Archive for category Books

Books, Books, Cookbooks

This weekend is the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. If you’re in town and up early enough to get your act together, you can still make it. I highly recommend at least walking through. When I was there Saturday morning, the History Press table was buzzing with Chef Jenny Lewis author of Midwest Sweet Baking History. Nothing draws a crowd like mini bundt cakes (at least that’s what it looked like from my vantage point… I couldn’t get close enough with Mr. Moo in his stroller).

I also met some lovely ladies at the mystery writers’ tent (yes, Mom, there are books on the way to you). But, why write about a book fair on a food blog? Because it is an excellent place to pick up cookbooks—new and old. In a few short blocks, there are a TON of new, used, and antique cookbooks for sale. And, if you’re an old book junkie like me, it’s also nice to meet the purveyors of said goods.

I came away with a few gems:

I bought a new copy of Cooking at the Kasbah by Kitty Morse for more than half off. I picked it up on a whim with the idea that I’m going to become a better cook on my tagine. In addition, there’s a recipe for preserved lemons that I’m pretty excited about.

Cooking at the Kasbah

And, in the old book category, I found a treasure trove at the This Old Book tent. (They’re in Grayslake, IL, so there’s no way I’d ever make it to their shop on a regular basis.)

What Shall I Serve by Letta Hesse was published in 1945 and touts systematic, correct, and up-to-the-minute menus indexed to recipes and recipes indexed to menus. (Hence the large Cross Indexed script across the cover.) The first section is entitled “Amounts Required to Serve 50 Persons.” I can’t wait!

What Shall I Serve

I also found a copy of Cook and Be Cool, a 1928 publication “offering the hostess a ready path to the maximum effect with the minimum of effort…” It’s a cookbook for hot weather housekeeping. Flipping through and seeing a recipe for jellied tongue gets me a bit giddy.

Cook and Be Cool

Finally, I paid way too much for a copy of the The Great 20th Century Cook Book: Three Meals a Day. But, how could I not with the subtitle of “Cooking, Table, Toilet, and Health?”

20th Century Cookbook

What really clinched it for me was the inscription on the inside:

20th Century Cookbook dedication

Something about the book being so formally presented gives me happy thoughts. The back inside flap also has a hand-written recipe for orange marmalade from a Mrs. Doty. At 576 pages, I think I’ll be able to find plenty of fun inside.

I can’t tell you how to spend your Sunday, but think about being a book geek for an afternoon.

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What Was in Your Stocking?

The Pedant in the Kitchen coverFor those of you who celebrate these kinds of things: Hope you’re having a jolly Christmas. By the magic of the inter-Web, I’m probably cooking my hind quarters off right now to give my family a fantastic holiday meal. I decided upon a Spanish-influence theme this year (last year was French). I’ll bring you the results a bit later in the week.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a book I recently read. And, how you should avoid it. My dad, may the Lord bless and keep him always, is forever on the lookout for culinary books I might enjoy. He has supplied me with a number of crazy cookbooks (some of which I have shared with you here… but trust me, there are plenty more). So, when he found The Pedant in the Kitchen, by Julian Barnes at the local library book sale, he snapped it up and delivered it to me post haste.

If you are of a literary bent, you might recognize the name. Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending. (If you are not of a literary mind, the Man Booker prize is given yearly to an English-language writer from the Commonwealth or Ireland. It’s a pretty big deal for those cats across the pond.)

Before he was all Man Bookerish, Barnes wrote some novels and essays and was generally very smart and clever. (Actually, his third novel was nominated for a Man Booker… so he’s been Man Bookerish for a while now.) He then had a column in the Guardian about being… you guessed it… a pedant in the kitchen. (Stop. I’ll save you the trouble. A pedant is someone who is excessively concerned with displays of learning or one who overemphasizes rules and details. I think we all know someone like this. Feel free to call him or her a pedant now.)

The book is a collection of those columns strung together. He spends a great deal of time going over how unfortunately written most recipes are and why he can’t seem to make any sense of them. There are a lot of columns that deal with tricky things like how difficult it is to know what size onion to use in any given recipe. See? Smart man = fool in kitchen! HAHAHAH so funny.

While you can appreciate the great writing and (sometimes) subtle wit, it makes for a tedious book. Especially if you are an American who fails to grasp some of the references. (I must admit, I had to look up Jane Grigson. But, I suppose now I am better for that information.)

Anyway, if you received other works by Barnes this holiday, I say wonderful! Have yourself a Man Booker Christmas. If you received The Pedant in the Kitchen, I say return it and buy yourself a nice sweater instead.

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Midwest Baking… Who Knew You’d Care?

Whenever anyone starts anything with the word “Midwest,” I automatically go into snooze mode—and I’m from the Midwest AND I live here. I just don’t find it very exciting. The Midwest to me speaks of hardworking people toiling through unholy winters in a flat, barren landscape. In my mind’s eye, we’re kind of a fat, ugly, dull people.

Whoa! Stop the presses. I wasn’t calling you fat or ugly (sometimes a bit dull… but that’s because you’re no fun at parties unless you’ve had a few…) Besides, I used the plural “we” up there. So, if you’re fat and ugly so am I. And, sweetie, as much as I love you, I love me more. We’re the exception to the ugly Midwesterner rule.

Midwest Sweet Baking History coverI’m totally derailing here. This is meant to be a book review of Midwest Sweet Baking: Delectable Classics Around Lake Michigan by Jenny Lewis, CCE, CHE. Don’t fall asleep on me! There are some interesting things going on in here.

Full disclosure time: My cousin gave me this book. Why bother telling you? Well, he works for the publisher, The History Press. Also, the author and I graduated from the same culinary school (although she earned her degree before I went there and I never knew her). If you think any of that’s going to make my review biased, that’s your business.

The book is a slim 200 pages with plenty of illustrations and recipes—so rather impossible to be an in-depth look at the region’s sweet baking history. (For clarification: Sweet baking is desserts and dessert-like breads rather than bready breads for sandwiches and rolls.) And, let the subtitle be a reminder: We’re only dealing with the four states bordering Lake Michigan—Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Organized by era, each time period includes a quick gloss over of what was happening in the region from a people (i.e. immigration) perspective, innovation (inventions) perspective, and ingredient (or brand) perspective. When, I say quick, I mean quick. One line about the founding of Kellogg’s, a quick primer on milk safety at the turn of the last century, and you’re done. I would have enjoyed a deeper look into some of the regions baking pioneers or a comparison to what was going on in other regions at the same time. There’s a lot of “And, then the Italians came so some people that normally wouldn’t eat biscotti ate biscotti.” without talking about how the biscotti influenced other desserts or food production.

Each subsection ends with a personal interview. The first one was a bit off-putting as I was happily reading about quick breads in the early- to mid-1800s and then suddenly I’m reading about how the author took a tour of Hodgson Mill in Effingham, Illinois. Once I realized the personal interjection was the capper of each era, it was a bit easier to swallow.

The second section is a regionally nonspecific glossary of ingredients. Think types of flours, sugars, fruits, and other things you can put in dessert and you’ll get the idea. A pretty encompassing list with detailed definitions, but not something that necessarily needs to be in a history book.

There is also a small section on baking companies of the region. It’s interesting to see how many “local” brands we use every day, and to see the consolidation of those brands into multi-national companies. Who knew that staple of Southern desserts (and morning pancakes)—Karo Syrup—was developed in Chicago? Or that Nabisco was founded as a consolidation of the bakery business? Well, now I do (and you do, too).

Where this book really shines is the recipes. Those scattered throughout the text are more of the historic variety, and then there is a large section of contemporary Midwestern recipes. From old fashioned steamed persimmon loaf to churros, this book has you covered on what Midwesterners have been eating for dessert and with our morning coffee. There’s a nice representation of Amish and Scandinavian recipes as well as a Bean Pie recipe I’m kind of itching to try.

Happily, there is a main index and a recipes index in the back of the book so I don’t have to thumb through looking for that darn Indian meal pudding recipe. I’m also eager to give Amelia Simmon’s Coriander Cookies a whirl—mostly because it starts with one pound of sugar boiled slowly in a half a pint of water. That just sounds like the making of a good cookie. But where, oh where do I find pearlash this time of year? I guess I could just get industrious and lixiviate wood ash and evaporating lye.

So, maybe I’m a bit more Midwestern than I thought: Grueling labor under a dreary winter sky all for the promise of a cookie.

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All You Need Is an Encyclopedia

Cover for The Cook's Encyclopedia of 30-Minute CookingEveryone should have a go-to cookbook. OK, I’ll rephrase. Everyone should have a go-to recipe. Something that you can successfully make and usually have the ingredients on hand for those occasional drop-in guests or Monday night “what should we eat… we’re too poor to order in… but I don’t want to cook” scenarios.

So, if you have a go-to recipe, it probably came from a cookbook. You can make that your go-to cookbook. I have just rediscovered my all-time favorite cookbook—Cook’s Encyclopedia of 30-Minute Cooking by Jenni Fleetwood. It’s a quirky little book. It rings in at a bit longer than 250 pages. Very slender for a cookbook, let alone an encyclopedia.

Why Do I Love This Book?

It pretty much has the best of all worlds:

  • Two pages of quick cooking techniques that show you how to make an easy sauce, perfect pasta, flawless pancakes, and a few other items.
  • A few sample menus from recipes in the book are meals I would actually eat.
  • The breadth of recipes is pretty amazing: Broken down by time (10-, 20-, an d30-minute recipes) and then by type (snacks/apps, poultry/meat, fish/shellfish, vegetarian, pasta/rice, and desserts), it is a wonderfully logical book.
  • Each recipe is one page and each step of the recipe is illustrated—even the easiest of steps. (You know, I don’t really need a picture for pouring half the salad dressing on the salad, but thanks anyway.)
  • The recipes really do only take the time specified, including prep. I love those cookbooks that are like, “This recipe is soooo easy. It takes a minute to toss everything together.” What it doesn’t tell you is that it takes four hours to segment the oranges, another four hours to grate the 10 lbs of cheese, and a day and a half to marinate. This book is not those books. This book is clear.
  • The ingredients are mostly things you would legitimately have in your pantry or fridge. Yes, there are few recipes that call for lemongrass (but hey they sell it in a squeezy tube now!) or instant coffee (who drinks instant anymore). But, for the most part, these are everyday dishes you can really whip up.
  • The recipes are oh so good. I have not yet had a complete dud. Granted, I have not cooked any of the four liver recipes. (Liver is really quick to cook, hence the plethora of recipes.) Of the 220 recipes, I have made 62 of them from this book and only one has gotten a so-so review.

Where Could the Book Improve?

  • I have the soft cover version and since it’s so slim there’s no easy way to keep the page down whilst cooking. (My copy is a smeary mess.)
  • It’s out of print so I can no longer give it as a gift. Published by Barnes & Noble Books, I think the last printing was in 2005. If you want a copy, you’re going to have to find a used one on a reseller site.

So, by now people have realized I have an obsession with food and cooking. Now, for the sickest part of my obsession: I realized that this book has several other out-of-print versions. So, I bought some of them, and if they are as good as their 30-Minute brother, I will share with you. These are the titles I am eagerly awaiting from a used book store in Texas:

  • Cook’s Encyclopedia of Soup
  • Cooks Encyclopedia of Four Ingredient Cooking
  • Cook’s Encyclopedia of Pasta
  • Cook’s Encyclopedia of Bread Machine Baking
  • Cook’s Encyclopedia of Vegetarian Cooking

And yes, I paid more in shipping than I did for the books. I am a total kitchen dork.

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The Best of Beginner Books

What do you think makes a good cookbook? Is it a magnificent tome that includes every single thing you’d ever need to know about food and food preparation? Or is it a wonderfully pictorial volume of varied recipes from around the world?

For me, there is no one single, best cookbook. At the end of the day, there are just too many recipes (and, quite frankly, too many cookbooks) out there to limit it to just a handful of books. And, now with our friend the internet, we really don’t need a book for recipes. We can just pop on over to Google, type in a few keywords and prest-o-matic, you have 25 variations of spaghetti bolognese at your fingertips. Print one out and you’re all set. (Or, do as I sometimes do when I like to live dangerously, and perch your laptop on a canister and follow along in eco-friendly fashion. I add the living dangerously because sauce is very difficult to remove from a keyboard.)

But, sometimes… just sometimes… I like to consult a book. (You know, book… those things made from dead trees.) I use actual books for reference material on things I only do a few times a year. (I always need a picture when it comes time to truss poultry.) Mostly, I have them around because I like to recall where my favorite recipes are by the pages mottled with ingredient smears. Because in each of my cookbooks, I only have a few recipes I make over and over again. (Well, do you venture into the liver section of your cookbook much? I didn’t think so.)

Anyway, I thought I’d bring you a list of the books that I find useful to have in physical form. I do not call them must-haves, but merely good places to start if you’re looking to expand the books on your shelf.

Joy of Cooking coverJoy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer

The little red ribbon seals the deal for me. If you don’t own this classic of American cookery, it is a large hardcover book with a helpful red ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. OK, besides the ribbon, this book has recipes, but it also tells you how long to cook a chicken or at what temperature you should roast beef. You know, the very basics of cooking. It started in 1936 and has been edited and updated a number of times since then. You see, some things in cooking just don’t change all that much. And, yes, it does make me joyful.

The Way to Cook by Julia Child

The Way to Cook coverWe’re all pretty familiar with Julia’s first masterwork on French cooking (thank you, Julie and Julia), but I think fewer people are familiar with this, her second cookbook. It’s really just a good, basic cookbook—especially for people who rarely spend any time in the kitchen. The recipes run the gamut from easy-peasy to holy crap this is going to take me days to finish. But, they are generally tasty, always straight forward, and help build on the basics everyone needs to know in the kitchen (including how to properly poach fish or make an omelet or just about any other silly thing you might want to do with a stove and a pan).

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart

The Bread Baker's Apprentice coverSo, I took a baking class where we spent the first weeks doing nothing but breads. You can actually learn a lot about bread from repeatedly making different loaves—and that is that all bread recipes (nay all baked goods) are pretty much the same with varying amounts flour, water, yeast (or in the case of other baked goods, replacing the yeast with butter and sugar). The difference in taste lies in the amount of each ingredient, the additions (spices, nuts, chocolate), and the whole rising/resting process. This book is a good all-encompassing guide to bread (but not desserts… I have yet to find a good one size fits all for desserts). A few cautions: A number of the recipes take quite some time, so plan ahead. And, remember, the best baking is done with weights not volume measurements. So, if you want to be spot on, bust out a scale and weigh your flour.

One Good Ethnic Cookbook

I don’t have specifics for you, because I think it really depends on what you like to eat. But, you should pick an ethnicity other than your own, and find a cookbook filled with regional dishes. My shelf is full of Italian cookbooks (not fair, to be sure, since I am half Italian), but I also have a number of Asian (especially Chinese) cookbooks. Why should you do this? Because learning techniques from another culture can help improve your general cooking ability. Yes, knowing how to stir fry has helped me build better pasta sauces. I swear it.

On Food and Cooking coverBonus: On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

This is not a cookbook, not at all. But, if you are interested in why cooking does what it does, you should pick up a copy. It is a very delightful reference. Full disclosure: I have this one on my Nook, because it rings in at almost 900 pages. And, I’m the kind of geek who likes to carry it around just to pop in for a chapter or two every now and then.

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I Like Fish… Just Not 300 Pages Worth

Cod CoverI just finished a rather large book about fish—specifically cod. I enjoy reading books about food, and in my typical nerdy fashion, I really like history as long as it doesn’t involve too much blood or graphic representations thereof. (As a side note, I didn’t particularly enjoy the Pacific portion of the WWII museum in New Orleans. Just sayin’.)

Anyway, for those of you who don’t know Mark Kurlansky’s work, he has written some interesting books about history and food. I didn’t read them in the order in which Kurlansky wrote them which does a disservice to the book I’m about to review. See Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World was one of his first books, but within its pages you can really see the trace beginnings of two of his other (and in my mind better) books: The Basque History of the World and Salt: A World History.

Cod takes a close examination this wee fish and its mighty big role in history. (Well, on the Atlantic cod’s place in history. Pacific cod gets a passing glance.) Generations of Basque had been fishing “secret” waters off of the coast of Newfoundland long before other Europeans “discovered” North America. Humans developed salt cod to keep the fish edible for long journeys and for trade with other countries. And, Kurlansky develops these two themes into the aforementioned books which I found more entertaining.

That is not to say that Cod isn’t entertaining and informative. There is a silly tale about the moving of a large wooden cod in New England that I found rather amusing. And, Kurlansky spends a lot time discussing Canadian conservation management methods and the collapse of Newfoundland cod fishing. But, honestly, the one thing I learned while reading this book is that I’m not a girl who can read almost 300 pages about fish. After finishing it, there were very few facts that I can recall from the book. On the other hand, I still recall half a dozen interesting things about the Basques and salt.

So, long review short: Cod was an interesting read to see the germination of two books I enjoyed immensely, but unless you’re over enthusiastic about fish, I’d take a pass.

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Chefs Should Stick to Chefing

Life, on the Line CoverMany wonderful things can be said about Grant Achatz. He is an amazing chef, a revolutionary entrepreneur, a cancer survivor, and a driven human being with a thirst for greatness. Unfortunately for his book, Life, on the Line, a great writer isn’t one of them. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not a bad read as long as you keep in mind that Achatz’s main focus is food… not words.

If you don’t know his story, it is a compelling one. Achatz was ridiculously young when he landed a job at French Laundry (one of the top restaurants in the nation at the time) and then was still ridiculously young when he launched his own restaurant in Chicago, Alinea (which has subsequently become the top restaurant in the nation). And, yes, he was also pretty young when he was diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. (Shout out to my former employer, the University of Chicago Hospitals… er Medical Center, where Achatz received some pretty aggressive treatment that not only saved his life, but also his tongue and sense of taste.)

Without being too melodramatic, there usually isn’t any coming back from the form of cancer Achatz had. At the best, you lose your tongue and parts of your jaw along with your ability to speak and eat. At the worst, well… you get the idea. So, the crack staff at U of C really did some miraculous work. A chef who faces losing the very sense he relies on most for his career. The irony isn’t lost on Achatz (you know this, because he mentions that it isn’t lost on him several times).

If you’re interested in the story of how Achatz faces his cancer, you’re not going to find it until about three-fourths of the way from the end. If you’re interested in what influenced him to start Alinea, skip ahead to chapter 12. In fact, the first 12 chapters read a bit like listening to a 5 year old tell a story. “And, then I did this. And, then I did this. And, then we went here.” But, then Achatz lands at French Laundry, and he comes out of his shell a bit as an author. You can tell that food is what drives him. The rest is just getting the story sorted out.

The remainder of the book is about his journey from California to Trio in Evanston and then to Alinea. Interspersed with Achatz’s narrative, Nick Kokonas (his partner in Alinea) tells his view of how they built the restaurant. It’s an interesting story, but the telling is a bit dry—even when taken over by the much easier to read to Kokonas. And, when there is dialogue, it can be painful to read. (As a side note, I really wonder what the draft versions of this memoir looked like before they landed on the editor’s desk. Because either the authors were saddled with an indescribably lackadaisical editor or this manuscript was one bleeding mess.)

Overall, the book felt guarded and cautious. It’s as if Achatz said, “I’m going to let you in, but you only get a peek.” For me, if you’re going to write a book about your life, you’re pretty much throwing the doors open for a public viewing. If you don’t want that scrutiny, don’t bother writing a book. Of course, there were some bold moments: When his girlfriend gave birth to their second child and he went back to work the next day. I have to say, Mr. Achatz, to openly write about that kind of douche baggery is daring. If my husband went back to work after I gave birth, I don’t care what sort of revolutionary food prep he was up to in his kitchen, he wouldn’t be setting foot back in mine anytime soon.

I guess I had just hoped for something more from Life, on the Line. I mean, if your subtitle is “A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death, and Redefining the Way We Eat,” I had hoped for a bit more of an epic tale. Instead, I got an OK read and a wee bit of a glimpse of what behind-the-scenes culinary genius looks like.

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