Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Roundup of Reviews of some New Gluten-Free Books

The Crispy Cook mailbox has recently been stuffed with a spate of gluten-free books to review.  The variety of the books I've been sent by various publishers shows how sophisticated and popular the gluten-free book-buying public has become. We've come a long way since 2007, when my husband and I were whacked over the head with the celiac diagnosis and the only gluten-free resources on store and library shelves were Bette Hagman's writings.

Here's a quartet of new books that I found to be great reading and which you may want to check out for yourself:

1) Gluten-Free on a Shoestring Bakes Bread, by Nicole Hunn (NY: Da Capo Press, 2013).

I was very excited to receive Nicole Hunn's new bread baking cookbook, having relied on her original cookbook, Gluten-Free on a Shoestring, for several years now, for some of my go-to recipes. She's a very funny writer and whip smart, so the recipe introductions are good reading, too.  (I previously reviewed Nicole's original cookbook here at the Crispy Cook and made some of her tortillas and focaccia. Tres awesome!).

I haven't yet tried a recipe out of the latest Gluten-Free Shoestring book because her techniques and ingredient specifications have required some restocking of the baking pantry as welll as a few equipment acquisitions. And while I do like to test drive a new cookbook before I recommend it to others (usually a requirement in my cookbook reviews), I have been cooking out of Nicole's first cookbook for years now, and it's a beauty.

The baking philosophy in this new book relies on using the right, top-quality baking ingredients to make gluten-free bread that has chew, crust, taste and texture, so I am very excited to dive into her book once now that my kitchen is properly outfitted.

2) The Blender Girl: 100 Gluten-Free, Vegan Recipes, by Tess Masters (Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 2014).

I wasn't primed to like this book. I'm not a big smoothie fan. I like to chew my food. But this gorgeously photographed cookbook of gluten-free, vegan recipes is so engagingly written by Aussie native Tess Masters that I succumbed easily. Sure, there are a lot of recipes for smoothies and shakes, but the bulk of the book actually describes a lot of other salads, snacks, noodles and main dishes that have enough heft and texture to make my choppers happy. And while the author is a vegetable evangelist, she doesn't whack you over the head with the guilt mallet to make you swallow her food philosophies.

I made a batch of Tess' Mental for Lentils salad, a mix of lentils, onion, zucchini, carrots, parsley and a load of other delicious seasonings and it quickly was gobbled up by some good friends at a party. I can't wait to try her recipe for Onion and Herb Socca, oh, and her Watermelon Gazpacho, oh, and then there's the delicious-sounding Live Lasagne Stacks.....

3) Sweet Debbie's Organic Treats: Allergy-Free and Vegan Recipes from the Famous Los Angeles Bakery, by Debbie Adler (Don Mills, Canada: Harlequin, 2013).

When this toothsome little dessert cookbook arrived, I wasn't sure what to expect. It is published by Harlequin (as in the romance novel publishing giant) and the leading recommendation on the back cover is from comedian Ray Romano. An unexpected combo, to be sure, but I was won over after flipping through the pages and finding a lot of interesting flavor combinations and creative recipes, paired with the food photos by Carl Kravats that really make these allergy-friendly sweet treats something to swoon over.

Bakery owner and author Debbie Adler explains all of her baking techniques and ingredients in the first few chapters and then lays out recipes for various kinds of muffins, brownies, cookies, cupcakes, bar cookies, donut holes and breads. I tried a double batch of her Quinoa Cranberry Cookies (though I subbed in raisins and walnuts for the dried cranberries called for in her recipe, cause that's what I had in the pantry) and they were very good. The quinoa flakes in the recipe makes for a nice, chewy texture and the cookies were imbued with a lot of flavor.

There's lots of other bookmarked recipes in my copy of this great new cookbook: Salted Caramel Apple Muffins, Fudgy Fig-A-Mama-Jig Bars, Krispy Kale 'n' Cheese Soft Pretzel Rods, but I have to say I'm most intrigued by Debbie's recipe for Caramel Glazed Fakin' Bacon Brownies (the faux bacon is made from roasted sliced shitake mushrooms!).

4) Jennifer's Way, by Jennifer Esposito (NY: Da Capo Books, 2014).

Jennifer Esposito is another organic, allergen-free bakery owner (her bakery is in New York City) and this book is a memoir rather than a cookbook, though there are a handful of recipes at the end of the book. The actress, baker and now author shares her odyssey toward good health after too many years of misdiagnoses and suffering. It seems unbelievable in this day and age that she didn't find out that  she had celiac disease until many years of travail.

Her story is heartfelt, honest and inspiring, and while she does catalog a litany of horrific health symptoms, from nerve damage to exhaustion to hair loss (extremely debilitating in the acting profession!) her story is not whiny or self-pitying. I found the memoir to be very educational and hope that others will learn from it and find it as absorbing as I did. It is also a good book to place in the hands of friends, family members or co-workers who "don't get the gluten-free thing" that people with celiac disease, gluten-intolerance and other health conditions must live with in order to stay healthy.

Note: I received complimentary review copies of these four books above from the publishers, but I was not obligated to post a review and my comments and opinions, as always, are completely my own.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Dipping my Culinary Toe into Persian Waters with Funny in Farsi

Firoozeh Dumas’ first memoir, Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America (NY: Random House, 2003), is a collection of lighthearted essays that illuminates her childhood experiences growing up as an Iranian transplant in Southern California. She and her family arrived before the Iranian hostage crisis and Revolution, and she clearly shows how she and her family were treated before and after this great divide.

There were two reasons that I picked this book for the April/May selection for the online foodie book club, Cook the Books, that I and my wonderful blogger buddies, Deb, Simona and Debra, organize. First, this book offered me an excuse to explore the beautiful, fragrant Persian cuisine that Dumas describes in her book. Lucky Californians that get to dine out in numerous Persian restaurants started by Iranian-American immigrants!  

Second, I picked this title because I feel like too often Iranians (and Iraqis, Aghanis, Pakistanis and now, Russians - yet again) get demonized in the press because of the actions of their political leaders. As Dumas so expertly shows in her anecdotes about her goofy relatives, her own culture clashes at school and as a young teen, there are universally human traits that we all share around the world, no matter our ethnicity, religion, etc., and I wanted to have others read about her experiences. A little extending of the olive branch, or rather, a bowl of olives, out into the world, if you will.

The best parts of Dumas’ book were her descriptions of her father, Kazem. He is such an interesting mixture of intellect and childish enthusiasm. He was a petroleum engineer back in Abadan, Iran, and later earned a Fulbright Scholarship to continue his graduate education in the U.S. It was during his American sojourn that one of his professors took him on a road trip to Princeton where he met (and flummoxed) Albert Einstein. After launching into a endless monologue of his American experiences, Einstein was rendered somewhat speechless. Or perhaps he took a mental vacation to hone his Theory of Relativity during Kazem’s "year's allotment of conversation". 

I didn't have any cookbooks at the bookshop, or in my home library about Persian cooking. The local library's few volumes were out on loan, and I ordered a copy of "Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States: A Dinner Party Approach to International Relations" by Chris Fair (NY: Globe Pequot Press, 2008) but it arrived after I'd made the meal I was planning for this post. Fair's book is so wonderfully witty, educational and droolworthy all at the same time, so I'll be featuring something out of its pages here sometime soon. 

I was rescued in my quest for Persian culinary education by the wonderful Persian food bloggers out there. I spent a few rhapsodic hours perusing their recipes and food memories until I finally settled on the meal I would make for my family. Since we are Persian food newbies I didn’t want to make anything too wild or for which I would need to purchase endless amounts of exotic ingredients. I was struck by how fragrant -or perfumed might be a more descriptive word- the Persian food palette is; there's a heavy emphasis of great bunches of herbs and complex combinations of spices, and rosewater enters the scene too. It also seems like presentation is very important. As is copious amounts of available cooking time, for as Dumas explains in Funny in Farsi, ingredients are seasonal and require special attention: 

"Summer meant eggplant or okra stew fresh tomatoes, and tiny cucumbers that I would peel and salt. Winter meant celery or rhubarb stew, cilantro, parsley, fenugreek, and my favorite fruit, sweet lemon, which is a thin-skinned, aromatic citrus not found in America. There was no such thing as canned, frozen, or fast food. Everything, except for bread, which was purchased daily, was made from scratch. Eating meant having to wait for hours for all the ingredients to blend together just right." (p. 25)

I finally settled on meatballs spiced with sumac (already had it in the spice cabinet) and a dried rose petal-less advieh, that Persian spice mixture that contains cardamom, cumin, and coriander, all of which I did have on hand). I got the recipe for the fragrant meatballs at Silk Road Diary, and then made up a pot of rice seasoned with sauteed garlic and cumin seeds which I shaped into the traditional Persian dome shape and decorated with radish roses and curling parsley springs. Our Iranian feast was rounded off with pitcher of cold mint tea, a chilled cucumber, tomato and herb salad and some fresh fruit. 

You can still join us at Cook the Books by reading and blogging about this wonderful book by the June 1, 2014 deadline. I will have a roundup of posts up a few days later so that we can all enjoy our various takes on the book and partake of our virtual Persian feast. 

Our next Cook the Books selection will be The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by Jacques Pepin. Deb of Kahakai Kitchen will be our CTB host and deadlines for posts are due July 31, 2014. Come join us in reading, blogging and cooking up this great book!