Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten and Lactose

The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten and Lactose Author: Barbara Kafka
Publisher: Artisan Publishing (2011)

At group events, and especially at holiday time, it’s becoming increasingly inevitable that at least one member of the party will have some form of food allergy, intolerance or special dietary need. Whether you are the afflicted person or the understanding host, it can be a stressful time orchestrating who can (or will) eat what, if “safe zones” of contaminant-free eats are required, and what both parties can do to ensure that the night goes off without a hitch. From my own personal experience, the extent and severity of an allergy situation can lead to a life of mono-dieting and even resentment from others over meals that are not “normal” under conventional norms.  Barbara Kafka, author of several cookbooks including the best-selling Vegetable Love, addresses two of the most common dietary restrictions – gluten and lactose – in her latest work The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten and Lactose.

The 230 page book is filled with 300 recipes which the front cover proudly declares are “for every day and every need”. This claim is partially true – many of the time-blessed, omnivorous  foodies living in well stocked city centres will find most of these meals no issue to create. However, if you eschew meat and seafood, or live in an area where the local grocery does not carry items like sorrel, samphire, and chervil, or come home at 7:30PM on a weeknight to a hungry family and whatever’s in the fridge, Intolerant Gourmet is simply too gourmet for frequent use. While I’m sure the author means well in her quest to write this recipe-packed book, I think it may fall into disuse by many home cooks who are turned off by the gratuitous inclusion of offal, game birds, pork rind and caviar.

It is clear that Kafka is nowhere close to writing vegetarian-friendly dishes as a constant, either. Every soup or other dish calling for broth or stock utilizes chicken broth, which granted is easily substituted but still a disappointment when looking for an inherently vegetarian option. A whole appetizer section is dedicated to pâté. Of the main courses (including salads), only eight are meatless, and only five of those are vegan. Sweets and baked goods are not even worth mentioning with regards to this work, which is a shame since many gluten and lactose free individuals find these items the hardest to replace.  

There are, however, a few gems in Intolerant Gourmet. Quinoa-Crusted Chicken (p. 87) is ingenious and works equally well on extra-firm tofu slabs. Magical Green Tomatoes (p. 156) are no lie in their name – though the amount of oil called for is far too much (Kafka has written ½ cup, while I found a tablespoon or less to suffice). Zesty Rice Paper Chips (p. 24) and Hummus (p. 28), though almost too basic to put in any cookbook, were still well-received offerings at a recent dinner party. If I was a meat eater, I would agree with my mother that the Roast Chicken with Garlic Sauce (p. 87) would tempt my tastebuds as well.

The Intolerant Gourmet also finds strength in Kafka’s extensive research sections. Detailing everything from “Perfectly Poached Eggs” (p. 19) to a full-page chart of the best gluten-free pasta varieties (p. 39), the book also includes an entire chapter on starches and beans, featuring charts for the proper cooking of grains (p. 222) and using flours (p. 223) as well as a glossary of the varieties Kafka features in her recipes. These informative sections are worthy of their own, separate book, as they are truly things that the everyday, all-occasion cook can use regardless of dietary preferences, allergies or other restrictions.

For the adventurous, time-gifted cook, The Intolerant Gourmet: Glorious Food without Gluten and Lactose by Barbara Kafka is a book worth perusing for ideas come the next dinner party. It is not a “30-minutes-to-table” work, though I don’t believe it was ever really intended to be one. For the rest of us time-, cash- or resource-poor individuals, it is a book to read not so much for the recipes as for the information laced through it.

Available on Amazon

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wholesome Kitchen: Delicious Recipes with Beans, Lentils, Grains, and Other Natural Foods

Wholesome Kitchen: Delicious Recipes with Beans, Lentils, Grains, and Other Natural Foods
Author: Ross Dobson
Publisher: Ryland Peters & Small (2010)

More than any other topic in the health and lifestyle world, the poor nutrition quality of the modern diet is big news. Typical Western fare has lead to ballooning obesity rates, more (and younger) diabetes patients, and staggeringly low vitamin and mineral diets – but with the increase of public interest in preventative healthcare, a growing investment in the meals on the table has taken root as well. Be it for ecological, ethical, or medical reasons, the tide is turning in favour of a whole-food, mostly vegetarian approach to mealtime; embracing legumes and whole grains in a variety of forms. While it may be second nature to some (generally those in the younger generations without years of “home cooking” behind them) to embrace this new manner of eating, those who grew up on pre-made foodstuffs or with the ideology that a meal isn’t complete without the combination of “meat and starch” can find the prospect of a vegetarian menu daunting. Ross Dobson, author of Kitchen Seasons: Easy Recipes for Seasonal Organic Food proves in his new book Wholesome Kitchen: Delicious Recipes with Beans, Lentils, Grains, and Other Natural Foods that a more healthful way of nourishing yourself is not only simple and economical, but decadent as well.
Far from being a “preachy” piece of nutrition lore or a vegan manifesto, Wholesome Kitchen is first and foremost a book for those who simply love good food. Full-colour photographs throughout the piece capture the very essence of Dobson’s credo – fresh ingredients at the very peak of their taste, texture, appearance and nutrition potential. The entire book is divided into simple, useful chapters: appetizers (including dips, spreads, fritters and even a terrine), soups, salads, sides, main dishes and desserts. Though I might argue as to the placement of some of his recipes (particularly in the Sides chapter, where Southern-Style Red Beans and Rice (p. 82) and Mujaddarah (p. 88) could easily form a full meal), I am likely in the minority and those looking for a vegetarian main dish alternative to the four Dobson includes could easily peruse the other sections (including the filling soups and salads).

Each recipe is a simple, yet elegant preparation that never overshadows the beauty of Mother Nature’s bounty. Both meat eaters and vegetarians alike are catered to throughout the book – from Real Chili Con Carne (p. 111) to the hearty Three Sisters Soup (p. 33) featured on the front cover. A handful of vegan (or easily veganized) recipes are also included – making this book a great resource for incorporating regular “meatless Mondays” in your menu plan. The meat dishes in Wholesome Kitchen are not overbearingly carnivorous – Dobson uses the animal protein as almost a condiment in the sense that they are parts of a bigger whole. 

Regardless of whether or not the dish in question contains meat, readers can be assured that plenty of fresh, nutritious ingredients are front and centre. Legumes abound in everything from salads to desserts, and whole grains are much the same (a boon for anyone’s health!). Many different cultures are also embraced by Dobson, endearing Wholesome Kitchen to household gourmets (or would-be gourmets, like me) everywhere. I fell in love with the spectrum of flavours and textures in the Spicy Three-Bean Salad (p.59), although it was slightly too oily for our overall tastes.

Although Dobson includes many fairly conventional recipes in this book (including oatmeal cookies, bran muffins and a fruit crumble), it is clear that he is a cook rather than a baker.  I wanted to try one of the slightly more unique items he featured, and having made a wide array of chocolate chip cookies, from vegan and whole grain to butter and sugar-laden, I was immediately drawn to the eggless Quinoa Choc Chip Cookies (p. 131). After following the directions to the letter, it became clear that there was a distinct problem with the formula. Rather than becoming drop cookie dough (of any kind that I could envision), the bowl looked like it was filled with something similar to coarse sand. It took almost 1/3 cup of extra liquid to bind together and allow the chocolate chips to be stirred in. Once baked and cooled, however, the taste (albeit a bit too sweet) was phenomenal – slightly nutty from the ground quinoa and oats, peppered with chocolate and with a melt-in-your-mouth texture that was so tender that you have no option but to cool them completely on the sheets before moving them. For those wanting to hazard this recipe, aside from more liquid I would suggest using a coffee grinder or powerful blender to grind the quinoa and oats (not a food processor as Wholesome Kitchen states), invest in parchment paper or a silicone mat to bake on (rather than grease the pan as is implied – but not overtly stated – in the final step mentioning “prepared” sheets), and cool the cookies entirely on the sheets (don’t “[t]ransfer to a wire rack to cool” immediately, as stated).

It is clear that Dobson is invested in bringing the love of good food to the tables of the world. This is not a “low fat” or “low calorie” book, but it is not intended as one. Rather, the impression Ross Dobson clearly broadcasts is aiming to enhance overall nutrition with a wealth of whole foods, benefiting the body on every level. Wholesome Kitchen: Delicious Recipes with Beans, Lentils, Grains, and Other Natural Foods is unique in its variety of cultures, cooking techniques and dietary lifestyles, and is useful for those of practically any age in any season. With stunning photography to lure the reader in, and the delectable meals to trap them, it will assist many of those who want to turn the tides of modern-day health.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food

The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food
Author: Heli Perrett, PhD
Publisher: The Experiment (2010)

Do you worry about the food you eat? Not the calories, fat content, allergy risk or carbon footprint, but the safety of your dinner menu every night? Parasites, bacteria, viruses and chemicals are all present in the culinary world, from the farms and processing plants to the delivery trucks and store shelves. Even the home and restaurant kitchens are not immune from the dangers that are exposed to our food every day. But what are the most significant risks, why, and who is responsible for controlling them? Heli Perrett, a former senior technical advisor at the World Bank, professor and sculptural artist examines these concerns in The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food.

Approaching this book, I’ll admit that I was a little jaded in my expectations. After two years of intensive food and nutrition management and a third in holistic health and nutrition, I was fairly aware of the dangers in “risky foods” that existed (or lurked as the case may be, depending on whom you talk to). The problem with a book like Safe Food is that because regulations, outbreaks, health cautions and even the banning or allowing the sale of a product change so quickly, by the time it hits the store the information within may well have changed. While Perrett makes a good point regarding the risk of Mad Cow Disease in beef, she only specified Canadian cattle were the sole problem, rather than sharing the blame with the US and UK herds. The melamine fiasco in China is labelled as food terrorism, and she stresses how it “can happen so easily” (p. 199). Although it is risky to consume unpasteurized dairy, the author gives warnings regarding the consumption of yogurts with “live bacterial cultures” (p. 181) is less safe than more typical American-style, heat treated yogurts. I take exception to this particular mention because it is the very live bacteria in the yogurt which makes it such a nutritious choice. Far from causing infections and other ill effects, the organisms (Acidophilus and Bacillus in particular) compete with the overgrowth of toxin-creating organisms in the gut and “tone” the immune system to respond readily, preventing those issues as well as many others [1]. Those who were not aware of this would likely start at the words “live bacteria” and swear off the food forever. While Perrett is correct in her statement that canned produce, by virtue of the pasteurization process, contains almost no risk of bacterial infection (p. 48), it is at the expense of the nutrients found in most fresh or frozen goods. Modern grinds of meat (i.e. hamburger) are truly less at-risk for parasites and bacteria (p. 143), but what Safe Food omits is that these parasites are often eliminated by treatment with commercial ammonia [2].
I appreciated the author’s attention to the importance of industry labelling and guide to common “buzzwords” and phrases like “COOL” (Country Of Origin Labelling), “Certified Organic”, “Natural” and “Hormone Free” .This knowledge is truly of value to the average consumer, who may only be concerned with the general contents of their shopping choices and not each individual “what if” scenario in a meal. I also found each chapter’s inclusion of regulating bodies (or “Who Keeps it Safe?”) both intriguing and worth noting specifics of, especially when “mixed” products are concerned. “Try Regulating a Sausage” (p. 134) details the difficulty in controlling the entire process’ safety and consistency, with mention of the existing regulations as to the type or grade of meat, fat and filler contents, and type of casings. Sushi lovers like myself, anyone planning a pregnancy, or those with youngsters who eat seafood regularly will want to bookmark Perrett’s list of mercury levels in fish (p. 110), especially those on the coasts (since over 2500 pounds of the metal are dumped off the shores of San Francisco each year). Although I’m not overly concerned over the potential toxicity of the herbs and spices in my cupboard, Safe Food’s chapter on the subject (p. 267) is an interesting read in itself.

I did find it a bit odd – and in a way a bit contradictory – that after compiling this tome of personal risk “ratings”, the cause and reduction of food dangers, and the specific risks in produce, fish and shellfish, meat and poultry, dairy, eggs, grains, beans, nuts and even herbs and spices the author spends almost four pages convincing the reader that it isn’t all that much of a concern. Her final paragraph in the chapter “There Are Smart Ways to Cut your Food Risks” (p.28) includes the line “don’t let concern about the safety of your food become a straitjacket, unless it really has to be” (p. 32) and the mention that we consumers should, above all, enjoy our food. Her backpedalling in this section of Safe Food causes me to doubt how confident she is of her own statements, regardless of what her research may show. This is especially due to my discovery of her background not as a nutritionist, chemist, doctor or food scientist, but as a World Bank advisor, artist and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy Studies. Unfortunately, the list of references that would allow the reader to peruse Perrett’s comments is missing from the back of the book, although the author does include a list for “further reading” (which is not necessarily where she gleaned her own information).

While it is true that being an informed consumer is being a wise consumer, The Safe Food Handbook: How to make Smart Choices about Risky Food borders on the edge of fear-mongering in Heli Perrett’s quest to pick every nit in the food-consuming world. While there is good, valid information in this work, it is difficult to separate the significant dangers from those which generate the most “wow” factor in an audience without prior information, thus negating the need for much of this book’s writing.

Available on Amazon
[1] University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (February 3, 2010). "'Good' bacteria keep immune system primed to fight future infections". ScienceDaily. Retrieved  September 22, 2011 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127095945.htm.

[2] Michael Moss (December 30, 2009). “Safety of Beef Processing Method Is Questioned”. New York Times. Retrieved September 22, 2011 from http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/31/us/31meat.html.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables

Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables
Author: Andrea Chesman
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC (2007)

For those who follow my food blog, What Smells So Good?, it goes without saying that my family and I are big gardeners. Where we excel at organizing, spacing, weeding and digging, we fall short in terms of using our bounty to it’s full potential. Those who wait eagerly for the first farmer’s market to open, or the ground to thaw enough to put in those first few seedlings, are often beset by gluts of produce which without proper attention rot and become compost. Thankfully, with the upswing of gardening and local eating’s popularity has also resulted in a rise in the number of guides – not for growing the foods, but for eating them. One of these welcome additions to the bookshelf is Andrea Chesman’s piece Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables, a 512-page guide to almost everything veggie-lovers need (or want) to know.
Chesman takes a thoroughly seasonal approach to the inclusions in Harvest, using not simply the four “standard” quadrants of the year but the transitional periods – Spring into Summer, Early to Mid-Summer, Mid- to Late Summer, and Fall into Winter – to organize the crops by “readiness”. Within each chapter readers will find produce in alphabetical order, from more commonly available vegetables like carrots (p.360) and zucchini (p. 168) to fairly obscure Jerusalem artichokes (p. 386) and fennel (p. 258). Even the ugly celery root (p. 202) and much maligned okra (p. 266) find a place in Harvest, with recipes that will entice even the strongest skeptic to look for them on their next grocery run. A piece titled “Height of the Season” completes each season, a veritable menu of recipes that make use of prime combinations from that period. Chesman opens each individual crop’s section with a quick reference page, featuring information on seeding and harvesting, preparation techniques, cook times and nutrition. The most beneficial inclusion on this page is arguably the “math” – or equivalency – of volume to weight to actual units of vegetable – helping any cook to convert recipes based on what they have on hand regardless of owning a scale. Mouthwatering recipes follow, from simple “Roasted Brussels Sprouts” (p. 343) to a gourmet, Gruyere-laden “Roasted Leek Tart” (p. 408) and the unusual but delicious “Zapplesauce” (p.182).  Thanks to the four “Well-Stocked Pantry” pages making up the first chapter, no recipe is made unapproachable, even for everyday “home” cooks who don’t grow their own.

Chesman even manages to address the most basic of cooking methods in Harvest, along with “Master Recipes” for gratinée, roasted, sautéed, grilled, stir-fried, tempura and various noodle applications for the vegetables to follow.  For the tail end of the growing year, when gardeners are most often beset by too much of a bounty, a handy guide to “Preserving the Harvest” (p. 473) includes pointers on drying, canning, freezing and cold-storing. All the recipes are enclosed at the end of the book in a vast index, along with a resource guide and supplier list. I only wish that an index of the types of recipes was also included in Harvest’s pages, as it would make it that much easier to embrace the seasonal wealth.

Harvest is also a compilation of personal stories from Chesman and those she admires. Far from being a textbook, her non-recipe articles include a piece on “Plant a Row for the Hungry” (also called “Grow a Row, Give a Row”) (p. 280), the use of a home garden as a dating tool (p. 390) and a Massachusetts’s CSA as a produce source for both paying consumers and the local Food Bank (p. 74). For those who never gave gardens a second thought, these tales are inspiring, and for seasoned green thumbs will re-ignite the passion that started their hobby.

It shows in Serving Up the Harvest: Celebrating the Goodness of Fresh Vegetables that Andrea Chesman is undoubtedly a mistress of both garden and writing. Her thorough, creative and engaging exposure to the delights of gardening is more than welcome in a world with a struggling economy. Her equally varied and useful approach to choosing and enjoying the fruits of your land and labour is the gateway to a way of eating that any and everyone should embrace: more produce, more often, in any way possible.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Baking Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You'll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You'll Ever Ask

The Baking Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You'll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You'll Ever Ask
Author: Lauren Chattman
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC (2009)

Some of us grew up in the kitchen clamouring to stir cookie dough and knead bread with nary a box mix in sight, especially if Mom, Dad or Grandma was around to guide the process. While mixes and pre-made foods clearly still have a consumer following, the trend now is to eliminate the excess processing and additives that go into those items and return to the call of scratch baking. So what then of the ones who grow up without an intuitively baking parent – or who were too busy racing around as children that the kitchen didn’t hold that same allure? Scratch baking is not out of reach for the average kitchen elf thanks to the wealth of comprehensive baking guides on bookstore shelves. Arguably one of the most concise and well organized of these resources is Lauren Chattman’s work The Baking Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You'll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You'll Ever Ask.

In Baking Answer Book, readers will find 350 pages of common questions and their detailed, practical answers in an easy to read, no-frills format. Chattman includes only the information that the common baker would find useful in day-to-day applications, and her information spans an array of topics from Ingredients (p. 1) and Equipment (p. 38) to complex Layered Pastry (p. 277) and the often-problematic Yeast Breads (p. 308). The author also includes recent additions to the baker’s kitchen by addressing questions on non-stick, insulated and silicone bakeware (p. 43-46). Chattman also incorporates applications of her answers, with simple and reliable recipes for classics such as Low-Fat Wheat-Bran Muffins (p. 136), Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 162), New York Cheesecake (p. 220) and the quintessential No-Knead Bread (p. 332). By no accounts, however, is Baking Answer Book a recipe manual. The goal is to inform and ease the creation of the modern cook’s own recipes, not build their cookbook repertoire from ground zero.

This book is one that all bakers, aspiring and experienced, will find useful. Chattman’s tips on freezing batters (like muffins (p. 133) – an application I had never thought of) and doughs (breads are “risky” (p. 337) while cookie dough is better than baked in this respect (p. 191-193)). While I don’t need her help on the subject of pastry bags and tips or cake-frosting techniques (p. 231-238), having taken classes at George Brown College and making up my own solutions for many issues, I did love the author’s glossary of the varieties of cake (p. 201), and her charts of pan volumes (p. 47), as well as metric equivalents (p. 356) as a reference. Having also made many a pie by my mother’s side, much of the help Chattman offers on this subject (p. 240-276) was wasted on me. However, Chattman includes the invaluable conversions of whole to crumbled cookies for crusts (p. 271) and a handy storage guide for the baked pies (p. 274-275). Detailed resource lists for any and all things baking related, including Chattman’s most valued cookbooks, fill the final pages of this book. Those living at high altitudes will be delighted to know that Baking Answer Book includes a special appendix of these answers as well (p. 351).

The only minor issue I do take with Chattman’s piece is in her discussion of specialty flours. While those who out of necessity keep gluten-free diets will already know their “can” and “can’t” grains and flours, others may not realize that soy flour is completely gluten-free (not “substantially lower” as the author notes (p. 12)) as is buckwheat (lumped into a list of specialty flours but whose status is ignored while the other grains have mention (p. 13)). Again, this is a minor oversight but is one of the reasons why information from a variety of sources is always preferable on a subject such as this.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Baking Answer Book: Solutions to Every Problem You'll Ever Face; Answers to Every Question You'll Ever Ask by Lauren Chattman – it is truly an incredible resource and has both piqued my interest in the “whys” of baking, and answered many questions I have asked over the years. I look forward to sharing the knowledge with those bakers around me and applying it to my own kitchen experiences.

Available on Amazon

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Peanut Allergy Epidemic: What's Causing It and How to Stop It

The Peanut Allergy Epidemic: What's Causing It and How to Stop It
Author: Heather Fraser
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2011)

Does your work or school have a “no-nut-no-peanut” policy? Allergies to tree nuts, as well as to the botanically unrelated legume known as the peanut, are rampant in modern Western society, with over 4 million cases of peanut allergy currently diagnosed in the United States alone. Why the
 Western community falls victim to this hyper-reactivity while those countries building their cuisine on the backbone of these legumes is the focus of Heather Fraser’s book The Peanut Allergy Epidemic: What's Causing It and How to Stop It.

It needs to be noted before utilizing Epidemic as any sort of authority on peanut allergies that Fraser is not a medical professional in any sense. Rather, the author is a historian by trade, whose child suffered an anaphylactic reaction to peanut butter at the age of thirteen months. Her love of historical details shows strongly in this book, as Fraser spends three full chapters on the subject (only one of which regards the peanut allergy in particular). In fact, the bulk of the first two “parts” of this book are completely removed from the issue splashed across the cover. Fraser covers the history of “mass allergy” and theories behind developing anaphylactic reactions in general long before getting into the “nitty gritty” of the peanut reactions. To be fair, her investigation into this forum, especially it’s impact on children, is fairly detailed, with comparisons of socio-political, economic and clinical factors and a worldwide statistical contrast in the final chapter of the book.

While I’m sure Fraser means well with this publication (the second in her peanut allergy series, which began with The History of the Peanut Allergy Epidemic), it is all too clear that she is on a mother’s one-track mind as to who she blames for her son’s reaction. My main issue with Epidemic is that Fraser incessantly blames the vaccinations given to children for the rise in peanut allergies to the exclusion of any of the other 15 theories she glosses over in Chapter 2. The culprit she cites is the mercury used as a preservative in the serum, as well as the peanut oil that was once used as a carrier for the inert virus. Today, however, the only adjuvant legal for use in the US and Canada is aluminium hydroxide, and discernable mercury traces are only found in the flu shot and Hepatitis B vaccine administered around age 11 – long after anaphylactic allergies make their presence known. Fraser also neglects to mention at all in this book that these severe allergies she is focusing on are all mediated by an antibody class that is determined by genetics and in-utero conditions before birth and generally are not modified by external forces. It also raises the question as to why beef, chicken and egg allergies aren’t equally as prevalent due to the fact that beef extracts are still a large part of vaccine sera and many of the virus cultures are generated on chicken embryos and egg whites.

While I do appreciate the need for an awareness vehicle when it comes to the increase in severe childhood allergies, Epidemic borders on the extremist with respect to the anti-vaccine campaign. I had hoped for a more balanced investigation on the variable causes listed in the index, as the topic is an interesting and ever-popular one, but instead I felt a bit like I was reading a fear-mongering manifesto. Given my own background in holistic nutrition and homeopathy, I was left wondering whether a book written by an alternative health practitioner (not a “common” doctor) would be in a similar style.

For a purely historical reference, The Peanut Allergy Epidemic: What's Causing It and How to Stop It by Heather Fraser is worth a perusal. However, it is not a reliable medical text, nor should it be used as a parent’s sole source of information when choosing whether or not to vaccinate their child. I would not generally recommend this historian’s book to those looking for an answer to their allergy woes.

Available on Amazon

Monday, July 25, 2011

Vegan Desserts: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season

Vegan Desserts: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2011)

Hannah Kaminsky is nothing short of a Jill-of-all-trades. The author of an award winning and well written blog (bittersweetblog.wordpress.com/) packed with delicious recipes, gorgeous photos and fantastic tips, she also finds time to create and share adorable knitted creations, have a personal presence on Twitter, and pen several cookbooks. Five of these are e-books, ranging from lunch box goodies to homemade candy and even ice cream, while the two she has in print concern some of the fancier or more complex dessert options that exist. Every single recipe and aspect of her blog is completely vegan, and while she does include savoury mains and other items, it is clear that her passion lies in the art of baking. Coupling her gift at writing with her love for all things sweet, Kaminsky’s second cookbook, Vegan Desserts: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season, will make a dessert lover out of anyone.

This compact, beautiful recipe collection is composed of over 100 offerings: pies, ice creams, cookies, crisps, cakes and muffins to name a few. What makes this book a joy to cook from is it’s attention to the seasonality of the kitchen – the recipes are divided by the seasons, and are “heavier” or “lighter” accordingly. Kaminsky stresses ingredients that are as fresh, seasonal and nutritious as possible, and as a result many of the desserts featured in this book are allergy-friendly as well. Allergen-appropriate offerings are included under their relevant headings (gluten-, peanut-, tree nut- and soy-free) in a separate index (p. 236). The inclusivity of all those with a sweet tooth is refreshing in a dessert book when so many are filled with these, along with eggs and dairy. Kaminsky also includes an intensive “dictionary” of sorts regarding her choice ingredients, tools and substitutions (p. 3), and for those who are a bit greener in the bakeshoppe (vegan or otherwise), there’s also an interesting and helpful “troubleshooting” section filled with her personal experiences and solutions (p. 16).

Given that the ingredients Kaminsky chooses to utilize are dependent on the seasons and often reflect her own personal grocery availability, some of them are not what you would usually expect to find on the dessert table. Recipes like “Olive Oil Ice Cream” (p. 56), “Black Pearl Truffles” (p. 172) with black sesame seeds and wasabi and “Raspberry Lavender Cupcakes” (p. 103) were a bit beyond me, although I know they probably taste fabulous and variations are seen at fine restaurants worldwide. There are certainly “tamer” recipes included in Vegan Desserts as well – rugelach, biscotti, and Raspberry Mocha Semifreddo (p.104) make appearances and (as with every recipe) are accompanied by bright, full-colour photographs.

I did find the courage, after seeing Kaminsky’s generous use of herbs in sweet treats, to attempt one of the more “unusual” cookies in Vegan Desserts – a tender cookie she calls “Sweet Basil Shortbread” (p.68). Laced with lemon juice and zest and rich from the vegan margarine and powdered-sugar base, tiny little specks of green pepper the otherwise flawless face of the sweets. Not having any basil in the garden (and loath to buy some as I personally cannot stand the flavour), I utilized what I was growing out in the backyard – lemon thyme, lemon balm and pineapple sage. The flavours of these herbs really shone through in the dough (as I’m sure the basil would have done) and everyone who tried them referred to them as “refreshing” and perfect for the warmer weather – even though it is a traditionally rich dessert! I can’t wait for the early fall apples begin appearing to try out the “Apple Spice Scrolls” on page 122, and my omnivore, “butter and eggs need to be in cake” mom even bookmarked the unique (and very Italian!) “Torta Al Vino” (p.166) which uses red wine, Champagne grapes, pine nuts and almond flour! While we aren’t growing the Champagne variety in our backyard vineyard, I’m sure we’ll find another sumptuous grape to match.

Like all good books, this one is not without it’s faults. However, Kaminsky has an answer for that too on her blog, under “Cookbook Errata” (bittersweetblog.wordpress.com/cookbook-errata/). Every issue I noted while leafing through Vegan Desserts was caught by Kaminsky or another source and compiled in numerical page order, and many of them are minor adjustments to ingredients or method that would not have any major impact on the outcome of the dish. Updated photos of some of the recipes are also on her site or FlickR page, but rest assured this book is a photo album for any gastronome.

I really enjoy the layout, writing and recipes I found in Vegan Desserts: Sumptuous Sweets for Every Season. The appeal to my sweet tooth was just as great as the ability to use my local and seasonal produce was, and as a baker and lover of good food in general the uniqueness of the recipes provided food for much more than thought! Anybody with a sweet side to their tastebuds will find something to enjoy in this work – regardless of their diet, region or season.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Superfoods from the Garden

Superfoods from the Garden
Author: Michael van Straten
Publisher: Cico Books (2011)

Gardening is big these days. It’s for good reason – the sluggish economy, the ever-stronger locavore movement, vegetarian and vegan diets becoming the new “perfect” way of eating and the universal desire for everyone to simply feel healthy all play right into the greening of thumbs worldwide. While the desire to “grow your own” may be as strong as the zucchini crops every summer, there is always the dilemma of what to grow, what will grow, and what will you do with all those tomatoes and zucchini once they explode in August? Michael van Straten addresses these, and much more, in his gardening and cooking manual Superfoods from the Garden.

Superfoods is an eye catcher right from the get go – a bright, colourful cover opens to pages of full-colour temptations. Nine chapters are devoted to everything from roots to leaves, squash, fruit and herbs, and each item van Straten includes is carefully researched, well worded and a delight to read. There are no pretentious selections or complicated instructions for growing your own: the focus is on helping the everyday person grow good, delicious and nutritious produce in a way that’s as simple as the food itself. One of my favourite parts about the “gardening” portion of this book is the little harvesting, nutrition and cooking notes that van Straten incorporates in separate sidebars. For the gardener or foodie that just wants to quickly check when is best to pull beets or can’t stand another salad to deal with their lettuce crop, this is an invaluable resource. Not only will that gardener see that orange-sized beets are ideal and that the crowns will give you an idea of when that is, but that steaming or baking them is the best way to cook them unless you enjoy them raw in salads first (p. 74). The cook will find that not only can lettuce become soup or even be braised with peas (van Straten includes his recipe on page 101), but that it’s also full of B vitamins, folic acid and manganese (p. 92). Each vegetable, fruit or herb page is accompanied by stunning photography, and the few things that do need a bit more explanation to grow well (like scarlet runner beans, p. 56 or potatoes, p. 70) have photo-by-photo instructions that would convince even the most cynical home grower to try it out.

And then there are the recipes. Van Straten’s book is a gardening manual, first and foremost, but at the end of each chapter a few relevant recipes are included, many with gorgeous photos of the prepared dish. While not every recipe has an accompanying photo and most are without much detailed in
structions (unfortunate, since the rest of the book is so rich with these), those that do will make you hungry for more. Some elements for the recipes, too, are not overly common additions to the American or Canadian menu – crème fraiche and rabbit, for example – which take some exploration (and would occasionally require online purchases in less urban areas). A couple assumptions are also made that readers of this book know offhand how to make components like béchamel, bread-like ginger cake and phyllo pastry crusts with their eyes closed. That said, the skilled or determined cook will take delight in treats like Honey and Apricot Pizza (p. 166) and Garlic, Onion and Tomato Chutney in a “Mille-feuille” of Sliced Tomato (p. 47). The photo of the latter is enough to make the average gardener yearn for their tomatoes to balloon to flavourful baseballs overnight. Seafood, beef, chicken, pork, duck, quail, pheasant, lamb and even blood sausage make appearances throughout the book, though there are many vegetarian (bean-or egg-based) and vegan inclusions as well. Vegans would need to supplement the recipes in this book with protein based sides for dinner, but a lunch of van Straten’s Timbale of Beets (p. 80) or Barbecued Summer Squash Salad (p. 144) would win anybody’s vote. This book is also friendly to those needing to keep gluten-free, who will find most of the recipes either inherently so or easily modified.

The tail end of Superfoods is likely the greatest appeal to the nutritionist in everyone – while it is understandably devoid of photos, van Straten makes up for it by listing two pages of “vital vitamins and essential minerals” (p. 187), a section of “useful addresses” for recipes and seed supplies and even a dedicated half-page of information regarding what he terms ORACs, or Oxygen Radical Absorption Capacity units (p. 189). These ORACs are antioxidants that exist only as synergistic compounds in whole foods whose effects are destroyed by segregating the individual compounds into refined supplements or processed foods. A score of 10/10 was awarded by van Straten to the notorious prunes, which provide 5770 per 100 grams, and the author includes many other of the “buzzworthy” superfoods on the list as well. Where the recommendation for the highest protection against heart disease, most cancers, artery damage and even aging put forth by the Human Nutrition Research Centre on Aging at Boston’s Tufts University is 5000, taking a look at this new measurement of food’s “goodness” is not only interesting but health-promoting too.

There is a reason that Michael van Straten chose to title his latest work Superfoods from the Garden. Like any good garden, this book takes the healthy seeds of desire and love for good food and lets them grow. The passion, knowledge and drive that van Straten brings to his craft creates “super foods” from even the most mundane vegetables and fruit, and his decadent way of preparing your harvest turns these individual foods into medleys of flavour. While some of them may be unfamiliar, odd-looking or even scary to grow, and some of the recipes may be for things you would never dream of cooking, this book is worth picking up – it may just turn your brown thumbs a bit greener.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Quick and Easy Vegan Bake Sale: More Than 150 Sweet and Savoury Vegan Treats Perfect for Sharing

Quick and Easy Vegan Bake Sale: More Than 150 Sweet and Savoury Vegan Treats Perfect for Sharing
Author: Carla Kelly
Publisher: The Experiment (2011)

Bake sales are one of the most well-received fundraising techniques around. It’s hard to pass up a table or two laden with grab-and-go treats like cookies, muffins or wrapped slices of banana bread, especially when it’s for a good cause. Though the school year (prime time for the events) is briskly drawing to a close, portable snacks are still in hot demand with the camp-kid set and the BBQ potluck crowds. With the popularity and obvious economic benefits of selling batches of sweet treats piecemeal, there is always the worry of alienating those with restricted diets or worse – causing an allergic reaction due to the ingredients that commonly fill these foods. Luckily, vegan treats eliminate the need for the eggs and dairy concern – but can be rife with nuts. Carla Kelly addresses all of these concerns, and more, with her decadent new book Quick and Easy Vegan Bake Sale: More Than 150 Sweet and Savoury Vegan Treats Perfect for Sharing.

Kelly pens this cookbook with a witty, approachable tone – confidently declaring in her introduction that she is “not a dietician, a nutritionist, or a professional chef” (p. xii) and adding that the recipes are ideas for both special occasions and everyday treats as well as saleable fare. Adaptation and substitution are even encouraged with helpful sections on those topics in the introduction as well as blank “Remember” boxes for your own notes. Kelly also writes a primer on bake sales and sharing, covering everything from the economics of it all to location and marketing – a must read for any potential host. Newbie chefs and bakers used to using a box mix will appreciate her exposé of the equipment, ingredients, and basic “how-to’s” for the bakeshop, although experienced cooks and most harried parents will skip these parts along with the somewhat inconsequential “history” section.

The recipes in Vegan Bake Sale are tantalizing, well written and varied – covering not only the “traditional” bars, quick-breads, cupcakes with frosting, cookies, muffins and pie, but also yeasted and savoury treats that will appeal to almost anyone. Whether you’re on the hook for two dozen vanilla cupcakes for the next Girl Guides meeting or just want to make a killer lunch entree on the weekends, one of the titles will fit your bill. For those with allergy concerns, Kelly declares nuts, soy, peanuts, and wheat at the top of each recipe, and again at the back of the book (in a piece titled Allergy and Suitability Information (p. 253) along with a refined sugar-free and child-friendly recipe listing. Regardless of what recipe you opt for first, the ease of making it and the excellent taste will bring you back for more. Your waistline may not appreciate you (another point she admits) but those around you surely will!

I opted to test one of her more “coffee-break”, adult-friendly quick-breads: Chai Chocolate Mini Loaves (p. 78). Taking her approval of substitutions to heart, I chose to use half whole-wheat flour and some of our chai tea in the batter instead of the black and the other spices (except an additional dash of cinnamon). Even with using the specific tea, there was a distinct lack of flavour “oomph” in the batter, but upon doubling the amount of tea the rest was smooth sailing. The scent coming from the oven was enough to cause even non-chai lovers’ mouths to water! I followed Kelly’s preparation instructions easily, and took advantage of her handy “muffin” variation – which, as proscribed, made exactly 12. There was no discernable “weight” or taste from the whole grain flour, and the little pops of chocolate (I used miniature chips instead of a grated bar) were the perfect addition to the not-too-sweet concoction. My taster group loved that an oil-free muffin or quick-bread batter was so light, moist and flavourful, while the non-vegans never knew that they were egg and dairy free too. Once my rhubarb plant takes a bit firmer stand in it’s growing season, page 67’s Rhubarb Squares are on my list!

With so many delicious recipes and clever tips, it’s a shame that Vegan Bake Sale doesn’t include more pictures in it’s pages. Given that Kelly is herself a blogger at Vegan Year and takes fantastic photos, it should go without saying that her recipes be peppered with eye candy to ensnare those who just “flip though” cookbooks for inspiration. Granted, there are 8 pages of colour photographs positioned between the “Ingredients” and “How to Bake” sections, but it is impractical for most visual chefs to constantly flip back and forth. Thankfully the food speaks for itself once it’s in the process of being made, and if nothing else – it’s a bake sale! Make the treats as ornate or rustic as you please to suit the potential clientele!

Whether you’re a steak and cheese fanatic or have been animal-free for years, it’s hard to go wrong with recipes as consistently rewarding as those in Vegan Bake Sale. The simplicity, approachability and practicality of the treats in this book speak volumes about the author’s love for sharing good food, and might just inspire you to do the same.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love

The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love
Publisher: Storey Publishing (2010)
“Additive and preservative free!” When was the last time you saw anything marketed to children with that label on it? More common are the phrases “99-cent BIG BAG” and “now with more chocolate!” when it comes to the labels of “kid-friendly” fare. At the top 13 restaurant franchises in the US, perusing the “kids” menu found 93% over the acceptable calories and 86 % over the appropriate sodium intakes for their target clientele (p. 29)! There’s no wonder that the Western world is ballooning, given our shameful manner of feeding ourselves as adults – but the sad part is that the next generation is picking up all our bad habit crumbs, and without drastic changes to everyone’s diet, has no chance at all. Food lovers and moms Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin are on a quest to make that fate turn tail and run – for both us and our kids. After putting their heads together (and their families through multiple taste tests), the two penned The Cleaner Plate Club: More Than 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love.

Getting kids to adore their veggies is lofty goal for sure, especially when the issue is compounded by a foreign and occasionally “scary” looking produce section in the supermarket. Bader and Benjamin have done your homework for you, though – the first 153 artfully illustrated pages of the work read like a passionate encyclopedia on everything from portion control, shopping both grocery stores and farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture and information of almost every vegetable under the sun. To me, as a certified veggie-lover after years of steak-and-potato adoration, it was certainly enough to make me want to run to the nearest farm stand (too bad it’s the middle of a snowy February!). What I really loved was the huge amount of trivia “bites” (forgive the pun) included in these beginning sections. Lots of statistical comparisons and revelations of the common marketing ploys used in the industry are included in a fun-to-read format that only slightly borders on “preachy”. I’m sure that if a parent is picking up this book in the first place, they know the Standard American Diet is shameful – while extra information is interesting the lack of control most parents feel over their child’s eating habits doesn’t need to be crammed down their proverbial throats. Thankfully, the bulk of the “Meet Your Vegetables” pages are more food than fear, and there certainly are a basketful of colourful recipes to make.

I have to say that while the recipes in this book are certainly nutritious and tasty, any parent of a typical, modern-day child will have great difficulty incorporating most of them into their daily dinners. Kale soup? Delicata squash and Swiss chard sauce?  Even all but the most “health foodie” adults out there will likely still balk at some of the recipes – Lima Bean Hummus (p. 239) with Salt and Vinegar Kale Chips (p. 241) and a dessert of Rhubarb Crumble with Rosemary and Thyme (p. 252) are probably not going to be hits at the next dinner party. While I’m no kale-hater, the fact that Bader and Benjamin claim to be catering to the “everyday adult / parent” out there means the majority of foods included in Cleaner Plate are simply impractical to suggest.

Of question for me as a nutritionist (both conventional and holistic) were the recipes Bader and Benjamin include in their vegetarian section. While I applaud the authors for including one at all, I was expecting both more and more varied options. With a few exceptions (Carrot-Quinoa Biryani (p. 229), Curried Eggplant and Long Beans (p. 226), and Potato Salad (p. 228)) it seems that if you are vegetarian, pasta is the only thing you can dish up that’s both full of nutrition and kid-friendly. The problem here is that these pasta recipes are not even balanced from a macro-nutrient perspective: aside from a handful of cheese here and there, protein is absent from the pages. Given that growing evidence continually promotes the meat-restricted eating plan as a prime practice for longevity and the avoidance of disease, I was disappointed that a greater effort to include a variety of delicious, kid-appealing vegetarian and vegan meals in Cleaner Plate was not made. Considering that the authors include and promote ingredients like artichokes, fennel, lamb and capers, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to include a sweet-and-sour tofu stir-fry or “crispy breaded tofu sticks” in the childhood diet.
The fault with The Cleaner Plate Club is certainly not in its thoroughness, charm, or good intentions. For the well-schooled home cook who has the time, money and willingness to scope out the farmers’ markets every Saturday while joining a CSA, and who hasn’t yet introduced their family to the occasional alluring call of the drive-thu, it’s a great anthology of vegetable recipes. The problem lies in the marketing – like so many of the common “convenience” foods on the store shelves, it looks like a book your kids will grow up loving food from. For many busy families, though, getting kids to start eating (and enjoying) a healthier diet will be more successful by reducing the junk in the house, offering a few baby carrots and grapes after school and tossing in green peas with that night’s mac and cheese.
Available on Amazon

Saturday, February 5, 2011

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto

As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto
Editor: Joan Reardon
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2010)

The art of writing is a dwindling one these days. Memos, newspapers, family updates and even wedding invitations have become electronic – fragments of data firing at light speed across the globe to any number of recipients... all of whom can reply just as fast. Pen pals in the traditional sense are a rare breed now, almost like mankind has forgotten how to put pen to paper unless it’s to endorse or write a cheque. I’m proud to say that I do, for the most part, handwrite my notes in class, jot rough drafts of papers on good old Hilroy lined sheets, and physically mail my Christmas cards. I also have a conventional pen pal out in England, and let me tell you, nothing beats the excitement of opening the mailbox to find a triple-stamped air mail envelope from her. I can only imagine the elation Julia Child must have felt during her correspondence with Avis DeVoto as an American ex-pat. Readers can get an inkling, however, by paging through the anthology As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto compiled by biographer and editor Joan Reardon.
The beginnings of this story of the two women’s correspondence will be known to anyone who has read My Life in France or seen the film Julie & Julia – an accidental fall of fortune to be sure. But what readers of As Always will gain that is impossible to glean from the words of other authors is the unbridled emotion and connection exhibited by the personal words of the women. The book spans the creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, right from Child’s initial writing in France (where she opines on her “moral obligation” to the small publisher Ives Washburn and the possibility of recipe stealing, p. 18). Fascinating, too, as an aspiring cookbook author myself, was DeVoto’s original take on the book’s wording and general style as both a literary agent and, most importantly, an American home cook (p. 24). This little diatribe included notes from both Avis herself and the author Dorothy Canfield Fisher (via DeVoto) and provides a type of “inside peek” at the world of publishing. Imbedded in the letters, too, are bits of fascinating trivia about the art of cooking as a whole – that aluminum in the cooking liquid can cause eggs to turn green just as much as too much iron can, that frozen elk can be thawed and re-frozen without incident, and even a list of the “basic” fish to be included in a true Bouillabaisse (p. 99). Avis DeVoto even supplies Child with a recipe herself, for a five-hour-long pasta sauce concoction originally from John Ciardi (p. 61). The only shock came from the early history of their letters, where Julia defends the use of canned soup in cooking – a very un-French (and un-Julia!) notation.
When not cooking, it was obvious that the woman known to most as the Queen of the Kitchen still adored food, from shopping for it to dining out in the many countries the Childs moved to. After Paul Child was finished in France (known for lavish and well-executed meals) they were relocated to Germany, Norway and finally “home” to the United States, where Julia explored both the native cuisine and some of the more “outlandish” fare such as fledgling Chinese fare in Berlin.
It is clear that the letters in As Always were written by not only food lovers, but food writers. The subtle, yet distinct flair the two use in their language and understanding of each other rings of the exacting standards of classic English teachers... and not just due to the era of their penning. The style of their writing, however, does make for a book that is rather “chewy”. While filled with good information and certainly not lacking in emotion, the book is also packed with anachronistic political talk and sayings which often warrant a footnote for explanation. It is more confusing for those readers who did not grow up in the 1950’s and never “caught up” on the general gossip of the time, especially if they do not hail from the U.S. Admittedly, that confusion coupled with the sheer length of each letter (admitted in passing by both of them to be excessive!) does lead to dryness in As Always, and most readers will find their attention straying out of boredom. Granted, the letters were picked out of what must have been an extensive array for their content, but the “food-minded” audience this book would appeal to will find the political satire lost on them.
It is a shame that Avis DeVoto’s story and true gifts to the concoction of Mastering the Art of French Cooking are not widely known. Had she been in France at the beginning of the Trois Gourmandes, the trio would have undoubtedly been a foursome. DeVoto was an excellent cook and writer in her own right, and easily could have written an “American cook’s” cookbook even before her introduction to the world of Julia Child’s cuisine. However, Julia Child is Julia Child, and her infectious personality and energy even in the depths of misery (following the Houghton Mifflin rejection) is one of the driving forces of the compilation. In As Always, Julia, the combination of the two women create a recipe for letter writing as wonderfully emulsified as a perfect Caesar dressing – it’s just tart enough, full of zip and goes down easy.
Available on Amazon

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