Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The No-Cook No-Bake Cookbook: 101 Delicious Recipes for When It's Too Hot to Cook

The No-Cook No-Bake Cookbook: 101 Delicious Recipes for When It's Too Hot to Cook
Author: Matt Kadey
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2013)

It’s hard to believe that we’re almost into August. Generally known as the hottest, most humid and least comfortable of the Summer months, it’s a time when everyone would rather be outside swimming, gardening, or golfing – definitely not inside heating up the oven. That said, we all have to eat whether we’re confronted by the mid-summer heat or chilled to the bone in February. Matt Kadey tackled the “Summer supper” conundrum in his new cookbook: The No-Cook No-Bake Cookbook: 101 Delicious Recipes for When It's Too Hot to Cook. For the purposes of this review, I’ve abbreviated the title to NCNB.

NCNB takes the classic staples of Summer cooking – fresh produce, quick-mix condiments and cooling dairy – and adds pantry items like canned beans and fish, nuts and breads to transform them into gourmet-looking fare. Far from your standard salads and ice cream, Kadey instead suggests Watermelon Jicama Salad (p. 39), Shrimp and Noodles with Sweet and Sour Sauce (p. 72) and Cherry Granita (p. 113). If a recipe calls for something cooked (like a cereal or pasta), a combination of boiling water and ingredients like oats, rice noodles and couscous does the trick. The occasional shrimp called for in NCNB is purchased in precooked, frozen form, while tuna or salmon is canned – not only are these cook-free options, but even organically purchased they are economical ways to include seafood in the diet. The few chicken-based recipes make use of the readily available rotisserie chickens from the supermarket, and after Kadey finishes with them it’s hard to tell they weren’t made in your own home. Most of the protein options in NCNB are actually the most convenient and nutritious items in the pantry and fridge – beans, lentils and tofu. Nuts and dairy add some variety as well, so the “un-cook” need never worry about boredom or nutrition deficiencies! Despite the decadent and hearty looking recipes in this book, the nutrition aspect of them is in good standing thanks to Kadey’s nutrition background (he is a registered dietitian, nutrition writer and recipe developer). Luckily, the food itself doesn’t necessarily taste “healthy” – just delicious!

One of the things I particularly liked about this book was that it wasn’t a “raw food” or “health food” collection. While there are a few recipes that appear to be culled from the raw foodist circle (Carrot Cake Muffins (p. 137), Applesauce Pie (p. 139) and a few other desserts in particular), the majority of items are more assembly jobs of ready-to-eat elements. I wouldn’t suggest this book for a strict vegan (there is a lot of dairy and other assorted animal products), nor would I recommend it to someone with nut allergies, but most vegetarians will be able to make most of the recipes in NCNB by either swapping in vegetable proteins or simply leaving out the meat in favour of more vegetables (a favourable option for most, as the amount of protein in a typical diet is generally far too much). My personal favourite in the collection is the sushi bar-esque Cucumber Seaweed Salad (p. 45), which made a fantastic meal topped with marinated tofu. The Smoked Tofu Wraps (p. 98), another vegan option, are on my to-try list as well, and is flavourful enough that it would be a good option for anyone regardless of dietary preference. Unfortunately I wasn’t as impressed with the Pizza Stacks (p. 92), which tasted too oily and salty for what should have been a relatively light meal.

Whether you are coming home sweating from a run, retreating from weeding duties or simply not in the mood to heat up the kitchen, you will likely find an option in Matt Kadey’s The No-Cook No-Bake Cookbook: 101 Delicious Recipes for When It's Too Hot to Cook. Filled with fresh twists on cooling fare for every meal of the day, the dog days of Summer have become the best excuse to get back to the kitchen... and out again! 

Available on Amazon

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden

Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden
Author: Matt Wilkinson
Publisher: Black Dog & Leventhal (2012)

When the growing season comes around, there’s nothing I love more than coming into the kitchen with an armful of vegetables. Whether it’s from one of the local farmers’ markets or right outside my back door, fresh vegetables in season are at their peak of flavour, nutrition and economy. More and more chefs are embracing dishes and menus developed based on the seasonality of ingredients, rather than importing from far and wide, and Matt Wilkinson is no exception. Wilkinson is the chef at Pope Joan, known for its use of seasonal produce, in Melbourne, Australia as well as an ambassador of the Victorian Farmers’ Markets Association, and thrives on partnering with producers to provide accessibility to the tastiest food for communities. His passion translates into the cookbook world now, with Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden.

Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables is more than a simple cookbook in that it incorporates not just recipes, but facts about the 24 vegetables he includes. A preamble of 2 or so pages precedes each chapter, which is dedicated to one particular vegetable – providing insight as to the Latin (“official”) name, native origin, history and even how to grow and harvest. This is fascinating for the trivia fan or gardener, but unfortunately this wealth of extra information inhibits the volume and variety of recipes Wilkinson includes. In the 300 pages of Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables, there are slightly over 80 recipes (approximately 3 per vegetable) – and some of the “produce specific” offerings (such as Simple Roast Potatoes (p. 217), Irene’s Tzatziki (p. 117) and Heirloom Radishes in a Salad (p. 244) are overly simple and better suited for the “Basics” section at the back or simply omitted entirely. Wilkinson also ignores the now-popular class of Asian produce – likely due to it’s limited locality and season.

That said, Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables does promote vegetables as a main element in the diet and not simply a side. The recipes respect the foods for themselves, making them the stars of the dinner plate. While the book is useful to vegetarians looking for new twists on their meals, many recipes use meat in an accompanying role – and in most cases it can be omitted without much consequence. This book is refreshing in that while Wilkinson’s passion is evident in his food, it also doesn’t come across as a vegetarian, organic or health food manifesto.

Sweet n' Spicy Baked Beans
Baked Beans (p. 14)
One thing that this book has no shortage of is dishes worthy of a four-star restaurant. Some of them (like Spinach, Mustard Greens, & Baked Ricotta Cheese (p. 176), Baked Beans (p. 14), and Horseradish Wafers (p. 162)), are easy and accessible enough for most home cooks to recreate, and are relatively “safe” to attempt in terms of taste expectations. Others in Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables sound delicious but intimidating, requiring specialty ingredients (truffle oil, certain spices and meats like goat neck) or processes like stovetop smoking. I’m looking forward to trying variations on some of these, however, namely the deceptively simple Sautéed Tuscan Cabbage & Matsutake Mushroom Pasta (p. 63) (though I’d have to substitute shiitakes for the Matsutake or Saffron Milk Caps called for), and the exotic, spicy Tomato Kasundi (p. 263) (using far less oil than the ¾ cup indicated for toasting the array of spices). I’m bookmarking the rich-looking Carrot Cake (p. 80) as well as the Foil Roasted Big Beets with Ricotta & Mint (p. 32) for Fall, when my backyard veggies come to fruition.
For those looking to expand their vegetable-cooking horizons, impress honoured guests or simply use what you grow or buy locally, you can certainly do a lot worse than Mr. Wilkinson's Vegetables: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Garden. While not an exhaustive resource, Matt Wilkinson tempts and inspires with his recipes, and the collection brings to light the need to embrace vegetables in more than a fleeting embrace. From simple to gourmet, the seasons determine the supper as it has always been – what will be on your plate tonight?
Available on Amazon

Monday, July 15, 2013

Farm Fresh Recipes From the Missing Goat Farm

Farm Fresh Recipes From the Missing Goat Farm
Publisher:  CICO Books (2013)

It’s hard to argue against the flavours of fresh, local food. During the growing season, farmer’s markets abound with produce grown right outside your door, and if you’re lucky enough the backyard garden has a few bowlfuls of veggies for you too. That said, it can be tricky to pinpoint new and delicious ways of showcasing the best of each season while it lasts... but farmers like Heather Cameron are getting savvy, leading to cookbooks such as Farm Fresh Recipes From the Missing Goat Farm. This book is dedicated to showing off each season’s prize ingredients in everything from appetizers to desserts, and is certainly one to come back to all year long.

Cameron opens the book with a few charming anecdotes of her entry into the farming profession – turning what was a passive dream into an accidental reality. She is the first to admit that the profession was not a natural calling, but in the end the Missing Goat Blueberry Farm turned into a thriving example of home-based agriculture. In each seasonal chapter, Cameron divides the small selection of recipes into breakfasts, snacks, mains, desserts and pantry staples. While the variety of Farm Fresh Recipes is nowhere near that of other cookbooks out there, the quality and quantity of photographs outshines all but the most illustrated coffee-table tomes. Cameron’s writing style in both the recipe descriptions and text is personal and approachable – readers will get the sense that the author is in the kitchen with them, providing gentle guidance and direction with a smattering of humour and encouragement.

Trying to pick a recipe out of Farm Fresh Recipes is both simple and incredibly difficult – even though there are only a handful of items on offer, they all appear to be simple, balanced and fresh ideas that would appeal to the whole family. This book does not specifically cater to a particular diet or lifestyle – eggs, dairy, meat, nuts and grains are all used – but the importance of natural, fresh and locally sourced ingredients whenever possible is constantly, if tacitly, enforced. Whether it’s the decadent Chocolate Zucchini Cake (p. 91) or the sublimely nutritious Quinoa, Fruit, and Cottage Cheese (p. 57), having good quality ingredients can make the meal worth trying – but bear in mind that if your family (like my stepfamily, sadly) swears by prepackaged sauces, marinated frozen meats and baked goods from a box mix or the grocery store shelf, the adjustment curve can be a bit steep. While I loved the texture and flavour of Cameron’s Pasta from Scratch (p. 41), my Italian stepdad thought it was “gummy” and “not like ‘real’ (i.e. dried) pasta”. The Chicken Strips (p. 142), which are wholesome panko and almond-crusted chicken breast pieces, were another tough sell to my household, especially since my sister (the major consumer of breaded chicken) knew right away that there was something “weird” about the breaded chunks of meat and refused to eat more than one.

Other recipes were a hit with children who already had a relatively broad palate – even if the marketing of the food involved a little name-tweaking. I knew that if I labeled the sweet oat and seed bars as Choc Chip Granola Bars (p. 26) like in the book, I would get nothing but skeptical looks and maybe a few bites from the kids at school – but a simple name change to “oatmeal squares” (keeping the same recipe) led to the whole pan being demolished and the kids licking their lips. I actually wound up making a second batch of the recipe with a banana in place of the egg for allergies, and it was just as delicious and well received. Likewise, Mini Jam Pies (p. 148) became a craved mid morning treat after being re-labeled “pop tarts” – the very type of thing that Farm Fresh Recipes is trying to avoid!

Banana Berry Granola Bars
Choc Chip Granola Bars (Banana Version) (p. 26)

If you’re looking for a wealth of recipes and a “how-to” farming guide, Farm Fresh Recipes From the Missing Goat Farm is not your book. However, Heather Cameron’s combination of personal stories, knowledge, photos and recipes makes her book worth a look for anyone looking to add more fresh, simple, wholesome foods to their family’s diet.
Available on Amazon

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook

The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook
Authors: Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman
Publisher: Workman (2013)

Gardening can be a tricky thing. Between choosing what and when to plant, what type of soil you have, how much water, sun, fertilizer and space the seedlings need and how to deal with all those darned weeds, what should be a relaxing pastime can quickly turn into a neurotic episode. Of course, even if all the variables are in your favour, your garden harvest may fail horribly... or you may find yourself with more tomatoes and peppers than you know what to do with! The Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, does though – and authors Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman are ready to share their knowledge in their book: The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook.

Gardener’s Cookbook is actually two books in one – the first 250 of the almost 500 pages (Part One) are dedicated to everything related to growing your own food. From the best layouts for proper growing and easy harvests (p. 33), to gardening in tiny spaces (p. 32), crop rotation (p. 43-52) and even the annual vs. permanent produce varieties, no practical detail is spared. A bit of soil science is also included in the first chapter, which for any new gardener (and even some seasoned pros) proves to be a useful and informative read. Note, however, that since the Four Season Farm is on the East coast of Maine, the notes that Damrosch and Coleman include are attuned to that climate (humid continental) and topography (rocky). However, with the solid knowledge that this book provides on a general scheme, readers will be able to apply the necessary adaptations for their own zones.

Purple Oregano

My favourite section of Part One is The Crops (p. 63), as it comprises suggested plans for all types of gardening. From the Salad Garden (p. 64) to the Winter Garden (p. 87) and even a Hard Times Garden (p. 75), whatever your need or desire you can find one (or many) forms of inspiration. The suggestions of produce are not only astoundingly diverse, but are inspirational for even a summertime casual gardener like me. Things I didn’t even realize were accessible to the home gardener (like artichokes and Asian greens) came onto my radar, and now I’m probing their possibilities in my garden next year. Given that the authors have over 40 years of experience in the field of agriculture, readers can rest assured that spending the time to peruse Part One of this book is well worth it!

Filbert Torte with Rich Chocolate Frosting
Hazelnut Torte (p. 437)
For those shopping for a recipe bible, the title of Gardener’s Cookbook is a little bit of a misnomer. In fact, the actual “cookbook” is in Part Two, and while it does contain 120 recipes it is by no means a comprehensive “usage guide” for the produce that tempted gardeners in Part One. Many of these recipes are heavy on the butter, cream, cheese and meat too (dieters and vegetarians beware), sometimes to the edge of excess. That said, many of these recipes are still delicious examples of why we need to eat more vegetables, fruits and herbs! My mom (a bona fide leek lover) fawned over the Baked Leeks (p. 392), even though we both agreed it didn’t need the butter to taste rich. The “Thinnings” Salad with Asparagus (p. 304) has been bookmarked since I received the book as well, since both my mother and I love asparagus and we have plenty of beet greens, lettuce, arugula and endive at our disposal in the backyard! With a few modifications for dairy allergies (and a different, chocolatey filling for taste preferences), almost everyone I served the Hazelnut Torte with Summer Berries (p. 437) to adored the rich, nut- and egg-based crumb (especially with fresh raspberries). That said, while the title of Roast Chicken with Potatoes and Sage (p. 421) tempted me, upon reading the ingredients (containing a cup of heavy cream in a “gravy”), I was turned off by how such a simple, comforting meal like roast chicken and potatoes was being drowned in a rich sauce. Making the Red Thai Curry with Fall Vegetables (p. 404) was an experience I won’t soon forget either – from having to hunt for the red curry paste to the volumes (of both ingredients and finished product) and cook times being drastically off, I was sure the end result would be horrid. Luckily, on the taste and (eventual) texture front, it was a winner – just make sure that if you do attempt this recipe that you break out the absolute largest pot in the house, double the curry paste and add an extra can of coconut milk! The curry is also a great example of a perfectly adaptable recipe. Don’t have sweet potato? Use carrots. No cauliflower? Use broccoli, green beans, parsnips... whatever your fancy! We actually made a second batch of this recipe with almost every vegetable under the sun as well as cubed tofu for extra protein, and it was definitely the hit of the evening.

Thai Vegetable Curry
Red Thai Curry with Fall Vegetables (p. 404)
Even if you don’t think you have a green thumb or culinary bone in your body, it’s never too late to start. As long as you have the desire for fresh, homegrown food – like perfectly crisp lettuce, still warm tomatoes, or just-pulled carrots – at your beck and call, some dirt, seeds and a kitchen are all you need to use The Four Season Farm Gardener's Cookbook.

Available on Amazon