Bibliobites in March: Showtime!

It’s an embarrassment of visual riches when it comes to cooking.  In addition to cookbooks with stunning, eat-off-the page photography, we have access to an almost limitless number of cooking shows, cooking competitions, and how-to cooking videos. Public television may have started the video revolution (thanks to Julia Child), but now cable channels, streaming services, YouTube and TikTok have all gotten in on the action.  It’s become routine for cookbook authors and bloggers to star on the small screen, and it’s never been easier to binge our current obsession (I’m looking at you, British Baking Show!).  Being (of course) on trend, this month our Bibliobites group traveled to video land. Each of us chose a book written by a current or former TV chef. Eight different chef/authors were put to the test; did their food taste as good as it looks?

Many of the chef/authors we reviewed have had impressive staying power; for example,  Ellie Krieger has been writing and on TV since the the early 2000s.  Her mantra of “delicious meets healthy” obviously still resonates, and those in our group mostly enjoyed both Whole in One (her newest) and You Have It Made (2016).  Ms. Krieger is “adept at including vegetables in a tasty way,” and most of her recipes are easy enough for a weeknight.  Hits included Mexican chicken stew, turkey meatloaf, Sicilian chicken (featuring the addictive sweet/salty combo of olives and honey), and roasted tofu African peanut stew (the cinnamon in it was “yum!”). One semi-flop: macaroni and four cheeses; it had “too much pumpkin,” which dominated the entire dish.  But, after a few days in the fridge, flavors melded and it tasted much better.

On this side of the pond, Brit Jamie Oliver has also been a longtime TV presence. We checked out two of his more recent titles, One: Simple One Pan Wonders and Ultimate Veg Crispy pesto salmon was a solid choice with bold flavors.  One oddity: the recipe called for canned potatoes!  Greens mac and cheese was a happy combination of broccoli, spinach, and plenty of Cheddar. Overall comments included, “he has lots of good ideas,” “his pasta recipes are always good,” “liked nutrition info,” and “great photos!”

PBS fixture Christopher Kimball has written multiple titles since starting his Milk Street TV series; we tried out Milk Street Tuesday Nights and Cook What You Have.  Neither title garnered much praise; so-so dishes included two cheese baked farro with kale and tomatoes (“flavors didn’t go, somehow”), and Vietnamese pork and scallion omelet, which featured ground pork (“too much pork!”) and fish sauce.  One complaint about Cook What You Have is that recipes included plenty of fresh ingredients, which aren’t normally considered pantry items.  And of course, your pantry needs to be aligned with the author’s in order for the concept to work!  Our cook did like the “have this, try that” feature, which provided much appreciated ideas for swapping ingredients.

Bobby Flay seems to be perpetually on TV, and his “Beat Bobby Flay” show has become something of a cultural phenomenon.  Our cook tried out Bobby at Home, which has “something for everyone….[food is] simple yet elevated.” Hits included the Mediterranean mezze platter, which included homemade pita chips, roasted jalapeno pesto (with parsley, walnuts, and garlic), and lemon hummus spread.  Our group was able to sample this combination at our meeting, and it was super!  Marinara sauce was “really simple and very good” with a nice pro tip: don’t bother cutting up your canned tomatoes before cooking; just mash in the pot after simmering softens them.  Simple and effective. Unlike many of his TV peers, there are very few of Mr. Flay’s recipes online.

The prolific and energetic Lidia Bastianich always seems to have a new cookbook and companion TV show; one of her newest is Celebrate Like an Italian.  But, two of our cooks turned to her many online recipes, and enjoyed rigatoni with sausage and escarole (“I love escarole!”) and skillet gratinate of summer tomato and pork.  This family favorite (“I’ve made it a hundred times!”) can be easily and endlessly varied, the formula being pounded cutlets + thinly sliced veggies and/or sauce + cheese.  Like Ms. Bastianich, Ina Garten enjoys a large and devoted following, and she shares the love by publishing most of her recipes on her website.  Our group member checked out Modern Comfort Food and made truffled mac and cheese, a decadent combination of rich cheeses, earthy mushrooms, and umami-rich truffle butter.  As might be expected, this was amazingly delicious, with a few caveats: white truffle butter is very expensive and tricky to source (“I did find truffle oil at TJMaxx….mixed it with butter”); and the recipe called for 2 tablespoons of salt.  As has been noted by our group before, Ms. Garten has a very heavy hand with the salt!  In the final analysis, “some of the recipes looked good, but I still wouldn’t buy it since a lot of recipes can be found online.”

Ree Drummond, a.k.a. the Pioneer Woman, also has amazing staying power.  With multiple cookbooks to her credit, a blog, and a TV show that’s been on for more than a decade, she’s carved out a unique niche in the food world.  Her down-home cuisine and descriptions of life on a ranch in Oklahoma have endeared her to countless fans.  However, The Pioneer Woman Cooks Super Easy just didn’t make the grade for our cook.  Despite an abundance of “pretty pictures,” the recipes were unimpressive.  Beef noodle skillet was “basic hamburger helper,” stir-fry with scallops had “lots of ingredients but not a lot of flavor.”  Ms. Drummond’s “dump recipes,” which involve combining several cans of ingredients together, are indeed very easy; but as a result there was way too much salt, preservatives, and gummy stabilizers.  One of the author’s claims to fame is her step-by-step photos, but these proved to be an annoyance, as the pictures are arranged vertically, and not in the conventional left-to-right orientation.

Blogger Molly Yeh has also found fame in a rural location: she writes and cooks on a farm in western Minnesota.  Home Is Where the Eggs Are, her second book, continues the combination of Asian, Jewish, and Scandinavian influences for which she is known.  Want peanut noodles with charred scallions, steak, and broccolini?  You got it!  How about chickpea tot hotdish?  Or falafel turkey burgers (“those are the best!”)?  Most of what’s in this book is easy comfort food that draws from diverse cultures, so it’s comfort food with some distinctive twists.  The photogenic author is an irrepressibly sunny presence on the Food Network, and many recipes are available online.

Chef and TV star Carla Hall hasn’t written that many cookbooks, but her latest, Carla Hall’s Soul Food, has made quite a splash and introduced many to the joys of its namesake  African/Caribbean/Southern cuisine.  At our meeting we sampled pimento cheese, that iconic Southern delight. This piquant, creamy cheese spread is good on just about anything, and is hard to stop eating.  Though our cook started out with Ms. Hall’s recipe, she eventually concocted a mashup with Deb Perelman’s (of Smitten Kitchen fame), which features mashed potatoes (see below). But, any way you make it, it’s delicious!  The chicken recipes in this book drew particular praise: brown sugar baked chicken and molasses baked chicken wings (nicely sticky with vinegar and garlic, in addition to the molasses) were both easy and flavorful.

Most people enjoyed the book they used, though some felt the particular title they had didn’t measure up to the author’s other efforts.  And though it’s a fairly meaningless statistic (given that we all used different titles), we voted anyway.  Rather unsurprisingly, we averaged out to a very average 3.54 (out of a possible 5)!  An average, of course, disguises a lot; ratings ranged from 2 to 5.  Though we enjoyed our TV explore, this month we’ll all be cooking from the same book again: Anna Jones’ One Pot, Pan, Planet, a tie-in to this year’s One Book, Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  Our next meeting will be on Friday, April 28 at 11 AM in the Fireplace Room.  Hope to see you there!


Pimento Cheese (inspired by and adapted from Carla Hall and Deb Perelman)

1 red or yellow potato, approx. 4 oz.

1/4 cup drained, finely chopped pimento peppers

2-3 scallions, greens only, sliced

1/8 teaspoon celery salt (or to taste)

1/8 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)

1 fat garlic clove, grated

4 oz. cream cheese, softened

8 oz. sharp Cheddar cheese, grated

Boil potato in unsalted water until soft; drain, cool, and peel.  Mash potato and mix well with all ingredients except Cheddar, then slowly add Cheddar until evenly distributed.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving to allow flavors to mellow and meld. Keeps in the fridge for one week, if it lasts that long!

Thanks to Lindsey S. for the recipe!