Monday, January 19, 2015

Winter Cookbook Challenge

Earlier this month, an online community to which I belong posted a winter cookbook challenge: 

You might set a goal to read a cookbook memoir (or two); or you could plan to try some recipes during these winter months; or you could decide to purge your cookbook collection, organize your online recipes, or invest in a new cookbook you’ve been drooling over and immerse yourself in it.

I'm eager to to take up all parts of this challenge! Whose cookbook collection and virtual recipe boxes couldn't use organizing and refreshing? Whose home cooking repertoire couldn't stand to be revitalized? And, what a great time of year to shed off some of the old and bring in some new.

To jump start inspiration and goal creation, we were asked the following:
What cookbooks do you recommend? It may be a straightforward one, with just recipes and guidelines, or it may be a combination cookbook/memoir. Or maybe you just want to recommend some good food writing with us. 

I love big, colorful cookbooks and take a lot of inspiration and motivation from them. Typically, I will check them out from the library, often as many times as necessary, although sometimes I know from that test period that I will need to own a copy at some point. It seems like every chef- or personality-driven cookbook these days also offers stories, which makes them great for reading even if I never cook from them. My cookbooks favorites of the 2014--for cooking experiences or just for armchair travel/cooking--are pretty multicultural:

Jerusalem and Plenty (Middle Eastern)
The Lee Brothers Charleston Kitchen (Southern)
Around My French Table (Dorie Greenspan)
Momofuku (Japanese)
The Slanted Door (Vietnamese)

My “go to” cookbooks, however, are not colorful. There are three: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, Cook’s Illustrated Best Recipe, and Cook’s Illustrated Best Recipe Vegetables. These are the cornerstones of my cookbook library and provide solid recipes and techniques. They have been instrumental in helping me gaining confidence in the kitchen or for simply giving me reminders for things like preparing a steak, which I do super infrequently, or the ratio of water to couscous. My copy of Bittman is so worn that they book falls open to his homemade-pancakes-are-so-easy-you-never-need-use-a-mix-again recipe.

Last week, I packed up my cookbooks temporarily to clear space for a remodeling project. While packing up I set aside a couple books that I either bought on impulse or received as a gift but haven’t given them their proper due: Momofuku, Ivan Ramen, Thug Kitchen, A Tale of Twelve Kitchens. When the remodel is finished, and I unpack the boxes, I would like to give special consideration to which cookbooks go back on the shelf. Years ago I had to come up with some clever stacking solutions because the collection had grown considerably and no longer really fit on the shelves in a conventional manner. We'll see. 

Also, years ago, I created accounts for "recipe boxes" on various websites--Epicurious, Food2, Martha Stewart, and Fine Cooking, to name a few. This has proved to be a clever way to flag and store recipes online. So clever, in fact, that I often forget about these recipe boxes exist or that I can't remember where I saw a particular recipe I want to try. Some of these sites are more robust than others. Fine Cooking, for example, will let you upload your own recipes. Epicurious has an app so you can access the recipe box when you're at the grocery store. I'm sure there is an app that would allow me to manage all my online recipes, and that could be a goal.

Finally cooking essays are among my favorite nonfiction narratives. MFK Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Calvin Trillin and Laurie Colwin are among my favorites. Currently, I am reading Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, which is one part memoir and one part history set within the framework of Russian cooking. This is true comfort reading to me.

Here is my goal for this winter:  I want to read more food essays and to that end will finish reading Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and start (and hopefully finish) Kate Christensen's Blue Plate Special, which is on the side table next to my reading chair, conveniently. Also, I will peruse some shelf-sitter cookbooks: Momofuku, Ivan Ramen, Thug Kitchen and A Tale of 12 Kitchens and pick a recipe from each to cook.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

the year (2014) in books

Happy New Year!! 2014 was a spectacular reading year for me. On Goodreads I set a challenge to read 47 books, which represented the average number of books that I have read over the past few years, all while missing the 50 book goal I typically set. Tracking is so easy on Goodreads, and I spent most of the year ahead of goal. In the end, I finished 60 books, a record for this millennium certainly. The luxury of reading time each morning undoubtedly contributes to this increase in numbers. The boys, unfortunately, no longer want to be read to, and the books that are “read” on our road trips tend exclusively now to be audiobooks. A few long flights offered opportunities to read ebooks on my iPad’s Kindle app, many of which were checked out from the library. I love the library! In 2015, I have set at 75 book goal, but would like to increase the number of shelf sitters to 10, which is less than 1/6th of my goal. Doable? I think so.

Herewith is a list of the sixty books I read in 2014. A small list of statistics follows.

1. Uniform Justice, Donna Leon: #12 in series; death of a young cadet, not Leon’s best but still a comfort to re-visit Venice and Brunetti
2. Dark Places, Gillian Flynn: Wickedly creepy and fast-paced; I hope Flynn writes something new soon
3. Attachments, Rainbow Rowell: Cute workplace romance, set obliquely in Omaha, which made me realize I knew the city better than I thought.
4. Fangirl, Rainbow Rowell: Charming coming of age novel in which a first-year college student writes fan-fic about a Harry Potter-type series, falls in love and has family issues and academic challenges. Plus, Omaha and Lincoln.
5. Billionaire’s Vinegar, Benjamin Wallace: Fascinating blend of wine and history, the inside workings of traditional auction houses (e.g., Sotheby's), and the follies of those with more money than good sense (e.g., Forbes family members).
6. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt: Hands down, my favorite book of the year; Consumed in a monster power read. Sweeping and delicious with loveable and hateable characters in equal measure. I look forward to reading this again. Perhaps I will finally get around to reading My Little Friend.
7. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris (audio): Listened to the audio, which is my preferred delivery system for Sedaris, and nearly peed my pants laughing, as always.
8. The Dead and the Gone, Susan Beth Pfeiffer (E): Companion to Life As We Knew It, but following charaters in New York City. The main characters are children whose parents are missing and presumed dead after a catastrophic event, and one of the older children frequently picks the pockets of dead in the street makes for a dark book.
9. The World Is a Carpet, Anna Badkhen: Conversation with Books. About seriously remote Afghan villages and war and carpets. It's written in a nearly poetic prose that made the book a not totally quick read.
10. Blood from a Stone, Donna Leon: #14 in a series. Murder of a Senegalese vu’cumpra, who sold fake fashion accessories. Meaty with political and social issues.
11. Drawing Conclusions, Donna Leon (E): #20 in a series. Brunetti examines all the ways in which he participates in the system’s corruption while solving a crime that didn’t start out a crime. Victim’s apartment reminded me of Dorothy and David’s Venetian flat.
12. Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles, Catherine Pancol. Impulse purchase quickly consumed. Lighthearted with sly humor, sort of a pleasant mash-up of Diane Johnson (Paris) and Raffaella Barker (chicklit).
13. Travels with Alice, Calvin Trillin: Trips to Europe with his wife and children. Characteristic Trillin humor.
14. Oishinbo 05: Vegetables, Tetsu Kariya: Quirky good fun. I love the outrageous expressions on the characters faces. So far, this is my favorite book in the series.
15. Longbourn, Jo Baker: I loved from this Austen pastiche from first paragraph. Like P&P, the writing is clever, and you get the sense that you're in for something special. Plus, hints of Downton.
16. Dear Life, Alice Munro: Conversation with Books, and one of the most talked about books of the year. Mesmerizing and unexpected and deep stories that were, nonetheless, consumed like potato chips. Note to self: read more Munro soon.
17. Oishinbo 06: Rice, Testu Kariya: This volume feature the most significant component of Japan’s diet.
18. Ten Years in the Tub, Nick Hornby: A collection of Hornby’s previous four volumes of book reviews for The Believer, all of which I have read so here just caught up on the newest ten essays. Hornby’s voice is singular.
19. Dare Me, Megan Abbott (E): Nick Hornby told me to read this. It's a sharply written psychological thriller about a cheer team and their coach. For those who are looking for something similar to Gillian Flynn.
20. Tamarack County, William Kent Krueger: Place and character driven mystery set in Northern Minnesota. Listened to 2/3 on a road trip, then finished reading the remainder to John. My only read-aloud book this year.
21. The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje: My first Ondaatje, read for book group. Eleven-year-old Ceylonese boy on a ship from Colombo to England. Relatively plotless book consists of a series of vignettes, observations, really, that the boy makes while on ship. One of my favorites this year.
22. Delancey, Molly Wizenberg: Funny, frank, and tender memoir about opening a pizza restaurant
23. Love and Treasure, Ayelet Waldman: Highly anticipated novel about the WW2 Hungarian Gold Train, but hugely disappointing, especially after Waldman threw a fit for not being included in the NYT’s best books of the year.
24. Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin: Schmaltzy novel but about bookselling with a character modeled on Mark Gates. I didn’t want to cry but found it unavoidable.
25. Under the Egg, Laura Marx Fitzgerald (E): A young adult novel about art—Monuments Men meets From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler. I thought it was really well done.
26. Knots and Crosses, Ian Rankin: Slim, taut Edinburgh-set mystery featuring a deeply flawed protagonist. One of my favorites this year. I look forward to reading more from Rankin.
27. Bobcat and Other Stories, Rebecca Lee: Sharp, edgy stories compared to early Alice Munro.
28. The Vacationers, Emma Straub: Read on the England leg of our summer trip. Light, smart summer read with great characters and situations. The author has a keen sense of observation, which comes through in the best way.
29. The Accident, Chris Pavone (E): Read on the flight during sleepless, jetlagged Glasgow nights. About publishing, predicated on a big reveal that forces the plot and dialogue to be vague. Underwhelming.
30. The Matchmaker, Elin Hilderbrand (E): Quick solid summer read even if I felt like shaking the protagonist. Someday, I will take a vacation in Nantucket.
31. Under Your Skin, Sabine Durrant: Impulse purchase at W.H. Smith in the Glasgow airport. A well-done, Gillian Flynn-like thriller set in London.  
32. The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. Book group. Dense, immersive read, which is probably why it was a National Book Award finalist and received crazy huge accolades from other authors and the press. Ultimately neither I nor anyone else in book group liked it. My choice, my bad.
33. Notes from a Small Country, Bill Bryson: I find that Bryson’s earlier work isn’t as funny as Walk in the Woods and In a Sunburned Country. His travels around Great Britain, though, were a great way to prolong my summer trip.
34. The End of Everything, Megan Abbott. More Megan Abbott, please.
35. Fictitious Dishes, Dinah Fried: Clever photographs of literary scenes.
36. The Golden Egg, Donna Leon: #22 in the series. Brunetti investigates bribery in the mayor’s office at Patta’s request and the untimely death of a Deaf-mute at Paola’s request.
37. Lethal People, John Locke (audio): Thriller with outrageous characters and situations. Really enjoyed laughing out loud as we listened on an Ely road trip to pick up the boys from their respective camps.
38. My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff (E): Started while staying at Yew Tree Farm. Enjoyed this very readable memoir for the publishing references and coming-of-age in NYC.
39. Morning Glories, volume 1, Nick Spencer: Chilling Orwellian-supernatural-boarding school mashup.
40. California, Edan Lepucki (e): Because Stephen Colbert said to. Postapocalyptic.
41. Oishinbo 02: Sake, Tesu Kariya: I was least interested in this subject, but this volume turned out to be my favorite (with sushi remaining).
42. Portage into the Past, J. Arnold Bolz: Journal of an epic canoe trip tracing the epic canoe trip of another adventurer. Bought at Piragis in Ely after hearing about Simon’s first portage through the BWCAW and Quetico.
43. The Summer Book, Tove Jansson: Twenty-two vignettes set during the summer on a Nordic island that follow a young girl and her aging grandmother.
44. Morning Glories, Volume 2. Nick Spencer: Continuation of Orwellian boarding school graphic novel.
45. Knitting Yarns, Ann Hood, ed.: Essays and stories about knitting. Delightful but always made me want to knit instead of read.
46. By Its Cover, Donna Leon: This is it! I have read every book in the Brunetti series. This mystery is set in a library and involves vandalism against rare books. The Grand Canal is lively and central to this episode.
47. Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan: Four ugly, unsympathetic character, but still enjoyed reading.
48. Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, Marta McDowell: An illustrated biography of Beatrix Potter and her love of gardening. Reading this was a great way to draw out memories of my summer trip, which included a stay at Potter’s Yew Tree Farm and a visit to Hill Top.
49. Delicious! Ruth Reichl: Smart, page-turning novel set at a defunct food magazine with the author’s carefully chosen autobiographical reference woven into story.
50. Lethal Experiment, John Locke (audio): Book two in Locke’s wildly successful bestselling, self-published series. Listened to on a road trip to Chicago during MEA break.
51. Still Life, Louise Penny: Smart writing, great character, intriguing setting--these are all things I look for in a mystery series.
52. Petite Mort, Beatrice Hitchman: Book group. This novel about a silent film, set in 1913 Paris, is told in exquisitely layered flashbacks. Gripping with a plot twist and great payoff. I loved it.
53. Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel: These stories, one of which seemed to be a study for Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, are a satisfying hors d’oevres while waiting for Thomas Cromwell volume 3.
54. The Age of License, Lucy Knisley: Another delightful graphic novel from Knisley. This time about travel.
55. Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham: Smart funny, honest, and sometimes a little raw.
56. Russ and Daughters, Mark Russ Federman: Episodic memoir of the fourth-generation Lower East Side appetizing store. It made me hungry for lox, whitefish salad, and bialys.
57. The Visitors, Sally Beauman: Death on the Nile meets Downton Abbey was an apt comparison. At 500 pages it was a not quick but comforting read.
58. Bark, Lorrie Moore: I found this long-awaited story collection to be lacking.
59. Winter Street, Elin Hilderbrand (E): Cozy, quick, seasonal read for the plane to PHL.
60. Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher: On all the year-end roundups. Local author. I found this short epistolary novel darkly funny and sometimes really sad.

Total: 60
Fiction: 46
Nonfiction:  14
Women: 42
Men: 18
Donna Leon: 5
Mysteries: 15
Rainbow Rowell: 2
Elin Hilderbrand: 2
Audio: 4
Post-apocalyptic: 2
Travel: 5
Food: 6
Graphic novels: 6
Stories: 5
E-books: 9
Shelf-sitters: 3
Memoirs/bio: 4
Book group: 4