Thursday, November 20, 2014

Delicious Diabetes Cooking for One or Two People

Delicious Diabetes Cooking for One or Two People
Publisher: RobertRose (2014)

Diabetes used to be an “old people” disease. Unless you were one of the unlucky few children born with Type I, destined for a life of chronic carb-watching and insulin shots, the thought of developing the condition never occurred until later in life. Unfortunately, 2.4% of children in the US have Type II (previously “adult onset”) diabetes, and in Canada over a million of the people diagnosed with either type are under 65. Thanks to the prevalence of fast food, convenience eating and sedentary lifestyles, it’s not shocking that the numbers are growing so fast – but thankfully a healthier diet and lifestyle prove time and time again to manage the disease and reduce the risk of internal damage. Food choices, though, were relatively slim when Type II diabetes was relegated to a small portion of the population. Protein- and fat-exclusive diet regimes filled the dietitian’s cookbooks, with buckets of artificial sweetener and often horrible flavours and/or textures. Thankfully, these days the options are not so few and far between, and single cooks are not left out with books like Delicious Diabetes Cooking for One or Two People by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson.

Delicious Diabetes has over 70 recipes practically designed for one or two, both in portion size and ease to make. While the book is marketed as a “diabetic” cookbook, the dishes are suitable for almost anyone and can be doubled or tripled if the need arises. Other diets, especially gluten and dairy, look to be easily accommodated as well, and the whole book strives to prove that diabetic-friendly cooking is easy and accessible by using simple techniques and generally available ingredients. Recipes for every meal are included, from Soups and Starters to Eggs, Seafood, Lamb, Vegetables and Vegetarian Dishes, holiday meals and even chapters on Desserts and Baking. Each recipe contains nutritional information and diabetic exchanges as a helpful guide, although depending on the specific brands and tweaks readers use the mileage will vary. Most ingredients get their own mini-summary as well, with particular notes as to which common items may be a problem for “fragile” diabetics.

Berriedale-Johnson also does a bit of medical discussion in this book as well, giving readers unfamiliar with the basics of diabetes a run-down of symptoms, blood sugar control, alternative sweeteners and the importance of generally good nutrition for disease management. This advice doesn’t come out of thin air, either, since the author has been discussing “special diets” in her cookbooks and on the website Food Matters since the early 1990’s. This experience also explains the nutrition tips and dietary alternatives peppering the book, which in addition to catering for those diets encourages cooks to taste and adapt recipes to make them their own. Looking at the nutrition of some recipes, however, can remind readers of the diabetic recipes from the “old days” – while sugar is kept to a minimum, some of the recipes are very high in saturated fat, with higher sodium and calorie counts than generally recommended in a single serving. This is concerning, especially since diabetics have twice the risk for heart attack or stroke, both of which can be prevented with the use of heart-healthier oils, lower-fat dairy products and less meat-reliant dishes.

Unfortunately, the recipes I tried out were less enticing to eat than the book promised. The Carrot and Red Lentil Soup (p. 15) was in desperate need of salt, and the Hot Plum Dessert (p.131) had an overwhelming flavour from the chickpea flour that I enjoyed but those unused to bean flours found off putting and a poor match for the fruit. Baking from this book was hit and miss – the Strawberry Oat Crumble (p. 128) crisped nicely and adapted well to the use of stevia (in place of the agave called for). I would suggest the optional flour over cornmeal for this recipe for a more traditional look and feel. The Chocolate Brownies (p. 118), though, were by far the biggest disappointment – the gluten free mixture of dry ingredients lacked any form of binder (such as egg or guar gum) to keep it together, leading to the bars essentially self-destructing when I tried to cut them. I can’t say it was a huge shock, albeit an unfortunate one, since I have baked gluten free for years. There was a silver lining to the recipe, thanks to my prior knowledge and experience: By mixing the crumbs from the whole pan of the original recipe with 2 eggs and 1/3 cup of milk and baked it in a 9" pan for 20 minutes I was rewarded with a delicious gluten free item that truly resembled box-mix brownies.

"Diabetic Cooking" Brownies
Chocolate Brownies (p. 118)
We should all strive to be healthier as a planet, and even if you are not diabetic, chances are you know someone who is. Adapting one or two recipes is not enough for many, especially when they are living alone with the condition, and for that reason books like Delicious Diabetes Cooking for One or Two People are useful on the shelf. In this particular book, the author sets out the lofty goal of catering to almost every dietary need out there, which while commendable is achieved at the expense of thorough recipe testing for practicality and in some cases overall flavour. If you are a skilled “regular” cook, Michelle Berriedale-Johnson’s book is worthy of perusal for the recipes – with a grain of salt. If you are new to the world of diabetic living, though, stick to the nutrition advice and forge your way with a thoroughly tried and true resource.

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Super Healthy Snacks and Treats

Super Healthy Snacks and Treats: More Than 60 Easy Recipes for Energizing, Delicious Snacks Free From Gluten, Dairy, Refined Sugar and Eggs
Author: Jenna Zoe
Publisher:  Ryland Peters & Small (September 2013)

Ah, snacktime. The backbone of most childrens’ (and preschool teachers’) days, filled with lunchbox treats coveted by young and old alike. Who hasn’t hoped for a treat to fill a break in the morning rush or afternoon doldrums, or packed along a little extra “something” for that long ride to the cottage? Unfortunately, the delicacies commonly available to this generation of children and young families (as with every generation before) are far from being fuel to nourish the body and mind after taxing activity. Granola bars, nacho chips and candy-like “fruit snacks” are easy to buy, pack and grab whenever a passing craving strikes – but with that ease and convenience comes empty calories, saturated fats and grotesque amounts of sodium and refined sugar. However, healthier options are relatively simple to create and enjoy with a little time and effort, thanks to authors like Jenna Zoe and her book: Super Healthy Snacks and Treats: More Than 60 Easy Recipes for Energizing, Delicious Snacks Free From Gluten, Dairy, Refined Sugar and Eggs.

Super Healthy has over 60 recipes covering both sweet and savoury noshing. Breakfasts, Party Snacks, Dips and Dippers and even Cookies and Bakes get a healthier twist in Zoe’s hands. The book’s recipes are free of at least one (and often far more) of the following: gluten, dairy, refined sugar and eggs. This is no small feat, especially when things like (double) Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 118) and Chocolate-Covered Caramels (p. 107) are concerned. Zoe doesn’t swap out ingredients willy-nilly, though – the introduction to the book has a short essay regarding common food intolerances and dietary excesses that are addressed in Super Healthy’s recipe section. While some of the language is a bit extremist and definitely closer to a holistic guru’s mantra than a scientific journal, the majority of her points remain valid concerns today. It is also worth noting that Zoe is the founder of Foods To Love, an online health food shop selling products free from wheat, gluten, sugar, dairy and eggs – so her push towards certain ingredients is not necessarily free of economic gain.

Even without their “health haloes”, the recipes in Super Healthy look so delicious it would be hard to resist a taste! Clare Winfield fills the pages with stunning full-colour photography which causes dishes to leap off the page. A rather “brown” sounding recipe for granola was transformed into the Power Protein Granola (p. 23) I couldn’t wait to make.

Sticky Carrot Squares
Sticky Carrot Bites (p. 130)

The granola, like the other recipes I tried in Super Healthy, was as delicious as the pictures had me believe. The nuttiness of the buckwheat and quinoa was perfectly balanced by the spices and maple syrup, and while I swapped out roasted chickpeas for the nuts the end result was nothing short of delicious. On the sweet side, a box of the aforementioned Chocolate Covered Caramels (made with tahini instead of peanut butter due to allergies) was warmly received by the few friends I gave it to, and the one-bite size I made them expanded the yield to triple what was stated in the book. For a throng of gluten free, vegan or otherwise food-restricted friends, a pan of Sticky Carrot Bites (p. 130) hit the spot – the slightly spicy, rich and dense bars were definitely the “brownies” advertised in the recipe’s preamble. The only change I made was to use slivered almonds instead of walnuts, both due to taste preference and due to the fact that almond milk is the liquid called for. My personal favourite had to be the Creole Cauliflower (p. 77), which fed into my desire for spicy food with a “munchable” texture.

Tahini Date Caramels
Chocolate-Covered Caramels (p. 107)

The array of ingredients and (occasionally) food preparation techniques will throw off some cooks looking for an easy, “grocery store” fix. Certain items are on the pricier side, or are rare in non-urban centres, but when you take into account the money and time potentially saved by avoiding illness and purchasing “junk food”, the end result is essentially a wash.

For anyone looking to fill a craving with better-than-normal options, Jenna Zoe’s book Super Healthy Snacks and Treats: More Than 60 Easy Recipes for Energizing, Delicious Snacks Free From Gluten, Dairy, Refined Sugar and Eggs is definitely worth looking at. With nutritious recipes suitable for all ages to enjoy, a healthier future can be more delicious than any box or bag on the shelf.

Available on Amazon

Thursday, October 16, 2014

300 Best Homemade Candy Recipes: Brittles, Caramels, Chocolate, Fudge, Truffles and So Much More

300 Best Homemade Candy Recipes: Brittles, Caramels, Chocolate, Fudge, Truffles and So Much More
Author: Jane Sharrock
Publisher: Robert Rose (2014)

Depending on your age, the sight of candies in bulk bins will evoke memories of the “penny”, “nickel” or “dime” sweets that used to be available in every corner store. If you were lucky, the proprietor of the shop also might have homemade (or at the least, locally made) fudge, caramels or candy apples for sale up at the front, priced higher than the standard confectionary but still affordable to those with allowance money in their pockets. Even now, in the bubble-wrap age where bulk candy is just short of taboo, it’s hard to find a kid (or kid at heart) who would turn down a sweet treat. Of course, there’s nothing like homemade goodies adorning any sweet platter, and Jane Sharrock makes it easy to tempt the palate with her book 300 Best Homemade Candy Recipes: Brittles, Caramels, Chocolate, Fudge, Truffles and So Much More.

One needs to only peek at the first pages of Homemade Candy to find that pretty much any type of candy you can think of fits somewhere into this book there’s a type of candy out there, it’s in this book. Categories range from Heirloom Candies (Old-Fashioned Cooked Candies, Brittles, Toffees, Old-Fashioned Hard Candies, Caramels, Clusters, Patties and Pralines, Divinities, Nougats and Similar Candies and Old-Fashioned Candy Rolls) to Designer Delights (Balls and Shaped Candies, Chocolate-Coated Candies, Fondants), Farmhouse Favourites and a chapter titled Short and Sweet, comprised of barks, rolls, and quick candies. Photos are few, but are enticing and the descriptions and anecdotes accompanying each recipe more so.

I couldn’t wait to get on trying recipes from this book, and not a single one yet has disappointed, even when I slightly modified ingredients to use what I had at home. The Sour Cream Candy (p. 41) was particularly divine to my friends and family, who loved the extra tang the Greek yoghurt I used instead gave to the dark brown sugar mixture. Being whipped thoroughly turned the caramel-like combination into light-as-air, melt in your mouth fudge that nobody could believe only had two tablespoons of butter inside. The billing of the Prizewinning Pralines (p. 64) as being creamier than traditional ones was dead-on – so much so that unfortunately some began falling apart into delectable shards as I was packing them up, not having completely set. The last tray that I poured did, however, stay together more readily, although every morsel left a slight slick of oil on the hands of indulgers. Next time, I would probably combine this recipe with the Texas Pralines (p. 64), using buttermilk and two tablespoons of butter rather than the 1/3 cup. Also on my must-make list are the Sinfully Rich Buttermilk Fudge (p. 152) and the Peanut Cremes (p. 141), which I intend to dress up with dark chocolate and sea salt!

For anyone looking to add a homemade touch to their gifts – be they for Christmas, the Fourth of July or simply just because – you really can’t go wrong with a box of candy. While it can seem intimidating to create sugar showpieces, Jane Sharrock is your long-distance hand holder, storyteller and problem solver with 300 Best Homemade Candy Recipes: Brittles, Caramels, Chocolate, Fudge, Truffles and So Much More. As a sweet lover, this is definitely earning a place on my shelf.

 Available on Amazon

Monday, August 25, 2014

Best of Bridge Home Preserving

Best of Bridge Home Preserving: 120 Recipes for Jams, Jellies, Marmalades, Pickles and More
Authors: The Editors of Best of Bridge (Yvonne Tremblay, Jennifer MacKenzie and Sally Vaughan-Johnston)
Publisher: Robert Rose (2014)

I have no idea how I got into canning. For all intents and purposes, I shouldn’t have even entertained the thought – neither set of my grandparents canned (or grew much of) anything, and my parents certainly didn’t have the time or energy to either. Our large water-bath canner eventually wove it’s way to me, and I’ve never looked back. The joy of tasting fruit and vegetables at their peak, long after the season has passed, is rarely afforded these days thanks to mass-production, imported fruit and standardized, industrial products in the condiment aisle. The team of Yvonne Tremblay, Jennifer MacKenzie and Sally Vaughan-Johnston at The Best of Bridge want to bring back the ease and simplicity of “putting up” with their new collection: Best of Bridge Home Preserving: 120 Recipes for Jams, Jellies, Marmalades, Pickles and More.

Home Preserving is an attractive, coil-bound bible of sorts that encompasses almost anything and everything readers may want to can with a waterbath at home. Catering to all levels, from jamming neophyte to experienced pro, the book is organized into single fruit jams, mixed fruit jams, marmalades, jellies, conserves, fruit butters, chutneys, relishes, pickles and sauces & salsas. Of course, all this canning will go to waste if you can’t do something with it later on, so in addition to the serving suggestions at the end of each recipe, there’s a dedicated chapter as well packed with goodies like Chocolate Strawberry Torte (p.284) and Sticky Baked Chicken (p. 276). The Table of Contents lists each recipe under their respective headings as well as documenting the subsections in the preliminary Basics chapter. An incredibly thorough Produce Purchase and Preparation Guide (p. 290) provides the tail end of Home Preserving, just before a completely cross-referenced Index.

Ginger Jam
Ginger Jam (p. 48)

With so much attention to detail in this book, it’s hard to bemoan the lack of photography. While the book is not void of pictures, they are clustered in insets throughout the pages – thankfully, they are captioned (with page numbers) for easy location of the delicious recipes! Even without accompanying photos, many of the recipes speak volumes, leaving almost nothing about their final outcome up to the imagination.

One of the things all first-time preservers must read through before embarking on any home canning project is Home Preserving’s first chapter, aptly titled The Basics. No mere “welcome” page of acknowledgements, these 29 pages completely document every aspect of successful canning – from food safety and terminology to waterbath processing, yield and using pectin. Even after canning for years, the Quick Tips for Success (p. 37) was a good refresher for this new year of preserving. Once primed, I set my sights on a recipe that I knew would be a hit with my co-workers as well as a unique experience for me: Ginger Jam (p. 48). This apple juice-based preserve is packed with both fresh and candied ginger and set with liquid pectin, resulting in a gorgeous, golden spread with a sweet bite. It definitely garnered it’s share of raves, and would be fantastic at holiday time with morning toast, dinner stir-fries or nestled into thumbprint cookies for dessert!

Peach-Mango Jam
Mango Jam (p. 50)
Conveniently, on the next page I discovered Mango Jam (p. 50), a preserve I absolutely adore but that can be hard to find up here in Canada. Luckily, mangoes themselves are relatively accessible (due to the imports, etc. I mentioned earlier), and the recipe was simple and straightforward to make and can for later, again using liquid pectin for set. While I did alter the spicing to my taste (eliminating the cinnamon and cardamom and sprinkling in a touch of allspice instead), it functions as a subtle flavour enhancer that amplifies the tropical feelings the fruit evokes. I also took advantage of the Summer's bounty outside my door and fleshed out the fruit content with local peaches I had intended to give away some jars at Christmastime, as I do every year, but unless I make another batch before then my recipients may be out of luck!  

There is no reason for the art of preserving your own food to be lost to the rush and stress of the times. While canning is admittedly a time consuming (and occasionally messy) pastime, what craft isn’t? Besides, you and your loved ones will use and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labour long after the dishes are done – unlike whimsical, misshapen clay figurines and bright glittery cards.

Available on Amazon

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Simply Sugar & Gluten Free

Simply Sugar & Gluten Free
Author: Amy Green
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2011)

It’s no secret that our society is in bad shape when it comes to eating habits. Ever looking for cheap ways to flavour and bulk up their offerings, food companies load their processed goods with sugar, salt, fat and other starch-based fillers. It’s easy to market them, too – they have a consistently reliable taste and texture that we’re used to, they’re quick and easy and hey, if you throw in 10% of apple juice concentrate you can claim your sugary, blueberry-pomegranate flavoured candy contains real fruit! As a result, we’re led to believe that the only options are what’s peddled to us, and our health (not to mention our waistlines) are taking the hit. Author and food blogger Amy Green (of was in the same boat for years, growing up in the time of “fat free” everything (which is loaded with sugar) and living an up and down rollercoaster with her weight. Eventually, on the advice of a naturopath and with a lot of determination, she developed a way of life that worked with her body – no sugar, no gluten. Simply Sugar & Gluten Free developed out of her blog of the same name and contains 180 recipes designed to be made in 20 minutes or less.

SSGF begins with a rundown of why Green chose this lifestyle as well as a short list of “tips” for using this book to your advantage. It is in this How to Use This Book (p. 4) section that the “20 minute” timestamp comes into question – recipes don’t take into account time to take out or prepare ingredients, baking or unattended cooking, nor do they account for extra time needed if you don’t own certain equipment (namely stand mixers and food processors). That said, Green also directs readers beginning the sugar- and gluten-free journey to browse through The Simply Sugar & Gluten Free Kitchen Guide (p. 211), which also includes a vital “mini-recipe” for her Basic Flour Blend (p. 212). The list is exhaustingly thorough for the average reader, but thankfully, most of the items are available in bulk food stores (and at the very least, the health food sections of grocery stores). What I found interesting is that the very first section of the Guide is “White Sugar Alternatives”, which ironically contains sweeteners like agave and honey that are commonly just as refined as white sugar. Palm sugar is also included, but not unrefined cane sugar which also contains nutrients such as iron. Green incorrectly notes too that maple syrup has less calories than table sugar (a tablespoon of maple actually contains 6 more than sugar), and neglects to mention that it’s only 60% as sweet as sugar, meaning you need to use more for the effect you’re used to. A more apt title for this book should be Simply Refined Sugar & Gluten Free, so as not to mislead would-be readers.

Banana Walnut Cake
Banana Walnut Cake (p.169)

Nitpicking aside, I can say as a whole that I was extremely pleased with the variety and adaptability of the recipes in SSGF. Chapters include Breakfasts (missing from the Table of Contents); Starters & Snacks; Spreads & Condiments; Soups; Salads; Mains; Sides; Cookies & Bars; Cobblers, Crisps, & Pies; Cupcakes & Cakes; Frostings; Puddings and Frozen Desserts. In each section omnivorous readers are essentially spoiled for choice, however most of the Main Dishes rely on chicken and/or dairy products (there are four vegetarian selections and only one vegan option – Socca Pizza (p.84)). As well, a hefty portion of the baking relies on eggs and/or dairy for consistency, which isn’t unusual in a gluten free book. In most cases, cooked recipes are easily adapted to more restricted diets (for instance the Chicken Cacciatore (p. 96) is delicious with cubed tofu or even rehydrated TVP chunks, and leaving the bacon out of the Swiss Chard and Mushrooms with Linguini (p. 104) doesn’t hurt the dish at all), and baked ones are just as simple to modify by using egg and dairy replacements tolerable to your system. There are no photos in SSGF, but the amount of stunning photography on Green’s website more than makes up for the lack of visual inspiration (and has a ton of other delicious recipes to boot – I can’t wait to make her Peanut Butter Hot Fudge Cake (p.166)).

Eager to get into the baking kitchen after enjoying some of the savoury options, I decided to try a veganized version of Green’s Banana Walnut Cake (p.169). This recipe relies on agave nectar, palm sugar and ripe bananas for sweetness, and doesn’t use any sort of gums for binding (shocking for most baked gluten free recipes). Since the recipe already used almond milk as the “dairy”, I only had to use an egg replacer to fit the vegan label. While we were running low on agave nectar (it’s not something our family uses generally) I combined what we did have with maple syrup and used that, which lent a wonderful flavour. I also found the need to add a few tablespoons of psyllium husk fibre to help bind it a bit more, which has become my usual course of action when baking gluten free and vegan. The cake turned out beautifully, packed with flavour and with a respectable 13.7g of sugars per 1/12th of the cake (a good sized chunk). It was devoured within a few days, and everyone agreed that it didn’t need frosting at all.

Buoyed by this success, I tried Green’s twist on a classic favourite – Carrot Cupcakes (p. 159). Again, these relied on agave nectar, but used it as the exclusive sweetener. In addition, there is a deceptively tiny amount of dry ingredients for the amount of carrots, eggs, oil and agave, which can lead you to doubt (as I did) that the recipe would actually turn out. Not only did the cupcakes bake, but they were the sleeper hit of the book. I made them three times in the course of a week, and only once did I get the chance to top them with Whipped Cream Cheese Frosting (p. 172), a decadent combination of agave, cream cheese and heavy cream. In fact, we preferred a simple mixture of cream cheese, yoghurt and a touch of honey as a topping, or simply enjoyed the cupcakes “naked”.

Gluten Free, Refined Sugar Free Carrot Cupcakes
Carrot Cupcakes (p. 159)

Whether you need to be gluten free or refined sugar free for diagnosed medical conditions, are trying to find a “happy body” balance or simply want to control the impact that Big Food has on your family, you’re likely to find something delicious in Simply Sugar & Gluten Free. That said, gluten and sugar themselves are not the only demons in modern lifestyle, and I encourage readers to ensure their dietary needs are met before adopting this as standard practice in your life.

Available on Amazon

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Desserts

Vegan Chocolate: Unapologetically Luscious and Decadent Dairy-Free Desserts
Author: Fran Costigan
Publisher: Running Press (2013)

Milk, dark or riddled with nuts – it’s hard to find a single person who’s day isn’t made better with a little chocolate! With hundreds, if not thousands, of ways to enjoy the gift of the cacao tree, chocolate is arguably one of the most versatile foods in nature. What would the world be like without a chocolate chip cookie, a chunk of chocolate fudge birthday cake, a bowl of spicy-sweet mole or the occasional melt-in-your-mouth truffle? For those ascribing to a vegan lifestyle, be it for economical, health or ethical reasons, a lot of those decadent chocolate treats are off limits. Yes, vegan chocolate chip cookies existed in the 1960’s “hippie” era, but if you’ve ever had one of those “traditional” vegan concoctions you know they were anything but decadent! Fran Costigan is out to bring the indulgence of chocolate back to everybody’s table with her new book: Vegan Chocolate.

Chocolate - Orange Sesame Truffles
Chocolate Orange Sesame Truffles (p. 58)
Aptly titled, Vegan Chocolate makes no mystery as to the treats within its pages. As if the title wasn’t enough to sway you, the front cover displays a to-die-for looking chocolate cake (sadly, that recipe is not indicated in the book, but I believe it’s Sachertorte (p. 105)) and almost every page is laced with Kate Lewis’ stunning photography. A full index caps the almost 300-page book off, and is a great resource for that “I-need-chocolate-now” moment, and each recipe section also has a listing of its offerings at the beginning for more leisurely browsing. Along with the wealth of recipes, Costigan also includes an indispensable guide to “Ingredients, Sweeteners, Chocolates and Equipment” (p.12), a well-stocked “Resource” (p.290) list, a suggested “Reading List” (p. 296) and even a Rolodex-worthy compilation of relevant “Organizations and Publications” (p.297). Costigan proves time and time again her worth as a culinary artist – vegan or no – and definitely erases any notion of vegan food as stuff for health gurus only. Recipes range from a simple Chocolate Sorbet (p. 209) to gourmet Lemon Olive Oil Truffles (p. 44) and an extravagant Raspberry Chocolate Silk Tart (p.165), and it’s truly hard to believe that absolutely no dairy, eggs or even refined sugar are components! As fancy and complicated as the recipes seem to be, rest assured that Costigan has done her due diligence in this respect too and makes replicating her creations as easy as possible.

Vegan Chocolate - Orange Torte
Chocolate, Orange and Almond Olive Oil Cake (p. 72)
Of course, I couldn’t wait to get into the kitchen and bake up something lusciously chocolate – the problem was what to choose! I eventually settled on the Chocolate, Orange and Almond Olive Oil Cake (p. 72) to start off. The dessert is extraordinary, and wouldn’t be out of place in an elegant bistro or trattoria, but if you can measure, pour and mix it is remarkably simple. To me, unfortunately, it doesn’t really belong in a “chocolate” book – the only element of chocolate is in the glaze (which is a separate recipe). That said, when I made the cake I added a touch of cocoa powder for a bit of “back-up” flavour. Continuing on my “chocolate and orange” kick, I knew I had to try the Chocolate Orange Sesame Truffles (p. 58), which looked spectacular in their photo and definitely involved a kick of chocolate. These, too, were extremely simple to make and relied on an unorthodox melting medium – orange juice – rather than heavy cream or milk. A dab of tahini helped re-solidify everything and they shaped nicely, even after being in the fridge for a day. The balance of fruit, chocolate and sesame was spot on to my palate and I wouldn’t hesitate to make a plate of these for a Christmas party. Lastly, I whipped up a pan of one of my favourites: Blondies (p. 130). Granted, blondies really have no place in a “chocolate” book either, as their whole mandate is “chocolate-free brownies”, but I have a soft spot for those bars and wanted to see how Costigan’s recipe stacked up. I had to make a few minor changes based on what I had available, and I opted to add some chocolate-covered cacao nibs along with the chocolate chips for extra pizzazz, but I have to say I was pleased by the final result and would make them again. In fact, I did make them again, for a school function, and they were thoroughly enjoyed without a word as to the lack of eggs or dairy.

Nibbed Caramel Blondies
Blondies (p. 130)
It is very hard to go wrong with a food as perfect as chocolate, but many people find it too difficult or time consuming to tackle in any great quantity. Not only does Fran Costigan’s Vegan Chocolate convince you that chocolate is a boon, not a burden, to the kitchen, but shows that elegant, decadent desserts are within every home cook’s reach. Furthermore, Vegan Chocolate truly erases any doubts as to the “cardboard” nature of vegan, refined sugar-free food and just may tempt more than one diner over to enjoying more meat-, dairy- and egg-free fare overall.

Available on Amazon

Monday, May 26, 2014

125 Best Vegan Recipes

125 Best Vegan Recipes 
Authors: Beth Gurney and Maxine Chuck 
Publisher: Robert Rose (2014) 

As a gang of foodies and (mostly) veggie-lovers, our family is always on the lookout for ways to keep meals interesting. Nobody ascribes to a purely vegan, or even a vegetarian lifestyle, but between the economy being the way it is and the new health concerns that arise with age, meatless (or less-meat) meals are beginning to take centre stage. Whether you abstain from animal products completely for ethical, political, economical or health reasons, or simply want less meat on your plate, vegan cookbooks are a great place to start. 125 Best Vegan Recipes by Beth Gurney and Maxine Chuck is one of the newest books of the type on the market and aims to be a resource for fledgling and long-standing vegetarians alike.

Vegan Recipes is a tome of simple, approachable recipes perfect for new and seasoned meat-freers alike. Appetizers, light mains, casseroles, grains, vegetable sides and desserts all have a home here – there’s even a section just for kids! If you’re leery of tofu, there are many legume and nut based options as well as a sizable quantity of “meat analogue” based recipes. Generally, I’m not a fan of relying on “fake” meat and dairy simply to make something vegan – it seems like too much of a cop-out for those who want to claim they’re vegan to follow a trend, not to mention the majority of them aren’t particularly nutritious. However, I do understand that most of this book’s intended audience are looking for convenience and a familiar flavour and texture moreso than “classical” vegan recipes, and for those transitioning to the lifestyle (especially with children), their use fits the bill. That said, some of the “recipes” in this book aren’t really recipes at all, but compilations of store-bought mock meats, jarred sauces, pasta or grains and a few vegetables. Anybody who can make standard-issue spaghetti and meatballs out of dried pasta, a jar of marinara and a box of pre-made, spherical meat can make a vegan version – without the need for a Spaghetti and Soy Balls (p.80) recipe.

Browsing through the offerings in Vegan Recipes with a mind towards “scratch” cooking, I settled on the “Soups” (p. 40) chapter. The first one I tried, Leek and Potato Soup (p. 50), called for rice milk as the “cream” – a move that, in hindsight, I wish I hadn’t followed. The rice milk was watery, sweet and separated with the cooking time – interfering with the flavour of the ingredients. I did make a follow-up batch with sunflower milk, though, and the resulting bowls were luscious and flavourful – leading me to believe that it was just that one ingredient at fault. The Tomato Soup (p. 54) was much more successful, especially when I added multigrain pasta and used home-roasted tomatoes. The sweet, savoury and tangy natures of the (admittedly standard) ingredients worked spectacularly here, and I liked that the soup was a little chunkier. It was definitely a recipe to come back to again, especially since there were some variations I can’t wait to try!

Tomato Pasta Soup
Tomato Soup (p. 54)
One of the stumbling blocks this book poses for many would-be cooks is the lack of photography. To its credit, Vegan Recipes does contain some full-page colour photos, but they are inserted in bulk rather than accompanying their namesake recipe. It’s worth noting, too, that a fair number of those were not taken of the dish itself, and were instead sourced from stock footage sites. While I’m sure the intentions were good in this respect, it’s worth remembering that the Cranberry Orange Scones (p. 171) emerging from your oven will not necessarily mimic the gorgeous picture.

A vegan diet is not necessarily the golden ticket to a lifetime of health and wellness. It can, and often does, rely on processed foods, refined grains, packaged meals and few “originally vegan” recipes. That said, getting into the kitchen in the first place is a wonderful first step towards embracing a new food-related lifestyle! While seasoned vegan cooks will scoff at the offerings in Beth Gurney and Maxine Chuck’s 125 Best Vegan Recipes, the book will open up a realm of possibilities to the newer cook and remove the aura of intimidation that the label “vegan” can entail. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

201 Gluten-Free Recipes for Kids

201 Gluten-Free Recipes for Kids
Publisher: Adams Media (2013)

Feeding your children is a full-time job – between picky eaters, constant media bombardment pushing bright, mascot-laden boxes, cans and bags of junk food and peer pressure from classmates to have “cool” lunches and snacks, figuring out the daily menu is tricky! When your child or another family member has dietary restrictions, though, that three-times-daily task becomes even harder. A lot of allergy-free (and especially gluten-free) ingredients, packaged foods and conventional recipes are not overly tasty, well textured or nutritious – and since children in particular thrive on texture (followed closely by sugar, salt and fat), the days of spoon-feeding baby food may seem like a long distant dream. Today, advances in gluten-free and vegan cooking have made allergy-free living not only bearable but enjoyable. Kid- (and parent-) friendly, safe food was clearly the goal of Carrie S. Forbes when she wrote 201 Gluten-Free Recipes for Kids.

GFK is definitely not just a “kid food” book, packed with junk food made of sugar and refined starches. Yes, there are “treat” foods and desserts – including chicken nuggets and brownies – but good, wholesome meals are the main focus. Recipes like Broccoli Quinoa Casserole (p. 123) and Fish Baked in Papillote (p. 118) are definitely more on par with the book’s aims, and their simple but elegant flavours will entice adults and children alike. Both meat and vegetarian entrees are featured in GFK, along with baked goods, salads, soups, sandwiches and sides. Of course, no meal is complete without dessert, and GFK is rife with those too. Holiday favourites like Sweet Potato Pie (p. 185) and weeknight treats like Chocolate Pudding (p. 206) get equal billing here, and everything sounds good enough to devour right off the page.

Split Pea Soup
Modified Split Pea Soup (p. 91)
While most of my household doesn’t need to eat gluten- or allergy-free (myself and two second cousins being the exceptions), my social circle has a mosaic of various food restrictions, and speaking from experience I know it can be an alienating factor at gatherings. The first recipe I decided to whip up from GFK was the most comforting, homey, people-pleasing thing I could think of – Forbes’ Best Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 191). Making the dough was a snap, but unfortunately the resulting cookies were as flat as crepes – probably due to a lack of xanthan or guar gum to properly bind the mixture. I tried chilling, freezing and baking the dough at different temperatures, but they all came out the same. Their saving grace was their flavour – they did taste fantastic, if you can get beyond the crispy, wafer-like texture. I had problems with other recipes in this book as well. In the Pumpkin Spice Muffins (p.40) recipe, there is no indication where to add the milk – a crucial ingredient – and the Split Pea Soup (p. 91) was in desperate need of extra liquid and seasoning (especially since the stated yield is 6 cups!). In addition to using easily 6 cups of water, I have also never seen a chunky split pea soup, so I pureed the mixture and believe the texture was much better for it. Luckily, most seasoned home cooks (gluten free or not) will be able to remedy those ratio situations easily. One omission that might trip up cooks unused to working with starches is in the aforementioned Chocolate Pudding – the author neglects to mention that the “¼ cup water, divided” needs to be half warm and half cold. I also noticed a potentially dangerous slip-up on page 150, which I hope will be remedied in the next printing – Forbes’ Secret Beef Burgers (p. 150) are, if you are to follow the instructions, to be served on whole wheat buns! Again, for those used to a gluten-free lifestyle this will not be an issue (since they will know wheat is a definite no-no), but if you are buying this book as a step into this type of food restriction you may find yourself with unpleasant results.

Gluten Free Chocolate Chip Cookies
Best Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 191)
Not all the recipes are problematic, however – I (and several of my friends) thoroughly enjoyed the Double Chocolate Cupcakes (p. 188), the Apple-Roasted Carrots (p.161) and the Cauliflower and Potato Mash (p. 163).  All of these were not only delicious, but easy and appeal to both adults and children alike – the Mash is now on permanent rotation in our home since it is a great way to stretch the carbohydrate count out for my diabetic stepdad, and doesn’t contain fresh garlic (which he is allergic to). When I make it for myself, I add a clove of minced garlic, and a dash of paprika to the mixture (and usually have to add less liquid and fat – half of each, if not less, is sufficient.

One of the things I found disappointing was this book’s lack of photos. There is an insert of selected pictures, but as with the cover photos they are not necessarily of the actual recipe. The cover photos are stock images, and the inner shots were done by Jennifer L. Yandle, who also photographed for Forbes’ other books. Being one who loves to gawk at food photos while cooking, I would have liked to see more “real” ones, but I understand the necessity of using professional photographers for a published book. Forbes’ blog, Ginger Lemon Girl, is a prime example of her stunning photographs and is a website I frequent for the recipes as well.

While figuring out meals for the whole family to share can be a cause of frustration, Carrie S. Forbes is on a mission to make the task a little easier. With a bit of cooking know-how, anyone can cook, bake and enjoy recipes from 201 Gluten-Free Recipe for Kids, even if  those kids are grown!

Available on Amazon

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Homemade Condiments: Artisan Recipes Using Fresh, Natural Ingredients

Homemade Condiments: Artisan Recipes Using Fresh, Natural Ingredients
Publisher: Ulysses Press (December 3, 2013)

Most people can’t bear the thought of being without their condiments. The ability to doctor up the taste of relatively bland foods like chicken, tofu, pasta and rice, or disguise unwanted flavours (think of children and their vegetables) opens up a world of possibilities. With a simple change of sauce, a dish can travel from the United States to Russia, Germany, Thailand, France and Argentina without ever leaving the ground. However, most sauces and seasonings you find in the stores these days are laden with ingredients you’d rather not have – from long-maligned MSG to HFCS and a host of other acronyms and chemicals, it’s a wonder we haven’t all turned into the pickles we enjoy on our burger. In response to our super-processed life, a new trend has started towards homemade ingredients. Food writer Jessica Harlan is one of the promoters of this movement and dishes up 75 delicious, wholesome alternatives to the grocery store in Homemade Condiments: Artisan Recipes Using Fresh, Natural Ingredients.

Homemade Condiments is definitely not a book dedicated to doctoring up storebought food, nor is it limited to simple fare. The 123 pages run the gamut from Ketchups (p. 9) to Salad Dressings (p. 77), Sweet Sauces and Spreads (p. 103) and even Ethnic and Specialty Ingredients (p. 89). In each chapter are a multitude of recipes – for example, eight different ketchups (from Fresh Tomato (p.10) to Southwestern Tomatillo (p. 19)) and six types of mustard (my favourite being the Grainy Porter (p. 37)) are all unique in their ingredients and methods and all suit different purposes. Readers may discover a new love where the idea never existed before, or be able to re-create an old standby remembered from the Mom & Pop shops, before mass processing took away many of the small producers. Like all responsible “canned food” cookbook authors, Harlan includes an Appendix with notes on Food Safety and Canning (p. 116), Resources (p. 122) and Conversion Charts (p. 123). She also provides a brief but highly useful Introduction with sections regarding Setting Up Your Pantry (p. 3) and A Well Equipped Kitchen (p. 5), something that should be required reading for all budding home sauce-makers.

One of the best things about this book is that Harlan is realistic in terms of ingredients. Even in my small-town grocery store, I was able to find all the components I needed to make Asian Quick Pickles (p. 52) and Hoisin Sauce (p. 97), and it only took a quick trip to the Asian grocery one town over to find mirin (rice wine) for the Teriyaki Sauce (p. 96) recipe. However, if I was unable to find mirin, or found the fresh produce used throughout Homemade Condiments lacking in terms of quality, quantity or economy (which often happens in the winter!), Harlan offers substitutes that may be easier to find or more cost effective while maintaining the best flavour possible – including the use of high-quality canned tomatoes or individually quick frozen fruit. Thanks to those options, there is no reason to put off trying a recipe in Homemade Condiments that piques your interest.

If you’ve been longing to find that “secret ingredient” to jazz up your weeknight meals, take a browse through Jessica Harlan’s book Homemade Condiments: Artisan Recipes Using Fresh, Natural Ingredients. You’ll be sure to find at least one new fridge staple to call your own, and check off your shopping list permanently.

Available on Amazon

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Vegan Desserts in Jars

Vegan Desserts in Jars
Author: Kris Holechek Peters
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2013)

It’s hard to resist the allure of tucking into your own little dessert. Something about being able to eat all of something, not simply a slice or a scoop, draws us in and gives us a feeling of guilty pleasure and comfort. A treat made for you – just for you – to enjoy allows you to recreate the touches of home, where Mom would pack you a cookie for lunch, and indulges that little nugget of selfishness we all possess. Desserts in jars are not new, but most recipes contain eggs, dairy or other animal products, forcing vegans to substitute (which can lead to success or failure). Enter Vegan Desserts in Jars by Kris Holechek Peters, a vegan author and food blogger at, who brings perfectly portioned  treats that can fit into almost any lifestyle.

You certainly don’t have to be a vegan or vegetarian to love Vegan Desserts. If sweets are your thing, the pages will tempt you with crisps, cupcakes and puddings – all decadent and rich without being “stereotypical vegan” food. Even mixes for making your own goodies fill a small chapter, not to mention recipes for jams, toppings and fillings. I really appreciated the “Treats for Two” section (p. 83) – filled with weakness-instigating things like PB Banana Cake for Two (p. 87) – which eliminates the temptation (and fridge-clutter) of leftovers, but families will definitely find use for this book as well. Recipes are designed to create perfect individual portions of larger recipes, often serving 4-6, and most of them store well as well given the Mason jar’s handy lid.

Apple Crisp in a Jar
Apple Crisp Cups (p. 50)
Being the author of a vegan recipe book for the masses, Peters does have to include a short discussion on the nuances of vegan cooking and baking. The most challenging aspect of converting any recipe to vegan is by far replacing the eggs. However, in Vegan Desserts’ opening chapter readers will find a handy chart that can also be used for recipes outside those 124 pages. While this method of cooking may be “old hat” for long-practicing vegans and those with egg allergies, for those used to the standard 1-2-3-4 cake method this section is invaluable. The largest section of Vegan Desserts is “Cakelettes” (p. 20), which contains not only your Basic Chocolate Cake (p. 21) but goodies like Spotted Dick (p. 31) and Tiramisu (p. 37). The whimsically titled Elvis in a Jar (p. 38) will capture the heart of any peanut butter and banana fan, but I have to say that the Rustic Rhubarb Cakes (p. 36) with flash-frozen homegrown rhubarb made our late-Autumn dinners. “Pie and Friends” (p. 42) was definitely where I spent the majority of my time with this book though, since I fell in love with the newfound portability of Peters’ Apple Crisp Cups (p. 50). Those have since become a favourite “visiting” gift that not only takes care of a sudden glut of apples in Fall (speaking from a family of zealous apple pickers) but is also perfect year round. I must confess that I essentially ignored the “No-Bake Treats” chapter (p. 5), simply because neither I nor my family are huge fans of the raw food scene and really do lean towards pie or cake rather than ice cream or pudding.

Apple Crisp in a Jar
Apple Crisp Cups (p. 50)
Whether you or someone you love abstain from animal product due to religious, ethical, environmental or health reasons, there is no reason to abstain from delicious food and the occasional sweet treat. From pies and cakes to pudding and trifles, nothing is off limits in Kris Holechek Peters’ book Vegan Desserts in Jars. Who knows – dessert could just be the greatest culinary equalizer out there!

Available on Amazon

Friday, February 21, 2014's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2: More Recipes for the Most Delicious Dishes from America's Most Popular Restaurants
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2013)

Going out to eat is a treat we all enjoy – sometimes a bit too often. Sitting down to a meal at a restaurant often means gargantuan portions and mystery ingredients we’d rather not know about. Then there’s the price – at $10 and up a head, your dining budget can be blown by Wednesday. While molecular gastronomy is a bit beyond the reach of common home kitchens, traditional fare is far more accessible – not to mention cheaper, faster and fresher. “Copy-cat” cooking is even easier these days thanks to books like Stephanie Manley’s's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2: More Recipes for the Most Delicious Dishes from America's Most Popular Restaurants. It’s her second compilation of the best of the restaurant classics and favourites, building on her successful website and the ever-present demand for the “secret recipes” we crave. 

Dining Out is perfect for those of us who enjoy casual or family restaurants as well as popular takeout or fast food spots. Items from Panera Bread and Starbucks are featured as well as favourites from IHOP and Outback Steakhouse. The biggest issue for international readers like myself is the fact that the restaurants are exclusively American-based (and usually) chains. While it may taste phenomenal, without the familiar point of reference the charm of enjoying a perfect slice of Luby’s Pecan Pie (p. 154) for example is slightly lost. Luckily, (or unluckily!) chains like Starbucks, KFC, Taco Bell and McDonalds are popular worldwide and have more or less standardized menus. Favourite standard and seasonal items (like KFC’s Coleslaw (p. 114) and Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte (p. 17) will tempt readers all over the globe, and once readers taste those copies the urge to make other (more or less foreign) foods will be irresistible.

Dining Out is an all inclusive book with respect to the meal options and ethnic diversity. Readers will be able to make and enjoy Lettuce Wraps from PF Chang’s China Bistro (p. 38) for a Chinese-inspired lunch or light dinner, cozy up to a bowl of Pesto Pasta from Alonti’s (p. 69) for an Italian supper and dig into good old American-style Banana Bread French Toast from IHOP® (p. 174) for Sunday breakfast. Desserts fit snugly into the book’s 312 pages too, so if you have a sweet tooth you certainly won’t be left behind! Sadly, there are no photos to tempt the visual cooks out there – inconvenient, although most readers will know what the finished products will look like anyway. Another thing to note about this book is that the recipes are formulated to be true to their namesakes – not healthier remakes. There is lots of fat and sugar floating around, which speaks to the richness of the final products as well as indicate what the restaurants really do to make their dishes menu-worthy.

That said, I initially struggled to find a recipe or two in this book to test for this review. Not only are a good portion of the restaurants US-based as mentioned before, but as a whole my family doesn’t eat out often and tend to stick to leaner fare. However, the Boiled Shrimp and Avocado Salsa (p. 41) from Saltgrass Steakhouse® was a hit with my co-workers, the Homemade Taco Seasoning (p. 191) became a boon to my household for our regular “taco nights” especially because it’s salt free (though for my vegetarian mix I added a touch of smoked salt, which was a definite plus). Of course, you can’t argue with the classic (and often craved) Pumpkin Spice Latte (p. 17), which is easily veganized (and honestly better tasting when you use unsweetened vanilla almond milk!) and not overly sweet. For those I shared the recipe with, it was the clincher that sold them on copy-cat recipes.

While we may not have the luxury of going out to eat every night, we can emulate the best of what we crave in our own kitchens. All we need is the “secret recipe” – and with's Dining Out At Home Cookbook 2: More Recipes for the Most Delicious Dishes from America's Most Popular Restaurants, you’re sure to find a treasure trove of them.