Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Healing Herbs Cookbook

The Healing Herbs Cookbook
Author: Pat Crocker
Publisher: Robert Rose (2013) 

Herbs have long been reputed as nature’s pharmacy. For millennia, civilizations have relied on plants harvested from local areas to treat illness and infections as well as promoting general wellness. Figuring out what to do with herbs in modern day cooking, though is a relatively lost art limited mostly to flavour enhancement via grocery store staples. Pat Crocker, author of The Vegan Cook’s Bible, takes on the challenge of bringing more exotic herbs home with her latest piece – The Healing Herbs Cookbook.

Healing Herbs is not simply a cookbook, nor does it rely on the use of only common herbs. Crocker begins the book with what could be considered a miniature herbology textbook – with a discussion of herb history, an encyclopedia of different plants used in modern culinary and medicinal practice, advice about cooking with herbs and even a few pieces of advice about preparing her specific recipes. At the back of the book, Crocker also includes a handy glossary, resource guide and bibliography for further reading should you choose to further your herb studies.

One of the unique traits of Healing Herbs is that the recipes are not simply organized by type of dish (i.e. mains, soup) but also by season. This provides a handy idea of what we as consumers should be on the lookout for at the farmer’s market, and, if you want to grow your own, greenhouses. The seasonality of the herbs also piques interest as to what to search for in the local wilderness (although you should always check the local laws, as well as with the owners of the property (if private) and be sure of the safety of the plants before foraging and especially eating any wild plants). For instance, this blustery winter day could easily call for a bowl of Roasted Squash, Caramelized onion and Garlic Soup (p. 78), made with woodsy, robust rosemary and thyme, or a serving of thyme, shiitake and sage-laced Winter Vegetable Lasagna (p. 116). When the summer heat beckons us all outside though, Immune-Spiced Soba Noodle Salad (p. 143) sounds like a perfect lunch – especially with some Poached Cherries with Rosemary Custard (p. 153) for dessert.

I will say that most of the recipes in Healing Herbs are not for the amateur cook or palate – if traditional hot and sour soup from the local Chinese-American restaurant is your usual Asian fare, the ginseng and burdock in Crocker’s version (p. 70) may be a bit too “out there” for you to stomach. Likewise, Crocker often calls for many hard to find, odd looking and strange-tasting ingredients which can easily put off readers who don’t have access to varied international markets or have more timid palates. Some items taste downright medicinal (chamomile, hyssop and echinacea come to mind), and simply won’t jive with those who lack the taste for stereotypical “health food”.

That said, there are some recipes in this volume that are easy and accessible to almost everyone, not to mention they’re attuned to the “common” Western tastebuds. The Eggplant Manicotti with Spinach Manicotti Stuffing (p. 105), for example, is everything an Italian carb-watcher could want, being filled with basil, spinach and garlic-laced cheese and topped with simple tomato sauce. To her credit, Crocker also includes more common options for many exotic ingredients in her recipes. If ramps and maitake mushrooms aren’t your grocery store’s usual stock, regular old leeks and cremini or shiitake mushrooms will make a fine Cream of Mushroom Soup (p. 66). A few recipes are still beyond reach for the average cook, but most of the limitations are totally up to the palate of the reader.

With the abundance of medications being prescribed today, more of us would do better turning to the garden for prevention and cooperative treatment. While modern medicine lack taste and can in fact become useless when bacteria mutate and become resistant to the chemicals, herbs are biodynamic and flavourful options for meals, sides and desserts. With The Healing Herbs Cookbook, Pat Crocker endeavours to bring the nutritious and the delicious together, opening up a new world of healthy possibilities.

Asparagus Three-Cheese Burritos with Tomato Sauce (p. 96)
Excerpted from The Healing Herbs Cookbook by Pat Crocker 
© 2013 Robert Rose Inc. Reprinted with publisher permission.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Vegetarian Pantry: Fresh and Modern Recipes for Meals Without Meat

The Vegetarian Pantry: Fresh and Modern Recipes for Meals Without Meat
Authors: Chloe Coker and Jane Montgomery
Publisher: Ryland, Peters and Small (2013)

When it comes to homemade meals, a well-stocked pantry and a bunch of go-to recipes are essential. Nobody wants to have to run out to the store for a missing ingredient, especially when it comes to cooking for guests. When you eat a vegetarian diet, cooking for mixed company often brings a level of concern and “in-jest” (but still occasionally hurtful) jibes about the lifestyle. How can your meals possibly be tasty and filling? You must be anemic without having meat on your plate. Your muscles will waste away – you need more protein! On the other hand, if you have a meat eating family and are expecting vegetarians at a dinner party, what to cook can be equally stressful and overly puzzling – without meat at the centre of the table, what is possibly left? Chloe Coker and Jane Montgomery create stunning, healthy, hearty and delicious answers to these dilemmas in their book The Vegetarian Pantry: Fresh and Modern Recipes for Meals Without Meat.

Vegetarian Pantry covers every meal of the day – from Breakfast (p. 12) to Sweet Treats (p.118). The authors also include small sections for Small Bites (p. 28) and Dips, Salsas and Sauces (p. 50), which are indispensible for parties and light lunches. The book also offers a “quick-n-dirty” primer on a healthy vegetarian diet and a list of “good-to haves” in the kitchen for making delicious meals. The Well-Stocked Vegetarian Pantry (p. 10) also includes some handy tips for storing your ingredients, which is worth a read for any cook. No resource page is provided, but since most of the recipes call for easy-to-find ingredients this isn’t much of an issue. As if the names of recipes like Individual Baked Cheesecakes with Salted Honey Walnuts (p. 115) weren’t enough to send you racing to the kitchen, William Reavell lends his talent to Vegetarian Pantry, creating stunning, full colour photos of the dishes.

One of the refreshing things about Vegetarian Pantry is that it isn’t a health-guru bible. While the majority of recipes are generally nutritious, sugar, cheese, fat and – gasp! – deep frying also pepper the pages. By including indulgences like this, the authors bring a more approachable feel to the diet for non-vegetarians, while reminding them that the lifestyle is not all beans, lettuce and tofu. The Breadcrumbed Halloumi Goujons (p. 44) is a fantastic example of excess, and I wouldn’t be opposed to sitting down for French Toast Stuffed with Bananas (p. 25) on a Sunday morning.

Banana-Apricot Muffins
Honey and Apricot Breakfast Muffins (p. 26)
I tried a few recipes from the pages of Vegetarian Pantry, and had mixed results. My first project, Honey and Apricot Breakfast Muffins (p. 26) was missing a touch of salt, and the bake time of 30-40 minutes would have led to dense pucks of charcoal in muffin wrappers had I let them get that far (I wound up pulling them out at 20 minutes, and even then they were a bit too “done”). The taste was okay, but the dense texture and incorrect directions crossed off a remake for this reader. The Spicy Tomato Ketchup (p. 64) and the Sweet Chili Jam (p. 66) fared much better in my kitchen, and while I kept a few jars for myself (delicious!), I also canned a batch of each for holiday gifting. I’m led to believe that the authors are definitely more attuned to savoury cooking than baking, which most readers will find more useful anyways given most baked items are vegetarian by default.

Vegetarian cooking doesn’t have to be boring, flavourless or a complicated chore. There are so many options available that everyone can enjoy a meal together without compromise and come away full and happy. While I’d look elsewhere for desserts, Chloe Coker and Jane Montgomery’s The Vegetarian Pantry: Fresh and Modern Recipes for Meals Without Meat will certainly fill your plate with delicious, meat free fare.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The 250 Best Cookie Recipes Cookbook

The 250 Best Cookie Recipes Cookbook
Author: Esther Brody
Publisher: Robert Rose (2013)

Christmastime in my house means one thing more than any other – cookies. My mom’s classic shortbreads are infamous to all those who are lucky enough to get a box of them each year, and for those of us who get a taste of the raw dough, they are pure nirvana. Try as I might, I still can’t recreate those melt-in-your-mouth treats exactly, but that doesn’t mean my gift baskets are cookieless. Instead, I tend to include a handful of unique creations that change year to year. Coming up with new twists on something as basic as a cookie can be challenging, but luckily new books like Esther Brody’s The 250 Best Cookie Recipes Cookbook are a great source of inspiration and know how.

Like its title, Brody’s book consists of 250 recipes for almost any type of cookie you can imagine. From run of the mill Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies (p. 23) to the exotic-sounding Komish Bread Cookies (p. 140). There are so many varieties (and variations) that it would take years to get through them all, but you would undoubtedly find a favourite to stick to before then. This book is particularly good for those looking to start their own family tradition of cookie making, since while the recipes may be delicious in their own right we all know that none of them will match Mom’s or Grandma’s.

Knowing that I’d be gunning for disappointment if I attempted to make shortbreads (my mom’s specialty), I chose a few treats to try that we never made as kids. The first one I picked from Best Cookie RecipesWholesome Banana Granola Drops (p. 16) – came as a result of far too many bananas sitting on the counter and a batch of freshly made granola in my pantry. These serendipitous cookies turned out soft but not mushy, with a pillowy crumb flecked with crunchy morsels. They were not only delicious on their own, but made fantastic sandwich cookies with a smear of Nutella or peanut butter in between. The only shame is that these yummy (and semi-healthy) bites are really too tender for all but the most carefully packed lunchboxes, as they would make a perfect treat at school.

A more “packable” and “giftable” treat that I found in the pages of Best Cookie Recipes was Shirley’s Meringue Cookies (p. 137). This recipe piqued my interest because of it’s use of an added starch – potato or corn in this case. I was confused at the beginning though, as the ingredient list calls for potato flour, which is a very different ingredient than it’s suggested substitute of cornstarch. In the end, I opted for potato starch, and I think that was what the recipe author intended. To add a bit of extra flavour (since meringues are notorious for tasting just sweet), I used a minty trifecta of dried peppermint, peppermint extract and mint chocolate chips. The meringues took a lot longer to dry out that the stated 60 minutes, and I wound up turning off the oven (after an hour and 45 minutes) and leaving the cookies inside to cool completely. That said, the first bite of one was incredible – a crisp shattering of the outer shell, a not-quite-soft interior and a cooling pop of mint. Of all the meringues I’ve made over the years, these are definitely in my “top 5” after my revisions.

There are so many unique ideas in Best Cookie Recipes that I want to try in every section of the book! While the photos are minimal, they are there, and I appreciate the author’s foresight on that part. Brody also dedicates the book’s first five pagest to her Tips for Making Perfect Cookies, covering everything from ingredients and mixing techniques to freezing, room temperature storage and how to fix any problems that may arise. Even though I’ve been making cookies for years, it is valuable information to have and I suggest that every baker give this section a browse.

Whether you churn out dozens of different kinds for the holidays, or simply like to have a sweet treat in the cookie jar for when you come home, you are sure to find at least a few new options in Esther Brody’s The 250 Best Cookie Recipes Cookbook. While nothing will replace my mom’s shortbreads, I know that I can at least find another treat to call my own!

Available on Amazon