Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Irish Table - Cookbook review

My Irish Table: Recipes from the Homeland and Restaurant Eve  Cathal Armstrong & David Hagedorn

I was excited to receive a copy of this beautiful cookbook because I truly appreciate the rich and rustic food I have tasted from Irish kitchens.  I grew up in a largely Catholic community and there were many Irish families who lived nearby.  I was lucky to sample the cooking of several of my friends' mothers and grandmothers growing up.  I adore potato soups and Irish stews, soda breads and hard tack candies all lovingly made in the Irish tradition and I had hoped this cookbook would help me bring this appealing and hearty food to my own table.

The pictures in this book are lovely.  The vibrant reds and greens leap off the page and tempt you with mouthwatering images of  hearty fare.  Many of the photos show the food with a portion removed or sliced to be served, so you get a real feel that these are something to be shared around a table and savored with friends.  There are also many pictures of Cathal Armstrong and his family.  Seeing photos of him and his mother and children cooking and enjoying the food made it really special.

Many of the recipes have short stories that accompany them on what is special about them and how they relate to the chef's life.  Some of my favorites are the story accompanying "President Obama Stew" wherein he tells of the stew he was making for his brother when he got the call that the President and Mrs. Obama would be celebrating their anniversary at the restaurant and the one accompanying "Meshelle's Tomato Thing" when he talks about how his wife who was unfamiliar with the Irish tradition of eating tomatoes at breakfast became a believer when he doctored them up with garlic, onions and bay leaves.  There are also lovely little vignettes about Ireland, the countryside, his love of farm to table and local ingredient based cuisine, his training in diverse restaurant kitchens and many family stories of holiday gatherings and laughter shared over a table of food.

As beautiful as this book is, I fear I don't have the skill to pull off these recipes.  I wish I could cook like this, but I know I cannot.  Luckily there are a few things that I think I could make with confidence and that will make this a useful book for me to own that won't just collect dust as I stare at it in my kitchen and desperately wish I had the skill it would take to make some of these dishes.  I am not a woman who could grind and case my own sausages, whip up a magnificent batch of puff pastry from scratch or poach lobsters in fine Irish Kerrygold butter.  I am however a lover of sauces, and the Marie Rose sauce (an Irish answer to cocktail sauce comprised of mayonnaise, ketchup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper), Tartar sauce and Tomato Marmalade recipes will get a workout.

Although there are a few seemingly impossible recipes in this book, one honestly baffles me, and it was of course the very first page the book opened to when I pulled it from the mailbox.  It was a recipe for "Cheese on Toast".  I think that my impression of this book as a collection of recipes that would be incredibly easy for me to accomplish was set by my glance at this.  I think perhaps it was included for people like me who wanted desperately to make something delicious but didn't have the skill set this amazing chef does.  Even I can handle slicing bread, cheese and tomatoes and sticking it under a broiler (I think!).  In my absolute confidence of handling this recipe I have found a little courage to try some of the other more difficult and quite probably beyond my skills entries in the book.

This Christmas season I believe I may try the recipe for "Christmas Pudding".  It seems madly complicated, but it has dried fruit and booze and is something that I think is so odd I just might love it.  I had a plum pudding at a Madrigal dinner I sang for in college and have never had anything so delicious since (although the fact that it was spoon fed to me by the incredibly handsome "King" while I was dressed as a comely serving wench may have something to do with it).  I will make these puddings this holiday and report back!

Visit the Random House website where you can go to read a synopsis, order a copy, check the table of contents and also see praise from other chefs about My Irish Table.  While you are there be sure and check out the author's recipe for Potato and Leek Soup.

I give this book a four out of five star rating.

Thank you, Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy of My Irish Table for review.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why you need The Chopped Cookbook in your kitchen.

I am a huge fan of the television show Chopped from Food Network.  It is one of the shows that I keep on my DVR at all times.  In it, contestants are given a large black wicker basket which contains ingredients they must use to make a dish that is beloved by the judges, or at least better than their fellow contestants' offerings.  If they can manage this, they get to move on to the next round and a final prize of money and the coveted title of Chopped champion.

More often than not the baskets contain oddball ingredients that the chefs may be unfamiliar with or familiar ingredients that don't seem to be able to meld themselves into a cohesive, tasty dish.  When I selected The Chopped Cookbook: Use What You've Got To Cook Something Great from The Food Network Kitchen to review for Blogging For Books, I thought it was going to be wacky combinations that had been featured on the show and that worked and taught you how to make these crazy dishes.  This book wasn't anything like I thought it would be - it turns out it was much better!

If I would have read the description rather than being so excited to see Chopped pop up on the cover of a cookbook, I would have known that this is a book about finding creative solutions to the ever present "what's for dinner?" question by using things you have on hand and making them exciting.  The excitement comes from using vegetables, proteins and ingredients already kicking around in your pantry in a broader way.  This book is great for helping you think outside the box and re-imagine common ingredients like peanuts or cream cheese into categories that help you bring unexpected changes to a dish and figure out ways things can work together to build new flavors.

This is an approachable concept even for a relatively inexperienced cook like me.  Reading the pantry list and seeing subcategories of "brothiness", "sweetness" and "crunch" and seeing loads of things I already had on hand and substitutes for things I might not made me feel as though this book is going to change dinner time into something really exciting for my family.

Many times I read a pantry list for a cookbook and I think I could never afford to buy the expensive cuts of meat or specialty cheese or just plain old unpronouncable stuff they list. I would rarely, if ever have the items on hand.  With the exception of fresh herbs many of the pantry items were in my home already and the slightly off beat items (toasted sesame oil, fish sauce) were things I had heard of and eaten before, and they weren't expensive or rare.  There were also whole sections dedicated to ingredients like ground beef or pasta that had lots of fun, inspirational ideas and the recipes encouraged you to play and experiment by adding things you liked to make it your own.  Hints, tips and tricks abound on the corners of pages about everything from how to choose and store produce (look for heavy bell peppers with smooth stems and remove the rubber bands from celery bunches before you pop it in your crisper drawer) to interesting ingredients (Geoffrey Zakarian likes to use preserved lemons and he is super hot - that last bit was from me, not from the book).

 A "ribbon" on each page tells you how many people each of the three or four recipes offered per ingredient will serve and how long you can expect to be in preparations before you can eat this lovely food.  The photos are bright and bold and the "Market Basket" sections show you several ways to use the same ingredients that I found really helpful.  The recipe I am most excited about in the whole book is for a coconut panne cotta with candied peanuts.  I know I will swap out the peanuts for cashews already because I much prefer their flavor and I have wanted to try my hand at a pot de creme or panne cotta for awhile and this one uses things I already had on hand (heavy cream, and a can of coconut milk) and has such straightforward instructions it seems like I've already made it with great success!

 I know this book is going to be living on my cookbook stand.  I give it five out of five stars and would definitely buy it as a gift for a cook with any level of experience.

I received this book from Blogging For Books for purpose of review.  Thank you for such an awesome addition to my kitchen.  My husband thanks you too!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Life Drawing by Robin Black - Book Review

Life Drawing a novel by Robin Black

This novel is sure to stay with me in the coming weeks.  I just finished it but I feel compelled to leave my impressions immediately because it is rare a book can touch me so deeply and make me feel so much.

I love books, and there are all sorts of stories I can relate to, but this portrait of a marriage and of a family is heartbreaking and shockingly honest, and made a beautiful sense out of the fact that we can never quite know another person.  Even the ones we know the best.

The story has many passages in which the main character and narrator Augusta ("Gus") is speaking with her father in a home care facility.  He is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease as both of my own parents are.  There is a moment where she shares her story with her father knowing that every time she tells him the story can be different because his illness doesn't allow him to recollect the prior tellings.  At this moment I cried, pitifully and openly.  I sobbed for my father who was a schoolteacher and how this illness both robbed him of the intelligence and gift for teaching that was his life's work and yet oddly instilled in him the ability to forget his plight and live both in the moment and in his memories simultaneously.  That in itself is a peace few of us know, and the author did a beautiful job of telling this truth as well as the many other small inconvenient truths about long term relationships and why we love the people we choose as our spouses, our families, our children.  I fell in love with her voice - the author's and the narrator's and went through this book with a feeling that she was helping me to understand something I had missed of this disease.

 This is a beautiful book.  Sad and lovely.  The paintings Gus creates througout are worded so vividly you can see every detail.  Ms. Black has a gift for writing the minutiae of feelings and the tone of relationships much as Gus has a gift of detail with her brush.

Don't hesitate to buy it.

5/5 stars

Read more about the plot and the author on Robin Black's website.  Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

I was fortunate to win an Advance Reader Copy of this book from a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.  I just purchased a copy of the author's other novel If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This and can't wait for it to arrive.