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It’s not often that the Globe runs a vegan cookbook review (although we regularly run vegetarian and vegetable-centric reviews).  I think the last time was 5 years ago. The book I reviewed at that time was underwhelming, and I got slammed by assorted irate vegans who felt the author poorly represented their cause.  An unfortunate experience all around.

But when Isa Does It crossed my desk, I had a good feeling.  It seemed approachable, well-thought-out, and potentially tasty.  So I made the case to my editor that we should review it.  She agreed,  and I haven’t regretted it…so far.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Isa Does It’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Ah, chocolate! When I look at the dirty piles of grey March snow still heaped everywhere in New England,   I feel even more than usual like reaching for some chocolate.  Any chocolate.  Chocolate is sunshine! Chocolate is life! Chocolate is hope!  

This book is not for the casual dabbler in chocolate.  Every recipe is marked with the cacao percentage you’ll need – 55%, 62%, 75%, 83% – and most of them are pretty high-test.  

Someday spring will finally get here.  But in the meantime I’m 83% sure I have a substitute.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Seriously Bitter Sweet’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Quick! how many ways to cook something slowly can you think of?  

I bet you said “Slow cooker,” followed by maybe “stewing” or “braising”. But how about “slow steaming”?  How about “sous vide“? Andy Schloss can think of at least 8 (9 if you include slow-cooking desserts as its own thing), and he’s got a chapter for each of them.  

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Cooking Slow’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Joe Yonan, if you don’t know him, is a fixture on the food journalism scene.  Once a Globe food beat cop like myself, Joe made his way to the Washington Post, where he now heads up the food section.

He’s specialized in cooking for singles: first with a popular column, whose recipes served as a springboard for his singles cookbook,  Serve Yourself.  The current volume is the vegetarian followup.

It’s long been my view, though, that anyone with Joe’s effervescent personality can’t last on the singles scene for long.  I hold out hope that volume 3 will be Serves 4, with Minivan, and I won’t have to keep scaling up his recipes..!

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Eat Your Vegetables’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

android image for appLike anyone who regularly uses cookbooks,  I’ve often found a vast disconnect between how long I think a recipe will take and how long it will actually take.  Add in ingredients you were sure were right there in the fridge but aren’t, the typical household chaos on a weeknight at 5pm, the time it takes to get used to a new recipe, a naturally over-optimistic temperament – and you have a scheduling disaster in the making.

Over the years I’ve learned that if I’m serious about avoiding hunger-induced family meltdown, I have to give scheduling just as much thought as I give  the shopping list – that is, I have to at least try and guess what I’m going to need rather than winging it all the time.  And if the cookbook gives an estimated prep time, I usually just ignore it because it’s bound to come up short (in my experience, maybe 10% of time estimates are accurate.  The rest are too short.  Or maybe I’m just slow).  Anyway, here’s my time estimation method – maybe some of my tips will help you with yours.

1.  Read the ingredients list.  It’s the rare ingredients list that doesn’t have some prep embedded in it – anything from “garlic, finely chopped” to the dreaded “tomatoes, blanched, peeled and seeded” or “chilies (toasted, soaked, seeded, and chopped)”.  For a list of a dozen or less ingredients where half call for a knife and half for measuring, I’ll give myself some 15 minutes – that’s maybe a  little short, but you can usually get a little more chopping done once the onions are in the pan.

2.  Skim the instructions, looking for time indications.  Obviously, look for the words “about [X] minutes “. Keep a sharp lookout for “hours” – somehow “hours” and the stealthy “overnight” tend to hide  until you run into them with 15 minutes left till dinner.  Also look for the word “until“.  Sometimes an author will give you an “until”  cue (“until half the liquid has evaporated” or “until no longer pink”) without any other time indication.  Also look for stealth time-words like “chill” and “rest“.  Add this to your estimate from the ingredients list.

3.  If it’s a new recipe (something you’ve made fewer than 5 times), always always add an additional 15 minutes or more. You’ll need it for finding your place in the recipe, flipping back and forth between recipes, finding the can opener etc etc.   Sometimes I just go for broke and round the whole thing up to the nearest half hour.

4. Write down your estimate on the recipe or a sticky note, including idle time like rising times, chilling, marinating, resting etc.  “2 hrs (incl. 1 hr chilling)”; “Overnight + 45 min.”; “2 hrs. (incl. 15 min. rest)

5. Finally, one more thing: How many new recipes are you cooking?  If you’re cooking 2 or more new recipes simultaneously, add at least 1/2 hour for each additional recipe.  If you have idle time built in to one of the recipes (see above), you can cut that down a bit – but not by too much.

Using these general guidelines, I usually can hit dinner on the mark at 6pm without driving myself too crazy in the process.  I can sometimes carry on a conversation with my husband – though sometimes he has to endure a bit of lag time in the dialogue when my circuits are really oversubscribed – and maybe even enjoy a sip of wine or two.

A few more tips for streamlining

  • Mise en place.  Yeah, you know you’re supposed to do it, but you don’t.  It really makes a huge difference.  Do, do, do  get out all your ingredients first.  This really pays off with herbs and spices – can’t tell you how many years of my life I’ve spent hunting for the dried sage.  For baking recipes, I get out all the measuring cups and spoons whether or not I think I’ll need them.  But you don’t have to pull out every last prep bowl.  The goal is once you get in front of your chopping board, not to leave till everything’s prepped. (For this reason I often prep backwards, doing the meat last so I can do everything on one board without worrying about contamination.  I’m sure that would horrify many chefs.  But it’s what I do.)
  • Sharp knives.  Makes all the difference in the world.  My aim in life is to properly sharpen them once a week, but actually it turns out to be more like once every 3 or 4.  If your knives are not in great condition, at least run them over a sharpening steel each day before you start.   It takes 15 seconds and saves you an agony with the onion.
  • Use a timer.  As a true “out of sight, out of mind” cook, I’ve burned any number of things simply because they were in the oven and I forgot about them till they sent up a smoke signal.  I still do, unless I use a timer.  In general, I can only wing it if I’m prepping just one dish, with one time I have to keep track of and it’s less than 15 minutes.  Otherwise, forget it.  It’s not without its flaws, but I find this 3-line Maverick kitchen timer to be a big help.
  • Clean up as you go. Start with your ingredients on one side of your board.  As you prep, move the remainders to the other side, sorted by whether they go back in the fridge or pantry.  Once you’ve got your ingredients prepped, spend half a minute just getting stuff off your counter.  The one exception is flour.  I always leave out the flour, because you always end up needing it for something later.
  • Don’t clean up as you go. This is maybe controversial, but I never wash dishes as I cook unless I happen to find myself with idle time in the middle (marinating, chilling, rising etc.) or extra time at the end.  Assuming you don’t have a designated dish washer person, just put everything in the sink and leave your hands free for that knife, silicone spatula, or wooden spoon.
  • Don’t answer the phone.  You may think you can carry on a phone conversation and read a recipe at the same time.  You can’t.  For some reason it’s easier to talk to someone who’s in the room while you’re testing a recipe than it is to talk to someone over the phone.

Of course, accidents will happen.  I spilled my already-mixed flour, baking powder, salt and sugar for okonomiyaki all over the floor yesterday.  The week before I spilled a solid 5 pounds of rice everywhere, and I still don’t keep the vacuum in the kitchen.  Recipes are fallible, and so are people.  But in the end, I always tell people, we can always order pizza.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

So are we good to go?  Tie on an apron, put on some music, and – ready, set, cook!

eyb imgAs the polar vortex shuts everybody in with their seed catalogues and board games, I thought I’d play a little imaginary game of my own.  It’s my job to test and rate already-published cookbooks.  What if I started on the other end and dreamed up the cookbooks I’d like to see? – ones that I’ve not yet seen on the market but which would be killer cookbooks on my shelf.  Why not?  Let’s give it a go!

Regional Chinese cookbook: I’d like it to be as informative as the Complete Indian Regional Cookbook, but a whole lot better designed – say with the beautiful, open layout of The Food of Spain, or, if it needed to be more compact, a design aesthetic like The New Midwestern Table‘s.  I’d want it to have all 8 classic Chinese cuisines, along with contextual histories, features of the ingredients specific to each, and say 10 or 12 recipes that are really identified with that cuisine.  Maybe written by Fuchsia Dunlop, with her kind of glossaries – with good sourcing notes – and headnotes; or on the UK side, Terry Tan.

New England Kitchen Garden cookbook:  There are a million farmer’s market and seasonal and garden cookbooks out there, but none of them is exactly what I crave.  I’d want this book to focus on the top 10 or so crops we grow well in my region (including but not limited to asparagus, rhubarb, strawberries and blueberries, corn, squash, and apples).  I’d want it to have some thoughtful cultural notes (like the ones in Grow Cook Eat) and LOTS of recipes for each of the 10 crops.  Because the first week of plain asparagus is great, but by the sixth week, you really want some variation.  I’d enjoy it if the book were interspersed with vegetable quotes (like poems from Lorna Crozier’s The Sex Life of Vegetables), and I’d want a colorful design that combined graphic whimsy with practicality, like the design of the Splendid Table books.

A cookie decorating bible: Actually, I’d be really surprised if this doesn’t exist.  I guess for whatever reason I just haven’t come across it.  I’d like it to have lots of great, well-described techniques (marbling, piping, etc) like Cookie Swap and other books by Julia Usher, but with extensive troubleshooting charts, more pictures, and a whole lot more basic cookie recipes.  I’d like the step-by-step photographs to be as extensive and exhaustive as the ones in The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook, but fewer per page.  And I’d like an accompanying website with up-to-date sourcing links for hard-to-find decorating supplies, please.

I could go on and on . . . Funny how even in a world filled with hundreds of thousands of cookbooks, there are still so many great ones yet to be published.  What’s that you say?  You’re a major cookbook publisher and you think I ought to consult / have my own imprint? (20+ years of experience either inside publishing or working with cookbooks – that’s me.)  What a great idea!  Call anytime!

(This post is adapted from the one that appeared on the Eat Your Books blog 01/24/14.)

Of all the excellent 2013 cookbooks I had the good fortune to test last year, it’s Keepers (published by Rodale – not even one of the major cookbook players) that had the most to offer the everyday, hassled-to-the-max home cook.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the outside.  The cover, though tasty-looking, and the title as well might be  marketing misfires.  Memoir, I thought – or maybe pastry.  What I didn’t expect (until I read the subtitle anyway) was a parade of family-friendly hits, none taking more than 45 minutes.  One of them, the skillet lasagna, even made it into my Best Recipes of 2013 list.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Keepers’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

In 1999, I was a culinary student at what was then called “Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School,” and so was Amy Thielen. I’d already spent ten years on one career (as a book editor) and was casting around for another. Amy was still a recent college graduate, but all her jobs had been in food and she knew that’s where she wanted to be. She already had the efficient moves of a kitchen worker, and she had an intense curiosity about the big picture. In our class of 15, it was clear that Amy had hustle.

We lost touch over the years, so when Amy’s book arrived on my porch with all the other review copies, I felt I could set aside the fact we’d known each other in the dotcom days and do a fair job on it. But even so I was surprised at what a strong first outing The New Midwestern Table turned out to be.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘The New Midwestern Table’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Happy New Year! everybody.

In the holiday hubbub (long road trip to see family, hosting Christmas dinner, multiple New Years’ parties –  the usual stuff) I forgot to check and see which of my reviews had published.

This one came out in the run-up to the holiday, although you may be able to tell from the recipes that I tested it way back in September.  As far as seasonal vegetable books go, it’s a charming mixed bag.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘The French Market Cookbook’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version

On  Cookbook Finder, my cookbook-rating app, you’ll find more analysis of this book, write-ups of 250+  of the latest cookbooks, and regular cookbook news.  It’s the only up-to-the-minute cookbook app anywhere!

What, you say you’re already too much of a cookbook addict?  Ah, but you see, Cookbook Finder will help you get control of your problem.  Now you’ll only buy the good ones.

Available for  iPhone/iPad and Android devices.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and with this sweet confection we arrive at the finale of the Best Recipes of 2013 series.  But stay tuned in 2014 for another year of food stories and coverage of the latest cookbooks – and in the meantime, stay warm, eat well, and enjoy delicious holidays with your loved ones!

The book:  Family Table, by Michael Romano & Karen Stabiner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35.00)

The recipe:  Buttermilk Panna Cotta (with Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote)

Why I tried it: I can’t believe I only discovered panna cotta this year – so easy! and so good!  Violating my own rule (never count on a recipe you’ve never tried, when you’re going to a dinner party), I made it for the first time for an evening with some friends.  I even doubled the recipe and, along with it, the risk of failure.  But I felt it was high time for me to get more comfortable working with gelatin, so I pressed ahead anyway.

Why I loved it:  On the very first try, this recipe hit it out of the park.  The final product was a subtly tart and sublimely decadent custard, which slid like silk stockings over the tongue.  The compote was good, too.  But it was the panna cotta itself that had me going back, time and time again, with a surreptitious spoon.  I made it several times more afterward, and a few times experienced some difficulties – the panna cotta sometimes separated into two layers – one creamy and liquidy, one clear and rubbery.  I later learned I could avert this by leaving the custard out to cool to room temperature before putting it in the fridge (I had done exactly that by accident, out of sheer forgetfulness, the first time).  So let the custard rest and give it a last whisk before you set it in the fridge, and by the time evening falls you will have an indulgence to rival the splendor that was Rome.

Estimated preparation time:  15 minutes active time, followed by half an hour of cooling down and  several hours in the fridge.

Click here for my complete list of 2013 cookbook recommendations.   You can also find many, many more recommendations for great cookbooks on my app, Cookbook Finder (available for your  iPhone/iPad or Android device).

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Buttermilk panna cottaButtermilk Panna Cotta

Serves 6

2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups buttermilk

In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over ½ cup of the cream. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.

Bring the remaining ½ cup cream, the sugar, and vanilla to a simmer in a saucepan over medium-high heat, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool for 1 minute, then whisk in the cream-gelatin mixture until the gelatin dissolves. Stir in the buttermilk.

Strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup. Divide the mixture among six 4-ounce ramekins or pour into a small serving bowl. Let cool to room temperature and whisk once again before covering with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for at least 5 hours, until set. (Well-wrapped, the panna cotta will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.)

Run a sharp knife around the edges of the ramekins and unmold the panna cotta onto plates, or serve it right in the ramekins or scoop out of the bowl.

Click here for the rhubarb-strawberry compote recipe if you want to make that too.

Reprinted from Family Table.  Copyright © 2013 by USHG, LLC, and Karen Stabiner.  Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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