Thursday, January 24, 2013

No-Fail Zone: Cook's Illustrated

Isn't it refreshing in today's world when a [fill in the blank] does what is says it will do? A company that delivers on time, or a soap scum remover that actually removes soap scum. Well, the Cook's Illustrated brand is one of those promise keepers. America's Test Kitchen publishes Cook's Illustrated, and not only do they test every recipe thoroughly until The Best Version can be found, they also test equipment and brand-name ingredients in order to suggest purchases, similar to Consumer Reports.

My favorite cookbook of the bunch is their comprehensive (890 pages) Cook's Illustrated Cookbook: 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of Recipes From America's Most Trusted Food Magazine (left). Normally I dislike cookbooks without photos, but this book does have occasional illustrations (hence the title). Also, I generally don't care about the science behind why this recipe is superior over all others, but some explanations can be insightful. Admittedly, some of their methods can be fussy: just their chocolate chip cookie or banana bread recipes are a bit more involved than most, but I have yet to find a recipe of theirs that does not come through. Ultimately, every recipe I have tried from any of the America's Test Kitchen venues (show on PBS, Cook's Illustrated magazine, Cook's Country magazine or cookbooks) is consistently good.

The great thing about this is, if you can read, measure, and generally follow directions, you're guaranteed to gain compliments on your finished products when you have the guidance of a Cook's Illustrated recipe. I just made the Cheese & Ham Impossible Pie from the February/March issue of Cook's Country and it was perfect, which I do not take credit for.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Happy Birthday, Edgar Allan Poe

One of America's greatest and strangest authors has a birthday this week; Edgar Allan Poe's brief and tragic life began January 19, 1809. In his forty years on this Earth he lived in extreme poverty, battled debilitating addiction, mourned the deaths of virtually every woman he ever loved, and, however improbably, penned immortal verses, invented the detective story, gave new resonance to the literary terms "macabre" and "bizarre," and left an indelible mark on world literature. Should you wish to celebrate this author's enduring legacy, I would encourage you to seek out The Library of America edition of his Poetry and Tales or the Penguin Classics edition of The Portable Edgar Allan Poe. Both collections contain exciting, suspenseful stories that have thrilled readers for over one-hundred-and-fifty years. For an overview of the author's troubled life, I recommend the biography The Haunted Palace: A Life of Edgar Allan Poe.

Friday, January 4, 2013

My Favorite Reads of 2012

Highly scientific selection criteria:
-All books were read from start to finish by me.
-I enjoyed reading them.
-They were published in 2012.
-Adult fiction, non-fiction and teen books are included.

My Top Ten Books of 2012:

My list this year is has an obvious girly bent, but with Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Gone Girl, I think it's been a pretty strong year for female authors.  If anyone has suggestions for books that I've overlooked (and I'm sure there are plenty), please leave them in comments!  And if you are really bored, you can check out all the 2012 books I've read.

10).  These Days Are Ours by Michelle Hamioff
As a big Paul Simon fan, I was all ready biased towards this novel because the title references his song "The Obvious Child."  Set in just post 9/11 NYC, this book is a coming of age story following a jobless but wealthy recent college graduate, Hailey.  The characters in this book are not always likeable, but they are very realistic.

9).  The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman
Fans of historical mysteries should check out this novel set in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the 1660s.  This book is quite dark and it took me fifty or so pages to get into it, but the characters are quite interesting, including a young but strong Dutch businesswoman, Blandine van Couvering, and a British spy, Edward Drummond.

8).  Objects of My Affection by Jill Smolinski
This is a great light read that still manages to be pretty smart.  Set in Oak Park, IL, Lucy Bloom is a single mom who just sold her house to send her nineteen year-old son to rehab.  Now broke, she takes a job cleaning the house of Marva Meier Rios- a famous artist and notoriously difficult woman and hoarder.  This book is funny, moving, and would make an interesting movie.  

7).  Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Set in England, the elderly Harold Fry receives a letter from an old friend Queenie saying that she is dying of cancer.  After failing to write a letter to properly impart his regrets, he decides to take an impromptu walking journey to visit her.  At first this book didn't sound like my cup of tea, but after several recommendations, I checked it out and I'm really glad I did.  Although it is sometimes a sad and existential book, it is occasionally very funny.

6).  Ten Girls to Watch by Charity Shumway
This novel is set in NYC and following a recent college graduate, Dawn, who gets a job working for a Glamour-esque magazine Charm.  She's in charge of tracking down past winners of the magazine's "Ten Girls to Watch" contest and is frankly just happy to have a job. The book has a fun, light premise, but it turned out to be way less formulaic and more inspiring than I initially would have guessed.  I really like the way the love triangle between Dawn, her ex-boyfriend and his new girlfriend, Lily, is resolved. 

5).  Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Everybody in the world (or at least this country) has probably read this book all ready.  I really enjoyed the first half of the book and after the big twist, I couldn't put the book down.  Dark Places is still my favorite book by Flynn, but Gone Girl is a great read.   

4).  Where'd You  Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
This is the funniest book on the list.  Bernadette Fox was once a brilliant architect but is now a very eccentric stay-at-home mom who hates her home city of Seattle and people in general.  After some increasingly odd behavior, Fox mysteriously goes missing before a promised trip to Antarctica.
3).  Wild by Cheryl Strayed
This is great, suspenseful memoir about Strayed's solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

2).  Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
This non-fiction book is a grand and absorbing read that takes place in modern day Mumbai.  Boo adds so many small details into the book that it reads like an excellent work of fiction, but is instead an incredible piece of journalism.

1).  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
John Green has been one of my favorite teen authors for a while and now he's gone and written a masterpiece!  This is an excellent novel about teens wrestling with existential issues, cancer and falling in love for the first time. 

Favorite Children books:

1).  Oh, No George by Chris Haughton
George is a dog who has trouble doing the right thing.  Will he learn from his lessons?

2).  Dragons Love Tacos by Adam Rubin
 Author Adam Rubin and illustrator Daniel Salmieri are a very funny duo.  I love their Those Darn Squirrels! books, but this simple tale of non-spicy taco loving dragons is my favorite of their work.

3).  This is Not My Hat by J. Klassen
Klassen is one of my favorite illustrator's working today.  His books have a very distinctive (and cool) look to them.  This darkly funny book is the follow up to last year's I Want My Hat Back.  

Favorite Cookbooks:

1).  Homemade Winter by Yvette van Boven
I was a really big van Boven first Home Made last year, and this book is equally as compelling.  The design of the book is really cool, with a mixture of gorgeous food pictures and quirky illustrations.  And the book is loaded with great recipes for cooks who want to try making their food from scratch. 

2).  Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles, and Snacks by Rick Bayless
Margaritas are probably one of my favorite cocktails to go with food, and this book by one of Chicago's greatest chefs has tons of very fancy twists on the margarita.  This is a great cookbook for parties.

3).  Joy the Baker by Joy Wilson
As an avid baker, I get tired of seeing recipes for the same desserts over and over again in cook books.  But this book has lots of new, usual recipes to discover like avocado cake or black pepper and goat cheese truffles.  Vegan recipes and single portion desserts are also included.  It's a refreshingly unique book.  Joy Wilson's blog of the same name is a also a good read for foodies. 

4).  Feast of Ice and Fire by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel
Inspired by the George R.R. Martin book series (Songs of Ice and Fire) which was turned into the HBO Series Game of Thrones, this book has lots of exotic ingredients and medieval flair.   I can't honestly say that I would make any of the recipes in the book, and I might even be a little bit afraid to eat some of the dishes.  However, it is really cool to browse.

5).  True Food by Andrew Weil
If you are looking for health conscious recipes, it's hard to to beat this beautifully photographed book. Best of all, Weil has recipes for cocktails!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Still Missing

If you're into twisty, psychological novels, sink your teeth into Still Missing by Chevy Stevens. The book opens after the protagonist, Annie, has survived a year-long captivity. As she discusses her obvious issues in therapy, we find out the horrific events that transpired during her captivity. Her captor's true identity is still a mystery and naturally, she is having trouble with re-adjusting to life after her ordeal.

Instead of a book about a cop investigating her abduction (though there is a detective that helps her), we get Annie piecing together her own clues to help heal herself. Even though the author opens with the biggest reveal: Annie survives, she manages to still throw a couple of curves at us. If it was possible for the crime to become even more despicable, it does. And then it does again.

I would recommend this title if you're a fan of Gillian Flynn's books.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
Find it in the catalog!