Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Lightening Up (Y’All)

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016
My nephew Michael's burger, complete with cheese and a bun.

My nephew Michael’s burger, complete with cheese and a bun.

January is in full swing. After a couple of weeks of holiday overindulgence, I have been back on my nutritional cleansing program for a while now. I don’t know whether I’ve been brainwashed by the program (my coach is a very convincing woman!) or I just like being a little lighter, but I’m actually enjoying dieting.

Like many Americans, I have spent much of my life on diets. Experience tells me that the greatest pitfall for the dieter is a feeling of deprivation. Virginia Willis understands that problem and addresses it brilliantly in her recent book Lighten Up Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome (Ten Speed Press, 232 pages, $24.99).

Virginia is a French-trained chef who specializes in quality Southern cuisine. She lives in Georgia but spends a lot of time near my own corner of western Massachusetts. I have been following her writings for several years; she is an expert in one of my favorite styles of cuisine: elegant but simple comfort food.

Virginia confesses early in the book that she has always had a weight problem and was recently counseled by her doctors to “lighten up.” She set out to develop a series of recipes that would lose calories and gain nutrition but not sacrifice taste.

The book includes healthier versions of such perennial favorites as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken (made in sticks on the oven), biscuits, seven-layer dip, and shrimp étoufée. Virginia even offers desserts: strawberry shortcake, cream-cheese brownies, and carrot cake, among other sweets.

I have tried only one recipe from the book so far—Virginia’s chicken, apple, and cheddar burgers. My current regimen doesn’t allow me to eat any cheese, not even the small amount called for in this recipe, so I had to change the flavor profile slightly by serving the burgers without the cheese. (I did serve them with organic mustard.)

The burgers were a delight. Ground chicken has less fat than ground beef and can tend to dry out. Virginia’s recipe cleverly incorporates both grated apple and grated sweet onion into the chicken to add moisture and flavor. My family eats the recipe WITH the cheese and loves it.

I plan to make several more dishes from Lighten Up, Y’all in the near future. Virginia Willis has clearly worked hard to find formulas that retain the flavor in foods while making them healthier.

Best of all, I envision using some of Virginia’s lightening-up techniques in dishes of my own. I trust her as a chef, a writer, and a dieter. And I look forward to the debut of her forthcoming PBS TV series.

lighten up web

Virginia Willis’s Chicken Burgers

Courtesy of Virginia Willis and Ten Speed Press. Used with permission.

Note: You may prepare these on the stove in a frying pan as well as in the oven, but they stay together better for me (and presumably for Virginia since she suggests doing them this way) in the oven. The ones in the pictures above and below were actually fried by my sister-in-law!


1 medium sweet-tart apple (such as Gala, Granny Smith, Cortland, or Fuji), cored and quartered
1/4 sweet onion
1 pound ground chicken or turkey
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1/2 jalapeño chile, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
2 ounces (1/2 cup) sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (optional for me but yummy)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Grate the apple on the large side of a box grater. (If you grate the apple skin-side out, you can grate it without having to peel it; a bit of peel is okay.)

Next, grate the onion and the cheese. In a medium bowl combine the chicken, apple, onion, garlic, chile, cheese, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the mixture into 4 equal-size balls; each will weigh about 7 ounces. Shape each into a patty about 4 inches in diameter. Place the patties directly on the prepared baking sheet.

Transfer the sheet to the oven and roast the burgers until they are lightly browned, flipping once during cooking, and the temperature measures 165 degrees when measured with an instant-read thermometer, about 18 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

My own burger, sans cheese but with mustard (and lots of flavor!)

My own burger, sans cheese but with mustard (and lots of flavor!)

Cast-Iron Inspiration

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

cast iron

A friend recently decided to outfit a new kitchen and asked for my advice. She was getting ready to purchase a high-end set of cookware, she informed me, and wanted to know what brand I recommended.

I dismayed her by telling her that I wouldn’t recommend purchasing one full set of ANYTHING. Instead, I thought (and still think) that a kitchen needs a little bit of a lot of types of cookware.

I like my stainless-steel saucepans. I like to have both a nonstick and a regular frying pan. I like a huge pot for stocks and soups. And I believe that every kitchen needs a bit of cast-iron.

In my case, that cast-iron consists of one enameled Dutch oven in a convenient size (about 5 quarts; larger is hard to lift!) and black cast-iron skillets of varying sizes.

Most of my skillets came from relatives or tag sales, although I do have one new one, from Lodge Manufacturing Company.

I use my skillets for a variety of tasks—most commonly for toasting nuts or for baking cornbread, frittatas, or upside-down cake.

Reading Dominique DeVito’s brand-new Cast-Iron Skillet Cookbook, which publisher Cider Mill Press sent me for review, has given me a number of additional ideas for cast-iron cookery.

In addition to my favorites, DeVito provides cast-iron-friendly recipes for unexpected dishes: casseroles; coffee cakes; vegetable roasts; and a variety of breads, from dinner rolls to Indian naan.

I have to admit it would NEVER have occurred to me to try preparing General Tso’s Chicken in my cast-iron pans—or to bake a giant chocolate-chip cookie.

Most helpful of all, DeVito provides hints on caring for cast iron. I knew one wasn’t supposed to wash these pans with soap. It turns out that I have been seasoning my pans incorrectly all these years, however!

If you’d like new ideas for your old pans, or if you are thinking of adding a cast-iron pan to your cookware collection, leave a comment below. The comment can describe your own favorite use of cast iron—or anything else you would like to express.

Cider Mill Press has generously promised to send a copy of the cookbook to one of the commenters. Please comment by next Tuesday, March 24. The next morning I will select one comment (randomly, I promise!) and get in touch with the winner to get his or her mailing address.

Meanwhile, I leave you with a recipe from the cookbook suitable for this week. I have already made my own favorite soda bread, but I’m seriously considering trying this savory take on a Saint Patrick’s Day favorite as well.

Let me know if you make it—and don’t forget to sing a few sentimental Irish (or Irish-American) songs today. My solo for our local Saint Patrick’s Day concert will be George M. Cohan’s “Mary.”

And the whole assembled group will sing “An Irish Blessing.”


Cheesy Chive Soda Bread

   Courtesy of The Cast-Iron Skillet Cookbook


3 cups white flour
2 cups spelt flour
3/4 cup rolled oats (not instant)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
2-1/2 cups buttermilk
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1/4 cup chopped chives
1-1/4 cups grated sharp white cheddar cheese
freshly ground pepper


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a large bowl, combine the flours, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda. Whisk to combine thoroughly. In another bowl, combine the butter, buttermilk, and egg.

Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture, and stir vigorously to blend. Dough will be sticky. Stir in the chives and 1 cup of the grated cheese.

Liberally grease a 12-inch cast-iron skillet with butter. Scoop and spread the dough into the skillet. Grate pepper over the top; then sprinkle the remaining cheese over it. Using a sharp knife, make an “x” in the center, about 1/2-inch deep, to settle the cheese further into the dough as it cooks.

Bake in the oven for about 1 hour and 15 minutes until the bread is golden on top and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to sit in the skillet for a few minutes before serving.

Makes 1 loaf.

A Saint Patrick's Day image from the past: my mother kneading soda bread

A Saint Patrick’s Day image from the past: my mother kneading soda bread

Cooking and Thinking in Provence, 1970

Friday, December 6th, 2013

30book "Provence, 1970" by Luke Barr.

I review a lot of books for my local newspaper. I can’t remember the last one that spoke to me as Provence, 1970 has.

Subitled “M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste,” the book was written by Luke Barr, an editor at Travel + Leisure and Fisher’s nephew.

(M.F.K. Fisher, in case you haven’t read her, is another great read, perhaps the first American to write culinary essays that were taken seriously by both food lovers and literary critics.)

The book hones in on a few weeks toward the end of 1970 when six food luminaries converged in the South of France. In addition to the three writers in the subtitle, Barr writes about Simone Beck, Julia Child’s friend and the co-author of Child’s pioneering volumes on Mastering the Art of French Cooking; Richard Olney, an American writer and artist who wrote meticulously researched books about traditional French country cooking; and Judith Jones, the influential editor who worked with most of the writers involved.

Jones is the only major character in the book who is still alive. At 89 she is still cooking and writing and is a former judge at my very own hometown’s charity pudding contest, which will return in 2014.

Working from letters, diaries, and memoirs, Barr examines individuals and cultures at a defining moment. Most of his American characters had made their reputations (and built much of their lives) paying tribute to traditional French cuisine. At this point in their lives Child and Fisher in particular were beginning to feel ever so slightly oppressed by the Old World and their old lives in France … and to look forward to a new beginning in the New World.

Barr argues that this moment in food history, the time his characters spent together in Provence late in that year, marked a turning point in the way Americans write about food and consequently in the way we cook. Instead of trying to duplicate classic French modes of food preparation, we began to explore our own culinary possibilities.

Much of the food culture we now take for granted followed—including our renewed interest in local, fresh food; the status of chefs and food writers (although not this food writer yet, alas) as icons of popular culture; our curiosity about new, varied flavors; and what Barr calls the “moral dimension” of cookery in contemporary America.

Barr is careful not to overstate his argument; he doesn’t claim that these encounters in Provence CAUSED the way we cook today. He does convincingly maintain that his characters and their interactions “provide a unique, up-close view of the push and pull of history and personality.”

Provence, 1970 takes the reader on a thought-provoking, delicious tour of a remarkable time, place, and group of people. My favorite moment in the book comes when Julia Child and James Beard are improvising a simple supper in the kitchen at la Pitchoune, the small house built by Child and her husband Paul in rural France.

Julia Child and James Beard in December 1970, taken by Paul Child. Used with permission/courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Julia Child and James Beard  at la Pitchoune in December 1970, taken by Paul Child. Used with permission from/courtesy of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

For them, as for most of us who love to cook, the preparation of a meal is a balancing act between the knowledge and tradition they have built up over the years in the kitchen and the demands of the unique foodstuffs in front of them. It is an opportunity for creativity and for camaraderie.

I treasure Provence, 1970 for scenes like the one in the Childs’ kitchen and also for its implicit message that change can come at any age. All the main characters are middle aged, ranging from Richard Olney at 43 to James Beard at 67. Yet all are preparing for new chapters in their lives and new chapters in books.

Above all, I love the book for Barr’s sensitivity to the enduring connections that food can forge between people who care for one another and for the preparation and consumption of meals.

His words about his mother near the end of the book speak to the impulse that made me call this blog In Our Grandmothers’ Kitchens.

It was my mother, who died a few years ago, who taught me to cook. And when I make something she made for me, or with me, I feel her presence—not in any literal or even ghostly way, but in the form of an atmospheric shift, an emotional warmth. It is striking how cooking binds us to the past, and to the people we love, even when they’re gone.

As Christmas approaches, I raise a glass and lift a fork to Luke Barr and to the historical figures he brings to life in his book. And of course to my own late mother—and to you and those you love, dear readers.

Taffy and Tinky in 2009

Taffy and Tinky in 2009

P.S. If you have already purchased Provence, 1970 for a food lover on your gift list and are looking for other book suggestions, a bookstore, Amazon, or I would be more than happy to sell you a copy of my own Pulling Taffy or Pudding Hollow Cookbook. (If you order from me, you may get your copies signed—and you will be supporting THIS middle-aged food writer!)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider taking out an email subscription to my blog. Just click on the link below!

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The Power and Passion of Natasha Lowe

Thursday, April 25th, 2013


I apologize for my recent absence from these pages! I have been working on polishing my forthcoming book, Pulling Taffy, a project that has included recording the audio version of the book.

I’m still working on setting things up for the book so I’m afraid I won’t be posting a lot in the near future. But I CAN offer you this food-related story, which I wrote recently for the Greenfield Recorder.

“Follow your passion” is Poppy Pendle’s motto. Poppy’s creator lives by that motto as well.

A book for young readers (more or less eight to 12 year olds), The Power of Poppy Pendle is only a few months old but has already entered its second printing.

Poppy’s author is the English-born Natasha Lowe, who lives in an 1840 house in Deerfield, Massachusetts, with an entrepreneurial husband, four children, a busy kitchen, and a vibrant imagination.

Natasha’s passion for storytelling—and for life—comes across with gusto in her huge smile and her rapid conversational style. She told me in a recent interview that she inherited her love of narrative from her parents.

“My parents were amazing storytellers. My mum grew up in Lancashire, and she would tell us a story about a witch called Beady Eyes,” said Natasha. “I’ve always had a love of witches—not evil witches but good, fun-loving witches.”

Poppy Pendle is one such witch. The book opens with her birth in a bakery, a location that foreshadows Poppy’s passion. The child Poppy wants nothing more than to be a baker. Unfortunately, her parents detect that she has magical powers and want her to grow up to be a prestigious white witch like her Great-Granny Mabel.

They enroll Poppy in an academy of magic. She excels at charms and spells but would trade them all for a plate of cookies. She flies with grace but would rather wield a rolling pin than a broomstick.

Her parents ignore her protestations that she doesn’t want to be a witch, breaking Poppy’s heart by taking the oven out of their kitchen so that she won’t be distracted from her magical studies by baking projects.

Eventually, Poppy’s frustration and anger, combined with her talent for magic, lead her to go over to “the dark side.” She casts spells that put her at odds with her family, her teachers, and society at large. She must re-find her passion before she can right the wrongs she has done and move forward in life.

Poppy is a charming heroine, with enough spice in her personal recipe to enable boys as well as girls to identify with her. The book’s message of following one’s passion, as Natasha told me, “is one for everyone to hear.”

She added, “And if there’s a message in there for parents, it’s to listen to your children.”

Natasha explained that she has learned the value of listening from her varied children, three boys and a girl, who range in age from nine to 20. “You have to have faith, and you have to trust your kids.”

The lesson also came from her parents, who always had faith in her, she recalled.

She came to this country in her late teens on a student visa, looking for a place to learn creative writing. Fate changed her plans when she met the man she was to marry, and he quickly proposed. “It was one of those crazy, impulsive things,” she recalled.

She worried about the reaction of her parents. After a quick inspection, however, they told her, “He looks great for you. We have always taught you to trust your instincts … so, if it feels right, stay.”

Natasha’s husband had purchased the house on the main street of Historic Deerfield as an investment while he was a senior at Deerfield Academy.

“He showed it to me,” remembered the city-bred Natasha. “I said, ‘It’s absolutely gorgeous. But I’ll never live in the country.’”

The pair fixed the house up as a bed and breakfast and hired someone to run it. When that person was unable to honor the commitment at the last minute, Natasha found herself drafted as the temporary proprietor of the Tea House Bed and Breakfast.

After a year in Deerfield she was hooked. “Going through all the seasons [here], I realized I didn’t want to be anywhere else,” she told me.

The bed and breakfast lasted for about five years, and then, in Natasha’s words, “the guestrooms started filling up with children, and it was hard to offer romantic getaways with toddlers running around underfoot!” The house was a family home rather than a B&B from then on.

Natasha had always been interested in writing and had had a few short stories published in her youth. A few years ago, when her youngest child, Juliette, started kindergarten, Natasha decided that she didn’t want to look back at her life years later with regret.

“If I was going to [be a writer] and take myself seriously, I had to just sit down and start sending stuff out,” she said. “I was really lucky. I got a wonderful agent quite quickly. She’s been in the children’s writing field for many, many years.”

Despite this luck, it took a few years and a few rewrites before The Power of Poppy Pendle made its way to Simon & Schuster, where esteemed children’s book editor Paula Wiseman fell in love with the book.

Wiseman’s main request was one that fit perfectly with Natasha Lowe’s vision of the book. She asked whether the author would consider adding some of Poppy’s recipes as an appendix.

Natasha launched herself into recipe testing (she admitted that she tried so many batches of lemon bars that today one of her sons refuses to eat them), and the final book now offers ten tempting recipes, including the cupcake recipe below.

I asked Natasha about the origins of Poppy’s story. She explained that it all began with a stone goose her husband brought home one day from an auction and placed in the garden. “It does look really, really real,” said Natasha.

Her then four-year-old daughter Juliette wanted an explanation for the goose’s surprised expression.

“I said maybe a witch had put a spell on it,” her mother explained.

Of course, Juliette wanted to know about the witch … and on the spot Natasha came up with the story of a young witch who was upset because she wanted to be a baker, not a witch.

“Suddenly, I knew I had to write that story,” recalled Natasha. “It was almost given to me fully formed. I actually raced inside and started working at my computer.”

Today Natasha is enjoying the task of publicizing her book—talking to children, adults, and even seniors about Poppy Pendle. She is also working on several new writing projects. “I’m never short of ideas!” she told me with a smile.

Natasha Loweweb

Poppy Pendle’s Coffee Cup Cakes

Courtesy of Natasha Lowe

Poppy Pendle dreamed up these delicious treats after drinking her first cup of French brewed coffee at her favorite bakery. Natasha told me that in England a “coffee cake” is a cake flavored with coffee rather than something to accompany a hot beverage.


1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon espresso powder
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons self-rising flour (or you can use regular flour and 1-1/4 teaspoons of baking powder and mix them well before adding to the batter)
1/4 teaspoon salt


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Put the milk into a little dish (a small china ramekin is ideal) and warm it in the microwave for about ten seconds. If you don’t have a microwave, just warm some milk gently in a saucepan and measure out 1 tablespoon into a little dish. Sprinkle the espresso powder over the milk, and stir to blend.

If there is a food processor in your home, ask an adult to help you set it up and whiz all the cake ingredients together, including the espresso-flavored milk. Then go to the pouring and baking step.

Otherwise, put your stick of softened butter into a large bowl, and, using a hand-held mixer, whiz the butter around until it is nice and fluffy. Pour the sugar on top and beat together with the butter until well blended. Go slowly at first because you don’t want sugar flying all over the counter.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. You can ask an adult to help you with this if you like because you don’t want bits of eggshell in the batter. Add the vanilla extract, then the self-rising flour (or flour and baking powder) and the salt and mix quickly again. You don’t want to over mix the ingredients or your cakes will be tough.

Now, mix the powerful espresso flavored milk into your cake batter, scraping around the little dish to make sure you get it all in. The batter will turn a rich coffee color and smell delicious.

Arrange 12 paper cup-cake wrappers inside a muffin tin or, if you want to make miniature cup cakes, you will need about 36 mini paper wrappers for a mini muffin pan. Fill each cup halfway with cake batter, and bake for 16 to 20 minutes for regular cup cakes, 9 to 14 minutes for minis. You might want to ask an adult to help you get the cakes into and out of the oven. Let cool them on a wire rack.

Makes 12 regular sized cup cakes or about 36 mini cup cakes.

Coffee Frosting

You can make this while the cup cakes are baking.


2-1/2 tablespoons milk
1-1/2 teaspoons espresso powder
1 stick softened butter
1-1/4 cups confectioner’s sugar
as many chocolate-flavored coffee beans as you have cup cakes


Pour the milk into a tiny dish. Warm the milk in the microwave for about 10 seconds and sprinkle the espresso powder on top. Stir to blend.

Put the softened butter into a large bowl and shake the confectioner’s sugar on top. Using a big wooden spoon or a hand-held mixer (Natasha likes to use a hand-held mixer because it makes the frosting really smooth and creamy), gently stir the espresso flavored milk into the mixture, and blend together until soft and creamy.

Go slowly to begin with; otherwise you will have sugar all over your counter! If you want a softer frosting, just add a drop or two more milk.

Using a dinner knife, smooth the frosting on top of the cup cakes and decorate with a coffee-flavored chocolate bean.

Just for fun, here's a look at my homemade recording studio.....

Just for fun, here’s a look at my homemade recording studio…..

The Homemade Pantry

Friday, July 20th, 2012

I read a lot of cookbooks, although I don’t use a lot of them; I’m too busy tinkering with my own recipes! The books I enjoy the most are the ones that give the reader a sense of the author’s personality as well as his or her philosophy of food.

The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making fits these criteria beautifully. The publisher, Clarkson Potter, recently sent me a review copy.

The book’s author, Alana Chernila of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is hugely likable. (One also meets the 30-something cook’s attractive husband and two daughters in the course of reading the book.) And her passion for making as much food as possible in the home is infectious.

At the book’s beginning, Chernila lists her reasons for making food from scratch:

1. Food made at home is better for you.
2. Food made at home tastes better.
3. Food made at home usually costs less.
4. Food made at home eliminates unnecessary packaging.
5. Food made at home will change the way you think about food.

It’s hard to argue with her logic. Most of us are increasingly wary of additives in food. The simplest and most tasty way to avoid these is to control what goes into what we eat. We’re all looking for yummy, affordable food that won’t make too big a carbon footprint. And we all enjoy turning food into a joy as well as a necessity.

To me Chernila’s recipes fall into three categories. The first will be the least useful to people like me, who are country dwellers and routinely prepare many of these foods at home already.

My neighbors generally make their own applesauce, their own basic birthday cakes, and their own cornbread. If they have time and the season is good, they freeze fruits and vegetables for winter use as well. Chernila’s recipes for foods like these will interest readers like me—we’re all looking for new ways to do what we already do—but they won’t be essential.

The second category is more exotic. Chernila makes a number of foods that I have a feeling I may make only once but will enjoy making: butter, graham crackers (actually, I HAVE made these in the past, but her recipe looks better than mine!), mozzarella cheese, crème fraîche.

The third category encompasses practical foods that I can see incorporating into my regular menus: crackers, yogurt, and best of all condiments like mustard and hot sauce.

In fact, I have already made some mustard and have a photo to prove it!

Part of the charm of The Homemade Pantry is the informality and non-preachiness of its prose. A busy wife, mother, food writer, and selectman, Alana Chernila admits that her kitchen can look like a disaster … and that some days she doesn’t have time to make everything her family eats from scratch.

She does try, however. And so should the rest of us.

Homemade Pantry Mustard

We recently heard the parable of the mustard seed in church. Thanks to the parable, over the years mustard seeds have become a symbol of great things coming from small starts. It’s nice to remember that the seeds can literally create something a lot bigger than you would expect from looking at them as well!

Here is Alana Chernila’s mustard recipe, which I made last week. It makes a spicy mustard, but that suits me just fine.


1/2 cup brown or yellow mustard seeds (I used yellow this time but have some brown seeds I’m going to try soon.)
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons honey


Pour the mustard seeds into a medium mixing bowl and cover with water 3 inches higher than the seeds. Cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temperature for 12 hours.

Drain the water from the seeds, reserving at least 1/4 cup of the water. Combine the soaked mustard seeds, the vinegar, garlic, salt, honey, and 1/4 cup of the soaking water in a blender, and blend until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a jar, cover, and refrigerate. If you can, wait for a week before using the mustard so that the flavors can blend; on Day One it tastes very mustardy!

According to Chernila this mustard lasts for 2 months in the fridge. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.

Draining the seeds….