All posts by Andrea Grant

About Andrea Grant

Andrea Grant is a Children's Services Specialist.

Bibliobites in June: Super Summery Supper Salads

Warm sunny days are here, and who wants to spend them standing over a hot stove?  Wouldn’t you rather put together a cool, crunchy, savory meal of greens or grains or pasta complemented by a freshly made tangy dressing?  Main-dish salads are a (mostly!) quick and delicious solution for hot-weather meals, and our two titles this month explored salads both familiar and innovative.

Mindy Fox’s Salads: Beyond the Bowl includes salads that are meant as sides, plus those that are hefty enough to go solo for dinner.  We all noted the many drool-worthy photographs, and liked that most recipes were on one page.  Alas, the binding on my copy was so tight that the book wouldn’t stay open by itself, though time and use will take care of that problem!  In general we thought the recipes were a bit fussy and labor-intensive, though the end result was usually quite good.  For some reason, I think we associate “salad” with “simple and quick,” so it was a mental shift to realize that with this book we’d need to spend more time creating (if not actually cooking) the salad and its components.  Among the simpler recipes we tried were the blueberries, feta, and mint, an unusual combination that was unexpectedly delicious.  Also different, green melon, cubanelle peppers, and ricotta salata offered a welcome, subtle riff on the better-known watermelon/feta salad.  On the plate, it had a cool, pale-green presentation and was mild yet flavorful.  The tender carrots with miso and tahini were quick to make if you bought pre-shredded carrots, or have a food processor; the dressing with its Asian flavors brought new life to what many think of as a boring vegetable.

Moving closer to the main dish department, the potato salad with charred poblano peppers, sweet corn, and crema had a fair amount of prep; but the combination had lots of zip, and made enough for more than one meal.  The freekeh salad with fava beans, grilled asparagus, and roasted lemon was easily a meal in a bowl, though peas had to be substituted for the fresh fava beans, which are difficult to find.  This salad was hearty but not heavy, and made great lunch leftovers.  Sometimes a recipe gives you too much of a good thing, as was the case with the lentils, grilled radicchio, and chorizo.  The recipe called for a pound of radicchio (a whole head), which made the resulting salad quite bitter.  Once much of it was picked out, the remaining combination of lentils, celery, chorizo, and some radicchio was tasty; and it aged well.  Frisee and cucumber salad with mexican-spiced pork and guacamole was a harmonious combination of sliced grilled pork atop greens, with a tart and flavorful guacamole on the side.  Frisee proved difficult to find, but any crisp green can be substituted.  Though there were three separate components, this dish was fairly quick to make– a virtue we always appreciate!  Warm shrimp salad with Indian-spiced lentils, yogurt and pepitas was a winner, though lentils were swapped out in favor of a combination of chickpeas and kidney beans.  This recipe had plenty of spice without being overpoweringly hot, and its varied textures kept things interesting.

Our other title for the month, Salad Samurai by Terry Hope Romero, proved a bit more intimidating for most people.  Romero is a well-known vegan chef with several cookbooks to her credit.  So Samurai makes plentiful use of tofu and beans (since the recipes are designed to be main dishes), and of course uses no meat, eggs, or dairy.  These considerations sometimes necessitated extra prep time, and if you don’t like tofu or beans,  you’re out of luck.  Like Fox’s, this book also features delectable photos; and Romero’s trademark enthusiastic and humorous writing makes for an enjoyable read.  There were some complaints about inconsistent editing, and that all-too-common situation where the photo (however lovely) doesn’t match its recipe.  But those brave enough to venture into tofu territory came back with good reports: strawberry spinach salad with orange poppyseed dressing had really wonderful flavors, as did the asparagus pad thai.  Both were somewhat labor-intensive, requiring prep for the tofu itself (pressing and then cooking in advance), dressing, vegetables, and nut toppers.  The flavors of east-west corn salad were also delectable, and like most of the recipes tried from this book, it made a substantial quantity.  Monday night red beans and rice salad was good, but perhaps more ordinary than many of the other recipes in the book; it didn’t stand out in any particular way, though at least it was fairly quick to prepare.

Since this was our last meeting until September, we ended the morning with a potluck lunch featuring several of the recipes discussed above.  It was wonderful to be able to taste such a variety of salads; many thanks to all who took the time and trouble to contribute.  Two members brought dessert as well (hooray!); here’s a link for the limoncello ricotta cheesecake  we all enjoyed.

Though people stated that they liked the salads they tried (and one person liked Salad Samurai so much that she bought it!), voting reflected a bit of ambivalence.  A few people live with a Mr. Fussy who isn’t fond of salads, which limited experimentation with the books, while others were put off by the time and planning ahead required for some of the recipes.  There was general consensus that the flavors and combinations presented were worth the trouble, if you had the time and inclination.  So, ultimately both books averaged out to a 3 (out of a possible 5) chef’s hats rating, though that overall number disguises some vast differences of opinion.  That’s statistics for you!

Thank you to everyone for your participation over the past year.  Your opinions, comments, and sage advice are always enjoyed and appreciated.  Our next meeting will be September 30 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room; all are welcome to join us.  Enjoy your summer, don’t spend too much time in the kitchen, and see you in the fall!

 

 

Bibliobites in May: Beat the Clock!

Especially on a weeknight, the appeal of “fast” is undeniable.  We all would like a fresh, home-cooked meal at the end of a long day; but we often don’t have the time for the kinds of prep a from-scratch dish requires.  Author Mark Bittman promises to show us how to cook so efficiently that we can have dinner on the table in 30 minutes, without using any prepared or shortcut ingredients.  And he claims his food will taste as good, or better, than more traditional versions that require much more time to execute.   Can Bittman (master of several Everything books) deliver on this bold promise?

Problem number one: this book is a tome!  Not counting the indexes, it’s just over 1000 pages.  It’s a big heavy book that can be a bit of a chore to lug around; though considering its thickness it’s lighter than it could have been.  It’s sized so that its pages do stay open on the counter (unless you’re at the very beginning or end)– always appreciated. 

But unlike many other recent (2014) cookbooks, this one features no photographs!  The beginning chapters, which provide information on cooking efficiently, do have plenty of line drawings to illustrate various techniques, a style reminiscent of The Joy of Cooking from the ’70s.  That’s not necessarily a criticism; this book just has a very different style from the lavishly photographed titles that have become the norm over the past ten years.  The font and layout of the pages made it easy to read the recipes.  We liked that Bittman repeated the quantity when telling you to add an ingredient, which eliminated a lot of glancing back-and-forth for the reader.  He also  has prep steps printed in blue, and cooking instructions in black; some liked this feature, others found it distracting.  At the end of each recipe, Bittman lists several variations on the initial recipe; this was very helpful as you could adjust based on ingredients you might have on hand.

The first 40 pages of the book are called “How to Cook,” and provide lots of information on how to efficiently slice, dice, chop, and more.  He also lists pantry ingredients to have on hand, ideas on how to set up your kitchen workspace, and general strategies for speeding up your meal preparation.  All of us learned a thing or two, and also realized that many of the ideas listed we had arrived at ourselves through trial and error.  So we felt this book might be especially useful for someone without a lot of kitchen experience.

Problem number two: most of us apparently are way too slow!  Bittman often tells you to chop something while your oil or butter is heating in the pan; but rarely could we complete the task before the pan got a bit too hot.  This seemed to happen with other steps as well, where the prep step in the middle of a cooking step took longer than predicted.  Obviously you can turn down the heat or set something aside until your prep is done, but this sort of precision timing made for a more stressful experience in the kitchen.  Some of us ignored the order of prep and just did certain steps well ahead of time, which certainly works if you have that time available, but sort of defeats the purpose of the book’s philosophy!  However, as Bittman himself might point out, the best way to do something is the way that works for you.  And when we got right down to it, most of the time claims were pretty on target; recipes that were supposed to take 30 minutes generally were in the 30-40 minute range.  A few came in under 30 minutes!  Forty-five minute recipes were often quite close to that.

But what really counts in any cookbook is the food itself; and though most of the recipes were quick as claimed, were they tasty as well?  Read on…..the sesame chicken with snow peas was good, but not great; it did take the 30 minutes predicted.  The eggplant Parm sub likewise wasn’t overly impressive, but the idea of it was solid and with some future tweaking it might be a keeper.  Similarly, the pasta with spicy eggplant and tomato sauce was OK but not inspiring.  The caramel-cooked cod was super-salty; the dish was dominated by fish sauce and lacked the balance between sweet and salty that’s the hallmark of this classic recipe.  Chicken and spinach meatloaf was on the bland side and unfortunately didn’t reheat that well, and the scallion pancakes needed a bit more salt.  But they were very fast!  The stir-fry noodles with beef and celery were also very quick, but “boring.”  Fennel salad was good and pleasantly simple, but “I still like Ina Garten’s recipe better!”  The spaghetti and drop meatballs were tasty, but the timing was a bit tricky– by the time you dropped the final meatballs into the sauce, the first ones were already done, so it was hard to cook everything evenly.  And it didn’t seem like dropping the meatballs vs. rolling them saved that much time.  Cold peanut noodles were “OK,” but fast, and “I would make them again.”  The Moroccan-spiced chicken cutlets could’ve used more sauce, but the touch of cinnamon was different and enjoyable.

Other chicken recipes that we tried and liked were the chicken with creamed spinach (“really moist”), chicken and cauliflower curry with apricots (the variation with tomatoes instead of apricots), honey-ginger-soy roasted chicken and celery (“very good flavor”), and the mushroom and chicken stew with dill and paprika (“easy and flavorful– love the dill!”).  We tried a few fish dishes as well; the blackened catfish with green beans (the Dijon mustard variation) was quick, though the green beans really needed more time.  The recipe seemed to have “too much” butter;  the sole with glazed carrots also used a fair amount of butter, but it was delicious as written, and was a nice one-pan meal.

We appreciated that Bittman keeps his suggestions for sides super-simple; often just warm bread, plain rice, or noodles.  Most recipes incorporate plenty of vegetables, which we liked, and his vegetarian section is clearly not an afterthought.  His recipes use almost all fresh ingredients (with a few exceptions, like canned tomatoes), which is admirable but could get a bit carried away for our tastes.  For instance, he called for an orange when what was needed was orange juice, and only 3 tablespoons at that.  It’s hard to believe the fresh-squeezed juice would make a noticeable difference.  Similarly he normally calls for fresh spinach (with all the washing and trimming that entails) when sometimes frozen would have done just fine.  But this is every cook’s own decision!  Some thought the recipes sacrificed too much flavor in the pursuit of quickness; others noted an over- reliance on red pepper flakes to boost flavor.    And the bakers among us were disappointed that the dessert chapter was very short and didn’t feature many baked goods, many of which would be over the 45 minute time limit.  Guess you just can’t have it all!

Many of us already have our go-to recipes when we want a speedy meal, but this book did give us some good ideas, and some new ways to think about our cooking process.  Most people rated this book 4 chef’s hats (out of a possible 5), but there were enough unimpressed cooks that the overall average was 3.25.  There’s no grade inflation with this group, though, so 3.25 is a pretty good mark!

Our last meeting until September will be on Friday, June 30 at 11 AM in the McCarthy room.  We have 2 titles this month: Salads: Beyond the Bowl by Mindy Fox; or Salad Samurai by Terry Hope Romero.  This meeting will feature a potluck lunch; bring an (optional) salad to share, either from the books or one of your tried-and-true favorites.   All are welcome, please join us!

 

Postcards From Portland

…..Portland, Oregon, that is!  I’m here on vacation visiting my brother and sister-in-law, and as is often the case when I’m traveling, I’m checking out the local food scene.  Coincidentally enough, on our first day here, my sister-in-law held up a cookbook and said, “Look at this great salad book I just picked up at the library!  I’ve already marked so many recipes to try!”  It was Salads: Beyond the Bowl, one of our June Bibliobites selections!  I guess we all have produce on the brain at this time of year.

On Saturday we went to the Beaverton Farmers’ Market.  This is one of the largest outdoor markets in the area, and features local produce, meat, cheese, bread, wine, specialty foods and more.  We saw plenty of salad greens of all types; lots of spring onions, French radishes, and best of all– local strawberries!  We also brought home two types of aged goat cheese, some bagels, and a marionberry (similar to blackberry) pie.  Many of the vendors had samples of their food available; my favorite was a fresh Mexican chorizo, which is hard to find in our area.  I may have to pack some in my luggage for the trip home!  All in all it was a morning of gorgeous colors, textures, and tastes.

Sunday brought another warm and sunny day, so we spent a good portion of the afternoon at a local winery called Cooper Mountain.  The Willamette Valley (where Portland is located) is home to hundreds of wineries; most produce pinot noir and pinot gris.  Cooper Mountain has the virtue of being less than 30 minutes from my brother’s house, so that’s where we went.  We tried a few different styles of pinot noir, a pinot gris, and a rose blend, all eminently drinkable!  We were able to sit outside near the rustling grapevines, and sip our wine in the shade while enjoying views of the Coast range to our west, Cooper Mountain being at the top of a (very small) mountain.  Again I was debating what I could stuff in my suitcase for the trip home, but I think we may just consume what we can while here.  There’s always the next trip!

We had decided to take a short side trip to Bend, Oregon which is east of the Cascade Mountains.  This central part of the state is much drier than the Portland area (it’s a “high desert” area), and is home to lakes, rivers, and mountains which provide endless recreational opportunities.  From a food standpoint, one of the local favorites is trout, which I sampled in two forms while there– a smoked trout spread for an appetizer, and steelhead trout for my main course.  The spread was chunky with lots of delicately smoky fish, while the steelhead was rich and salmon-y and perfectly fresh; it was complemented by a lemon and caper sauce.

Berries are everywhere in the Northwest; they grow well in the area’s sunny, dry summers.  Wild blackberries appear in embarrassing profusion just about anywhere there’s a patch of soil; so it’s no surprise that many restaurant dishes feature them and their kin.  A fruit cup here would be unthinkable without berries, so predictably my breakfast of lemony ricotta pancakes came topped with raspberries and blueberries.  Admittedly they couldn’t be local at this time of year, but they were delicious all the same.   Local berries of all sorts will be everywhere in July, so it looks like I’ll miss that this year.  Perhaps I can get my sister-in-law to make some jam and send it to me!

Portland was one of the pioneers in the food truck scene; here they are called “food carts” and they are permanent structures that don’t move.  We visited our favorite pod of food carts downtown, in quest of Bing Mi’s Chinese crepe.  This is a large,thin, eggy pancake rolled around a filling of veggies, your choice of meat, and the fabulous, addictive secret sauce.  They’re made to order, and on a cool and cloudy day this steamy, flavorful lunch really hit the spot. I’d devoured more than half of it when I realized I’d forgotten to take the requisite photo!   This was all that was left when I finally remembered.

 

One of Portland’s most famous treats is Voodoo Doughnuts.  This small downtown shop is open 24 hours a day and has a perpetual line out the door.  On previous visits we’ve been discouraged by waits of an hour or more, but this year as we strolled by, we noticed that the line was unusually short.  As it turned out, we only had to wait for 15 minutes or so; and in fact we had trouble making our choices before we arrived at the counter.  One of Voodoo’s claims to fame is their unusual flavors– for instance, we tried the popular maple-bacon bar, a rectangular donut with maple frosting and a strip of bacon across the top.  And the voodoo donut, which is your basic jelly donut, but it’s shaped like its namesake and has a pretzel stake sticking out of its tummy!  We also bought a donut with a hibiscus glaze, and a plain glazed to judge against hometown Dunkin’s.

Voodoo has instantly identifiable packaging– we saw many people strolling proudly about with their bright pink boxes.  Though Voodoo is a longstanding Portland tradition, and has been written up in probably every food magazine you can think of, we didn’t think the donuts quite lived up to the hype (though of course we had no difficulty in polishing them off).  For my money, the best donuts are cider donuts you can find in the fall at almost any farm stand, or if you want a road trip to the original Portland (in Maine), try the yummy potato donuts at The Holy Donut.

I haven’t even touched on the extensive craft brewery scene here, or the fantastic coffee I drank everywhere; both of these items are so ubiquitous that a local wouldn’t even think about it.  My favorite part of being in Portland is getting to see my family– but the excellent and diverse food scene here is certainly a bonus!

Fun fact: Portland was named with a coin toss. The two main founders of the city, Francis Pettygrove and Asa Lovejoy,  were from (respectively) Portland, ME and Boston, MA.  They agreed that whoever won the two-out-of-three toss could name the new city after their hometown.  Guess who won?  Even more fun fact for me: I recently discovered that Asa Lovejoy is one of my husband’s ancestors!

 

Bibliobites in April: Down-Home Cooking

In April our Bibliobites titles usually coordinate with the library’s One Book program, and this year was no exception.  Our One Book title, Stronger by Jeff Bauman, features a Chelmsford-raised author and many references to local Chelmsford restaurants and locales.  So it seemed appropriate to choose cookbooks that reflect local cuisine, both traditional and innovative.

As far as Boston-area residents are concerned, there isn’t much that’s more traditional than the Boston Globe newspaper.  The first edition of their eponymous cookbook was published in 1948 and was called The Boston Globe Cook Book for Brides (one of our members has this same book in its 1963 incarnation!).  The recipes in that first book were sourced from the fondly remembered Confidential Chat column, a reader recipe exchange that appeared in the paper for over 100 years.  The book we used was published in 2009, and the recipes are “…culled from the cooks who have been writing for The Boston Globe food pages for the last decade.”  As most of us realized in using this book, there was much of the familiar, though there were some welcome new twists.

Among the recipes that drew praise was the vegetarian stuffed winter squash, which is stuffed with a delicious mix of chestnuts and mushrooms.  Decreasing the amount of bread stuffing called for, while increasing the quantity of chestnuts made it taste even better!  The gingery bok choy was super-simple to make but very flavorful; a keeper!  Likewise, the baked sweet potatoes with ginger were so easy, but the combination of the sharp ginger and savory soy sauce on the sweet potatoes was outstanding.  The lazy man’s lasagna was praised for being delicious and creamy, as well as quick to make and producing a large amount (excellent for leftovers!). The chicken Provencal had a lovely orange-flavored sauce that really made the dish, and the chicken scallopine with lemon, tomatoes, and capers was also enhanced by its citrus sauce.  The fish cakes (a traditional and pedestrian dish if ever there was one) were excellent; they were nice and crunchy on the outside with their panko and bacon topping, and you didn’t have to cook the fish before assembling the cakes.  Definitely a keeper!  The shrimp scampi limoncello was also tasty, though the limoncello was expensive to buy.  This recipe would have fit well into the North End cookbook!  And here’s a tip for your “excess” limoncello (should you tire of sipping it): one person lavishly praised the yummy limoncello ricotta cheesecake from Ina Garten’s newest book, Cooking For Jeffrey.  The recipe is available on the Food Network’s website here.   Other baked goods we tried included the blueberry muffins, which are very close to the iconic Jordan Marsh blueberry muffins.  The bittersweet-chocolate brownie cookies were praised for their flavor; they featured plenty of chocolate,  and had a nice brownie-like texture.  At Easter, one person made the traditional kourambiethes but thought her mother’s recipe was better– of course!

There were some recipes in this book that missed the mark.  The mac and ricotta was too dry and really suffered from a lack of creaminess.  It was bland, too, since the cheeses it called for were both very mild-flavored.  This of course led to a discussion of favorite mac and cheese recipes, with most people agreeing that adding mustard to the sauce is a great way to up the flavor overall.  The long-cooked short-rib ragu for pasta was way too greasy; short ribs can have this problem, but the recipe’s method didn’t provide information on how to get around this.  The sauce did have good flavor, though.  The oven-fried fish was pretty basic, and the fish had that typical problem of  having a mushy bottom crust, since that’s what sits directly on the baking sheet.  The peanut butter cookies were disappointing; they were dry despite containing plenty of both melted butter and peanut butter.

The group agreed that most of the recipes in this book, while often solid, were nothing special.  Most of us felt we already had better recipes for many of the dishes; and after trying the book’s version we weren’t motivated to change!  And, the seasonings were generally on the tame side; we wanted recipes that had a little more oomph.  But, we felt this might be a good basic cookbook, maybe for someone new to the area who would enjoy an introduction to classic New England foods.  Most people liked the layout of this book, though some did not appreciate the “paragraph” (as opposed to “list”) format of the instructions.  And, as has been true for other titles, the photograph sometimes didn’t match up to the recipe it illustrated.   When it came down to votes, most people gave it a 4 (out of 5); our overall average was 3.63.

The North End Italian Cookbook has also gone through many editions; the first was published in 1975, and the one we used in 2013.  Oddly enough, despite the fame of the North End and its numerous restaurants, most of the group felt nothing really called to them as they perused the pages.  The recipes seemed pretty unremarkable, though there were a few hits.  The crispy eggplant sandwiches were delicious and easy to make, though it needed some marinara on the side (why does eggplant always need tomato?).  The fresh mushroom soffrito was a very tasty vegetable combination with multiple uses– as a pasta sauce, over polenta, in a sandwich– and it kept well.  On the other hand, the pasta e fagiole soup’s beans weren’t close to being tender when the recipe said they should be, and the lentil soup was boringly bland as written.  It needed some doctoring with cumin and kielbasa!  One section of the book that seemed stronger than the others was the dessert chapter, particularly the cookies.  Even if we didn’t make any, these recipes sounded delicious.  One member brought in some of the Italian sesame seed cookies, and they were molto bene!  Everyone also loved the old black-and-white photos in the book and the author’s short vignettes of growing up in the North End.  The book also had a nice format, with most recipes on one page.  We just wished we liked the recipes themselves better!  This ambivalence was reflected in our voting; many did not vote at all since they hadn’t actually cooked anything from the book, and our average worked out to 3.5, which makes it sound better than it really was.

Next month we’re looking to speed things up a bit with Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything FastThis is a giant book but don’t be intimidated!  It’s user-friendly and has something for everyone.  Bittman also has a website, markbittman.com, if you prefer to try out some of his recipes that way. Copies of the book are available at the main desk; our next meeting will be on Friday May 26 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  See you there!

Bibliobites in March: Genius? Maybe!

As snow swirled outside, a smallish group met on the last day of March to discuss our experiences with two Food52 titles.  Our main book was Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 recipes that will change the way you cook.  A few people also checked out Food52 Baking: 60 sensational treats you can pull off in a snap.  Both of these titles are, in one way or another , the brainchild of Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, co-founders of the popular crowd-sourced Food52 website.  Their ever-expanding list of titles includes a book of vegan recipes, one on salads, and a forthcoming one about ice cream.   With so much experience behind them, do these authors/editors deliver on their promise of “genius,”  in changing the way we cook?

It turned out that most of us made vegetable-centric recipes from the Genius book.  The chickpea stew with saffron, yogurt, and garlic was delicious and different, but it did have a pronounced saffron flavor; so if you don’t like this pricey spice then you won’t like this dish.  The radicchio salad with Manchego vinaigrette was also a bit different, and delicious as well.  One good tip that appeared in this recipe: to tame the bitterness of radicchio, soak it in ice water for 15 minutes.  This did seem to work!  Two people tried the potato scallion cakes and thought they were a great use of leftover mashed potatoes, though the potato mixture was on the sloppy side and couldn’t be shaped into patties as described.  But it was easy enough to scoop the batter into the pan with a spoon.  The green lentil salad was on the bland side; the predominant flavor was vinegar, which wasn’t enjoyable.  And the garlic green beans were boringly basic; the cooking technique didn’t elevate them the way the recipe claimed it would.  The warm squash and chickpea salad with tahini used some ordinary ingredients, but the sum turned out to be greater than the parts, and this was  a delicious and substantial salad.  Three people made the gratin of zucchini, rice and onions with cheese we all agreed it was a yummy dish, but we weren’t sure if it was worth all the fussy extra steps involved in making it.  It did make a largish amount, though, so you could definitely eat it more than once.  Another tip we picked up from this recipe:  a spoonful of raw rice added to soups and sauces will thicken them nicely without contributing obvious flavors.  And of course this works best when the resultant dish is one that is pureed.  The zucchini gratin used this trick, and the rice did make for a more substantial final product.

In the breakfast department, one person tried the poached scrambled eggs, which were very good– tender with no added fat needed.  However these also took more work than average to prepare, so you probably wouldn’t make them on a regular basis.  The cottage cheese pancakes were a hit– easy to make and “really delicious– these would be great for brunch.”  And the roasted applesauce was also simple to make and quite tasty.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot going on in the dessert department.  The dense chocolate loaf cake was, as advertised, very chocolatey; and the flavor improved over a few days’ time.  The directions instructed you to add the wet and dry ingredients to the butter/sugar mixture “spoon by spoon” which seemed unnecessarily fussy.  Perhaps their spoons are larger than ours?  Two of us tried Marie-Helene’s apple cake, with somewhat different results.  The recipe called for “four large apples;” and depending on that definition, you could wind up with more or less moisture in your batter, which is important in a recipe that was mostly apples.  The consistency of one cake was more like a bread pudding; it was moist and delicious with lots of apple flavor, but not a cake in the usual sense of the word.  Smaller apples produced something more cake-like.  This concept might be fun to tinker with, but it would have been helpful had the recipe given weight or volume for the apples.

Staying with the dessert theme, but shifting to another book, those who used the Food52 Baking title were highly satisfied with it.  The double layer coconut pecan bars were awesome, and a big hit with “Mr. Fussy,” who, it is claimed, does not like coconut.  The cold oven pound cake was “to die for,” and the tomato soup cake tasted like a spice cake, with the secret ingredient completely incognito.  The lemon sponge cups were fantastic, and brought back good memories of our member’s mom’s lemon sponge pie.  The cream cheese cookies were “OK,” but when brought to a meeting they quickly disappeared, to rave reviews.  The chocolate banana bread was good, though it took much longer to bake than the directions indicated, and wasn’t exciting enough to tempt our member away from her usual banana bread recipe.  The easy as pie apple cake suffered a similar fate, being good but not outstandingly better than other recipes.  The cheese crispettes, though savory (not sweet) were excellent– crispy and cheesy and just the thing for serving with drinks.  Easy to make, too.

The books themselves are both large format, about the size of a sheet of paper, which seems to have become the standard size for new cookbooks.  As is also true of most newer books, there were many luscious photos, and some showed a recipe’s entire sequence from ingredients to finished product.  There were a few complaints– some recipes had directions that were unnecessarily wordy, to the point where you had to read them two or three times to get at the actual meaning.  And measurements could be inconsistent; sometimes an ingredient would be listed by weight, sometimes by volume, and sometimes in random fashion (see “four large apples” above!).  In these books, the recipes come from many sources, so perhaps that explains the different measurement units, but we felt the editors should have standardized things to make it simpler.  A few of us checked out the Food52 website and weren’t terribly impressed.  The way it was organized didn’t seem user-friendly, and there’s a lot going on visually, which can get annoying.  The search function is also kind of fussy– I was looking for the recipe for soft chocolate cherry almond cookies, and I typed “chocolate chip cherry cookies” (and the recipe does have chocolate chips in it)– and I got zero hits!  It took a bit of fiddling to figure out how to find what I was looking for.  However those cookies are really, really good!

We must have been distracted by the snow piling up outside, or our conversation– because we forgot to vote!  But judging from our discussion, I’d guess the baking book would score near a 5 (the top rating), and the Genius book maybe a 3.5.  We’ll have a retrospective vote at our next meeting, and I’ll post the results here.

Next month’s titles will coordinate with our One Book title, Stronger, by Chelmsford native Jeff Bauman.  We’re focusing on Boston and New England with The New Boston Globe Cookbook  and The North End Italian Cookbook.  Copies are available at the main desk.  Please join us for our next meeting on Friday, April 28 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.   All are welcome; see you there!

 

Bibliobites in February: Pie: It’s What’s For Dinner

Image of item Do you, like author Ken Haedrich, have a “lust for crust”?  As our Bibliobites group discovered through this month’s title, pie crust (and its cousins) isn’t just for dessert anymore– it’s for pot pies, galettes, quiches, strudels, handpies, and tarts.  Many of these dishes are familiar cold-weather favorites, but this book introduces some variations we’d never seen, as well as twists on tried-and-true favorites.  But the common thread is, of course, the crust; and this topic made for an active discussion!

As it turns out, some in the group are not fond of pie crust at all.  How can this be??  Some do not enjoy making the crust, with all its fussy details (more on that in a moment), and some thought the most frequently used crust in the book (the “go-to pie dough”) had too much fat in general, and too much butter in particular.  Many of the recipes contained cream, cheese, or sausage; and adding pie crust to this mix just seemed to put the whole dish over the top in terms of fat and calories.  Many of the pot pie and shepherd’s pie recipes called for both a top and bottom crust, which some thought was the “correct” way, and some felt was overkill, as they prefer only a top crust.

The details of making the pie crust sent some of us over the edge.  In his zeal to demystify crust-making, author Haedrich is very, very specific about how to treat both the ingredients and the mixing process.   Perhaps that is why he is known as the “Dean” of The Pie Academy. There are many steps and multiple pauses to chill the dough at various stages, which meant you had to set aside a fair amount of time to complete everything.  For some of us, the precise instructions increased anxiety, rather than giving us confidence; we worried that forgetting one part of a step or mistiming another would lead to disaster.  The overall methodology was a bit odd for those of us with prior pie crust experience, and the author didn’t explain why he made certain recommendations.  We weren’t sure if the extra attention to detail made a noticeable difference in the final product.

salmon and spinach pastry packets

But we did make lots of pies!  Among the ones we tried were the old-fashioned chicken and biscuits, which was solidly good but time-consuming and made lots of dirty dishes.  But more than one person commented that the biscuits were “to die for!”  The turkey crumb pot pie had a topping made of crushed stuffing mix and french-fried onions, which was delicious and easier than making a crust; though the recipe called for a bottom crust, it was omitted for the sake of speed.   The meatloaf wellington was a bit of a pain to make– it was hard to wrap the crust completely around the meatloaf, and of course the crust beneath the meatloaf stayed mushy.  The meatloaf itself was good but not outstanding, so overall it didn’t seem worth the trouble or the calories!  The tarte choucroute was different and delicious; but as with many of these recipes, you needed a lot of lead time to make, chill, and par-bake the crust.  And the filling also needed to be cooked ahead and cooled before final assembly.  The savory winter vegetable crisp had a cracker-crumb crust that was fairly simple to make; the vegetable combination was enjoyable and it made a large quantity.  The downside– it took a long time to prepare, so dinner was much later than desired!  The sausage and Guinness pot pie was requested by “Mr. Fussy,” and despite the cook’s doubts about the combination of ingredients, they both loved it.  Whew!   Three galettes that we enjoyed were the sweet potato and herb Parmesan, the kale, potato, and ricotta, and the curried winter squash.  The smoky bacon and cheddar cheese quiche and the shepherd’s pie both suffered from having a not-quite-done bottom crust, despite faithful adherence to par-baking instructions.

chicken, broccoli, and cheddar turnovers

Not to be deterred, when our intrepid cook next made the fresh corn pudding pie she “baked the hell out of the crust” before filling it, and this worked better.  All three pies were tasty, though.  We tried a couple of hand pies too: the Cornish meat pies and the chicken, broccoli, and cheddar turnovers were good and hearty.  And the tempeh and brown rice empanadas were successful, too; they were made with a wrapper of pizza dough rather than the called-for pie crust!

taco pot pie

The taco pot pie had a crust with some cornmeal in it, which was pleasantly different; it made a large casserole so it was fortunate that it was tasty!  One member “went rogue” and found her own recipe for a spinach pie seasoned with sumac; it had a yeasted crust.  Sounds good, and similar to this recipe?

The book itself was praised for its beautiful and numerous photographs; and as always, we like when the book stays open on the counter, as this one did.  While recipe instructions could sometimes be overly detailed, they usually resulted in a successful product.  We enjoyed reading the text; author Haedrich has a distinctive  “voice” that always sounds friendly and down-to-earth; we could see ourselves enjoying a conversation with him about almost anything.  If we sat down with him, here’s what we’d like him to know: “Ken, your pies are great– they make a lot of solidly good food and are perfect when you’re in the mood for some comfort food and have an afternoon to give to a cooking project.  We could do with some quicker choices for a weeknight, though, and– enough with the crust already!  We don’t really share your obsession, though we appreciate your quest for perfection.”

In the end we agreed that this book had some delicious choices; it’s just not a title that’s very practical for everyday cooking, and if you don’t care for pie crust then definitely don’t bother with this book.  The majority of our group members gave this book 4 chef’s hats (out of a possible 5); but the overall average was 3.5, reflecting some  “crust ambivalence.”

If you’d like to explore other Ken Haedrich cookbooks, he has written on everything from soup to vegetarian cooking to simple desserts. Check out the titles available here. 

Next month’s title is Food52 Genius Recipes; copies are available at the main desk.  We’ll next meet on March 31 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  Happy cooking!

 

Bibliobites in January: Just Say “Non!”

French cooking has (despite Julia Child’s efforts) a reputation for being complicated, fussy, and maybe a bit pretentious.  It’s a cuisine famed for its reliance on butter, cream, and rich sauces.  Traditionally it’s a meat-centric cuisine as well, with vegetables being little more than an afterthought.  Well-known food blogger Clotilde Dusoulier, author of the January Bibliobites selection, aims to show us that modern French cooking is also vegetarian and straightforward.  With the excesses of the holidays behind us, this book would seem to be the perfect way to welcome in a new year of healthier eating based on grains, legumes, and seasonal produce.  As always, the group had strong opinions about their experience at the French Market.

……And those opinions were strongly negative!  There wasn’t a person at the meeting who enjoyed the book, with most actively disliking it.  More than a few people wound up making none of the recipes.  The most common complaints were that “nothing called to me,” and that the author frequently used ingredients that are difficult to find in the U.S. (the author is French but has lived in the U.S. and the book is written for an American audience).   Par example, she uses spelt berries, rolled barley, lemon verbena leaves, chestnut flour, and celery root, all of which are not readily available.  Another common criticism was that the recipes are on the bland side and/or have odd (or should we say unusual?) spicing.  For instance, the only flavor in the otherwise very neutral lentil croquettes was a teaspoon of coriander, which was overpowering, with nothing else to balance it out.

Mushroom quiche with endive, orange, and walnut salad

Other recipes that we tried included the cauliflower gratin with turmeric and hazelnuts, which was good but used enough turmeric to make the sauce “neon”!  The couscous with vegetables was ordinary, with a few people commenting that they already had similar, and better, recipes for this dish.  The softly spiced carrot and almond soup tasted very strongly of cardamom and anise but still seemed like it was missing something; and the butternut and celery root soup was “OK but not outstanding– and I have other squash soup recipes that I like better.”  The blanch-roasted new potatoes were a two-step process, as the name implies, but the difference in taste or texture was negligible, and therefore not worth the extra effort. The mushroom and chive quiche was heavy on the mushrooms, which made it unexpectedly expensive; it tasted good but didn’t have that smooth custardy texture we were looking for.  The above- mentioned lentil croquettes also lost points for being a bit tricky to assemble; the lentils had little to bind them and tended to fall apart.  The tahini sauce that accompanied them was delicious, though.

Corsican turnovers with winter squash

Some of the more successful recipes (in our opinion) included savory pumpkin and cornmeal quick breadleeks vinaigrette, and endive, orange, and walnut salad.  The green bean, red rice, and almond salad, was “good– but I used brown rice because I had it;” the goat cheese and rosemary sables were tasty but the texture was unexpectedly soft– “I wish they were crunchier, more like crackers.”  The Corsican turnovers with winter squash were “good but not great,” though they scored points for cuteness and portability.

The book itself, also came in for some critical comments: the format was too small for most people, and there weren’t enough photos.  Some of the recipes had unnecessary steps, or it was unclear why those steps were needed.  But of course these complaints would have disappeared had everyone enjoyed the food!  So, nous sommes désolés (we’re sorry) Clotilde– as far as we’re concerned your book just doesn’t make the grade; our vote yielded an average of 1.625 chef’s hats (out of a possible 5).  Mon Dieu!

Join us when we meet again on Friday, February 24 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  This month’s title is Dinner Pies by Ken Haedrich.  You still have a week to try out recipes! Copies are available at the main desk.

Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Every year in January, after the rush of the holidays is over and we settle into some real winter, I spend a day making cassoulet.  This iconic French dish is a hearty casserole of meat, beans, and some token vegetables, cooked with wine and tomatoes and topped with buttery croutons.  It’s the perfect antidote to a raw winter day, and like many stews tastes even better left over.  But it is kind of an all-day affair; beans must be soaked, meats must be cut up and browned, and then everything is assembled and baked.  I usually use a recipe from the Cook’s Illustrated website, which mostly uses common ingredients we can find in any supermarket.

HOWEVER…while most large supermarkets now carry an astonishing array of Asian, Italian, or Middle Eastern ingredients, French-specific items seem to have fallen by the wayside—if they were ever available in the first place.  Par example, every year I go on a quest to find the beans traditionally used in cassoulet, which are called flageolet They are smallish, oval, pale-green beans that I’ve discovered can be difficult to find locally (yes I know I can order them on Amazon, but what fun is that?).   The readily-available Great Northern bean is a passable substitute, but hey—if I’m only doing this once a year I want to be authentic about it.  In past years I’ve seen flageolet at Whole Foods but no luck this year.  Market Basket, Hannaford, and Wegmans were also a no-go.  Finally I remembered that Idylwilde Farms in Acton carries some less-common grocery items, and—yes!  There they were, sitting placidly on the shelf with all the other dried beans.  Interestingly enough they were grown in Maine!

Another traditional ingredient used in cassoulet, which seems to be on every bistro menu in France but is rarely seen here, is duck confit This is a duck leg which has been cooked in and then covered with duck fat, a pre-refrigeration method of preserving meat.  The confit can be eaten by itself or added to main-dish salads or casseroles, where it adds richness and flavor.  But in the US this is definitely a specialty item; I did find it at Wegmans but c’est tres cher (it’s very expensive!).  In my duck-buying  expeditions I discovered that any form of duck, whether fresh, frozen, or otherwise preserved, is not widely sold in supermarkets.  Whereas in France, again, it is on every restaurant menu in some form, and probably in every market as well.  It’s a curious cultural difference!

So, flageolet—check!  Duck confit—check!  The cassoulet ingredients were cooked,  assembled, and went into the oven.  What to eat with it?  A green salad immediately came to mind, but being in a “difficult French ingredient” mode I had decided to make celeri remoulade, a salad made of grated celeriac (or celery root).  Our Bibliobites book for this month, The French Market Cookbook by Clotilde Dusoulier, has a few recipes that use this root vegetable.  So by now I know who sometimes carries it.  It’s available in many supermarkets, but is ordered infrequently and in small quantity, so it’s hit-or-miss as to whether you’ll find it on any given visit.  Again, this is a very common ingredient in France and all of northern Europe.  I often wonder if celeriac will be the next cauliflower—that is, an ingredient which has been around forever, sort of in the background, and suddenly becomes a produce superstar.  Celeriac is a knobby white root vegetable that looks sort of like a hairy turnip. It has a mild taste, celery-ish with hints of anise, and a texture similar to a turnip’s.  Dusoulier’s book has a recipe for a potato/celeriac gratin which was delicious.  The celery root lightens the dish a bit and adds a subtle, welcome flavor.

As for my salad, predictably enough, the day I needed the celeriac there was none to be found on the shelf at Wegmans.  C’est la vie!  I wasn’t in the mood to hunt it down elsewhere so we enjoyed our cassoulet with a green salad after all.  It was delicious, if I do say so myself; so as Julia Child would say—Bon Appetit!

For those of you who belong to our Bibliobites group, have you been enjoying your French Market adventure?  Whether oui or non, please join us for our next Bibliobites meeting on Friday, January 27 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.

For those of you who have yet to discover our cookbook group, ce n’est pas grave! — we meet the last Friday of every month. Join us!

I’ve Never Been to Italy…..

…..but I have been to Eataly!  This gastronomic temple of all things Italian opened in Boston two weeks ago.  It’s the newest outpost of this global enterprise, and one of only four in the US.  I’d been to Eataly in Manhattan and was excited to check out our local store, located in the Prudential Center.  All in the name of BiblioBites research, of course;  inquiring minds always want to know about the latest new thing in the Boston food scene!

Eataly was conceptualized and founded in Torino, Italy in 2007 by Oscar Farinetti, who wanted to make top-quality Italian food accessible to all in a European open-market style.  His main collaborators in this enterprise are celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, who shepherded the opening of the Boston store.  (Check out their latest titles:  Batali’s Mario Batali Big American Cookbook; Bastianich’s Lidia’s Mastering the Art of Italian Cuisine).  One of Eataly’s prime directives is “eat, shop, learn,” and certainly it’s easy enough to do all three on any given visit.

The Boston store is about half the size of the NYC store, but this is a good thing!  It’s much less overwhelming, though the aisles are maze-like and can be difficult to negotiate when it’s crowded.  Shelves of specialty items are crammed next to cases laden with cheese, salami, fresh pasta,  foccaccia, gelato, and more.  If you want a snack there are two espresso bars, a cannoli cart (unique to the Boston store), pastry counter, and a crepe stand.  And should you need lunch or dinner, fear not.  You have multiple options for takeout and sit-down meals.  For the latter,  there’s La Pesce for fish, La Pizza e la Pasta for– pizza and pasta, and in the center of it all, La Piazza, a bar-like area serving drinks and small plates.  For takeout there’s an area devoted to salads hot and cold, vegetables, risotto, roasted meats….it goes on!  Takeout pizza is coming soon, as is a more formal restaurant on the third floor.

While there I lunched on a prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and arugula panini.  One of the stated goals of Eataly is to source and sell high-quality ingredients, and the panini certainly illustrated that; the prosciutto was tender and not too salty, the mozzarella fresh and milky, and the bread toothsome and flavorful.  To go with my sandwich, there were house-made ultra-thin potato chips, which were so perfectly light and salty (think Lays on steroids) that I couldn’t stop eating them.  I tried coffee at both of the espresso bars– Lavazza and Illy– I preferred the Illy.  The coffee was surprisingly, screamingly hot, which I wasn’t expecting.  After I got over the shock, I did appreciate it, since I usually think that most coffee isn’t hot enough.

One of Italy’s main claims to culinary fame is its endless variety of pasta, and here Eataly does not disappoint.  There are at least twelve brands of dried pasta represented, from artisan varieties costing $7 or $8 per pound, to the familiar blue-boxed Barilla.  Pasta is sold in every conceivable shape; whole-wheat and other flours are also represented.  To go with your pasta there are several types of jarred sauce (tomato-based or pesto) and multitudinous varieties of olive oil.

If you’re not in the mood for pasta (is that possible?), there are ten or so kinds of risotto, and at least four styles of polenta.  Or, if it’s appetizers you need, in addition to the aforementioned cheese and salami there are olives galore, semi-dried tomatoes, breadsticks, and pickles of various sorts.  And don’t forget the sweets: chocolates, cookies, and (since it’s Christmastime), several varieties of panettone.

After wandering about for an hour or so, I was on sensory overload, and managed to miss the wine shop.  Next time!  There’s also La Scuola, where you can take a food or wine class.  In viewing the schedule, classes range in price from $10 to $150, but the vast majority are sold out through the end of February, the latest date shown online.

If you love Italian food, Eataly is absolutely worth the trip, but choose your day and time carefully!  My first visit was on a weekday morning; I arrived around 9:45 AM and pretty much had the place to myself, as you can see from the photos.  By 11 AM or so things were hopping and it was difficult to move in some of the aisles.  Lunch around noon entailed a wait, but it was only about 5 minutes.  However by 12:30 the lines were considerably longer.  On a second brief visit on a Saturday evening, it was so crowded I could barely walk anywhere.  The line for panini stretched outside the store, and all the other stations were similarly busy.  Eventually the novelty will wear off and the crowds thin out, but for now I’d advise a weekday expedition; and remember to bring your patience.  One oddity of Eataly’s layout is that you pay for any fresh food at the counter where you buy it, but boxed and jarred items are paid for at a set of registers near the exit.  So depending on what you buy, you could wind up standing in several lines before you finally emerge with your bounty!