Monthly Archives: June 2012

Food Books I Love: the French edition

At any given time since I was 16, you could have called me, quite accurately, a Francophile. Lately though, this interest/mild obsession has been reinvigorated by some lovely books about France and – more importantly – French food.

I can trace my love of all things French back to high school when I made the romantic and wildly impractical decision to take French class instead of Spanish to fulfill my mandatory language credits. Those classes led to my participation in a high school trip to Europe (still not sure how I got my parents to pay for that one). It was three days in each of three cities: Edinburgh, London, and Paris.

Paris was my favorite and those three days are solidly etched in my mind as three of the best days of my life. Could this dramatic distinction be the result of the haze of nostalgia and hyperbole of teenage emotions? Possibly. But I did have a wonderful time.

There was one afternoon in particular that has always shined the brightest in my memory. It involves getting lost, as I often was before the age of smart phones. But this time, as my friends and I wandered the streets of Paris with little to no idea where we were, instead of nervously trying to figure my way back to something I knew and recognized, I embraced the adventure of the unknown.

In my memory, which is vivid if not 100% accurate, the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, Paris has put on its finest garb to greet the wide-eyed Alaskan high school students that wandered in its midst. Wandered with only a few francs each, I might add. After a couple of hours blissfully walking the streets looking at everything, but looking for nothing, we happened upon a bakery. Like you do in Paris. I’m not sure if it would have been up to snuff by Parisian standards, but to my taste buds it was ambrosia. We sat at a little round table out in the afternoon sun and shared a couple different pastries between us (remember the dearth of francs), each more delicious than the next.

I sat there outside that pastry shop, in my own version of heaven, and remember imagining myself living this life. Imagining what it would be like if I lived in this neighborhood, in that building up the street where each apartment has its own little balcony – mine would be the one with the overflowing flower pots that left just enough room for someone to stand among them and look out over the city. Imagining that this was my neighborhood bakery and that every evening on my way home from work I would stop in to buy myself a sweet treat for dessert. It was intoxicating, this imagining.

This experience, small (and a tad naïve) though it seems now that I retell it as an adult, was pivotal to me as a teenager on the road to becoming an adult. It opened my eyes to another way of life, to a big world that existed outside of my own experiences. I might have known, in theory, that there was a big world out there that I hadn’t seen, but the reality of it hit me like a smack in the face and left me dumbfounded and grinning.

This one afternoon, My Afternoon in Paris as the file in my brain reads, made me want more of that big world. I talked about this afternoon in college admissions essays, it inspired me to study abroad my junior year, it was one of those moments that shapes your life. And all over some pastries. Some damn good pastries.

The women in the books I review this week are certainly very different, from me and from one another, but they too embraced France, welcomed it into their lives and their imaginations, and it changed them.

My Life in France cover

My Life in France is beloved and iconic chef Julia Child’s autobiography. It spans her life, but really focuses on her time in France while she got her culinary education, both formally at Le Cordon Bleu and informally on the streets of Paris, and spent almost a decade writing her landmark cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

After reading this book, I wanted to be Julia Child’s best friend. And I wanted to move to France. Since neither of these things is likely to happen any time soon, I treasure the presence of this book in my life. I can pluck it from my bookshelf (or, ahem, check it out from the public library) any time I want and be instantly transported to Julia’s France – and oh! what a France it is. I defy anyone not to fall in love with the French locales described in this book. The colors, the smells, and, most of all, the tastes of all the places Julia and her beloved husband Paul lived and visited – from Paris to the port city of Marseille – will stay with you long after you finish reading.

And then there is Julia herself, whose character simply bursts off the pages. She has this big, fun, boisterous, passionate personality and you really come to feel as if you know her – as if she is speaking straight to you from across a little, round, Parisian table, telling you her stories.

Many of these stories are about her cookbook, her life’s work, and contain all the right kind of fascinating details about the process of its creation – making you feel like you are a lucky observer peeking into a wonderful, secret world you were never meant to see. Many other stories are personal ones of her life with her husband Paul. Their tender, solid relationship is the part of this book that I was least expecting, but most enjoyed. Their life as described in these pages – despite unavoidable hard times, including a brush with Senator McCarthy and a depressed period of living in Germany – is truly enviable,  full of adventure, laughter, mutual respect, and intense devotion.

This book was also, of course, the inspiration for the Julia-half of the 2009 movie Julie & Julia, written and directed by the late Nora Ephron.

Lunch in Paris cover

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard, is in many ways a similar tale of a woman who finds herself, both physically and symbolically, in France.

Elizabeth falls in love with a French man and moves to Paris where, after some hemming and hawing, she marries him. In many ways, however, this is just the beginning of the story. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to love in the recounting of this early phase of Elizabeth’s relationship with her eventual husband, Gwendal, including some very seductive recipes that I wanted to rush to my kitchen to make immediately.

The parts of Elizabeth’s experience that really spoke to me though, are the ones that go beyond the romantic ideal she seemed to be living. These are the stories about her struggles to build a new life – a stranger in a strange land. Her accounts of the loneliness she felt, how difficult it was to make friends, her attempts to understand French women’s nuanced attitudes toward food and body image, her integration into a new family. All told with an honesty that is inviting, an optimism that is inspiring, and a graceful wisdom that instructs.

The method of sharing her experiences in vignettes can sometimes feel a little choppy, simply because they can make the reader feel like there are parts of the story that are missing and you don’t want to miss one second of this engaging tale. The overall structure of the book is a success though – it is narrative and reads like a novel, but includes recipes at the end of each chapter that pair perfectly with the theme of what preceded.

Don’t forget that you can find reviews and rating for these, and other books for food-lovers on my Good Reads page!

Now, you’ll have to excuse me while I go find a pastry…

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A surfeit of strawberries

We recently found ourselves in possession of a half-flat of strawberries over here. How does one come to possess a half-flat of strawberries you might ask? Welllll, we might have been over-excited to finally see these little red jewels make their blushing debut at the farmers market, and we might have over-bought. I am not afraid of a challenge though, especially not one as delicious as using up six pints of strawberries in as many days.

half flat of strawberries

The first thing I did with the delicate, sweet berries, beside pop of few of them into my mouth, is mix them with some rhubarb, sugar, and cornstarch. I then put that mixture into some cute little ramekins and buried it under a buttery, slightly salty crumb topping. Into the oven they went where they baked into a jammy, stewy, deliciously unctuous crumble.

I halved this Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble recipe from 101cookbooks and split the goods into four personal-sized portions. Top with ice cream or whipped cream, of course.

strawberries!

After dessert, I was satiated enough to start thinking about other, non-dessert ways to use my cache of berries. And my thoughts went straight to breakfast. My go-to breakfast the past few months has been a bowl of Greek yogurt topped with defrosted frozen mixed berries. It’s healthy and just a little sweet. I could (and did), of course, add fresh strawberries to my yogurt, but I wanted something slightly more daring (I lead an exciting life).

First, I turned to this Rhubarb Compote from Cucina Nicolina. I’ve been making this compote on a weekly basis ever since rhubarb showed up in the market a month or two ago. This time, I substituted one stalk of the rhubarb for a half pint of strawberries and made a dreamy Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote that is just perfect swirled into my favorite yogurt.

compote

I wasn’t done with breakfast though. I also tucked some strawberries and my remaining rhubarb snugly into a parchment paper pouch, following this recipe from a recent Bon Appetit, and roasted them in a hot oven. They softened into a lightly sweetened slump that settles over a mound of morning yogurt like a thick, delicious blanket…the only blanket I might like better is the down comforter on my bed that I have to leave to eat said yogurt in the morning.

Almost halfway through the half-flat, I was gaining steam. Another issue of Bon Appetit (I was a couple behind) revealed a quick and easy Strawberry Jam recipe that did not require actual canning – no water bath, no pectin, no fuss. A shredded Granny Smith apple provides the thickening agent and the jam keeps in the fridge for two weeks – far longer than you will manage to keep it around, I assure you.

fixins

On the day I found myself with less than two pints left, I looked out my window to find another gray, wet, chilly Seattle day. Juneuary, the seasoned locals apparently call it. But not me. Me and my strawberries were going to make it feel like summer, come hell or high water (or incessant rain). To accomplish this feat of suspended disbelief, I turned to my friend Eve Fox and her recipe for childhood summers spent in the sun: Strawberry Mint Lemonade. I made a double batch.

strawberry lemonade

Less than a pint of strawberries left, and I had saved the best for last. You see, David has a weakness for biscuits. And I have a weakness for whipped cream (I will seriously just eat a bowl of it on its own if someone doesn’t hold me back). Strawberries + biscuits + whipped cream? That equals strawberry shortcake.

Not just any strawberry shortcake though. Weeks previously I had bookmarked the recipe for James Beard’s Strawberry Shortcake that Food52 was generous enough to share with the world. It has a secret ingredient. I always love the idea of a secret ingredient – an unexpected twist that makes a recipe unique and is passed down from generation to generation. My imagination of a secret ingredient and the story behind it rarely is satisfied by reality though. There are tons of recipes that say they have a secret ingredient, but it is something common sense that isn’t actually a secret at all. This is not one of those recipes. This secret ingredient is everything I want a secret ingredient to be – weird, unexpected, from a mom who discovered it years and years ago. And, most importantly, it totally makes a difference in the recipe!

strawberry shortcake!

These shortcakes are truly the best I’ve ever had. They are very rich, while at the same time being impossibly light. They have an extremely delicate crumb, while still holding together enough to be the vehicle you need to shovel strawberries and whipped cream into your face. See? The best. You will have to make them yourself to find out what the secret ingredient is…or just click on this link, but I promise you will want to make them yourself.

And thus ended my journey down a road paved with strawberries. I had used them all up. Sad! I think I will buy another half-flat this weekend…

strawberry mom and baby

Strawberry Recipes

If you find yourself in a similar position of overabundance this summer – or in the more rational position of having a pint or two of berries – you won’t be disappointed if you give one of these recipes a spin. What’s your favorite strawberry recipe?

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Filed under Breakfast, Dessert, Food, Odds & Ends

Telling my story with veggie curry

I’ve been thinking a lot for the past few days about my story, and about sharing that story through writing. This heightened level of contemplation is thanks to some very inspiring speakers I heard this past weekend at the BlogHer Food conference that was right here in Seattle (lucky me!)

Pike Place Market

This was the first time I had ever been to any type of conference or gathering about blogging – hell, it was the first time I had ever talked about my blog to anyone besides family members and close friends. It was exhilarating. I laughed, I cried, I learned a ton. When it was over, I left with a lot to think about, but also with special memories and even a few new friends. I could not have asked for a better experience.

And after a few days of decompressing and letting everything that was shoved into my brain over the weekend settle in, there is one thing that has continued to bounce around and push for my attention. It is this idea of story and how important it is to tell your own unique story with your own voice, however you do it – on a blog, in a journal, in a book, whatever.

I want to focus on doing that more in what I share with you here. I want to share my story with you. I hope you’ll want to read it.

love

It’s more difficult to do, of course. To talk about my life, the people I love or have loved, the things I care about.

Casey

It takes more work to find the words to describe memories that live, whether recent or distant, as wordless snapshots in my mind. They live as smells. As tastes. As colors. Many of them live as food.

Often they come up, rise to the surface unbidden, while I’m cooking. While I’m doing something like chopping an onion or, as happened a couple of days ago, while I’m peeling chickpeas – a meditative (read: tedious) activity if ever there was one. It is during times like this, at the stove or the cutting board, deep in the well-worn motions of cooking that I know by heart, that my mind is calm and free to wander into little nooks and crannies it hasn’t visited for a while.

Peeling those chickpeas took me back to the first time I realized that I could cook. And not just that I could do it, but that I was good at it, that it was fun, that I loved it.

chickpeas

I was vegan at the time and was with a boyfriend that did not support that choice, to put it mildly, so it was kind tough going. (He’s not my boyfriend anymore.) That year that I was vegan though, it was a year of growth – I learned a lot about myself and about how to cook.

The night this particular dish came about I was home alone and hadn’t planned dinner, which generally meant I would be eating cereal and soy milk. On this night though, I remembered a recipe for a veggie curry from one of my vegan cookbooks that I really wanted to make. I looked it up and I was missing half the ingredients. I sighed and closed the book. But then, the little cheerleader inside my head decided that I was going to make the dish anyways, that I could do it and that it would be great! So I did.

veggies

I went into the kitchen and pulled every vegetable that I had out of the fridge and freezer. I pulled out a forgotten container of chickpeas, the remainder from a can used a few days earlier. I pulled out all the Indian-sounding spices in my cupboard. And I went to work.

I chopped and tasted and added a little of this and a little of that. What I came up with was delicious. I literally danced and clapped over my stove as I tasted the finished dish. I was happy not only because I had made myself a tasty and nutritious dinner, but because somewhere during the process of doing so I discovered that I. Could. Cook.

Of course, I was feeling so good about my instinct-driven, self-discovery-prompting dish that I didn’t write the recipe down…but maybe it’s better that way, since the beauty of it was in its spontaneity. I dug up the recipe that inspired it the other day and made another variation – again using the veggies and spices I had on hand at the time – that was equally as delicious and satisfying.

This time, I wanted to share it with you. I hope you’ll make your own version and that it leaves you with a story to tell.

Creamy Vegan Veggie Curry

Creamy Vegan Vegetable Curry

Adapted from The Survivor’s Handbook
Makes 4-5 servings

As is probably apparent by the story of my first go-round with this curry, you can really make it your own. Use whatever vegetables you happen to have in your fridge or whatever is seasonal. Just keep the general proportions of veggies to spices to coconut milk the same and you won’t be disappointed. Serve it over brown rice, or just slurp it up with a spoon.

Also, it probably doesn’t need to be said, but just in case: this is in no way an authentic Indian curry…it’s a white-girl-with-a-stocked-spice-cabinet curry, just so we’re clear.

  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 large carrots, diced
  • 2-3 stalks celery, diced
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 medium potato, cubed
  • 1 cup cabbage, shredded
  • 1 1/2 cup kale, chopped
  • 1/2 cup frozen corn
  • 1 15-ounce can (2 1/2 cups) chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1 14-ounce can coconut milk (light or regular)
  • 1/4 cup water or vegetable broth (I like my curry thinner, omit this if you want it thicker)
  • 1 cup frozen peas
  • 3 tbsp soy sauce
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Other vegetables you could use in this recipe instead of/in addition to what is listed above:

  • Cauliflower florets, chopped
  • Broccoli florets, chopped
  • Mushrooms, sliced
  • Spinach, chopped
  • Green onions, sliced
  • Asparagus, diced
  • Bok choy, chopped
  • Swiss chard, chopped
  • Bell pepper, diced
  • Zucchini or other summer squash, diced
  • Green beans, diced
  • Leeks, chopped
  • Sweet potato, diced

In a large saucepan or soup pot, sauté the onions, garlic, carrots, and celery in oil over medium-high heat for 5-8 minutes.

Add the remaining vegetables and all spices, cook for 2-4 minutes, stirring often.

Add the coconut milk, cover, and reduce heat to medium-low, simmer for 10-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. If you’re not using potato, cook until all your vegetables reach your desired level of done-ness.

Stir in the peas and soy sauce and turn heat up to medium-high, cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has thickened.

Serve over brown rice, or on its own.

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Food Books I Love: The Butcher and the Vegetarian by Tara Austen Weaver

Although this blog is called BookLoverCook, there has been much more cooking than book-loving going on in my posts so far. I figure it’s time to change that since reading holds a place in my heart that is equal to (if not dearer than) cooking. So, I’m going to start sharing some of my favorite food-related books with you. Yes, I love LOTS of other types of books too, but we’re working with a theme here, people.

Each time I do one of these cook-ish-book-ish posts I will tell you about one specific book, but you can also follow my reading and wish-I-were-reading activities on GoodReads by either viewing my entire profile or checking out my bookshelf dedicated to books for food-lovers. And as soon as WordPress gets its s*&^ together and offers the capability, I will also include a little widget for my food-lovers bookshelf from the sidebar of the site. Yay reading!

Rocco loves reading

The book I want to tell you about today is called The Butcher and the Vegetarian by one of my favorite bloggers, Tara Austen Weaver of the blog Tea & Cookies. Tara also happens to live in Seattle and has often inspired me with a well-timed blog post or tweet about our fair but rainy city. I had been meaning to read this book for a while – ever since I first discovered Tara and her wonderful blog – and I was finally able to do it recently over my Spring Break.

The Butcher and the Vegetarian cover

It may not surprise you to hear that I like books that have to do with food, eating, and what food we choose to eat. Despite being happily vegetarian, however, I do not like books that are sensational or too prescriptive when it comes to choosing what to eat, especially when the choice is about whether or not to eat meat. I think that choice is a personal one with no easy answer, so I don’t like authors who try to make it black and white. That is why I thoroughly enjoyed The Butcher and the Vegetarian. Reading it felt like sitting down with a cup of tea and talking with an old friend about an issue that we both care deeply about.

We learn early on that Tara has been a vegetarian since birth – a serious Northern California, 1970’s, brown rice-sprouts-no salt vegetarian. So when her doctor recommends she start eating meat for her health, it presents quite a crisis. Her ensuing quest to figure out not only what she wants to eat, but also what her body wants her to eat – what makes her feel healthy – is honest and deeply personal.

For her, this is no mere intellectual exercise, her poor health demands that she find a diet that works for her, and to do that she has to try everything, from including meat to cutting out dairy (gasp, no cheese!) to eating totally raw. In the process she attempts to understand the implications behind her dietary choices, visiting a cattle yard and a slaughterhouse among other things, and grapples with the ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise.

Such an experiment with one’s own body is not for the faint of heart and I felt, as a reader, honored that Tara was willing to give me such an intimate window into what was a sometimes emotional, sometimes confusing and frustrating, but always hopeful experience.

And luckily, the serious subject matter is balanced out by her voice as a narrator, which is approachable, conversational, and funny. I often laughed out loud while reading about her attempts to order meat in a decidedly unfriendly butcher shop, her surreptitious visit to a meat-only barbecue, and her effort to understand the appeal and mystique behind the male-dominated world of the steak house.

This book was a joy to read, even while forcing me to think differently about issues I thought I already had a pretty firm grasp on. If you are at all interested in food issues – or even if you’re not and you just love a good memoir with a narrator you really get to know – I suggest you give The Butcher and the Vegetarian a read. Tara also recently published a new book called Tales from High Mountain: Stories and Recipes from a Life in Japan, which is currently making its way up my to-read list.

If you have any suggestions of your own for food-related books you think I should read, please let me know in the comments!

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