In her introduction to this book, Samin Nosrat talks about salt, fat, acid, and heat as “the four cardinal directions of cooking”; in his foreword, Michael Pollan (who learned to cook from Nosrat) talks about how this book will teach you to use those things in combination “to build striking new layers of flavor in whatever you cook” (4, 2). Nosrat writes well, and I like the way she combines food memories and stories (the Persian food her mom made when she was a kid, learning how much salt to use while working in the kitchen at Chez Panisse) with food science and instructions/recommendations for cooking (I realized, while reading this book, that I don’t think I could previously have explained exactly how baking soda and baking powder work, even though I like to bake). Nosrat’s prose is nicely complemented by Wendy MacNaughton’s beautiful and fun color illustrations of everything from pasta shapes to the colors of caramelized/caramelizing sugar to a tote bag overflowing with vegetables.

I learned a bunch of things from this book, like: you should salt eggs before scrambling them because the salt “helps their proteins come together at a lower temperature, which decreases cooking time”—meaning the eggs retain more water and are moister and softer (33). Or like: if you want a citrus-flavored olive oil, look for the ones with agrumato on the label, which “are made using a traditional technique of milling whole citrus fruit with the olives at the time of the first press” (66). I learned about layering salt (combining different salting methods and kinds of salt/salty ingredients for the effect you want) and about how we use fat when cooking or baking to create different textures (crispness, tenderness, flakiness, lightness). I learned that you should “let all meats—except for the thinnest cuts—come to room temperature before you cook them” (151). And I learned that “legumes, fruits, and vegetables will cook much more slowly in the presence of acid” and that you add vinegar to the water when poaching eggs because “acid encourages the proteins in an egg white to assemble, or coagulate, more quickly but less densely than they otherwise would” (112-113).

The second part of the book—the recipes and menus and variations—felt less useful to me, largely because a lot of it felt overly ambitious in one way or another. There are recipes with techniques I either don’t want to try at home (deep-frying) or can’t try at home because I live in a city apartment/don’t have outdoor space or a grill (smoking things). Anything involving a whole chicken, or chicken stock that I’m supposed to have made from scratch, seems too daunting to me. The likelihood of me cooking pasta with clam sauce, or four pounds of pork shoulder, feels low. Part of the problem is that I like one-pot meals, or at least, one pot plus one tray roasting in the oven, and most of the menu suggestions in this book are not that kind of cooking. Some of the yogurt sauces sound delicious (like: Persian Herb and Cucumber Yogurt, with mint and walnuts, garnished with dried crumbled rose petals, or Persian Beet Yogurt, with tarragon and red wine vinegar), but if I’m not roasting a whole chicken, I’m not sure what I’d eat them with. The things I felt like I might actually make were all sweet ones, like olive oil and sea salt granola, or meringues with cardamom, or flavored whipped cream (scented with rosewater, or made with cream steeped with Earl Grey tea or bay leaves). That said, I learned enough from the first half of the book that I’m still glad I read it, and if you’re a different kind of cook than I am, the recipes may be exactly what you’re looking for.

I read Relish in the middle of a week-long vacation that started with amazing food in New Orleans (still-warm house-made potato chips! fried oyster slider! maple sriracha donut with candied thyme! lamb neck and beet green curry! condensed-milk cake with chicory ice cream and Meyer lemon sauce!) and proceeded to less-than-amazing food on Grand Cayman (with the exception of an Australian-fusion restaurant where I had a perfect Aussie-style burger, complete with beet, pineapple, bacon, cheese, and fried egg). We didn’t have a kitchen in New Orleans and only had a microwave and toaster in Grand Cayman: it was a week in which I ate every meal out and sometimes (particularly toward the end of it) thought longingly about my kitchen at home, although to be honest, before vacation I’d been spending more time climbing at Brooklyn Boulders (and going out to eat afterwards) than I had grocery shopping and cooking.

Relish is a memoir in comic-strip form, with recipes, though the recipes weren’t the main draw for me. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some delicious-sounding recipes in this book, but many of them felt not quite right for my kitchen. The marinated lamb looks amazing, but a five-pound cut of lamb is definitely a meal for more people than I cook for; I love huevos rancheros but they seem pretty labor-intensive for a meal that doesn’t produce leftovers; sweet-potato sushi is great, but I’m pretty sure the cheap sushi place around the block does it better than I could. I don’t really need recipes for mushrooms sauteed in butter and oil, or pesto, or pickles; I don’t see myself making sangria, or vegan shepherd’s pie (I don’t like seitan, or margarine, for that matter). Which leaves me with three recipes I wanted to make: chai, chocolate chip cookies with coconut flakes, and spaghetti carbonara.

I made the cookies first, and found myself wondering about a lot of things as I went. Salted butter, or unsalted? Light brown sugar, or dark brown sugar? Sweetened, moistened coconut flakes, or the organic unsweetened kind, which aren’t moistened? “Drop onto an ungreased baking pan” – by the what? Tablespoon? Heaping, or not? How far apart should I put them? How many cookies is this recipe meant to make? (I ended up with 52!) Having made cookies before, I made educated guesses, and the cookies turned out delicious (maybe it’s a very forgiving recipe) and I’m very much in favor of cookie recipes that use melted butter/don’t assume you have an electric mixer, but if I were totally new to baking, this wouldn’t be the recipe I’d want to start with. Next came the spaghetti carbonara: this recipe, too, was not as clear as I would have liked (what heat am I cooking things over? how long does it take pancetta to cook?), but it was amazing comfort food: salty and cheesy and hearty. I haven’t made the chai yet, but I will, and I’m excited to have chai concentrate with anise and cinnamon and cardamom and cloves in my fridge waiting to be heated up.

But, like I said, the recipes weren’t even why I wanted to read this book. Knisley clearly knows and loves food, and her food-related stories from her childhood and young adulthood were what I was most interested in. Knisley writes about how food memories are her most vivid, and she writes about some of them evocatively. “I can remember exactly the look and taste of a precious honey stick, balanced between my berry-stained fingers,” she writes, near the start of the book, and I thought about summer warmth and honey sweetness and the way the plastic straw of a honey stick feels between your teeth. Knisley spent her early childhood in New York City and writes about a Tribeca that’s long vanished, and also writes about the Hudson Valley (where she moved with her mom when she was seven) and Chicago (where she went to school), with chapters about trips to Mexico, Japan, and Italy, too. She writes about how her chef mother made crème brûlée for her school birthday when she was seven, and about milking goats and starting to like the country after initially hating it, and about eating corn on a stick with lime and hot sauce in Mexico, and about the apricot-jam-filled croissants she ate in Venice, but couldn’t recreate at home. Possibly my favorite part of the book isn’t really about food, though it’s a story that happened because Knisley was working for her mom’s catering company: before she left for art school, Knisley helped out at the DIA Beacon preopening reception, and had a chance to be alone with the big Richard Serra sculptures, whose size and presence she captures well in one full page panel and two half-page panels.

I like the stories, and I like Knisley’s drawing style, particularly in the chapter on Japan (which is looser than the rectangular grid of much of the book, and has some great images, like a cluster of “jewel-color umbrellas”) and when she’s drawing places (her uncle’s store in Tribeca, DIA Beacon, San Miguel de Allende seen from above, the kitchens at Alinea). The episodic structure of the book meant that some chapters felt a lot stronger than others, or maybe I just like reading about travel more than I like reading about cheese. Another problem: when Knisley tries to speak broadly rather than strictly personally (e.g. about junk food and the possible place it has in all our lives, as opposed to just the place it has/has had in her life) she sometimes comes off as preachy or overreaching (like: “Most of us seem to have problems with moderation, but junk food shouldn’t be written off entirely!” – above a drawing of angry overweight people shouting “It’s all McDonald’s fault!”), Still, I enjoyed Relish, for Knisley’s stories about food, and for the way the book made me want to engage with my kitchen again.

Vintage Cakes is the kind of book that should be really appealing to me. Julie Richardson, who owns Baker & Spice Bakery in Portland, Oregon, inherited the contents of an old filing cabinet from the previous bakery that was in the space Baker & Spice now inhabits. As she writes in the introduction to this book, that filing cabinet turned out to be

“a gold mine of baking formulas, journals, and magazines dating back to the 1920s. These were gems from a time when a cup cake was a “cup cake,” a cookie was a “cooky,” and the word “goober” was synonymous with peanut.”

Richardson used the contents of that filing cabinet, plus vintage cookbooks and other old recipes, to come up with the recipes in this book, which are updated for modern kitchens/tastes.

My problem, I guess, is that the recipes are a little too updated. Basically all of them assume you have a stand mixer, which I don’t have, and it’s hard for me to get a sense of which ones would be fine to attempt by hand vs. which ones wouldn’t. (I don’t even have an electric hand mixer, though I do have an immersion blender with a whisk attachment that I can use for whipping cream or egg whites.) “The Cake Baker’s Battery,” at the start of the book, also recommends having “an electronic baking scale” and “lots of mixing bowls, in all sizes” (um – I have two – a big one and a not so big one)—all of which kind of made me feel like this book is for people with suburban kitchens, not me.

The “Hasty Cakes” section starts promisingly, though: Richardson says many of these “don’t even need a mixer or more than one bowl.” But then there are the ingredients: Berry Long Cake with Ginger Crumb is out of the question in New York in November: berries aren’t in season here right now. Rhubarb Pudding Cake won’t do for the same reason. Shoo-Fly Cake is a molasses-and-spice cake that sounds great, but calls for a cup of coffee…and I only drink tea at home. (I guess I could buy a bottle of Stumptown cold-brew and heat it, since the recipe says the coffee can be reheated/not fresh.) Mississippi Mud Cupcakes with Marshmallow Frosting have the same issue. Other cakes in other sections of the book call for pans I don’t have, like a tube pan, or a Bundt pan, or an “angel food cake pan with feet,” whatever that might be. But others would only require a trip to the grocery store for things like buttermilk or sliced almonds or canola oil. Sometimes recipes helpfully offer substitutions for different seasons, but I would have liked it if they’d been more precise: there’s a chocolate apricot upside-down cake, for example, with cocoa and fresh cardamom: it sounds delicious. It uses fresh apricots, but the notes suggest substituting pitted sour cherries or fresh cranberries if apricots aren’t in season. Well, it’s getting to be cranberry season – but how many cranberries? The recipe doesn’t say. I guess as many cranberries as would equate, in volume, to 6 medium apricots sliced into quarters: but it’s a little intimidating to be trying to estimate that on my own.

The book itself is visually appealing, with great color photography and food styling—my local library only has this as an ebook, so I read it on my computer, and I suspect the pictures probably look even better on paper. And the recipes that didn’t call for pans I didn’t have or out-of-season fruits sounded good, sometimes really good. There’s a layer cake that involves burnt-sugar syrup, maple syrup in the cake, and maple cream cheese frosting—mmm. By the time I finished the book, I’d noted down 21 different cakes (out of just over 50 cake recipes) that I might want to make, ranging from ones that sound pretty easy (Wacky Cake, Lazy Daisy Oatmeal Cake, Blueberry Cornmeal Skillet Cake, Ozark Pudding Cake) to kind of complicated (Double Dip Caramel Cake, Blackout Cake, that aforementioned maple cream cheese concoction). But I didn’t actually bake any of them, which is more a problem of timing on my part rather than a failure of the book to inspire. (Among other things: I finished this book right before the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Standing in the 10-items-or-fewer line at the grocery store on Saturday was bad enough; buying cake ingredients would have pushed me into the non-express lines, and, well, no.) I might check this book out again in the future, and maybe next time I’ll even bake something from it.

I picked this book up from the library after my boyfriend heard about it on NPR, and while I don’t like it enough to want to buy it, it was fun to read through. The subtitle, “150 Recipes and Ramblings from America’s Best Restaurants on Wheels,” gives a pretty good idea of what you’re in for. Edge is an enthusiastic eater of street food in various cities around the world—but this book, as the subtitle notes, focuses on America, and specifically on food from food trucks or carts, rather than street food more broadly, e.g. in the sense of food from to-go windows or kiosks. Edge provides the narrative text—which includes a bit about his own experiences as a hot dog vendor, plus stories about the food truck scene in cities from Austin to Minneapolis and short blurbs about the different trucks he’s visited; the recipes, and most of the photographs, are by Angie Mosier.

The first few chapters, alas, were pretty uninspiring to me: chapter one focuses mostly on fries, croquettes, and other things that involve deep-frying, which isn’t really something I want to attempt in my own kitchen. I’d happily order some of these things from a truck—sweet potato fries with garlic, cilantro, and lime sound great, and so do fried yucca chips with a garlic-cilantro mayo, and so do chickpea-flour fries with lemon aioli. This chapter also includes savory hand-pies, some of which (like huitlacoche empanadas or Jamaican meat patties) are fried, and others of which aren’t. The non-fried ones, like chicken/cheddar/bacon pasties or sweet potato and Swiss chard pies, seem more like recipes I might attempt—particularly the latter, which features coconut milk in the filling—although, honestly, I’m more likely to make a casserole with a similar flavor profile. The next chapter, on “waffles & their kin,” also had more recipes I’d be tempted to order out than to make at home: I don’t have a waffle iron and don’t actually like waffles that much; I like crepes, and coconut veggie chicken crepes sound brilliant—but making crepes from scratch sounds better left to the experts.

Things pick up as the book goes on: there are great breakfast/brunch recipes, like the brilliant idea of scrambled eggs + blanched green beans, which are served in taco form at Taqueria Las Palmitas in Houston. (Also brilliant: breakfast sandwiches with eggs, blanched broccoli rabe, and provolone, which are served at MikeyD’s Grill in Philadelphia.) There are two recipes from a truck in Madison called Buraka that sounded great: one is a chicken peanut stew that sounds wonderfully hearty, with potatoes, chickpeas, chicken, and peanut butter, and another is a vegetarian dish with lentils and sweet potatoes and a North African spice mix that includes paprika, cardamom, and lots of other deliciousness. A vegetarian jambalaya from the Swamp Shack in Portland sounds like a good way to use beets and parsnips, and I also totally want to make toritos (scroll down on that page), which are peppers stuffed with mozzarella and wrapped in bacon. There are lots of hot dog/burger/slaw/relish recipes that sound tasty, but not tasty enough that I really am inspired to make them; ditto for the tacos and other Mexican-inspired fare, though I could see myself making kimchi quesadillas (the recipe in this book is not exactly this recipe but is very similar).

The chapter on desserts was also pretty good—though I will not be making homemade marshmallows anytime soon (tried once, it was difficult and not that rewarding), I totally want to make these oatmeal/jam cookies and these flourless peanut butter sandwich cookies … Hm, both of those are from the Treats Truck – maybe I’d be better off with The Treats Truck Baking Book?

This book’s subtitle is “Recipes and Stories from 31 Restaurants That Put Brooklyn on the Culinary Map:” I’ve lived in Brooklyn for coming up on seven years now, and of those 31 restaurants, I’ve been to exactly three: applewood (literally down the block from where I lived for five and a half years, great food, outstanding cocktails, and cozy atmosphere—with a fireplace!; this is and has been my go-to restaurant for birthday dinners for a while now) and Beer Table (I’ve only been once, but it was a great experience, with delicious honey mead and yummy food: I plan to go back), and iCi (I’ve never been for dinner, but I had a very good brunch there once). But I’d heard of most of the others, and some (Egg, Palo Santo, Rose Water) have been on my list of places I would like to try for some time now.

Meanwhile, I like cooking, but I have no delusions about my cooking aptitude: I am slow at chopping; I don’t have much patience for long/involved recipes; I’m still squeamish about cooking meat (though I make exceptions for bacon and sausage). It’s unlikely that I’ll ever want to make Pan-Roasted Chicken with Sweet Potato Strudel, Adobo, and Brussels Sprouts, especially given that the adobo requires a pound of chicken gizzards, even if “everything except the chicken can be done ahead” (12). But it sounds delicious, and having read about it means I might think of going to The Grocery for some future special-occasion dinner.

And that’s what I wanted to read this book for: to learn more about the restaurants, and for the stories about them that the subtitle promises. The stories are mostly little snippets about the restaurants, two pages per story (with pictures) preceding the recipes from a particular restaurant: interesting, but I often wanted more. The best parts of the stories are the moments where the Vaughans write about their own dining experiences at the restaurants, not just general notes about the food or how the restaurant started: their pleasure in good food really comes across when they’re writing about their memories of eating it. There are also interviews with Brooklyn-based food/drink producers like Shane Welch of Sixpoint Craft Ales, Jon Orren of Wheelhouse Pickles, and Betsy Devine of Salvatore Bklyn, all of which were really fun to read. And the photos, by Michael Harlan Turkell, are excellent, whether they’re of some interesting detail (glass seltzer bottles, pussy willows in a restaurant window and the reflection of a brownstone across the street), or of a restaurant’s space (the bar at James, the back garden at iCi), or of food.

As previously mentioned, the recipes are a bit out of my league—but there are a few exceptions. The blueberry crumble from DuMont would be manageable for me, and so would their ridiculously rich-looking mac & cheese. I could handle the Pappardelle with Zucchini, Roasted Tomatoes, and Rosemary from Aliseo Osteria del Borgo, and the Spaghetti alle Vongole from Al Di Là would be good, too, if I liked clams. The M’hamsa Couscous with Almonds and Spicy Raisins from Bklyn Larder looks easy and delicious, and there’s a delicata squash recipe from Vinegar Hill House that sounds both decadently buttery and manageable. Still, I don’t think I’ll actually be cooking anything from this book, so it’s good that I got it from the library rather than buying it, but I am glad I read it.

The idea of The Food Matters Cookbook is simple: eat fewer animal products and processed foods; eat more whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruits and vegetables. There are lots of reasons you might want to eat this way, and Bittman mentions a few in his introduction (health, ethics, environment), but this really is a cookbook, not a polemic. I checked it out from the library in December and have been renewing it since—either no one else wants it, or there are enough copies that no one’s got holds on it—but I hadn’t actually looked at it much, and it was starting to make me feel a little guilty. So on Friday night after dinner I sat down with a glass of pinot noir and this book and started exploring.

I wasn’t thrilled by a big chunk of the “Appetizers and Snacks” section: I want to cook meals, not finger food. But some of the recipes are pretty exciting. It’s not green bean season where I live, but if it were, I’d totally be making the Spicy-Sweet Green Beans with an almond/garlic/dried chile/olive oil paste, honey, and soy sauce. Having a nut + dried fruit mix on hand for snacking seems like a good idea, and I love the sound of Chile-Cherry Gorp (peanuts, dried cherries, chili powder, cayenne) and Coconut-Curry Gorp (pistachios, golden raisins, unsweetened coconut, and curry powder). And roasted cooked chickpeas topped with five spice powder sounds like a perfect side dish to have on hand for adding to packed lunches—my poor lunchbox has been neglected since early December because I’ve been buying lunch out or else just bringing soup + fruit, rather than four different delightful things. Chipotle-glazed squash skewers sound too fussy for me, but I could just make the squash and the glaze, no skewers, right? And baked mushroom-sesame rice balls sound great. Conclusion: maybe I like the idea of some finger food, when it’s reasonably simple and seems like the kind of thing that would be just as good as leftovers as when just-made.

Next up: soups. Back in December, I made a butternut squash + bacon + apple + sage chowder from this book, and it was delicious, with roasted onions making a rich brown broth, like French onion soup. Other soups from this book that caught my eye: Curried Tomato Soup (with coconut milk)! Vegetable-Lentil Soup with Fragrant Broth (which Bittman describes as being based around “onion and garlic, cooked until they nearly melt together”)! Black Bean and Rice Soup with Carrot Relish! Creamy Carrot and Chickpea Soup (which includes orange juice and chopped almonds)! Please pardon all the exclamation points—as I’ve mentioned, soup is one of my favorite things to make.

Today (Sunday), I actually started cooking some of these things. First up was the roasted butternut squash, which is quite satisfying to prepare: after putting your cubed squash on a cookie sheet greased with olive oil, you make the chipotle glaze. This involves fishing some chipotle peppers out of a can and chopping them, then mixing them with a mortar and pestle with some of the adobo sauce from the can, more olive oil, honey, and salt and black pepper. (This is the really fun part, because the mixture is liquid enough that it’s quick to mix together, and watching everything combine is exciting.) You then put this on the squash, put it in the oven, and roast it for an hour-ish, during which time your kitchen is filled with the heavenly smoky-sweet smell of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Mmm. Next, since I already had the oven on, I figured I’d make the roasted chickpeas. If you’re using canned chickpeas—which I did—then this couldn’t be any easier: you rinse your chickpeas, drain them, combine them in an oven-proof skillet with some olive oil, and roast for 15 minutes, then toss them with a tablespoon of one of a number of spices Bittman suggests (I used five spice powder).

Later, after a walk through the park/to the library/to get a cortado, I made soup for dinner: the Curried Tomato Soup, to be precise. It’s got a carrot and some potatoes in it, and garlic and ginger and jalapeño, and coconut milk, tomatoes-from-a-carton, and cauliflower, and you garnish your bowl with hard-boiled egg, and it’s quite delicious and satisfyingly full of vegetables. The last recipe of the day was Crisp Marinated Brussels Sprouts, except there were no Brussels sprouts at the farmers market yesterday, so I used broccoli instead, which Bittman suggests. Again, easy: boil some broccoli, drain it, shock it in ice water, drain it again, then toss it in a vinaigrette made of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and Dijon mustard, with some chopped red onion. Bittman instructs you to taste the vinaigrette as you go, adding more vinegar to taste; I did, and added significantly more mustard, too.

Now I’ve got a bunch of food in the fridge for lunches this week, and I’m feeling quite pleased, both with myself and with this cookbook. Bittman’s instructions are always straightforward, and I like that he gives plenty of variations (for sauces/dressings with different flavor profiles) and substitutions (so if a given vegetable isn’t available, you have a sense of what might work instead).

Having spent some more time with this cookbook, I can now share some general things I do and don’t like about it. For starters: every bulleted list in this book (and there are many of them) uses hearts as bullet points. This gets old really quickly. Another small annoyance: all recipes in this book that use eggs call for extra-large ones, rather than the large eggs that most other cookbooks seem to use (and that I normally buy). Also: lots of recipes seem to call for garlic-flavored oil, which I don’t quite get—why not just use garlic? On the plus side: the photographs, by Lis Parsons, are all beautiful, whether they’re of cooked dishes, raw ingredients, or miscellaneous-stuff-around-the-kitchen. Also satisfying is the tone of gentle encouragement throughout the book, starting with the introduction, which contains passages like this:

We all dream about the perfect kitchen with its well-appointed fittings, gleaming surfaces, and top-of-the-range equipment. It’s both roomy and cozy at the same time, boasting lots of space and lots of light, but most of all it is the setting for our ideal life. This is a kitchen that I’ve never cooked in, let alone written about.

Whatever stove you have, it has to work for you, however haphazardly. However restricted the space, that has to work for you, too. However dated the design, it must work for you. And it will. (XV)

After the introduction, there’s a section called “Kitchen Caboodle,” which lists the kitchen items that Nigella finds essential/helpful/not worth buying. It’s interesting, though probably more useful for someone setting up house for the first time (or just getting into cooking) than someone who’s been cooking a while: I pretty much have every kitchen gadget I want or need, with the exception of a free-standing mixer (which Nigella recommends) and an ice-cream maker (which Nigella does not), and honestly, neither of those fit into my current kitchen/lifestyle. Maybe someday. Tangential rant: when Nigella lists a “healthy-eating electric grill” as a kitchen item she never should’ve purchased (I agree, I’ve never seen the appeal of these), we get this: “But just as (and here’s an unlikely issuer of the utterance in question) Samuel Beckett said that “probably nothing in the world arouses more false hopes than the first four hours of a diet,” so there is nothing that arouses more pleasurable self-delusion than those swollen, sleepless, post-prandial hours when, yes, actually a diet tomorrow seems positively welcoming” (9). Really? Did this part of the book not get fact-checked? A quick Google search does pull up many results attributing this quote to Samuel Beckett—which does indeed seem unlikely—but pulls up more results saying it comes from a comedian named Dan Bennett, which seems more likely to me.

But on to the recipes! The early recipes in this book are pretty quick and easy-seeming: they’re grouped in sections called “What’s for supper?” and “Hurry up! I’m hungry!” and aim to get good food on the table quickly. They’re pretty meat-centric, and lots of them aim to be reasonably kid-friendly. I was not tempted by the Sloppy Joe-style “Barbecued ground beef,” or by the Sweet and sour chicken whose sauce features ketchup, apricot jam, soy sauce, pineapple juice, and rice wine vinegar. I was definitely not tempted by Spaghetti with Marmite. I was tempted by the “Cheesy chili”—more on that soon. If it were summer and I had an abundance of basil to use, I’d totally be making the Pasta alla genovese, which features potatoes, green beans, and a “pesto” sans pine nuts.

Some of the meat or shellfish recipes in these early sections of the book sound great, both simple and sophisticated—the mussels cooked in hard cider instead of beer, or the lamb steaks with a rosemary and port sauce or the scallops with Thai-scented pea puree—but that sort of meal would be a special occasion dinner for me, not the kind of thing I cook regularly. My ordinary cooking life doesn’t have the organization or forethought or coordination necessary for making a meal of, say, lamb steaks plus mashed potatoes plus green beans, and the mussels or scallops would require waiting on the long Saturday-morning line at the fish stand at the Grand Army Plaza farmers market: not impossible, but not very likely, either.

I’m much more likely to make and enjoy a one-dish meal, some kind of soup or stew or casserole. And so: the chili. It features chorizo and ground beef (both of which I got at the farmers market, though the recipe isn’t really clear as to whether it calls for fresh sausage or the dried Spanish kind), plus canned kidney beans, canned tomatoes and tomato paste, water, cocoa powder, oregano, Worcestershire sauce, and fresh mozzarella. I don’t think I’ve ever met a chili recipe that featured mozzarella (or Worcestershire sauce, for that matter) until now, but OK. I live mere blocks from an Italian-food store where I can walk in on a Sunday morning at 11 and buy a still-warm ball of fresh mozzarella, so I figured I might as well go with it. The chorizo I used was from Flying Pigs Farm (who also sell the most beautiful eggs I have ever cooked with), and the beef was from Wilklow Orchards. Once we started cooking, I realized we didn’t actually have any Worcestershire sauce, so we chucked in soy sauce instead, guessing (correctly) that we wouldn’t be able to taste it in the end. While it’s mild and subtle and not terribly revelatory, this chili was delicious, and satisfying for such a quick meal.

Other things I might want to make: the “Mexican lasagne” (tortillas instead of pasta, canned black beans and canned corn), which looks yummy though it uses rather a lot of canned goods, the tomato curry with coconut rice (though this one’s obviously destined not to happen in my kitchen until summertime and local tomatoes have returned), the apple cinnamon muffins, banoffee cheesecake (banana cheesecake + toffee sauce), coconut and cherry banana bread, chocolate banana muffins … and that’s only having read up to page 140 of the book. Hm: I might have to revise my initial assessment that this book was nice but not one I wanted to own.

This weekend I’d been thinking that I’d go on a 15-mile walk on Staten Island on Sunday with a group of like-minded folks who enjoy city-walks in all kinds of weather. But when this morning came, I changed my mind: I didn’t feel like getting up early, and the arch of one of my feet was a little sore from running around barefoot as a warm-up before trapeze class Friday night. Nothing major, but I felt like not walking 15 miles on it might be a good idea. So I decided to stay home and, among other things, cook. I’d just gotten Nigella Kitchen from the library on Saturday, and I thought a soup might be a good first recipe. Disappointment number one: there are hardly any soup recipes in this book. Soup is, I think, my favorite thing to cook: it’s generally pretty easy/not very fussy, often makes copious amounts, and reheats well. Disappointment number two: most of the soup recipes this book does contain are ways of using leftovers from other recipes. Like, if you made a roast chicken recipe and have leftovers, here’s how to make a great soup with some shredded roast chicken and coconut milk and some other stuff. Which is nice, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.

That said, I did find one soup recipe that was a stand-alone venture, “Sunshine Soup.” Making it couldn’t be any easier: you slice an orange bell pepper and a yellow bell pepper and roast them with some olive oil. (Nigella says to use garlic-flavored oil, but I didn’t have any so I just used plain.) Meanwhile, you boil some veggie broth or chicken broth, chuck in some frozen corn (I used local corn from my summer CSA share that my boyfriend had frozen), and let that simmer. When the peppers are done, you toss them in the soup, take out some of the corn kernels with a slotted spoon and put them aside (I skipped this step), and then blend what’s in the pot, adding the reserved corn back in when you’re done. The picture in the cookbook makes the soup look lovely, a lively yellow, and maybe that is how it looks if you use chicken broth. But the veggie broth I used is pretty dark, and even after blending the soup there are little bits of blackened pepper skin (and the peppers are supposed to be blistered, the recipe says so!): that combination, I think, makes the whole thing look pretty unpleasant. Luckily, it tastes really good, simple and bright. (And it wasn’t just me: I found someone else’s blog post that says this soup “looked a bit like sick but was very tasty,” and then I found a different person’s blog post featuring pictures of this soup that look just like mine did.)

I’m not sure what other recipes I’ll make from this book before it’s time to return it to the library, but if I do make more from it, I may post about it again. I also have The Food Matters Cookbook by Mark Bittman checked out, so I’ll probably post about that as well. If you cook: have you used either of these cookbooks? What did you think? What’s your favorite cookbook right now?