Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Meals in a Jar: Quick and Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes

Meals in a Jar: Quick and Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2013)

Everybody’s busy. These days, between shuttling from work to ballet practice to soccer to swimming, putting a meal on the table is all too often just left by the wayside. The need to feed the family on those days usually results in a quick pop-in to the local fast food joint, or at best the 20 minutes it takes to make a box of mac and cheese. It’s true that these prepackaged shortcuts are handy solutions in a time crunch or when cooking from scratch isn’t an option (due to lack of time or ingredients), but they are full of preservatives, colourings and other artificial additives too. Julie Languille, creator of the meal planning service Dinners in a Flash©, attempts to bridge the wholesomeness of scratch-cooking with the convenience of the box in her book Meals in a Jar: Quick and Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes.

Meals in a Jar contains 125 recipes for every meal of the day, including desserts, snacks and even beverages. Everything is designed for medium- to long-term storage and minimal preparation time come cook day, although a good portion of the meals take at least 45 minutes to cook due to their use of dried beans and grains. While Languille breaks down the process of creating these packaged meals, it is not apparent until you are in the middle of reading the recipes that “Quick and Easy” is a bit of misnomer. To use this book, most home cooks will have to purchase several pieces of equipment including a pressure canner, a food dehydrator, retort pouches, mylar bags and a vacuum sealer. In addition, readers of this book should plan to clear out a large section of their basement or garage and install shelving to house the ingredients, as well as the finished goods. This is because all the recipes in Meals in a Jar make between six and 8 meals, each serving between six and 8 people. Some recipes like Muesli (p. 33) call for 27 cups of oats, 6 cups of dried fruit and 4 ½ cups of nuts – amounts which are not typically practical (or economical) to purchase and store. The time it takes to create these “simple” meal pouches is also prohibitive for most people, since the main reason for turning to prepared meals in the first place is lack of time!

Because the meals are only really suitable for larger families (6-8 servings), smaller families and singles are mostly out of luck for go-to meal solutions. The idea of leftovers would be nice in normal circumstances (albeit a bit tiresome after the fourth day of Tuna Noodle Casserole (p. 83)), but since this book seems to be intended as a resource of food for “emergency” situations (a la MREs), what would be the chances of adequate refrigeration (or running water and heat for that matter) in those circumstances?

The only items I could see myself ever making from this book as a singleton (who occasionally cooks for her mother) are the dried soups and desserts, which are handily broken down into “one meal” batches by virtue of the assembly instructions (stating “in each bag...”). Of these, I will probably give the exotic Armenian Lentil Soup (p. 64) and Cranberry Walnut Oatmeal Cookies (p. 160) precedence, though I won’t bother with the “seal in bag” portion and simply make the recipes straight through. I’m sure that those recipes relying on normally “dry” goods like pasta, rice and beans will fare much better taste-wise over time, especially with those who are unaccustomed to the taste and texture of freeze-dried produce and meats.

Some recipes in Meals in a Jar, particularly for what Languille calls “side kits”, are simply inane to include. Does valuable space in a meal preparation guide need to be devoted to packaging a Corn Tortilla (p. 130) mix (comprised of corn flour and salt), or Dried Beans (p. 133)?

One of the other major issues I had with Meals in a Jar was that simply locating any of the ingredients or equipment was impossible. Freeze dried food and specialty powdered items (like eggs and cheese) is rarely found in standard stores, and when purchased online is too expensive for most budgets. There is no resource guide for either equipment or ingredients in the book, which is frustrating. Between the equipment, ingredients and power required to create these packets, it’s no wonder that the store shelves are lined with 75-cent cans of soup and $1 boxes of pasta.

It must be noted that some omissions in this book can cause dangerous health risks as well. This is especially the case with regards to the use of retort pouches, which can only be safely sealed with chamber-vacuum equipment – industrial devices running between $500-$1000.  Suggested shelf life of the meals is not provided either, and considering many of the recipes include “packets” of “waxed cheese” and various fat-based products, it looks like a recipe for food poisoning.

For those intent on preparing for emergencies or long camping trips who already own a good deal of preserving equipment and knowledge, Julie Languille’s Meals in a Jar: Quick and Easy, Just-Add-Water, Homemade Recipes can provide some interesting ideas and combinations. However, for the majority of consumers out there looking for a truly “quick and easy” fix for dinner, a box of pasta, a can of beans and a jar of tomato sauce is just as healthy and “homemade”, while being cheaper, easier and faster than dragging out the pressure canner.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Complete Gluten-Free Whole Grains Cookbook: 125 Delicious Recipes from Amaranth to Quinoa to Wild Rice

The Complete Gluten-Free Whole Grains Cookbook: 125 Delicious Recipes from Amaranth to Quinoa to Wild Rice 
Author: Judith Finlayson 
Publisher: Robert Rose Inc. (2013) 

I’m a huge fan of whole grains, be they in breads, cookies or pilafs. These days though, there seems to be a war on the most common cereals in the western world, thanks to the fact that many of them – wheat, barley and rye – all contain the protein gluten. For celiacs, this is a serious issue, but whether you’re unable to digest gluten or are just trying to reduce it in your diet, your carbohydrate choices used to be rice or corn, and pre-made products fitting the restriction were nothing short of awful (not to mention full of refined grains). Now, times are changing to embrace a more flavourful, healthier form of gluten free living, and established author Judith Finlayson is throwing her hat into the recipe ring with her new book The Complete Gluten-Free Whole Grains Cookbook: 125 Delicious Recipes from Amaranth to Quinoa to Wild Rice.

Finlayson delves into the varied world of grains as a whole in Gluten-Free Whole Grains, incorporating various forms of amaranth, corn, millet, quinoa, teff, buckwheat, Job’s tears, wild rice and sorghum in addition to the standard white and brown rices. The author thoughtfully includes both a primer as well as an in-depth exploration of the gluten free grains – including nutritional values, cooking methods and storage. Some of these grains (Job’s tears, sorghum, teff) I have not found readily in “whole” form (they are available, for a price, in online shops), so if you are not reliant on a gluten-free lifestyle for medical reasons I suggest skipping those recipes or substituting another grain. Recipes are divided between Bread and Breakfasts, Appetizers, Soups, Salads, Poultry, Fish and Seafood, Meat, Meatless Mains, Sides, Sundries and Basics and Desserts, although I feel that many of the recipes overlap enough that fewer categories are really needed (i.e. Appetizers, Soups, and Salads as simply “appetizers”, Poultry and Meat as “meat”). I appreciate the inclusions of vegetarian and fish-based meals as well, although more of those would be welcome as well given the delicate digestive systems of many celiac patients as they are easier to digest. In the back of the book readers will find information on the recipes’ food values for diabetes according to both the American and Canadian Diabetes Associations.

Gluten Free Cranberry - Citrus Muffins
Cranberry-Orange Pecan Muffins (p. 36)
One of the problems with many whole grain recipes (gluten free or not) is the sheer amount of time they take to put together. However, recipes in Gluten-Free Whole Grains like Peppery Shrimp with Quinoa (p. 126) and Moroccan-style Chicken Stew with Chickpeas and Rice (p. 114) can be ready in a half hour, and many recipes rely on pre-cooked grains that you can make on the weekend and store in the fridge or freezer until needed. I fell in love with the Soba Noodles with Broccoli Sauce (p. 158), which made a filling dinner when I added pressed tofu to the sauce’s sauté. I was also looking forward to eating the Mushroom Ragoût (p. 166) (made with millet as I couldn’t find Job’s tears), but neither I nor my family could get past the Chinese 5-spice – even though there is only ½ tsp in the batch. I’d probably add cumin and Szechuan peppercorns if I was to make it again for a more distinctly Asian flair. The Kasha and Beet Salad with Celery and Feta (p. 92) is a bookmark of my beet-loving mom and mine, although the unusual taste of the buckwheat with feta and Dijon may be too strong for some.

On the baking end of things – often the trickiest component of a gluten-free lifestyle – I couldn’t have been happier with the Cranberry-Orange Pecan Muffins (p. 36), which were a hit both as written (served to the family) and at school (made with honey-roasted sunflower seeds in place of nuts and a ground flax egg replacer). I’m looking forward to berry season here too, so I can try my hand at the Wine Soaked Cornmeal Cake with Balsamic Berries (p. 202) – the combination of nuts, coconut, citrus and wine promises to be a delicious base for the macerated fruit.

A gluten free diet does not mean a sentence of sawdust-y bread, boiled rice and protein. Delicious, wholesome meals, snacks and treats can be simply made, for much less money and far more nutrition potential than premade fare. Recipes in The Complete Gluten-Free Whole Grains Cookbook: 125 Delicious Recipes from Amaranth to Quinoa to Wild Rice by Judith Finlayson provide a solid base for learning the ropes of gluten free grains, are varied enough to keep palates interested and are easily adaptable to almost any palate.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mad Hungry Cravings: 173 Recipes for the Food You Want to Eat Right Now

Mad Hungry Cravings: 173 Recipes for the Food You Want to Eat Right Now
Publisher: Artisan (2013)

You’ve been there – it’s 1:15 AM and you’re awake, jolted out of a doze-fest by the call of your stomach. Or you’re faced with making dinner for one or two – and the pile of take-out menus is looking very inviting. Then there are some days the standard family staples just don’t cut it – but since money is generally tight and diets are increasingly more complex, dialing in or going out is no longer a “get up and go” process. But cravings happen, and when they do Lucinda Scala Quinn is there to help slake them with her new book Mad Hungry Cravings: 173 Recipes for the Food You Want to Eat Right Now.

Mad Hungry Cravings addresses both the “junkie” and the “virtuous” yearnings of the stomach, for all times of day and night. Broken down into four major sections (Break the Fast First, Anytime 24/7, What’s for Dinner?, Spirits & Sweets), there are chapters within each for the “traditional” parts of each meal (i.e. salads, sides). Colour photos of many dishes scatter the pages, which are pure heaven for the eyes and make your mouth water. If you weren’t craving Chicken Livornese (p. 176) before (or didn’t even know what it was), Jonathan Lovekin’s shots will spark one in short order. Scala Quinn also includes some of her own personal photography in black and white, adding to the bold graphic design of the book as well as adding a touch of heart to the printed word.

The opening pages of Mad Hungry Cravings are packed with information and are a fantastic read for novice and seasoned cooks alike.  The Mad Hungry Maxims (p. 5) are so true it hurts – shopping is half the job of cooking, don’t bite off more than you can chew, and above all... you’ve got to want to do it are take away points. I appreciated the chapter on expanding your repertoire and making cooking meals a learning experience. While the mother in Scala Quinn ties many of the points in Broaden Your Horizons (p. 9) to raising children, they are still fully valid for adults young and old. Finally, The Larder (p. 11) is both an entertaining and informative portion of the introduction  which categorizes key ingredients and flavours for many of the common “restaurant” cuisines (American, Asian, Mediterranean and Latin) that readers will need to keep on hand if they plan on eating that type frequently. Some of the ingredients come with their own little tips to maximizing their potential, or what to look for when shopping (i.e. “pure”, not “imitation”, vanilla).

Moist Lime Sour Cream Cake
Greek Yogurt Cake (p. 264)
Many recipes in Mad Hungry Cravings have an international lean due to the popularity of ethnic restaurants. Written by an American, there is a slight bias as to which dishes are considered “craveable” – some international readers may struggle with understanding the allure of Collard Greens with Ham and Bacon (p. 225) and Chicken-Fried Steak (p. 160), and since all the measurements are in imperial volume, it can present a chore to flip back and forth to the conversion chart at the back (although granted it is a very thorough one). Traditional “home cooked” recipes are also included of course, being some of the most commonly yearned-for dishes. A luscious Peach Pie (p. 278), Mac ‘n’ Cheese (p. 194) and chili-sauced Old-School Meat Loaf (p. 152) are just a handful of items that will transport diners back to after-school dinners and summer BBQ’s. Every recipe is approachable for most home cooks thanks to clear and thorough instructions, and while I wish there was a photo for every meal, I also appreciate that the book isn’t 5” thick thanks to full page pictures.

Truffle - Stuffed Banana Cookies
Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 285)
Possibly my favourite part about the recipes in this book is the personal story Scala Quinn attaches to each of them. Whether it’s an anecdote regarding vacations surrounding Chicago Hot Dogs (p. 77) to how she started adding nutrition to her boys’ snacks with Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 285). Some of the introductions offer handy tips for storage or suggestions for serving as well.

I sampled three recipes from Mad Hungry Cravings, each relatively simple to put together as written and yet gloriously accepting of interpretation. The first item I made was the Greek Yogurt Cake (p. 264), which was fantastically moist and tender, perfectly translating to my version: a Moist Lime Sour Cream Cake. On a roll with the dessert side of things, I made the aforementioned Banana Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 285) – stuffed with dark chocolate truffles rather than chocolate chips – and the absolutely sinful Dark-Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Squares (p. 283). The only issue my taste testers had with the squares was that the peanut butter flavour overpowered the blend of ingredients rather than remaining a separate entity, and that the whole mixture was a little dense in texture (they suggested more marshmallows, which I definitely plan to try later on). Regardless, all three treats disappeared in short order, and I definitely plan to try some of the savouries (in particular the Chicken Tikka Masala (p. 171) and the Maple-Thyme Roasted Carrots (p. 230)). More recipes from the book appear in the Martha Stewart website’s Sneak Peek at "Mad Hungry Cravings," Lucinda Scala Quinn's Newest Cookbook” slideshow.
Dark-Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Squares
Dark-Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Squares (p. 283)

If you eat out (or take in) more often than not, you will find at least one winner in Mad Hungry Cravings: 173 Recipes for the Food You Want to Eat Right Now. With recipes as varied and delicious as the ones presented by Lucinda Scala Quinn, as long as you can clear the delivery menus off the stove, dust off a few pans and boil water, a fantastic meal or snack can be yours in the same amount of time as the pizza guy, for less money and hassle. 

Available on Amazon