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I almost missed this one, which came out yesterday (I wrote it in February) – the last hurrah of the late, great Penelope Casas.  As is often the case with doorstop cookbooks like this, there’s good value to be had, and a decent overview of a vast culinary landscape, but you do have to keep your wits about you.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘1000 Spanish Recipes’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘1000 Spanish Recipes’ review

If you want to see what unadulterated joy looks like, tell your children you’re going to be testing baking books for the next two weeks.  Be prepared for lip prints on the ceiling.  (If you want the opposite effect, substitute “vegan” for “baking”.)    Even the ominous notion that these would be “healthier” sweets – with less sugar, or different sugars – did little to dampen their enthusiasm.

There’s definitely something a little overwhelming about having 3 or 4 desserts in the house at a time.   I called friends over for emergency sampling. When we were invited to dinner, I brought the testing results with me.  Still, sweets piled on sweets, and by the end of the testing period – as you’ll see – I felt a bit like The Hungry Caterpillar (“The next day was Sunday again.  The caterpillar chewed through one nice green leaf, and after that he felt much better.”)  Fortunately, my next testing is a vegetable book.

Click here to read this week’s review of  ‘Baking with Less Sugar’ and ‘Real Sweet’ in the Washington Post. 

My Perfect Pantry was one of my favorite books from last year.  So often chef books fall a bit far out of reach for those of us in the home kitchen, but Zakarian’s book was just the opposite – weeknight dishes you can make just from, mostly, what’s around – canned tomatoes, popcorn, chickpeas, chocolate (though may be not all of them at once!)

Click here to read this week’s review of ‘My Perfect Pantry’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘My Perfect Pantry’ review

My other recent story is a bit of a time warp.  Like many of the articles I write for the Globe, this one got written a while ago an stashed for future use.  In fact, I think I wrote this one in October or November of last year.  The smell of frost was just entering the air, and I was thinking cozy thoughts about soup. But now New England is in its brief high spring and winter has left us for the southern hemisphere.  So much has happened in the last 6 months, yet I still think of that soup and wish, in a way, I were cool enough to enjoy it even now.

Click here to read last week’s soup and bread story.  Hit the paywall? Click here for the PDF version.

Do you ever feel that baking – the measuring, the (sometimes) weighing, the technique, the time – is just too much?  In this week’s Globe, a bracing corrective to that way of thinking arrives in the form of Charmian Christie’s blog-to-book.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘The Messy Baker’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Messy Baker’ review

Testing Milk Bar Life was an education for me –  and completely unlike any testing I can remember.  Over the years I’ve had to hunt down all manner of seasonally ephemeral produce, little-known condiments from the back shelves of the Asian market, xanthan gum and carbonators from online sites.

But never before have I been asked to buy cake mix.  Or pre-made crescent rolls.  Or Ritz crackers and bread crumbs with “Italian seasoning”.  I got a little lost in the supermarket looking for them, to tell you the truth.

Was it worth it?  the crazy mix of highbrow and lowbrow baking?  The packaged hot dogs wrapped in the homemade buns? The Ritz crackers baked into fresh cookie dough? I’m still working that out.  But you can decide for yourself.

Click here to read this week’s review of  ‘Milk Bar Life’ in the Washington Post. 

The good folks at the Washington Post asked  me to have a look at ‘Home’ by Washington restaurant insider Bryan Voltaggio, and as a non-DC-based reviewer I felt honored to be asked.  Besides, who doesn’t love it when a chef takes his skills back to the home front – restaurant-quality meals scaled down for 4, with equipment all of us have.  Easy! and fast! Right?

Well, maybe not. I’ll let you read for yourself.  Let’s just say, this is one of those stories where I found myself obliged to use the word “compost”.

 Click here to read this week’s review of  ‘Home’ in the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, in the Boston Globe today, you’ll find my review of Brassicas.  Kale, as you probably know, is so hot – hotter than any green has ever been, probably – that there is an actual global shortage of kale seed.  (I couldn’t in fact get any for my own garden this year).  But for heaven’s sake, it’s not the only crucifer there is.  What about Brussels sprouts? and arugula? and cauliflower? and good old broccoli?

Russell’s book has good suggestions for them all.  Please, try them! try them!  then maybe we’ll have enough kale for everybody again next year.

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

It was almost 9 months ago that I first tested Recipes from my French Grandmother.  In the interval since, New England’s been locked in winter(and now, just barely unlocked), my son’s grown 3 inches (not kidding), and half a dozen more French cookbooks have come and gone.

Yet for all that, this one’s worth a second look.  It’s not showy and not particularly new, but there’s good value to be had in this small, attractive package.  At least one recipe – the vegetable soup with basil pistou – has made it to the favorites list.

Click here to read today’s review of ‘Recipes from my French Grandmother’ in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘French Grandmother’ review

Very excited to present my second review for the Washington Post – and my first using my own photography!  D.C. and my house are 400 miles away from each other, which means my reviews can’t use the Post‘s excellent facilities. So my amazing editors agreed to let me try shooting at home, and I promptly treated myself to some pro-grade lighting.  I’ve missed doing food photography since NPR’s Kitchen Window column closed, so it was nice to have an excuse to get back into it (and shop at B&H!).

Even better than geeking out with my SLR again, though, was the testing – dish after dish after dish full of glorious fungi.  I didn’t have to test over a dozen recipes, but I just couldn’t stop.

Click here to read this week’s review of  ‘Shroom’ in the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, in the Boston Globe today, you’ll find my late-to-the-gate but enthusiastic review of Andrea Nguyen’s The Banh Mi Handbook.  (Actually, I tested it back in July of last year, but as they used to say at my local pizza parlor, “Good food takes time…”) Those of you who follow this blog already know how much I love this book, which I believe has gone into multiple reprintings already thanks to the millions of banh-maniacs in this country and elsewhere.

Click here to read this today’s review of The Banh Mi Handbook in the Boston Globe.   Hit the paywall?  Click here for the PDF version of this week’s ‘Banh Mi Handbook’ review

All good things must come to an end…
But such a sweet end!  Our Best Recipes of 2014 series concludes with an unassuming-looking, crumbly, unadorned cake of a modest chestnut hue.  Don’t be fooled by appearances.

The book:  Bitter, by Jennifer McLagan (10 Speed Press, $29.99)

The recipe:  Walnut cake

Why I tried itIt was just one of those synesthetic moments you get with cookbooks: I saw the word “bitter” (referring, in this case, to the walnuts). I saw the word “orange”.  I saw the faintly blue gleam of the steel dessert plates in the photograph, which I found devastatingly chic.  In my mouth, I tasted butter.  Out came the Post-Its!

Why I loved it:  Oranges and walnuts! a match made in heaven.  That plus a faintly chewy, profoundly buttery crumb. It was like the darker and more glamorous cousin of a financier.   Eat it forkful by dense and tender forkful with completely unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraîche.  Sip a little coffee, and wish – not for the the first time – that you had a nice big 4-chambered stomach, like a cow’s, instead of the one you’ve got.

Estimated preparation time: About 1 1/2 hours: A leisurely 40 minutes to toast and grind the nuts, prepare the yolk/butter mix, prepare the whites, and fold them together.  Another 50 minutes for the baking.

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Walnut Cake

5 1⁄2 ounces walnut halves
2 slices white bread
2⁄3 cup / 5¼ ounces unsalted butter, diced
2⁄3 cup / 4 1⁄2 ounces sugar
4 eggs, separated
¾ teaspoon ground cardamom
A pinch of fine sea salt
1 Seville or regular orange
A pinch of cream of tartar
Cocoa powder

1.  Preheat the oven to 350°F / 180°C. Butter a 9-inch / 23-cm springform cake pan and line the bottom with a round of parchment paper.

2.  Spread the walnuts and bread slices on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 10 minutes or until the bread is dry and the nuts are lightly toasted. Let cool slightly. Lower the oven temperature to 325°F / 160°C.

3.  Put the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Set 3 tablespoons of the sugar aside and add the remaining sugar to the butter. Cream the butter and sugar until they are light and fluffy. Meanwhile, place the walnuts and toasted bread in a food processor and pulse until finely ground.

4.  Add the egg yolks, one at a time, to the creamed butter and sugar, beating well after each addition. Stir in the ground walnut and bread mixture, then add the cardamom and salt. Finely grate the zest from the orange and add to the mixture; set the orange aside for another use.

5.  In a clean bowl, whisk the egg whites until frothy; add the cream of tartar, and continue to whisk until white. Add the reserved 3 tablespoons of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, whisking until the whites are glossy and resemble whipped cream. Add a large spoonful of the egg whites to the walnut batter and stir to lighten. Tip the batter onto the egg whites and fold lightly until mixed.

6.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake for about 50 minutes or until dark golden and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out dry.  Let the cake cool for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of the cake and unmold onto a cooling rack. Let cool completely, then dust with cocoa powder.

Reprinted from Bitter by Jennifer McLagan. Copyright (c) 2014. Published by 10 Speed Press

Don’t tell your family about this dish, or you’ll have to make enough for 4, which means two batches, which means having to clean out the wok in between.

The book:  Simple Thai Food, by Leela Punyaratabandhu (10 Speed Press, $24.99 – here’s my complete review)

The recipe:  Rice noodles “drunkard’s style” with chicken

Why I tried it: I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had a Thai noodle dish I didn’t like.  Over many years and many tweaks, I’ve gotten to be pretty happy with my pad thai.  But I was still on the hunt for a wide-rice-noodle dish I could make at home that would satisfy me as much as the ones I had out.  This was simply the next station on that quest.

Why I loved it:  The sauce!  This. Is. The. Sauce.  You know how you go to a noodle place, and your soul is basically enslaved to that place forever because you don’t think you can reproduce the sauce at home? Well, this was the Sauce of Freedom for me.  It’s just thin soy + dark sweet soy [kecap manis] + oyster sauce + fish sauce, it turns out.  But combined with the garlic and Thai basil, the onion wedges and with maybe an assist from the tomato, it’s got that upfront caramel, the anisey top notes, and the forever-umami finish that had me plonking down $7.95 a pop for I don’t know how many years.  Free at last!

Estimated preparation time: 40-45 minutes max if you’re using fresh noodles, a little more if you have to boil some dried noodles  (but not much, because you’re efficient and you ALWAYS chop stuff when your water’s busy getting to a boil).

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Rice Noodles “Drunkard’s Style” with Chicken

Two things you should know: 1) if for whatever reason, you can’t quite mash the aromatics into a paste and you’ve got little bits of garlic flying around asking to get burnt, then lessen both time and temperature in that first frying step. 2) Read the author’s extensive endnote on boiling wide rice noodles, in case you’ve been soaking them in warm water your whole life and you don’t believe you should do it any different now.

SERVES 2

2 fresh bird’s eye chiles, or fewer or more
1 large shallot, about 1 ounce
2 large cloves garlic
1 pound fresh wide rice noodles, or 8 ounces dried wide rice noodles, prepared according to instructions below*
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 yellow or white onion, cut into 1-inch-wide wedges
1 tablespoon fish sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons thin soy sauce
2 tablespoons sweet dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons packed grated palm sugar, or 1 teaspoon packed light or brown sugar
1 fresh large red or green Thai long chile, cut lengthwise on the diagonal into 1/4-inch wide strips
1 Roma tomato, quartered lengthwise, then quarters halved crosswise
1 cup loosely packed fresh holy basil leaves

In a mortar or a mini chopper, combine the bird’s eye chiles, garlic, and shallot and grind to a fine paste. Set aside.

If the noodles are in sheet form, rather than pre-cut, cut them lengthwise into 1-inch-wide strips and separate the layers into singles. Cut the chicken against the grain and on the diagonal into thin, bite-sized strips.

Heat the oil in a wok or a 14-inch skillet set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the prepared paste and stir until fragrant and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Turn up the heat to high, add the onion wedges and let them brown on the underside, undisturbed, for 2 minutes. Flip them and brown the second side for 2 minutes. Add the chicken and fish sauce and stir until the chicken is cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Heat the oil in a wok or a 14-inch skillet set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the prepared paste and stir until fragrant and slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Turn up the heat to high, add the onion wedges and let them brown on the underside, undisturbed, for 2 minutes. Flip them and brown the second side for 2 minutes. Add the chicken and fish sauce and stir until the chicken is cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the noodles, oyster sauce, thin soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, sugar, long chile, and tomato and stir to mix. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the noodles soften and the sauce is absorbed, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, add the basil, and stir just until wilted. Serve immediately.

*EVERYTHING YOU COULD POSSIBLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT RICE NOODLES, ACCORDING TO LEELA PUNYARATABANDHU
They often come in several oil-lubricated layers of thin sheets, stacked together, packed in a disposable tray, and covered with plastic wrap. You can find them in the refrigerated section of most well-stocked Asian grocery stores. To prepare them for cooking, you need to cut the whole stack into strips about 1 inch wide and then carefully separate the layers into thin, wide ribbons. Sometimes the noodles come precut and require only that you separate them gently so as not to break them.Purchase fresh rice noodles in small batches and use them right away, as they lose their suppleness and flexibility quickly on refrigeration. They must never be frozen. If you are ever stuck with old, doughy, hard fresh rice noodles, cut them into strips and separate them into strands as instructed above, then blanch them for no more than 10 seconds in boiling water before cooking.
If you cannot find fresh rice noodles, buy the widest dried rice sticks (9 millimeters/about 1 wide) you can find. It is important to remember that you cannot simply soak these wide dried rice noodles until pliable in the same way you prepare thinner dried rice sticks for pad thai . You need to boil them in a large amount of water, as you would dried Italian pasta, and then drain them, rinse off any excess starch, drain them again, and use them like fresh rice noodles. Once cooked, dried wide rice noodles double in volume. Therefore, if a recipe calls for 1 pound of fresh wide rice noodles, you need 8 ounces of dried wide rice noodles to yield 1 pound of cooked noodles, which can be used the same way as fresh wide rice noodles.

Reprinted from Simple Thai Food by Leela Punyaratabandhu. (10 Speed Press, 2014).

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