Bibliobites in January: Appetizing Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

Stay warm and cook on!