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