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Book Review: A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 16, 2014 9 comments

A bone hand holds chopsticks.Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.

Review:
I picked this up because I had previously read Compestine’s book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (review) and when I looked up what else she had written, I was deeply intrigued by the premise.  This is a strong short story collection, featuring diverse yet related short stories, each beautifully written.

The eight short stories are organized into appetizers, main courses, and desserts.  The titles are for the food being served that course, such as “Tea Eggs” or “Long-life Noodles.”  The food mentioned in the title also appears somewhere in the story as a key part of the plot.  It’s a gorgeous way to organize the short stories and makes them also feel like diverse parts of a whole.

The short stories are mostly set in 20th century China, but a couple feature 20th century characters investigating something from the more distant past or being haunted by more ancient ghosts.  One story is set in New York City and features a Chinese-American family.

The stories, universally, quickly establish the setting and characters.  They all subtly teach some aspect of Chinese culture or history.  For instance, one story looks at medicine under Communism in China, while another features preying mantis fights.  At the end of each story, a brief blurb gives further details about two to three aspects of Chinese culture or history featured in the story.  Most surprising, and incredibly welcome, at the end of each short story, Compestine gives a recipe for the featured food!  It reminded me of how cozy mysteries often feature patterns or recipes at the end of the book, only this time the recipes are found in a shorty story horror collection.  Brilliant!

What about the horror aspect of the short stories?  I found them simultaneously plausible and sufficiently scary.  I was a bit on the edge of my seat without being scared out of my wits, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed each of these short stories, from the touch of horror to the settings to the amount I learned about Chinese culture and history to the wonderful recipes.  Highly recommended to anyone with even a moderate interest in China, Chinese culture, or Chinese food.  Even if horror isn’t usually your genre, give these ghosts a chance.  You’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Cookbook Review: Moosewood Restaurant Favorites: The 250 Most-Requested, Naturally Delicious Recipes from One of America’s Best-Loved Restaurants by Moosewood Collective

October 30, 2013 5 comments

Image of tomatoes and peppers with a green banner with the cookbook's name on it.Summary:
Moosewood Restaurant is a famous vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York, founded in the 1970s.  According to their website, they have published twelve cookbooks prior to this one.  This cookbook aims to collect together the recipes that have proven themselves to be the most popular in their restaurant over the last 40 years.

Review:
Moosewood is pretty famous in the vegetarian crowd.  It’s a name most vegetarians have heard, and I know some vegetarian who have even eaten at the restaurant.  I’d always been curious about their cookbooks, so I was excited to see the newest one available on Netgalley.  Given the fame, I was expecting something inspiring and special.  Instead I found a rather ho-hum collection of decidedly average pescetarian recipes.

Moosewood claims everywhere (including on the main page of their website) that they are a vegetarian restaurant.  But they aren’t.  They are pescetarian.  There is an entire fish section in the book.  Calling yourself vegetarian when you’re not is misleading and wrong.  (If you would like to read further on why it’s offensive for pescetarians to call themselves vegetarians, check out this post).  I’m kind of shocked there isn’t more of an outcry in the veg community about this.

The rest of the cookbook (that is actually vegetarian) consists of: appetizers; dips and spreads; soups; sandwiches; burgers; main dish salads; curries and stews; beans; frittatas and pies; casseroles; stuffed vegetables; wraps, rolls, and strudels; tofu; pasta; side salads; sides; side grains; salad dressings; condiments and salsas; sauces and gravies; desserts; baking pan sizes and equivalents; and guide to ingredients and basic cooking.  It’s a huge, long cookbook.  But out of all these recipes, I only found eight I wanted to try.  Usually I want to try at least every other recipe in a cookbook.  The recipes here that failed to spark my interest fell into one of three categories: 1) they were painfully obvious and overly simple 2) they were deeply unhealthy, swimming in cups of oil, heavy cream, and tons of eggs or 3) they weren’t vegetarian because they contained fish.

Some examples of the painfully obvious include quinoa with veggies, basic chili, thai vegetable curry, and black bean sweet potato burritos.  You don’t need a cookbook from a famous restaurant to give you these recipes.  I’d say otherwise if there was anything about their recipes that at least made them a variation of the norm, but I have seen the same thing over and over again in multiple recipes in cookbooks, blogs, and websites.

As for the unhealthy recipes, beyond the already mentioned high fat and an unnecessary quantity of eggs, there were things like the suggestion to top your corn on the cob with mayonnaise.  Or the fact that most of their dressing recipes contained 1/4 to 3/4 cup of oil.  The recipes routinely don’t take a well-rounded diet into consideration.  Protein doesn’t get enough attention. For instance, a vegetarianized jambalaya recipe has zero protein in it.  And perhaps it’s not unhealthy, but I found it very odd that a restaurant’s cookbook called for canned pumpkin for their pumpkin pie.

Image of two tupperware containers on a white cuttingboard. The containers contains multicolored salad.On the plus side, the cookbook is well-organized and illustrated with beautiful pictures.  Although, the recipes are written out in paragraph form.  I generally prefer a numbered list.  But this is a personal preference, and the recipes are easy enough to follow.

I have made one of the eight recipes I selected out as possibilities so far.  I made the Winter Salad Plate (page 110).  Since the recipe states it serves 8 as a side salad and my intention was to have it as a side salad with egg sandwiches with my partner and a friend, I halved the recipe.  Also, since I didn’t have greens from my CSA that week, I replaced the greens with more root vegetables.  The consensus was it was yummy, but the dressing needed a touch of bitterness like a vinegar and less oil.  I don’t mind having to adapt a recipe a bit to get it just right but with a high-quality cookbook you don’t have to do that.

In spite of the shortcomings, the recipes do indeed work, and the cookbook is well organized and prettily illustrated.  Recommended to pescetarians and omnivores who don’t cook a lot, so the recipes would be less familiar to them, who also don’t mind a high fat/oil and low protein content in their food.  Also recommended to long-time fans of Moosewood.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The Long Quiche Goodbye by Avery Aames (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Artistic drawing of a cheese shop.Summary:
Charlotte Bessette is ecstatic that her slightly eccentric French grandfather and grandmother have handed over the running of their small town cheese shop to her and her cousin, Matt.  She and Matt have redecorated the place for the 21st century and have added a wine annex.  Everyone is excited for the grand re-opening but when their landlord turns up dead on their doorstep stabbed with one of their cheese knives and Charlotte’s grandmother standing over him, both the shop and the family are at risk.

Review:
Cozies are, by their very nature, absolutely ridiculous and difficult to explain. I generally default to an explanation like, “It’s murder! With arts and crafts and cooking! But not too much blood and no sex! And the titles are puns!” At this point the person I’m talking to generally looks at me like I’m nuts and wanders off.  But even though the cozy genre is ridiculous and tough to explain, there are things that work for it and things that don’t.  This book is definitely a cozy but it combines the cozy elements oddly, making it fall short of awesome into the decidedly meh category.

Most cozies have a moderately ridiculous plot involving a dead body being found and a woman ultimately amateur investigating the crime.  The crime in this one was odd.  A landlord who nobody likes is stabbed directly in front of the cheese shop on grand reopening night. Oh, and he’s stabbed with a cheese knife.  Sometimes I think authors just don’t research and realize how hard it actually is to stab someone in the chest.  A cheese knife wouldn’t cut it. (See what I did there?)  So that had me rolling my eyes from the start.  The ultimate whodunit was also a bit bizarre and had me scratching my head.  It made some sense but it also sort of felt a bit like the author just chose whoever would be the most surprising as the killer, instead of really thinking through the logic and motivation.  It’s also a bit problematic to have the murder victim be some sleaze everybody in town hates.  This felt like a choice to give the mystery more easy suspects rather than, again, based on thinking through logic, motivation, and real crimes.

Then there’s the issue of the main character, Charlotte, who ultimately investigates.  She doesn’t really have the get up and go gumption necessary for someone to start investigating something on her own.  She’s….kind of snooty and prissy.  A good cozy main character should be into her arts and crafts but also possess a lot of independent spirit and gumption.  Charlotte is surrounded by people like that–her grandmother, her shop employee–but she herself isn’t like that at all.  Yes, her grandmother is accused of a crime she didn’t commit and that’s a big impetus to do something, but it just feels out of character for Charlotte to do investigation.  Similarly, Charlotte’s romantic interest felt forced and fake, which was awkward.  In a genre where we get no sex scenes, the romance should be very well done, which it was there, but it wasn’t truly engaging.

The quirky characters in the town, besides Charlotte and her love interest, were interesting and just the right blend of quirks and reality to suit a cozy.  Similarly, I was glad to see some cheese-heavy recipes in the back.  I also thought the pun title was great and played in well to the mystery without giving too much away.

Personally, I think there are better, more engaging and funny cozy series out there to invest my time in.  However, if you are a huge cozy fan and don’t mind the oddly snooty, timid main character and a slightly silly mystery plot, then you should give it a go.  The cheese angle is certainly unique.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Deadly Row to Hoe by Cricket McRae (Series, #6)

November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

Summary:
Sophie Mae and her best friend decided to join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) as soon as the opportunity popped up in their small town.  One day when they’re volunteering at the farm, a dead body is found in the compost heap.  Sophie Mae is determined not to get involved this time, after all, she’s got enough on her plate with her soap making business and trying to make a baby with her husband, Detective Barr.  But Barr’s boss asks her to help identify the body by talking to the folks in the community , and she just can’t say no.

Review:
Cozy mysteries consist of a mystery (that’s not too explicit or bloody) paired with an unlikely investigator, some sort of crafting, a good dose of humor, and a punny title.  In other words, they were basically made for me.  (Some even come with recipes!)  So when this one popped up on NetGalley, I snatched it up, and I’m so glad I did!  McRae successfully pulls together everything that makes a cozy great.

The plot is excellent.  The murder mystery isn’t too gory, but is also realistic.  The body is found in a compost heap, yes, but it’s just a dead body.  There aren’t slashed off heads hanging out in tea kettles or something.  Everyone is appropriately disturbed by the finding.  There’s no ho-hum just another day element at play.  Although I admit I had figured out whodunit before the end, the why and when were still a mystery.  Plus I never felt that Sophie Mae was being stupid and just missing something.  Why it was taking her a bit to see whodunit made total sense.  I also really appreciate that GLBTQ people are included in the plot without a big deal being made out of it.  They are just another character, which is just how I like my diversity in genre literature.

The characters are fairly three-dimensional for a cozy.  Everyone had something I liked and didn’t like about their personality, even the heroine, which is key to characters seeming realistic.  There were also a wide variety of people present from Sophie Mae’s best friend’s daughter to an elderly friend of the family.  This range is something that is often missing in literature, and I liked seeing it here.

What I really come to cozies for, though, I admit, is the integration of crafting.  In this case the theme is participating in a CSA, so parts of the book are devoted to how a CSA works from acquiring your weekly allotment to figuring out how to use it to cooking with it.  I really appreciated the quips about having so much of a certain produce that they’re coming out your ears.  I also really enjoyed the scenes that discussed taking real time out to cook dinner and what that feels like, such as talking about how garlic smells when you first throw it into a hot pan.  I know not all readers enjoy this, but honestly that’s part of the point of a cozy.  Taking the time to linger on crafts and talents that take time to cultivate but are well worth it, and McRae incorporated this element very smoothly into the book.  I do wish some recipes or CSA tips had been included, but it’s possible I just didn’t see them since I had an advanced copy.

Overall this book has a dash of everything enjoyable about a cozy mystery.  Recommended to cozy fans, particularly those in or considering a CSA.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Previous Books in Series:
Lye in Wait
Heaven Preserve Us
Spin a Wicked Web
Something Borrowed, Something Bleu
Wined and Died

Cookbook Review: Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World by Gil Mars

June 12, 2012 1 comment

Fruits and vegetables with olive oil.Summary:
Just as the title implies, this is a collection of recipes from Jewish communities around the world that are suitable for vegetarians.

Review:
Vegans beware. When this says it’s a vegetarian cookbook, it really means it!  Almost every recipe is drenched in animal products, primarily dairy and eggs.

The Introduction explains the various food cultures that have sprung up in Jewish communities around the world, complete with maps and such.  This part was fascinating, although I felt that it was a bit too Old Wold focused.  I know for instance that there are strong Jewish cultures in Argentina and Brooklyn, but they are not included in the book.

After the Introduction is an explanation of vegetarian foods incorporated into Jewish holidays.  I found this part rather averagely done and skimmed over it.

The recipes are oddly divided up.  The chapters are: cheese and dairy spreads; pickles, marinated vegetables, and relishes; salads; soups; savory pastries; cooked vegetable dishes; vegetable stews; legumes; grains; dumplings and pasta; eggs; sauces and seasonings.  As you can tell, some of the recipes are put together based on the type of dish (salad, soup) and others based on the ingredients (eggs, legumes).  This makes the book appear disorganized.  Also the complete lack of dessert is sad.

Beyond the maps in the Introduction, there are no pictures.  Additionally, the recipes are mostly designed to serve 6 to 8.  I’m not sure what planet the author is from, but that is not a typical family sized meal in America.  I must admit, that I didn’t try any of the recipes because I couldn’t find a single one I wanted to try.  They are all completely swimming in cholesterol and insane food portion sizes.  Looking at the soups, which should presumably be a healthier option, the Persian Onion Soup on page 123 contains 3 eggs and the Hungarian Cream of Mushroom Soup on page 125 contains TWO CUPS of sour cream.  Similarly, almost all of the breads and pastries are fried.  My cholesterol practically spiked just looking at the cookbook.

Essentially, then, this book is a good introduction to Old World style Jewish food but ignores the healthier options that I know from experience exist in Jewish communities in the Americas.  It is difficult to enjoy the cookbook since there are no pictures or colors.  Additionally, all of the recipes are designed for 6 to 8 servings, which is a bit large for the typical American household.  Overall, then, I would recommend this book to those with a vested interest in Jewish culture and cuisine who can see past the dull layout and design of the cookbook.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Cookbook Review: Living Cuisine: The Art and Spirit of Raw Foods by Renee Loux Underkoffler

May 10, 2012 3 comments

Image of raw sushi with yellow lettering.Summary:
With an intro endorsement from actor Woody Harrelson, who just so happens to also be vegan, Chef Renee Loux Underkoffler seeks to present not just the ins and outs of raw cooking, but also the beauty in it.

Review:
So, I picked up a copy of this via Better World Books back when a close friend and I were getting into trying some new raw food recipes.  They’re great in the summer for a change from salads when you want something cool, fresh, and healthy to eat.  Plus, I’m always interested in learning more, so I was excited to see that Underkoffler provided more than just recipes, but also chapters featuring the benefits of the various raw ingredients and preparation techniques.  Unfortunately, ultimately this cookbook really did not work for me.

First there’s the fact that a book seeking to show the beauty of raw foods has zero color pictures and almost no black and white illustrations.  It is almost entirely straight text.  Very unattractive in a cookbook!

Second, the background information goes on for an excruciatingly long time.  The recipes do not start until page 261 of the book!  And as much as I like learning more about some veggies and fruits, it felt like information overload to me.  If I really wanted to know all the properties of every fruit and vegetable out there, I’d become a nutritionist.  Knowing the basics, such as what is provided by the scientists in DASH–lots of servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables are good for you–that’s really all the consumer needs to know.  Well, that and how to properly assemble the foods for the right tastes and textures.

So I was pleased to get to the recipes, but only found three that I found to be at all doable by me.  The rest required either an insane amount of prep time, special tools, or special ingredients that even with all of my grocery options in a city like Boston I was unable to even fathom where I would find them.  (Vegans should also note that the recipes make abundant use of raw honey).

I, admittedly, have yet to try the three recipes I did find, primarily because they all require a blender, and mine is broken.  I did save them to try in the summer during a hot spell of a week.  But even if Underkoffler’s recipes are delicious, they are overly involved and intimidating, even to someone like myself who cooks a ton.  I suppose her market might be raw chefs, but then why have the entire beginning of the book be toned toward beginners with no idea what’s in fruits and vegetables?  The book is a bit of a mystery to me, honestly.

Ultimately, although the title of the cookbook is lovely, the recipes and content themselves are not.  Underkoffler’s cookbook lacks a true direction.  It is unclear if her target audience is talented raw chefs or the average American developing an interest in raw foods.  As such, neither audience is properly served.  I would not recommend starting with this book if you have a new interest in raw cooking, but chefs may be interested in flipping through the recipes in the back to see if any are new ideas to them.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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