Cooking and Food


In my few other cookbook reviews I’ve mentioned that I read cookbooks like I would a normal book–before I even think about making something from a new book I’ll read every recipe and all the stories that go along with them. Cooking and baking has always been a very personal thing for me, since spending time in the kitchen is my other stress relief when I’m not reading. In the past few weeks I’ve baked an orange gingerbread cake with cream cheese frosting, a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, zucchini bread, and tried four new weeknight dinner recipes using new-to-me vegetables (I don’t hate turnips and rutabagas, who knew?). And one book I keep coming back to for inspiration is The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook by Deb Perelman, whom I was thrilled to see speak in Portland last year.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

I started reading the Smitten Kitchen blog three or so years ago, and was instantly hooked. She cooked the kind of food I wanted but didn’t know how to make, featuring lots of vegetables and a focus on seasonal items. She’s not vegetarian by any means (and neither am I) but so many of her recipes have introduced me to new vegetables I never ate growing up, including my current obsession with leeks. Many of her recipes had a story about the family member of friend who shared it, the restaurant meal she was trying to recreate, or a frantic need to get dinner on the table that night with a random collection of things in the pantry; when her book came out, I hoped that the same tone Deb created on her blog would carry over into print. And I’m happy to say it has.

My absolute favorite recipe that I’ve made so far is the Mustard Milanese with Arugula Fennel Salad, page 169, although I served mine with lemon garlic roasted Brussels sprouts instead because I don’t like arugula. I will admit I doubled the amount of Dijon mustard used to coat the chicken, because my husband is crazy like that. There are also many recipes I still haven’t tried including Chocolate Chip Brioche Pretzels (page 17), Slow-Cooker Black Bean Ragout (page 137), Panchetta, White Bean, and Swiss Chard Pot Pies (page 163), and Gooey Cinnamon Squares (page 207). If anyone has tried one of these, or any of the recipes from this book, I’d love to hear what you thought!

And while the food is great, it really is her sense of story and family behind each recipe that keeps me coming back to this book. Despite being nervous, Deb was a great speaker when I saw her in Portland. She answered tons of questions, was patient with the large line of people waiting for autographs, and even gave me a hug in congrats when she heard I was getting married in a few weeks! When I cook from her recipes, I remember a woman who was so passionate about food that she turned a crazy little blog into a career and best-selling cookbook and hope that I can get some of that same passion in my own food. I cook to relax, and with the recipes from Deb in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook I know I’ll have food worth washing the dishes.

I would never claim to be vegetarian, despite what a look at my weeknight dinner menu may suggest. I’ll order a bacon cheeseburger with extra bacon when we go out to dinner and be just as happy with that meal as I am my bowls of vegetable soup in the fall, so I’m not opposed to vegetarian food either. But a history of health problems linked to diet and lifestyle on both sides of my family does tend to increase the frequency of my healthier dinners, which is why I picked up Fresh & Fast Vegetarian, by Marie Simmons, on a recent trip to Powell’s. I’m busy during the week and a healthy, fast, and filling dinner recipe comes in handy!

Fresh & Fast Vegetarian

Marie Simmons seems to have a similar “sorta almost vegetarian” story to mine-she grew up in a rural area where fresh veggies are readily available, and a mother who believed fresh and healthy food cured everything. The introduction to the cookbook (part of which I shared in a recent TT post) explains that “the simple fact is I eat plant-based foods because they taste good and they make me feel better.” Caring about the planet and the animals is great, but to eat anything first and foremost is has to taste good and feel good!

This book has tons of recipes, and most of them take 30 to 40 minutes to prep and cook (perfect for weeknight dinners for me, since I don’t like spending more than an hour in the kitchen when I’m tired from work). The recipes include everything from soups to snacks to full meal plans. Many of them have options for making the recipe vegan, although that’s not a big deal with me (of course, I also bought a cookbook of vegan recipes on this trip…). The make the meals more filling there is a variety of beans, pastas, and tofu main dishes; I’ve never tried tofu, but the fiance is trying to change that. On my first pass through the book I found 16 recipes I will use without changing, and dozens more that will need minor tweaks (we don’t eat mushrooms, so I’ll need to modify those recipes at a later time).

And of course, the food sounds amazing. Some of my favorites include Tomato and White Bean Soup with Spinach Pesto, Curried Lentils with Walnuts, Spinach and Cherry Tomatoes, and the Orecchiette with Ricotta, Broccoli Rabe and Blistered Cherry Tomatoes. Each recipe comes with a “Make it a meal” plan that suggests sides to create a filling and balanced meal. Sometimes the side suggested is a simple toasted bread with cheese curls, and other suggestions are soup and a salad. The one thing I found missing from the cookbook were dessert recipes, but since almost every dessert is vegetarian anyway I can understand why it was left out (and it’s not like I don’t already have 20 dessert themed cookbooks…).

Possibly my favorite part, however, are the tips Simmons shares at the start of each chapter. From how to properly store and chop veggies to cooking techniques and flavor parings, her suggestions are a great starting point for beginning vegetarian cooks and helpful reminders for experienced cooks. She breaks complex recipes into easy small steps, gives shortcuts for more time-consuming recipes that aren’t weeknight friendly, and her meal plans balance sides dishes with main dishes in a way I still struggle to do. Fresh & Fast Vegetarian is a wonderful introduction to the world of vegetarian cooking and one I would strongly recommend for anyone just starting their journey into healthy eating.

I’m not big into diets or weight loss–I love food and baking too much to fully commit to any health food craze. But I am a fan of healthier eating, as a way to balance my too-often chocolate indulgence. So while I would never read a “diet book,” I would read a “healthy lifestyle” book. Which is what lead me to Mireille Guiliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat, a guide to living (and eating) like a French woman.

Three out of Five Bookmarks

Guiliano’s experience in France is rooted in her family–she grew up there and frequently visits, although she is now married and lives in America. Until her semester studying abroad in Massachusetts, Guiliano was  what she describes as a typical French teenage girl: skinny, beautiful, and intelligent. Then she came to America for a summer, discovered American portion sizes and brownies, and gained so much weight she wasn’t recognized by her own father when she got home. Her doctor back in France put her on a diet of soup and plenty of activity (but never exercise, because French women don’t sweat), and she magically lost weight and devoted herself to never living like an American again. Ok, maybe that’s not exactly how she phrased it, but that’s what I got out of this book–Americans have no self control, they don’t care about appearances or else they wouldn’t be fat, and exercise is stupid.

Most of the book isn’t actually about her specifically, but rather how generations of French women (or at least the ones in her family and her small town) have managed to eat delicious and rich food without creating an obesity epidemic. In simple terms, it comes down to balance: if you want to eat a rich dessert you need to eat a light dinner and only have one glass of wine, and then walk up an extra flight of stairs the next day. But because an entire book can’t just say “eat better and walk more,” she has several steps for American women to take on the path to being more French. First, record everything you eat and the amounts for several weeks. Don’t do anything to change your eating habits, just write everything down. At the end, it should be clear what foods you are eating in excess and can cut down on. Second, do a crash diet for a weekend,eating only magical leek soup, to jump-start your taste buds and rewire your brain to accept proper portion sizes. Then, for the next several months, eat healthy foods prepared at home and don’t indulge. After several months you’re allowed to start eating a diet that balances healthy foods with mindful indulgences; eat sweets on the weekends, but remember to have a few weekends of magical leek soup too. And always, always remember to trick yourself into an active lifestyle (because exercise means sweat, which is as far from a glamorous French woman as you can get) by taking the stairs.

The book also includes many recipes, which were my favorite parts of the book. While some of them seemed weird–all the soups called for the cooked veggies to be blended in a food processor after cooking–most of them included seasonal ingredients and easy prep work. Her healthy desserts were my favorite, including recipes for fruit tarts without crusts and baked apples with walnuts. She created a menu for each season, highlighting which meat and produce would be freshest (I’m a fan of seasonal eating, just because fruits and veggies taste so much better right after they’re picked). She doesn’t give any calorie counts, but there is minimal use of salt and portions are small.

Her often flippant attitude does a disservice to the common sense advice of balance in diet and lifestyle. It’s not the most ground-breaking book on healthy eating, but her advice is something many people need to remember and is obtainable in everyday life. Don’t overload yourself with the empty calories of sugary drinks, don’t eat out all the time because you can’t control portion sizes and ingredients, and don’t forget to plan your day to compensate for an indulgent dessert. She throws in a few too many French words for my taste (I thought it came off as snobby, the boy says it just shows she is multi-cultural) and her attitude toward all non-French women may put off some readers, but if you need a common sense kick in the butt to get your life back in balance, French Women Don’t Get Fat may be for you–just remember not to take anything too seriously.

I’m still slightly in shock that Borders is going out of business. I love that store–when I first got my diver’s license and didn’t have to beg my parents to drive me everywhere, I would go to Borders and spend all day browsing the shelves and hanging out with friends in the cafe. I now work blocks from a giant Borders, and had dreams of lazy summer weekends walking around the shopping center and stopping by for yet another book to go on my giant TBR shelf.

I was also excited to live and work this close to a Borders because I love their cookbooks. Most of my cookbooks are older and the recipes outdated, and were bought for a quarter at a garage sale when I first started to cook. Some of them I will keep (especially the really old ones), but the ones from the 1970s and 1980s just need to be replaced. I’m enjoying making lighter, healthier (and tastier) meals, and these cookbooks just weren’t cutting it anymore!

So with my plan to slowly buy new cookbooks over the summer now gone (I don’t trust there to be a large selection of anything left after the first week or two of their going out of business sale, and I wanted a wide variety of books to choose from), I headed to Borders this weekend to score some good deals and say goodbye to a childhood friend.

My new cookbooks

In total, I got six cookbooks and spent $26.94. Much less than I was planning on spending (I had budgeted $50-$75 for cookbooks over the summer). Most of the savings came from only looking at their bargain books, which were already either $2.99 or $5.99 before the going out of business sale. I haven’t tried any new recipes yet but I can’t wait to bust out my new books in the next few months. The books I got are Good Housekeeping: Light & Healthy, The Essential Pasta Cookbooks (it matches the Essential Baking and Essential Vegetarian cookbooks I also bought at Borders and couldn’t find online, which I wrote about here), Step by Step: Soups & Breads and Step by Step: Vegetarian (also cannot find these online), Best Chicken Dishes, and 500 Slow Recipes.

Did you also get any good deals at the going out of business sale? Or are you waiting until prices are cut even more but the selection is more limited? I’m also planning a visit back in a few weeks to go through history, philosophy, and sociology once they are more discounted. What do you think about the giant bookstore chain going out of business? Share your thoughts, and any good deals, in the comments!

My entire cookbook collection

Way back on March 1st I mentioned I was baking four dozen cupcakes, using recipes from a cute little cupcake book. The baby shower was fun, and the cupcakes got great reviews. I’m now using the same book for a birthday party for a girl at work, so I thought I would give my favorite cupcake cookbook, Cupcakes! by Elinor Klivans, a formal review.

4 1/2 out of 5 bookmarks

I was given this adorable book as a Christmas present, and surprisingly out of my dozens of cookbooks it filled an unknown-to-me hole in my collection. There were baking cookbooks, general cookbooks that included desserts, and several brand-specific chocolate cookbooks, but not a single cupcake book! Not that I was exactly lacking for cupcake recipes (my “cupcakes and cakes” bookmark folder has over 100 recipes), but I always prefer a recipe in a book to one I find online. Does anyone else still use and love cookbooks, even with e-books and food blogs?

I’ve made three recipes from this book: Easy-Mix Yellow Cupcakes, Chocolate Sour Cream Cupcakes, and Cream Cheese Frosting. They have all turned out great (the chocolate ones fell the first time, but the second time I mixed them longer and the batter behaved better), and I’m using the Easy-Mix Yellow Cupcakes for an end-of-a-long-week birthday party at work.

The book also has many interesting recipes I can’t wait to try, each a variation on the simple recipes introduced at the beginning of the book. Some of my favorites include Chocolate Cupcakes with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting, Peanut Butter Cupcakes with Milk Chocolate Glaze, Banana Butterscotch Cupcakes, and Cinnamon Sugar Puff Cupcakes.

My only real problem with this cookbook is the small number of pictures. I prefer to have a picture for each recipe, and while I understand that the same frosting/glaze is used in several recipes, a photo would still be nice. But there are great tips and general cupcake advice in the first few pages, which almost makes up for the lack of cute cupcake photos. So if you’re looking for a fun little cupcake cookbook, I recommend Cupcakes! Now excuse me, I’ve got to go make some frosting.

I’m pretty certain I will spend my life working in the corporate world, but every once in a while it’s fun to wonder what life would be like if I took a less traditional path. While my cooking is certainly not up to restaurant standards (and I can’t make a pretty frosting for cupcakes to save my life!), if I was to do anything other than marketing it would somehow involve food. Which is probably why  I collect cookbooks (I got a new cupcake book over the weekend) and am always drawn to books involving food. So I was really excited when I decided to take a break from The Wheel of Time for a relaxing weekend read of The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn.

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry

Most people are defined by their job. They describe themselves by what they do, and their life is a success or failure depending on how far up the corporate ladder they can rise. And when they are suddenly thrust out of the corporate world, their sense of self ends with the paychecks. Kathleen Flinn is different. After loosing her middle-management job and visa to live and work in London, she decides it’s time to finally follow her passion and enroll in Le Cordon Bleu and move to Paris. Well, Kathleen is mostly different–she still doubts her choice to totally leave the working world, and her hasty decision to move to Paris with the guy she’s always liked but never pursued. This book follows her experience in culinary school, but it also shares her extremely personal journey of self-discovery and love.

Kathleen grew up in a small town with a close-knit family, but always dreamed of traveling and food–and specifically of Paris. After college she bounced around the journalism world reporting on food and critiquing restaurants, but she eventually wound up working in London for a large company thanks to Mike, the wonderful could-have-been-more friend. When she suddenly looses her job, it’s Mike who reminds her of that childhood dream to graduated from Le Cordon Bleu.

Kathleen and Mike are the primary characters in the book, although Kathleen’s family and friends from cooking classes make frequent appearances. Kathleen is an incredibly strong woman,despite her fears that dropping everything and draining her bank account to move to Paris may not be the best decision. She views every experience as a chance to learn, and in many of her conversations with her classmates the author shares what every person has learned to show how every person learns something different from the same experience. Mike is a stabilizing force in her life. He eats the leftovers from school without complaint, carries pounds of flour up the six flights of stairs to their apartment, and was willing to put his own career on pause to move to Paris with the woman he loves.

I loved this book. Her stories of cooking classes and food-based tours of Paris reinforced my dreams to travel and host dinner parties for all my friends. She also featured a recipe at the end of every chapter with additional recipes at the end of the book, many of them an adaption from the complicated french dishes taught at Le Cordon Bleu. I would gladly recommend this book for anyone who loves food, and people who want a feel-good read for a lazy weekend.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking at my book collection, wondering if I should sell/donate some of them. I have piles and piles of new books to read and nowhere to put them! At the beginning of the summer I donated most of the children’s and young adult books I have outgrown, but there are still so many more. In an effort to get organized (and to figure out which books I love the most), I created this list of my favorite books and authors; this list only includes a series if I have finished all the books and consists mainly of books I own or borrowed recently. Where possible, I have provided the link to my review of the book or author.

Please create your own list in the comments–I enjoy hearing about the books other people love! And feel free to suggest books I have forgotten or ignored, as this list is in no way finalized.

Fantasy

Favorite Books: The Symphony of Ages series, by Elizabeth Haydon; The Sharing Knife series, by Lois McMaster Bujold, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling; The Lord of The Rings series, by J. R. R. Tolkien; The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King

Favorite Authors: Brandon Sanderson, George R. R. Martin, Tamora Pierce, Anne Rice

Science Fiction

Favorite Books: Dune, by Frank Herbert

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Favorite Authors: Orson Scott Card

Classic Literature

Favorite Books: Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë; Lolita, by Vladmire Nabokov; The Oresteian Trilogy, by Aeschylus; Beowulf (the Seamus Heaney translation); To Kill A Mocking Bird, by Harper Lee; An American Tragedy, by Theodore Dreiser; The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (John Ciardi translation)

Favorite Authors: Upton Sinclair, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Alexandre Dumas,

Literature/Fiction

Favorite Books: The Chosen, by Chaim Potok; The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami; the Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko

Favorite Authors: Margaret Atwood, James Patterson, Richard Bach, Lori Wick, Ann Patchett

Cooking and Food

Favorite Books: Julie & Julia, by Julie Powell; My Life in France, by Julia Child

Historical Fiction

Favorite Books: The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

Favorite Authors: Ann Rinaldi

Music

Favorite Books:  Let Furry Have The Hour, by Antonino D’Ambrosio; The History of Jazz, by Ted Gioia

Sociology

Favorite Books: Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons; Anti-Semite and Jew, by Jean-Paul Sartre; Subculture: The Meaning of Style, by Dick Bebdige

Distopia

Favorite Books: 1984, by George Orwell; Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley

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