Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Crabby Cook Cookbook: 135 Almost-Effortless Recipes plus Survival Tips

The Crabby Cook Cookbook: 135 Almost-Effortless Recipes plus Survival Tips
Author: Jessica Harper (@thecrabbycook)
Publisher: Workman Publishing (2010)

It’s easy to envy the pros. No matter what they seem to do, whether it’s shooting hoops, playing the piano or making their kids dinner, if it’s their specialty they put the poor laymen of the world to a crying shame. Why don’t we ever see Tony Parker tripping on his way out to the court, or hear Elton John’s accidental striking of a B-flat on the radio? The rich folks among the stars (and lets face it – that’s most of them) don’t have to even think about the last task of cooking. Heck, if they wanted to, they could hire a chef for as long as they wanted or needed, and throw in a nutritionist and personal trainer while they’re at it too. Why bother messing with the mundane bits of life when you’d never have to deal with the snags along the way?

Of course, it isn’t every celebrity that’s like that. They are all busy people (aren’t we all?) and I’m sure those that do choose to rely on hired help have their reasons. But sometimes, wouldn’t you like to hear an account of something gone awry to one of these invincible idols, but see them use their own ingenuity and brainpower to come up with a solution and “save the day” without becoming a victim of “woe-is-me-itis”? Take the example of dinner: when do you hear of Brad Pitt cooking breakfast for the brood of however many there are now, with one child clinging to his leg, another making faces with syrup on the table and a pan that’s just a little bit too hot?

If you are searching for one of those “sometimes reality sucks” manuals for yourself, it may seem counterintuitive to pick up one written by an actress. But then Jessica Harper flies in the face of most standard celebrity tactics, and cookbook-writing logic, by penning The Crabby Cook Cookbook: 135 Almost-Effortless Recipes plus Survival Tips. In it, readers will find a host of recipes that Harper makes or made over the years as a home cook and mom: from pancakes to potato salad to fish sticks, if it’s a home-cooked , reliable meal that is simple to whip together you’re after, Crabby Cook fits the bill. Harper ups the ante with her hilarious recollections of these meals past... it’s safe to say I enjoyed the book as much for the anecdotes as I did for the food! Some of my favourite tales (and their delicious accompanying recipes!) had to be of her brother in law’s experience with chicken soup on page 45 (pupik, anyone?) and a hilarious examination of a Real Simple magazine’s survey results (p.126). Parents will appreciate her exasperation at dealing with picky eaters (namely her children, who went through a “white” phase) after growing up with an “eat it or starve” type of mother. As someone with a gifted home-cook mother, I could relate to the frustration of trying to make something the family will enjoy (like her and the pasta sauce recipe on p. 49) when “grandma’s is better”.

Crabby Cook also proves that us “commoners” are not the only ones to try making a celebrity’s recipe. Whether it’s the ousted Thai prime minister’s dubiously named “pig’s legs in Coca Cola” (p. 80) or a Food Network casserole that she puts through it’s paces as something achievable in half an hour (p. 71), nothing, and indeed no one (even Richard Gere!) is safe. But, as Harper details, lessons are definitely learned along the way.

I only wish there were photos of her pursuits, no matter the beauty of their conclusions. A picture says a thousand words, and if they are as relatable, touching and funny a thousand words as what she jotted in this book, I’m sure we’d all be in stitches. Then again, I’m as guilty as she is – while the peanut butter chocolate chip cookies (p. 254) and pancakes (p. 7) went down a treat over the Christmas break, I’ve discovered that in real life, nobody is pausing for a photo when there is anything good on the table! I did find it rather amusing that a quirk I had attributed to just our family of breakfast lovers – chocolate chips – is a key inclusion in Harper’s mother’s recipe, and that the chaos of several hungry teens home from school made me nostalgic.

The Crabby Cook Cookbook is not under any circumstances a read for the perfectionist, the singleton or the overly serious professional chef. But it doesn’t claim to be. It is an honest, amusing and interesting story of life as a human being with a kitchen and stove, and the tricks to getting out of there (and sometimes even the dishes) alive.

Available on Amazon

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Vegan Girl's Guide to Life: Cruelty-Free Crafts, Recipes, Beauty Secrets, and More

The Vegan Girl's Guide to Life: Cruelty-Free Crafts, Recipes, Beauty Secrets, and More
Author: Melisser Elliott
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2010)
There are a handful of the same problems that plague cooks at home: the same few things get repeated. You know the drill - the same proteins cooked in the same way with the same sides at the same time each day. While omnivores often claim that they have a broader palette to dip their proverbial basting brush in, the growing population of flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan “foodies” is out to change the misconception that meatless always equals monotony. Regardless of whether you are just trying to reduce the meat in your diet, are a “brand new” vegan, or are an old hand at the practice, fresh options are always welcome. Melisser Elliott does one heck of a good job of not just dishing up good eats but also providing a side of tips for daily animal-free living in her new book The Vegan Girl's Guide to Life: Cruelty-Free Crafts, Recipes, Beauty Secrets, and More.

Packed with information on all things vegan, Guide to Life is almost a manifesto. Elliott breaks down a host of possible reasons for choosing to adopt the lifestyle, from the stereotypical “animal rights movement” to the health benefits and environmental bonuses lent by an animal-free existence. Twenty pages of nutrition basics follow, including my favourite heading: “So, Where Do You Get Your Protein?” (answer: it’s a heck of a lot easier than the national Food Guides would have you think). Also mentioned are strategies to cope with food allergies, healthy eating through pregnancy and even an address of the stereotypical, hurtful correlation between veganism and eating disorders. Elliott includes a personal story from one of her close friends who battled the disease and won hand in hand with a vegan diet. Those looking for more personal accounts of living an animal-free life will adore the interviews peppering the book’s pages throughout, including those with fellow female bloggers, friends and business owners.

And the recipes! Those who read food blogs will notice some fairly prominent names in Guide to Life in addition to Elliott’s: from Hannah Kaminsky of Bittersweet to Kittee Berns from Cake Maker to the Stars. The sprouts and polenta preparation from Elliott’s Brussels Sprouts with Crispy Tempeh over Soft Polenta (p. 161) were delicious, while tempeh is a food I can’t enjoy due to my dietary restrictions. A friend of mine looking to include more protein sources in her diet (proof that vegans get perfectly fine amounts!) tried and adored the Thanksgiving Dinner Cutlets (p. 172) over the holiday season. I can’t wait to whip up Cookin’ Crunk author Bianca Phillips’ Sweet Tater Bread (p. 183) either – and I happen to know a few willing taste-testers to try it!

When you’re done making the goodies in Guide to Life, Elliott has some great how-to’s on presentation, packaging and storage too in the chapter “Do it Yourself”. If a green thumb has you going, vegan gardening (who knew there was such a thing?) tips abound as well, and for the textile-minded crafters there are awesome patters for Reusable Produce Bags (p. 199), Cross-Stitching (p. 203) and knitting projects from Kristen Blackmore (p. 213) and Kaminsky (p. 215) too.

Apart from the fact that all the interviews are with women (and the marketing power a female-centric book has), there is no reason why this book needs to be labelled as a guide for girls alone. I know several men who make the transition to a meat-free life and need some inspiration for their daily menus. If they can get past the (dare I say) sexist connotation of every vegan as a woman, the purchase of The Vegan Girl's Guide to Life: Cruelty-Free Crafts, Recipes, Beauty Secrets, and More is well worth anyone’s purchase – and who knows, you might just make at least a part-time veggie out of your meat-eating mama!

Available on Amazon