Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’

Magnified Procrastination

August 16, 2015
By Holly Jennings

I thought I was way past it: that thing of avoiding doing something a little bit, and then a little bit more, and then again and yet again, until the thing you’ve left untended and the space of silent absence that surrounds it becomes magnified and more awkward to return to by the day. I’m like that wayward parent who skips out on a child’s rearing, not stepping back in until years later. That’s me, stepping back into this blog one year and seven months from my latest posting.

 

I just vanished. The truth is I succumbed to full-time job and then to magnified procrastination.

 

It’s not a coincidence that the date of my last posting coincides with the same week that I started a full-time+ work-from-home editing job. I don’t know how some people find the energy to blog regularly (when those blog postings include recipe testing and development, writing, and photography) and keep a full-time job, let alone have children or any kind of social life. It’s impressive! I don’t have children or a hugely active social life. No, it was working full-time at a job at home alone that requires sitting in front of a computer and making heavy use of my brain that made even the idea of sitting longer still in front of the computer to write and post those writings, rather than getting out and about and speaking other humans, entirely unappealing.

 

That was then and now, happily, I’ve been able to cut back a bit on my day-job hours, so I’m ready to end the vanishing game.

 

For the time being I will not be resurrecting the cookbook club exactly as it was when I lived in Vermont; instead I will write periodic postings about the food of my surroundings, the Piedmont region of Virginia and sometimes beyond (most likely with the compass pointed a little bit east or west or further south). Books will continue to play a big role; they are how I make my living, one of the things I love dearly in the material world, and one of the things I love to share with you.

 

I will leave the information about starting and running a cookbook club in place on the blog for others to use who (more…)


Jerusalem: A Cookbook (and a great “ROI”)

August 16, 2013
By Holly Jennings

JERUSALEM
A Cookbook
by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi
Ten Speed Press
320 pp. $35.00

 

Here’s what DCCC members have to say about Jerusalem:

 

LOVED everything that was made—both by me and the other club members.
—Sherri, DCCC member

 

This was my favorite cookbook so far and favorite menu. Food is not only beautiful, it’s delicious, healthy and not too hard to make.
—Lisa, DCCC member

 

I am a HUGE fan of anything related to Ottolenghi. My husband & I go to their restaurants every time we are in London. I now own all 3 of their cookbooks & love everything about them. The tone, history, culture, photos & of course the inspiring recipes.
—Leslie, DCCC member

 

I love Jerusalem, how ethnic it is and delicious the recipes are. It’s one of my favorite cookbooks now. And I love that it isn’t just straight up recipes. There was so much culture in it, too.
—Jennifer, DCCC member

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

For a long time I didn’t feel I had much to add to the talk about Jerusalem, except for more of the same exuberating adulation along the lines of “Wow, this is a wonderful cookbook. I don’t think there’s a single bad recipe in it. The food is fantastic—very flavorful and reasonably easy to make.” For this reason I’ve dragging my feet, waiting for something to percolate. I mean just saying “Gee, this book is great” doesn’t make for much of review.

 

I, like everyone else who picks up the book, was immediately seduced by its soft, puffy cover and the gorgeous food photography by Jonathan Lovekin and the lively street photography by Adam Hinton. Clearly Lovekin is one of the best food photographers in the world because upon first flipping through the book, I found myself saying “I want to make that, and that, and that . . .”

 

Once drawn in, next comes skimming the recipes. The theme is irresistible, and is hard to sum up in just a few words. Here is snapshot: Ingredients like sour lemon and tart sumac and tangy yogurt, sweet sun-ripe tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, fruity and meltingly soft eggplant, bitter greens, caramelized onions, and any number of other fantastic vegetables, including the au curant fennel bulb, are intermingled with a heady mix of spices, many aromatic, to either create meat-not-missed vegetable acts or dishes layered with the deeply resonant flavors and fatty textures of meats, fish, or chicken, or perhaps simply labne, tahini sauce, or olive oil. Add to this a jack-in-box flavor boost provided by one of the many piquant condiments in the back of the book, and you have flavor that is screamingly good.

 

Is this why the book has resonated with so many people? I’ve cooked screamingly good food from other cookbooks, so that in and of itself doesn’t seem to be it. No, I think the secret to its success is a highly favorable exchange rate, or what my financial copy writing and excellent punster boyfriend said could be referred to as the ROI. In the financial world this stands for “return on investment.” In the cooking world? Return on ingredients.

 

Simply put, for the amount of time spent securing ingredients, prepping them, and cooking them, the results you get are exceptional. Sure there is some time involved, but not a ton, and the techniques and recipe steps aren’t complicated. This is probably because at its heart Jerusalem is a cookbook of traditional foods, though in many cases tweaked and modernized by Chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. And traditional cooking, unlike chef cooking, is home cooking.

 

Barring a sampling of traditional dishes, however, like the basic hummus and falafel, I have a feeling that the food of Jerusalem is not your ordinary Israeli home cooking. My guess is that the genius of Ottolenghi and Tamimi lies in their ability to overlay an array of sensational flavors—complex and nuanced and satisfying, delighting the mouth and belly of Western eaters—onto the structure of home cooking techniques, maintaining a perfect balance between the spirit of the home-grown foods of Jerusalem and the region and exciting and bold taste sensations that hit a chord with modern, adventurous home cooks and eaters.

 

How do I know this for sure? I don’t. I’ve never been to Israel, and I haven’t interviewed Ottolenghi and Tamimi to find out the back story of the book. Partly, it’s spelled out in the recipe headnotes, where they sometimes describe the changes they’ve made to traditional recipes—how they’ve put their stamp on them. But in many cases it’s just hinted at. Nonetheless, their hand in the traditional recipes is there. You sense it and can taste it.

 

I got an idea of how the recipes in Jerusalem may differ from everyday home cooking when I gave a Turkish friend of mine a taste of Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Stuffed Eggplant with Lamb and Pine Nuts—a dish with Turkish roots. After I showed her their recipe for it, her immediate reaction was to wonder why it had so many ingredients and is so rich tasting. Clearly Ottolenghi and Tamimi have added their chef touches, riffing on dishes here and there to make them pleasing to their palates.

 

I started this review by saying that for a long time I felt didn’t have much to say. That’s a little bit of a white lie. I do have a critical comment. I’ve kept it to myself because when everyone is having fun at the party, it’s a drag to be a Debbie Downer. And it is a party. In Vermont, where I live, fried chickpeas are showing up on pub menus, and at restaurants sautéed greens are being slathered in tahini sauce. And food magazines of all stripes are publishing stories about the flavors from part of the world, from Gabriella Gershenson’s “The Promised Land” in Saveur (May, 2013) to Hugh Acheson’s “A Southern Chef in Israel” in Cooking Light (June, 2013).

 

Plus my only criticism is a little difficult to articulate because it’s not of what’s in the book, but rather of what’s missing: a strong, personal voice. It’s not that the writing is bad, or the content boring. Far from it. The writing is competent and the story of two men, one Jewish and one Muslim, living in the very charged and often divided atmosphere of Jerusalem but united through food is compelling. And there are some wonderful turns of phrase. I love how they emphasize the importance of the sun in their cooking and the ingredients they use. Referring to the quality of the vegetables used in Fattoush, they write: “They must be fresh, ripe, and flavorsome, with many hours in the sun behind them.”

 

It’s simply that I don’t feel the presence of a voice, or a personality, to connect with or warm up to. The opposite is true of many previous DCCC picks: The Art of Mexican Cooking by Diana Kennedy, Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread by Crescent Dragonwagon, Fat by Jennifer McLagan, Thai Food by David Thompson, Ripe by Nigel Slater,  The New Portuguese Table by David Leite, The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young.

 

In Plenty, Ottolenghi’s previous book, a collection of recipes with short headnotes originally published in a vegetarian column he wrote for the Guardian, you can hear his voice, discern a personality. So, what happened in Jerusalem? Perhaps the explanation lies in the two-author structure. You know what they say about design by committee. Ottolenghi, of the two presumably the one with the greater writing experience, may have taken a back seat to ensure the book was indeed a two-author project. Perhaps they relied on a “ghost writer” to flesh out some passages for expediency. (Note: These are absolutely and completely my own ponderings and musings. They have no basis in fact. I simply like to think about and discuss how books get made.)

 

This doesn’t make Jerusalem a bad cookbook. In fact, it’s a great cookbook. I am certain that I and every DCCC member will return to it again and again. But perhaps it’s a less good book as a result. Ultimately it makes me ask myself what I want in the ideal cookbook. Fantastic recipes are a given, but a distinct voice is an added bonus that makes cooking from it a more personal and richer experience.

 

Like taste, however, voice is subjective, and the voice that’s I’m drawn to may be different from what you or another reader is drawn to. So perhaps one reason why Jerusalem has been so successful is that the writing is sound but largely neutral, thus alienating no one, but the food is lively, bright, and bursting with flavor. As I’m writing this, I’ve just now realized that there is a voice in Jerusalem. Not in the writing, but in the food.

 

In her interesting story “‘Jerusalem’ Has All the Right Ingredients,” published in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, Julia Moskin has tried to get to bottom of why this book, right now, has been so incredibly popular in America. To tell the story of Jerusalem’s popularity, which has spawned the creation of several cookbook clubs, by the way, Moskin puts the book into the context of cookbook publishing as a whole, comparing it to other touchstones—like The Art of Mastering French Cooking and The Silver Palate Cookbook.

 

I held off on reading Moskin’s piece because I didn’t want it to sway my review. And guess what I found? This quote from Ottolenghi sent by email: “Jerusalem’s food is idiosyncratic yet has a clear voice.” For this book, it really is all in the food.

 

A potluck montage: DCCC members and food from JERUSALEM

 

P.S. You will notice that I haven’t included a list of DCCC members’ favorite recipes as I usually do in cookbook reviews. That’s because the list would very, very long. And a long list of recipes is practically as boring as just saying, “Gee, this book is terrific.”


One Wok to Rule the Kitchen

May 01, 2013
By Holly Jennings

Breath of a Wok jacketTHE BREATH OF A WOK
Unlocking the Spirit of Chinese Wok Cooking Through Recipes and Lore
by Grace Young and Alan Richardson
Simon & Schuster
240 pp. $35.00

 

 

One wok runs to the sky’s edge
—Traditional saying

 

These are the first words you will come to in the book The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young. I like this saying, though I’m not sure what it means. I do know, however, that the word one seems important to understanding its meaning. Not in the sense that there is one wok in particular that has the ability to run to the sky’s edge (as in the Tolkien saying “one ring to rule them all”), but that all that is needed to do the job is one wok. In a wok, just one wok, you can do it all: stir-fry, pan-fry, deep-fry, steam, poach, boil, braise, smoke . . . run to the sky’s edge.

 

An appreciation for the amazing versatility of the wok is one of several (more…)


Baking with George Greenstein

February 05, 2013
By Holly Jennings

Jewish Baker jacket

SECRETS OF A JEWISH BAKER
Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World
by George Greenstein
Ten Speed Press
328 pp. $29.99

 

 

 

It has been my experience that many excellent cooks and bakers are intimated by the thought of making bread at home. Yet bread baking can be made simple to understand for the both the novice and the experienced baker.

—George Greenstein

 

Truer words were never said. And they are exactly the sentiments of Sam Heffernan, the member of this club who suggested we do a baking book. She wanted not only to share her love of bread, but also to encourage (more…)


Crowd-Pleasing Portuguese Food

November 22, 2012
By Holly Jennings

THE NEW PORTUGUESE TABLE
Exciting Flavors from Europe’s Western Coast
by David Leite
Clarkson Potter
256 pp. $32.50

 

 

 

 

It’s difficult to please everyone equally in a cookbook club with every cookbook we choose. Each of us has favorite ingredients and flavor combinations, and even cooking techniques that we’re drawn to. But The New Portuguese Table came pretty darn close.

Several members appreciated the fact that the ingredients weren’t too difficult to gather, which hasn’t been true of all of the books we’ve done, and almost everyone enjoyed the meals they made from the book. Several members, myself included, who wrote to the author on his site (Leite’s Culinaria) with questions about this or that appreciated the author’s accessibility and responsiveness.

For myself, I loved the (more…)


The Delights of Gastro-Porn

September 06, 2012
By Holly Jennings

RIPE
A Cook in the Orchard
by Nigel Slater
Ten Speed Press
591 pp. $40.00

 

 

For many, this summer’s read was the phenomenally popular Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James, a soft-porn bondage thriller that has, I have it under good authority, led to an increase in sales of rope in hardware stores.

I got my kicks from reading Ripe by Nigel Slater, a deliciously written bit of (more…)


Fat Words

July 08, 2012
By Holly Jennings

. . . reading about one of nature’s best flavor enhancers

FAT
An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes
By Jennifer McLagan
Ten Speed Press
240 pp. $32.50

When DCCC members picked Fat this spring, I decided to make The Food of Franceby Waverly Root my companion read. This beautiful book—its is spine embellished with golden fleur-de-lis—is organized by butter, fat, and oil.

I got as far as the second page, where I was stopped in my tracks by a sentence so concise and so contemporaneous, even though the book was published in 1958:

“. . . .food is a function of the soil, for which reason every country has the food naturally fit for it.”

Or, said another way by Dan Barber, (more…)


Get Cracking with Thai Food

April 16, 2012
By Holly Jennings

THAI FOOD
By David Thompson
Ten Speed Press
688 pp

David Thompson, author of  Thai Food, doesn’t cut any corners, and he doesn’t expect you to, either. The result? Some of the best Thai food you have had—better than what can be had at most restaurants—prepared right in your own kitchen.

There is a downside, however; the same rigorous recipes that create lively, nuanced food have the potential to leave a trail of disgruntled home cooks in their wake. One DCCC member so disliked the book that she returned it! Those of us who soldiered on all enjoyed the foods we prepared, finding them unlike, and more vibrant than, the more familar and probably overly Westernized version of Thai food we’ve had access to in the States.

There is no question that if you are new to Thai cooking, or even if you’ve done some Thai cooking at home using other cookbooks, you will be challenged when first cooking from this book, which is a truly amazingly, in-depth look at Thai food and Thai culture (the first recipe doesn’t appear until page 191!).

There are multiple reasons why Thai Food is not a walk in the park: ingredients can be difficult to find—particularly if you live in a small town or rural setting, or any place without an Asian population of some size—and there are very few suggested substitutions; for such a complex, text-heavy cookbook, the index could be much better, more complete, and provide more than one way to look up an ingredient or dish; in some cases, the instructions in the recipes proper could be clearer or more (more…)


Extra-Green Thai Green Curry from Crescent Dragonwagon

March 05, 2012
By Holly Jennings

A couple of weeks ago I offered you a cocktail while waiting for dinner. Well, here it is, though not from Thai Food, the current DCCC pick, but from Bean by Bean, the latest cookbook by Crescent Dragonwagon. If that name sounds familiar, and who can forget a name like that?, it’s because she’s the author of another cookbook that was the DCCC pick last Spring. Crescent’s lovely publicist at Workman Publishing, Rebecca Carlysle, my review of that cookbook (click here to read it) and so she decided to send me a copy of Bean by Bean to review, and she has graciously allowed me to include a recipe from the book. Since I know you’re waiting for a Thai meal, and not just Thai-inspired drinking chocolate and cocktails, I picked Crescent’s recipe for green curry with tofu. Read on to get my impression of Crescent’s newest cookbook and for her extra-green curry recipe, shown in the photo above.

BEAN BY BEAN
A COOKBOOK
More than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, even Sweet Beans!
By Crescent Dragonwagon
Workman Publishing
370 pp.

Bean by Bean, an essential guide to preparing and enjoying one of the world’s oldest forms of sustenance, is the latest cookbook from Crescent Dragonwagon, who cultivates beans and readers-turned-happy-cooks-and-satisfied-eaters with equal facility.

If I were a bean, I would feel lucky to be planted in Crescent’s garden, and perhaps even luckier when, at just the right moment, I was picked and taken into her kitchen to be handled with care, appreciation, and love and ultimately transformed into an appetizing and sustaining meal—after all, legumes have (more…)


Cooking Outside the Comfort Zone

January 27, 2012
By Holly Jennings

70 TRADITIONAL AFRICAN RECIPES
Authentic Classic Dishes from all over Africa Adapted for the Western Kitchen
By Rosamund Grant
Southwater Books
96 pp.

In melting-pot America with a choice of restaurants reflecting our global world, it can be difficult for adventurous and seasoned eaters to find entire cuisines, flavor profiles, or ingredients that are wholly new to them. Yet, beyond Ethiopian and Moroccan, most Americans, including DCCC members, surely have little idea of what comprises African cooking. So it is with nearly blank palates, that we approached the most recent DCCC pick.

The flavor, ingredients, and techniques of African cooking took us out of familiar territory, pushing (more…)



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