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About Andrea Grant
Andrea Grant is a Children's Services Specialist. View all posts by Andrea Grant →
Bibliobites in January: Appetizing Adventures
Serious winter is upon us. It’s cold, it’s snowy or icy or rainy (or all three!), and the sun makes far fewer appearances than most of us would like. To add insult to injury, it’s still getting dark so early that PJs at 6 PM seems like the only sensible thing to do. But, as we slowly slog towards spring, we can always enjoy the great indoors of our kitchens. Winter is the perfect time to explore new cuisines, try something out of our comfort zone, and spend a few leisurely hours cooking or baking something warming and delicious. Our group was more than up for the challenge for the January theme of “choose your own adventure,” and we hope our experiences will inspire you to do the same.
Most of us chose a book (or books!) to delve into; this provided a nice framework for trying out a less-familiar cuisine or technique. One person decided to explore her French Canadian roots with A Taste of Quebec. This turned out to be almost a combination travel guide and cookbook; there was plentiful information about various regional foods and their origins, “now I want to go visit!” This title featured many meaty dishes, such as the iconic tourtière, a hearty meat pie that helps Québécois get through their long winters. Root vegetables are also a common cold-weather ingredient, so our cook made a turnip soufflé, which elevated the humble turnip into something special, though “it did need an onion to sweeten it.”
January’s tradition of making New Year’s resolutions to improve eating habits was a theme for some. One person experimented with vegan cooking using Plant Powered Families. Though the book overall wasn’t a huge hit, she did find some worthy keepers: smoky bean chili (“very good– better than your typical vegetarian chili”), chickpea rice soup (“really hearty, good for winter”) and thick and hearty tomato sauce (“it used red lentils to thicken, which I really liked”). Still on tap, a chocolate pudding with chia seeds, since she was curious to try these now-common seeds. Another group member checked out the optimistically titled How Not to Die Cookbook. This book was “very, very healthy;” so healthy that the recipes did not appeal, “I marked a few, but didn’t use the book.” Some ingredients were off-putting (nutritional yeast), and there was lots of prep (many recipes called for spice mixes you made ahead of time). So, our cook moved on to some Eating Well newsletters she had piling up in an email folder. This was much more successful, producing several tasty meals like zucchini spinach gouda bake (“like a quiche, but drier”), cauliflower pizza crust (“not really a pizza– like a really thin potato pancake…you can’t eat it by hand”), creamy white chili (“more like soup, not thick enough…very smooth!”), one pot chicken Alfredo (“will make again!”), and slow cooker barbecued brisket (“pretty good…made a lot!”). Not to neglect dessert, she flipped through Baking With Less Sugar, and baked some fudgy mascarpone brownies. These were indeed fudgy with good chocolate flavor, and did use 1/3 less sugar than a more traditional recipe. And with the leftover mascarpone, how about some lower sugar cheesecake? This was “so so good– the most delicious ever!” It also froze well, and if you are impatient, it was “even tasty half-frozen!”
Since January is also “get organized month,” (and another frequent New Year’s resolution), a second group member decided to work on some recipes awaiting her attention in her email. She used a list of the most popular viral TikTok recipes of 2021. Baked feta pasta was easy and delicious, if a bit salty; “will definitely try again.” Creamy ramen sounded interesting and different; it was “tasty– but still kind of weird.” The creaminess and the ramen were an unusual combo. Still, it was intriguing enough to try again, perhaps with some added veggies or protein to make more of a complete meal. We thought sheet pan pancake was a simple, and simply genius, idea: you pour your pancake batter into a sheet pan, bake, and then cut into squares or triangles to serve. Great for a crowd or to make ahead and reheat on a busy morning. This recipe is very similar to one that has been featured by Ree Drummond on her Pioneer Woman TV show. Vegan carrot bacon is still on deck, but the idea is so unexpected, and the picture looks so “awesome” that it’s a must-try.
And January is definitely soup season, so one person undertook a one-woman soup festival. A fan of the instant pot, she made split pea soup from her go-to title, The Step By Step Instant Pot Cookbook. This was an excellent version of pea soup, and we also got a useful pro tip: the Honey Baked Ham store in Nashua sells ham bones, which are pretty much a requirement for pea soup. Ham bones also figure in the iconic Senate bean soup, which our cook planned to try the day after we met, so no report back yet! Chunky tomato soup was another instant pot success, quick to put together and mellowed with cream cheese added at the end. And hearty homemade corn chowder (from the Chunky Chef blog) was easy and “really good…I’d never made corn chowder before!” Our soup maven then moved on to Dinner Then Dessert: Satisfying Meals Using Only 3, 5, or 7 Ingredients. This book proved to be a winner, since “her pantry is (stocked) like mine,” which made dinner prep a snap. Keepers included mushroom stroganoff, and the easy stir-fry garlic shrimp with oyster sauce. Note that many of the author’s recipes are available online, if you want to road-test the concept.
Another group member decided to tackle the invitingly titled Simply Julia: 110 Recipes for Healthy Comfort Food. This title received much praise when it was published, but our group member was unimpressed. This book is the ever-more-common mashup of blog and cookbook, and for our reviewer, it was way too much talk and not enough action. There are numerous two-page essays in the book (on various food-related topics), and copious headnotes; many love this window into an author’s world, but some prefer to stay happily ignorant and just go straight to the recipes. And speaking of the recipes: spinach and artichoke dip chicken bake was “OK” but “kind of dry” despite a cup of sour cream. Doug’s tex-mex turkey meatballs were super easy with only 5 ingredients; they used a cup of salsa, which was the dominant flavor; these were also “OK” though not outstanding. Future possibilities include Grace’s green beans, braised red cabbage and green apples, and carrot and chickpea korma.
Other titles we dipped into included Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar (“everything I’ve tried has been yummy and easy!”); Mooncakes and Milk Bread (“different- mostly sweet recipes you’d find in a Chinese bakery– the crispy Chinese sausage and cilantro pancakes were a project, but so good!”); Sumac: Recipes and Stories From Syria (“delicious simple, non-intimidating Middle Eastern food”); Pasta (“an exhaustive tome of pasta-making, definitely a project”), Once Upon a Chef (“loved it– these are the kinds of recipes I like. I might buy it.”); Bittman Bread (“interesting and a little different. You need a starter for everything. For a future project!”). And even though our theme was cooking, some also perused memoirs they’d recommend: Out of Line by local chef Barbara Lynch, and Into the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain by Tom Vitale.
Phew! That’s a lot of cooking and trying new things. And speaking of memoir, next month we’ll be reading Erin French’s gripping chronicle, Finding Freedom. Ms. French, proprietor of The Lost Kitchen (“one of the 50 best restaurants in the world”) in Freedom, ME takes us through the difficult and winding road that has ultimately led to her incredible success. Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. We’ll next meet on Friday, February 25 at 11 AM. Plan to chat via zoom; link will be emailed on the morning of the program.
Stay warm and cook on!
Bibliobites in November/December: Flour Power
Local legend/pastry queen/James Beard Award winner Joanne Chang is a very busy baker indeed. In addition to running the nine locations of her well-loved Flour Bakery and Cafe, she’s written five cookbooks, and with her husband, chef Christopher Myers, she owns Myers + Chang, a pan-Asian restaurant in Boston. Plus, she’s recently somehow found the time to appear as a judge on the Netflix series Baking Impossible. I’d say it’s her daily schedule that must verge on the impossible! Way back in 2015, our group reviewed Ms. Chang’s first baking book; this month we tackled her newest, Pastry Love. After spending more than a month with butter, sugar, and plenty of chocolate, did we think this title was a worthy successor?
The book itself was praised for its production values: nice heavy paper, stunning photography, and the typical large format. The contents cover a wide range, from breakfast treats to breads to confections. We loved Ms. Chang’s writing style; she’s clear and precise, and her instructions are very detailed. We also liked that her recipes feature both volume and weight measurements, so no matter which method you prefer, you don’t have to waste time on tedious conversions. On the downside, the font is fairly small and the text color is light gray, rather than black. We’ve noticed this trend towards gray printing in cookbooks, and while it’s visually pleasant, it is more difficult to read. Cookbook editors, please take note!
Once the oven was turned on, and our ingredients were properly at room temperature, did our group of mostly non-bakers enjoy the results of their efforts? For starters, the breakfast chapter was a winner, featuring yummy treats that were quick and easy. Three people made vegan carrot-ginger muffins; these were “hearty” and “really good warm” with plenty of flavor and texture from the carrots, raisins, and walnuts. One person tried reducing the sugar, but this didn’t improve things; the resulting muffins were “bland.” Even better were the vegan chocolate-banana muffins, “absolutely delicious–a keeper!” Maple-blueberry scones also more than made the grade; these jumbo-sized treats feature whole-wheat flour and plenty of blueberries, “we ate lots!” Two people tried ricotta-cherry scones; these were “very tasty” and looked gorgeous, too. Two caveats: the scones contain some expensive ingredients (frozen and dried cherries, creme fraiche), and the scones are of the biscuit (rather than the flaky) style– which one cook realized is not her preferred type.
Moving on to the ever-enticing cookie department, we enjoyed several recipes that are the convenient slice-and-bake variety; we discovered that all of these doughs freeze well, definitely a bonus. Pecan sandies were a “really good…not too sweet” version of this classic. The dough was a bit crumbly but manageable, and the cookies kept well. Lemon-polenta cookies, a signature treat at the bakery, had a bit of pleasant grit from the cornmeal, and bright lemon flavor. These also remained fresh-tasting for at least a week and were just right with a cup of tea. Spiral shortbreads are perfect for the sesame enthusiast; they feature both black and “regular” tahini and are rolled in sesame seeds. These cookies were rich and subtly savory, and also had a nice trompe l’oeil effect– they look like they’re chocolate and vanilla, but they aren’t! Black tahini isn’t widely available, but Asian markets carry it, and of course it can be ordered online. We baked drop cookies, too: thin, crispy chocolate chip cookies were just that– large, buttery, and loaded with chips, “will definitely make again!” Our cook thought they were maybe “a bit too sweet” but it was a minor complaint. And in the warmer months, “they’d be good to use for making ice cream sandwiches.” Vegan almond macaroons used aquafaba, that trendy egg substitute, but all did not turn out perfectly. The dough was quite sticky and therefore a bit difficult to work with, and the cookies were reluctant to turn brown (the doneness test), so they wound up overbaked– beyond crunchy! Gluten-free Persian love cookies were “pretty good” with their almond flour base; our baker changed up the flavorings to accommodate what she had available, so they weren’t really “Persian,” but they were good enough that, “I will try again.” And if you enjoy rich, dark chocolate flavor, try the double chocolate rye cookies. These are a little bit fussy to make, but worth every minute, with their slightly crisp edges and tender mousse-like interior studded with chocolate chunks. Most definitely a keeper!
We didn’t venture far beyond breakfast and cookies; but one person did make olive oil cake with fresh grapes. Our intrepid baker didn’t have any grapes on hand, but made the cake anyway, and then discovered “it really needed the grapes” for both sweetness and acidity. The cake was fairly dense and “a bit greasy” which can happen with oil-based cakes. This was a recipe that would benefit from some personal tweaking to accommodate particular preferences. Japanese cotton cheesecake turned into a bit of a flop, partly because of the pan called for: an 8″ x 3″ round pan. Many of us might have an 8″ round pan, but your standard cake pan is only 2″ deep. So, our baker used a springform pan which (as they sometimes will) leaked a bit, and also allowed water from the water bath to seep in. It was really an engineering problem, not a recipe problem; but this and other complications resulted in a cake that was not fluffy as advertised. After a frustrating afternoon, “I might try again!”
Overall, we enjoyed this title. Even those who only had the time or energy for just a little pastry love thought that “everything looked so good!” We liked many of the author’s takes on classic recipes, and it was fun to bake treats that we’d seen/eaten at the bakery. As much as some of us like to bake, what we all really want is a Flour Bakery a little closer to home. What about it, Ms. Chang? Isn’t it time to branch out to the real suburbs (as in, out along 95/128)? Everyone in our group would undoubtedly become a loyal customer.
Our voting reflected our positive experiences, and the good vibes generated by Ms. Chang’s friendly and genuine “voice.” We averaged out to a 3.8 (out of a possible 5). That’s a pretty stellar score for this group!
We’ll next meet via zoom on Friday, January 28 at 11 AM. This month’s theme is “Choose Your Own Adventure:” pick a title from a reserved cart of books at the main circulation desk, or choose one of your own. The idea is to try something new and/or different. If you would like to attend and are not on our email list, you can sign up here to receive the zoom link.
Happy New Year, and see you on the 28th!
Bibliobites in October: Milking It
Christopher Kimball has almost single-handedly transformed the world of home cooking. Love him or hate him (and there are fierce advocates on both sides), his reach and influence are undeniable. He founded Cook’s Magazine in the 1980s, which begat Cook’s Illustrated in the 1990s, which then morphed into the America’s Test Kitchen empire, which includes print, radio, television, and web. Phew! In 2015, he abruptly departed ATK and founded Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street, a magazine that has since diversified into radio, television, web, and— cookbooks! Which brings us to October’s title, Cookish. Milk Street’s tagline is “changing the way you cook,” and this book’s variation on that is “throw it together” using six ingredients or fewer and (mostly) taking 30 minutes or less. We’ve test-driven this concept before (with Jamie Oliver) and were unimpressed. Could this newer riff on that idea turn us into true believers?
We were all certainly attracted to the notion of speedy and delicious. But in order to meet this goal, we discovered that a fair number of condiments are required. Logically enough, if you want your end result to be flavorful, and you’re cutting flavor-developing time out of the equation, you need to start with assertive ingredients. Accordingly, there was lots of soy sauce, fish sauce, hoisin, curry, smoked paprika, many types of chilies, lots of garlic– you get the idea! This approach worked well, except when it didn’t!
In the “it really worked department,” four of us made roasted butternut squash with hoisin and chives (October is butternut squash month?). Three of us adored this simple, colorful combination, and thought the pairing of squash and hoisin was inspired. For one person with a squash traditionalist in the household, it was just “OK” but it’s a keeper for the rest of us. Barley risotto with leeks and mushrooms turned out to be an “awesome” take on the classic combination of barley and mushrooms; and toasted bulgur and lentil soup was likewise “fantastic,” accented with garlic and lemon zest. Broiled caribbean mahi mahi was another hit with its herby/citrus-y sauce; as a bonus “it looked just like the photo!” There were several well-liked chicken dishes: moroccan chicken skewers (“very tasty”), spiced ground chicken with currants and pistachios (“unusual combo but very good– Middle Eastern-ish”), orange-ginger chicken (“easy and delicious version of a classic”), and spicy stir-fried chicken and snow peas, which was only “pretty good,” but “better the second day.”
The section on one-pot pastas proved to be a big hit; there was praise for the less-water one-pot method, which was new to us. Gemelli with tomatoes, salami, and fontina was a bit on the spicy side (our cook used pepperoni, a listed alternative), but overall this combination hit the mark, and was excellent left over. Penne arrabiata was a keeper: quick, easy, and flavorful with its fresh basil, pecorino cheese, and red pepper flakes. And, lest we forget, only one pot to wash!
We were on the fence about some recipes; most of the following got at best an “OK” from our cooks: sweet and savory skillet-steamed eggplant, mustard-roasted cauliflower (“it was fine…”), skillet-charred brussels sprouts with coriander and cashews (“cashews surprisingly didn’t add much…wouldn’t rush out and make again”), chutney-roasted eggplant with scallions (“good– looked exactly like the picture”), ramen salad with shrimp and scallions (“nothing special– ramen with soy sauce”), chili-soy noodles with bok choy and peanuts (“OK– I have other similar recipes that are better”), and soupy rice with mushrooms and greens (“better the second night, flavors needed to meld”). Pork, sweet pepper, and cabbage stew turned out to be “a nerve-shattering experience,” as our cook wrestled with a large and unfamiliar cut of pork; when all was said and done, the result was “fairly good…a maybe.” Perhaps, like most stews, it will improve in the fridge? Cabbage was also featured in cannellini beans and cabbage with pancetta and parmesan, which two people made; for one it was “pretty good;” but for another it was a keeper, “love this combination– I could eat a lot of it.” Curried carrot salad was also a hit and a miss; one person didn’t like the curry with carrots, though the other did and enjoyed how the curry played with the sweetness of the carrots and raisins. Both noted that the amount of curry called for seemed excessive: one tablespoon for a pound of carrots. This was a bit overpowering in a dish where it was the main flavor, with no cooking to mellow it.
Overall, we liked this take on quick and easy. We enjoyed most of the flavor profiles, and we live in a large metro area where less-common ingredients are easy to come by. We liked that many ingredients also included an alternative, so you could use what you had on hand and/or could find at the supermarket. We did note some negatives: some recipes used a lot of salt (for instance, the hoisin squash recipe called for one tablespoon) or overpowering amounts of spices (see carrot salad above). In order to keep to the 30-minute time frame, oven heats were frequently listed at 475 or 500 degrees, which meant keeping a bit of an eye on things to prevent scorching or setting off the smoke detector! Many recipes didn’t list stovetop burner heat at all, which, while perhaps not strictly necessary, is helpful when you’re doing something for the first (or even second or third) time. Similarly, cooking times were often not listed. Guess Mr. Kimball is making sure we’re paying attention while cooking! And speaking of cooking, what’s the difference between “cook” and “cook-ish”? The subtitle of this book is “throw it together,” but it could be argued that all cooking is throwing it together in some way. Yes, these recipes are fairly simple– but you are definitely cooking. That’s my soapbox moment for this month!
The book itself was a pleasure to use– there were truly lovely, artistic photos of most recipes, and since those recipes were short and sweet, almost all fit on one page. Bonus! We also enjoyed how some recipes were grouped by cooking method, like stir-fry or the aforementioned one-pot pasta. This made it easy to try a new or different technique on multiple dishes. And if you like Milk Street’s concept, there are several other cookbooks to peruse, as well as the TV show and an extensive website. In the end, our ratings averaged out to around 3.5 (out of a possible 5), a better than average score for our group.
We’ll next meet on Friday, December 10 at 11 AM. Plan to chat via zoom; we will meet outdoors in person if the weather is unusually warm(!) We’re baking this month with local favorite Joanne Chang’s latest, Pastry Love (I highly recommend the chocolate-rye cookies!). Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.
Happy Thanksgiving to all, and see you on the 10th.
**And special thanks to LC for the post title!
Bibliobites in September: Fresh But Not Fussy
September brings that change of season with which we are all so happily familiar– cooler temps and shorter days, and the last glorious gasp of summer warmth. And September means that our Bibliobites group restarts after a summer off. We had envisioned meeting outdoors on a lovely late-summer morning, but alas– the weather did not cooperate and we met on a rather drippy morning via zoom. But despite the gray day, this month’s title seemed well-suited to this time of year when markets overflow with the bounty of summer and fall– tomatoes and apples; sweet corn and winter squashes; late peaches and the final round of green beans. This month’s title, Cooking From Scratch, is published by the cooks at PCC Markets in Seattle, the oldest and largest food co-op in the nation. This soup-to-nuts title surveys it all, with plenty of mealtime choices for both vegetarians and carnivores, as well as desserts, snacks, and beverages.
One big plus of this book was its beautiful full-page photographs which showed off the finished dishes to their best advantage. In some cookbooks the food winds up looking a bit artificial, but this title’s pictures made you want to pick up a fork and dive in! The book is the standard large format; it’s a paperback printed on heavy matte paper. There were no comments about the book staying open to one’s chosen page; my copy was newish and thus the binding was very tight and did not stay open. However with time and use that problem would dissipate. Many recipes fit on one page and the type was easy to read.
So, a good start– but once in the kitchen, how did things shake out? Summer food was still in the driver’s seat for some of us; for instance: grilled corn salad with goat cheese was a delicious version of a classic combination. The roasted corn was a nice way to change up an easily-made salad; “I would make it again in a heartbeat.” Corn was also the main event in tarragon corn chowder. The tarragon was “a nice twist” that we loved. We noted that this recipe had what we considered to be the somewhat odd instruction to boil the potatoes with the milk- perhaps this is a west coast convention? In any event, those of us who made the soup ignored the directions and added the milk at the end, as all good New Englanders should! Staying with summer, summertime fritters were a solid version of this now-common way to use prolific zucchini. They were “straightforward” and “turned out well.” The roasted cherry tomatoes featured on the book’s cover delivered on flavor; they were “super-easy” and very good. And mango avocado fresh rolls looked pretty and tasted even better, with plenty of fresh fruity flavor and brightness from fresh basil and mint.
Moving into fall a bit, broccoli, lemon, and parmesan soup was “easy– delightful.” It used ingredients you’d be likely to have on hand, and was thickened only with vegetables, nice for those who can’t or don’t do dairy. Another fall favorite soup, butternut squash-apple soup, was a keeper! The coconut milk in it made the soup “velvety.” An easy and super version of this classic. Apple, bok choy, and carrot slaw was another “really good” and “colorful” salad that combined basic ingredients in a slightly different way. Kale and quinoa salad also upped the flavor profile of its fairly standard ingredients with tahini. Our cook misread the ingredient list and used tamari instead– and it was delicious that way, too! Spiced squash salad was “restaurant-worthy” with its caramelized squash atop tender arugula– simple yet sophisticated.
As always there were plenty of main dishes on our radar. Three people made garlicky green beans and shrimp; all enjoyed this easy-to-make combination, though for one person it could have had more garlic. A couple of people tried the tiger mountain turkey chili; it had good flavor though one person thought it was too spicy, while another thought it “needed more heat!” Most of us already have a preferred chili recipe, and this one didn’t convert anyone. Spicy pork and sweet potato stew was enjoyable, though it needed a bit more liquid; conversely, chilaquiles were “a bit soupy” though tasty! Thai steak salad was another keeper with its garlicky, “just yummy” marinade and dressing. It benefited from using a more tender cut of beef than the top round called for in the recipe. A couple of chicken recipes also earned high marks: spicy chicken thighs had a delicious rub, though “you have to like curry.” Pomegranate molasses grilled chicken was a terrific use for this newly-available ingredient. It was “a winner– so moist and tangy.”
Seared scallops with arugula pesto was another restaurant-worthy, yet simple main dish; but linguine with asparagus and peas, though delicious, “needed something”– perhaps more salt? Steph’s tofu had good flavor, but was downgraded because it was “too much work,” and “the sauce burned.” If we lived near a PCC Market we could just go buy it there! Lentil and white bean stew was a bit heavy on the black pepper, but this classic combination was still a good choice. And curried lentil and mango wraps were a less-familiar, though delightful, combination. Red lentils meant they were quick to make, too.
There aren’t lots of desserts in this book, but we did try a few. Two people made flourless chocolate crinkles, which had a nice tender texture from almond flour and rich deep chocolate flavor. However they didn’t flatten and crack on the tops the way they were supposed to. Luckily they were tasty enough that this wasn’t really a problem! Avocado brownies had an “odd fudgy texture” that just didn’t do it for our cook, though the chocolate flavor was excellent. Two of us were intrigued by rosemary thyme crackers though neither tried them. Had we met in person they would have undoubtedly appeared at our meeting, along with those brownies!
While there was nothing earth-shattering or wildly innovative about this book, most of us found it very appealing. The dressings and seasonings in particular really hit the mark, and we liked the various simple twists on classic recipes. Most recipes were uncomplicated, and many featured ingredients we were likely to have on hand. And the ultimate compliment: at least three people planned to buy the book. FYI, if your library’s copy of this book is checked out, and/or you don’t want to buy it, PCC’s website has most of the book’s recipes on its website, http://pccmarkets.com/healthy-eating/recipes. Our overall rating reflected our enjoyment of this title; it garnered a 4.14 out of a possible 5.
We’ll next meet on Friday, October 29 at 11 AM; once again we’ll try for outdoors in person if the weather is good. This month we’ll be cooking from Cookish by Christopher Kimball and the cooks at Milk Street. The watchwords for this title might be “simple” and “flavorful”– give it a try and see what you think! Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.
**thanks to MM for the title of this post!
Bibliobites in June: In the Cookie Jar
In June our Bibliobites group made a detour into the winter wonderland of Lake Eden, Minnesota, the fictional home of baker/amateur sleuth Hannah Swensen. Hannah has starred in multitudinous “cozy mysteries” which feature lots of discussions about food and baking, in addition to murder! This month’s title (26th in the series by author Joanne Fluke), The Chocolate Cream Pie Murder, includes over 30 recipes– so whether you wanted to solve a mystery, bake, or both, you had plenty of options. Our Midwestern sojourn may have been brief, but did we enjoy the ride? Or at least find some good cookie recipes?
As we began our meeting, everyone confessed that they had not made any recipes from the book. This actually turned out to be a bit inaccurate (more on that later), but the main issue was that the weather was hot enough that most of us didn’t feel the urge to turn on the oven and bake. It didn’t help that the book takes place in February, and therefore most of the recipes were oriented accordingly– rich cakes, hearty breakfast bakes, stews, and soups. Not what most of us wanted to eat during a warm and sunny month! And there were complaints that many recipes used packaged ingredients– cake mixes, whipped topping, pudding mix, condensed soups– which most of us prefer to avoid. This reliance on mixes made for an old-fashioned feel, “very retro” as one person commented, despite the fact that this title was published in 2019.
We did bake a few things (despite the initial denials); peach scones were “not very peachy” despite containing a goodly amount of peach jam, and the consistency of the scones seemed a bit off– they were more like a cakey cookie than a flaky scone. But, “they were good with jam.” Another breakfast treat, apricot coffee cake, was “solid” but not outstanding. It was a pretty standard combination of cake, fruit filling, and crumbly topping. Forgotten cookies were fun to make and tasty; this classic recipe is a meringue combined with chocolate chips and nuts. Once the cookie batter is dropped onto a baking sheet, you put them in the oven and then immediately turn the oven off; the cookies stay in the oven overnight, and in the morning they’re ready to go. Just be sure you don’t make them on a humid/rainy day! The recipes had some quirks; for instance, we noticed that the author constantly tells you to pack the flour into the cup when measuring, which none of us had ever seen before. Some of her instructions seemed overly detailed and verbose (“take out a spoon from your silverware drawer”), but that could be helpful for an inexperienced cook.
For the murder mystery, there were widely varying opinions. Some thought this title, and her others, were the perfect beach read. They’re “fun….light….not gruesome.” They’re an “escape” and “you can read them in a couple of hours.” Others were disappointed, “it wasn’t a book for me,” “I gave up after a few chapters,” “the book dropped me into the middle of the story– there were no explanations about the characters (needed if you hadn’t read the whole series).” The writing didn’t make the grade for some, “I thought it was very poorly written,” and overall it “felt a little dated.” But, clearly the author has found a formula that works for her legions of faithful fans– so her success is not a fluke (pun intended!). The Hannah Swensen stories have also been turned into a Hallmark Channel series called Murder She Baked, so if you like the books you’ll probably enjoy the movies.
Since this title has two distinct components (a mystery and recipes), we rated them separately; the story averaged out to a 2.6 (out of a possible 5), and the recipes were uniformly rated a 2. So, though some of us will be happy to revisit Lake Eden and its denizens, we probably won’t be baking much from these books!
Our June meeting was the last until September; we’ll next meet on Friday, September 24 at 11 AM; and by then we hope we will be able to meet in person in the library. Thank you so much to everyone who participated this year, either on zoom, or via email, or by stopping into the library to briefly chat. Your enthusiasm and good humor during the past year and a half are greatly appreciated, and won’t be soon forgotten.
Have a wonderful summer, and see you in the fall!
Bibliobites in May: Dinner: The Neverending Story
Every day, the dinner decision looms: Chicken or pasta? Takeout or home-cooked? Thirty minutes or two hours? Most of us are fortunate enough to have the luxury of dithering over what we feel like eating on any given night, and how much time and effort we want to devote to our evening meal. And cookbook authors, it seems, are more than willing to keep revisiting this engrossing subject. You’d think by now that all possible avenues would have been explored, but just in the last year alone, our Bibliobites group has cooked their way through six recent titles devoted wholly or primarily to dinner. And continuing in that vein, this month we kitchen-tested Mark Bittman’s most recent title, Dinner For Everyone, a bold claim if ever there was one. However, since Mr. Bittman is the one who taught us how to cook everything, dinner for everyone seems like a natural progression!
This book is organized in a unique way: recipes are presented in sets of three, which detail three ways of producing a meal, either quick and easy; vegan; or company-worthy (essentially, a project for when you have time). Each set of recipes represents a theme; a similarity of taste or ingredients or method. This could be helpful if you knew you wanted to use a particular ingredient, or if you had a hankering for, say, Asian flavors. But some in the group thought this arrangement was “contrived,” and others thought it was “fun to look at…but not so practical.” Most of us aren’t yet inviting groups of people to our homes, so there wasn’t much testing of the “company” recipes; but we did appreciate that this title gave us lots of diverse choices. One notably irritating aspect of the book was that for each set of three recipes, there was only one photo, and most of the time the photo wasn’t of the recipe that was printed next to it. This caused a fair amount of confusion, as we wondered why photo and nearby text didn’t match. Needless to say, we wished for more (and logically placed) photos!
Most of us focused on the “easy” category (hey, we just want to use our time efficiently!), where we found some keepers– and a few duds. Udon with ginger-roasted carrots and miso sauce was a definite keeper, with its deeply flavored, savory sauce. Caramel salmon also had a fabulous sauce, though this traditional Vietnamese combination was “too sweet” for one person. A “really good” peanut sauce was featured in pork tenderloin simmered in peanut sauce; as is true of almost any peanut sauce, it was delicious on just about anything and played quite nicely with chicken or vegetables. Sausage and escarole used this slightly bitter green in a new way: it was roasted and topped with Parmesan cheese, which was enjoyably different. Falafel hash was another keeper; this simple combination really delivered in the flavor department, with just enough spice and a lemony sauce. It would be excellent for brunch with an egg fried on top, but was just fine all by itself. Spicy tuna rice bowl was a quick and tasty bowl made with basic pantry ingredients, but it suffered mightily in the looks department: the tuna and its soy-laced sauce created an unappealing lumpy brown puddle atop the rice, reminiscent of– well, perhaps better not to say!
There were a few misses in this “easy” category; for instance, shrimp melts were “kind of blah,” plus the mixture was hard to work with and didn’t want to stick together. However, when at last the cakes were formed, they did stick to the pan! Orzo with shrimp and dill had way too much pasta for the amount of shrimp (a problem also encountered with orecchiette with salmon), and both dishes were a bit too basic. Shrimp with olives suffered from some timing issues, but it was fast and easy, though a bit too salty. Sausage gumbo was “good…easy…but I have other gumbo recipes that are better;” and couscous and chicken with tunisian spices, despite a nice variety of spices, somehow “didn’t have a lot of flavor.” One-pot stroganoff was a hit and a miss: one person thought it was “bland” and needed something to add depth; but another person enjoyed it and pronounced it a keeper.
Moving on to more challenging categories, those who tried anything in the “vegan” group unanimously thought the recipes were complicated– as in, time-consuming and with a lot of prep. We did attempt a few; creamy white bean pasta and cauliflower was a vegan version of that all-time fave, macaroni and cheese. This one was “pretty easy” and did deliver on its promise of creamy, saucy pasta and crisp breadcrumb topper. Mushroom-sweet potato moussaka was “a lot of work” with its many steps. But it did make a big batch, and was “good….different,” though it called for too much cinnamon (2 teaspoons!). However, it was worth trying again. Teriyaki mushrooms also had lots of steps, but were “really delicious” with a yummy sauce. And sweet potato and corn enchiladas were also a bit of a project (as enchiladas often are); overall, this dish was a winner, though the filling didn’t hold together well and “needed something.” The sauce was excellent, though– in fact, most if not all of the author’s sauces were extremely well-liked.
One or two “company” recipes rounded out our adventures: orange beef was a super version of this classic, with a mellow, yet bracing, orange flavor. Though it’s classed as a “project” recipe, it was fairly simple, and had the advantage of still tasting delicious after a few days in the fridge. And baked mascarpone french toast was a keeper; this lush, custardy casserole was perfectly accented by sweet/tart fruit. Bonus: you put it together the night before.
As a group, we were unequivocally equivocal about this title! Most of us are Bittman fans, and several own his books (the most popular being How to Cook Everything). But this one didn’t seem to measure up to some of his others, despite admittedly producing a decent number of keepers. One person was thinking about buying the book– she liked the range of choices and many of the flavor profiles appealed to her. For the rest of us, it was a bit of a “meh,” reflected in our voting, which averaged out to just over a 3 (out of a possible 5). As a point of comparison, the author’s VB6 book (January 2018) garnered a 2, while How to Cook Everything Fast (May 2017) snagged an overall 3.25. So, we mostly like him– but we’re not completely sold!
We’ll next meet on Friday, June 25 at 11 AM. If the weather is favorable, we will meet in person outdoors!! If it’s rainy or super hot, we will revert to Zoom. This month we’re mixing in some fiction with our food with Joanne Fluke’s The Chocolate Cream Pie Murder. Copies are available at the main desk. If you would like to attend the meeting, and are not already on our mailing list, please email group leader Andrea Grant. See you then!
Bibliobites in April: Plenty Simple?
In the kitchen, we’re often looking to simplify– to create maximum joy on the plate with minimum time and effort. Of course we want to eat something interesting and flavorful, but we don’t want to spend hours getting there. And we also might want something new and different, too! April’s title, Ottolenghi Simple by superstar chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi, seemed tailor-made for our list of dinnertime desires: “supremely streamlined” recipes with signature Middle Eastern herbs and spices that aim to create “drama in the mouth.” While Ottolenghi may be widely known and rightly praised for his traditional yet inventive Mediterranean cuisine, he’s also notorious for recipes with long lists of seasonings and much chopping of ingredients; so could his food be simplified without losing its heart and soul?
Most in the group thought the recipes were “sort of” simple; they had some simple attributes, but overall we found this book a bit fussy– partly because the cuisine is less familiar to us, but also because prep could be time-consuming and convoluted. To help readers, in this book the word “simple” is an acronym for short on time; ten or fewer ingredients; make ahead; pantry-led; lazy-day; and easier than you think. Recipes are marked with color-coded letters to alert us to the ways in which it was simple– a feature none of us wound up using. For some reason, it was difficult to remember what the letters stood for, and sometimes we just didn’t notice them (even though they’re at the top of every page!). As always, we chose recipes based on what called to us and what we might have on hand.
Ottolenghi’s cooking is generally vegetable-centric, which most of us enjoy. Starting with salads, tomatoes with sumac shallots and pine nuts was “good– and it was pretty simple,” as was chopped salad with tahini and za’atar. Both of these would likely be better with August tomatoes, though they were still tasty and added welcome crunch to a meal. Curried egg and cauliflower salad, a riff on the classic British coronation chicken, was “not bad,” part of the problem being that it made a lot and leftovers couldn’t be frozen. It would be a nice side dish for a group. Roasted eggplant with anchovies and oregano was loaded with umami; in addition to being a “very good” side dish, “it would be even better as a spread on bruschetta or pizza.” Asparagus also got into the oven with roasted asparagus with almonds, capers, and dill, which was a “very easy, very tasty” combination– a keeper! On the other hand, roasted cabbage with tarragon and pecorino was visually unappealing and had just “OK” flavor, despite its assertive ingredient list. Two people tried mustardy cauliflower cheese, a comforting gooey gratin of cauliflower with ample cheesy sauce. We thought it could have used more mustard but less cumin, which became a bit too strong after a few days in the fridge. Butternut squash with corn salsa, feta, and pumpkin seeds was a good combination, but the timing of the recipe was a bit off– the squash was too mushy when cooked as directed. And brussels sprouts with browned butter and black garlic were “fussy” and just “OK.”
There was plenty to choose from in the main dish category, for both carnivores and vegetarians. Middle Eastern cuisine often features a lot of lamb, and this book is no exception. That was problematic for some; a number of people don’t like lamb. But maybe it’s time to try it again, since some of the recipes using it were quite tasty. For instance, lamb and pistachio patties with sumac yogurt sauce were “easy” and had “really good flavor.” The sumac sauce was an excellent lemony foil for the patties; and the sauce turned out to be delicious over roasted vegetables as well. Two people made lamb and feta meatballs, which was also a yummy combination, and the optional pomegranate molasses glaze was the perfect accent. However the recipe needed more of a binder than the breadcrumbs called for; the meatballs tended to fall apart. An egg helped! And the directions called for frying and then baking the meatballs, when just baking would have been easier, less messy, and equally good. But overall, definitely worth making again. Slow-cooked lamb shoulder with mint and cumin turned out just “OK;” the included veggies (celery root and carrot) didn’t seem to add much to the overall flavor, and a bigger problem was that the instructions called for cooking at 350 degrees for 6 hours. That time span almost certainly calls for a lower temp if you didn’t want to turn your expensive lamb into a tough mess. Oddly we didn’t make much chicken or fish; we did try seeded chicken schnitzel, which was kind of a high-class version of chicken fingers. The seed-ful coating was crunchy and flavorful, but unfortunately this dish didn’t age that well– the flavors faded and it’s hard to reheat boneless chicken breast without drying it out. Bridget Jones’s pan-fried salmon with pine nut salsa had a “cute headnote” and the fish was pretty good, too! The salsa in particular was a keeper. Roasted trout with tomato, orange, and barberry salsa also boasted a winning topper, “very much liked!”
We worked our way through several vegetarian mains, as well. Baked rice with confit tomatoes and garlic could be a side or a main; the tomatoes and spices elevated the rice to something savory and special. On the other hand, couscous, cherry tomato, and herb salad turned out just “OK;” the dressing was kind of “blah.” But the mint in the salad was a perfect addition! Puy lentil and eggplant stew was “better than I thought it would be” though it didn’t get points in the looks department, “browny and mushy!” Despite that, “I’ll make again.” Two people tried gigli with chickpeas and za’atar, which could have used more sauce, but “we really liked it.” Though this recipe wasn’t difficult, it didn’t seem super-simple with its “many steps.” Also featuring pasta, pappardelle with rose harissa, black olives, and capers had good flavors, with plenty of salty umami from the olives and capers. Rose harissa proved difficult to find so our cook made her own (non-rose) harissa, which worked well. Anchovy and samphire spaghetti highlighted an unfamiliar and unlocatable sea vegetable; the author suggests using asparagus as a substitute, and the resulting dish came together very quickly and was delicious with its notes of lemon and garlic. And curried lentil, tomato, and coconut soup was a winner– both people who made it thought it was a keeper. This dish features quick-cooking red lentils accented with tomatoes, cilantro, and coconut milk. It made a great leftover, only improving in the fridge, and it’s vegan to boot.
After all the cooking was done, there were lots of opinions about the experience. On the plus side, group members used some new-to-them spices that they fell in love with, particularly sumac and Aleppo pepper. We enjoyed many of the flavors that have come to define Ottolenghi– familiar friends like lemon, garlic, and anchovy; and new ones like sumac, za’atar, and pomegranate molasses. We liked the book itself, with its typical large format; and there was uniform praise for the photography and layout. On the downside, the large quantities of fresh herbs needed was a bit problematic for April in New England, both expensive and/or difficult to come by. And there seemed to be a fair amount of prep for a “simple” book. Also, some just aren’t crazy about Middle Eastern flavors in general, though others wished the book had more focus on what Ottolenghi is justly known for. In trying to simplify, we thought the food lost some of its distinctive qualities– so maybe it’s Middle Eastern lite? Several years ago (in February 2015!) our group reviewed Ottolenghi’s best-seller Jerusalem, which, as the title indicates, is more sharply focused on those particular ingredients and flavors. Despite its being more complicated to cook from, we preferred that book. Go figure! In the end, even though some of us found some keepers, no one was that enthusiastic about this title, and our voting averaged out to 2.25 (out of a possible 5). We’re a tough crowd, and apparently we’ve gotten harder to impress as the months go by!
We’ll next meet on Friday, May 28 at 11 AM, where we’ll be discussing Mark Bittman’s boldly titled Dinner For Everyone. Copies are available at the main circulation desk, or via curbside pickup. Plan to chat via Zoom; if you’re not already on our mailing list and would like to attend, please email group leader Andrea Grant. See you then!
Bibliobites in March: Pizza: A Love Story
America’s love affair with pizza is deep and enduring (dare we say passionate?), and continues to blossom in new and unexpected ways. In fact, one could argue that pizza is a unifying cultural force, because who doesn’t love pizza? Regardless of age, race, gender, ethnicity, or political persuasion, there are very few of us who have never happily downed a slice of cheesy goodness. According to multiple sources, over 90% of Americans consume pizza at least once a month, and the ongoing pandemic has probably only increased that number! Though most of us are quite content to get our pizza fix through takeout or delivery, our ever-intrepid Bibliobites group spent the month of March perfecting homemade pies. The pros have 900-degree ovens and plenty of experience with finicky pizza dough– could we even come close to that? And ultimately, would we even want to bother, when ordering from any number of places is oh so quick and easy?
We had two titles to guide us on our path to pizza perfection: Truly Madly Pizza by Suzanne Lenzer, and Todd English’s Rustic Pizza by Todd English. Both feature extensive information and instruction on crust-making, arguably the most intimidating part of producing pizza at home. Some found the multiple pages of instructions to be a bit of overkill, but once we got past the plethora of details, the dough was simple enough to make. Two people had high praise for Lenzer’s dough, which made a light, slightly chewy thin crust. This dough required a fermentation period, so you needed to make it ahead (at least 8 hours); but this did make evening pizza production quicker. English’s crust didn’t insist on a waiting time, which worked well if you were using regular white flour; but if you sourced the suggested “00” Italian-style flour, the crust was much tastier after sitting in the fridge for a day. Though making your own crust is quick and easy (once you’ve digested all those instructions!), many in the group don’t bother with making their own pizza crust, especially since there are now plenty of respectable alternatives out there. Many supermarkets carry more than one brand of dough, and some takeout places sell theirs (one member likes the dough from Sal’s). Plus there are always premade crusts (like Boboli); and lavash, pita, or naan are also good bases if you’re in a hurry.
OK– crust conquered! On to the toppings! Interestingly, though both books have sauce recipes, many of the pizza recipes feature no sauce. The sauces in both books were solid, though “nothing to write home about.” One person did think that English’s sauce was “really good;” but neither sauce stood out enough to be a keeper. Beyond red sauce, there were plenty of toppings to try, both traditional and more unusual. Two people made roast chicken with fennel and onion jam, which was a tasty combination, though it “needed something.” One person added a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which seemed to do the trick. But the recipe was good enough that it was worth another try. A few recipes used caramelized onion jam, which was “delicious– I liked it a lot,” and was a good condiment to have on hand. Marinated artichokes with spinach and feta was a yummy version of this classic combination; and sweet and sour onions with butternut squash and ricotta was also a winner with its caramelized squash and pillowy ricotta. But, caramelized fennel and pears with stilton was way too heavy on the blue cheese; perhaps a milder blue would have played more nicely with the other ingredients? If you can’t or don’t do dairy, there were several no-cheese options; curried cauliflower with tomatoes and cilantro had so many lively flavors that you didn’t even notice that there was no cheese involved. Broccolini, mushroom, and crunchy breadcrumbs, though it contained a small amount of ricotta, would have been equally good without it– or maybe with some of that marinara sauce?
All of the above recipes are from Truly Madly Pizza.
While most of us had checked out Lenzer’s book, a few dipped into Todd English’s. One person praised his almond pesto, which was creamy and delicious and almost dairy-free, having only one teaspoon of Parmesan in the batch. Chicken chili was used as a topping, though of course it could be eaten on its own; this was “worth trying” especially if you’re a beer lover, since that was its signature ingredient. The margherita was a solid version of this classic, and the roasted eggplant pizza was “really good,” with plenty of eggplant complemented by the traditional sauce and cheese. Chicken tikka masala pizza was a keeper; it used jarred tikka sauce for an easy flavor boost, and you could use naan for the crust, as suggested.
There were, as always, some complaints. Many, if not most, of Ms. Lenzer’s pizza toppings consisted of ingredients scattered over the crust; often there wasn’t a binding ingredient like sauce, and/or the cheese was dolloped rather than spread all over. The toppings would often fall off as we tried to cut and/or eat the pizza, which was a bit frustrating and sometimes messy. And even though many topping combinations were delicious, they were things we probably could have just pulled out of our own fridge; there wasn’t much that was really innovative (or maybe we’ve just been spoiled by the numerous choices we’ve already sampled via takeout?). Still, most of the pizzas were tasty and quick to put together once we had the dough made or bought; and both authors’ recipes certainly took us beyond your standard cheese and pepperoni, should you want to branch out.
So after the ovens had cooled, did either of these books turn us into at-home pizzaiolos? We started our meeting with most saying they rarely or never make pizza at home– and at the end of our discussion opinions hadn’t changed much. Takeout pizza is widely available, and in our area we’re lucky to have several high-quality options. On the other hand, some in the group say they only eat homemade pizza; but they already have their favorite ways of doing things, and neither book motivated them to change. But a few (including yours truly) were inspired by Ms. Lenzer’s dough to make more pizza at home, now that they’ve become familiar with her reliable and simple recipe. Voting reflected our overall ambivalence, with both books averaging out to just over 3 (out of a possible 5). Our love for pizza may indeed know no bounds– but most of the time, we’ll let the pros do the cooking!
Survey says….We started our meeting with a brief poll:
If you want to eat pizza in a restaurant, where would you go?
- Bertucci’s (Chelmsford), “still good!”
- Evvivva Trattoria (Westford), “like the high-tops, good beer selection!”
- Cane Rosso (Dallas TX), a bit of a hike, but “absolutely delicious– lots of different toppings!”
- Pizzario (Hillsboro, OR), an even bigger hike, “olive oil in/on the crust is very delicious– love the live music and local art on the walls.”
- Longtime New England favorites Pizzeria Regina and Frank Pepe’s.
- Newer local chains Otto’s and Max and Leo’s
For takeout only, where would you go (if different from above)?
- Silver Palate (Westford), “I like that they also will make pizza on Syrian bread.”
- Sal’s (Chelmsford and others), “they sell giant slices!”
- Chelmsford Pizza (Chelmsford), “Greek-style pizza…fantastic gargantuan roast beef sandwich.”
Favorite pizza topping:
- Mushroom (3 people)
- Roasted red pepper
If you’re ready to move on from pizza, join us at our next meeting on Friday, April 30 at 11 AM; we’ll be discussing Ottolenghi Simple, a streamlined take on Middle Eastern-ish food by well-known chef/restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi. Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. We’ll chat on the 30th via Zoom; if you would like to attend but are not already on our Bibliobites mailing list, please email group leader Andrea Grant. See you then!
Bibliobites in February: Those Were the Days, My Friends
Author/editor/critic Ruth Reichl has had a long and storied career in the food world; and she’s shared many of her unique experiences in a series of memoirs. Our Bibliobites group first perused this territory back in 2014, when we reviewed Garlic and Sapphires, Ms. Reichl’s engaging and revealing memoir of her years as a restaurant critic for the NY Times. This month’s title, Save Me the Plums, covers 10 years post-Times when the author was editor-in-chief of the late, lamented Gourmet magazine. The good, the bad, the ugly, and the incredibly expensive are all chronicled in the author’s eminently readable style; and we all learned maybe more than we ever wanted to know about magazine publishing!
Speaking of Gourmet, thanks to the internet we were able to obtain back issues of the magazine from 2007 and 2009– 2007 perhaps being close to its heyday, and 2009 representing its final year. Having the actual product in our hands, after reading about all the time and effort that went into creating it, really brought those chapters of the memoir to life. But, it must be said that the magazine left most of us cold. We thought too many of the recipes were overly time-consuming (a criticism that was often leveled at the magazine), and elaborate in an unnecessary way. For example, one issue had a recipe for fettuccine lasagna with meatballs that was a three-day affair; and it didn’t seem that much different than your average one-day lasagna. It may have been worth it, but the full page of instructions was a bit intimidating. We were also incredibly distracted by the pages and pages of ads (“so many!”) for super-expensive items, often featuring “rich people on vacation.” This overt conspicuous consumption was a big turn-off for us. The world Ms. Reichl inhabited at Gourmet seemed so unreal to us; it was like something you’d read in a book (!), and the magazine faithfully reflected that world. It turned out that most in our group had been Bon Appetit readers, and we didn’t know until we read this memoir that it was considered the plain-Jane poor relation of Gourmet. There’s aspirational, and then there’s completely out of our league– which is how the Gourmet issues felt.
On the plus side, we did love the photography in the magazines; and though some of the covers didn’t appeal to us (“that wouldn’t stop me dead in my tracks at the newsstand”), we could appreciate their unique qualities. During Ms. Reichl’s tenure, much effort was expended to improve both the visuals and the quality of the articles, and we felt that overall the effort was successful. A few people mentioned that they weren’t really drawn into the writing in their issue; as is often the case, some articles were better than others. We all loved David Foster Wallace’s article, “Consider the Lobster” which generated much controversy when it was first published in 2004, but which would likely be considered mainstream today. Staying with lobster for the moment, thanks to the internet (again!) we were able to read 1946’s “Night of Lobster” by Robert P. T. Coffin; in the memoir Ms. Reichl recounts reading this Gourmet article as a teen and being completely swept away. In this case, we agreed with the author: this evocative piece had a true “you are there” quality with its spare, Hemingway-esque writing.
So, we weren’t all that crazy about Gourmet, but we loved the memoir. It was a revealing peek into a world that we knew nothing about; and even though at times it was hard to relate to that world, it was still a satisfying read. Ms. Reichl’s story moves along nimbly and showcases an incredible cast of characters who’d be right at home in, say, The Devil Wears Prada. Group members praised her descriptive powers, both for food and people; and of course we enjoyed all the “gossipy bits” about various NY movers and shakers. We were impressed by the author’s adventurous tastes in food; one of our favorite chapters involves her son’s ongoing relationship with a very astute sushi chef who broadened his food tastes considerably. And we could certainly relate to a mom with a child who was a picky eater, despite the amazing example of parents and constant exposure to every type of food imaginable.
There were several descriptions of lavish travel in this memoir– we were amazed at how many people were needed to put together an article on, say, Paris; but the real stunner was the way these trips happened, with no expense spared. From restaurants to hotels, it was all over the top in a way that was hard to envision. Later in the book, as it becomes clear that the magazine may be doomed, there’s a final trip to Paris on a budget– and this was of course much more relatable. And the author makes the valid point that meals don’t have to be elaborate to be superb, and a hotel you’re only using for sleeping doesn’t have to be five-star to be comfortable. I guess it’s all what you’re used to!
We’d definitely recommend this or any of Ruth Reichl’s memoirs– they’re a nice mix of the lighthearted and the serious, the triumphs and defeats, the mundane and the incredible. We enjoy this author’s highly readable style, which makes these books hard to put down. Most of us do prefer her earlier titles about her growing-up years, and of course we loved the humor that’s so evident in Garlic and Sapphires, but Save Me the Plums is worth your time as well. Our zoom meeting was unfortunately interrupted by a power failure (affecting a good-sized portion of the town), so voting was a bit spotty; but of those who voted, the memoir averaged out to 4.2; the magazine 1.9!
Though we may not have done much cooking in February, things will be heating up this month as we explore the ever-popular topic of pizza. Choose from either Truly Madly Pizza by Suzanne Lenzer or Todd English’s Rustic Pizza by local chef Todd English. Both are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup. We’ll next meet via zoom on Friday March 26 at 11 AM; if you’re not already on our mailing list and would like to attend, please email group leader Andrea Grant.
News flash: if you loved Gourmet and/or Ruth Reichl’s memoir, we’ll soon have available a Binge Box with a year’s worth of issues plus a copy of the memoir. Great reading, and cooking, for a rainy day!
Bibliobites in January: My Dinner With Dorie
What do you get when you combine cold weather, short days, a long stretch between meetings, an ongoing pandemic that has most of us at home almost all the time, and a cookbook filled with dinner ideas? You get a lot of cooking going on, so buckle up, folks– this could be a long ride!
This month’s title, Everyday Dorie by Dorie Greenspan, did seem to be peculiarly suited to the time of year and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The theme of this book is casual meals that the author whips up on any given weeknight. Though the emphasis is on main dishes, there are appetizers, side dishes, and desserts as well. There’s even a chapter at the end on basics, that covers projects (some simple, some more elaborate) that you might feel like tackling if, I don’t know, you were in your house all the time.
The book itself is a nice hefty squarish tome; the shape meant that the pages were wider than the norm, and happily the book stayed flat no matter where it was opened. There are plenty of beautiful, up-close photos, and the pages feature ample white space and easy-to-read type. At the end of most recipes there’s information on storing and reheating, as well as serving ideas and ways to, as the author says, “play around” with the ingredients. There were also plenty of verbose headnotes; and while some don’t enjoy these short prequels, at least here they were mostly in the form of tips for success, and not the name- or place-dropping that has become so common. On the other hand, had the headnotes not been so lengthy, many more of the recipes could have each fit on one page, a most desirable feature. Book editors, please take note!
As mentioned, there were major amounts of cooking going on, so let’s get to it. A few recipes caught the eye of several members, and these proved to be among the best-liked. The recipe shown on the book’s cover, lower east side brunch tart, was one of these winners. There was praise for the tart dough, which was easy to work with (including the “great idea” to roll out between 2 sheets of parchment paper) and baked up nicely. We enjoyed the filling’s creamy combo of smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers, and dill. This recipe seemed more special-occasion than everyday, but definitely worth the time and expense. The mushroom-bacon galette was without a doubt a keeper. There was lavish praise for the filling (“I could’ve just eaten that”) with its savory and smoky notes; and the crust (slightly different from that of the brunch tart) was flaky and tasty. This crust had a bit of sugar, which seemed a little odd, but “it worked!” Overall, it was just “fantastic– one of the best recipes I’ve ever made!”
Since it’s winter, we made lots of soups and stews. Moroccan-spiced chickpea and noodle soup was “really hearty” and made a big potful. Though the recipe contained meatballs, the general consensus was that they weren’t necessary, and anyway they were “too plain.” Those who made this liked it enough that they would make it again; but one big flaw was that it called for 3 tablespoons of ground ginger; the general reaction was, “no way!” We decided it must be a typo; but even cutting back to 2 teaspoons or less, there was plenty of spice; the recipe calls for several others besides the ginger. Another soup that featured meatballs, gingered-turkey meatball soup was a comforting, Asian-inspired bowl. It did need the optional add-ins to amp up the flavors, but this was easily done and would enable diners to customize to taste. Though the author claims it doesn’t make a good leftover, we found the opposite to be true: those who made it felt it got better with age. Roasted butternut squash soup turned out to be “OK– but not great.” The method of roasting the squash, with the skin on (which you then had to peel off after baking) seemed unnecessarily awkward and messy, especially since a sticky mixture of oil, maple syrup, and soy sauce was poured over the squash before roasting (“be sure to line the pan with foil like she says!”). Bean and tortilla soup was also just “OK.” Multiple toppers were listed at the end of the recipe, but even with these added, in the end it was “kind of boring.”
There’s a chapter devoted to chicken, and this was a popular choice for many. Three people made “super simple” sweet chili chicken thighs. One person loved them; for another they were OK; and for the third the sauce tasted bitter (this is starting to sound like Goldilocks!). Ponzu chicken was another easy dish with an Asian twist; in this case the salty/ lemony Ponzu sauce was a good foil for the chicken. Lemon-fennel chicken in a pot took its namesake flavor from fresh lemons, but in this case the lemon was “overpowering.” The fennel taste was assertive, but those of us who like fennel were happy about that. Altogether, this was a straightforward, tasty braise; but next time we’ll use less lemon. Spatchcocked chicken was as good as any roast chicken, though nothing extraordinary. However, it’s a great technique to use and fun to say!
In the fish category, one hit was the cod and beans en papillote. Though the individual foil packets were a bit fussy to put together, the combination of beans, fish, and tomatoes was a bit different and delicious. This was another recipe that aged well (at least for a few days) despite the author’s claims that “there is no keeping this dish once it is cooked.” Seafood pasta pulled out all the stops with fish, shrimp, and squid; but the result was “eh!” And it really needed the lemon, despite it being listed at the end as optional. More lemon appeared (I’m sensing a trend here) in twice-flavored scallops; in addition to lemon juice, lemon goop garnishes the scallops once cooked. The goop is “custardy” (like a lemon curd); it was easy to make and kept well.
Additional main dishes we tried included bourbon-roasted pork loin (“really good”), umami burgers (“I needed many new condiments…super-tender, liked the veggies in it”), and pasta with cabbage, winter squash, and walnuts (“OK– it looked pretty; liked the dried cranberries”). A couple of recipes turned out to be projects: stuffed cabbage, after a lot of work, was “disappointing– the sauce was too sweet and I didn’t like the lemon in the filling.” That good old standby, spaghetti and meatballs, was a delicious version of this classic; adding sausage to the meatballs was a yummy twist. As the recipe states, the meatballs “drink up the sauce,” but that meant there wasn’t quite enough left for the spaghetti.
Even after all those main dishes, we still had some energy left for sides, like gingered beet salad (“it was fine”), sweet and smoky roasted carrots (“very good, different– love the smoked paprika in these”), and cowboy caviar or side (“not a good leftover because of the fresh tomatoes– but I would make it again”). Three people made maple syrup and mustard brussels sprouts; this was “good, but used too many pots.” The syrup and mustard have become a classic pairing for brussels sprouts, and it’s a “go-to” combination for one person. Another changed up the recipe significantly, adding in raisins and apple, which was “fabulous.” One big flop was the oven-charred tomato-stuffed peppers. Though this is one of the author’s signature recipes, it was not as advertised; the bread crumbs got unpleasantly soggy inside the pepper halves, and the lemon slice atop the crumbs never cooked and was overly chewy. The photo looks “fabulous– but don’t bother.” Roasted squash hummus also sounded enticing, but it was “bland” and “looked like something you get from a newborn baby’s diaper.” I note that there is no photo of this particular recipe!
And last, we come to desserts. Cornmeal buttermilk loaf cake was a bit too dense (possibly needed more leavening?), but it was excellent toasted. Apple custard crisp had too much streusel on top of the apples; it never browned but instead turned into “a big dry mass.” But the big winner in the dessert section was the dark chocolate pudding, which was incredibly silky with fantastic chocolate flavor. After hearing how good this was, I think we were all ready to whip out a saucepan and make some! I know it’s on my list of future desserts to try.
If you’ve read this far, it should be obvious by now that we gave this book a thorough test-drive. Some commonalities emerged: lots of Asian flavors and condiments; a preponderance of lemon; a wide variety of spices. Some recipes seemed too time-consuming or labor-intensive to be called “everyday,” though there certainly were simpler ideas as well. In once again reviewing our discussion and the book I concluded that (as the subtitle indicates) this is a rather personal book for the author, and if you like her style, you’re all set. Just be sure you like lemons!! But seriously, we enjoyed this title and I think all of us came away with a few keepers. Two people even bought the book, which doesn’t happen that often. In the end, our voting averaged out to 3.3, out of a possible 5. That’s actually a pretty decent score for this group.
Our next meeting will be on Friday February 26 at 11 AM. We’ll chat via Zoom; if you aren’t already on our mailing list, please email group leader Andrea Grant. This month we’ll be taking a little break from cooking with Ruth Reichl’s most recent memoir, Save Me the Plums, which covers her years as editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine. Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.