Archive for Book Reviews

From Leaf to Stem

Every few weeks I find myself in the same position: Hunkered down in front of my open refrigerator with a plastic bag in hand, tossing withered produce and uneaten leftovers into the trash. Limp, yellowed parsley; saggy celery; dried-out chunks of onion; I’m always surprised at—and disappointed by—the amount of food that Jim and I waste each week.

In contrast to my guilt-inducing produce situation, Cathy Erway (of the popular blog Not Eating Out in New York) talks about her success with limiting food waste in her lovely new book, The Art of Eating In. As part of her desire to cook more and spend less, Erway employs often-discarded vegetable accessories such as beet greens and fennel fronds in her dishes, so that no part of the vegetable goes unused. While reading these pages, all I could think was I bet celery never goes bad in Cathy’s fridge. I hung my head in shame and once again vowed to change my ways. Surprisingly, I actually had some luck doing so.

It started with a big, floppy bunch of Swiss chard. I removed the stems and combined the pink-rimmed leaves with some leftover baby spinach, onions, feta cheese, and phyllo dough for a gorgeous Greek-inspired vegetarian pie. This light, flaky pie lasted us through one dinner and several lunches; not a single bite was left behind. And as I emptied the crisper drawers of plastic spinach containers and leftover cheese wrappers, I placed the Swiss chard stems in their place, instead of throwing them in the trash like I often do.

For the next few days, those stems stared at me every time I reached past them for tomatoes or salad greens. Finally, when they were about to turn, I pulled out a recipe for baked Swiss chard stems that I’d been saving for years. Similar to a casserole, the stems are layered with tomato sauce, garlic, and parmesan cheese, and baked in the oven until golden brown. Classic Italian flavors combine with an overlooked yet ruby-red vegetable for a satisfying side dish. And the best part was, not a single part of that Swiss chard went to waste. Not only was I proud of myself—and happy that I evaded another round of chard-induced guilt—but I discovered a delicious new side as well. I hope the trend continues; maybe I should try beet greens next. Thanks for the inspiration, Cathy!

Recipe for Baked Swiss Chard Stems with Tomatoes, Garlic, and Parmesan (adapted from Jack Bishop’s recipe as published in the New York Times on April 5, 2000)

  • 1/2 lb chard stems, bruised parts trimmed, halved crosswise
  • salt
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for baking dish
  • 2 small garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1-14 1/2 ounce can of diced tomatoes, drained
  • 1 tablespoon minced parsley
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bring a few quarts of salted water to boil in a large pot. Add the chard stems and cook until they are tender, about 10 minutes. Drain.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil over medium in a medium skillet. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and simmer until sauce is almost dry, about 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cover the bottom of a lightly greased baking dish with a single layer of chard, cutting stems if necessary to fit them in the dish. Spoon a bit of tomato sauce over the stems, and sprinkle with a little cheese. Repeat with the next layer of chard, alternating the direction of the stems. Finish tomato sauce and cheese. Sprinkle the parsley across the top.

Bake until chard is very tender and top layer is browned, about 25 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and let settle for 5 minutes. Cut into squares and serve. Serves 4 as a side dish. Enjoy!

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Frank Bruni’s Born Round

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When I first started taking food-writing classes, my instructors explained that in order to write well, we students had to read. We needed to consume as much food writing as possible, including a range of books from the likes of M.F.K. Fisher and Anthony Bourdain, as well as the weekly New York Times Dining Section. “Anything written by Frank Bruni,” the Times’s restaurant critic, was required reading. Lucky for me, I was already a fan, eagerly turning the pages of the paper each Wednesday to see what Bruni had to say about the city’s newest restaurants.

But after five years of witty and intelligent reviews, Bruni is stepping down from his post. With the end of his tenure in this position, he has written Born Round, a memoir of his secret and not-so-secret struggles with overeating and weight control. There has already been a ton of press covering the release of this book, so I’ll give you just a quick summary: Basically, after being born in a large Italian American family with what he describes as an oversized appetite, Bruni wrestled with his weight throughout his childhood and adulthood. A confusing relationship with food dominated much of his life, as he experimented with fad diets, binge eating, and vomiting, never finding a proper balance with food until a few pivotal events jolted him into realizing how self-destructive his situation had become.

What was most interesting to me—apart from his loving relationship with his family (especially his mother) and its influence on his eating habits—was how Bruni succeeded professionally while enduring such personal torment. A scholarship to the University of North Carolina led to internships at Newsweek and later, various positions at the Times, where he eventually shadowed George W. Bush during his first presidential campaign. All the while, Bruni was obsessed with food, eating huge portions during the middle of the night and through the day, tracking his waist size through his pants that grew ever more snug with time. He led an essentially celibate life for years, lacking the confidence in his appearance to reveal himself to other men. While achieving such professional success, Bruni was still emotionally miserable, as well as unhealthy and overweight.

When Bruni finally devotes himself to turning his body—and personal happiness—around, it reads as an inspiring transformation. Exercise becomes the key, as the success he once found through childhood swimming reasserts itself with his new physical trainer. A position at the Times’s Rome bureau further helps Bruni learn about portion control, and teaches him how to actually enjoy food. By the time Bruni accepts the job of the Times’s restaurant critic near the end of the book, he has all the tools he needs to maintain control over food and his life. 

Born Round is proof that you never know how hard a person is struggling, no matter how successful they seem on the outside. It’s a brave as well as funny book, full of personal revelations and insecurities, as Bruni shows that the possibility for growth and change is always present. Whether you’re a fan of Bruni’s column or not, I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in food and our relationship with it. And while I am happy that Bruni has conquered his personal demons, I will miss him every Wednesday; the Times Dining Section just won’t be the same without him. 

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Book Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a few weeks ago, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m surprised, actually, that it has affected me this much. But it re-enters my consciousness often, such as when I’m planning my next meal or walking down the block to the farmers’ market.

The book chronicles the Kingsolver family’s efforts to eat locally and seasonally for a year, while simultaneously weaving factual information about food production into the narrative. They grew and produced as much food as possible on their Appalachian farm—in addition to fruits and vegetables they raised a flock of heritage turkeys and egg-laying hens—and bought other necessities from local farmers’ markets and purveyors to fill in the gaps.

Even writing the book was a family affair. While Barbara Kingsolver was the primary author, informational sidebars were written by her husband Steven L. Hopp. Recipe plans and additional perspective into the project were provided by eldest daughter Camille, a student at Duke University. Youngest daughter Lily wasn’t old enough to sign an author’s contract, but she is a lively presence throughout the book, even starting her own egg business.

The informational anecdotes about subjects such as commercial meat processing, high fructose corn syrup, and the importance of CSAs didn’t interest me much. To be honest, I found them a little repetitive, similar to what I’d already read in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I should note, though, that for those unfamiliar with these issues, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle would be a suitable introduction.

What resonated with me more were the personal stories about the Kingsolvers’ efforts to live off their farm. The work is hard, but the author’s description of her family’s dedication is inspiring. They learned how to do everything, from making their own mozzarella and caring for their hens to butchering their own turkeys and freezing vegetables for the winter.

Now when I sort through my CSA produce, I find myself wondering how the Kingsolvers would prepare beet greens or what they would think of purple basil. I remember Camille’s seasonal meal plans and recipes, where she let nothing go to waste. While preparing my homemade tomato sauce last week I thought back to the chapter on tomato season, and envisioned the Kingsolver kitchen filled with jars of canned tomatoes.

I don’t have a farm or garden to call my own, but the Kingsolvers’ story has encouraged me to think in new ways. Obviously I’ve been interested in cooking, food, and food issues for some time, but I thank the Kingsolvers for sharing their experience and inviting me into their world. It’s a wonderful one to be in, and thanks to their website, I can return often.

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Mary Lou Sanelli and The Immigrant’s Table

“Mom, tell them about the antipasto,” exclaimed Mary Lou Sanelli, her straight, brown hair grazing her shoulders. I sat with the rest of the audience at the Tenement Museum on New York City’s Lower East Side, waving my paper fan in the hot, stuffy room, trying to keep cool.

“No, I can’t,” said the smiling, wide-faced woman in a strong Italian accent, her hair swept up into a bun. But after a bit more cajoling, Mary Lou Sanelli’s Barese “mamma” (played by actress Jackie Leone) discussed her recipe for pomodori all’olio (tomatoes in oil) with the audience. After this quick cooking lesson, Sanelli paged through her book, The Immigrant’s Table, and dove into a reading of her poem “Antipasto,” described as “a meal in and of itself.” She spoke of mozzarella, olives, pickled eggplants and peppers, procured by her mother after a long drive to the city, and served on approved Roman Catholic holidays.

I first came to know this book of poems and recipes when my cousin in Port Townsend, Washington, sent it to me a few months ago; the author is based in the same town. Sanelli’s poems, with titles such as “Minestrone” and “Finocchio,” illustrate her Italian immigrant family and their cultural struggles, as well as the author’s own coming of age as a first-generation American. Each poem is paired with at least one family recipe, and photographs of Sanelli’s family are scattered throughout the book.

Born on the Lower East Side of New York City and then raised on the East Coast, Sanelli eventually moved to the West Coast in attempt to break free from her family’s Old World traditions. But after a period of time, she realized that leaving the past behind was impossible. Instead of trying to escape her history, Sanelli decided to embrace and understand it by exploring her mother’s cherished recipes. She realized that food shaped many of her childhood memories, as seen in the poem “Veal Scaloppine.” Sanelli’s protests against eating meat, framed in a poem about this traditional Italian dish, pitted her directly against her parents and their beliefs, causing true conflict between two distinct generations. 

By exploring her family’s culinary traditions and writing about them, Sanelli gained the understanding about her own identity that she was looking for. This was obvious from the lively and light-hearted reading I witnessed last week between the author and her “mamma” at the Tenement Museum. Throughout the evening, Sanelli added and subtracted from her poems, creating dialogue about the recipes, her memories, and her mother’s own struggles as an immigrant. We were all family for an evening, and it was a wonderful way to experience the book again.

I enjoyed this book for many reasons: The writing is simple and evocative, the format intimate and personal. But I also identified very strongly with the poems themselves, which inspired memories of my own Sicilian grandmother, and our visits to her home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn when I was a child. Our gatherings around her lace-clad dining room table, always surrounded with platters of finocchio, spaghetti, and meatballs, are forever embedded in my mind and my soul. Sanelli’s book reinforced my belief that food, whether it’s gnocchi or manicotti or any other traditional family dish, has the power to shape us all.

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Book Review: In Defense of Food

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I was halfway through Michael Pollan’s newest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. I wondered if the author agreed with my sentiment that sharing a meal with friends and family is more pleasurable than eating alone. One of Pollan’s primary concerns in his book is that Americans have become so confused about nutrition that we no longer enjoy the act of eating.

In fact Pollan does point out that it is better to eat a communal meal than to eat alone, for a few reasons: By sharing a meal with a group, we tend to eat less, and we also elevate the act of dining to more than a mechanical process. Eating becomes about family, connections, and communication, something that Europeans such as the Italians and the French seem to understand a bit better than we do. 

But I am getting ahead of the point. Pollan’s book doesn’t only strive to tell us how to eat and live better; it also seeks to examine how we have arrived at such a confusing juncture regarding how and what we eat. Pollan explains how the problems of the Western diet and nutritionism have often simply gotten it wrong, turning us into a country where diseases such as obesity and diabetes are on a staggering rise. Just look at the once-revered low-fat diet, whose cancer-preventing values have been largely disproved.

I’m not going to give a summary of the book in this post, but I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in food and food history. Although I greatly enjoyed Pollan’s previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which examines the problems regarding how our food is produced, I found In Defense of Food a more approachable, quicker read (and not just because it is a much shorter book). While some of Pollan’s ideas struck me as simple common sense, such as his recommendations to stick to “whole foods” such as fruits and vegetables, and to avoid as much processed food as possible, I still enjoyed learning about the history of nutritionism, the competing interests of the food industry, and the importance of the health of our food chain.

And I even learned a new word: orthorexia, which describes an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. By sticking with common sense and reason regarding what I eat, I am certain I can avoid it.

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