Saturday, August 20, 2016

150 Best Meals in a Jar

If you've spent more than 10 seconds on Pinterest, you've probably seen photos of food layered into canning jars. It looks so pretty, right, with multicolored salads or desserts?

The current cookbook on my reading list, 150 Best Meals in a Jar, puts every possible thing you can think of in a jar - soup, salads, main dishes, pasta, rice bowls. There is shepherds pie and lasagna and paella and spaghetti.

The more I look at this book, the more I think that some foods just don't belong in jars. The salads make some sense, except that if you plan on eating it out of the jar, you're going to be eating one layer at a time rather than getting that perfect bite of lettuce and tomato and cucumber.

But carrying salad in a solid container is a good idea, and dumping it into a bowl is fine. You want it all mixed up, right? Shake the jar to coat it with dressing and then pour into a bowl for serving. Perfect.

On the other hand, the shepherd's pie confused me. Not that it wouldn't look pretty layered in a jar. It would. But ... how do you eat it? If you eat out of the jar, you're going to be eating one thing at a time, starting with the potatoes that are on the top. If you dump it out, it's not going to be pretty at all. Which I guess it's not horrible if you're eating at your desk at work. But there are other options. The other odd thing was that the recipe makes 2 servings and each serving fits into a quart jar. That seems like a lot of food to me, but I don't eat as much as I used to.

Soup in a jar makes sense to me, but my quibble is with the serving size. Many of the soups call for a quart jar for a single serving. Maybe the recipes don't fill the quart, but in that case, why not adjust the recipe to make ... oh, let's say two full pint jars? Or a pint? Or three pints, since most recipes say they can be kept refrigerated for three days.

If someone is happy eating a quart of food for lunch, that's perfectly fine with me. I just thought that it was a pretty big serving size to use throughout the book, particularly since there are some recipes that use pint jars or smaller.

The recipes are interesting. Components are cooked separately then put into the jar to be microwaved later. This makes sense with foods where you want the separation of flavors. But method is also used for soups. Components are often put into the jar and a prepared broth poured over the top. So you're not cooking and tasting and then putting it in a jar for lunch. Instead, you're assembling and relying on the recipe to give you something that tastes good. It's not the way I cook, but I think some folks would really love this idea - they get a lunch that isn't a leftover from dinner.

The desserts, made in small jars, look pretty good. The salads make sense, if you're going to dump them into a bowl or on a plate. The soups make sense to eat (or drink) of of a jar. But I'll admit that some of the main dish recipes puzzled me. Rice and other ingredients layered in a jar isn't paella. It might be good, but it's definitely not paella. And for many of them, although I could see how they'd be pretty while they're layered in a jar, eating them would likely require dumping them out, which would make them look so much less attractive.

Considering the popularity of food in jars, I'm sure there are a lot of people who love this style of cooking. For me ... well, I work at home, so I don't really need to make my food ahead and carry it with me, so it's not as useful for me. Interesting, though.

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

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Eating Clean in Costa Rica

The recipes in this book are from a retreat and spa in Costa Rica called Blue Osa. They aren't necessarily traditional Costa Rican foods. In fact, as I browsed through the book, it seemed like the recipes could be from just about anywhere.

The author points out that she's cooking "in the middle of the jungle" so she can't get things that are common in supermarkets, so she has to rely on what's available locally. That makes sense. Then she goes on to say that she created a "original cuisine" with French flair.

So there you go. If you go to the spa, this is the sort of food you might expect to eat. Among other recipes in the book, there was quiche Lorraine, black bean soup, puttanesca sauce, vegetarian pad Thai, blinis, and lemon meringue pie.

There are some recipes that have more of an island flair, featuring coconut, mango, or other tropical fruits, but many of the recipes are from pretty far-flung locations.

The recipes are fairly simple, but there are some instructions that could be confusing. In some cases, oven temperatures are in fahrenheit, while others are centigrade. Many measurements are in grams or milliliters, but there are also teaspoons and tablespoons.

One recipe called for "one can" of tuna without specifying what size can and another asked for "one glass" of white wine. If you're used to cooking by taste, these sorts of things shouldn't be a problem.

Another recipe called for separating eggs, but the yolks were never used. That was a recipe for "macaroons." If it was supposed to be a recipe for macarons, they don't use yolks, so the instructions were correct. But it would have been clearer if the instructions had said to just use the whites and save the yolks for something else. Or perhaps there's something called a "macaroon" in Costa Rica that isn't either a macaron or the macaroons that have coconut in them. I'm really not sure.

I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad book. But if you're looking for Costa Rican food, this might not be the book for you. And if you do make these recipes, be prepared for instructions that might not be perfectly clear.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of a review.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Skinny Suppers

Let's be honest. I'm not a big fan of diets or diet books. I'd rather eat a little bit of real ice cream than a quart of low-fat/low-sugar ice cream. I'd rather have a little bit of a good yogurt than a lot of a yogurt that tastes like sadness.

But I have no problem with recipes that cut back on calories without making flavor suffer. I have no problem with portion reduction. I have no problem with using lighter ingredients if they don't mess up the recipe. I use Greek yogurt instead of sour cream in a lot of recipes ... unless the recipe really needs sour cream.

So, when I got Skinny Suppers by Brooke Griffin, the first thing I looked for was any weird ingredients. Recipes in this book sometimes call for light mayonnaise, fat-free milk, or unsweetened jam. I'd probably use regular mayo and milk, because that's what I buy. I do like unsweetened jam, though. But I'm not morally opposed to any of those substitutions.

One recipe that called for cream cheese listed 1/3-less-fat cream cheese. That's not too bad. I've used that cream cheese and it works just fine in recipes. I've tried the fat-free cream cheese and disliked it, so I was happy that wasn't required. So that was a fine substitution.

I was a little skeptical about sugar-free maple-flavored syrup, though. I'd probably just use less of the real stuff and call it a day.

So, the ingredients passed my test - I was either okay with them, or I could substitute if I wanted to.

One surprising thing was how many brand names were specified. A pasta recipe, for example, called for Prego Light Smart Traditional pasta sauce. That's helpful as long as that product is for sale, but I thought it might be too specific. Does every store carry this particular sauce? I don't know. Other times, the recipes called for something generic (parmesan cheese) and then mentioned the brand that the author liked (for example, she often mentioned Barilla ProteinPLUS pasta as a favorite).

That specificity makes sense for diet recipes, since one brand of pasta sauce might have a lot more added sugar than another. Again, if you like another brand better, it's not going to kill the recipe. The calorie count might not be the same, but a lot of things affect the calorie count. Just how big is a medium onion?

The book has an interesting organization. Since it's all suppers, it couldn't be organized in the usual breakfast, appetizer, soup, salad, main ... sort of thing. And it's also not by seasons, as is pretty common these days.

Instead, it's beef suppers, casserole suppers, chicken and turkey suppers, pasta suppers, pork suppers, seafood suppers, soups and salads, vegetarian suppers, and side dishes. The edges of the pages in each section are a different color to make it easier to see where sections start and end.

The recipes are all things that I'd be happy making, and many of them are things that I already know how to make. But that's fine. I'm always willing to try new versions.

Some of the highlights in the book are the apple-stuffed pork tenderloin with Dijon mustard sauce (but I'd leave the raisins out), Italian chickpea salad, butternut squash risotto, slow cooker creamy chicken and wild rice soup, and blackened fish tacos with cilantro-lime slaw.

Overall, it's a solid book with recipes that are easy enough to be doable for most folks, but still with a lot of flavor. I doubt most eaters would feel deprived with any of these.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of a review.

Monday, August 8, 2016

America's Best Breakfasts

When I got a book called America's Best Breakfasts by Lee Brian Schrager and Adeena Sussman, I expected to see things like waffles, crepes, chilaquiles, pancakes, and lots and lots of eggs.

But no, this book has breakfast recipes from restaurants where breakfasts are much more creative. There are certainly egg recipes, but most of them aren't recipes I'd be awake enough to make first thing in the morning.

For example, an egg sandwich recipe called Yolko Ono starts with making the sausage that goes onto the sandwich. It notes that you can buy sausage patties, but it's still not a simple recipe, since there's a pesto you'd also need to make.

The sandwich sounds amazing, but I'd be more likely to make it for lunch or dinner than for breakfast.

Like I said, I'm just not all that awake first thing in the morning.

The good news is that I tend to like breakfast foods for dinner, and that's particularly the case with eggs. I'd rather have them for lunch or dinner than for breakfast. So Yolko Ono would be perfect for me later in the day.

There are also recipes here that you might not normally associate with breakfast, like pozole, shrimp and grits, spaghetti with clams and crab, and chicken fried steak. I'm not saying I dislike any of those recipes. To be quite honest, I'd rather eat dinner food for breakfast. I'm weird like that. But I wouldn't necessarily make dinner food in the morning so I could have it for breakfast. Like I said, I'm not perky enough to do that sort of cooking first thing in the morning.

But I'd be more than happy to have it as leftovers. Or for someone else to cook it for me. You know, if you wanted to come over here and whip it up for me. Then make coffee. Then wake me up.

But ... if you're looking for a book that's got recipes you're going to whip up on a whim on a normal day, there probably aren't too many of those sorts of recipes here. You can make components ahead of time to make the final cooking easier, or you could easily work these into a brunch menu. But you'd have to really be a morning person to get many of these on the table for breakfast.

On the other hand, the brioche cinnamon buns are probably worth making ... when you have the time.

There are a lot of recipes here that I'll make, eventually. Just not for breakfast.

I received America's Best Breakfasts from the publisher for review.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Troll Cookbook

The problem with cutely-themed cookbooks is that sometimes the cuteness is what sells the book, and the recipes are less than stellar.

But still, I couldn't help requesting The Troll Cookbook.

To be completely honest, I didn't know if this was a book about cooking for trolls, cooking trolls, or for trolls who are cooks. It's actually two of those three. No trolls were eaten.

The recipes were solid. Eclectic. Something for everyone.

But let's face it, the troll theme is why people would buy this book, so let me give you a few examples of things that made me giggle.

The introduction to the Sweet Rice Dumplings says, "If the cook you've kidnapped has escaped, make your own dumplings by following this recipe." Okay, before the recipe there was a charming story about someone who was kidnapped by trolls and who cooked for them. But just I saw the introduction first and then went back and read the story.

The introduction to gnocchi says, "The trolls use their thick fingernails to press patterns into the hearty, dumpling-like gnocchi they make. The technique sometimes lends the finished pasta a peculiar flavor."

I guess the moral is that you shouldn't let trolls make gnocchi for you.

In a section about shopping, it explains how trolls are confused about our modern supermarkets: "Moving beyond the produce section, the troll is equally frustrated with much of the rest of the supermarket, with its aisles of packages plastered with photographs of the food inside, or worse,  of happy people. Trolls appreciate truth in advertising. Not once has a troll torn open a box of cereal and found actual people to eat inside. It's disappointing."

As far as recipes, you'll find instructions on making cottage cheese. paella, flavored salts, soups and salads, chili, jams, deviled eggs, and plenty more. There's information about pickling and preserving, making sausage, and even instructions for making vinegar.

The book is arranged by season, which makes sense for recipes that use fruits and vegetables, but seasonal doesn't make sense for things like yogurt, so it might take some browsing before you realize what you can make from this book. On the other hand, the pictures are fun and the text is amusing. So it's definitely worth a browse.

I received this book from the publisher in order to review it.