Friday, January 30, 2015

The Slanted Door

I should subtitle this "It's not Charles Phan's fault that my shrimp don't look like his."

You know what it's like when you get a cookbook that everyone's ooh-ing and ahh-ing about and you're really anxious to try a recipe? So then you paw through the book until you find a recipe you can make right now? And then you run to the kitchen like a toddler with a sugar high and start slicing and dicing and chopping and frying?

Yup, that's what I did when I got my review copy of The Slanted Door by Charles Phan. In my excitement, I screwed up on some of the procedures.

The sad thing is that the instructions were perfectly clear, and there was absolutely nothing complicated about what I needed to do. Anyone could have followed the recipe, except me, because I was too excited and I jumped a couple steps ahead of where I was supposed to be.

The crazy thing is that even though I messed up, and then I had to compensate for messing up by changing something else, the recipe still tasted good. It wasn't exactly what it was supposed to be, but no one would ever know.

And that's a big deal. There are way too many recipes where if you waver just a little bit, the whole thing goes off kilter. I hate when that happens.

I know that these days, photos are a big deal in cookbooks, and this one has some great photos. Not stunning in the sense that you'd go "wow, that's a pretty, artistic, stunning photo that I'd want to frame!" but more like, "wow, I want to eat that."

Even the food in the photos isn't perfect. Everything isn't identically browned. Placement isn't precise. Knots on cabbage rolls aren't all the same. But that's fine. It's a subtle hint that if I make this at home, it's going to be fine if I do things slightly differently.

Since this is a Vietnamese cookbook, I expected there would be some ingredients I'd have a hard time finding, so I was pleasantly surprised that most of the recipes didn't require a dictionary and online purchases. Most of the items can be found at a well-stocked grocery store, or could be substituted. I'm looking at a recipe right now for vegetarian imperial rolls, and the two items that might be harder to find are taro and dried tree-ear mushrooms. For the taro, I might use parnsips or potatoes. And for the dried mushrooms - well, I'm sure I could find some other dried mushroom.

The next-most exotic items are cellophane noodles and rice paper, and I'm pretty sure I can find both of them at one of the local grocery stores.And everything else is really simple, like carrots, cabbage, and honey.

Besides food, there are cocktail recipes that look like a whole lot of fun.

So ... now I know why everyone was so giddy about this book. I'm going to have a lot of fun with it.

I received this book at no cost to me for the purpose of a review.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Criminal Confections by Colette London

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to take some time off to relax, so for the past few weekends, I've spent time reading books. And I don't mean cookbooks, although I adore those, too.

Nope, I've been reading fiction.

My latest was Criminal Confections by Colette London. The main character is a chocolate expert who goes to a chocolate retreat where a murder is committed. Of course, the murder could be an accident, which is what most people believe.

The chocolate expert and her pal, a good-looking ex-con in the security business, start nosing around ... and then someone else dies - murder or accident.

Meanwhile, there's a lot of chocolate, so much so that when I was about halfway through the book, I wondered how anyone could enjoy that much chocolate in real life. And the next day I baked a pan of brownies.

At the end of the book, there are several recipes using chocolate. I didn't try any of the recipes, but I probably will.

This book is an easy read - I polished it off in a single day - and it's well written with just a couple hiccups that temporarily pulled me out of the story, like when the narrator broke that fourth wall and spoke right to the reader. I suppose that was used for effect, but for me, it disturbed the flow of the story for the moment. It wasn't a huge problem, though, and didn't affect my total enjoyment of the book.

The best part of this book was that I had no idea who the murderer was until the very end of the book, and once revealed, it made sense. So that's a huge plus.

I'll be looking for more books by this author in the future.

I received a digital version of this book from Netgalley for the purpose of a review.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Farm Fork Food by Eric Skokan

Chef Eric Skokan owns a farm and two restaurants in nearby Boulder, Colorado. The farm supplies the restaurants with produce as well as meats, and Skokan even has a booth at the local farmer's market where he sells some of his produce.

If local people are even vaguely aware of Skokan, they know him as the guy who uses his own farm to supply his restaurants. It's what he's famous for.

So when I got his new cookbook, Farm Fork Food, I expected to see it focusing narrowly on local and seasonal ingredients. I was quite surprised to see that isn't quite the case. Like many chef-centric cookbooks, this one has recipes that require ingredients that are probably much easier for chefs to get, but much more difficult for home cooks.

This isn't really a criticism of the book, because I like challenges, and I like seeking out new ingredients. It's just that the book was so totally different from what I expected. And, if you know of Skokan, it might also be different from what you might have expected.

For example, in the seafood section, a large number of the required fish varieties are ocean fish. We're pretty far from any ocean here in Colorado, so those fish aren't local in any sense. And while a restaurant might be able to fly in any sort of fresh fish they want, those of us who shop at supermarkets have to make do with more limited selections. Fortunately, fish can usually be substituted for other varieties, as long as you pay attention to the type of fish called for - firm, flaky, oily, etc., so it just takes a little research to find out what to use instead of cobia or sturgeon.

Some other ingredients are pretty far out of the reach of most normal humans. One recipe called for a black truffle, which isn't exactly supermarket fare. Another called for a Bergamot orange, which is grown in southern Italy and is vastly different from standard oranges. After some sleuthing online, I found a few bloggers who had used Bergamot oranges, but they were California-based and even they said the oranges were extremely rare - one orange cost a blogger $7.99. If I saw one, I would probably buy it, but it doesn't seem likely they'll be showing up in my local grocery store or farmer's market any time soon.

Another recipe called for Mara de Bois strawberries, which apparently aren't all that unusual for home gardens, but they also aren't a supermarket variety. Dried black chickpeas? That's new to me - no idea if they're hard to find or not. Parsley root? There's something I'm going to have to seek out, but I've never seen it before.

There are also a number of recipes that call for foraged foods, and Skokan talks about how he finds these things and harvests them. Which is great for him, but for someone who doesn't forage, it's not like you could simply drive down the road and find the recipe ingredients. You'd need to know where to look, and not get shot by a farmer for trespassing.

For the recipe that called for wild rose petals, the flowers from the florist probably aren't going to be a good substitute since they're grown for show and sprayed with things you might not want to eat. I know that Whole Foods sells some edible flowers, but I'm not sure if roses are among them. I'm sure they can be ordered online, though. So while those recipes are possible, they're not going to be spur-of-the-moment meals.

On the other hand, there are some foraged foods that can easily be substituted. I made a recipe that called for foraged apples, but I foraged mine at the farmer's market. Wild herbs can be replaced with domestic varieties. There are ways to make these recipes work, even if you live in an urban area where foraging isn't possible.

There are also many recipes that don't require as much devotion to ingredient-sourcing, and a savvy cook should be able to make reasonable substitutions. Dried black chickpeas could become normal dried chickpeas, for example. Heirloom turkey breast could become a regular turkey breast, or even chicken. Unusual heirloom beans could become pinto beans. Right now, I have quite a number of recipes bookmarked, and many of them will require no more hunting than a quick trip to the grocery store, while some need only minor substitutions to make shopping easier.

To be clear, I didn't expect that this book would use 100 percent local ingredients. We live in a global economy, and I expect that any restaurant (and any home cook!) is going use non-local staple foods like salt, pepper, coffee, spices, and chocolate. I also expect that some produce might come from distant locations - around here you won't see lemon trees, pineapple farms, or banana plantations.

Still, given Skokan's reputation, I was surprised how often he featured non-local items.

In the end, I like this book, and I like the challenge of seeking out the ingredients I don't have. Next summer when the farmer's market is open again, maybe I'll drop by Skokan's booth and see if he can supply some of the more difficult ingredients. I'd love to score a Bergamot orange and some caul fat.

Check out the Apple Butter I made from this book.

I received this book from the publisher at no cost to me.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Deadly Tasting: A Winemaker Detective Mystery by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen

I'm trying to make more time for reading novels, so a mystery book that talked about wine seemed to be a good way to ease away from cookbooks.

Deadly Tasting was a pretty quick read, and funny along with the mystery. Translated from French, it assumes the reader will be familiar with locales, but that wasn't really an issue - no more than when I'm reading a sci-fi novel where the locations don't actually exist.

One note of humor that runs through the book (without revealing the plot, so don't worry) is that the protagonist's wife has decided he's a little too chubby, so she puts him on the cabbage soup diet.

Poor guy.

My only quibble with this book was that the ending seemed a little bit quick - when it was all done, I wished that it would have been a little bit more detailed and drawn out.

But I guess that wanting it to last longer is a good thing.

I'll definitely be looking for more of these books.

Note: I received a digital version of the book at no cost to me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Fine Cooking Cakes and Cupcakes

The neat thing about compilation books from multiple authors is that you're likely to get the best of the best. Fine Cooking Cakes and Cupcakes has recipes from a whole lot of cookbook authors, with delicious cakes, cupcakes, frostings, fillings, and more.

There's a pineapple crumble snack cake from Flo Braker, ginger cupcakes from Greg Patent, and a crumb cake from Abby Dodge, a lemon icebox cake from Rose Levey Berenbaum, and a cinnamon-caramel-ganache layer cake from Alice Medrich, among others.

Recipes range from simple to complicated, from homey to fancy, and from vanilla to dark chocolate. There's something for everyone.

I received a digital edition, and it had some glitches in formatting, but it wasn't anything that affected the ability to make any of the recipes.

There were some sections of text that were light yellow that made them pretty much unreadable in normal mode, but changing the settings in my reader made them visible. Don't you love technology? To be perfectly honest, I prefer print cookbooks over digital versions, even when they're perfectly formatted.

This book has plenty of photos to entice you, along with a few process photos for some of the techniques.

Overall, it's a good selection of what should be very solid recipes. I've only made one recipe so far, but I've got a whole lot of them bookmarked. Some will have to wait for an event when I need a layer cake, but I'm sure I'll get to all of them eventually.

If you're looking for a good, all-around baking book for cakes, take a look at this one.

I received a digital version of this book at no cost to me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Pizza on the Grill by Elizabeth Karmel and Bob Blumer

While the theme of this book is pizza on the grill, there's a handy section that explains how to convert the recipes in the book so you can make pizzas in your oven - perfect for those days when the grill is buried in three feet of snow, or if you don't have a grill but need more recipes for pizza.

Pizza on the Grill starts out with a bit of history and technique, information about ingredients, equipment, and tips.

The second edition of the book (which is what I have in eBook format) includes gluten-free recipes that weren't in the original book, so keep that in mind, if it's a concern for you.

The organization of the recipes is ... interesting. The recipes for pizza doughs, sauces, and ingredients that need to be cooked ahead of time, are all at the end of the book, after the recipes for side dishes and salads.

It seems a little clunky at first, but it makes sense - there's no reason to repeat the pizza dough recipe for every single pizza, and the same goes for the sauces that are used for several different pies. And of course, if you're making your own combos, it's nice to have the doughs and sauces together rather than scattered throughout the book.

I would have preferred those fundamental recipes in the front of the book rather than the back, but once you know where to look, it doesn't really matter as much.

Recipes for pizza include classics, crazies, and desserts, and there are hints for upgrading or modifying the pizzas, as well as drink suggestions.

Even if you're already comfortable with putting toppings on pizza, there are probably some ideas here you haven't thought of. How about Day-After-Thanksgiving Pizza? Or Kung Pao Cashew Chicken Pizza? Or Pimento Cheese Pizza?

The photos in this book are really appealing, making me want to run out and fire up the grill now and make some pizzas.

Unfortunately, the eBook version I have had some formatting issues. It didn't make the book unusable, but my inner editor wanted to reach in and tweak a few things. If you're bothered by such things, you might be happier with the hard copy of the book.

Monday, January 12, 2015

In Her Kitchen by Gabriele Galimberti

If you watch food shows on TV, you'll find that a lot of chefs will refer to home cooks as though they're inferior to those folks who cook in professional kitchens.

Other chefs, though, will talk about how some of their best meals were made by their mothers or grandmothers. Or they'll talk about home-cooked meals in small villages that changed their lives.

If you think about it, many - or most - of the dishes served in restaurants today were created in home kitchens many generations ago, before restaurants even existed.

Sure, a professional chef today has skills that a home cook might not have. But grandma's lasagna or chicken soup is probably on of the dishes that you crave the most.

Not every home cook is a genius in the kitchen, of course But there are some pretty good home cooks out there with natural abilities, generations of traditions, and plenty of practice.

The book In Her Kitchen celebrates those home cooks. The author, Gabriele Galimberti, traveled to a variety of countries as a writer for an Italian magazine, and visited with grandmothers in many of those countries, learning to cook what they cooked.

Each recipe comes with a short biography of the women, a photo of them with their ingredients, and a photo of the finished dish.

I was fascinated by the photos of the women with their ingredients, usually in their kitchens. The homes ranged from high-end to dirt floor, and the ingredients ranged from pretty common to ... iguana.

The photos really brought home how small our world really is. For every photo, I tried to identify the ingredients, and I was pretty successful for most of them. Even the bottle and cans were familiar - even when the labels weren't in English, the shapes the bottles often identified the contents. I guess I spend too much time in grocery stores.

I really wish that there were more to the stories about these women - while it's great to know how many children and grandchildren they had and where those children lived, I would have been more interested in what they talked about while cooking, what the food was like, and other little details.

I already have a few recipes bookmarked to make later (not the iguana) and I plan on spending just a little more time ogling the kitchens.

Okay, maybe I can think about that iguana recipe. Chicken should be close enough.

I received this book from the publisher at no cost to me.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Savoring the South by Angela Mulloy

To get the complete grasp of this book, you probably need the full title - Savoring the South:  Memories of EDNA LEWIS, the Grande Dame of Southern Cooking with Recipes by Angela Mulloy.

It's a mouthful, but the keywords there are Edna Lewis. If you don't know who she is, go to Wikipedia and read.

As far as the recipes are concerned, I love that the book is organized by seasons, and that the book actually pays attention to seasons, so you're not mixing spring greens with fall vegetables. Definitely southern-style cooking, with ingredients like collard greens, country ham, and plenty of cornmeal.

For those who don't want to research online before reading a cookbook, it was great to have the information about Edna Lewis at the front of the book, and snippets of her tips throughout the book.

I have to admit that I was most drawn to the baking recipes - the pound cake sounds fantastic, and I already made the spoonbread and wrote about it here, but I'm also looking forward to other seasons to make the Vidalia Onion Marmalade and the peach pie.

Besides food recipes, cocktails are included as well - they're classics, but it's still nice to have them along with the food recipes, to remind you of what drinks belong with the recipes.

Note: I received a digital version of this book from the publisher at no cost.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Bane of Yoto by Josh Viola

Did I mention that this blog isn't going to be all cookbooks, all the time?

Yup, it's not.

It's not even going to be all food, all the time.

This time, it's a sci-fi novel, The Bane of Yoto by Josh Viola.

When it comes to fiction, I'm a big fan of sci-fi, mysteries, fantasy, and spy novels, and I'm not much of a fan of romance novels.

This book reminded me a lot of Dune with a splash of Lord of the Rings. There's the reluctant hero, the bad guys, and the believable fictional universe.

We meet Yoto when he is a frightened child, and he grows into an adult who is happier working within the system rather than fighting against it.

But of course. fate doesn't allow him to follow his intended path. Poor Yoto!

The characters drew me in from the beginning, and of course I was cheering for the good guys, all the way to the end. Speaking of the end, it was satisfying, but left the possibility of a sequel.

I have to say that I hope there is a sequel ... I really want to see what happens to Yoto and his planet.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Nonna's House by Jody Scaravella

I got a chance to take a peek at an uncorrected proof of Nonna's House by Jody Scaravella, and the odd thing was that I think I enjoyed the stories in this book more than the recipes.

And that's odd, because I'm usually all about the food.

But the stories reminded me of what I've heard from my own (non-Italian) relatives about coming to America, so it got me thinking about those stories.

There are a few recipes I want to try even though the book isn't finalized, but I might leave some of the others for the final version to see if a few questions get cleared up.

For example, one recipe called for three anchovies, which in the US are tiny things that come in jars or tins, but I know that there are much larger anchovies that are pretty much of a meal. Based on the recipe, I'm pretty sure the larger anchovies are required, but I'm not sure exactly how large - and that's a pretty important consideration for me, considering that I'd probably end up substituting a fish that's more likely to be available where I live.

The photos in the book look great, so this should be a very attractive book when it's done. It's due to be released on April 7, 2015 on Kindle.

Note: I received an uncorrected digital version from the publisher at no cost to me.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Sugar Rush by Johnny Iuzzini

First off, Sugar Rush by Johnny Iuzzini is a really attractive book. There are tons of photos, including process shots to help you along, and some that are just for the fun of it.

The book is divided into chapters based on the major component - so we have custards and creamy desserts; eggs and meringue; caramel; cakes, cupcakes, brownies, and muffins; cookies tea cakes and biscuits; tarts cobblers and crisps; yeast doughs, glazes frostings, fillings, and sauces, and a final chapter on building a balanced dessert.

The chapters make sense, but of course there are always recipes that could fit into more than one category. Caramel pudding is listed under caramel, since you have to actually make a caramel before it becomes pudding - but it's far from the other puddings listed under custards and creamy desserts. Meanwhile, pecan-caramel sticky buns are included with yeast doughs rather than along with the caramels.

That's not a criticism, though. Just an observation. The choices made when choosing categories made perfect sense to me. And of course, there's always the index. Look under "pudding" and caramel is listed right along with the rest.

What I really love about this book is that the recipes use common ingredients, and in fact, I could probably make more than half of them without a trip to the store since I keep a pretty well-stocked pantry. The things I might need to run out and buy are not uncommon - just not at hand at the moment. Like bananas, oranges, heavy cream, apples ... nothing too scary. I think the most unusual item in the book was lemongrass, and even that's not terribly hard to find.

I like to browse through cookbooks, find a recipe, and start cooking right away, and that's totally possible with this book.

Along with having easy ingredients, the recipes are clear, and photos help point the way.

But I'm not at all saying that this is a book that's just for beginners. Sure, beginners will love it, but there are also more complicated recipes, like kouign-amann, to challenge more experienced cooks.

Besides a whole lot of recipes for sweets (it's Sugar Rush, after all) there are a few savory recipes, like the zucchini and roasted corn muffins or the focaccia. But it's mostly sweets. So go stock up on sugar.

The one quibble I have with the book is that I couldn't find any reference to what the cover photo depicted. After some hunting, it seems that those are cream puffs dipped in a liquid caramel, which is one of the optional finishes for the cream puffs.

Note: I received this book from the publisher at no cost to me.