Category Archives: Cookbooks

Menu Planning for November

I’ve recently started planning out a whole month of menus at a time. It somehow seems easier to sit down and figure out a month’s worth of menus all at once, rather than turn it into a weekly chore to be done just before grocery shopping or a daily scramble to figure out what’s for dinner that night. Doing a month at a time forces me to sit down, take my time, and think about our home-cooked meals in a more holistic way.

For instance, this month leads up to the Season of Eating, aka the holidays. Before Thanksgiving, I always like to eat leaner and as healthfully as possible to try to counteract the inevitable excess that’s coming. I also want to focus on meals I can prepare quickly, that are heavy on the vegetables and low on the carbs, and that my family will find tasty, of course.

I decided to pick one of my cookbooks and cook most of the meals out of it for the month. This simplifies things — I always find it easier to consult just one book rather than several when I’m making dinner — and it enables me to really give the cookbook a workout and figure out if it’s one I want taking up limited space on my bookshelf. This month, I chose Real Fast Food by Nigel Slater. In the past, I’ve mostly only made snacks and quick lunches from this cookbook, so it should be interesting to see what it offers for dinner.

In the book, he recommends accompanying each meal with a green salad and following it with fruit for dessert, plus cheese if the supper was a particularly light one. So many times, it seems, the simple and easy solution also is the healthiest and tastiest.


Review of The Drunken Botanist

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants that Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart

The Drunken Botanist CoverAround the world, there is not a tree, shrub or wildflower that hasn’t been brewed or bottled, according to The Drunken Botanist, a fascinating look at the relationships between plants and alcohol. Amy Stewart explores history, horticulture, trivia, tips for growing your own and, of course, recipes.

Humankind’s relationship with alcohol is a long one. If it grows, we’ve tried to ferment, distill or brew it. There are so many fun facts in this book, found on every page. How to drink absinthe, a particularly literary liqueur. The role bugs play in making booze. Why beer bottles are brown. How to make alcohol from bananas, sweet potatoes and even parsnips. I’m an avid wine drinker, and now I want to try aromatized wines; before this book, I didn’t even know what those were, but they sure sound delicious.

The Drunken Botanist is a pleasure to leaf through, preferably with a drink close at hand. It reminds me of an old-fashioned reference manual, with its charming black-and-white sketches and cocktail recipe “cards.” This book should appeal to all kinds of hobbyists: nature lovers, gardeners, brewers, cooks, mixologists and anyone who enjoys a tipple from time to time.

Note: I received a free advance review copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

New Cookbook: 101 Classic Cookbooks

101 Classic Cookbooks: 501 Classic Recipes (2012) is a beautiful compendium of recipes from 101 great cookbooks that span time and encompass many types of cooking, cuisines and ways of eating. I was pleased to see many of my favorite cookbook writers included, such as Mark Bittman, Alice Waters, Patricia Wells and Marcella Hazan. The book opens with a summary of each selected cookbook and scans of interior pages, showcasing the cookbook’s unique style. Following are 501 recipes selected from the cookbooks to illustrate what makes each one special. If you like to cook broadly and try new cookbooks, you can’t go wrong with a compendium like this.

The Only Cookbooks You Need

Cover of "The Art of Simple Food: Notes, ...

Cover via Amazon

This week, as I was developing my weekly menu, I got to thinking about the cookbooks I have versus the cookbooks I use. Like many home cooks, I have acquired more cookbooks than I can ever possibly use on a regular basis. I love to browse through cookbooks, especially those with beautiful photography, even if I don’t make very many recipes from them. I have noticed that I used to buy a lot more cookbooks than I do now, because I used to experiment a lot more. Now, I’ve settled on the kinds of dishes that I like to cook at home and that my family like to eat, which keeps me returning to the same cookbooks again and again.

If I had to ruthlessly pare down my cookbook library, I think I could easily make do with just eight cookbooks and spend a lifetime happily cooking from them. These are the four basic cookbooks I consider essential:

  • The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters
  • How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
  • The Joy of Cooking
  • The Foster’s Market Cookbook

The Waters book is essentially a home-cooking course for beginning cooks, and I return to its classic, simple recipes again and again. The other two contain pretty much every recipe I’d ever want to make, and they offer lots of variations so I don’t get bored. However, these all-purpose cookbooks tend to skimp on categories that I consider essential: breakfast, easy entertaining and cookies. Luckily, the Foster’s Market cookbook does a terrific job filling in those gaps (especially cookies).

Every now and then, I like to cook something more elaborate, from one of the four basic food groups: Italian, French, Mexican and Southern. I could buy hundreds of cookbooks in each of these categories, but I really only need one that’s definitive and comprehensive for each style of cooking I want to do. Over the years, I’ve settled on these four:

  • Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
  • Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells
  • Authentic Mexican by Rick Bayless
  • Sara Foster’s Southern Cookbook

Of course, your favorite regions or types of dishes will be different than mine, so I would suggest researching the cookbook offerings and locating that one definitive cookbook in each category. It’s so much easier cooking out of just a few books and getting to know them very well than it is trying to find that one recipe you want to make from among hundreds of cookbooks.

Eat Your Books: A Master Index for Your Cookbooks

One thing that frustrates me is having a large cookbook library but being unable to quickly track down a single recipe I am looking for or find something inspiring to make for dinner. I have to rely on my increasingly unreliable memory. I briefly thought about creating my own database of the recipes in my cookbooks, but that is way too much work. So I went on the web to look for a solution.

What I found was Eat Your Books. I am trying it out now, and so far, it has been a massively useful tool. It provides searchable, categorized indexes to (almost) all of my cookbooks. There is a monthly or annual fee, but it is not onerous considering all the work that it saves. Once I put in my cookbook collection, I had 20,000+ recipes at my fingertips that were already in my library. I guess I shouldn’t run out of anything to make for dinner for a while.

All but 9 of my cookbooks were already indexed (I have a lot of cookbooks). Each recipe is categorized by dish, major ingredient, ethnicity, occasion and more, and once I pick what I want to cook, I can generate a shopping list. And I can search online recipes or add my own to that database. Once I make something, I can record notes, rate it or tag it so I don’t forget where it was.

I am loving this site (and I am not getting anything from them for posting this review).

Review of Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen

Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen by Sara Foster with Tema Larter

When you open Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen, you will want to start cooking right away, just to transform the gorgeous photos on the page into food on your plate. As with Foster’s other cookbooks, Southern Kitchen focuses on crowd-pleasing food made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. This time, she’s returned to her roots and offered classic Southern dishes with a modern sensibility. This is the food of church picnics and summer barbecues, the food Grandma used to make, but more healthful and definitely easy to cook.

Foster makes these Southern classics very accessible to the home cook. While you may need to stock up on certain ingredients, such as cornmeal, buttermilk, and grits, most are available at the local grocery. The main exception might be country ham, called for in many dishes, which may have to be mail-ordered depending on where you live. Foster provides a handy glossary and list of sources that will help you locate some. While it’s worth special-ordering a country ham for a holiday meal or party, that’s not an ingredient I would want to keep on hand all the time.

One thing I like about Foster’s recipes, besides the mouth-watering pictures, is how easy she makes it to adapt or vary them according to the cook’s taste or what’s in season. She offers seasonal variations on many dishes to encourage cooking with ingredients that are fresh and readily available, preferably from the local farmers market. And she suggests “Sara’s Swaps,” ways to change up the recipe and make it new every time. Also handy are the tips provided for learning new techniques or what to serve on the side.

Of course, I couldn’t resist trying the Pimiento Cheese, a Southern classic. This sandwich spread is definitely better when you make it yourself, but be aware that the quantity this recipe makes is enough to feed an army of Southern belles. Another good test of Southern bona fides is a cornbread recipe. The Salt and Pepper Skillet Cornbread was truly one of the best cornbreads I have ever made, and is sure to become a staple in my house.

Foster pays homage to other traditional Southern foods, dedicating one chapter to pork, “a food group all its own,” and another to grits and Carolina rice. The seafood chapter covers everything from catfish to crawfish. If you’re a fan of Foster’s cookbooks, you know she loves breakfast, and she doesn’t skimp here. I highly recommend the Fried Green Tomato BLT, for breakfast or any time of the day.

Fried Green Tomato BLT

The fried green tomato BLT.

This cookbook is a boon for gardeners, who will find many ways to use up excess produce. One of the longest chapters is dedicated to vegetables, as sides, casseroles, and salads. The Watermelon-Tomato Salad with Shaved Feta and Handfuls of Mint is a new classic, perfect for a picnic or barbecue. Speaking of barbecues, the Baked Butter Beans should be a Fourth of July cookout standard. A chapter on dressings, pickles, and condiments has tasty recipes for putting food by, such as Sweet Pickle Relish, Quick Cucumber Pickles, Green Tomato Chow-Chow, and many more.

Many recipes in Southern Kitchen seem best-suited to special-occasion cooking: parties, barbecues, holidays, and other get-togethers. There are some recipes suitable for weeknights mixed in, though. For instance, the Crispy Chicken Cutlets with a Heap of Spring Salad are not only tasty, they’re ready in thirty minutes.

Most of the recipes I tried turned out as lip-smacking as their photos made them out to be. There were only a few disappointments. For instance, Granny Foster’s Simple Pound Cake took much longer than the recipe directed to bake, and it was still liquidy in the middle when it came out of the oven. It firmed up as it cooled, however, and it was pretty yummy underneath a scoop of vanilla ice cream and some fresh berries. When even the “failed” dishes get eaten, you know the cookbook is worth the investment.

Whether you’re a Southerner by birth missing the tasty foods of your childhood, or you just want to try your hand at some down-home Southern cooking, Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen is the perfect place for you to be.

Article first published as Book Review: Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen by Sara Foster with Tema Larter on Blogcritics.

More Southern Cooking!

I got busy over Memorial Day weekend and cooked a lot out of Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen. Pretty much every recipe was an unqualified winner, with a couple of minor exceptions. First, the good.


Yes, that is bacon all over those baked beans.

You know how sometimes when you make a recipe, you think: That’s it! I don’t have to try another version, because this is the one I’m going to stick with forever. That’s how I felt when I made these baked beans. They weren’t at all hard to make, and they were absolutely delicious. They use butter beans (but you could substitute any cooked bean), and I have never thought butter beans tasted so good. Usually, I’d rather not taste them at all. But these beans were sweet and smoky and spicy, all at the same time. They were everything you’d want baked beans to be, and they made the perfect accompaniment to all the hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken we were grilling up. Add some watermelon, and you’re set.

Speaking of watermelon, I also made the Watermelon-Tomato Salad with Shaved Feta and Handfuls of Mint. This was another keeper. The watermelon added a touch of sweetness that rescued somewhat bland tomatoes, which aren’t at their peak yet. Lots of basil and mint and a garnish of feta rounded it out. I need to make this salad every summer.

I also tried the Crispy Chicken Cutlets with a Heap of Spring Salad. This is a simplified version of buttermilk fried chicken. The cutlets are dipped in flour, soaked in buttermilk and egg, and then coated in homemade bread crumbs. They are shallow-fried until crisp. These cutlets were just great, much better than the Chicken Nuggets I made a while back. I liked the springtime salad they were served with, and I thought the Buttermilk Green Goddess Dressing was a nice accompaniment. It was light and herby, perfect for this time of year. My only complaint is that it was a little thin for my tastes, probably because I made it with plain yogurt instead of mayonnaise, which was one of the suggested variations. So it was lighter, but a little too watery.

Finally, I attempted to make dessert. I have to admit up front that baking is not my forte, and I am about ready to give up on making cakes and their kin altogether. This time I attempted Granny Foster’s Simple Pound Cake. This was a true pound cake, for it required a pound of eggs, a pound of butter and a pound of flour. And it was gigantic, probably way too much batter for the pan. As a result, it took forever to cook, and even when I took it out of the oven after almost two hours, it still wasn’t set in the middle. It did firm up as it cooled, though, so we were able to eat it. It tasted darned good, although a bit on the sickly sweet side for my tastes. Everyone enjoyed it, and after piling some ice cream on top, we didn’t really notice the slight mushiness. But this is the first recipe from this book that I’ve tried and would not make again. Still, I can already tell that this book is a definite keeper.

My challenge this weekend was to make some barbecue classics, and I think the baked beans certainly qualify.

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