book review: The Pho Cookbook by Andrea Nguyen

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said this before, but please don’t ever buy the e-version of a cookbook.  They are never formatted correctly, no matter which app you use and the page references are all messed up.  Unfortunately, The Pho Cookbook was not the e-exception.

Parts of the text were suddenly a light gray color, which made it very difficult to read against the white background while other parts of the text were black.  I really shouldn’t have to change the background color in the app just so that I can read the text all the way through.  The page references (the author refers to other recipes in her book) are all off because the page numbers never match up on the electronic version.  Sometimes pictures are cut off in the middle of a page and sometimes you get text saying that a recipe is continued in the middle of the page because it was in the hard copy version of the book.  I would absolutely love it if editors/publishers could edit the books so that they were formatted correctly … even if they say something like we recommend using such and such app for correct formatting.

I found the book itself to be okay.  I liked the basic beef and chicken recipes and the “quick” versions were a neat idea, but they fell flat in taste.  Plus, the “quick” versions only serve 2.  Pho takes a lot of time and a lot of ingredients.  Even if you’re only making the “quick” version that takes about 40 minutes to cook, it’s going to take longer to prep the condiments, toast the spices, etc.  Do you really want to go through the expense and time of doing something like that for only 2 servings?  Personally, when I make pho, I make it in a huge pot so that I can get at least 2 meals out of it for the family.  Here’s my recommendation: don’t bother with the quick version.  Make a huge batch of the real pho (yeah, you’ll have to set aside a weekend day to do it), eat some yummy pho, freeze the remaining broth and then just reheat that when you want some more pho.  Your pho broth will taste so much richer and be so much more yummy than the fake stuff made with store bought broth.

The other problem I had with this book is the pressure cooker recipes.  I hate it when recipes call for special equipment that aren’t found in most homes.  The other issue is that unless you have a large pressure cooker, you’re not going to be able to make enough broth for a family of 4 to have 1 meal.  Again, if you’re going through the expense and time to make the pho, just make a huge batch.

I did find the section on other things to do with pho interesting.  There were many items that I had never heard of, like the chicken pho noodle salad.  I wanted to try the homemade hoisin sauce, but it required ingredients that I don’t usually have on hand (miso paste, Japanese rice vinegar, tahini, rice flour), so I haven’t tried it yet.

All in all, this was an okay book, but nowhere as good as the Banh Mi Handbook.

Disclaimer: I received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review from NetGalley.  This book will be released February 7, 2017.

book review: The Promise Kitchen by Peggy Lampman

The Promise Kitchen is a tale of two Southern women, who through random chance (one is born into a wealthy family and one is poor), lead extremely different lives.  Their lives happen to intersect through food.  One is a food writer (Mallory) and the other is an aspiring chef (Shelby).

The author shows how, with or without money, everyone has problems.  Mallory is well-off financially but has to deal with a boyfriend who recently deserted her and a possible alcohol/drug addiction.  Shelby struggles to make a better life for herself and her daughter, Miss Ann.  Every time she seems to be getting ahead, something happens and she seems to be stuck in a rut.

I enjoyed the story, but I thought the ending was a bit rushed.  It felt a little like the fairy godmother descended and waived a magic wand.  I would have preferred to see Shelby survive on her own, given how hard she worked, but then maybe that’s part of the author’s message – we can’t do it all on our own.  Everyone needs someone, no matter what is in your bank account.

I especially enjoyed reading the pieces written about various Southern recipes by both Mallory and Shelby.  The end of the book contains actual recipes.  I haven’t tried any of them because most of them require quite a bit of time for preparation, but they sound good.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary e-copy of this book through Net Galley in exchange for my honest review.

cookbook review: Home Cooked

Home Cooked: Essential Recipes for a New Way to Cook is not for beginner cooks.  The cookbook specializes in home cooked, from scratch meals.  Many of the recipes have multiple parts – for example, some require homemade stock or thing that have been previously pickled.  The results are delicious, but there is definitely a time investment involved.

Prepare to spend hours making the stocks, pickled veggies, etc. and stocking them up.  Once those are done, the recipes still take a long time to make – several of them  require 1.5 hours.  It would be hard for working parents who have school-aged children to make these recipes on a regular basis.  However, it is plausible for stay-at-home parents or people without children to make and enjoy these recipes.

If you can swing the considerable time commitment, home made meals are, of course, better for you.  The recipes in this book are, for the most part, heavy.  By heavy, I mean that they’re stick-to-your-ribs type meals – lots of meats.  Some of the meats may be harder to find for most people.  Where I live, it’s a little harder to find lamb and duck.

I’ve been trying to make more and more foods from scratch rather than buying the store-bought stuff.  Making my own homemade bread and crackers gives me a certain amount of satisfaction (“I made that!”), but there’s also the added benefit of knowing that there aren’t harmful chemical preservatives and artificial flavors or high fructose corn syrup in the food I’m putting on the table.

If you don’t have 1.5 hours or so for dinner every night, you could cheat.  You could buy store-bought stock, pickles, bread, etc., but then you miss out on all the benefits of the from-scratch home made meal.

For me, this would definitely be a weekend book for when I’m feeling ambitious in the kitchen.  It’ll be a nice resource for when I’m retired and own my little farmhouse and have time to make everything from scratch.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.


cookbook review: PETA’s Vegan College Cookbook

With almost 300 recipes for college students, this cookbook is quite a collection of vegan recipes.  Unfortunately, many of the recipes are just regular recipes that call for vegan cheese instead of regular cheese or vegan mayo or vegan chocolate chips instead of regular chips.  I’m guessing that most people who become vegan end up having to do quite a bit of cooking for themselves so even college students might find many of the recipes in this book too simplistic.

The authors tried to gear the book towards college students by creating funny names for the recipes and by focusing on foods that college students might like – shakes, smoothies, pasta, ramen, chips, etc.  The section on ramen was actually a decent section (I remember making similar ramen when I was younger – the cooked ramen noodles, some frozen veggies, a bit of peanut butter, soy sauce).  The desserts section was also good.  Another good point for this book is that the recipes are all very short and easy.  Beginner cooks will have no trouble with these recipes and most of them don’t require any special cooking equipme3nt.

The problems with this cookbook are that, as mentioned before, most the recipes are regular recipes with vegan substitutions.  Another problem with this book is that there are no pictures!!  That is a huge downside in a cookbook.  There are a handful of illustrations of silly things like a carton of milk or some other ingredients, but there aren’t any pictures of the completed dishes.  Could it be because vegan cheese doesn’t melt?  🙂  Yet another drawback is that this book is geared towards college students and if you’ve ever bought vegan substitutes, you know that they are very expensive.  Vegan meat costs about $4 per package.  Vegan cheese is also pricey and it doesn’t melt well.  This is why I was really hoping that they would come up with more recipes that didn’t require vegan substitutes.

My favorite recipes are the ones that don’t call for substitutes, including the tofu crumble (resembles scrambled eggs).  I’ve made these before – I got the recipe from PETA years ago – and they are a close approximation to well-scrambled eggs.

Overall, this cookbook might be okay for a vegan college student who is new to veganism or who doesn’t know how to cook much.

I don’t know if they still do this, but PETA used to send out free starter kits for people who want to become vegan.  In this starter kit, there was a little pamphlet with some vegan recipes.  I can’t remember all of the recipes, but it included the scrambled tofu recipe, one for “fettucini alfonso” (made with frozen corn and tofu – genius!), and chocolate pudding (made from carob chips).  I know that all of the recipes I tried from the pamphlet tasted wonderful and I don’t think that any of them called for vegan substitutes like vegan mayo.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary e-book copy from NetGalley for my honest review.

Cookbook review: Koreatown by Deuki Hong

Add this cookbook to the growing list of “celebrity chef” cookbooks.  For those who don’t know, Deuki Hong is the chef of a Korean barbecue restaurant in Manhattan.  This book imitates other cookbooks in this genre of cookbooks in that it tries for the funky vibe, trying to appeal to foodies who worship at the cult of David Chang.

First, I liked the general formatting of the book.  The pages were nicely covered (there weren’t tons of blank space on the pages), the font was easy to read (not too small, but not something from the large print section of the library), and the colors were vibrant.  There weren’t pictures of every recipe, but there were many recipes.

I liked some of the narrative in the cookbook.  For instance, the author pointed out that you should judge Korean restaurants by their banchan (so true!).  Of course, the entree is important, too, but I love the banchan.  There is a nice section at the beginning of the book with ingredients and equipment that are needed in many of the recipes as well as tips on where to purchase them. It was also interesting to read about the different Koreatowns across the United States.

I tried the bulgogi recipe, which was pretty easy to make and tasted decent.  Since I was eating it at home, I didn’t have all of the banchan and it just wasn’t quite the same as getting it at a Korean restaurant.

I have two major problems with this cookbook: (1) the celebrity chef interviews made no sense to me; (2) if you’re talking about the different Koreatowns across the United States, why not make the recipes specific to those regions in the cookbook?  There was an interview with David Chang on why he shouldn’t be called a “Korean” chef even though he is of Korean heritage.  His dad loved Japanese food so grew up loving Japanese food.  It’s mildly interesting, and while I like David Chang, I found my self wondering what the interview was doing in this cookbook.  The article really didn’t offer anything to the cookbook – it was an item of interest for David Chang fans could find on the Internet.  That’s where I thought the article belonged – on a blurb on the Internet or maybe in a foodie magazine like Lucky Peach, not in this cookbook.  Same goes for the articles with Andrew Zimmern and the other celebrity chefs.  My second major issue is after reading about some of the different Koreatowns, I wanted to know which recipes reflected the different regions.  It seemed like such a waste of a good idea.  We all know that there are regional differences to cuisine so why not present them?  Instead, the book is split up into categories such as kimchi/banchan, rice/noodles/dumplings, barbecue, etc.  I would have loved to see something along the lines of, here’s a recipe for kimchi you might find in New York and here’s one you might find in LA.  If the recipes are too similar, then why present information about different Koreatowns?

This cookbook seems to be having an identity crisis.  First, it’s trying to present traditional Korean recipes.  Second, it’s trying to imitate Lucky Peach with the cartoon illustrations and short interviews of celebrity chefs that add very little to the cookbook.  Third, it’s trying to introduce Korean culture by presenting information about different Koreatowns across the United States, but fails to tie in the culture to the cookbook.  Instead of being one cohesive unit, the cookbook consists of bits that have been thrown together under the general umbrella of “Korean.”

The sweets/desserts section is a bit odd – but the authors admitted that Korean desserts are different.  For example, there was a dessert with a hotdog sitting on top of a flaky pastry crust and the notes in the cookbook said that it was usually served with mustard and ketchup.  Not my typical idea of dessert, but I’ve never tried it so I can’t say anything.

The recipes themselves appear to be pretty easy to follow, but I don’t think this is a cookbook I will be using too often.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this cookbook from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Cookbook review: Donabe

Donabe: Classic and Modern Japanese Claypot Cooking by Naoko Takei Moore is a beautifully illustrated cookbook, but it one that is for serious Japanese cooks only.  First, the recipes calls for owning a donabe (pretty obvious with the title).  That isn’t the issue.  The issue is that you’ll need more than one donabe … you’ll need several different types of donabe.  The smaller donabe that serve one person go for about $30.  The larger ones that serve at least 4 go for about $75+.  For cooking great rice, you should get a double lidded donabe.  At the very least, you’ll need 2 donabe – one for rice, and one for a dish.  The donabe bottoms have to be completely dry before you put them on the range (otherwise it will crack) so you can’t cook the rice, move the rice to a different container and re-use the donabe for dinner.  If you do, the rice will be cold and will have to be reheated, thereby defeating the purpose of making donable-cooked rice in the first place.  Also, donabe can only be used on open flame so you can use it with a gas range, but you won’t be able to use it with an electric or induction range.  If you don’t have a gas range, you could get a butane burner.  Donabe is totally different from slow cooker pots so you can’t substitute the cooking vessel.  Basically, unless you have lots of storage space and money to spend on different types of donabe, this is more of a living room photobook than a cookbook.

There are also some hard-to-find ingredients, which is to be expected from a book that touts “classic” Japanese claypot cooking.  Here’s a sample of the hard-to-find ingredients: koya tofu (freeze dried tofu), kurozu (Japanese vinegar), koji (a special type of mold), and tororo kombu (a type of seasoned seaweed).

One of the things I learned from this book was that a rice cup =  3/4 an imperial (standard) cup.

If you want to try some of these recipes, there are a few donabe on sale on Amazon.  Another place I found was Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen.  The author said that they were resellers for a Japanese company that made donabe, but I didn’t see the information about ordering it from them in the cookbook.  I may have missed it, but I did look for it.

If you don’t own a donabe and have never cooked with claypots before, I would advise you to read the chapter on caring for your donabe very carefully before cooking.  You cannot heat it up without some sort of liquid inside, you need to be careful about fast temperature changes, etc.

Once again, I would only recommend this book to a serious Japanese food enthusiast.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Cookbook review: Feed Zone Table

The first part of Feed Zone Table focused on the importance of sharing meals with one another.  The benefits are somewhat obvious – bonding socially, stronger mental health, etc. – but there are references to back up what the authors claim.

I really liked this cookbook.  There were many healthy family-friendly recipes, by which I mean that I think children would enjoy them as well as adults.  Too many of the healthy cookbooks include too much quinoa and kale and not enough flavor.  The recipes section starts out with non-alcoholic drinks (love this!  Again, it’s kid-friendly as well as adult-friendly).  It emphasized the focus on “family-style” meals that everyone could enjoy.   The recipes serve between 4-8.

There were pictures of every recipe so that you could see how every finished product appears.  Best of all, most of the ingredients are readily available and most of the recipes seem easy to make.  Did I mention that the recipes are healthy?  They’re not perfect, but for example, the cashew honey brittle uses honey, cinnamon, and vanilla as sweeteners instead of corn syrup.  Almost all of the other recipes I’ve seen for nut brittle require corn syrup.

While home made, from-scratch meals are always going to take longer to prepare than something that you dump out of a package, the recipes in this book really didn’t take too long.  I would say that most of the recipes take 40-60 minutes to make, but some of that is just cooking time so you don’t need to constantly monitor it.  This is an easy, practical cookbook for families and for people who like to entertain friends.

The only annoying part about this was that I had an electronic version and every page had the words ” Low-res for Edelweiss” printed on it, which sometimes obscured the words printed on the page.Hopefully that was just because it was an ARC.

Disclosure: I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book review: Slow Fires

Slow Fires: Mastering New Ways to Braise, Roast, and Grill by Justin Smillie is one of those books that you look at, drool over the recipes, and set aside for when you have a day or two to set aside to cook.  The book itself is well organized and includes pictures of every single recipe in the book.

The biggest caveat with this book is that it is definitely not for novice cooks.  Many recipes include hard-to-find ingredients that most home cooks wouldn’t have access to (like octopus or rabbit) … and they require a lot of time to make.  These recipes definitely aren’t for weekday cooking.  I’m not a novice cook, but honestly, I would probably use this cookbook once a year, if that, for a very special occasion.

However, the book certainly lives up to its name.  It provides different ideas for incorporating flavor into food through braising, roasting, and grilling.

I had a hard time deciding how to rate this book.  On the one hand, it’s not a very practical book for most people and unless someone loved to cook and was an experienced cook, I wouldn’t recommend it.  On the other hand, it’s a nice guide for cooks who want to do elevate their cooking and aren’t afraid to spend a lot of time hunting down ingredients and then spending hours cooking.  Based purely on the book itself and what it advertises (it never claims to be a book for novices), I would give it 4 out of 5 stars, but again, only for the narrow niche of cooks mentioned earlier.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for my unbiased review.

cookbook review: The Banh Mi Handbook

Andrea Nguyen has written several Vietnamese cookbooks and has now added one all about banh mi.  The Banh Mi Handbook is a compact yet comprehensive book.  When I saw how thin it was, I was a bit skeptical, but this book does a good job of covering all of the different components that make up banh mi.

Banh mi in Vietnamese means bread, but it also refers to Vietnamese sandwiches.  Often, the sandwiches include a schmear of pate (optional, but pate makes it taste better), meat or other protein, pickled veggies (usually carrots & daikon), some cilantro, and thin slices of jalapeno.  It’s a meal that you can eat with one hand and may provide all or almost all of the food groups.  It’s no wonder that it’s so popular.  The problem that I have is that I live in the Midwest, which isn’t exactly known for its Asian cuisine.  The other problem with banh mi is that, even though it is a simple concept and it’s hard to mess it up, it’s also hard to get it just right – just the right amount of pate, just the right ratio of meat to pickled veggies … and it’s hard to get just right because everyone has their own preferences.

The Banh Mi Handbook shows home cooks how to make their own banh mi to suit their own tastes.  It includes a recipe for making banh mi (although I’m lazy and just buy some small Italian/French loaves from the grocery store), pate recipes (again, I’m lazy and just use liverwurst), Vietnamese meatloaf (her book calls it garlic pepper pork tenderloin – I was able to find some premade stuff at an Asian grocery store).  The pickled carrots & daikon are super easy and fast to make, especially if you have a food processor.  The book includes other pickled veggie recipes like snowpea and lemongrass pickle, but I’ve never seen those things on banh mi before so I just stuck with the carrots & daikon.  The meat or other protein is the part that takes the longest to prepare … and really, it’s entirely up to you if you want to spend more time making some of the more complicated recipes that require more ingredients (I’m looking at you, Sri Lankan Black Curry Chicken) or something simple but still delicious such as the  Grilled Lemongrass Pork.  For vegetarians, edamame pate, coconut curry tofu, baked maggi tofu, and lemongrass sriracha tempeh recipes are included.  I think, though, that you could substitute tofu for the meat in many of the other recipes and it would be fine.  The grilled lemongrass pork seemed versatile – just put the tofu between 2 plates to get rid of more of the water and to firm it up more.

The one pretty minor complaint I have about this book is that I would have loved to have seen more pictures of the different recipes.  Don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few color pictures, but I’m greedy like that.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books for my honest review.

Cookbook review: Against the Grain

If you are interested in this book, you had better stock up on tapioca flour (same thing as tapioca starch) and light buckwheat flour.  There are recipes that call for other types of flour such as rice flour and oat flour, but you can make quite a few recipes with just tapioca starch and light buckwheat flour.  In case you are new to gluten-free eating, despite the name, buckwheat doesn’t actually contain any wheat and is gluten free.  If you can find someplace that sells the flours in bulk, great.  Otherwise, be prepared to shell out up to $10 for a small bag of these gluten free alternatives.

The food turned out just fine.  It’s definitely different from baked goods with regular gluten, but the food was certainly edible.  The recipes were easy to follow and understand.  Most seemed to be fairly simple.  The most “difficult” part to trying recipes in this book was that I didn’t have many of the gluten free alternatives on hand so had to do some shopping.  Tapioca starch was easy to find, but I had trouble finding light buckwheat flour and brown rice flour.

The concern that I have with this book is that it uses tapioca starch quite a bit.  They call it tapioca “flour,” but they’re the same thing.  Starch is pretty much sugars (carbs) with very little other nutritional value.  That being said, tapioca starch is used in all of the gluten-free cookbooks that I have seen because it gives structure/texture so I guess you get the gluten-free, but have to deal with the carbs to make up for it.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review from Blogging for Books.