ms. Nguyen has written an entire book on the subject), and smoked turkey pho did not disappoint.  This was a savory, warming combination of heady broth, smoky/salty turkey, and rice noodles complemented by mint and chile.  Though a simplified version of the classic, it was still relatively time-consuming; and worth every minute.

There are only a few desserts in this book, but one of them called to multiple people: no-churn vietnamese coffee ice cream.  This way of making ice cream has been well-publicized on the internet; it’s typically a combination of sweetened condensed milk and whipped cream. No ice cream maker is required, yet the result was smooth, creamy, and loaded with coffee flavor.  There’s also a variation including chocolate chips.  Talk about gilding the lily!  Definitely a keeper.

This title is a solid and enjoyable introduction to Vietnamese cooking.  The author provides plenty of general information and tips for us newbies.  There’s also a chapter on ingredients, where you might find them, and substitutions.  We liked Ms. Nguyen’s no-nonsense, use-what-you-can-find attitude, and her embrace of newfangled cooking tools like the multicooker (Instant Pot).  The photos in the book are top-notch, though we wished for a few more.  And the type could have been a wee bit larger– but these are small complaints!  Voting reflected our good vibes: we averaged out to a 3.8 (out of a possible 5).  If you want to cook more Vietnamese, check out Ms. Nguyen’s other titles.  She’s also on YouTube, and has a website, https://www.vietworldkitchen.com/.  And if you just want to sample Vietnamese cuisine, there are several restaurants nearby in Lowell, which has a significant Vietnamese and Cambodian population.  Easy to get your pho fix anytime!

For our next meeting on April 29th at 11 AM, we’ll be simplifying a bit with blogger Tieghen Gerard’s Half-Baked Harvest Super Simple.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  We will meet in hybrid format; please register for either in-person or remote attendance.  See you there!

 

Bibliobites in February: Finding Resilience, Finding Strength

Winter hadn’t quite released its grip when our Bibliobites group met on an unexpectedly snowy morning.  Though two days prior the temperature had hit 60 degrees, on the day of our meeting the snow steadily accumulated outside as we talked (via zoom) about Erin French’s bestselling memoir, Finding Freedom.  Ms. French is the owner/chef of The Lost Kitchen in Freedom, ME, which has been consistently named one of the best restaurants in the country.  It’s also one of the hardest to get into—reservations are created using a lottery system with over 20,000 postcard entrants annually!  But, if we can’t go there, at least we can read about the restaurant and its talented and dedicated chef.

It’s hard to know where to start in summarizing our discussion.  There’s so much in this  story that’s dramatic and heart-wrenching; her life has had so many twists and turns that if you didn’t know it was true you might think you were reading fiction.  And, as with many memoirs, this story hinges on relationships: to family, spouse, child; and of course, food and cooking.

Ms. French had an idyllic, and difficult, childhood in rural Maine.  Her father, who owned a local diner, was unstable and verbally abusive.  Fixated on having sons, he was perpetually disappointed that his children were girls (“…get over it!”).  Despite his disdain for daughters, he had no trouble putting Ms. French to work in the diner beginning at age 12, and by the time she was in high school, she was essentially a full time cook, and often the only cook.  And yet, throughout the book, she is steadfast in her appreciation for the direction in which her father inadvertently steered her: she discovered a passion for food and cooking that endured and has sustained her into the present.  Our group was amazed at her level of forgiveness towards her dad; she chose how to write about it, and “wrote through a lens of love.”  It was “beautiful….she praised what she could.”

Though Ms. French has a sister, we didn’t get a good feel for that relationship.  It was clear that they weren’t (and perhaps aren’t) close, but there was “not a good overall picture.”  Her mom is depicted as a strong, loving, yet passive presence; a woman who found it difficult to cope with and stand up to her harsh and spiteful husband.

Much of our discussion focused on Ms. French’s husband, Tom.  Like her father, Tom was an alcoholic; and though he initially supported her dreams (both financially and emotionally), things began to fall apart when she started to gain acclaim for her small restaurant in Belfast, ME (also called the Lost Kitchen).  At that point, their marriage was struggling and Ms. French was developing a raging addiction to alcohol and prescription meds as she tried to keep everything in her life on a semi-even keel.  When she finally went to rehab, he closed the successful restaurant, and sold everything in it.  Though Ms. French didn’t know it at the time, only Tom legally owned the business.  Until he shuttered the restaurant, we were kind of OK with Tom (he’d helped her start the restaurant, adopted her son from a prior relationship, and had stopped drinking), but then “he kicked her when she was down.”  It seemed that he wanted to punish her in every way possible, “I’m going to make her miserable,” since she wanted to leave her marriage.   We wondered if Ms. French ever really loved him; she “sort of slid into it” and it gave her some security; “she didn’t have a good model growing up.”  In addition to destroying her restaurant business, because of her addiction he obtained a court order to prevent her from seeing her son.

To dig yourself out from under addiction, the loss of your livelihood that you had built from scratch, betrayal by your husband, and the forced separation from your child– it’s almost too much to imagine any one human being surviving all of that.  And yet she did survive, and start over, both personally and professionally.  What saved her?  In the book she gives all the credit to her love for her son, and the support of her mother– but we also thought her passion for food and cooking kept her going; “she could envision what she was reaching for.”  But even with a strong vision, it took so much hard work, determination, and patience to restart her dream, “I’m in awe of this woman.”   Unsurprisingly, this was an emotional and inspirational read for all of us; it “takes a lot of guts to empty your soul [onto the page].”  We thought that maybe writing it all down was a form of therapy for her, literally closing the book on some painful chapters.

And speaking of writing, we thought this memoir was well written– it was compelling and moved along at good pace.  Ms. French’s honesty was appealing, and her lack of chef-ish ego refreshing.  Her lyrical descriptions of food have been widely praised, and we agreed that those accolades were well-deserved.  Before Ms. French published her memoir, she did produce a cookbook, appropriately titled The Lost Kitchen.  A few of us had paged through this; as with the memoir we enjoyed her writing, and the photography is incredible, both of the food and the restaurant and its surroundings.  But, despite Ms. French’s claims of being a plain, no-frills cook, we thought that the food was a bit too “fancy.”  As someone pointed out, she sources her incredibly high-quality ingredients hyper-locally, in a way we might not be able to.   In many ways, her food is of her specific place, which is a good thing– but it makes it harder to duplicate in another location.  Or, maybe we don’t really want to cook her food ourselves, we just want to go to the restaurant!  The chances of any of us doing that are quite small, but I’m sure most of us will be sending a postcard to Freedom, Maine on April 1.   In the meantime, if you want more Erin French in your life, the audiobook, read by the author, is highly recommended.  And, there’s now a TV show about the Lost Kitchen (“a great adjunct”) on Magnolia Network.

When our votes were tallied, we averaged out to a 4.8 (out of a possible 5).  That may well be our highest score ever.  Seems fitting!

We’ll next meet on Friday, March 25 at 11 AM.  This meeting will be in a hybrid format; you may attend in person (in the McCarthy Meeting Room) or via Zoom.  Please register for either; zoom link will be sent on the morning of the program.  In conjunction with Chelmsford’s One Book title, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong, we’ll be discussing Vietnamese Food Any Day by Andrea Nguyen.  Hope to see you then!

Bibliobites in January: Appetizing Adventures

Serious winter is upon us.  It’s cold, it’s snowy or icy or rainy (or all three!), and the sun makes far fewer appearances than most of us would like.  To add insult to injury, it’s still getting dark so early that PJs at 6 PM seems like the only sensible thing to do.  But, as we slowly slog towards spring, we can always enjoy the great indoors of our kitchens.  Winter is the perfect time to explore new cuisines, try something out of our comfort zone, and spend a few leisurely hours cooking or baking something warming and delicious.   Our group was more than up for the challenge for the January theme of “choose your own adventure,” and we hope our experiences will inspire you to do the same.

Most of us chose a book (or books!) to delve into; this provided a nice framework for trying out a less-familiar cuisine or technique.   One person decided to explore her French Canadian roots with A Taste of Quebec.  This turned out to be almost a combination travel guide and cookbook; there was plentiful information about various regional foods and their origins, “now I want to go visit!”  This title featured many meaty dishes, such as the iconic tourtière, a hearty meat pie that helps Québécois get through their long winters.  Root vegetables are also a common cold-weather ingredient, so our cook made a turnip soufflé, which elevated the humble turnip into something special, though “it did need an onion to sweeten it.”

January’s tradition of making New Year’s resolutions to improve eating habits was a theme for some.  One person experimented with vegan cooking using Plant Powered Families.  Though the book overall wasn’t a huge hit, she did find some worthy keepers: smoky bean chili (“very good– better than your typical vegetarian chili”), chickpea rice soup (“really hearty, good for winter”) and thick and hearty tomato sauce (“it used red lentils to thicken, which I really liked”).  Still on tap, a chocolate pudding with chia seeds, since she was curious to try these now-common seeds.  Another group member checked out the optimistically titled How Not to Die Cookbook.  This book was “very, very healthy;” so healthy that the recipes did not appeal, “I marked a few, but didn’t use the book.”  Some ingredients were off-putting (nutritional yeast), and there was lots of prep (many recipes called for spice mixes you made ahead of time).   So, our cook moved on to some Eating Well newsletters she had piling up in an email folder.  This was much more successful, producing several tasty meals like zucchini spinach gouda bake (“like a quiche, but drier”), cauliflower pizza crust (“not really a pizza– like a really thin potato pancake…you can’t eat it by hand”), creamy white chili (“more like soup, not thick enough…very smooth!”), one pot chicken Alfredo (“will make again!”), and slow cooker barbecued brisket (“pretty good…made a lot!”).   Not to neglect dessert, she flipped through Baking With Less Sugar, and baked some fudgy mascarpone brownies.  These were indeed fudgy with good chocolate flavor, and did use 1/3 less sugar than a more traditional recipe.  And with the leftover mascarpone, how about some lower sugar cheesecake?  This was “so so good– the most delicious ever!”  It also froze well, and if you are impatient, it was “even tasty half-frozen!”

Since January is also “get organized month,” (and another frequent New Year’s resolution), a second group member decided to work on some recipes awaiting her attention in her email.  She used a list of the most popular viral TikTok recipes of 2021Baked feta pasta was easy and delicious, if a bit salty; “will definitely try again.”  Creamy ramen sounded interesting and different; it was “tasty– but still kind of weird.”  The creaminess and the ramen were an unusual combo.  Still, it was intriguing enough to try again, perhaps with some added veggies or protein to make more of a complete meal.  We thought sheet pan pancake was a simple, and simply genius, idea: you pour your pancake batter into a sheet pan, bake, and then cut into squares or triangles to serve.  Great for a crowd or to make ahead and reheat on a busy morning.  This recipe is very similar to one that has been featured by Ree Drummond on her Pioneer Woman TV show.  Vegan carrot bacon is still on deck, but the idea is so unexpected, and the picture looks so “awesome” that it’s a must-try.

And January is definitely soup season, so one person undertook a one-woman soup festival.  A fan of the instant pot, she made split pea soup from her go-to title, The Step By Step Instant Pot Cookbook.  This was an excellent version of pea soup, and we also got a useful pro tip: the Honey Baked Ham store in Nashua sells ham bones, which are pretty much a requirement for pea soup.  Ham bones also figure in the iconic Senate bean soup, which our cook planned to try the day after we met, so no report back yet!  Chunky tomato soup was another instant pot success, quick to put together and mellowed with cream cheese added at the end.  And hearty homemade corn chowder (from the Chunky Chef blog)  was easy and “really good…I’d never made corn chowder before!”  Our soup maven then moved on to Dinner Then Dessert: Satisfying Meals Using Only 3, 5, or 7 Ingredients.  This book proved to be a winner, since “her pantry is (stocked) like mine,” which made dinner prep a snap.  Keepers included mushroom stroganoff, and the easy stir-fry garlic shrimp with oyster sauce.  Note that many of the author’s recipes are available online, if you want to road-test the concept.

Another group member decided to tackle the invitingly titled Simply Julia: 110 Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food.  This title received much praise when it was published, but our group member was unimpressed.  This book is the ever-more-common mashup of blog and cookbook, and for our reviewer, it was way too much talk and not enough action.  There are numerous two-page essays in the book (on various food-related topics), and copious headnotes; many love this window into an author’s world, but some prefer to stay happily ignorant and just go straight to the recipes.  And speaking of the recipes: spinach and artichoke dip chicken bake was “OK” but “kind of dry” despite a cup of sour cream.  Doug’s tex-mex turkey meatballs were super easy with only 5 ingredients; they used a cup of salsa, which was the dominant flavor; these were also “OK” though not outstanding. Future possibilities include Grace’s green beans, braised red cabbage and green apples, and carrot and chickpea korma.

 

 

 

 

Other titles we dipped into included Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar (“everything I’ve tried has been yummy and easy!”); Mooncakes and Milk Bread (“different- mostly sweet recipes you’d find in a Chinese bakery– the crispy Chinese sausage and cilantro pancakes were a project, but so good!”); Sumac: Recipes and Stories From Syria (“delicious simple, non-intimidating Middle Eastern food”); Pasta (“an exhaustive tome of pasta-making, definitely a project”), Once Upon a Chef (“loved it– these are the kinds of recipes I like.  I might buy it.”); Bittman Bread (“interesting and a little different.  You need a starter for everything.  For a future project!”).  And even though our theme was cooking, some also perused memoirs they’d recommend: Out of Line by local chef Barbara Lynch, and Into the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain by Tom Vitale.

Phew!  That’s a lot of cooking and trying new things.  And speaking of memoir, next month we’ll be reading Erin French’s gripping chronicle, Finding Freedom.  Ms. French, proprietor of The Lost Kitchen (“one of the 50 best restaurants in the world”) in Freedom, ME takes us through the difficult and winding road that has ultimately led to her incredible success.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  We’ll next meet on Friday, February 25 at 11 AM.  Plan to chat via zoom; link will be emailed on the morning of the program.

Stay warm and cook on!

 

 

Bibliobites in November/December: Flour Power

Local legend/pastry queen/James Beard Award winner Joanne Chang is a very busy baker indeed.  In addition to running the nine locations of her well-loved Flour Bakery and Cafe, she’s written five cookbooks, and with her husband, chef Christopher Myers, she owns Myers + Chang, a pan-Asian restaurant in Boston.   Plus, she’s recently somehow found the time to appear as a judge on the Netflix series Baking Impossible.  I’d say it’s her daily schedule that must verge on the impossible!  Way back in 2015, our group reviewed Ms. Chang’s first baking book; this month we tackled her newest, Pastry Love.  After spending more than a month with butter, sugar, and plenty of chocolate, did we think this title was a worthy successor?

The book itself was praised for its production values: nice heavy paper, stunning photography, and the typical large format.  The contents cover a wide range, from breakfast treats to breads to confections.  We loved Ms. Chang’s writing style; she’s clear and precise, and her instructions are very detailed.  We also liked that her recipes feature both volume and weight measurements, so no matter which method you prefer, you don’t have to waste time on tedious conversions.  On the downside, the font is fairly small and the text color is light gray, rather than black.  We’ve noticed this trend towards gray printing in cookbooks, and while it’s visually pleasant, it is more difficult to read.  Cookbook editors, please take note!

Once the oven was turned on, and our ingredients were properly at room temperature, did our group of mostly non-bakers enjoy the results of their efforts?  For starters, the breakfast chapter was a winner, featuring yummy treats that were quick and easy.  Three people made vegan carrot-ginger muffins; these were “hearty” and “really good warm” with plenty of flavor and texture from the carrots, raisins, and walnuts.  One person tried reducing the sugar, but this didn’t improve things; the resulting muffins were “bland.”  Even better were the vegan chocolate-banana muffins, “absolutely delicious–a keeper!”  Maple-blueberry scones also more than made the grade; these jumbo-sized treats feature whole-wheat flour and plenty of blueberries, “we ate lots!”  Two people tried  ricotta-cherry scones; these were “very tasty” and looked gorgeous, too.  Two caveats: the scones contain some expensive ingredients (frozen and dried cherries, creme fraiche), and the scones are of the biscuit (rather than the flaky) style– which one cook realized is not her preferred type.

Moving on to the ever-enticing cookie department, we enjoyed several recipes that are the convenient slice-and-bake variety; we discovered that all of these doughs freeze well, definitely a bonus.  Pecan sandies were a “really good…not too sweet” version of this classic.  The dough was a bit crumbly but manageable, and the cookies kept well.  Lemon-polenta cookies, a signature treat at the bakery, had a bit of pleasant grit from the cornmeal, and bright lemon flavor.  These also remained fresh-tasting for at least a week and were just right with a cup of tea. Spiral shortbreads are perfect for the sesame enthusiast; they feature both black and “regular” tahini and are rolled in sesame seeds.  These cookies were rich and subtly savory, and also had a nice trompe l’oeil effect– they look like they’re chocolate and vanilla, but they aren’t!  Black tahini isn’t widely available, but Asian markets carry it, and of course it can be ordered online.  We baked drop cookies, too: thin, crispy chocolate chip cookies were just that– large, buttery, and loaded with chips, “will definitely make again!”  Our cook thought they were maybe “a bit too sweet” but it was a minor complaint.  And in the warmer months, “they’d be good to use for making ice cream sandwiches.”  Vegan almond macaroons used aquafaba, that trendy egg substitute, but all did not turn out perfectly.  The dough was quite sticky and therefore a bit difficult to work with, and the cookies were reluctant to turn brown (the doneness test), so they wound up overbaked– beyond crunchy!  Gluten-free Persian love cookies were “pretty good” with their almond flour base; our baker changed up the flavorings to accommodate what she had available, so they weren’t really “Persian,” but they were good enough that, “I will try again.”   And if you enjoy rich, dark chocolate flavor, try the double chocolate rye cookies.  These are a little bit fussy to make, but worth every minute, with their slightly crisp edges and tender mousse-like interior studded with chocolate chunks.  Most definitely a keeper!

We didn’t venture far beyond breakfast and cookies; but one person did make olive oil cake with fresh grapes.  Our intrepid baker didn’t have any grapes on hand, but made the cake anyway, and then discovered “it really needed the grapes” for both sweetness and acidity.  The cake was fairly dense and “a bit greasy” which can happen with oil-based cakes.  This was a recipe that would benefit from some personal tweaking to accommodate particular preferences.  Japanese cotton cheesecake turned into a bit of a flop, partly because of the pan called for: an 8″ x 3″ round pan.  Many of us might have an 8″ round pan, but your standard cake pan is only 2″ deep.  So, our baker used a springform pan which (as they sometimes will) leaked a bit, and also allowed water from the water bath to seep in.  It was really an engineering problem, not a recipe problem; but this and other complications resulted in a cake that was not fluffy as advertised.  After a frustrating afternoon, “I might try again!”

Overall, we enjoyed this title.  Even those who only had the time or energy for just a little pastry love thought that “everything looked so good!”  We liked many of the author’s takes on classic recipes, and it was fun to bake treats that we’d seen/eaten at the bakery.  As much as some of us like to bake, what we all really want is a Flour Bakery a little closer to home.  What about it, Ms. Chang?  Isn’t it time to branch out to the real suburbs (as in, out along 95/128)?  Everyone in our group would undoubtedly become a loyal customer.

Our voting reflected our positive experiences, and the good vibes generated by Ms. Chang’s friendly and genuine “voice.”  We averaged out to a 3.8 (out of a possible 5).  That’s a pretty stellar score for this group!

We’ll next meet via zoom on Friday, January 28 at 11 AM.  This month’s theme is “Choose Your Own Adventure:” pick a title from a reserved cart of books at the main circulation desk, or choose one of your own.  The idea is to try something new and/or different.  If you would like to attend and are not on our email list, you can sign up here to receive the zoom link.

Happy New Year, and see you on the 28th!