Perusing the cookbook selection at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, I selected several volumes that were published during the past year, took them home and tried out a few of the recipes. Here's what I found.
Recipes reflect diversity
Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Eastern Europe, by Olia Hercules, Weldon Owen, 2015, hardback, 240 pages, $35
When most of us think of Ukraine, we think of civil war and cold weather. This book offers a very human view of a different world. The book starts out with a brief overview of the contents by noting the diversity of people in Ukraine: Serbs, Bessarabians, Jews, Moldovans, Uzbekistans, Armenians and Ossetians. The recipes reflect this complex mix. The broths and soups exemplify this diversity and include beet broth, sorrel broth, beet soup, chicken broth and several Armenian soups. The recipes use expected ingredients, such as beets, cabbage, sorrel, potatoes, onions and carrots. But they also use gherkins, dill, fresh herbs, allspice and salami.
These are hearty soups for a cold, rainy night. There are sections on dumplings and noodles, meats, fish, conserves, breads, pastries and more. This is not a book for light eaters.
I made tomatoes stuffed with herbs and cheese, which was easy and unusual. The tomatoes are hollowed out and stuffed with the pulp that is mixed with feta cheese and fresh herbs. Then, they are baked with a touch of olive oil on the top. I used dill, parsley, a bit of garlic, and some tarragon and oregano, but I think that whatever fresh herbs one has would be fine. It looked elegant and colorful, and had a complex mix of favors. The Armenian baked vegetables included the usual vegetables with the addition of cabbage and dill.
This is a nice cookbook for those who might want to learn more about Eastern European food, or those who can trace their family roots back to this region.
Dishes with zest
Citrus: Sweet and Savory Sun-kissed Recipes, by Valerie Aikman-Smith and Victoria Pearson, Ten Speed Press, 2015, hardback, 175 pages, $19.99
When I first came to California as a college student from the Midwest, I was enchanted by seeing lemons, limes, oranges and other citrus fruits on trees, as opposed to wrapped in plastic wrap in the grocery store. The fragrance when the trees bloomed was intoxicating. I discovered Meyer lemons, which were unlike any lemon I had ever tasted. I have looked for years for a cookbook that does justice to citrus fruits. This is the one.
I made linguini with clams, which had lime zest and juice in it. The lime made it slightly more piquant than the usual clam linguini, but still delicious. I also made the marmalade bread pudding. The bread I used was too large and it ended up being more like a vertical French toast. With smaller pieces of bread, it would have been perfect. The almonds with chili and lime were easy to put together and had a little bite. The curried chicken, which only took a few minutes to make, used the citrus and coconut milk in a unique and distinctive way. I used a premixed curry powder from Draeger's Market, and I think the choice of curry powder is crucial. If you want it spicy, add a spicy curry mix; if you want it milder, choose a more mild one. The herbed and smashed potatoes with lemon juice and oregano were crispy and unusual.
The citrus in these recipes added a little zest (so to speak) to each dish. Highly recommended.
Short and sensible
How To Eat, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press, 2014, 125 pages, small paperback, $9.95
This charming book, which would make a lovely stocking stuffer, reminds us to eat mindfully. For those of us who eat in a hurry, who don't stop to appreciate even a good pickle, this book will cause us to stop and pay attention to what, when and how we eat.
Unpretentious wine guide
Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine, by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, Avery, 2015, paperback, 230 pages, $25
This is a good book for someone who may have just moved to California, who simply wants to discover the world of wine, or for people such as myself, who know what they like but don't know how to describe it. While I found some of the diagrams confusing, the basic layout is good.
It starts with fundamentals, including the size of a glass, alcohol content and characteristics of wine. The rest of the book goes over styles of wine (sparkling, full bodied, dessert and so on) and wine regions of the world, from Argentina to Australia and Spain to South Africa.
I liked this unpretentious beginners guide to wine. It will help you sound knowledgeable without being pretentious.
A life through food
Kitchen Gypsy: Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food, by Joanne Weir, Oxmoor House, 2015, hardback, 287 pages, $35
Joanne Weir is one of the many chefs who was nurtured and influenced by Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. She has written 17 cookbooks, lectured, taught and traveled, and this is very personal book about her life with food. There is far more writing than recipes, and if one wants to follow a life immersed in food, this is a good book.
However, I buy cookbooks for recipes. There were not nearly as many as I would have liked, and not many jumped off the page and begged to be made. I did make the lamb chops with lavender salt, and although I do not have a "ridged cast iron stove top grill pan" and made them in a heavy bottomed frying pan, they had a nice variation and an unexpected combination of flavors.
If you are looking to relive the Chez Panisse experience and the food world that grew from it, this is a worthwhile book.
Read more holiday stories in the Holiday Guide to Everything.