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Ah, buttermilk!  This has been a buttermilk summer.  We’ve had it in ice cream, panna cotta, dressings, marinades, baked goods, and much more, and I haven’t yet tired of it.

Possibly the only thing better than buttermilk alone is buttermilk plus blueberries, and we’ve gotten plenty of those too–bumper crop this year.  Ah, buttermilk!  Ah, blueberries!  Ah, summer!
 
 
Click here to read Buttermilk Makes Everything Taste Better at NPR’s Kitchen Window.

The pictured recipe for Buttermilk Ice Cream comes originally from Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones, the cookbook from the legendary Bi-Rite Creamery in San Francisco.  You can get a full analysis and read a full review of the book on CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app, available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

A wide variety of doable weeknight mains  (many of them one-pot) as served by and to the staff of Michael Romano’s many restaurants.  We tested many of the recipes at a big get-together with friends, many hands making light work.  Most were easy, and nearly all delivered reasonably pleasing results.

Click here to read today’s review of Family Table in the Boston Globe.  (Hit the paywall?  Use this PDF link.)

On  CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app this week, you’ll find more data points and analysis of this book and over 200 more of the latest cookbooks.  Treat yourself to a copy of the app for cookbook fanatics – it’s available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices and updated  most Wednesdays.

spice tins

I can’t remember exactly where I first saw the magnetic spice tins.  It was probably some kind of kitchen or lifestyle website, the kind with the empty countertops, the spotless backsplashes, the shining faucets.  All I can tell you is that when I saw them, I just sat there for a while looking at them, jaw slack, mind spinning.

Breaching the spice cabinet of a recipe tester is not for the faint of heart.  Over the years mine had evolved into a beetling, pungent jungle of  condiments that defied categorization, was housed in a motley assortment of boxes, tins, and jars, and fell out in bits and pieces every time I tried to find something.  I had become so ignorant of what I had in there that when I finally made a stab at organizing it a couple years ago, I found I had three containers of asafoetida.  I had 16 kinds of salt and 17 kinds of pepper.  I had bishops’ weed and fenugreek leaves, cubeb and kalonji.  I did my best, going at it with a labelmaker and a box of old glass stopper jars, making separate neighborhoods for seeds, leaves, mixes, and so on.  But the whole thing remained, more or less, impenetrable.

But when I first saw magnetic tins, the elegance of the solution left me poleaxed with awe: to be able to see everything, all at once! free of the pedantic requirements of gravity! Nothing hidden behind anything else!  This was not home organization – this was Art.  I priced it out as a DIY project and determined I’d be better off signing up for discount emails from Pfaltzgraff, the housewares site, and buying them ready-made, on sale.  So that’s what I did.

I filled my tins and slapped them on the fridge and then just looked at them for a while – the colors and textures an analog for the brilliant world of smell and taste safely closed within –  in a kind of fugue state of bliss.  I sort of wanted to leave them unlabeled, but I’m not quite that arrogant.  There was, after all, a sporting chance I might swap out ajwain for caraway, or mace for dried lime powder, which would be a recipe-testing misdemeanor at the very least.  So I decided to label them on the floor-facing curve of the lid, alphabetically . . . and in Latin.

Now, it would not be entirely untrue to say I have a sort of reflexive aversion to doing things the normal way.  But labeling in Latin wasn’t just an attempt to be different, and it wasn’t a matter of pretense either.  It’s a simple fact that spice and herb nomenclature is a taxonomist’s nightmare.  Some spice cultures named things after the leaves, some after the seed, some after what the thing does to you when you eat it.  Every language has at least one name for the same spice, and to privilege one language over any other in a rigorously post-tribal kitchen seemed rife with ethnocentric assumptions.

It seemed simpler to just go straight to the closest thing we have to a lingua franca in all of this – the botanical name of the plant from which the condiment derives.  If that means I have to have two Myristica fragrans – one for the nutmeg, one for the mace – fine.  I can see the difference, after all.  And what’s more, Latin is equally inconvenient for everybody.  It’s democratic!

So that’s how my spices look now – arranged on the side of the fridge, 6 feet away from the countertop and stove, alphabetically from Apium graveolens to Zingiber officinale.   My birthday’s still a month away (I don’t suppose it’s obvious I’m a Virgo or anything), but I have to say this is about the best present-to-self I’ve ever pulled off.

As to the other problem – won’t my spices have a shorter lifespan from being kept in daylight, exposed to indirect solar radiation?  I can only answer: Probably.  But after all, even a cookbook reviewer has to make some sacrifices for Art.

This gorgeous volume will cause you terrible frustration.  Not because the recipes are poorly constructed – they’re impeccable.  Not because it’s hard on the eyes – the photographs are as leisurely and elegant as the prose.

No, The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen is mostly an exercise in frustration because its most enticing recipes are based on a local ethos so compelling you can’t quite bear to substitute your own weak regional proxies.  And in those recipes whose ingredients are universally available, you can’t avoid the nagging suspicion that they’d still be better in the Lees’ kitchen than in yours.

Nevertheless, the book offers such pleasure in so many ways it would be a shame to be intimidated into passing it by.

Click here to read today’s review of The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen in the Boston Globe.  (Hit the paywall?  Use this PDF link.)

On  CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app this week, you’ll find more data points and analysis of this book and over 200 more of the latest cookbooks.  Treat yourself to a copy of the app for cookbook fanatics – it’s available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices and updated  most Wednesdays.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it: this is, hands-down, the best cookbook I’ve tested all year. It’s got vibrant, new-to-us recipes that are written with clarity and attention. It’s got good design and great pictures. It’s got charming voice. But ultimately – beyond what we see on the page – what makes this book so good is the way it shapes up on the plate – the way the flavors abduct your senses and the way a whole list of new ingredients insinuate themselves into permanent residence in your pantry.

Click here to read today’s review of The New Persian Kitchen in the Boston Globe.  (Hit the paywall?  Use this PDF link.)

On  CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app this week, you’ll find more data points and analysis of this book and over 200 more of the latest cookbooks.  Treat yourself to a copy of the app for cookbook fanatics – it’s available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices and updated  most Wednesdays.

My garden’s a mess this year, due to serious slacking during the endless rains of June. But I still kept a watchful eye on the garlic bed, because I had a deadline and the garlic needed to coöperate.

The garlic was perfectly healthy – vigorous, green, and inarguably well-irrigated. But where were the scapes? “C’mon!” I exhorted. “Let’s get a move on! I’ve got a story to write!”

Scapes are funny. As far as I can tell, they’re not there, and then they’re there. I went out one humid afternoon close to deadline and there they were – dozens and dozens, lining up in scapey curlicues. I marched into the cool house and e-mailed my editor. The deadline, I declared, was safe.

Click here to read Scape Velocity: Green Garlic Takes Flight at NPR’s Kitchen Window.

The splendid recipe for Pork and Garlic Scape Stir-Fry comes from Fuchsia Dunlop’s Every Grain of Rice.  You can get a full analysis and read a full review of the book – and even click to buy it – on CookShelf, the cookbook-rating app, available for both  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

The evening we moved to Leverett from the city was a cloudless one.  As we turned onto the road where our new, old house waited for us, carillon bells began to peal.  My husband looked at the clean white clapboard church through the window of our moving van.  “I never dreamed our escape could be so painless,” said he.

It wasn’t really an escape.  We were simply making a common trade: we were leaving a busy, two-income life in a tiny city apartment for a slower, gentler life in the country. And although neither of us was particularly religious, the chiming of the church felt like a blessing.

The church bells, we soon learned, rang out every night at 6 pm.  They were one element that would remain the same in a life whose structure soon began to shift from month to month.  There was a market crash, and a scramble for employment.  There was a first child, and then a second. And there was construction – endless, crazy-making construction.  For a week or two we had nothing but a tarp for a roof, and the bells sounded a lot louder than usual.

I liked to imagine that some ancient artisan in a leather apron was hammering out those bell songs in the steeple.  In fact, the Leverett carillon is digital – a CD, a stereo, and some powerful speakers.   But I didn’t know that (or so much else) at the time. And at any rate, it was as steadfast and as reliable as if it were keeping the time for a medieval village.

Every night the unhurried sound of old hymns came drifting to our house. Sometimes we noticed them, sometimes we didn’t. Whether it was a late bright summer evening or a cold, dark winter evening, the bells rang out just the same.

Dinner was always on its way to the table or almost there. As the notes resounded overhead, I would hustle through the last stages of prep. And sometimes I was too busy, cleaning up spills or rooting furiously through the vegetable drawer for parsley to hear them at all.

But most often it would happen while I was standing at the grill. The smoke rose up blue and lazy as I tested a skirt steak for doneness with my fingertip. In my other hand I held a cold beer. The day’s last clouds followed the sun in its westward descent over the pond. As pleasant as the moment was, it seemed as though I was waiting for something.

And then, after all, it came – as welcome as the crack of an egg, as the clink of ice, as the sizzle and pop of thick-sliced bacon. Long, slow peals fell upon the smoke-laden air as the Leverett bells began to sound.

This, I thought, is life. This, I thought, is peace. The notes will fade, the meal will disappear. Like music and like food, our own lives last only a moment. But what a moment! The ordinary peace of waking life is not a silent peace. It’s full of sound and flavor, full of light and heat. Surely even the plainest hour is worth some celebration – even if it’s only marked by the pouring of a drink, the lifting of a fork, the ringing of a bell.

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