Best Cookbooks 2017

13 Jan

Better late than never, right?

These lists can be a bit silly because I obviously did not read nor cook from every cookbook released this year. I am a proud cookbook whore, however, and read and cooked from quite a few. These are the cookbooks I particularly loved this year, you can’t go wrong with any of them. 

And remember, if you are building a cookbook library, always a great thing to do, I have a good primer here: Building Your Cookbook Library Vol. 1.

On to the best… If you don’t want all five (!!!), see which food type strikes your fancy and pick that one. Or just buy:

GJELINA

 

Based on the recipes from one of Los Angeles’ most highly acclaimed restaurants, this is my cookbook of the year. From the wonderful recipes, much easier than you might expect, to the technique beautifully taught including marvelous pantry items to have in your cupboard and fridge, this is a book I will use the rest of my life. These are rustic dishes exploding with fresh vegetables and amazing flavors. Fish, chicken, beef, lamb, soup, vegetarian… the book has it all. I also love how easy the book is to use… many cookbooks have spines that make them difficult to prop open on the counter. Gjelina has a wonderful spine I wish every cookbook publisher would mimic. It easily flops open and stays open right where you want it. Read, cook and enjoy.

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Best Films of 2017

2 Jan

Though I am criminally behind in my viewing (see below), here is my annual list. The year started off rough, there wasn’t much I liked until suddenly the year blossomed in late fall; I saw a string of excellent movies that made 2017 feel like a pretty damn good year for features. Additionally, three of these terrific films – The Shape of Water, Coco and The Florida Project – were as visually stunning, albeit in very different ways, as any movie I’ve seen in years.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Romantic. Violent. Erotic. Funny. Dazzlingly beautiful. Magnificent. 

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT

“A movie that defies traditional narrative storytelling” is always, for me, a polite way of saying “boring as hell.” Yet The Florida Project may be my favorite movie of the year (it’s a close call with The Shape Of Water.) Sean Baker’s objective look at the lives of marginalized people living in crap hotels on the outskirts of Orlando is funny, shocking, wrenching and heartfelt. It’s also a stunningly composed film. Baker and his DP, Alexis Zabe, somehow take these scummy yet colorful locales and bring beauty and art to the images. The movie also has some of the best performances you will see all year, many from non-actors. This is an amazing movie.

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Whoa. The great playwright, Martin McDonagh, follows up his debut, In Bruges, with the blackest film comedy I’ve seen since War of the Roses. Shocking, funny and shockingly funny, none of the movie’s main characters are who they seem to be initially. Each makes a surprising journey, one of the many pleasures of the film. Save one bit of miscasting in a smaller role, the performances across the board are exemplary. I’ve seen it twice and will watch again.

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LADY BIRD

It can be hard to explain why Lady Bird is such a wonderful movie. It’s a story we’ve seen told many times before and there is nothing innovative about the filmmaking… unless “damn, that is fine filmmaking” is innovative. Given the crap we see on screen, yes it is indeed innovative. Lady Bird may be a simple story told in straightforward fashion, but the writing and acting are so strong, so enjoyable, that writer/director Greta Gerwig uncovers originality and deep emotion, making what should seem old, a coming of age story, fresh and new. I had a smile on my face the entire time I watched Lady Bird. (What a wonderful year of acting is 2017! Everyone shines in this movie.)

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COCO

Pixar seemed to lose some of its magic in the last couple of years. While Coco isn’t perfect, and there are a couple of plot revelations you can see coming from the start, the movie is a revelation because the milieu and characters are so unique, at least for mainstream cinema. Coco is also a dazzling feast for the eyes, one of the most visually arresting movies I’ve ever seen. It goes for your heart and it will get your heart. Bravo.

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THE LOST CITY OF Z

I saw this dense, challenging movie three times in the theatre and was really bummed it did not catch on, though it is easy to understand why given the complexity of both the characters and the ending. James Gray steps into David Lean territory with the true life adventure tale of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who becomes obsessed with finding a lost city of the Amazon. It all works for me: grandiose and beautiful images, a terrific score, richly written characters, and superlative performances from Charlie Hunnam, Tom Holland, an unrecognizable Robert Pattison (becoming such a great actor) and Sienna Miller, a chameleon who may be the best actress working in film today. It will haunt you.

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DUNKIRK

Dunkirk certainly had its detractors. But it did boffo box-office, to use Variety-speak, which is surprisingly and encouraging given the movie is a $150 million dollar art film with no lead character, no real villain and a time-jumping narrative. I loved it. Rarely have I been so tense and keyed up in a movie. Nolan and his team build an incredible amount of dread, heightened by Hans Zimmer’s innovative score, one of his best.  Easily one of Nolan’s best as well.

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GET OUT

Jordon Peele somehow crafted a funny, suspenseful horror movie that slaps you up side the head while also being incredibly satisfying, a true audience pleaser even as it challenges you. Smart, clever and a lot of fun.

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PHANTOM THREAD

Wow. I’ve never used this word before now, but this movie ravished me. Stunningly beautiful with a magnificent score, directed with PTA’s usual precision and incredible performances across the board, I loved this movie. Loved it. It has put some people off as being cold and distant. I get it. Kind of. It’s lush and romantic yet ultimately a bit disturbing. Whatever. Phantom Thread transfixed me from the start and never let go.

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I, TONYA

I don’t know what I expected but it wasn’t this: sharp, smart, hilarious and ultimately surprisingly deep and even moving. The filmmakers somehow make the standard mock-documentary format new and exciting. And the performances are stellar. (It has been such a wonderful year for actors.) This might just be the most purely enjoyable movie I’ve seen all year. What a blast.

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Honorable Mentions: Call Me By Your Name, The Big Sick, Baby Driver, Logan, Logan Lucky, The Disaster Artist, Blade Runner 2049

Did not yet see: Wind River, Phantom Thread, I, Tonya, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Mudbound, Brawl in Cell Block 99, The Darkest Hour, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, Hostiles – Wish I could just stop and watch movies for a few days!

Tell us your favorites in the comments!

 

Your Perfect Thanksgiving

17 Nov

While this is an amalgam of previous Thanksgiving posts, I hone every year. I know you have your favorites! We all do. But trust me… add a few of these (the cocktail and the turkey in particular.. and the dips… and, well, you know… ) and you will have the best dinner ever. Hell, just follow it all! I won’t let you down. 

Not a lot of writing below… you can scan other Thanksgiving posts for more detail. If it’s on the list below, I’ve made it many times, it’s easy, and your friends and family will be thrilled. 

COCKTAIL

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Cranberry Daiquiri

This is my signature cocktail for people from Thanksgiving thru New Years. Not too sweet and incredibly tasty. Once you have the syrup made, you can make it fast anytime:

Cranberry Daiquiri

DIPS

Pim Cheese corn dip

Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip

The pickle dip is killer. The pimento cheese dip is now referred to as “crack” by everyone who has tried it. Both will make you supremely happy:

Dill Pickle Dip

Spicy Pimento Cheese Dip

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Homemade Butter… in 5 minutes

14 Sep
Homemade Butter.jpg

Butter made in 5 minutes

One of my favorite movies of all time is Rosemary’s Baby, still as chilling and brilliantly acted and directed as it was almost 50 years ago when it debuted. A favorite line in the movie has a modern relevance regarding food.

Rosemary (Mia Farrow), as you should know, becomes pregnant after moving into an old gothic apartment building on Central Park. On the advice of her doctor, she begins drinking a fresh, healthy milkshake every day, mixed and delivered by her next door neighbor, Minnie Castavet (Ruth Gordon deservedly won an Oscar for this role). According to Minnie, the shake contains raw egg, gelatin, herbs, and something called Tannis Root.

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Mia Farrow and Ruth Gordon in “Rosemary’s Baby”

Rosemary, along with the audience, slowly begins to suspect there is a conspiracy to steal or harm her baby. Famously, very little happens in the movie yet it ruthlessly crawls under the skin. The ordinary becomes terrifying as we wonder if something is actually happening or if Rosemary’s imagination is running wild. 

When the book (1967) and the movie (1968) were each released, both phenomenal hits, our country and much of the world was in the midst of a decades long embrace of chemically created food over natural: formula over breast milk, margarine or oleo over butter, Saccharin and corn syrup instead of sugar, boxed food over food made from scratch, etc, etc. It seems so obvious now that something natural would be healthier than something created in a lab. But given years of misinformation and outright lies from both the government and food corporations, there was no reason for the public to believe otherwise. (I really despise the FDA, a rant I’ll reserve for another post.)

What’s fascinating today about Rosemary’s Baby is that the shake, made from natural ingredients, is one of the creepiest things in the movie. It becomes a focal point and a source of fear for the audience, and then Rosemary herself. A knot begins to form in our stomachs every time Rosemary takes a sip. As her paranoia increases, she finally snaps and revolts against what she perceives is being done to her. Rosemary then delivers the line I love:

“I want my vitamins from pills, like everyone else!”

Crafted and created in a lab is what was healthy and normal to audiences at the time. Natural was not. Even with our modern perspective, we are thrilled when Rosemary takes this stand. Is she too late? Is anything actually wrong? You’ll have to watch this brilliant movie to find out. (Note: It’s free if you have Amazon prime… the movie is gorgeously shot by William Fraker so try to watch it on a big screen!)

We are thankfully moving away from the days of margarine and corn syrup (lies, LIES!) and the idea that crafted in a lab is good for you. We have returned to the wonderful knowledge that something as simple and wonderful as butter can be enjoyed without the guilt that was thrust upon us for years. It actually is healthy!

Yet true, decadent butter is still hard to find, at least in the USA, thank you FDA. Years ago I was in Italy and ate at a small family owned hotel/restaurant on a farm. After I sat down, they brought me bread and butter. I tasted the butter on the bread and thought my head would explode. I’d never tasted anything so good. I called the owner over and in my very broken Italian kept asking him, ‘What is this??” He kept shrugging and saying, “It’s butter.” I kept saying,  “No, this is NOT butter.” He became frustrated and looked at me like a stupid American and finally threw up his hands. “It’s just butter!” I realized later it was butter that had been churned that very day, with no pasteurization. My goodness, was that incredible butter, so different than what we buy in most stores. 

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Il Falconiere

I’ve recently discovered you can make such butter at home, fast, without a churn! All you need is some heavy (whipping) cream and a food processor. With basically no effort at all, you will have fresh, incredible butter. Give this a try (and let me know what you think!)

For the recipe, click here: Continue reading

Simple Fruit Tarts

24 Aug
tart

watercolor by Frances Newcombe

This post should actually be entitled Fruit Tarts for Dummies…  or rather, Fruit Tarts for A Dummy. Because, listen, if I can do this … I, me, someone with absolutely no patience for baking or dough or measuring exactly or any of that silliness… if I can do this, you can do this. And you will be so happy.

Fruit trees are one of the many benefits of living in Southern California. Not just fruit trees, but bountiful fruit trees that need very little upkeep. I am as bad at gardening as I am at baking (that patience issue) yet I have in my yard lemon trees, orange trees, apricot trees, a pomegranate tree, a kumquat tree, avocado trees, a macadamia nut tree and a glorious fig tree that goes crazy in season. Consequently, I’m always looking for ways to use the fruit.

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Prepping Fruit Tarts

I’ve written before about Patricia Wells, a chef whose writing and cooking had an incredible influence on my life. In her book At Home In Provence, there’s a gorgeous Apricot-Honey-Almond Tart you can also make with figs. It looked so incredible, and so easy, I had to give it a try. My first attempt turned out so well I kept making these tarts over the summer, in different variations, to master the tarts and see which fruits worked best. And so I give you below my slightly tweaked take on her recipe.

Did I mention how %@$# incredible they taste? Wow, are they wonderful. This recipe slays everyone by both beauty and taste. Anyone you serve the tart will have no idea how simple it is (and there’s no reason to let them know!) They’ll look at you like you had Patricia fed-ex the tart from her kitchen in France. Because it’s best served room temperature, it’s perfect not only for your home but to bring to a picnic or to a potluck. My goodness, these taste good. And they are light as well! While gorgeous, this tart is the opposite of a heavy, dense dessert. But you get all the pleasure just the same. 

Apricot Tart

apricot tart, right out of the oven

ONE NOTE: Hearty fruits such a stone fruits or figs are best with this recipe. The blueberry and raspberry versions I tried tasted great but those soft fruits started to break down into mush by the time they were finished cooking.

***!!! As an added treat this week, my beloved friend Frances Newcombe did some art for the post, including a downloadable PDF of the recipe – click here to download what you see below.

For the recipe and download, click here: Continue reading

Garlic Salad, My Most Requested Dish

10 Aug
GS Ingredients

Ingredients for Garlic Salad

Given all the food I cook, it should be annoying that something so ridiculously simple as my garlic salad would be the dish people currently request the most. Annoying, that is, if I didn’t love it myself and could eat it every night.

And often do.

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Garlic Salad

I say its “my” garlic salad because I landed on this recipe after many, many attempts and variations. But to be honest, it’s my attempt at recreating a favorite dish from growing up, Mama Colichia’s House Salad. Colichia’s Italian Village was opened by Mama Colichia in 1935 in Port Arthur, Texas. I’m not sure the original location but when our family was going, which was often (same for much of my hometown), the restaurant was in the Colichia’s house on Proctor Street. The tables were set up in the living room and dining room and Mama Colichia worked out of her kitchen. 

The food was pure old fashioned Sicily and absolutely wonderful. I always ordered either the Veal Parmigiana (mostly) and the lasagna (on special occasions). The Spaghetti and Meatballs were also a town favorite. But the most remarkable dish that came out of that kitchen was the house salad Mama Colichia served with every meal. She made each salad by hand right before it came out of the kitchen. She used — and pardon my Texas-French — a shitload of garlic and distilled white vinegar. Good Lord, that salad. You can live on it.  We would talk about it as a family, obsessing on it. My dad, whom Mama Colichia loved, thought for years she put a dash of Dr. Pepper in the salad, because she used a Dr. Pepper bottle to hold her vinegar. (It works great!) You could see her making the salad when the swinging door dividing the kitchen from the dining room would swing back and forth when the waiters walked through the door. 

While Mama Colichia passed years ago and the house on Procter is no longer an Italian Village, her children and grandchildren still run updated versions at home and I always slide in to have the salad. 

Over the years, I’ve tried different variations to see if I could get close. I’ve finally ‘mastered it’, if you can call the rather ramshackle recipe below mastering. No matter. I will in no way claim this is a good as Mama Coilichia’s, but if/when I ask people what they want for dinner, I hear this the most. And so I give it to you.

Don’t be scared of the garlic. It’s good for you and you will love this.

Oh, and when I made this salad to take the pictures for the blog, I ate the whole bowl. It’s all I ate for dinner, with a martini, so don’t think I’m a pig. And I’m a rabbit, I love all salad in general. But yes I ate the whole bowl. It’s that good.

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My dinner

For the recipe, click here: Continue reading

Killer Easy Soft Tacos

4 Aug
Soft Taco Ingredients

ingredients for soft tacos

I may be of Cajun heritage but growing up in Texas, Tex-Mex was easily the most consistent staple of my diet.  Our family ate Tex-Mex all the time: at least twice a week at restaurants (El Charro, I miss you so much) and ground beef crispy tacos frequently at home. Cheese Enchiladas with Chili Gravy remain one of my favorite foods in all the world, something I cannot seem to find anywhere but Texas, a version worth eating, at least.

In college, I ate these amazing enchiladas at least three times a week. I always had them as part of the “Deluxe Platter”, a standard on any Tex-Mex menu. The “Deluxe Platter” consists of a first course which is a large plate consisting of one Crispy Beef Taco, one Bean Chalupa, some Chili Con Queso and a Guacamole Salad. Then comes the second plate of two Cheese Enchiladas with Chili Gravy, a Beef Tamale and Rice & Beans. With flour tortillas on the side.

Deluxe platter

A Tex Mex Deluxe Platter

Yes, three times a week. Minimum. Seriously. And I loved putting the enchiladas into a flour tortilla, which I would imagine to some is a terrible faux pas but who cares when you can be this happy.

I was a bit shocked when I moved to California after college. While there’s just as much Mexican food in Los Angeles, it’s very different than Tex-Mex. Shredded beef tacos instead of ground beef? Red Sauce on enchiladas not chili gravy? Corn tortillas with soft tacos, not flour? Black beans instead of pinto peans?

What on earth were these people thinking?

I was quite grumpy about a new type of Mexican my first few years here… although the side effect of not eating a Deluxe Platter at least three times a week was that I lost 25 lbs in my first two months in Los Angeles without even trying. And I’ve come to love the more interior Mexican food of California but I still love Tex-Mex the most.

Another great Tex-Mex dish is soft tacos, which are always made with flour tortillas, not corn. Breakfast tacos – a flour tortilla filled with scrambled eggs, cheese, pico de gallo and bacon or sausage – are heaven and easy to make. We consumed mass quantities of breakfast tacos in college at 3 AM, usually at The Lazy Daisy on Guadalupe which was conveniently located a block from our fraternity house. (Lazy Daisy, I miss you so much.) But I love grilled steak and fish soft tacos as well.

Steak Tacos

Steak Soft Tacos

Let me give you, then, an easy and wonderful dinner you can make quickly when you have all the ingredients on hand. Even better, if you live near a Trader Joe’s, you can get most everything you need in one shop, save canned Chipotles, which you should always have in your pantry anyway.

Take my word for it, people go nuts over these soft tacos.

For the recipe, click here to  Continue reading