All posts by Andrea Grant

About Andrea Grant

Andrea Grant is a Children's Services Specialist.

Bibliobites in April: D is for Downloadable

Cookbooks…  if you like to play in the kitchen, you can never have enough of them.  At home you may have several shelves full of well-thumbed favorites, but it’s equally intriguing (and educational!) to peruse the latest titles, explore emerging trends, learn new techniques, and discover a new-to-you cuisine.   With the library’s building closed for now, we can’t hang out in the 641s, browsing through books on the shelf until we find the one that speaks to us.  But, luckily for us, the Chelmsford Library offers plenty of virtual alternatives, which our group tackled this month with great energy and enthusiasm!

Starting with the basics, most of us downloaded titles from Overdrive or Hoopla.  While Overdrive is accessible to anyone who has any Merrimack Valley Consortium library card, in order to use our Hoopla service you do need to be a Chelmsford resident.  However, nearby Westford and Carlisle also offer Hoopla to their cardholders, while Billerica and Lowell direct you to information about the Boston Public Library’s ecard.  This card is available online to any Massachusetts resident, and provides access to a wide range of e-resources, including Hoopla, Overdrive, and much more.

Everyone found both Overdrive and Hoopla simple to navigate, even if they’d never used them before.  And we quickly discovered one of the virtues of virtual books– it was amazingly easy to quickly flip through titles and decide if we wanted to spend more time on a particular book, or maybe buy it later.  And of course, the key attribute is that ebooks are accessible anytime, anywhere.  But….there were some downsides.   Recipes tended to take up more pages than print versions, which led to a lot of flipping back and forth while trying to cook.  Those who tried to print recipes were frustrated that they couldn’t efficiently print the whole thing on one page; it printed with the same number of pages as the recipe took up in the ebook, which led to a lot of wasted paper.  And of course we all missed having a physical book in our hands; an ebook “doesn’t draw you in….it’s a more remote (!) experience.”

Also, the selection of titles available in e-version is much smaller, so if you wanted a particular author or title, sometimes you were out of luck.  Some that we looked at and enjoyed were: Myers and Chang at Home by local favorite Joanne Chang; Magnolia Table by serial entrepreneur Joanna Gaines; 5 in 5 by restaurateur Michael Symon; anything by Jacques Pepin (“there were lots of his books on Hoopla”); and The Farmer’s Wife Cookbook  by Joanna Engstrom, a 1930s title that was fun to browse.   It even included advice on how to buy that newfangled appliance, the refrigerator!

Some of us had a stash of cookbooks at home that we’d picked up before the library closed, or that we ordered online.  We enjoyed two titles from prolific America’s Test Kitchen: Sous Vide For Everybody, and Twentieth Anniversary TV Show Cookbook (“it’s a big book!”).  One person perused Melissa Clark’s newest, Dinner in French. Many recipes looked enticing, although “she uses lots of spices that aren’t so easy to find.”  Midwest Made by Shauna Sever proved to be a volume of yummy, no-fuss baked goods, and Eat Your Vegetables by Joe Yonan was a unique collection of cooking-for-one vegetarian recipes.  And we all encountered one problem, regardless of book type: inevitably, after choosing a recipe we found we were lacking one or two critical ingredients– and all of us are shopping less and much more cautiously.  No more running to the supermarket at the last minute, or for just a few items!

Besides books, we visited plenty of websites, and these overall were preferred to ebooks.  Many in the group already have “go-to” sites or blogs, whether created by author, magazine, or TV show.  The resources really are almost unlimited.  And, with various meetings and activities cancelled (and a much shorter commute, if you can work from home), we now have more time to delve into various cooking projects– carefully planned ahead, of course, due to the aforementioned need to shop less, as well as the well-documented shortage of some ingredients, like flour or yeast (and heaven forbid you want brownie mix!).  The  Epicurious site, and others, now has a feature on its website, a “cook with what you’ve got recipe finder,” a notion that many are perforce embracing.  One person mentioned that her adult children text her a photo of what’s in their fridge, and then challenge her to create a meal out of what’s there.  Hopefully they take turns as to who has to come up with a dinner idea!  This concept also applies to equipment problems, as one person’s oven is broken, and parts have been slow to arrive.  So, lots of slow cooker stews, stovetop sautes, and baking in a tiny toaster oven.  The shortage of flour and yeast has also spurred creativity; non-wheat flours have come into play, as well as breads that don’t rely on yeast, like soda bread, beer bread or cornbread.

As much as we have a newfound appreciation for our downloadable resources, most of us would still far prefer to have a “real” book in our hands.  A big part of this is familiarity; perhaps after using e-books for a while we’ll enjoy their unique attributes more, and come to rely on them.  It makes me think of the shift from typewriters to word processing, which we all hated at first because it seemed so cumbersome, and was such a different way of doing things; the advantages weren’t (for some reason) readily apparent.  But, would any of us really want to return to using a typewriter today?  We’ve all become accustomed to, and appreciate the ease of, composing on a screen, despite software quirks.  Of course, the big missing piece with an e-book is the tactile experience, and for people who love to snuggle up with a good book (cookbook or otherwise), hunkering down with your phone or tablet just isn’t the same.  I’m sure there’s a neurological reason for this preference; maybe our human need for connection– and touch– extends even to certain inanimate objects?  Our excursion into the virtual may have been delightful and delicious, but it’s doubtful that, right now, most of us would desire to do our reading, or cooking that way.  This month I asked everyone for a vote on the overall experience with e-books, and while we definitely appreciate having this resource available, no one was ready to fully embrace it– yet!  So, most of the voting was in the 1-2 range (out of a possible 5).  I think that works out to a grade of D!

Our next meeting will be via Zoom on Friday, May 29 at 11 AM.  We would love to see some new faces next month – please let us know if you interested in joining us by emailing program leader Andrea Grant at agrant@chelmsfordlibrary.org  — We’ll be discussing Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients: Quick & Easy Food.  While we can’t provide the physical book, most of the recipes from this title are available on his website, jamieoliver.com.  He also cooks from this book on CreateTV; check local listings for channel and time.  Stay safe, stay well, and see you then!

Bibliobites in March: Virtual-ish

Every day, lots of us cook in an ish-ful way.  Even if we didn’t grow up with an Italian nonna, or a Mexican abuela, or a Greek yia-yia, we nevertheless make foods that approximate, in some way, what  those grandmothers might recognize as “theirs.”  And as we become more familiar with cuisines from places like Thailand, Korea, or India, we’re adding them to our ish repertoire.  This month’s title, Indian-ish, exemplifies this mashup trend: namesake flavors combined with typical American ingredients and techniques to create something not quite, yet recognizably part of, a traditional cuisine.

Most of us would probably admit to being a little intimidated about cooking Indian food.  Sure, we love the food at Indian restaurants, but the flavors and ingredients are just exotic enough that it seems….complicated? Confusing?  Outside of our comfort zone?  The book’s author, Priya Krishna, addresses our anxieties head-on, with commonsense advice and a very helpful spice chart!  There’s also an FAQ chapter to further demystify things.  The author’s tone is friendly and funny, and she takes pains to illustrate that, as she says, Indian food is everyday food.  The book itself is the typical large format, with plenty of vibrant photographs as well as some pop-art style drawings that add to the contemporary vibe.  Most recipes fit on one page, and are, as the author insists, quick enough to put together on a weeknight.

Let’s take a moment to address the spice question: yes, some spices require either a trip to an Indian grocery (where those spices will be very reasonably priced), or ordering online.  But, many large supermarkets carry at least the basics (like cumin, coriander, cardamom, turmeric), and with this book you could get pretty far with just those.  One person even scored  fresh curry leaves at Market Basket, an item you might expect to find only at an Indian grocery.  Other Indian-ish ingredients available at the supermarket include lentils, hot peppers, cilantro, naan, and paneer.

So, we’ve sourced our ingredients– what did we cook?  Many Indians are vegetarians, so vegetables, grains, and lentils were front and center.  Two of us tried roasted aloo gobhi, a winning combination of roasted cauliflower and potatoes.  This tasty side (or main) was simple to assemble and its spicing was restrained– good for us newbies!  Chickpea flour green beans had mixed reviews; one person’s turned into “a mushy mess” (wrong pan size?  Too much water?), but another’s was just right, with crunchy bits of seasoned flour enhancing the taste of the green beans.  Red chile potatoes were good and quite spicy; the recipe was basic but the chile and chaat masala (a salty spice blend) kicked it up a notch.  And kaddu (sweet-and-sour butternut squash) was a “very different and very good” way to serve this common veggie.  This combination of sauteed squash, tomatoes, and spices was a keeper!

Moving on to main dishes, two of us made aloo ka rasa (spicy potato-tomato soup).  This was also a fairly basic combination of ingredients that was quickly made, but the whole was greater than the sum of its parts; the spicing made it interesting, and you could add ingredients like chicken or beans to make a heartier dish.  It aged well in the fridge, too.  One person was on the fence about it, but for another it was a keeper.  Noodle dishes turned out to be a big hit in our group: Malaysian ramen was so good, our cook made it twice; “I used less oil the second time and I liked it better that way.”  Rice noodle poha was also a yummy combo of thin noodles, potatoes, chile, and lime.  Roti noodle stir-fry featured plenty of stir-fried veggies; the roti (kind of like a tortilla) strips somehow didn’t become limp and soggy when cooked but did have the texture of tender noodles.  Garlic-ginger chicken with cilantro and mint showcased some familiar flavors; the combination was tasty but “it will be better in the summer when I can make it on the grill.”

We tried a few basics, too- a couple of people made cucumber raita, which was a standard version of this familiar side.  We made both the most basic dal and Priya’s dal— and neither was a big hit.  The flavors of both were “kind of blah,” and Priya’s dal in particular was “very soupy.”  Dal is something of a vehicle, like polenta, so perhaps we just needed to find the right thing to  pair with it.  A few of us planned to make cilantro chutney, as we all had lots of this herb in our crispers– it was used in almost every recipe!

Overall, we thought this book was a good introduction to Indian cooking–both its ingredients and cooking techniques.  Almost all of the recipes were approachable and quick to make, and the less-familiar flavors kept us on our toes.  Some spices and herbs commonly used in Indian cuisine have very definite flavors that people either love or hate (fenugreek and cilantro come to mind), so that could be a bit of an obstacle.  And if you’re really into meat and poultry you’d be pretty disappointed in this book, as it was almost completely vegetarian.  There were mixed reactions to all of the above, and so our voting averaged out to a 3.2 (out of a possible 5).

You might not be able to tell from what I’ve written so far, but as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and its stay-at-home directive, our meeting took place virtually.  Thank you to everyone who participated, and those who tried to!  Technology isn’t perfect and I know a few people couldn’t work out the glitches.  But you’ll have another chance, as we’ll meet virtually again on Friday April 24 at 11 AM.  This month, please choose a cookbook from one of our downloadable resources, either Overdrive or Hoopla.  We’ll have a variety of recipes to discuss, as well as our experiences of using a non-paper resource.  Stay safe, stay well, and happy cooking!

Bibliobites in February: Stirring the Plots, Part 2

A picture is worth a thousand words….every picture tells a story….seeing is believing!  The drive to create visual art, to capture a moment in time or to tell a story through pictures, is as old as humanity.  Though the written word may have pre-eminence in the modern world, we are still visual beings, and as such we can’t help but respond to images of all types—from cave drawings to emoticons.  In February, our Bibliobites group explored the second Chelmsford One Book title, Lucy Knisley’s memoir Relish.  This narrative explores the author’s “life in the kitchen,” as the subtitle says, and is written in graphic format.  This made for a different type of reading experience, where the art is equally as important as the text; perhaps more so.  How did our group respond to the style, the story, and the recipes (also in graphic format)?

Thanks to the Friends of the Library, who sponsor the One Book program, we all had copies of the book that were ours to keep.  It’s a tidy paperback, not tiny but small enough to tote with ease.  The artwork is full-color and the text hand-drawn (it was actually hand-traced from a computerized font, as we learned from the author herself at the library’s event on March 1).  For several in our group, it was a first experience with the graphic format, and opinions varied.  Some equate graphic novels with the comic books they read as kids, and it was hard to get past that feeling.  However, there’s plenty of text to read; we enjoyed her writing but there were complaints about the size of the text, which was fairly small.  The clear font did help!   Some compared the visual experience to reading a magazine; and as with Ann Hood’s Kitchen Yarns, each chapter could be read as its own complete story, which made it easy to dip into the book at will.  Most of us admitted that we focused on the words when reading; unfortunately there are no visual artists in our group who could provide insight into the conventions and subtleties of graphic novel art.    On a gut level, we enjoyed the drawings, which are expressive and charming.  It’s a different way of approaching reading, and like anything else it takes a bit of familiarity to appreciate its form.

For most of us, our first impulse when we want to convey a memory or revisit an event in our lives is to write it down.  But a visually-oriented person makes sense of life experiences by drawing them.  During her talk at the library, Ms. Knisley called this process “sketchbooking”—like journaling, but with drawings.  So a graphic novel or memoir tells a story, but the way something looked needs to be equally represented; hence the emphasis on the drawings.  The recipes at the end of each chapter are also in graphic format, which made them seem a little complicated to follow.  As with Ms. Hood’s memoir, some of the recipes were for things that most of us already have recipes for, like chocolate chip cookies; or items we’d just as soon buy, like pesto.  However, for a few recipes, like the one for sushi on p. 96, pictures make the whole process seem much more doable, and fun!  But, as in any memoir, the point isn’t the recipe itself but the story behind it and the feelings it evokes.  And while Relish isn’t a memoir that discloses dark secrets or deep traumas, it still has emotional resonance with its themes of family, food, and the connection between the two.  For our group, this title had its pluses and minuses– it wasn’t really something we could cook from (much), and while we enjoyed the author’s stories, many people just weren’t crazy about the format.  In the end our voting averaged out to 3.1 (out of a possible 5).

So we didn’t do much new in the way of cooking in February, but our March book, Indian-ish by Priya Krishna, promises to provide something intriguing and different.  We’ll be exploring a mostly new-to-us cuisine, familiar perhaps from restaurants, but not so much in our own kitchens!   We’ll meet to discuss this title at our next meeting on Friday, March 27 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. Books are available at the main desk, all are welcome.

Bibliobites in January: Stirring the Plots, Part 1

The curse and the blessing of memory is just that: sometimes we remember things we’d rather forget, and we forget things we’d rather remember.  This paradox makes the memoir format an imperfect one, yet it can give us a completely clear picture of someone at a particular point in their lives, or in a particular place with particular people.  In January, Bibliobites explored the vagaries of memory (and its associated recipes!) with Chelmsford’s One Book title, Ann Hood’s Kitchen Yarns.  Most of us thoroughly enjoyed this revealing peek into Ms. Hood’s life; her affectionate and heartfelt tales had aspects to which we could all relate. Several in the group particularly enjoyed the stories that featured Mama Rose (Ms. Hood’s nonna), as they had fond memories of their own grandmothers constantly producing massive quantities of yummy food.  And all of us could recall the anxieties of being a teenager, embarking upon our first real grownup job, falling in love, or losing someone we love.    The local angle appealed to many as well; we enjoyed reading about (for example) Jordan Marsh in its heyday at Downtown Crossing.  There were a few complaints about the essay format; sometimes the stories seemed repetitive and covered overly-familiar ground.   Many of the chapters in this book were previously published as standalone articles, and therefore included some basic details about family members.  These details weren’t edited out in any of the book’s essays, so if you read the whole thing cover to cover, you might find the same bit in multiple chapters.  On the plus side, if you wanted to dip into the book at random points, you’d never be left wondering (for instance) who Sam was.

Among the recipes we tried, my roast chicken was a hit, stuffed with garlic and fragrant fresh rosemary.  The classic chicken Marbella also drew praise, but had “too much oregano.”  Two of us were intrigued by Gogo’s Swedish meatballs with Ikea gravy, which was overall a winning combination; we loved the allspice in the meatballs.  One person thought the gravy was a bit thin and “needed something,” but the recipe is a keeper anyway!  On the other hand, Gogo’s meatballs were good but “not as good as other versions I’ve made.”  Never-fail soufflé “looked fantastic” but had an odd, starchy mouthfeel; it was also a bit plain and needed something to give it oomph—spice? Or some sautéed veggies?  One person baked the much-revered and fondly remembered Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins.  These were solidly good with a nice texture and plenty of blueberry flavor.  Unfortunately it’s not easy to compare these to the real thing, though it is possible; apparently Jordan’s Furniture in Avon features the muffins at Christmastime, along with the iconic Enchanted Village!  And everyone was quite keen to make Laurie Colwin’s tomato pie, which sounded positively scrumptious—but sadly we’ll have to wait until August, when we can have truly ripe tomatoes!

Our overall opinions on this title were, as always, quite varied.  It was “a fun read” or “just OK.”  And, “I don’t like memoir but this was better than expected.”  This title made me think a lot about how cooking can be a form of storytelling.  Food itself is evanescent—we eat it and then it’s gone; but the traditions surrounding food and its preparation mean that we can re-create a moment or a feeling anytime.  A recipe tells a story about time, place, family, friends; it’s a memory waiting to be shared now and in the future.  This idea is something we often instinctively feel but don’t consciously express, and perhaps that’s part of what makes Ms. Hood’s type of memoir so appealing.  And appeal it did—our voting averaged out to a 3.75, out of a possible 5.  After reading this book, we’re all looking forward to Ms. Hood’s visit to the Chelmsford Library on Thursday, March 19 at 7:00 PM.  Please register online for this special event.

Much more cooking ensued when we moved on to January’s second title, Bring It! By Ali Rosen.  The subtitle of this book explains it well: tried and true recipes for potlucks and casual entertaining.  Our group was already gearing up for the One Book community potluck on April 4. This title proved to be a fun read; most of us marked several recipes that sounded intriguing and quite doable.  Lots of luscious photos were an additional enticement!  The typeface was easy to read, and pages featured plenty of nicely organized white space.  This book is a bit smaller than the prevalent “full sheet of paper” size; it’s about 2” shorter and 1” narrower, but still seemed large enough that many recipes could fit on one page.  Ms. Rosen’s chapters make their way through a full meal, from appetizers to desserts; there’s also a helpful section on how to tote your dish to a potluck (and some recipes also had specific instructions on how to do that).

In the kitchen, let’s start with some salads: pear, arugula, and goat cheese salad was “so good” with its bright lemon zest garnish, and orange, parsley and walnut salad was equally refreshing and delicious.  Supreming the oranges (removing the skin from the individual segments) was “too time consuming” but other than that it was easy to put together.  Though it featured plenty of endive and parsley, it wasn’t bitter.  Kale salad with carrot ginger dressing had a more complicated than average dressing, but the result was a good one; and this salad would be perfect to make in advance for a potluck, as kale holds up well in the fridge.  As for cooked vegetables, the baked onion was that simple, perfect combination of “really good and really easy!”  Three people zeroed in on mustard roasted carrots, which were likewise easy to prepare with tasty results.  Acorn squash with Parmesan and hazelnuts was a nice combination with its tart note of lemon, but “I still prefer squash with brown sugar or maple syrup.”

 

Along with the veggies, we tried a couple of grain-based sides.  Two people made scallion quinoa which was “very good” with some caveats: the recipe calls for putting in frozen peas at the beginning of the cooking time, so they were mushy and an unappealingly olive shade when all was done; and the quinoa took much longer to cook than usual as the frozen peas cooled off the cooking liquid!  It’s a good vegetarian option but needs some tweaks.  Couscous with peas and onions needed a higher proportion of couscous to veggies; overall the flavors were just “OK,” though the feta and lemon in it were tasty.

There’s a full chapter devoted to casseroles and tarts; two people made the classic baked chicken and pasta casserole.  This made a bounteous panful (“you’ll need a big bowl!”) and was a good rendition of a familiar dish that “I would make again.”  Bacon mushroom quiche had a nice, crisp crust (due to blind-baking before filling), but overall it was “not spectacular—but good.”  However, broccoli and almond quiche was a bit more intriguing with its feta cheese, nuts and cayenne.  Spicy Brussels sprouts tart was likewise a less-traditional take on a tart that proved highly successful, “really good—would definitely make again.”

Moving on to meatier mains, two people tried chicken with rosemary and mustard, with uneven results.  One person didn’t feel that brining helped any, and in fact made the dish too salty.  Plus, “the flavor was kind of boring.”  Another thought the flavor was “delicious” and the texture nicely moist; but the marinade burned in the pan, making quite a mess.  Short ribs with quick pickled shallots was a bit fussy to put together, but the result was worth the effort.  It was “very flavorful, and the pickled shallots were excellent.”  The shallots nicely balanced out a fairly heavy, rich dish.  One brave soul attempted the complex seafood paella-ish (“I didn’t use the octopus!”).  As is typical of this dish, there was a lengthy prep time, with plenty of chopping; but it makes a lot and “ages well.”  A great project for a winter afternoon.  Two people made vinegar chicken with tomatoes; this simple combination drew praise for its moist chicken and balanced vinegar flavor.  And the tarragon was “the best!”  Tahini lamb and rice promised unique flavor with its middle eastern spices, but the result was unfortunately “kind of boring.”

Oddly enough, only  one person made dessert, the chocolate and walnut rice krispies bars, which were a hit at our meeting.  The chocolate cut through the sweetness of the marshmallow, which turned the bars into a much more enjoyable treat for grownups.  Easy and good!

On the whole, this book was a hit with our group, and a few people planned to buy it.  We liked that (octopus aside) most of the recipes featured ingredients that were easy to find, or that we were likely to have on hand.  And most dishes involved moderate effort for a tasty result, always an appealing trait!  There were, of course, a few complaints: several people noted that some recipes didn’t give the size of a baking dish, which could be important for a dessert.  We also questioned whether some dishes really were portable (those with lots of sauce), or would be easy to serve at a potluck (the food was prepared in large pieces).  But despite these caveats, this was an approachable and enjoyable title for most.  From all this positivity, you might expect a very high rating, but we averaged out to a 3.3 out of a possible 5.  Still a solid score!

We’ll next meet on Friday, February 28 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room, when we’ll be discussing our second One Book title, Lucy Knisley’s comic-format memoir, Relish.  Ms. Knisley will be visiting the Chelmsford Library on Sunday, March 1 at 2 PM (please register online); come to our meeting for a preview.  All are welcome!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sent from Mail for Windows 10

 

Bibliobites in December: The Pursuit of Happiness

Prolific author and baking guru Maida* Heatter is known as the “Queen of Cake.” No one did more over the last quarter of the 20th century to up our dessert game, for once we’d tried her classic buttery and chocolatey delights, there was no going back. A self-trained baker with a no-nonsense, perfectionist approach, her precise yet luscious recipes inspired many to give baking the time and care it deserved. December’s Bibliobites title, Happiness Is Baking,  was Ms. Heatter’s final book before she died in June 2019 at the age of 102. In her introduction, she says that with all the baked goods she creates, “…we eat an awful lot of them.” Perhaps noshing on cookies and cake confers longevity? Or is it, as the title implies, that it’s the baking and sharing of treats that keeps one happy and healthier? Our group is never shy about rising to any such challenge, and even if you don’t bake much, you’d probably be pulling out the butter and sugar at some point in December! Did we enjoy the ride? Read on to find out.

This book is a somewhat smaller format than many are nowadays, so an oft-repeated complaint was that the book would not stay open on its own. The text is quite readable, and the layout is clear. Chatty headnotes abound, but most weren’t long enough to try one’s patience. The illustrations are just that– drawings (full-color) rather than photographs. The drawings are lovely– homey and friendly, but most of us still wished that there were photos instead. Some in the group commented that they’d seen some of these recipes in another of her books; this title is basically a compilation of “greatest hits.”

Once we’d turned on our ovens, there were ups and downs. Sour cream black-fudge loaf cake had a fantastic texture and big chocolate flavor, “loved it!” Queen mother’s cake , also chocolate, was another winner, a flourless cake that wasn’t too dense and was absolutely delicious. Two of us tried the east 62nd street lemon cake ; one person’s verdict was “just OK,” but for another it was “really good with a nice, fine texture.” California carrot cake sounded positively tantalizing with honey, raisins, pineapple, and walnuts; but the batter was so thin that all the fruit and nuts sank to the bottom, where they burned. Even when this cake tested done, the interior was unpleasantly wet and heavy. One person had a similar flop with chocolate applesauce cake, but two others thought it was marvelous, with a flavor that harmoniously united chocolate cake and spice cake.

Moving on to cookies, chocolate hermits were “good, but I still like regular (non-chocolate) hermits better!” Possibly chocolate doesn’t make everything better? Classic rugelach turned into quite a project for the two who tried them– they were “fussy and messy to make,” and had “so many steps….so many small bowls [for the filling ingredients].” In the end, despite good results, “I wouldn’t make them again.” David’s cookies were also a bit fussy to make, as the directions tell you to remove individual cookies from the sheets as they become done; the logistics of doing this (constantly opening the oven, trying to remove very hot cookies without damaging them or their neighbor) turned a fairly simple cookie recipe into a chore. Best chocolate chip cookies were yummy; these were the crispy type (rather than cakey or chewy– obviously “best” only applies if you prefer crispy!).  Instructions tell you to wet your hands and then roll the dough into balls, but the dough was so soft that this made for a gooey mess.  You are forewarned! But oatmeal molasses cookies were excellent, with a nice “caramelly” flavor. Brownies, a recipe that is closely identified with Maida Heatter, produced one hit and one miss; but both bakers would try them again. Plus, as instructed, “wrapping them individually worked great!”

A few people were ambitious enough to make pies; the apple pie USA was a bit time consuming with its persnickety crust, but “everyone loved the pie!” Key lime pie had a wonderful gingersnap crust, and strawberry tart had a crust that “I use for any fruit tart.”

If you aren’t a Maida Heatter devotee, you wouldn’t have realized at first that all of the recipes in this book are published in her other titles, so if you have her other books you might not want to bother buying this one (you can get it from the library instead!). Despite some difficulties, our group on the whole enjoyed this book, and for those of us who weren’t so familiar with her, it was a nice introduction. But no cookbook is perfect; there were complaints that too many recipes contained walnuts; there was an overabundance of chocolate recipes (some of which seemed a bit too similar to each other), and some of her techniques were a bit unrealistic for us amateurs (beating egg whites by hand on a turkey platter!) Also we thought it odd that a pro like Ms. Heatter doesn’t weigh her ingredients. While it’s true that most American cooks still prefer volume measurements, weighing has made some inroads, and would have been appreciated by those of us who love our kitchen scales.

Our ups and downs were quite evident in our voting: a few at each end and most somewhere in the middle, so we averaged out to a 3.5 (out of 5). Be sure to join us at our next meeting  – (coming right up!) – on Friday, January 31 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room. We’ll be discussing one of the Chelmsford One Book selections, Ann Hood’s memoir Kitchen Yarns, as well as Bring It! by Ali Rosen. Copies are available at the main desk, all are welcome!

  

*Pronounced May-da, in case you were wondering.

Bibliobites: Into the Woods

Anyone who remembers the 1970s will recall how food co-ops and “health food” restaurants popped up everywhere, seemingly overnight.  Suddenly vegetables and whole grains assumed a greater importance than they had ever had on American tables; and though being a vegetarian was still seen as a fringe choice, attitudes slowly started to shift.   Many first experienced this trend at a restaurant, and none illustrated it better than the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY.  Founded by a group of owners in 1973, this restaurant’s influence continues even today.  Its reach has been amplified tremendously through more than a dozen cookbooks, the first of which was published in 1977, and the most recent in 2017.  Recently, our Bibliobites group tackled two of these titles: Moosewood Restaurant Favorites from 2013, and The Moosewood Restaurant Table from 2017.  Has Moosewood evolved along with the cuisine it has championed for more than four decades?  We hit the produce section big-time in order to answer that question!

Both books (hereinafter referred to as RF and RT to save typing) garnered quite a bit of praise.  They’re both hefty tomes with recipes that run the gamut from appetizers to dessert.  RT has a separate “Breakfast” section, for those of you who are into brunch, as well as an on-trend “Bowls” chapter.  RF features a section on fish for those “vegetarians” who are really pescatarians, as well as a chapter devoted to the oft-maligned tofu.  Both books are nicely laid out with an easy to read typeface.  The photos were appealing, but we all wished for more of them– though more would likely have made the books impossibly unwieldy.

In the kitchen, we got busy!  All of the following are from the RF title. The autumn salad plate with its roasted squash, cheddar, and pears was “our favorite.”    Caribbean stew involved a lot of chopping to prep; it was good but “it had too much ginger for me.”  Another stew, our best chili, was “a keeper…the contrast of the sweet corn and the other spices was pleasing.”  Basque beans was also a winner, with its Spanish-inspired notes of saffron and sherry.  Since soup season was getting started, we made a few: Southwestern sweet potato-corn soup was colorful and tasty, but it was a little on the thin side and needed something to add body—maybe some butter?  Thai butternut squash soup was also delicious, but came in for some criticism because it used only half the can of coconut milk (what to do with the rest?), and was also vague on what kind of curry paste to use.  Continuing with the orange theme, red lentil soup was a harmonious combination of flavors; this too was “a keeper!”

More from RF:  a couple of us tried teriyaki fish and deemed it “boring.”  It also had an unappealing color, which didn’t help matters.  Creamy seafood stew was “OK—but I think I make a better one.”  Better was oven-poached fish with leeks and wine; the leeks were tasty though they didn’t quite cook through by the time the fish was done.   Not fried fish was a big hit: “really good!  And so easy!”  The crispy breadcrumbs and the Old Bay seasoning made for a winning combination.  Caramelized onion pie was filled with “awesome” onions; it was delicious and reheated well.  And spinach lasagna was yummy;  best of all it was “so much quicker” than other lasagna recipes because neither the noodles or the spinach had to be cooked before assembly.  One main dish’s name so intrigued three of us that we had to try it: rumbledethumps, and we all loved it.  It’s a casserole version of colcannon, a hearty mix of mashed potatoes and cabbage; in this recipe, there’s also broccoli and a cheese topping.  Perfect as either a main dish or side.   Speaking of sides, roasted Brussels sprouts were “surprisingly good” for an admitted sprouts skeptic, and gingered broccoli and carrots was “really good—and better the next day.”  The ginger flavor was just right and was a good foil for the veggies.  Greek lemony potatoes were pleasant though they could have used more lemon flavor, but “I would try them again.”  We baked a few desserts, too:  two of us tried vegan chocolate cake, which was good, though not outstanding; the chocolate flavor was a bit too mild for us.  Cowboy cookies were just  “OK” for one person, but others really enjoyed this hearty combination of oats, nuts, chocolate chips, and raisins; “one would fill you up for the day!”

Some in the group also dipped into the RT book: award-winning chili with chocolate and stout was a winner.  Mushrooms and lentils added tons of flavor; the one drawback of this recipe was that it had “so many ingredients!” which added significantly to the prep time.  With it you could make carrot cornbread, which turned out a bit doughy (“I used the wrong flour”) but still tasted good; the grated carrots made this bread unique and enjoyable.  Winter squash and red bean mole was yet another iteration of chili that was nicely spicy, but “squash is a pain to cut up!” Squash was apparently on everyone’s radar (it was Fall after all): in addition to the chili, roasted winter squash agrodolce featured it, with two praiseworthy sauces– one spicy and one sweet.  And white bean stew with rosemary was another savory melange of beans and veggies; it was “nice and thick,” but be sure you really like rosemary, as it was “assertive” in this dish.   On the sweet side of things, cardamom cookies were a buttery treat; however, it was very difficult to grind the cardamom seeds, and unfortunately cardamom is quite expensive.  But despite these obstacles, they were deemed good enough to try again.  Lastly, Turkish coffee brownies had an odd, rough texture but since they tasted great it didn’t matter that much.

Overall, our group enjoyed and appreciated these two titles.  If you’re at all interested in vegetables, it’s always nice to find inventive ways to prepare them; and since the Moosewood group has 40 years of experience making veggies taste their best, we were bound to find at least a few good ideas.  There were, of course, a few complaints: an over-reliance on those two ’70s workhorses, coriander and cumin; some recipes depended a bit too much on copious quantities of butter and/or cheese; and a few recipes were just plain boring.  But despite these caveats, most felt that the books reflected the best of modern vegetarian cuisine, and gave them doable and delicious ways to go meatless more often.  Our voting echoed these good vibes: we averaged out to a 4.0 (out of a possible 5), which is one of the higher scores we’ve ever recorded.  In another telling statistic, four people said they plan to buy one of the books.  Road trip to Ithaca, anyone?

Please watch for our next Bibliobites roundup (coming soon!) where  we’ll be talking sweets from Maida Heatter’s Happiness is Baking.

Recap of Bibliobites in September: Profound, Profane– Bourdain!

After a summer off, we met on a sunny September morning to dish (pun intended) about one of the food world’s most unique characters and its archetypal bad boy: Anthony Bourdain.  In the New York City restaurant world of the 1990s, Bourdain was undoubtedly well-known; but his 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential, brought him national fame.  His indelible descriptions of “the life,” as he calls it, along with his unsparing portraits of the people and places he encountered along the way, provide a wide-open window into the inner workings of an industry—and have enlightened, entertained, and terrified restaurant-goers in equal measure.  This title has become a classic in its genre; but does it still appeal almost twenty years after its publication?

To start, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Bourdain has an incredible (as one of our members put it) “potty mouth.”  He’s eminently quotable, but often those quotes must be censored in publications  because of his love of four-letter words.  This #@%! habit didn’t seem to bother our group too much, as his choice of words seemed consistent with his personality and the situations he was describing.  Most really enjoyed his writing style and thought he was an excellent writer, which begged the question:  is he more of a writer or a chef?  These aren’t mutually exclusive talents, of course, but it was fun to debate—and the question returned when we discussed our experiences with his cookbook (see below).   Many of Bourdain’s chapters focus on his “bad behavior;” and though we admired his unsparing truthfulness about his shortcomings, the bad boy shtick did get a little old.  Since our group read the memoir Sous Chef a few years ago, we weren’t totally surprised by Bourdain’s descriptions of the daily grind in a restaurant kitchen, but the culture of crazed super-macho masculinity that he so vividly portrays still has the power to shock.  How this type of kitchen culture developed, and why it remains so prevalent would make for a fascinating anthropological study!  Though Bourdain himself admits (in the chapter about chef Scott Bryan) that not every place is so “dysfunctional,” it does seem to be the rule rather than the exception; and Bourdain clearly embraces and enjoys the chaos.

Despite his self-reported shortcomings, most in our group admire Bourdain.  He was a person who was uniquely and supremely himself, and that always appeals.  Many are devotees of his various TV shows (No Reservations seemed to be the overall favorite); loved for their adventurous and no-holds-barred approach.  His untimely death in 2018 has only brought his contributions to the world of food into sharper focus (check out the tributes in Anthony Bourdain Remembered).  Our appreciation was reflected in our voting: we averaged out to a 4.67 out of a possible 5, probably the highest score ever for this group!

Though we may perhaps now think of Bourdain mostly as a writer and world traveler, he was first a cook—but interestingly, he’s written very few cookbooks (those who can, do; those who can’t, write cookbooks?).  However he did publish one in 2016: Appetites, which our group reviewed.  Bourdain writes in his introduction that these are the dishes he likes to eat, and to make for family and friends.  He says, “…there is nothing remotely innovative about the recipes in this book,” and overall, our group had to agree!  Beef goulash was “totally not unique” and the meat somehow never became tender.  The black bean soup was “fine, not fabulous;” the chorizo in it was tasty but somehow didn’t “go” with the other flavors in the dish.   A few other recipes were deemed okay but not exceptional: roasted baby beets with red onion and orange were pretty much basic roasted beets; Belgian endive with curried chicken salad was (as described in the headnote) “…1970 called….;” and tomato salad was, like the beets, a basic combination.  Mushrooms sautéed with shallots was just that; and the ratatouille was good, but “too fussy,” as all the vegetables were cooked individually.  It was better the next day, though, so at least there were enjoyable leftovers!  One complete flop was the grill bitch’s bar nuts; these completely refused to dry out, and then burned, perhaps due to a too-high (325 degrees) oven temperature?

On the more positive side, pomodoro sauce was “light…easy, and good!”  It was used in the meatball parm hero, which had tasty meatballs (“liked the veal in them, and the herbs”), and made plenty.  Roasted cauliflower with sesame was a flavorful treatment for this now-popular vegetable, but only if you like tahini and don’t mind a finished dish in an unappealing khaki color!  Macaroni and cheese was “awesome—super-cheesy and rich.  I could taste all the different cheeses!”  And braised pork shoulder with fried shallots and pickled vegetables was a winning combination; the piquant vegetables contrasted beautifully with the savory pork.  This dish was a bit of work, but it made a lot, and the leftovers improved with age.

As noted, this book didn’t contain much that was new and/or different.  Most of us already have similar recipes for many of the dishes in it, and Bourdain’s variations weren’t enticing enough to make us switch.  The book itself is an interesting read; the photography is unique (some might say peculiar) among cookbooks, and the cover painting is equally uncommon.  It’s almost more of an art book than a cookbook, and reflects Bourdain’s persona.  However, it’s what comes out of the kitchen that counts, and in that respect it didn’t make the grade: our voting averaged out to a 2.1 (out of a possible 5).  So, maybe we wouldn’t want to cook with Bourdain, but we’d sure love to chat or travel with him.  Sadly that’s not possible; but we’ll continue to enjoy his books and videos in the future.

Our next meeting will be on Friday, October 25 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  We’ll be discussing Moosewood Restaurant Favorites by the Moosewood Collective.  The Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY has been in the vanguard of vegetarian cuisine for almost 40 years— is their food still exceptional?  And is the meatless lifestyle for you?  Pick up a copy at the main desk and then join our discussion on the 25th; all are welcome!

 

Bibliobites in April: Game On! Dinner, Part 1

Even for those of us who enjoy cooking, making dinner every night can be a bit of a slog.   You want to eat something interesting– but nothing too complicated because it’s a weeknight.  And the recipe better use ingredients you already have in the house, because who in their right mind would go to a grocery store at 5 PM?  Also it should be reasonably quick, and preferably with a streamlined cooking method that won’t have you dirtying three pots and five bowls, because dish-washing is definitely less fun than cooking.  And of course it must taste fabulous; bonus points if it creates leftovers that everyone fights over for lunch.  All of the above requirements might seem like a tall order; but when you consider the number of cookbooks devoted to the evening meal, it seems that cookbook authors are up for the challenge.

Which bring us to this month’s title, Melissa Clark’s Dinner: Changing the Game.  Ms. Clark, a NY Times columnist and the author of several well-received cookbooks, maintains that not only can she change our dinner game, she can improve upon it– considerably!  That’s a claim our group was happy to put to the test.

We definitely gave the author points for the design of the book; there were plenty of outstanding full-page photos, and almost all the recipes fit on one page.  The book has that size that now seems to be the new standard: about the size of a sheet of paper (I got curious and actually measured the book: it’s 8 1/4″ by 10 1/4″).   Lately we’ve noticed that some books have headnotes that are, shall we say, extensive; this title was praised for its helpful and not overly verbose intros.   So, things were literally looking good; but how did it go when we were staring down the stove at 6 PM?

As always, chicken dishes were a popular choice to try; both sesame chicken with cashews and dates and Vietnamese ginger chicken were praised for being easy and tasty.  Thai chicken breasts and mustard chicken breasts also earned thumbs up; the mustard chicken had an assertive tangerine flavor that was particularly enjoyable.   Pizza chicken, despite its enticing name, was “just OK;” it needed to have more of a sauce than it did.   We made a fair amount of seafood, as well: Vietnamese caramel salmon was loaded with pungent umami, and the shrimp pad thai was a pleasantly vegetable-centric version of this classic dish.  But fish tacos were “blah” and needed more spice.  The coleslaw that went with it was delicious, though!

Other meaty mains we made included the excellent and easy marmalade meatballs, and a “really good” lamb stewPork scallopini were perfectly accented by the traditional apples; the cook confessed she didn’t use the called-for anchovies, which might have altered the overall flavor profile a bit!  But Georgian lamb kebabs were a disappointment, as the spice combination did not appeal, and the dill sauce was more relish than sauce.  Interestingly, the photo of this recipe does show a chopped relish, but the text calls it “dill sauce.”

Many of us were pleased to discover that this title featured plenty of vegetarian options, in several categories!  Winners included the sweet potato dhal, which was “solidly good.”  Though it wasn’t authentic, it was a lot speedier to make than the traditional version, so it was a worthwhile trade-off for a weeknight meal.  Black bean skillet dinner was a good combination, but what really put it over the top were the flavor-packed garnishes of pickled red onions and lime crema.  The Farro and crispy leeks recipe was likewise easy and tasty, and it made a lot– nice for leftovers.  Two styles of fritters were also hits: the zucchini-cornmeal cakes and the fresh corn cakes.  While these were designed as dinner entrees, they would make lovely appetizers as well.  Fried halloumi with spicy brussels sprouts was an unexpectedly delicious combination; on the downside, halloumi is quite pricey, and adding the halloumi to a hot skillet caused it to spit all over the place!  Curried lentils had an amazingly enticing flavor that only improved with age; butternut squash pizza likewise showcased bold flavors with its lemon, manchego, and squash topping.

A few flops in this category included asparagus carbonara, which turned out to be “asparagus with scrambled eggs,” not necessarily a bad thing but maybe not what the cook intended!  However, “it tasted great!”   Stovetop fusilli with spinach, peas, and gruyere also did not turn out as advertised; though the recipe promised a dish with creamy sauce, the gruyere melted into a rubbery, stringy mass laced with spinach that then had to be chopped into bits in order to eat it.   Also in cheese mode, gruyere frittata was “kind of bland” and not as substantial as frittatas typically are; it “needed something– maybe bacon?  Potatoes?” Maple-roasted tofu had a really yummy marinade; unfortunately the marinade never really penetrated the tofu and it tasted a bit too much like plain tofu.  But the marinade was wonderful on the squash.

Our overall impression of this book was one of weighing lots of pluses with plenty of minuses.  On the plus side, many of the dishes were quick, tasty, and a cut above the ordinary– which is the author’s stated goal.   However, since this book is pitched as a weeknight solution, we thought that goal wasn’t always attained.   A significant number of recipes had long lists of ingredients, or called for things we didn’t have or weren’t easy to find, or were expensive.  There were lots of interesting dipping sauces and garnishes, but these added to prep and cooking time, which could be a negative on a work day.   We also noted that Ms. Clark used a few ingredients a bit too regularly, among them fresh sage and lentils.  She also relies extensively on fresh herbs– not a bad thing, but something that doesn’t keep that well and that you are therefore not likely to have hanging around in your fridge.  And, as mentioned before, we might prefer to avoid the post-work grocery run!   Ms. Clark also states that most recipes are a one-dish solution, but we didn’t find that to be true as much as we would have liked.  Recipe timing also came in for some criticism; it turns out that the “total time” listed in the recipe is time after all prep is complete!

Once again our voting reflected our yin and yang: we averaged out to a 3.2 (out of a possible 5).  Two people liked the book enough that they would buy it, but “only at a discount!”  Perhaps that sums it up best!

Join us at our next meeting, Friday May 31 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room, when we’ll discuss Dinner Part 2: Sara Moulton’s Home Cooking 101: How to Make Everything Taste Better.  Copies are available at the main desk.  Hope to see you there!

 

Bibliobites in March: A Clutch of Community Cookbooks

For people who love to cook, talking about food and sharing recipes is just as much fun (sometimes more fun!) as baking, grilling, or stir-frying.  That impulse to share often expresses itself in cookbooks produced by community groups, whether churches, schools, social clubs, or even libraries!   This month we took a look at several titles, most self-published, some traditionally published– but all providing a fascinating peek at real-life cooking.

Many of the locally-produced titles we reviewed were printed in the 1980s and 1990s.  Those of us of a certain age may recall that this was the first time that books could be semi-professionally created with “desktop publishing” software, and it was obvious that many groups took advantage of this then-new technology.  But having the ability to create something doesn’t always translate to an excellent product; and there were numerous complaints about recipes that were lacking ingredients or complete instructions, or that just didn’t work– since they probably weren’t tested.  Books from this era were repeatedly described using the word “dated,” as they often suffered from an over-reliance on, for instance, cream of mushroom soup or non-dairy whipped topping.   But almost everyone did appreciate that the recipes were mostly simple and used readily available ingredients.  Some of the titles I’ll mention are member’s personal copies or out-of-print, and as such are unavailable in our consortium.  But perhaps you have a few of these lurking on your shelves somewhere– maybe it’s time to dust them off and try a few recipes, as we found some hits among a fair number of misses!

Several in our group own books that were produced by Chelmsford organizations: the Garrison House’s Cookie Book; Aldersgate Church’s Seasoned With Love; the Unitarian Church Cookbook (from 1949!); and the South Chelmsford Village Improvement Association Cookbook.   One tasty dish from the Aldersgate book, chicken with honey and orange, was a combination of only 4 ingredients (chicken, honey, orange juice and onions).  The method needed a bit of tweaking, but the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.   Our neighbor Westford produced Westford Kitchens, which also seemed quite dated, though it was produced in 2003.  But this book had the famous Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin recipe, which is “the best!”  Interestingly the recipe only called for one cup of blueberries, which didn’t seem like enough.  Beth Ann’s Best, a book from a Framingham synagogue, had an excellent carrot cake recipe with a “really good” frosting.  But this late 1950s book featured lots of lard and sugar, which doesn’t appeal to everyone!  And we all got a good laugh from a book published by a Maryland church that had lengthy, detailed instructions for baked plump possum; the recipe ended with “send out for pizza!”

Some of our books were professionally published; two of these were published by Junior Leagues, one in Tucson AZ in 1986, and the other in Portland ME in 1982.  The Portland book, RSVP,  was highly praised for its “fabulous” New York cheesecake and its “very sweet but yummy” poppy seed tea bread.  Also hits: the sweet potato souffle and “the best blue cheese dressing ever!”   The Tucson book, Purple Sage and Other Pleasures had some fantastic vegetable recipes: purple cabbage, honey baked onions, and marinated asparagus; all received an enthusiastic thumbs-up.  This book in particular seemed quite professional, with healthy, practical recipes that were easy to make.

A few books provided a window into a different place or time.  The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook, published by the University of Mississippi in 2010, is an eye-opener for a New Englander: a full chapter devoted to all types of gravy, for one!  Interestingly there were no recipes using beef, but plenty of fish and pork, including deep-fried bacon.  Hits included a savory creamy corn pudding, and spicy turnip greens, which featured tomato, garlic, onion and one tablespoon of cayenne pepper!  Carolina coleslaw was tasty, though the dressing had “so many” ingredients, including a whopping 1 1/2 cups of oil. Liquid pork certainly had an intriguing name; this dish proved to be an all-day adventure involving (among other things) smoke detectors going off! The result was “really good,” but it was such a production that the experience probably won’t be repeated.

Returning to more familiar ground, the New England Innkeeper’s Cookbook, a compilation published by Yankee Magazine, had some definite hits: squash muffins had good squash flavor and aged well; Southwest strata was a tasty combo of tortillas, beans, spinach, mushrooms, cheese, and sausage; and Jarlsberg vegetable bisque was “the best soup ever,” a magical combination of broccoli, carrots, celery, onions, and plenty of cream and cheese.  Perfect for a raw, late-winter day.  The only flop was the colossal cookies, which weren’t very good– they were quite dry, perhaps because the only dry ingredient was rolled oats.  Hometown Cooking in New England had a nice collection of classic, simple recipes; the pumpkin muffins were “wonderful;” but the squash soup had “too much curry!”  Best of the Best From New England was in a similar vein; the squash yeast bread was unexpectedly delicious and made lovely, aromatic toast (we must have all been in squash mode!); and tomato cognac soup was a delicious, sophisticated version of this classic.  It was easy to make and definitely kicked it up a notch.  But golden Parmesan potatoes, despite their enticing name, were fairly boring.

This month’s theme prompted a few people to revisit some ancient culinary history– one person re-read her mom’s Household Searchlight, a book published by Household magazine in the 1930s.  Another member perused her mom’s hand-typed personal recipe book from around 1940, and decided to make war cake, a popular treat of that era; so named because it contains no butter, eggs or milk, which were rationed during WWII.   So, vegan alert– baking without eggs isn’t a new thing!   Some of these older books also contain recipes for cleaning products, and in this category as well, we discovered that what’s old is new again, as several household recipes used vinegar as the main ingredient– still valued for its effectiveness and non-toxicity.   Though we didn’t rate any of our books, most people thought it was a fun project to explore these “cultural artifacts!”

We’ll next meet on Friday, April  26 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  We’ll be discussing Dinner: Changing the Game by Melissa Clark.  Was this title a game changer, or was it game over?  All are welcome,  hope to see you there!

 

Bibliobites in February: Still Smitten?

Long-time blogger Deb Perelman has been on our group’s radar before– way back in March of 2014, we reviewed her first cookbook, 2012’s bestseller The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.  Five years later, we checked out her latest effort, Smitten Kitchen Every Day: Triumphant and Unfussy New Favorites. We enjoyed that first book– but this time around, were we still smitten, or has Ms. Perelman suffered a sophomore slump?

We were united in our praise for the book itself.  Like its predecessor, it has a large-format – with heavy, glossy paper and absolutely stunning photography, shot by the author.  Though some of us detested the long, chatty headnotes and others adored them, we all agreed that the writing was outstanding.  The book seemed a bit “blog-ish;” in some ways we felt the writing took precedence over the recipes!  The overall tone is humorous and self-deprecating; the author wants us to know she’s a regular person with the typical challenges of any cook in a kitchen, learning through time and experience.  While it can certainly be appealing to know an author is more of a peer than a professional, when it comes to recipes we want to know they’ve been thoroughly vetted….and preferably unfussy as advertised.   So, into the kitchen we go!

As the book does, let’s begin with breakfast: granola biscotti were crunchy– maybe a bit too crunchy– they “needed to be dunked.”   But despite the crunch factor: “loved ’em.” Magical two-ingredient oat brittle was quite tasty (and easy) but it was so crunchy that it was a potential tooth-breaker.  Please use caution when consuming!  Spinach, mushroom, and goat cheese slab frittata came in for faint praise: it was “decent;” the cook felt it needed the punch of a more strongly-flavored cheese.  Two of us tried the perfect blueberry muffins; one person’s looked like the tempting photo in the book, but another’s came out disappointingly flat.  These were good muffins, and scored points for not being too sweet, but “you can’t beat the Jordan Marsh blueberry muffin recipe.”  So, a worthy attempt but maybe not perfect for us!

Many of us were excited and intrigued by the salad recipes; for example, potatoes and asparagus gribiche was a delicious combination of flavors, though “it was a lot of work” to assemble.   Winter slaw with farro was a tasty way to add cool crunch on the side of your plate; but carrot salad with tahini, crisped chickpeas, and salted pistachios, though it sounded enticing, was “bland,” and the chickpeas never got crispy.

Besides the salads, there were plenty of vegetable-centric dishes in the book, which we appreciated. Artichoke and Parmesan galette was a quiche-ish tart that was loaded with artichokes; its flavors were a riff on the addictive fifties-era warm artichoke dip that had a rebirth in the 90’s.  Wild mushroom shepherd’s pie had lots of savory umami from its two pounds of mushrooms (!), and improved on the second day; unfortunately it was also a “labor-intensive” recipe.  One-pan farro with tomatoes is one of the most raved-about recipes on Ms. Perelman’s blog, and those who made it had to agree that it was super.  It truly was unfussy and definitely delivered in the flavor department; also,  “the fresh basil added a lot!”  But broccoli, cheddar, and wild rice fritters were just “OK.”  They weren’t quite substantial enough for a meal and they were messy to fry. “They needed a sauce,” too.  Brussels and three cheese pasta bake was certainly hearty enough; but as is true of many of these types of casseroles, “it was a lot of work!”  Our cook did like that the sauce was made with vegetable broth (instead of a dairy product) and was spiked with lemon zest.   A couple of people tried cacio e pepe potatoes Anna, which are pictured on the book’s cover.  These were good, but not outstanding; and so perhaps not worth the effort.  And sadly our attempts didn’t look nearly as gorgeous as the photo!

We tried a few meaty main dishes:  smoky sheet pan chicken with cauliflower was easy to put together, and the marinade for the chicken was excellent. Chicken and rice street cart style also had a fabulous marinade (really more of a rub) and the combination of chicken, rice, and chopped salad was worthy of any food truck.  Quick sausage, kale, and crouton saute could’ve (amazingly) used more kale; and overall just needed more something.  But it did still taste good, and was pretty speedy to produce.  Meatballs Marsala with egg noodles and chives was a winner– the meatballs were delicious and moist, and easy to put together; “will definitely make again!”

When it came time for dessert, there was plenty of enthusiasm for baking all kinds of treats.  Banana bread roll was easy to make and super-yummy; a keeper!  Peach Melba popsicles were deliciously tart and creamy, and would probably be even more appreciated on a hot summer day.  Two thick, chewy oatmeal raisin chocolate chip mega-cookies were an interesting concept (with a way too long name–c’mon, Deb!)– the recipe really did make only two large cookies.  Some liked the idea of only making a few cookies at a time; others thought this concept was a waste of effort.  One person thought the cookies were a bit bland; they did have less sugar than your average cookie so that may have had an effect on taste perception.   And the next day, the cookies were either “better” or “soggy,” depending on who you asked!  Olive oil shortbread with rosemary and chocolate chunks, despite the chocolate, tasted “more savory than sweet,” but it could go either way.  Rosemary haters should beware– the flavor was assertive!  On the down side, double coconut meltaways looked nothing like the pretty, plump cookies in the photo; they came out flat and “greasy”– it seemed like there was way too much coconut oil in the recipe.   And spice cake looked awesome and sliced  neatly– but inside it was gummy (despite sworn faithful adherence to the recipe) and tasted oddly bland.  Even the frosting became gummy on the second day.

In the final analysis, we realized that we loved most of her ideas— at first blush, lots of the recipes in this book seemed more interesting than most, yet approachable.  However, in actual practice there was less triumph and more fussy than we would have liked.   But, needless to say, everyone’s concept of what constitutes “fussy” is different, as it all depends on your overall cooking style and/or how much time and patience you have.  A few people commented that they thought her first book was better, but generally almost everyone found something to enjoy in this title.   Our voting was almost evenly split between those who gave it a 4 (out of 5) and those who gave it a 3; our average worked out to 3.25.  So maybe we got pretty close to smitten!

Our next meeting will be on Friday, March 29 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  This month we’ll be perusing a variety of community cookbooks, including one produced by CPL staff several years ago.  Choose one from those available at the main desk.  New members always welcome; see you there!