About Andrea Grant
Andrea Grant is a Children's Services Specialist. View all posts by Andrea Grant →
It’s the season of hunkering. Whether because of rain, snow, gloom, or depressingly early sunsets, January is a time when many of us stick close to home. And what better way to spend a chilly day than snuggled up to your stove with a good cookbook? This month our Bibliobites crew chased the winter blues away with blogger Kathryne Taylor’s Love Real Food. This 2016 title is a comprehensive survey of contemporary vegetarian food from breakfast through cocktails, dinner, and dessert. After the excesses of December, many of us are more than ready to up our veggie quotient and focus on an “everyday” style of cooking.
Since it was a rather wet and gloomy month, indoor pursuits were definitely on the table (so to speak!). So there was an impressive amount of recipe-testing going on. Let’s start with a few breakfast treats: simple honey scones were “really easy,” but were not appealing; they were “gummy….dry….not enough sweetener.” We sampled these at our meeting and agreed that they were disappointing, though the wheaty flavor was nicely hearty. My favorite granola also didn’t quite make the grade; it “needs more of everything [cinnamon, cranberries].” However, “I liked that it wasn’t super-sweet.” Carrot cake breakfast cookies fared better; these were “pretty tasty” with plenty of grated carrots, pecans, and golden raisins. If you live in a small household, you’ll appreciate that these make a small batch. And sneaking in through the dessert department, lemony almond-blueberry cake was “not lemony enough” for some. We tasted this treat at our meeting and some thought the lemon flavor was just right, while others wished for more. This cake is gluten free; it’s made with almond meal which gave the cake a welcome hint of almond flavor.
Main dishes provided plenty of variety, always a plus when you’re wondering what to make for dinner. Traditional quiche got a bit of an upgrade with spinach-artichoke quiche, its filling a riff on the popular dip, and a pat-in crust made with almond meal accented with thyme and garlic. It could have used more spinach in the filling, but overall this dish was a winner. It reheated well, too. Roasted eggplant lasagna was, unsurprisingly, “a project.” This was deemed “good” but not great. The sauce was basically pureed tomatoes and might have benefited from some simmering, and the called-for whole wheat no-boil noodles proved difficult to find. Sun-dried tomato fettucine alfredo with spinach also featured whole wheat pasta, but fettucine was was easy enough to find. The alfredo sauce used the common vegan trick of pureeing soaked cashews to make a creamy sauce, which in this case worked really well. Though not a traditional version, it was an enjoyable riff on the classic, with garlic, spinach, and sun-dried tomatoes amping up the flavor profile. Three people made roasted broccoli, bell pepper, and tofu bowl with peanut sauce; it proved to be an unexpected keeper. The baked tofu was “great!” and the peanut sauce enjoyably “assertive.” Those who tried it all agreed it was a new favorite. There’s a similar recipe on the author’s blog using brussels sprouts instead of broccoli. Check it out!
Winter is peak soup and stew season, and most in our group made good use of this category. Three people tried tuscan white bean, kale, and farro stew a hearty melange that hit the spot. Classic flavors included the white beans, plenty of fresh rosemary, and Parmesan. This made a large potful so fortunately it aged well. Butternut squash chipotle chili was also a hit, with its smoky chipotles and sweet squash. The combination was “really good….will make again!” Moroccan butternut, chickpea, and couscous stew had some nice assertive spicing with smoked paprika and curry powder; the result was “good” but not great. Whole wheat couscous was another ingredient that was difficult to find, and our cook substituted pearl couscous; unfortunately “I didn’t like the texture.” Two people made chickpea tikka masala with green rice; both thought it was a solid, if not outstanding version of this iconic dish. The green rice was a bit fussy to make and didn’t seem to add much to the overall flavor, so feel free to skip it.
If you want to slurp some soup, perhaps start with classic tomato soup. This version used some pureed beans to thicken the soup and make it into more of a meal; “I really liked this!” Creamy roasted cauliflower soup didn’t fare as well; it was “very beige” and was “OK…a lot of work.” But, the crouton topper was “great!” Heartier choices included west african peanut soup which four people tried and was “good- especially with the hot sauce” though “I have other, similar recipes.” Hearty lentil minestrone was likewise a solid, if not outstanding choice. The addition of lentils didn’t add much to the otherwise classic recipe. Black bean tortilla soup with sweet potatoes turned out to be a keeper, “I really liked….substantial….will make again!” The black beans and sweet potatoes added heft to a recipe that typically includes chicken.
There were lots more main dishes to try; sweet potato, poblano, and black bean enchiladas were a California-ish version with creamy avocados and cheese. These were a solid choice with one caveat, ” they didn’t keep that well.” Unfortunately, coconut fried rice with edamame was disappointing; it had “no flavor….needed more spice….couldn’t taste the coconut.” But, kale and quinoa salad with crisp celery, plumped cranberries, and lemon dressing was an “absolutely yummy” (if very wordy) salad. This was a warm salad, “so delicious” with its mustardy lemon dressing. A keeper! Though technically a side dish, moroccan roasted carrot, arugula and wild rice salad was substantial enough for a light main dish. Two cooks praised the seasoning (chili and cinnamon) and the lemony dressing, though “it needed more dressing.” Plus, the roasted carrots were perfect just by themselves, should you not want to deal with the other salad ingredients. Those of us who sampled this at our meeting had to agree that it was a hit. To go with those carrots, you might make sweet potato-black bean veggie burgers. These were a good version of veggie burgers, if a bit of a project. Quick cooking oats in the burger mix were an inspired choice to provide some chew and bind the ingredients together. Or, maybe you’d like to have some pizza with a base of easiest honey whole wheat pizza dough. This dough was super-quick and easy to make, and had the additional virtue of no waiting/rising time. A keeper!
As should be obvious by now, we gave this title a thorough workout. Though there was nothing shockingly innovative, most people enjoyed the variety and accessibility of the recipes, and a few were pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoyed their trip to veggie land. We did note that there were a few too many dishes that relied on black beans, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and kale. The author also uses a fair amount of coconut oil, which has both passionate advocates and detractors. As for the book itself, it’s fairly typical of its ilk, with a large-ish format and copious photos. Since it’s written by a blogger, there are also somewhat lengthy headnotes and numerous photos of the author and her adorable dog, Cookie. No one complained about these quirks; undoubtedly they were focused on the food! As mentioned, there was overall a positive response to this book, which was reflected in our rating of 3.45 (out of a possible 5). Most people rated it a 4.
Join us for our next meeting on Sunday February 25 at 1 PM (note different day and time!) We’ll be discussing The Savory Baker from America’s Test Kitchen. We’ll also be celebrating ten years of Bibliobites with a look back at some of our previous titles, and a potluck lunch. Hope to see you there!
Unrelenting drive. Fierce determination. Boundless energy and ambition. Obsessive single-mindedness. Plus a dollop of anxiety. Put all these traits together and you have a recipe for what it takes to become a successful chef in the hyper-competitive world of fine dining. In addition to the above qualities, many of today’s cooking stars have unusual backgrounds and compelling life stories, none more so than Marcus Samuelsson, author of this month’s title, the classic memoir Yes, Chef. An Ethiopian by birth, he was adopted by a Swedish family at the age of three, trained in restaurants all over Europe as a teenager, and ultimately settled in New York City, where he owns multiple restaurants. He’s a James Beard award winner and is also a fixture on TV, having appeared on (and won) Top Chef Masters, and is currently the host of PBS’ No Passport Required. As is always the case with a memoir, the reader wants to know why and how someone arrived at where they are today. The steps may be convoluted, but often the goal is straightforward, and in this Samuelsson is no exception.
Samuelsson’s journey could be described with so many superlative adjectives that it’s hard to know where to start. Born during a severe famine in Ethiopia, it’s astonishing that he survived at all. Culturally, he grew up Swedish in his adoptive family, and fell in love with cooking during the innumerable Sunday afternoons he spent helping his grandmother prepare family dinner. Though he enjoyed being in the kitchen, his first love was soccer, and he devoted endless hours to perfecting his game, with the goal of playing on a professional level. When that door closed, he turned his considerable work ethic towards cooking. Once again, we read about the exhaustion and exhilaration of kitchen life: the drudgery of starting at the bottom (spending hours cleaning a walk-in refrigerator); the fear of making a career-ending mistake; the thrill of being on the line and creating original dishes. We wondered, as we have before, why kitchen culture is so intense and unforgiving. It’s anxiety-inducing to read about, let alone live through. Several opinions came to mind, among them the theory of a self-selecting population: the field often seems to attract adrenaline junkies and risk-takers. Sometimes a class system is at play, too; many enter the field at the bottom, as dishwashers or low-level prep workers, and claw their way through a Darwinian system without benefit of unattainable, expensive culinary training.
Though Samuelsson trained in multiple European countries, he had ambitions beyond traditional fine-dining restaurants. His culinary quest, as he repeatedly says, is about “chasing flavors,” and his desire to meld the many culinary influences in his life: African, Swedish, and ultimately, that of the Black community in the US. Samuelsson moved to New York City as a young man and immediately embraced the city’s diversity, and his quest for flavors expanded beyond anything he had once envisioned. Ultimately he opened the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, in which he’s been able to express all the aspects of his life and training through unique, and yet familiar, food.
There actually weren’t an overwhelming number of comments about this title. Many of us already knew his story, but it’s likely that we were all simply stunned into silence by his incredible persistence and ultimate success. As one person put it, “what a remarkable life!” Though it’s obvious from the memoir that Samuelsson isn’t a perfect human being, you can’t help but cheer his achievements and applaud his triumphs. Our feelings were reflected in our rating: a stellar 4.25 out of a possible 5.
In addition to the memoir, we perused one of Samuelsson’s cookbooks, 2014’s Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home. Even if you didn’t cook from this book, it’s a fun read. There are colorful and inviting photos of almost every recipe, and of the author’s Harlem neighborhood. Chapter headings feature a playlist of songs for you to enjoy while in the kitchen, all penned in a charming, “handwritten” font. But, what did we make while humming along?? One thing we discovered pretty quickly: when Marcus cooks at home, he has a lot more ingredients at the ready than we do! And, unsurprisingly for a chef, he doesn’t mind a bit of prep. Unfortunately, one of the simpler recipes in the book, quinoa with broccoli, cauliflower, and toasted coconut didn’t quite make the grade. Three people tried this, and all used the word “bland” to describe it. And, also unfortunately in this case, it made quite a bit and we struggled to finish it off. The-day-after pasta frittata fared somewhat better; two people made this. For one person it “wasn’t bad,” but for another this simple dish hit the spot. You did have to have already-cooked pasta with sauce on hand, which is great if you have that, and another step if you don’t. Still, it was a nice take on leftover pasta.
There were other main-dish hits as well: k-town noodles were “really good” with strong umami notes from kimchi, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Red shrimp and spicy grits was a solid take on this classic (and popular) dish, though “I still wished the grits had cheese in them!” Orange-curry beef stir-fry with broccolini had “nice flavors” but was somewhat downgraded because it had “lots of ingredients [to prep].” Continuing with the Asian theme, peanut noodles with slaw were either “dry and gluey” or had “the best, most addictive peanut sauce I’ve made,” depending on who you talked to! A nod to Samuelsson’s Swedish upbringing, helga’s meatballs and gravy with carrot-apple mashed potatoes showed that grandmother really may know best; the meatballs were “great– moist and tender,” though the traditional cream gravy was a bit bland. The recipe’s headnote tells us that the author added carrot and apple to the mashed potatoes, but the result was “not worth the effort.” And firehouse stovetop clambake was a twist on a very traditional American dish; this was “really good” with the typical ingredients of shellfish, potatoes, and onions. Making it on the stove turned it into a nice wintertime treat.
We tried some sides and snacks, too. Pickled tomato soup with corn bread croutons was “terrible– the vinegar overpowered everything.” That would be the half cup of cider vinegar in a smallish batch of soup. However, the market-fresh corn bread was a hit for both people who made it; buttermilk, cheddar cheese, scallions, and spices made for an extremely flavorful loaf. It kept well, too. Aunt josulyn’s roti was a chickpea-stuffed flatbread that made a great snack or side for soup. These were a bit of a project, but the resulting flaky pastry and spiced filling were worth the effort. The recipe made 8 flatbreads, and leftovers reheated well. One person made coconut peanut butter, a component of sticky bacon sandwiches. We sampled this at our meeting, and all agreed that the spicing was unappealing. Cloves and nutmeg were overly dominant and produced an odd, almost medicinal effect. Not a keeper! Spiced nuts were much more successful flavor-wise, featuring the addictive sweet/salty combo. However, the spices and sugar “didn’t really coat the nuts,” which was a bit disappointing. But worth trying again.
This title is one that, at first blush, seemed approachable and fun. However, Samuelsson’s flavors and spicing are often quite different than what we’re accustomed to, and sometimes we thought it worked incredibly well, but sometimes it didn’t. This title clearly reflects that Samuelsson has chased flavors from all over the world. Some combinations we didn’t care for might become favorites given enough exposure! Another flaw for us was the extensive ingredient lists found in many of the recipes. Especially in December, most of us are looking for uncomplicated dishes. So the fault may be in the timing of this title rather than the book itself. Whatever the reason, when it came to a vote, we averaged out to a 1.825 out of a possible 5. Ouch! Sorry Marcus! We think you’re amazing, but perhaps we’ll just hope to visit one of your restaurants someday, rather than cooking from your books at home.
Our first meeting of 2024 is coming up soon. Please join us on Friday, January 26 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. We’ll be discussing blogger Kathryne Taylor’s Love Real Food. Copies are still available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. Give it a glance, and see you on the 26th.
The jury’s still out on whether an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, but if it’s fall in New England, then it’s apples all day and every which way. Fresh or in crisp or pie, pressed into cider or cooked down into sauce, apples are endlessly versatile and uniquely delicious. This month’s title, The Apple Lover’s Cookbook by Amy Traverso, introduced us to some new ways with apples, and acquainted us with some less- common varieties that (it turns out) grow close to home.
The beginning of this book features a primer (as the author calls it) of apple varieties, which was easily one of the most interesting and useful parts of the book. There are photos and descriptions of 59 apple varieties, some of which are quite common in area supermarkets, and others that we’d never seen or heard of. After reading through it, I wondered just how different in taste and texture these apples might be. So, in the name of scientific research, I went to a local orchard and chose six heirloom varieties: Baldwin, Cox’s Orange Pippin, Jonathan, Newtown Pippin, Spencer, and Winesap. At our meeting we conducted a blind taste test, and….they all were unique! For almost all of us, Cox’s Orange Pippin was the favorite, with the Spencer a close second. Though the book’s primer lists the Pippin as a sweet apple, we thought it had plenty of tartness. Perhaps it was the balance of tart and sweet that was so appealing? The Spencer was a bit sweeter than the Pippin, but what we liked most about it was its satisfying crunch. Our least favorite was the Baldwin; our sample was unappealingly mushy. The primer lists this apple as a “firm-sweet,” so we can only assume it had not been recently picked. Many older apple varieties are experiencing a resurgence, so next time you’re at an orchard, check out all the possibilities. You’re sure to find a new favorite!
Once apple tasting was done, it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty: what did we do with all those apples? The author gave us plenty of choices, both sweet and savory. As is often the case, most of us went straight to the main dishes. Four of us made cider-brined pork chops with mustard pan sauce. The chops, brined in cider, were “very tender,” and the mustard sauce was a nice (if a bit too dominant) complement. However the whole thing “wasn’t very apple-y,” and the “flavor didn’t match the number of ingredients.” On the other hand, sausage with braised cabbage and apples had “lots of apple flavor….really good!” This hearty combination also featured caraway seeds, which are not a favorite for some! Sweet potato, apple and ginger soup was “good, but not a keeper.” This was a pleasant combination with a fairly subdued apple presence; it was similar to other soup recipes so it didn’t really stand out.
Some of the more substantial vegetable recipes could almost be main dishes: squash stuffed with apples, pancetta, and walnuts was “a keeper! Delicious!” It had beautiful layers of flavor: meaty and sweet, with a welcome sharp note from the Gorgonzola. Squash and apple gratin was a bit less successful; it was just “OK.” The breadcrumb topper burned when kept under the broiler for 5 minutes, as the recipe instructed. Perhaps with less char some of the other flavors would have come through? A few other veggie dishes were big hits: cider-glazed root vegetables were “yummy….the glaze adds so much extra flavor!” And parsnip-apple puree was “not colorful but very good…the apple took away the bitter edge of the parsnips….nice balance!” And should you crave a bit of tangy, salty crunch to serve on the side, quick bread-and-butter apple pickles were a definite keeper. The combo of thinly sliced cucumber, apple, and shallot paired perfectly with the mild brine and some fresh tarragon. Easy to put together, too.
There’s a breakfast-y chapter and that appealed to many; baked apple oatmeal pudding was “pretty good….similar to others.” It was “very filling” and would be great for breakfast, or even dessert. If you’re craving a more elegant start to your day, crepes filled with caramelized apples might suit, though “creme fraiche and maple syrup are expensive!” The crepe recipe was “fine” and it did make a lot. A more substantial breakfast option, sausage, apple, and cheddar strata was unfortunately “disappointing.” The casserole was overall too soft and “needed more body.” It’s possible that the bread used was not sturdy enough. Worth a repeat?
In the baking department, apple pumpkin walnut muffins were a hit with their classic fall flavors and spices. The recipe makes 15 standard-size muffins, so it’s a good choice for a crowd. Cider donut muffins were also a hit and did taste just like a cider donut. These baked treats were “not too sweet” and had prominent cider notes, “I would make again!” Oatmeal topped apple crisp was “demolished” at a potluck, which is as good an endorsement as any. The classic oat/nut/spice topper was a winner. Apple apricot kuchen also went to a party, where it “disappeared!” This “easy” dessert was “really good,” though it needed more bake time than the recipe indicated. Apple brownies were also a quick and easy treat. It was “best when fresh but still good left over,” and earned keeper status. A very similar cake, simple apple nut cake was much less successful. Though it was tasty and apple-y when first baked, it turned into a wet mess after a day. The apples exuded so much moisture that the cake became an inedible sodden pudding. In comparing the brownie and cake recipes (conveniently on facing pages of the book), about the only difference is that the cake calls for 50% more apples than the brownies, which may have been the culprit. Applesauce is yet another tasty classic that will easily use up any apple surplus you may have; orange-scented spiced applesauce had a pleasing spice combo of cinnamon and cloves, though the orange flavor “wasn’t strong enough.”
Most of us enjoyed this book. Though there weren’t many revelations in the recipe department (it was published in 2014), the apple information, particularly the primer, was much appreciated, and we did come away with some new ideas and a few keepers. We liked the author’s friendly and straightforward voice; in particular we liked her detailed instructions. Since this title is almost ten years old, it did not have enough photos to satisfy a 2023 reader, though the photos we had were good ones. This book has a “revised and updated” version published in 2020. It’s not much different than the original, though it does have about a dozen additional recipes and some extra photos. When it came to the votes, we averaged out to a 3.4 (out of a possible 5). That’s a pretty good score for this group, and reflects our appreciation of the author’s wide-ranging apple knowledge.
Join us at our next meeting on Friday, December 1 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. Please note, this is a combined November/December meeting. We’ll be discussing chef Marcus Samuelsson’s classic memoir, Yes, Chef, as well as one of his cookbooks, Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook at Home. Happy Thanksgiving to all, and see you on the 1st!
“Keeper” is a word that’s wormed its way into practically every aspect of modern life. A keeper can be a person, a thing, an idea, or….a recipe! The quest for these sometimes-elusive keepers has us plowing through all manner of cookbooks; but, one may reasonably ask, what constitutes a keeper? After all, a keeper is an extremely personal thing. One cook may value taste above all else, another ease of preparation, or only one pot to wash, or a fit with dietary restrictions, or…..! We could go on all day. But, some brave authors are willing to wade into these murky waters and claim to provide us with a whole book of keepers, which brings us to September’s book, ace blogger Deb Perelman’s latest, Smitten Kitchen Keepers: New Classics For Your Forever Files. With a title like that, the gauntlet (or the oven mitt?) was definitely thrown down, and our intrepid cooks were ready to pick it up and wrestle with it in the kitchen.
Our group has been in Smitten territory before; this is the author’s third cookbook and we’ve reviewed them all! Visually, this new one matches the others (if you are a fan, they will all sit nicely together on your shelf), with the typical large format and admirable photography, shot by the author. As a blogger Ms. Perelman does love her headnotes, and some in our group loved these small essays, many of which provide a glimpse into the author’s home life. Her warm, funny voice makes her instantly relatable, so even though some in our group generally aren’t fond of verbose headnotes, there were no complaints!
But enough dithering about text and photos– let’s get into the kitchen! Since the breakfast chapter is the first in the book, let’s start there. Peanut butter, oat and jam bars were an “easy” riff on that classic combination. Oats and honey provided breakfast-y components and made for a delicious, sweet way to start the day. Chocolate chip buckwheat pancakes happily straddled the line between sweet and savory; nutty buckwheat perfectly complemented the chocolate chips. If you’re looking to kick up your pancake game a notch, these would certainly do the trick. They reheated well, too. On the more savory side, sour cream and flaky cheddar biscuits were a definite keeper. They were a bit of work (“lots of cutting-in with the cheese and the butter”) but were flaky as advertised, with a nice umami note from onion powder (“only a quarter teaspoon– but it added a lot!”). Zucchini cornbread and tomato butter was “very savory” with corn, zucchini and onion (perhaps a bit too much onion; the recipe contained half a cup of scallions!). The tomato butter had a somewhat subdued flavor, but was still a welcome complement to the tender yet hearty bread.
As usual, main dishes were our primary focus. Vegetarians had plenty to choose from; four cooks were inspired to try creamy tomato chickpea masala; the general consensus was that it was solid, if not outstanding. The sauce’s creaminess was a plus; some thought the spicing was much too timid, but for others it was more than sufficient. Simple black bean chili turned out to be a keeper; it was fast and delicious, but “make sure you use the jalapeno!” In a similar flavor vein, swiss chard enchiladas had a tasty filling of chard, beans, and corn. Though it was a bit of work to put together, it made a large panful; and it reheated well. Farro salad with roasted tomatoes was a fine farewell to tomato season; one cook liked it well enough that “I’ve made it several times;” but another wished the recipe had some additional veggies to make it more of a main dish. Two people also tried baked orzo and artichokes, a cheesy combo that was “excellent….but prep takes time.” On the other hand, “it was OK– but I don’t think it’s a keeper.” Take your pick! Three cooks landed on tangy baked eggplant and couscous (that end of summer thing again) which was “OK” though it had “good flavor.” All three wished the dish had a higher eggplant/couscous ratio; the photo shows mostly eggplant but IRL that wasn’t how it played out. Though slow-simmered lentils with kale and goat cheese “didn’t look pretty ” (lentils clearly need a color makeover), this was a “pretty easy” dish that “I liked a lot.” Wine vinegar provided just the right accent, and the whole was “a keeper!” In the cheesy department, deepest dish broccoli cheddar quiche was a quiche of epic proportions; it was tasty but had a few negatives: the crust dough was dry and needed much more water than what the recipe called for, and after baking the crust was soggy as no par- or pre-baking was called for. Also because the quiche was so massive it required two hours to bake! Save this one for when you’re feeding a crowd. Another crust was much more successful: the crust for leek and brie galette was easy to make and just super; tender and flaky as advertised. It went well with the rich brie, but the baked leeks “weren’t my favorite– they tasted too grassy somehow.” But that crust is a keeper! We made a few veggie dishes that could double as sides: skillet white beans caesar were “excellent!” Anchovies added a hit of umami. Pea, feta, and mint fritters were a novel way to use a bag of frozen peas; these crispy fritters were “good…easy…different.” A bit more feta would have been welcome, though the lemony yogurt sauce was a tasty compensation. And charred salt and vinegar cabbage was either “good” or “bland and boring,” depending on who you talked to. The “crispy bits” were the best part, but overall the dish “needed something.”
Phew! And that’s only the vegetarian dishes! One quirk of this title is that there are no fish recipes. We can only assume the author isn’t fond of our finned friends, but it was certainly an oddity for a modern cookbook. There is one shrimp dish, crispy chili garlic butter shrimp. This was a pretty standard, classic combination, although delicious. You can’t go wrong with butter, garlic, and hot pepper; and this is probably also one of the speediest recipes in the book, since shrimp cook in a flash. There were lots of chicken recipes: chicken with rice, chorizo, and tomatoes was loaded with flavor from chorizo, onions, and smoked paprika. It made a lot and reheated beautifully. A keeper! Weeknight lemon chicken wings took an hour to cook– much longer than the recipe stated. They were good, though “they would be better on the grill.” The buttery mustard sauce balanced the lemon well. Almost a keeper! Turkey meatloaf for skeptics still left us a bit skeptical; it was “OK….it needed something.” Perhaps a meatloaf is always just a meatloaf? Skillet chicken parmesan was a more successful riff on a classic; it was “very good,” though, as is true for many (if not most) casseroles, it was “a bit labor-intensive.” Three cooks were intrigued by fettucine with white ragu; and there were three very different opinions on the result. One person’s take was “boring;” for her the sauce just wasn’t a sauce and needed more liquid to bring it all together. On the other hand, it was a keeper for another cook who enjoyed the somewhat novel taste of pork cooked in milk. The third person was on the fence, liking the flavor but also thinking it needed more of a “real” sauce. Since the weather was cooling off a bit, we made a couple of soups: ginger garlic chicken noodle soup had “nice flavor” and was “probably a keeper.” The photo was absolutely drool-worthy! Winter squash soup with red onion crisp was also a hit; the crispy onion topper really elevated this fall classic.
Moving on to the sweets department, both chocolate peanut butter cup cookies and thick molasses spice cookies were keepers. The spice cookies featured plenty of ginger and were soft and chewy without being cakey. They kept well, too. The chocolate cookies were “fun to make” and were of course “the perfect combo….yum!” On the downside, oatmeal date shortbread came out “greasy, stodgy….only crisp the first day.” Two people loved whole lemon poppyseed cake; this easy treat had a good, strong lemon flavor and was not too sweet. One unique feature of this recipe: you use all of the (pureed) lemon in the cake, so you need a fairly heavy-duty blender or food processor. The author’s effort to make this a one-bowl cake resulted in some strange and convoluted instructions. If you’re willing to wash one more bowl, you can simplify prep tremendously. Should you be lucky enough to have a stash of raspberries somewhere, you could try raspberry crostata, which, though “it didn’t look like the photo” (uncooperative crust!) was “delicious!” And, last but not least, chocolate olive oil spread was a sumptuous smooth spread with wonderful dark chocolate flavor. This was very quick and easy to make whenever the chocolate urge strikes. A keeper!
Anyone reading this far would have to agree that we gave this book a thorough review. We found most of the recipes to be approachable, though some took a bit more doing than we might have liked. Generally, we weren’t crazy about her instructions– a few people mentioned that they seemed unnecessarily complicated or obtuse. This wasn’t a dealbreaker, but it was noticeable. And though all of us found at least one keeper in this book, overall it didn’t reach the level we might have hoped. But, as noted above, a keeper is personal, and the author’s vision of a keeper just may not be ours. So, in the final analysis, our rating averaged out to a 3.3 (out of a possible 5). As is often the case, that average-ish rating disguises strong high and low ratings. So, you’ll just have to take out the book yourself and decide!
Please join us for our next meeting on Friday October 27 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. We’ll be discussing everyone’s favorite fall fruit with Amy Traverso’s The Apple Lover’s Cookbook. Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. See you there!
Our Bibliobites group enjoys a survey as much as anyone else. In fact, that’s pretty much what we do every month– we (thoroughly!) survey a cookbook by reading it and cooking our way through it; then we discuss our results and render a verdict. So, before we begin a new session in September, let’s take a brief look back at where we’ve been.
I asked group members to send me their top “keepers” from 2022-2023. For us, these are the best of the best: the ones that have made it into our regular rotations, the ones we get excited about eating the minute we pull out the recipe. Check them out! They could become your favorites, too.
Unsurprisingly, our top-rated book of the year (4.4 out of a possible 5), Once Upon a Chef Weeknight/Weekend by Jennifer Segal, generated several keepers. Among the many highlights were smoky chickpea, red lentil, and vegetable soup (“hearty with lots of smoky flavor….super!”), drunken style noodles with shrimp (“I want to go back to this one!”), bbq soy and ginger chicken thighs (“super on the grill!”), ciabatta pesto pizza (“a go-to for a quick supper”), pan-seared halibut (“the sauce makes the dish…very rich…easy”), and, for dessert, french apple cake (“the rum is perfect…a nice small cake”) and brownie pudding (“rich and buttery, yet light and delicate!”). It’s worth noting that most of the above recipes were highly praised by multiple people.
Despite the fact that several in our group are avowed non-bakers, Dorie Greenspan’s Baking With Dorie was our second highest-rated title of the year (3.77 out of a possible 5). After many decades in the cookbook biz, it’s apparent that the author knows her way around a cookie sheet, and a recipe! Our keepers from this book included mocha walnut torte (“dairy free and gluten free so great for those with food restrictions”), olive oil brownies (“excellent fudginess!”), grain and seed muffins (“really delicious…not too sweet”), and bakewell tart (“tender almond sponge cake, raspberry jam, pastry crust….hit all the right notes for me!”).
Even titles that generated a lukewarm response overall could surprise us with flashes of brilliance. Dada Eats Love to Cook It by Samah Dada, while squarely in “meh” territory (2.9 out of a possible 5) had us falling in intense legume love with chana masala, dal makhani, and the best dal ever. Jew-ish by Jake Cohen also garnered a very average rating (3.0 out of 5), but our cooks were passionate about a few recipes: pomegranate bbq chicken wings (“one of the best wing sauces ever!”) and iraqi roasted salmon (“awesome tomato-lemon topper– perfect with the salmon!”). Moving a bit further down the ratings, Grains For Every Season by Joshua McFadden (2.75 out of 5) also had a couple of well-loved dishes: both farrotto in the style of cacio e pepe (“enjoyed this more than a rice risotto…nice flavor!”) and buckwheat cream scones your way (“rich yet light with delicate buckwheat flavor”)are on repeat, or will be when the weather cools off a bit!
As always, there were titles that just didn’t speak to us, even if they’d been well reviewed by those who probably know way more about food and cooking than we do. However, in our defense, we actually make the recipes in a book, not just read them and drool over the photos. Sometimes dishes that sounded wonderful on the page wound up needing more time, pots, bowls, or expensive ingredients than we anticipated. Some dishes didn’t taste as described, or as good as we’d expected. But even titles we didn’t enjoy all that much had their moments. One Pot, Pan, Planet by Anna Jones (2.3 out of 5) had a “sleeper hit” with quick squash lasagna. Stir by Barbara Lynch (2.5 out of 5) had old fellow marinara sauce, “the one recipe I have used the most this year.” And from In Cod We Trust by Heather Atwood (1.9 out of 5) two cooks raved about roasted cherry tomato sauce, a zippy relish that keeps well and tastes fantastic on almost anything.
For all you numbers people out there, this year’s highest rating was a 4.4, and the lowest a 1.9. Our combined average for all titles was 3.05. That’s very…..average! Check out any or all of the above titles and see if you agree with our group’s opinions. And please join us at our next meeting, Friday September 29 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. Speaking of keepers, we’ll be road-testing Deb Perelman’s newest, Smitten Kitchen Keepers. Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. See you then!
Ahh, home sweet home! This month our group stayed local with Heather Atwood’s In Cod We Trust: The Celebrated Cuisine of Coastal Massachusetts. This 2016 title takes us on a tour of our very own coast, from Provincetown to Newburyport, New Bedford to Nantucket. Though Yankee cooking, in its inimitable Rodney Dangerfield way, gets little respect for its sturdy plainness and extreme thriftiness, it’s these very qualities that likely account for its stubborn longevity. And, many of our local delicacies (like the aforementioned bean and cod) are infinitely adaptable to new ingredients brought by immigrants from all over the world. So perhaps our definition of Yankee fare needed some updating.
It turns out that the author of this book, Heather Atwood, is first and foremost a food historian and author. Chapter headings are loaded with information about a particular locale and its residents, and sidebars in most chapters showcase an area’s restaurants, farms, or noteworthy ingredients. Many recipes have longish headnotes about where the dish may have originated, and/or its variations. In a way this book is a tempting travelogue; if you lived somewhere else, the charming descriptions and evocative photos might have you booking a flight ASAP. Unfortunately, some of the places mentioned no longer exist, leaving us only wishing we’d been able to check them out.
The book is arranged by region; for instance, there are chapters devoted to the south coast, or Cape Ann. At first blush this might seem sensible and even enjoyable, but for those of us actually cooking from this title, it quickly became an exercise in frustration and endless page flipping. If you wanted to find a particular fish dish (for example), you pretty much had to remember which section it came from. Why not consult the index? Good question, and the answer is that the index is the worst any of us had ever seen. Even if you had the exact name of a recipe, it often could not be found in the index. Especially in a title that’s not organized by main ingredient or by part of the meal, the index is vital. So perhaps we were a bit grumpy as we headed into the kitchen– did our efforts manage to soothe our souls? Or at least provide us with something delicious for dinner?
As expected, there were plenty of seafood recipes from which to choose. Two people tried Mondello’s fish cakes which were a “good, solid version” of this classic homey dish, containing the usual suspects of cod, potatoes, egg, and breadcrumbs. The recipe makes a good-sized batch, but they aged surprisingly well in the fridge, and can also be frozen. Fluke (or flounder) beautiful was “really delicious” and visually appealing with its tomatoes, olives, and parsley; a garlicky white wine sauce brought all together harmoniously. Two cooks took the time to put together cod a braz, a bit of a production involving fried potatoes, braised cod, eggs, and a cherry tomato relish. The relish was the best part of the dish by far, and would go with just about anything that could use a savory, acid foil. A keeper! Molho de tomate was another super tomato recipe that would be terrific with fish. This easy, long-simmered sauce had plenty of savory flavor from garlic and red wine; vinegar and pepper flakes added “a bit of a kick.” Fried cod squares with whipped potato, garlic, and olive oil dressing was yet another riff on the fish/potato combination. This iteration was a bit dressier than most, with an unctuously smooth potato and olive oil sauce dolloped atop the fried fish. The contrast of crunchy yet tender fish and the silky sauce was almost worth the effort, “I might make again!”
In the shellfish department, Rockport lobster roll was “your basic lobster roll,” which isn’t a bad thing. This particular recipe includes minced celery, which apparently is against the laws of nature in some lobster-loving locales. You are forewarned! Scalloped scallops had a “delicious flavor” with plenty of butter and a nice hit of salt from the crackers. The called-for saltines did get soggy; a few in the group mentioned that Ritz crackers are a better choice in such situations. Mussels mariniere featured a twist on this traditionally brothy dish: a creamy, buttery roux-based sauce. Our cook found this “easy, but too rich….[and] a mess to eat.” Portuguese spicy shrimp showcased an ingredient that we weren’t familiar with: pimenta moida, a spicy sauce made of red peppers fermented with salt. It’s not something that’s commonly found in supermarkets, so our cook made do with chili sauce. Garlic, smoked paprika, and white wine added complexity for a quick, easy, and zippy dish.
There were several vegetarian possibilities: morning glory farm’s corn and wild mushroom risotto was a solid, if not very inventive, choice. At our meeting we sampled 1874 nantucket corn pudding, a large, extremely corny casserole that did seem “very Yankee.” This was tasty, but our cook had a few complaints: the dish size called for was way too small, and the cooking time was wildly underestimated. Mildred justice’s golden puddding was a similar idea, featuring carrots, corn, and squash bound with eggs, milk, and cornmeal. Ground allspice was an inspired touch that lifted this dish from ordinary to differently delicious. Leftovers kept well. Blueberry and butternut squash salad with dried blueberry vinaigrette (this book seemed to have a lot of very long recipe names!) was your basic hearty, main-dish salad; but what really kicked it up a notch was the fantastic dressing, “delicious!” Kale salad with miso dressing and spiced pecans also had a “great!” dressing, “I didn’t expect to like it– but I did!” Mango, avocado, and dried cranberries added enjoyable flavors and textures. Since June is strawberry season in these parts, one cook made rosalie’s chilled strawberry soup, a very pleasant, cooling concoction of wine-marinated berries, sugar, and yogurt. We sampled this at our meeting and it was a winner! The red wine was the perfect accent, bringing all the flavors together without dominating. There was some discussion about what to do with the extra wine (the recipe only needs a cup or two). Hmm… not really a problem!
Despite the heat, a few people still felt the need to bake. Mermaid farm milk ricotta and lemon muffins looked unappealingly pale, but they were yummy and tender with just-right lemon flavor. Can’t judge a muffin by its cover? Old-time blueberry grunt was also a fairly homely looking dessert, and was a grunt of a different sort. Most of us had the impression that a grunt is very similar to a cobbler, but this version is more like British summer pudding, in which cooked fruit is mixed with chunks or slices of bread and then chilled. Though the texture of this dessert was a bit unusual, you can’t go wrong with blueberries and sugar. And pear walnut bread was definitely a keeper, “I liked it so much I made it twice!” The chopped pears added subtle moistness and quiet flavor, and the classic combination of cinnamon and nutmeg was the perfect accent.
Despite a few keepers, for all of us, this book failed to impress. It seemed fairly dated, and many of the recipes (with some notable exceptions) seemed a bit too ordinary. And there were enough complaints about timing and directions that made us wonder if some of the recipes had even been tested. While the author’s stories and history are fun to peruse and make for good conversation, in a cookbook we also want stellar food, and for us this book mostly didn’t have it. And, the annoyances of the book’s organization and the atrocious index didn’t help matters. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, our rating averaged out to just a hair under 2 (out of a possible 5). Ouch! That might be our lowest score ever.
June marks the end of our Bibliobites “year.” We’ll take a break until September, when we’ll meet on the 29th at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. Enjoy the summer, and see you in the fall!
*From a bit of doggerel attributed to Holy Cross alum John Collins Bossidy (1910):
“And this is good old Boston/The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells speak only to Cabots/And the Cabots speak only to God.”
The melting pot* that is America is never more beautifully expressed than in its foodways. Sure, it’s easy to poke fun at our love of fast food and fried everything; but the variety of cultures represented in our supermarkets and on our plates is astounding. Ingredients that a few years ago might have been looked upon with some puzzlement (“what is that??”) have quickly become standard items in our pantries. Think fish sauce, gochujang, miso, za’atar, tahini, endless varieties of chutney– and that’s just condiments! So, it can certainly be argued that every day, Americans embrace the ish. We may cook Indian-ish or Greek-ish or Thai-ish without a second thought, and our ish may extend to creating dishes that meld familiar foods from our own backgrounds with those of other cultures.
This month’s title, Jew-ish by Jake Cohen, perfectly exemplifies how a cultural mashup expresses itself through food. Jews have lived in every corner of the world and have adopted and adapted foods from wherever they have been. If (like me) you grew up in the New York metro area, you are very familiar with the chicken soup-kugel-latke style of Jewish cuisine, but there’s a lot more to it than that, as we discovered once we got into the kitchen. Did we find out that we want to add another ish to our repertoire?
This book grew out of the author’s custom of hosting Shabbat** dinners; accordingly, many recipes are designed to serve 8. This required a bit of math on our parts, since most of us live in smaller households and aren’t hosting dinner parties on a regular basis. But, since we must eat dinner every night, we dove in regardless: four people were intrigued by Iraqi roasted salmon with tomato and lemon. This was a hit for most who tried it; the combination of savory caramelized onions and acidic tomato/lemon topper was the perfect foil for rich salmon. Lamb chops with crushed grapes and sage was a bit different, and delicious. The sweetly acid roasted grapes were a superb complement to the slightly gamey lamb. Sage and garlic added traditional savory notes. Beef-stuffed eggplant dolmeh, like many stuff-and-roll recipes, required a bit of work to assemble; and unfortunately, the result was “meh! I didn’t like the [acidic] tamarind.” As usual we made plenty of chicken dishes: two people made Persian chicken and celery stew, a bowl of comfort with its tender chicken, warm spices, and an entire bunch of celery! This was a unique and tasty way to use celery; as a bonus, it froze well. Pomegranate-bbq chicken wings were a big hit with their sweet, hot, and tangy sauce. The addictive sauce used mostly standard pantry ingredients; the one outlier was pomegranate molasses. However this tart syrup is now available in supermarkets and is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding condiment lineup! Though the wings are in the appetizer section, one cook used the sauce on chicken legs, which made for an excellent and easy dinner. Leftovers also reheated well. Crispy chicken thighs with tzimmes were just “OK– like sweet and sour chicken.” On the plus side, this was almost a one-dish meal, needing only some rice or potatoes to round it out.
This title had only a few main-dish choices for vegetarians; one option could be one-pot Persian-ish pasta. This was disappointing, though; the pasta sauce wasn’t really a sauce and wasn’t very flavorful. “I liked the mint…but it needed a real sauce!” Or how about the breakfast-for-dinner option? Citrus and poppy seed pancakes were “really good” with a “yummy!” lemon-lime topper. This was a “huge” recipe, so either halve it or invite some friends over!
When it came to sides, we had plenty of choices. Kale tabbouleh was almost a main dish with its foundation of bulgur and butternut squash. It was “very tasty, and it kept well.” Another grain-based dish, fancy mushroom kasha varnishkas, didn’t fare as well; “I just didn’t like the kasha in a pilaf.” But the copious amounts of mushrooms, onions, and butter did help! Baharat smashed potatoes were “really good…a nice blend of spices! I would make again.” The warm spices were nicely complemented by tart sumac and plenty of black pepper. Date-roasted Brussels sprouts were easy and quick, but “stuck horribly to the pan” from the sugary date syrup. Note to author: recommend lining the pan with foil! At least three people made roasted cauliflower with pistachios and golden raisins. Basic roasted cauliflower was visually and flavorfully enhanced with a simple topper of pistachios, raisins, and parsley, “very good!” Sauteed asparagus with apricot and lemon sounded quite appealing (it was asparagus season, after all). The four cooks who made this deemed it “good” or “OK;” but all said they love asparagus so much that they prefer it roasted plain! Citrusy cumin-roasted carrots were just “OK.” The orange flavor was muted at best; it needed more orange or perhaps some lemon to punch it up?
Once again, desserts got the short end of the stick; several of us thought many recipes looked enticing, but only one actually got made: chewy Iraqi almond cookies. These were lovely, chewy cookies loaded with almond flavor; they’re gluten-free as they contain only almond flour. Though the recipe called for rose water (a common ingredient in Middle Eastern sweets) our cook left it out– this is an acquired taste for non-natives and some commented that so far, they don’t enjoy a floral note in their baked goods.
As you might surmise from the above, most of us focused on the Sephardic (or Middle Eastern) branch of Jewish cuisine, as opposed to the Ashkenic (or Eastern European) style. Perhaps, since it was springtime, no one was into making the heartier Ashkenazi food, and/or the flavors just sounded less appealing. Though we certainly had our successes, the overall reaction to this title was somewhat tepid. There was lots of “OK” or “pretty good” but not much that was deemed a keeper. A few of the recipes seemed “generic:” challah, tomato-cucumber salad, latkes. However, there’s lots of chatty information about Jewish culture and Shabbat in particular, so this could be of great interest depending on who you are/what you’re interested in learning about. As for the book itself, the photos were nicely done, though there were “not enough.” Are there ever? The font is quite small, which has become something of a trend, one that most of us don’t endorse!
So, though we definitely enjoy the ish factor in our cooking, this didn’t really turn out to be the one for our group. Accordingly, our rating averaged out to a 3.0 (out of a possible 5). That’s a pretty average average!
In June we’ll be sticking closer to home with Heather Atwood’s In Cod We Trust, all about “the celebrated cuisine of coastal Massachusetts.” Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. Join us to discuss this title at our next meeting on Friday June 30 at 11 AM in the McCarthy Meeting Room. See you there!
*Perhaps it could be more accurately described as a pilaf or a gumbo, where ingredients are cohesive yet distinct? It’s telling that any way you slice it (!), it’s a food metaphor.
**Shabbat: “a day of rest and celebration that begins on Friday at sunset and ends on the following evening.” —chabad.org
Sustainability: it’s a word and an idea that’s on everyone’s radar. But it’s such an all-encompassing concept that often it’s hard to figure out how we can and should apply it to different aspects of our lives. In the supermarket and in the kitchen, then, what does sustainable mean, and how would we incorporate such an approach into our cooking? This month’s title, One Pot, Pan, Planet by Anna Jones (our tie-in with this year’s One Book, Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy), provides a template for using less energy and fewer resources in our daily cooking. Less waste is certainly a desirable goal, but tasty meals are also important– so did we discover that you can have both?
Unsurprisingly, this book contains only vegetarian recipes. Eating lower on the food chain reduces environmental impact, and costs less, too; no small consideration given the sharp increase in food prices over the last year. Most in our group are happy to discover new ways with beans, grains, or veggies, and the “one pot” concept always appeals! In fact, this book is arranged by cooking vessel (more on that later), whether pot, skillet, or sheet pan. The majority of recipes are either main dishes or close to that, needing only perhaps rice or bread to make a complete meal. Sturdy, reliable cauliflower had a star turn in many recipes: pan-roasted cauliflower with saffron butter was a huge hit with its herby yogurt sauce. Cooking the cauliflower in a cast iron pan gave it plenty of crispy brown bits, a perfect contrast to the silky sauce. Sticky sesame-baked cauliflower also had a super sauce, this one an addictive blend of salty soy sauce and sweet maple syrup. Chili paste added a nice kick. Two people made corn and cauliflower chowder, but for both it was a big disappointment. There was an excessive amount of corn in the chowder; its flavor and texture dominated unpleasantly. The saving grace was a zippy topper of sauteed peanuts, scallions, and chilis. Cauliflower was also played a strong supporting role in saag aloo shepherd’s pie. This well-spiced casserole of beans and tomatoes used mashed potatoes and cauliflower for a topper. Though this dish was “very good” and “looked just like the photo,” it was a bit of a project, even though it was in the “Quick” chapter.
Stalwarts cabbage and carrots were also frequently featured: three people tried carrot and sesame pancakes (interestingly, these were really mostly cabbage!). These crispy fritters highlighted the classic soy/ginger combination, and were loaded with shredded veggies. Though the flavor and texture were excellent when first made, leftovers were a bust. No matter how they were reheated, they were on the dry side, and the cabbage became unpleasantly chewy. But, “I would try again, with wilted or sauteed (as opposed to raw) cabbage.” Roasted rainbow carrots with beans and salsa rustica made a fine main dish with the addition of some cooked farro; but the salsa, though quite good, required much chopping, “I liked this but it wasn’t worth the time.” Carrot and peanut nasi goreng was a pleasing bowl of fried rice, also featuring cabbage and tofu. Two people made this and thought it was a solid version of fried rice. The garnishes of cilantro, lime, and fried shallots definitely kicked it up a notch.
Tofu made several appearances in this book; though it had “a lot of ingredients,” flash-fried sticky tofu was “good!” with an appropriately sticky glaze. White miso ramen was a soupy bowl of goodness with its umami-loaded, creamy noodles paired with cooling tofu and crisp veggies. A keeper! We tried a few bean-centered casseroles: quick chickpea braise with kale and harissa was, in fact, quick; it was “very tasty….and a good leftover.” Baked dhal with tamarind-glazed sweet potatoes was “nice and creamy,” since the lentils were cooked in plant-based milk. The caramelized sweet potato topping added flavor and texture. On the negative side, lemon chickpea and green herb stew was “bland” and “lacked oomph;” despite a full can of coconut milk, our cook “couldn’t taste the coconut.” And quick squash lasagna was “relatively quick;” our cook liked the lentils in it though the dish as a whole had “too much squash.” Still, “I might make again!”
One aspect of this book that we all enjoyed was the “ten simple [name of veggie] ideas.” These two-page spreads provided quick and easy recipes for a vegetable you might have languishing in your crisper. Cheesy quick broccoli gratin was a hit from this section; it was delicious when first made and was a “really good leftover.” However, broccoli and sesame noodles did not make the grade; the “thin, bitter” sauce was “awful.” In looking at the recipe, the group thought perhaps the amount of vinegar called for overpowered the other flavors. Frittatas also came in for the simple, check-what’s-in-the-fridge treatment; our cook tried a combination of asparagus, cheese, and onion that was tasty enough. But, “it was better when I added some salami!” Despite the fact that salami is obviously not a vegetarian ingredient, it still fits into the premise of the book: use up what you have and don’t waste anything.
There are only a few dessert recipes in this book, and though many of us had intentions to try something, only one person followed through with chocolate and almond butter swirl brownies. These were a rich and deeply chocolate riff on the classic chocolate/peanut butter combo. They were a bit crumbly, but no one who sampled these at our meeting had any complaints!
This was an interesting title for most of us, for several reasons. First, the organization of the book (by cooking vessel) was either helpful or annoying, depending on how you’re approaching things at any given moment. Also, fairly often the “one pot” concept was a bit inaccurate. Maybe technically there was one pot or pan, but multiple bowls were needed to prep and organize. Or you had to cook one ingredient, remove it from the pan to a bowl or plate, then wipe out the pan to re-use. That doesn’t seem to be quite in the spirit of one-pot cooking! Also, despite the “sustainable” moniker, the author frequently uses expensive or less-available ingredients; perhaps all that cabbage just needs a little flavor boost? There are a lot of nuts and seeds in the recipes, which some can’t eat, and they are pricey. Other ingredients that were used a bit too often were soy sauce, chili oil, miso, and kale. All of these are delicious, but they did seem to make a few too many appearances.
The book itself and its photos also came in for discussion and criticism. Many were puzzled by and unimpressed with the extremely neutral color palette of the photos, as well as their spare design. It’s a definite look that might or might not appeal. The text is very small, with ingredient lists in the pale gray font which has become very common, and can be difficult to read, especially in combination with tiny text. There’s quite a lot of general and detailed information on more-sustainable food purchasing and cooking practices, which gave us some new ideas to digest, pun intended!
While we can certainly get on board with the author’s premise of shopping and cooking more mindfully, for most, strictly as a cookbook, this title just didn’t appeal and our rating reflects that: our votes averaged out to a 2.3 (out of a possible 5). That’s our lowest score in some time. Please join us for our next meeting on Friday, May 26 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room, when we’ll be discussing Jew-ish: reinvented recipes from a modern mensch by Jake Cohen. If you think Jewish cuisine is only latkes and matzoh ball soup, you’re in for a surprise. For instance, try the tart, salty, spicy pomegranate-bbq chicken wings on page 61. Positively addictive! Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.
It’s an embarrassment of visual riches when it comes to cooking. In addition to cookbooks with stunning, eat-off-the page photography, we have access to an almost limitless number of cooking shows, cooking competitions, and how-to cooking videos. Public television may have started the video revolution (thanks to Julia Child), but now cable channels, streaming services, YouTube and TikTok have all gotten in on the action. It’s become routine for cookbook authors and bloggers to star on the small screen, and it’s never been easier to binge our current obsession (I’m looking at you, British Baking Show!). Being (of course) on trend, this month our Bibliobites group traveled to video land. Each of us chose a book written by a current or former TV chef. Eight different chef/authors were put to the test; did their food taste as good as it looks?
Many of the chef/authors we reviewed have had impressive staying power; for example, Ellie Krieger has been writing and on TV since the the early 2000s. Her mantra of “delicious meets healthy” obviously still resonates, and those in our group mostly enjoyed both Whole in One (her newest) and You Have It Made (2016). Ms. Krieger is “adept at including vegetables in a tasty way,” and most of her recipes are easy enough for a weeknight. Hits included Mexican chicken stew, turkey meatloaf, Sicilian chicken (featuring the addictive sweet/salty combo of olives and honey), and roasted tofu African peanut stew (the cinnamon in it was “yum!”). One semi-flop: macaroni and four cheeses; it had “too much pumpkin,” which dominated the entire dish. But, after a few days in the fridge, flavors melded and it tasted much better.
On this side of the pond, Brit Jamie Oliver has also been a longtime TV presence. We checked out two of his more recent titles, One: Simple One Pan Wonders and Ultimate Veg. Crispy pesto salmon was a solid choice with bold flavors. One oddity: the recipe called for canned potatoes! Greens mac and cheese was a happy combination of broccoli, spinach, and plenty of Cheddar. Overall comments included, “he has lots of good ideas,” “his pasta recipes are always good,” “liked nutrition info,” and “great photos!”
PBS fixture Christopher Kimball has written multiple titles since starting his Milk Street TV series; we tried out Milk Street Tuesday Nights and Cook What You Have. Neither title garnered much praise; so-so dishes included two cheese baked farro with kale and tomatoes (“flavors didn’t go, somehow”), and Vietnamese pork and scallion omelet, which featured ground pork (“too much pork!”) and fish sauce. One complaint about Cook What You Have is that recipes included plenty of fresh ingredients, which aren’t normally considered pantry items. And of course, your pantry needs to be aligned with the author’s in order for the concept to work! Our cook did like the “have this, try that” feature, which provided much appreciated ideas for swapping ingredients.
Bobby Flay seems to be perpetually on TV, and his “Beat Bobby Flay” show has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Our cook tried out Bobby at Home, which has “something for everyone….[food is] simple yet elevated.” Hits included the Mediterranean mezze platter, which included homemade pita chips, roasted jalapeno pesto (with parsley, walnuts, and garlic), and lemon hummus spread. Our group was able to sample this combination at our meeting, and it was super! Marinara sauce was “really simple and very good” with a nice pro tip: don’t bother cutting up your canned tomatoes before cooking; just mash in the pot after simmering softens them. Simple and effective. Unlike many of his TV peers, there are very few of Mr. Flay’s recipes online.
The prolific and energetic Lidia Bastianich always seems to have a new cookbook and companion TV show; one of her newest is Celebrate Like an Italian. But, two of our cooks turned to her many online recipes, and enjoyed rigatoni with sausage and escarole (“I love escarole!”) and skillet gratinate of summer tomato and pork. This family favorite (“I’ve made it a hundred times!”) can be easily and endlessly varied, the formula being pounded cutlets + thinly sliced veggies and/or sauce + cheese. Like Ms. Bastianich, Ina Garten enjoys a large and devoted following, and she shares the love by publishing most of her recipes on her website. Our group member checked out Modern Comfort Food and made truffled mac and cheese, a decadent combination of rich cheeses, earthy mushrooms, and umami-rich truffle butter. As might be expected, this was amazingly delicious, with a few caveats: white truffle butter is very expensive and tricky to source (“I did find truffle oil at TJMaxx….mixed it with butter”); and the recipe called for 2 tablespoons of salt. As has been noted by our group before, Ms. Garten has a very heavy hand with the salt! In the final analysis, “some of the recipes looked good, but I still wouldn’t buy it since a lot of recipes can be found online.”
Ree Drummond, a.k.a. the Pioneer Woman, also has amazing staying power. With multiple cookbooks to her credit, a blog, and a TV show that’s been on for more than a decade, she’s carved out a unique niche in the food world. Her down-home cuisine and descriptions of life on a ranch in Oklahoma have endeared her to countless fans. However, The Pioneer Woman Cooks Super Easy just didn’t make the grade for our cook. Despite an abundance of “pretty pictures,” the recipes were unimpressive. Beef noodle skillet was “basic hamburger helper,” stir-fry with scallops had “lots of ingredients but not a lot of flavor.” Ms. Drummond’s “dump recipes,” which involve combining several cans of ingredients together, are indeed very easy; but as a result there was way too much salt, preservatives, and gummy stabilizers. One of the author’s claims to fame is her step-by-step photos, but these proved to be an annoyance, as the pictures are arranged vertically, and not in the conventional left-to-right orientation.
Blogger Molly Yeh has also found fame in a rural location: she writes and cooks on a farm in western Minnesota. Home Is Where the Eggs Are, her second book, continues the combination of Asian, Jewish, and Scandinavian influences for which she is known. Want peanut noodles with charred scallions, steak, and broccolini? You got it! How about chickpea tot hotdish? Or falafel turkey burgers (“those are the best!”)? Most of what’s in this book is easy comfort food that draws from diverse cultures, so it’s comfort food with some distinctive twists. The photogenic author is an irrepressibly sunny presence on the Food Network, and many recipes are available online.
Chef and TV star Carla Hall hasn’t written that many cookbooks, but her latest, Carla Hall’s Soul Food, has made quite a splash and introduced many to the joys of its namesake African/Caribbean/Southern cuisine. At our meeting we sampled pimento cheese, that iconic Southern delight. This piquant, creamy cheese spread is good on just about anything, and is hard to stop eating. Though our cook started out with Ms. Hall’s recipe, she eventually concocted a mashup with Deb Perelman’s (of Smitten Kitchen fame), which features mashed potatoes (see below). But, any way you make it, it’s delicious! The chicken recipes in this book drew particular praise: brown sugar baked chicken and molasses baked chicken wings (nicely sticky with vinegar and garlic, in addition to the molasses) were both easy and flavorful.
Most people enjoyed the book they used, though some felt the particular title they had didn’t measure up to the author’s other efforts. And though it’s a fairly meaningless statistic (given that we all used different titles), we voted anyway. Rather unsurprisingly, we averaged out to a very average 3.54 (out of a possible 5)! An average, of course, disguises a lot; ratings ranged from 2 to 5. Though we enjoyed our TV explore, this month we’ll all be cooking from the same book again: Anna Jones’ One Pot, Pan, Planet, a tie-in to this year’s One Book, Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. Our next meeting will be on Friday, April 28 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. Hope to see you there!
Pimento Cheese (inspired by and adapted from Carla Hall and Deb Perelman)
1 red or yellow potato, approx. 4 oz.
1/4 cup drained, finely chopped pimento peppers
2-3 scallions, greens only, sliced
1/8 teaspoon celery salt (or to taste)
1/8 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
1 fat garlic clove, grated
4 oz. cream cheese, softened
8 oz. sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
Boil potato in unsalted water until soft; drain, cool, and peel. Mash potato and mix well with all ingredients except Cheddar, then slowly add Cheddar until evenly distributed.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving to allow flavors to mellow and meld. Keeps in the fridge for one week, if it lasts that long!
Thanks to Lindsey S. for the recipe!
Every now and then our group takes on a title that hits a certain sweet spot: the recipes are familiar enough, but with some unexpected twists; the resulting dishes are high on the flavor meter and low on the effort scale; ingredients are easily located in your favorite supermarket; and most telling, you enjoy the book so much that you’re going to buy it. The last title to showcase all of these desirable attributes was Tieghan Gerard’s Half Baked Harvest Super Simple (reviewed in April 2022). But according to our group, we now have a worthy successor in February’s Once Upon a Chef: Weeknight/Weekend by Jennifer Segal. The conversation was fast and furious as we shared our tales of yumminess; my note-taking during our discussion was seriously impaired by the speed of our conversation. Mostly I wound up writing down “really good” way too many times; hence the title of this post!
As you might guess from the book’s title, Ms. Segal covers quicker, simpler recipes for weeknights, as well as some projects you might want to try on a weekend, or whenever you have more time. There are chapters on desserts and sides, but the bulk of the book is focused on what’s for dinner. Accordingly, most of us made main dishes. One of the first “weeknight” chapters covers soup, always a popular choice in winter. Six people made smoky chickpea, red lentil, and vegetable soup. This soup was a big hit for most; hearty red lentils played deliciously with smoked paprika, while chickpeas and veggies rounded out the bowl. Pumpkin leek soup was a quick and tasty combination of mostly pantry ingredients, starring canned pumpkin. Apples and leeks added complexity, while cayenne provided a welcome touch of heat. Creamy potato soup was “great for a cold night” with its loaded baked potato garnishes of sour cream, chives, and cheddar. Lasagna soup also riffed on a classic, though not quite as successfully; it was only “pretty good” though “I would make again.” In the “weekend” section of the book, Italian wedding soup turned out to be a keeper; the meatballs in particular were “so good!” The whole soup was deemed “really good!” And since it was winter, we only made one main-dish salad: soba chicken noodle salad. Though it didn’t make a great leftover, “I would definitely recommend.” The dressing oozed umami with notes of soy, sesame, ginger, and peanut, which perfectly complemented the salad ingredients.
Moving on to all things fishy, chipotle shrimp and poblano quesadillas scored points for using mostly ingredients you’d likely have on hand; the result was cheesy and nicely spicy with “…a bit of a kick!” Drunken style noodles also featured shrimp; this classic Thai noodle dish was fragrant with Thai basil (sourced at an Asian market) and loaded with veggies and shrimp. It “made a ton,” but didn’t make a good leftover, “the noodles don’t hold up well.” Another shrimpy hit, Greek-style shrimp with tomatoes and feta (“love it!”), showcased bold flavors and a refreshing accent of mint. Bonus: if you have an ovenproof skillet, it’s a one-pot meal. Linguine with shellfish, tomatoes, and saffron was “delicious!” If you love mussels, this one’s for you, with plenty of flavor from the briny shellfish, garlic, saffron, and anchovies. In finfish territory, salmon got a workout: two people made everyday spice crusted salmon, a solid if not outstanding choice. The spice crust was a version of everything bagel seasoning, which lately seems to be showing up on….everything! Baked salmon with honey mustard and pecan-panko crust was deemed “excellent” by the three who made it. The mustard came in for high praise, as did the pecans, “loved everything about it!” Miso and soy marinated black cod sounded enticing, but the “balance [of the marinade] was off….the sesame was too strong.” But if you love sesame, this could be the fish dish for you. A more delicate fish recipe, pan-seared halibut with beurre blanc was “yummy!” though it had “too much sauce.” Is that possible? And classic blackened fish tacos delivered with a nice combo of spice and toppers. This dish, while easy enough, had several components, so maybe not the best choice for a frazzled weeknight!
On to meaty doings: oddly, we didn’t seem to make as much chicken as usual, though all of the recipes we did try were definite winners. Barbecued soy and ginger chicken thighs were super on the grill (taking advantage of an unusually warm day); the accompanying cucumber salad was “awesome!” Two chicken dishes on the richer side were equally delicious, creamy dijon chicken and butter-style chicken. Both used chicken tenders, so everything came together quickly. Sheet pan roast chicken with artichokes, potatoes, carrots, and peas was a true one-pan meal, with herbes de Provence as the dominant seasoning. This dish was easy to put together, and it made an excellent leftover. A keeper! Staying with poultry, there’s a whole chapter on meatballs; three people made turkey, spinach, and cheese meatballs. Our cooks liked the spinach in them, and that they “made a lot….[and were] nice and moist!” However, they “needed more sauce.” Sheet pan chicken and pancetta meatballs kicked it up a notch with salty, porky pancetta in the meatballs, and a tomato-balsamic glaze on top. Baking all the meatballs in one go kept it easy. We made a few beef dishes, too: both bulgogi-style flank steak skewers and flat iron carne asada were solid choices, and were deemed (see title of post, above) “really good!” Three people tried out “blog fave” five-star beef stew. This “weekend” recipe made the grade, “easy and very good….gravy so nice and thick,” though one person thought it was “good– but no better than most.” Like most classic beef stews, this recipe used plenty of red wine and lots of simmering time to build flavor. And, as you might expect, it aged well in the fridge.
And last, we arrive at dessert; at our meeting we sampled French apple cake, which three of us made! This simple cake was addictive, with a few tablespoons of rum in the batter that added a certain je ne sais quoi. It didn’t taste alcoholic at all, but the liquor was the perfect accent for the apples and tender cake. We also liked that it made only one small layer, and was a one-bowl cake. A keeper! Brownie pudding was another keeper. This first cousin of chocolate lava cake was rich and buttery, yet light and delicate. Since there’s only one-third cup of flour in the recipe, the chocolate and butter really sing. And it’s easy to turn into a gluten-free dessert. At our meeting we also sampled another chocolate treat, sour cream chocolate loaf cake. This was “really easy” and “really good” (there’s that phrase again!). The cake was pleasantly dense in that poundcake-y way, and instant espresso in the batter added oomph.
Phew! Along with discussing our massive amounts of cooking, group members praised the book itself. The plentiful full-page photos made the food look incredibly enticing; and even better, our efforts usually looked just like the photo. That, to us, indicated that the recipes had been thoroughly tested. This consistency made us feel more confident that our efforts would be rewarded with deliciousness, and they almost always were. Though (amazingly) no one complained about it, there are fairly copious headnotes, and the recipe instructions are printed in a small and thin gray font. But perhaps no one even noticed these petty flaws because they were too busy cooking, eating, and enjoying the author’s food. So, as you might expect, this book was highly rated by our group: we averaged out to 4.39 (out of 5). Three people planned to buy the book!
Please join us for our next meeting on Friday, March 31 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. This month, it’s Food Network Festival! Choose a book from a selected cart of titles at the main circulation desk, all featuring well-known TV chefs. See you on the 31st!