Cookbook review: Rancho la Puerta

December 29, 2010 at 1:07 pm (Cookbook reviews, To try)

I’ve had the Rancho la Puerta cookbook by Bill Wavrin for many years.   It’s a really lovely cookbook, with a nice small size, a well-constructed but easy-to-open binding, and a lovely layout.  The font and formatting are nice, there head notes are reasonably detailed, and the paper is littered with pretty gold suns that make you think of Mexico and spas.  I really like the ideas underlying this cookbook–fun, light, Mexican- and Asian-inspired dishes.  Unfortunately, for me, the recipes consistently generally didn’t work for me.  They looked good on the page, and often had a good idea buried in them, but they almost never turned out to be recipes I wanted to make again.  My assessment is echoed in quite a few of the (admittedly sparse) Amazon reviews.  A number of reviewers complain that the recipes are consistently bland and suffer from textural problems.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Finally: a cookbook recipe review database

December 10, 2010 at 12:48 pm (Cookbook reviews)

For a long time I’ve thought that it would be great if there was some centralized location on the internet where you could see all the reviews of a particular cookbook, or even better, of each recipe in a cookbook.   That way you could see if there are errors in a recipe, or if a recipe has simply bombed over and over. It seems that the idea has finally caught on.  Heidi Swanson has created a 101cookbooks library where you can add reviews of a cookbook or a particular recipe in a cookbook.  I also recently came across  Although it doesn’t have very many cookbooks added so far, and the search function is impressively broken, the site seems to be going in the right direction. Read the rest of this entry »

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Two vegetarian cookbooks bite the dust

December 27, 2009 at 2:36 pm (Cookbook reviews, Crescent Dragonwagon, The Vegan Gourmet)

I am a collector of cookbooks, but a principled one.  I believe that a cookbook that is not cooked from is a cookbook whose purpose is unfulfilled.  If I don’t cook from a cookbook, then I shouldn’t own it.  I also believe in finishing cookbooks.  My ultimate goal is to finish every cookbook I own, where “finishing” means making every recipe that appeals to me.  (In other words, I can skip the recipes for eggplant parmigiana and blue cheese and artichoke ravioli.)  I try not to buy too many cookbooks, as I always feel guilty about all the cookbooks I already own that go untouched.  Still, sometimes my principles lapse a little and I buy myself a new present.  Other times, friends or family give me new cookbooks.  It’s two of these gifted cookbooks that I’ve been holding onto for years that finally bit the dust.

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Vegan with a Vengeance review

September 29, 2007 at 9:37 pm (Cookbook reviews, Isa C. Moskowitz)

I heard nothing but rave reviews about Vegan with a Vengeance by Isa Chandra Moskowitz.  The reviews on Amazon are almost universally positive, except for a few eccentrics complaining about the difficulty of the dishes, the hard to find ingredients, or the general low health quotient of the recipes.  After trying almost 20 recipes in this cookbook, I would argue that the recipes are reasonably varied and inventive, but the cookbook is not the standout I was hoping for.

  • Difficulty: This cookbook does have some time-consuming recipes, such as the recipe for cauliflower leek kugel, but it also has plenty of everyday recipes as well (at least for someone who cooks a lot and is comfortable in the kitchen).   I didn’t find any of the recipes to be technically complicated.
  • Accessibility: The ingredients are no more weird or hard to find then in my other vegetarian cookbooks.
  • Health: The cookbook is definitely not aimed at health nuts; some of the recipes call for excessive amounts of salt, and only a small percentage of the recipes are very-low (<20%) or even low fat (<30%). That said, the recipes don’t seem terribly unhealthy to me, especially since it’s easy to reduce the oil and salt according to your own taste. Although there are a few recipes that call for TVP, for the most part the recipes don’t call for processed or prepared foods.  Most recipes are based just on tofu, vegetables, beans, seitan, or tempeh, with a good mix of the five. In most cases the dishes are quite heavy, with a home-style comfort food feel to them: it would be nice if there were a few more raw or very light dishes. The authors do include a recipe for mango spring rolls, but that’s about it on the raw front. I was disconcerted when I read the Amazon reviews to see people extolling the fact that this cookbook has no salads in it: the absence of salads is a weakness, not a virtue.  The cookbook contains a large selection of recipes for vegan baked goods (in the breakfast section and in the dessert section), most of which call for white flour and white sugar.
  • Creativity: The cookbook includes recipes for some simple vegetable sides, but these tend to be pretty standard: ginger roasted winter vegetables, orange-glazed beets, balsamic portobello mushrooms, kale and tahini sauce, sesame asparagus, garlic brussels sprouts… nothing too new here. Compared to the vegetable sides, the entrees are much more creative, spanning a number of different cooking techniques, seasons, and international cuisines. One technique I found interesting that I haven’t seen before is to use pureed silken tofu in baked dishes to give a rich, fluffy, almost egg-like quality to the dish. The technique works quite well, and it’s something I’m going to try to experiment with on my own.
  • Personality: I enjoyed many of the short introductions to the recipes: Isa definitely has a wry sense of humour. She does an excellent job of establishing her voice in only a couple of sentences. There are also some longer entries giving tips on things such as “perfect pancakes”, “prepping a butternut squash”, and how to store a lot of kitchen items in a small space. As a pretty experienced cook, I didn’t find these sections to be terribly enlightening, although they are reasonably entertaining.
  • The physical:  The cookbook is a good size–not too big and not too small.  The pages in the paperback version stay open pretty well, and I haven’t had any pages fall out.
  • The visual:  The fonts and recipe layout are easy to read.  There’s a section with color photographs in the middle of the book.
  • The organization:  I like that all the recipes are listed in the table of contents, for easy scanning.  The recipes are organized by category, such as entrees, sides, brunch, pizzas and pastas, etc.  That organization worked fine for me, but the index is poor.  It’s missing a number of essential entries (which I will write down once I have my book in front of me).
  • Seasonal eating:  There’s no mention of eating seasonally in the cookbook, and the few recipes that refer to a season seem confused.  For example, the Moroccan Tagine with Spring vegetables calls for zucchini, green beans and tomatoes.  I suppose in Texas those are spring vegetables, but the author is from NYC.
  • Accuracy: The recipe instructions are generally pretty precise, with the exception of amounts of fruits and vegetables, which are given in inconsistent measurements. Isa often does not provide weights, or even volume measurements. What is a medium sized golden yukon potato? And how can she call for 1 head of cauliflower in her braised cauliflower recipe. Doesn’t she realize the size of cauliflower heads can vary by a factor of three? And does she really think 2 medium-size heads cauliflower equals 4 cups of florets (in the cauliflower kugel recipe)? Other than that I generally found the instructions clear and easy to follow. It would have been nice if she had provided nutritional information though.

After trying almost 20 recipes my feeling is that this is an above-average vegetarian cookbook. I had a few recipes tank, and a handful more I probably wouldn’t make again. The majority were fine, but so far I’ve only found one or two that I adored, and that I’m definitely adding to my repertoire.

  1. Seitan Portobello Stroganoff B+/B
  2. Cauliflower Leek Kugel B/B-?
  3. Jerk seitan B/B+
  4. Cold Udon Noodles with Peanut Sauce and Seitan B
  5. Spanish Omelet with Saffron and Roasted Red Pepper-Almond Sauce B/C
  6. Vegan french toast B
  7. Barbecued Pomegranate Tofu B/A-?
  8. Banana pancakes B-/A
  9. Tempeh and white bean sausage patties, B the first time, C the second time
  10. Italian baked tofu B-/B-
  11. Frittata with broccoli and olives B-/B-?
  12. Mango spring rolls B-
  13. Corn fritters C/?
  14. Moroccan Tagine with Spring Vegetables C
  15. Millet and Spinach Polenta w/ Pesto C
  16. Butternut squash soup with ginger and lime C
  17. Tempeh bacon D/B
  18. Spanakopita D/C
  19. Matzoh Balls F

I’ve put my rating first, with Derek’s after (if he happened to be around when I made that dish).

A few comments about the items that haven’t made it into my blog elsewhere:

I didn’t really care for the taste of the italian baked tofu–a bit too vinegar-y perhaps? Derek liked the flavor more than me though. Also, even after marinating all day the inside of each tofu slice was still white with no flavor. I used extra firm tofu but the texture of the baked tofu was surprisingly soft, rather than the toothsome texture of the baked tofu at the upscale vegan restaurants in New York. I didn’t care for the tofu as a side dish, but it made a pretty good sandwich filling. The moisture/softness was actually a plus in a sandwich. Derek gave the tofu a B-, and a B as a sandwich filling with other ingredients to add flavor.

The barbecue sauce that comes with the pomegranate tofu recipe is not bad, but needed a bit of tweaking.  In particular, it needed more acid. Also, I suspect more expensive ingredients are used than is absolutely necessary.  The barbecued tofu recipe is very rich, so everyone else liked it, but I was disappointed in the texture of the tofu.  The tofu just tasted like plain tofu covered in barbecue sauce to me–it didn’t meld into a single, cohesive dish.  Also, I didn’t think the pomegranate seeds really went with the dish at all, either visually or flavorwise.

The second time I made the tempeh and white bean sausage patties they were bland, undersalted and dry.  I didn’t have fresh sage, and had to use dry, which maybe explains the blandness?  The recipe says it makes 10 patties I think, but using the 3 Tbs. of batter the recipe calls for, I got 19 patties.  I can’t figure out what happened.  I definitely used a pound of tempeh and a cup of white beans.

The mango spring rolls sounded marvelous but were a little boring, even with the dipping sauce.  My friend Alex said she thought they needed something salty.  She said that she uses tofu baked in soy sauce in her spring rolls, and it adds an important salty/umame flavor.  (Okay, she didn’t say the umame bit.)  Our mango was delicious, and we liked the mung bean sprouts and the chopped peanuts in the spring rolls, and the dipping sauce was tasty.  In the end, though, the combination just didn’t seem more than the sum of its parts.  We then made up our own spring rolls with avocado and the dipping sauce and soy sauce and mung bean sprouts and thai basil and those were much, much more satisfying.

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A review of The Splendid Grain by Rebecca Wood

July 20, 2007 at 4:35 pm (B_minus (2.5 stars), Cookbook reviews)

I’ve decided to start adding cookbook reviews to my blog, as well as recipe reviews.  I wrote this one a while back, on Amazon, and it’s a bit out of date, but I’ll come update it once I get a chance.

I knew nothing about this book when I checked it out of the library, except that it had recipes for some of the more unusual grains. It is only now that I looked it up on Amazon that I discovered that it won the James Beard award. I am not the least bit surprised, however, because all the recipes I have tried have been consistently delicious, wholesome, and creative. You will find very few run-of-the-mill recipes in this cookbook.

I check many cookbooks out of the library, but for many I can’t find any recipes that I want to make, or if I do find recipes to try, once I make them I am generally not impressed. So I was amazed when I opened this cookbook to find so many intriguing recipes, each of which turned out better than the last.

Some highlights: The grilled millet and butternut squash cakes had so few spices I was sure they would be bland, but they weren’t. They were subtle but sweet and crunchy and addictive. The millet, quinoa, and burdock pilaf again looked underseasoned, but the burdock adds a great earthy depth to the pilaf, and again, I could not stop eating this dish. Wood’s recipe for Locro, a South American soup, has a large number of ingredients, but it is well worth the effort. The barley and beans that make up the bulk of this soup make it substantial and extremely filling. The celeriac is sweet and delicious, the anise seeds add a subtle mysterious note, and the roasted New Mexican chili and the kombu create a great tasty broth with more depth than a typical vegetarian soup.

The only recipe that I was disappointed in was her basic recipe for “steamed” amaranth. Wood swears it’s the best way to cook amaranth, but I thought it turned out exactly the same as it always does when I cook it–gooey, but tasty. Also, as a previous reviewer noted, Wood doesn’t use too many green vegetables in this cookbook, but since it is a grains cookbook I can forgive this one shortcoming.

Overall, this book is full of healthy, nutritious, creative, well-tested recipes that please the palate and the body, and are reasonably quick to prepare. The flavorings are generally subtle, but perfectly balanced, allowing the taste of the ingredients to shine through. If you like very strong tasting food, however, you might find the recipes a bit bland. The recipes are not all vegetarian, but there are enough vegetarian recipes that I just returned my library book and ordered this book on Amazon.

Rating: B

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How to write a recipe

December 27, 2006 at 5:45 am (Cookbook reviews)

Everyone has their own preferences for how a recipe should be written and displayed. I know my formatting for this blog is not ideal, but I haven’t had much time to spend on it. Someday…

In the meantime, I thought the chart form at the bottom of each recipe on the
Cooking for Engineers website is quite interesting. It visually shows the dependencies between various steps.

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