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Building Your Cookbook Library Vol. I

3 Oct

People keep asking which cookbooks they should buy. If you take a look at the photo below, you can see I am as good as person to ask as any! So I decided I would do a few posts about how to practically build your cookbook library.

It should be noted that the photo below was taken after I tossed over 50 cookbooks… and the books are stacked on these shelves two deep… and I am not showing the myriad cookbooks in various bookshelves all over the house… nor the two large drawers under the shelf in the photo that are filled to the brim.

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a small part of my cookbook collection, 2 deep

It’s true, I have a cookbook addiction.

Not only are cookbooks worth buying because, well, you know, you can cook great food from them, the best cookbooks open up different parts of the world. Even better, the best cookbooks are not only about food but about exquisite and passionate writing. There are few things I love to read more than a chef writing vividly about their love for food and their approach to food. Reading cookbooks is a big de-stresser for me. I can get lost in them for hours.

For starters, we need to be semi-practical. I will later do another post about more exotic cookbooks. For this post, I want to recommend the books I return to over and over and over again. Each one has terrific recipes that are for the most part practical and simple, recipes you will make again and again. These books are all terrific references for anything you might need. If you have just these cookbooks I list in this post, and no other, you will enjoy years of amazing food.

FAVORITES

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I’ve written before about a cookbook that changed my life, Patricia Wells at Home In Provence. Read the entire post to find out my experience with both this book and this wonderful woman. Know, however, that the book is filled with easy, glorious dishes that will transform your table and, additionally, your approach to cooking. If you can find a copy of the original book, cover shown above, I highly recommend it as it is a beautiful book. I am including a photo of the original copy of my book, which proves how much I return to it.

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I’ve used this book quite a bit…

Among many favorites in this book, Patricia’s Gratin Dauphinois recipe (potatoes au gratin) is a divine version I make for every holiday meal.

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I also wrote lovingly about Suzanne Goin and her cornbread, the best ever invented. She, too, is a chef that changed how I thought about cooking and food. Her book Sunday Suppers at Lucques is filled with marvelous food I’ve cited many times before on this blog. Two standouts of many, many killer recipes are her Devil’s Chicken Thighs with Braised Leeks (you can simply make the leeks as well, they are great as is and are usually on my holiday table) and her Braised Beef Stew. Check this link for a few more recipes… the 5 recipes in the link are recipes I make all the time. The tart is a go-to I make constantly.

REFERENCE

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Originally self-published in 1932, Joy Of Cooking is an amazing reference book that not only has been on the best seller list since it’s original publication, it was updated yet again in 2006 for a modern diet and kitchen. Filled with recipes of every kind, it is often my ‘go-to’ book when I need to make something I’ve never tried, or want a dependable, tasty recipe for just about anything. The Blue Cheese Dressing recipe , for instance, cannot be beat. Same for the Hunter’s Chicken recipe, a variation on Chicken Cacciatore which my friend Tiffiny makes for me whenever I ask… and I ask often as it has become one of my favorite dishes to eat in all the world. If you need one bible of recipes and cooking tips, Joy Of Cooking is the one to get.

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To make things confusing, another excellent reference is Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, which pretty much sums up the book. While I would choose Joy of Cooking if I could only have one, Bittman’s is another amazing reference and has smart, concise information on all kinds of things.

What I love about these two books is how helpful they are when you are faced with something new. Never poached an egg? No problem, grab one of these books. From basics such the best way to boil pasta to much more advanced techniques, you can cook many wonderful meals with either of these books alone.

DEPENDABLE

There are two chefs/authors I return to over and over because they are so damned dependable: Ina Garten and Jamie Oliver. With my cookbook obsession, I have bought quite a few heralded cookbooks that turned out to be major disappointments. I give a new cookbook about 5 chances.  If I cook 5 recipes from it that don’t turn out so great, something is going wrong with the book. With Ina and Jamie, however, I don’t think I have ever encountered a recipe by either that has been anything less than stellar. Besides being so dependable, they both seem to be smart, lovely people.

What I would give for a day in the kitchen with either!

The only problem is which book of each person to buy as they each have so many great books! While you can’t go wrong whatever you pick up, let me give you the one book by each I grab off the shelf most of all.

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Ina smartly published this book, Back To Basics, in 2008 and I’ve been using it frequently ever since. It contains a little bit of everything and each bit of everything is delicious.

Two favorites from this book: Ina’s Omelet for Two is something I make at least once if not twice a week. The recipe is an excellent base for trying other ingredients and flavor combinations though it is perfect just the way it is. It is baked in the oven, so it is easier than a normal omelet and has a better texture. I also love this Baked Shrimp Scampi, which I’ve started making most every New Year’s Eve as well as other nights during the year.

 

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Simply put, Jamie Oliver is a stud. From his work with disadvantaged youth to his crusading for better food for schoolchildren, he is someone I’ve admired for a long time. His books are a blast as well! Of all the books, I love Jamie At Home the best. Not only are the recipes outstanding, the book is an excellent reference with even sections on planting and growing your own produce.

Two favorites from this book are Jamie’s Proper Chicken Caesar Salad, which my buddy Keith asks for every time he comes to my house (we had it by request yet again last Saturday), and Jamie’s Creamy Rice Pudding with the Quickest Strawberry Jam. I didn’t even know I liked Rice pudding until I tried this, which I made more for the jam part than the pudding part. Wow. It is great!

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a snapshot from Jamie At Home

 

PASSION

Finally, two favorites elevated not only by the brilliance of their food, but the passion of their writing, which is always a joy to read.

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A chef I’ve written about before is Nigel Slater. His writing has become a bit of an obsession for me, I have worked my way through almost all of his books. He is funny, smart, tart… and wow is his food good! The best book to get for your first bit of Slater is Tender, which I wrote about here. This, too, is a reference book, divided alphabetically by vegetable. (It has tons of meat dishes in it, don’t worry.) If you have some cabbage and need an idea, turn to Cabbage. You get a history of the veg, how to grow it, how to store it, and then you get innumerable versions. The section for each vegetable is the same. What a great cookbook! I love this man. 

Two of many recipes I love are his Eggplant Gratin and his Baked Peppers for a Summer Lunch.

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Last but not least is the goddess Nigella Lawson. Hot damn, does this woman know how to write! Her books are filled with humor as delectable as her food. She also writes with a wild passion that fires me up. My favorite, for all these reasons, is  How To Eat.  This is probably my favorite cookbook to simply read. There is much knowledge here, it is a very good reference book. But the writing is a blast. One of my favorite things Ms. Lawson does is encourage the home cook to relax, don’t worry what happens, and she often structures her recipes so you can ‘have a bath and a glass of wine’ while something is cooking. Madame, come on over.

All right! A starter list for even the best home cook. You cannot go wrong with any of these books! I would love to hear from you your favorites. And in a few months, I will be back with more….

Summer Reading 2014

10 Jul

Time for another yearly post that is always popular: summer book recommendations. I’ve been tearing through a stack of novels the last few weeks and have come across some true finds. Hopefully there will be one or two you might find as enjoyable.

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some of the books I am reading this summer

MICHAEL KORTYA

I have two picks from Michael Kortya, whose two last novels, The Prophet and Those Who Wish Me Dead, are terrific. The Prophet, in fact, is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

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Michael Kortya signing copies of The Prophet

One critic described The Prophet as a cross between Friday Night Lights and In Cold Blood. I could not put it better myself so I’m stealing it here. The novel is a thriller about a killer stalking people in a small town. But the book is really about two estranged brothers, one the popular high school football coach, who warily come together in an attempt to solve the mystery. The book was very, very suspenseful and quite emotional as well. I found myself rather verklempt at the end. The guy can also write one hell of an exciting football game! This is a perfect summer read. It’s a great thriller but it’s much more than that, I found it a deep and emotionally resonant novel that goes way beyond the thriller genre. The Prophet is a great novel, period.

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Kortya’s next novel, the recently released Those Who Wish Me Dead, is an exemplary summer thriller, the kind the cliched phrase ‘Don’t start it unless you have time, you will not be able to put this down!” was made for. It starts off with a bang and never lets up. (I think that also is one of those cliched phrases.) Ignore the bad literary criticism and check this one out, I loved it. 

ORDINARY GRACE

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William Kent Krueger’s latest novel quietly blew me away. If you’ve read Peace Like A River (and if you haven’t, stop everything you are doing right now and read it, you must!) imagine Peace but with a mystery layered into the mix. “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child…” starts the novel and there is indeed a lot of death. Don’t let that deter you, Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written coming of age novel, written from the 1st person perspective of the son of the town pastor. Krueger grapples intelligently with God, faith and, yes, grace, but without a trace of sentimentality. It’s a tough novel but not tough to read, if that makes sense. The mystery keeps it driving forward and the richness of Krueger’s writing is continually surprising. To Kill A Mockingbird also kept coming to mind though here the narrator is a teen, not a child. Ordinary Grace is a wonderful novel that makes me excited for Krueger’s next. Oh and it just won the Edgar Award for Best Novel of the year. It’s that good.

REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS

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And here we have another ‘wow’. The most emotionally devastating novel of the bunch, Remember Me Like This is a gorgeously written, deeply nuanced novel about a family grappling with the disappearance of their teenage son. It’s not what you would anticipate from that pitch-line, however. One of the many twists is that the novel starts four years after the boy disappeared. Rather than watch the family implode when the boy cannot be found, we start well after the implosion: where most novels would end, this one begins as all hell once again breaks loose in a surprising way. Also a mystery of sorts, it’s an extremely involving narrative that keeps wrenching your heart with revelations and conflict. Set in Corpus Christi, Texas, I can heartily affirm the author nailed the milieu perfectly, given I myself grew up on the gulf coast of Texas. Bret Anthony Johnston’s first novel, Remember Me is the announcement of an extraordinary talent.

MR. MERCEDES

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And then there is Stephen King’s latest. I don’t know how the man does it over and over but this novel is so $#%* awesome, just like his last two novels, Sir King is getting his own entire blog post coming up next, The Grand Romances of Stephen King. That’s right, The Grand Romances of Stephen King is the title, I’ve already started it, but feel free to run get this novel as fast as you can. Mr. Mercedes is, ahem, a killer.

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Have you any books you’ve read this summer you recommend? Let us know in the comments section below. As always, thanks for reading!

My 2013 Review

30 Dec

I’m having a difficult time believing it is ‘that time of year’ again. Time seems to move so fast. 2013 may have zipped by much too quickly but not without encountering great food and film that deserves mention. Behold, my second annual ‘best of’ list, with the usual extras.

FILM

Movies first! 2013 was terrific for cinema. Sure there were a few absolute train wrecks, including one of the worst movies ever, ever, ever made. It’s about a lawyer everyone calls counselor and a drug deal and beheadings and sex with — not on — a car, and long rambling monologues that make you want to shoot yourself in the head. It’s so bad, like Lord V, it is the movie that must not be named.

Still, I’ve been blessed to see many terrific, often wildly original movies. My favorites:

PRISONERS

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Intense, brutal, devastating, demanding. Prisoners is not the feel good movie of the year, which is one the reasons, even though it received excellent reviews, it is being overlooked in many ‘best of’ lists. Don’t make a mistake and miss this methodical, intricate, morally complex mystery. Why is it so good? First there’s the script: rarely have I encountered a script so tightly woven. Each word and every plot point matters, there is nothing extraneous. The script also packs an emotional wallop and works on many levels. It’s a surprising mystery with red herrings galore, a very complex morality tale with no easy answers (it’s up to the audience to draw conclusions regarding the characters and their actions) and it is a piercing character study, with some of the best acting of the year. Hugh Jackman is astounding. The guy is of course insanely talented. I’ve seen him twice on stage singing his heart out, charming everyone in view. I’ve seen him dark and mysterious. But I never suspected he could go to the angry emotional depths of this film. His performance is ferocious and dangerous, keeping the movie on a trigger wire. He’s matched by Jake Gyllenhaal who has the less showy role but whose work is just as deep and profound. Prisoners had me so overwrought on first viewing I almost left the theatre towards the end, my stomach was in such knots over the possible outcomes of the story. When it was over, I left the theatre and went straight to a bar for a shot of whiskey to calm down. That may not be the most enticing recommendation, given we usually go to the movies for fun and frivolity. Trust me. If you have not yet seen it, check it out. Not only do the intricacies of the mystery hold up on repeated viewing, it will resonate deep into your soul.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

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I didn’t think any movie could match Prisoners as ‘best of the year.’ And then I saw The Coen Brothers latest. Like most Coen Brothers movies, Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. The movie focuses on one of the most dislikable characters ever to be seen in a motion picture, at least on paper. Llewyn Davis is a dick. The movie does little to redeem him. Which makes the lead performance of Oscar Issac that much more astounding. Issac somehow keeps us interested and engaged in Llewyn, as do the innumerable gifts of The Coens, two of the best filmmakers ever. Ever. Every scene is perfection. The movie is stunningly shot, the directing spot on. T-Bone Burnett supervised the music, so of course the music is incredible… and I don’t even like folk music! The acting across the board is as good as can be. (Is there anything better in life than John Goodman delivering Coen Bros. dialogue? I think not.) Somehow, even though the main character is an asshole and the plot a bit of a downer, the movie was joy to me. I laughed constantly, happy to watch such impeccable filmmaking. I also loved what the movie had to say about art, the struggle to be an artist and also the struggle to live. Beautifully crafted and surprisingly rich in meaning, this ranks with the Coen Brothers best. 

For an excellent, relatively spoiler free 7 minute video about the making of the film and the music, click here.

Click the link for many more picks!

Continue reading

Summer Picks 2013

6 Jun

We are back! Thanks much for the patience, the Cinema Language seminar was such a success we are doing it yet again in November. In the meantime, I want to give you a few recommendations to get you through the summer. No food this time, as we have a lot of food upcoming, including a ‘Food on the 4th’ menu.

It’s been a great Spring for reading, at least for me. I’ve been blessed with one terrific novel after another. What better time to have a few good books to read than in the summer! Here are a few good reads to get you through:

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

 I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

                                                                                                                           Hazel Lancaster

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I am a little behind on this one. The Fault In Our Stars by John Green made a big splash last year and the film adaptation is in full swing. If you have not yet read it, Get. This. Book. It’s a stunner. Time Magazine’s #1 Fiction Pick for 2012, this book is frequently hilarious, wonderfully romantic and absolutely devastating, sometimes all at once. Yes, the novel is about a 17 year old girl, Hazel, who has cancer. But don’t let that deter you, it’s an easy, thoroughly enjoyable read. Easy as it is, the prose is beautiful and remarkably profound. The Fault In Our Stars was so good that when I finished it, I flipped back to page one and read it again. It’s that good.

A quick aside: this book makes me wonder who determines how books are classified. The Fault In Our Stars is marketed as a ‘young adult’ novel, yet it is one of the more adult and thematically mature books I’ve read in a long while. It’s not that teens shouldn’t be reading it! I’m thrilled they are reading it and that it was so popular. But the ‘young adult’ designation certainly deters some adult readers. It did me. Some people say the designation is because of the age of the main character. Hmph. Just because it’s about a 17 year old girl shouldn’t automatically make it a ‘teen novel’.  To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t a children’s novel just because Scout is a child. I’m curious about this, given so many ‘teen novels’ seem anything but. I said the same thing about the brilliant “Hunger Games” trilogy, a must read if you haven’t yet. That trilogy is one of the darkest and most morally complex stories in print. ‘Teen Novels’? No way. At any rate, do not let that designation cause you to stumble with Fault. Read this book!

NOS4A2

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NOS4A2, published in April, is also one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read in a long time. If I wasn’t so amazed at his talent, I would be green with envy over Joe Hill. This is his third novel: three novels in a row, each novel was one of the best of its year. Damn, can this guy write!

Continue reading

Labor Day Food and Film

31 Aug

Another holiday weekend has arrived. Memorial Day weekend last, I drove through six national parks on the way from LA to Chicago with one of my best friends. This weekend? I’ll be marathoning… a Homeland marathon, a Sherlock Marathon and a Downton Abbey marathon. It’s couch potato city with what I am told are the three best TV shows currently available. I’ll keep you posted on the Facebook page.

I imagine many of you will be a little more active. Whatever the case, as with Memorial Day, I wanted to give you food and film and also some books to help you enjoy your weekend.

First, Food:

I’ve written once already about Suzanne Goin, an amazing chef and restaurateur who has created some of my favorite dishes in the world. The recipe below might be my top of the tops. No holiday weekend is complete without grilling and what could be better to grill but burgers? What also could be better than pork? Goin’s pork burgers are the best burgers I have ever had, bar none. And I’ve had, oh, one or two. These burgers take a little prep and work but trust me, the end result is worth a little extra effort. As Food Gal writes, (thank you to Food Gal for this link to the recipe) Goin’s pork burgers are “Heaven on A Bun”.

Click here for the recipe and the remaining choices!

Summer Reading 2012

21 Jun

Summer is upon us. For many this means an excuse to pick up some books. I pretty much throw books at anyone who breathes. There are few things better than discovering a book so good you find your own world disappearing as you lose yourself in the author’s world. As this happened to me just this week, I figured I would give you some choices: five (and a half) books I stand behind 100%, including one hot off the presses. I’ve tried to include something for everyone, there are a variety of genres represented here, but whatever your preferences, give any or all of them a chance. I lost myself in each of these novels and have read all but the new one more than once. (Click the underlined titles for links to the books)

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU by Jonathan Tropper

Click here for all the recommendations

You Must Read This! Vol. 1

18 May

While my earliest memory as a child was watching a movie, memories of holding a book occur almost immediately after.  I grew up surrounded by books, everywhere. Both my parents were huge bibliophiles. It was rare that either didn’t have a book in hand or at least close by. Additionally, Mom was a teacher and taught my brother and me to read by the age of three. She often told us, “I never want to hear you say I’m bored.” Pointing at one of our house’s numerous bookshelves, she’d continue, “There’s a wonderful world for you right there. You never have to be bored.” Her advice definitely took hold and we became a family that read together all the time.

My brother David went off into non-fiction land, at one point reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica straight through. Yes, he is that smart and no, you never ever ever want to play Trivial Pursuit with him. Talk about trivial pursuits (rim shot!) 

I loved fiction myself and was devouring books early. Yes, that was me carrying Gone With The Wind into elementary school at the age of 9 and no, the consequences were not pleasant. I’m a stubborn SOB, though and it did not deter me. Few things are better in life than a good book.

I believe a lot of people don’t like to read because they were handed long boring books at an early age, the desire to read being mutilated before it could begin. Not that we shouldn’t be challenged. But before being challenged, we need to fall in love. Show me someone who doesn’t love to read and I bet they were handed Beowulf or a Thomas Hardy novel way too young. Mom was pretty adept at handing me books that caused me to fall in love with reading. I daresay if most young boys, for instance, were handed something like The Black Stallion, most would turn into avid readers. The Black Stallion has it all: a shipwreck, a kid living alone on a deserted island, no adults to boss him around, while taming a wild stallion, eventually riding that stallion in an exciting race. What else could you want?? After a number of books like that (Danger, Dinosaurs! Wow!) I spent hours reading and never turned back. As a family, when we went on vacation, we often went somewhere where the four of us could just lay in the sun and read for a week. We’d each bring 5 or 6 books and life was good. It’s still my favorite way to spend a vacation.

Click here for the big reveal!

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