Monday, December 28, 2015

Cookbook review: CLEAN SLATE by the editors of Martha Stewart Living

I have to admit, I'm not the biggest fan of Martha Stawart's cookbooks. While I love her repertoire of baking and craft books, her savory dishes always come out poorly for me. Fortunately, CLEAN SLATE is not merely a cookbook, but reads more like a well-organized textbook.

Perfect for anyone who needs to change their diet around completely due to health issues—or someone simply hoping to turn over a new dietary leaf—CLEAN SLATE is an extensive catalog of lists and charts for everything you need to know on how to eat clean. From lists of good substitutes for everyday toppings like cream cheese and croutons to visual aids and recipes for energy-boosting smoothies.

It's a little overwhelming how much information is packed into CLEAN SLATE, it's definitely not a cookbook for someone who isn't committed to changing their meal plans around for the better. But the recipes that supplement all the front-matter learning are surprisingly simple.

I tried the Quesadillas with Collard Greens & White Beans and it was as straightforward to assemble as it sounds. Honestly, it's one of the easier health-conscious swaps to make, but it's definitely not something I would have thought to throw together. The cannellini beans add a creamy texture that you miss without chicken and they blend well with the savory greens and sharp cheddar.

I also tried the Grapefruit, Salmon, and Avocado Salad... which was a little odd. I'm not wild about grapefruit and avocado together. However I tried it again with tomatoes and it made a tasty side-salad.

All-in-all I think the real value of CLEAN SLATE is as a resource for information on clean eating, more than actual recipes. I think anyone who reads and studies this book's early pages should be able to swap out some ingredients on their already-well-loved recipes and follow a healthier diet. And perhaps for that reason alone I'd recommend checking this book out.

Rating: *** (3)

Monday, December 22, 2014

Cookbook review: Meat and Potatoes by Rahm Fama

I was pleasantly surprised by Meat and Potatoes: Simple Recipes that Sizzle and Sear by Rahm Fama which I received via the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review. I have a real weakness in my cooking abilities when it comes to meat. I never know what cuts to get, how long to cook them without the meat getting too dry, how to season meats, and most importantly what to put with said meat. Often I'll spend all my time struggling with the meat that I'll end up just boiling up some frozen veggies to go with it or making yet another salad.

Perhaps what I liked most about Meat and Potatoes is that it gives you full, pre-planned meals—and a huge variety of them—and many of them require very few ingredients. These are recipes that I can rely on being able to throw together with minimal time running to and from the grocery store.

I made "Short Ribs with Lemon and Thyme," "Rosemary Baby Bliss Potatoes," and "Roasted Artichoke Hearts" (all three recipes are paired together, I'll give myself some credit and say I probably would have guessed potatoes would be good with this, but no way would I have thought to roast up some artichoke).

The short ribs only required six ingredients—all of which I had in my kitchen already—and all I really needed to go to the store for were the artichokes and some garlic. It turned out delicious, all of it, and was super simple to throw together. The meat had to cook a while, but aside from that, nothing tricky about most of these recipes. Only a few steps for each, all very straightforward. This is a great cookbook for people who are not naturals at cooking or meal planning.

Rating: **** (4)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Cookbook review: Extra Virgin by Gabriele Corcos and Debi Mazar

I received a copy of EXTRA VIRGIN: RECIPES AND LOVE FROM OUR TUSCAN KITCHEN by Gabriele Corcos and Debi Mazar from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review. You'd probably recognize Mazar, she's been on a slew of television shows since the '90s. I'll wait while you google-image-search her. Yep, her. But that's neither here nor there, and it's certainly downplayed in this book (her photo isn't even on the cover) so you really don't get the celebrity cookbook vibe from this.

I was pleasantly surprised by EXTRA VIRGIN. Often these giant coffee-table-sized Italian cookbooks are beautiful to look at (and this one is too) with full-page, four-color food photos that make the food look like it was just effortlessly plopped on the table looking that good—but then the recipes end up being so overwhelming and complicated that really all the cookbook serves as is inspiration to go to a 5-star Italian restaurant for dinner.

EXTRA VIRGIN is more down-to-earth than that, Mazar admits that her mother taught herself to cook while living the hippy lifestyle in New York. I loved that and it immediately made the recipes more approachable. What was also nice: these recipes keep more to the traditional Italian. You've pretty much heard of all these recipes, not weird modernized dishes that put a "spin" on the old, but also nothing boring or overly rudimentary.

I tried the Sausage and Asparagus Risotto and it turned out delicious. It definitely seemed (and most of these dishes do actually) like something that after making a few more times I can have memorized and make as a regular staple meal. I think my only critique would be that I wish the book gave estimates of how long each recipe would take... Although I think on the whole most of these are doable to make during the week. With the leftover asparagus I made "Grilled Asparagus wrapped with lardo" which is basically delicious FAT. There's a lot of overlapping of ingredients between all these recipes which is nice because you can make sure nothing leftover goes to waste.

The "On Entertaining" section by Mazar was probably my favorite part (I have a real anxiety about hosting dinner parties, I'm not a very confident cook and I'm not great with timing and making people feel comfortable. I envy people who have a knack for party planning). She takes a lot of the pressure off by talking about involving your guests in preparing some of the meal (creates a sense of community and allows you some social time) as well as planning ahead for what you can get done before they arrive and what can be left to the last minute. She even talks about some of her table setting decor tips, how to put together a vibrant and interesting table through thrift store shopping, and comes up with some unique ideas for what to serve wine in.

All in all, this is a great book to pull regular meal ideas from that you can use over and over and refer to when trying to piece together some ideas for larger party meals. It's never overwhelming or over complicated and the ingredients all seem pretty straightforward and attainable. I'd definitely recommend having a copy of EXTRA VIRGIN on your cookbook shelf. It might be worth even checking out their show on the Cooking Channel of the same name.

Rating: **** (4)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Cook book review: Treat Yourself by Jennifer Steinhauer

I received TREAT YOURSELF: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review and I'm so glad I did! When I first heard of this book I planned on passing it up completely. Another book full of cookie recipes, right? Wrong! TREAT YOURSELF is a fun book FULL of recipes for baking cookies, cakes, and snack treats that everyone knows and loves but that few people would think to try making themselves.

Where to begin? First of all, if you go to a lot of parties and never know what to bake that your friends and family members will actually want to eat, look no further. TREAT YOURSELF has everything from vanilla fudge sandwiches and Twinkies to cinnamon-laced pinwheels and soft pretzels. I was astounded by just how many different recipes were packed into this book and as I flipped through the pages I kept surprising myself thinking, "oh yeah! I remember eating those when I was in elementary-school age!" and having completely forgotten about them/rarely have seen them since.

I made the Mallomars and Nilla Wafers and brought them to a friend's house and they were delicious, and a fun surprise to those who expect the regular old cookie.

Additionally, this book is perfect arsenal of ideas if you're a parent. Snacks to make for the soccer team party. Goodies to bring to the pool party. Cookies to bake for the parent meetings. Church functions. Holiday family get-togethers. And on and on.

Also worth noting is the packaging for this book, which makes it perfect for gift-giving. So if you're not a parent, this would be a fun gift to give to a friend who has kids. Or to school teachers who I imagine would enjoy it too. That said, I'm neither a teacher, nor a parent and would love to receive this book as a gift. The recipes are well-organized with an index in the back and the layout and design makes baking everything in the book seem approachable, colorful, and fun. TREAT YOURSELF and pick up a copy of this book!

Rating: ***** (5)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cook Book review: Brassicas by Laura B. Russell

Google any "Healthiest Foods to Eat" article on the Internet and you'll see at least one mention of the "dark leafy greens" that you should incorporate into you diet to heal every ailment under the sun. But let's be honest, most of those "dark leafy greens" are the most traditionally abhorred vegetables of anyone's childhood memory. Sure, fancy restaurants can slather them in olive oil and some how manage to make them tasty, but how do you accomplish that at home? Everyone should have a copy of Laura B. Russell's BRASSICAS to refer to.

I was super impressed with BRASSICAS when I received it from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review. For one, this cook book manages to make kale, brussels sprouts, and bok chow look delicious, and also, perfectly attainable. They're veggies, so it's not like you need to worry about accidentally giving yourself food poisoning or not cooking the meat all the way through. BRASSICAS provides plenty of yummy-looking recipes that can be used for side-dishes to meals or even eaten as full meals on their own.

I live in the Bay Area where bacon-y brussels sprouts have recently become very popular at restaurants. I tried the BRASSICAS recipe for "Wilted Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Tomatoes" which tasted fabulous. I don't usually cook with bacon/meat drippings, but I think I managed well enough and the brussels sprouts turned out awesome. No sulfur, mushy taste, just bacon-y lightly-cooked goodness.

I also tried the "Spicy Soba Noodles with Wilted Watercress" recipe. Oh my God, I could eat this dish every night, in fact I'm going to make it a regular staple. Absolutely delicious and more than just noodles.

Often if you go to the grocery store or farmer's market and find all these beautiful vegetables, but then when you get home you don't really know what to do with them other to boil them or throw some salt and pepper on them. BRASSICAS is a cook book everyone should keep in their kitchen to refer to for some dazzling and totally doable ideas of ways to make difficult-looking vegetables part of your every day dinner hour.

Rating: ***** (5)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Cookbook review: My Paris Kitchen by David Lebovitz

I received a complimentary copy of MY PARIS KITCHEN by David Lemovitz via the Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

MY PARIS KITCHEN wasn't the usual coffee-table sized cookbook full of glossy food photography that I expected, there is a lot of really interesting reading to be hand in MY PARIS KITCHEN and in fact I enjoyed reading it as a book on today's French food culture as much as I enjoyed trying out the recipes. This would make the perfect gift for any Francophile friend you have who also happens to love to cook and experiment in the kitchen. There's a good mixture of more practical-every-day dishes and then the more difficult fancy French meals in this book so there's definitely something for everyone. I made the green beans with snail butter (no actual snails were harmed in the making of) and the chicken with mustard recipe (very yummy) and they both turned out to be recipes that I will likely keep in my arsenal for reference to again and again.

While this definitely isn't a beginner's cookbook, it still has plenty of practical recipes and a ton of tricks and cautionary tips enough so that it deserves a place on your cookbook shelf even if you're not a master cook.

I loved reading about the author's experiences in France and his take on the modern culture there and it made the whole idea of tackling some of the more challenging-sounding French dishes much more approachable. This is a beautiful book and would make a lovely gift, either for yourself or your French-culture-loving friend. Highly recommended.

Rating: **** (4)

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Book review: Loud Awake and Lost by Adele Griffin

Recently I've noticed an uptick in the Girl Almost Dies and Wakes Up with No Memory trope in YA... and nothing about that has struck me as particularly interesting. Main character has amnesia, must uncover the deep dark truths of her fractured past. Must drag reader along through the bumbling, emotional journey. For the most part, no thanks, but the publisher of Loud Awake and Lost graciously provided me with a complimentary Advanced Reader Copy, so I decided to give at least this one amnesia book a shot.

Ember's returning home after months of rehabilitation after an almost fatal car accident. After multiple surgeries, morphine drips, physical therapy, and work with a counselor to help her grapple with her body (and mind's) recovering wounds, Ember is thrown back into her high school life. But who was she before the accident? Everything at home is familiar--same best friend, boyfriend, teachers--but what's missing are the six weeks leading up to her accident... and apparently those were defining weeks for her, a time when she had begun to cast aside the people she's now become reunited with. But why? Much to Ember's family and friends' chagrin, Ember begins to seek out the triggers that might help her to regain those lost memories.

Adele Griffin's Loud Awake and Lost wasn't bad. I'd probably classify it as a beach read, a nice in-between read when you need something "light" and "fast-paced", both of which are good adjectives to describe this book. I zipped along through this book pretty quickly and was interested enough in the story and satisfied with the quality of writing.

The only problem with this book was the big "twist" at the end, which was painfully obvious from the beginning. It was a tad tedious to read the entire story knowing what the big reveal would be... and having nothing else in the story built up other than that one thread. Everything else going on was two-dimensional and felt like filler-detail. By the time I got to the reveal at the end (and I was hoping that perhaps there'd be some additional element that I hadn't guessed) it felt anti-climactic and limp.

I actually don't mind predictable books, in fact I prefer them (I'm really not a big Mystery genre fan, except when the occasional mood strikes me), but if a book's predictable there needs to be something else to the story that adds some meaning for the reader who has already figured out what will happen. Some passionate, tense romance (not really here, except some moments of insta-love), some impressive character development that bonds the reader to the protagonist (I liked Ember, but her passion for cooking wasn't as played up as it could have been), or a strong friendship (Ember spends most of the book acknowledging that Rachel's her bestie... but the story's too wrapped up in Ember's personal journey to spend time highlighting that bond).

Overall, Loud Awake and Lost was an okay book. It's a quick read and if you don't pick up on what's really going on until the end it will probably blow you away. But if, like me, you pin down what Ember's past was from the get-go... there really isn't much more to the story.

Rating: *** (3)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Book review: Rebel Angels by Libba Bray

I loved A Great and Terrible Beauty and I was in the mood for a little Libba Bray last week so I picked up a copy of Rebel Angels. While it was a little slower in the beginning and there were some plot twists that seemed a bit contrived, overall it picked up and was engaging and propelled the characters' story arc along enough for me to want to read the next book in the trilogy.

The holidays are upon Gemma and her friends Felicity and Ann and soon they'll be able to escape Spence Academy for some much needed vacation time to spend with families and attend holiday balls. Yet the girls still struggle with the loss of Pippa and Gemma in particular feels the pang of guilt for Ms. Moore's dismissal from the Academy. There's also a mysterious replacement for Ms. Moore who Gemma doesn't quite trust, a new suitor that would mean a boost in society for Gemma, mysterious visions, and a newfound source of information on The Order. The girls must juggle obstacles both at home and in the Realms in order to bind the magic and undermine Circe.

I liked that much of the book took place outside of Spence. We get to see Gemma's interaction with her father, brother, and the social circle in London and we get more background on Felicity and Ann and why their personalities are the way they are. While the beginning was a bit slow I felt the story really started to pick up once Gemma was home in London and had more freedom to research The Order and touch base with Kartik. However I did feel like there were some holes in the story, promises were made in the Realms and then never acted upon and characters were introduced but then didn't seem to function for anything other than a plot twist at the end that made them a moot point... But perhaps those characters will play a larger role in the next book, The Sweet Far Thing, and if this book and the one before it are any indication, then it won't disappoint!

Rating: **** (4)

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Book review: Sweet Venom by Tera Lynn Childs

Modern day descendants of Medusa here in San Francisco? YES.

I'm not much for Urban Fantasy usually, but this Urban Fantasy YA had such awesome character development I really couldn't set it aside. As I've mentioned before in previous reviews, in my opinion, one of the hardest things to do as a writer is to develop more than one main character that's distinct enough in its point of view to carry its own portions of the story, but even harder is making those layered, distinct characters interesting enough that the reader won't start flipping through any of their chapters in order to get back to the one they actually care about. Tera Lynn Childs pulls this technique off quite well--and not with just two main characters--but three!

Grace moves to San Francisco, ready for a fresh start at a new school and a chance to reinvent herself. She doesn't realize just how much reinventing she'll be doing though until she comes face-to-face with a minotaur. But perhaps just as startling as said minotaur wrecking havoc: a twin minotaur-fighting sister. Enter Gretchen.

While Grace is a misfit girl in the city just trying to make everyone (including herself) happy, Grace is a misanthropic Buffy-type who fights monsters at night and can barely keep her eyes propped open in her classes during the day. She's been flying solo for a while so the introductions with Grace are anything but warm.

Did I say twin? I meant triplet. Lastly, Greer is discovered. She's a preppy girl who wants nothing to do with her monster-fighting, lunatic sisters. But something's not right lately, suddenly there are more monsters than usual roaming the city and the girls realize that perhaps now is not the time for sibling rivalry.

While the writing isn't great (it's pretty simplistic) and I felt the plot was minimal (a lot of set-up without any real plot twists), the characters were interesting enough to carry the story along. By the end you're curious as to what exactly the girls have gotten themselves into. If you're looking for an Urban Fantasy series to latch onto, look no further.

Rating: *** (3)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Blog Tour: Q&A with Michaela MacColl & Nobody's Secret excerpt!

I am excited to be participating in the blog tour for Michaela MacColl's new book, Nobody's Secret, which is a fabulous YA book that I highly recommend. A very quick read!

About the Book
By Michaela MacColl
Ages 12 and Up
April 2013

One day, fifteen-year-old Emily Dickinson meets a mysterious, handsome young man. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to know who she or her family is. And even more surprisingly, he playfully refuses to divulge his name. Emily enjoys her secret flirtation with Mr. “Nobody” until he turns up dead in her family’s pond. She’s stricken with guilt. Only Emily can discover who this enigmatic stranger was before he’s condemned to be buried in an anonymous grave. Her investigation takes her deep into town secrets, blossoming romance, and deadly danger. Exquisitely written and meticulously researched, this novel celebrates Emily Dickinson’s intellect and spunk in a page-turner of a book that will excite fans of mystery, romance, and poetry alike.

"MacColl skillfully draws from Dickenson’s life to create a vision of the young poet as sharp-thinking, nature-obsessed, and determinedly curious..." --Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

"A suspenseful, often humorous historical novel... MacColl demonstrates how accessible Dickinson's poetry was." --Shelf Awareness for Readers, starred review

“This imaginative take on the young poet... will find a wide audience for both classroom connections and personal reading.” --Booklist

“MacColl takes a character that most people do not really know much about and brings her to life... fun, interesting reading” --VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates


About Michaela MacColl
Michaela MacColl studied multi-disciplinary history at Vassar College and Yale University, which turns out to be the perfect degree for writing historical fiction. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and three extremely large cats in Connecticut

Also by Michaela MacColl:

Q&A with Michaela MacColl
1. What inspired you to write Nobody’s Secret? Was it an idea that had been marinating for a while or did it come to you all at once?
I love historical mysteries and I wanted to write one.  For preference about the childhood of a famous writer.  I’ve always liked Emily Dickinson and she seemed to fit the bill – particularly since her reclusive adult life is so famous – I wanted to show a different side to Emily. 
Once I had chosen Emily, I needed a murder victim. For that I turned to her poetry. One of my favorite poems is “I’m Nobody, Who are You? / Are you Nobody too?”  The poem is about Emily’s need for anonymity and solitude – but still she’s speaking to someone! Who? Who inspired the poem? Might she have cared for him? Perhaps we have no record of him because something happened to him?  What ifs and Perhaps are the way I design a book.

2. What was the process writing Nobody’s Secret like? Did you plot out the whole book first and then write? Or did the story and characters come to you as you wrote? Some combination?

For me the mystery is the hard part. I play with a lot of ideas and write out lots of little descriptions (like when the detective at the end reveals all). Then I start to write. For me the hardest part is the first chapter. Once I write that and have the tone and character’s voice --- then I outline the rest.  I find that writing the outline enough – I usually don’t look at it again. 

I do a lot of reading about my character and I’m always looking for interested characters I can use. In Nobody’s Secret, there’s a quirky Doctor and an impressive clergyman who were friends of the Dickinson family in real life.  Then I need to invent other characters to forward my plot.  Somehow it all comes together!

3. What made you decide to build a character around someone that existed in real life? Was this limiting at all? Or did you feel like it prompted creativity?
So far all my books have been about the adolescence of famous women.  I love melding factual details about real people with a story that I get to make up.  I read diaries, letters, poetry – anything I can find to hear my character’s voice.  It is limiting in the sense that I can’t have my protagonist do anything anachronistic or out of her real character. On the other hand, I think I’ve got a flair for introducing kids to these famous people in an accessible and engaging way.  

4. How many revisions of the manuscript did you go through?
I pride myself on very tight plotting so when I deliver the manuscript the story is pretty set.  My editor and I did three revisions, none of them major, before we delivered the book to the copy editor. 

5. How did you come to be published by Chronicle Books? 
Victoria Rock is my editor at Chronicle. She bought my first and second books (Prisoners in the Palace (2011) and Promise the Night (2011)).  We worked well together and I loved the final results. The designers and marketing/publicity team at Chronicle are great to work with too. So it was an easy decision to pitch my literary mystery series to Chronicle. Fortunately, they liked the idea.

6. What was it like working with your editor on this project? Was it collaborative? 
Victoria is a super-respectful editor. She suggests changes or just highlights areas that she feels don’t quite work.  A few times I’ve stubbornly dug in my heels and fought her on something (for four revisions!) until I gave in and tried her way. She was absolutely right! So I’ve learned to trust her. I think she trusts me – so collaborative is a good word.

7. What advice would you give to YA writers? 
Read. Read everything. But especially read in your genre.  It’s hard enough to publish a book. Why hurt your chances by writing a book that’s too similar to other books out there? You want to make it easy for your editor or agent to pitch your book as special. 

8. What is your favorite scene in Nobody’s Secret?
I’m partial to the first chapter – it’s a romantic start and for me it set Emily’s personality immediately.  She’s playing hooky from chores and lying in a meadow hoping a bee will land on her nose. You see, she wants to know how it feels.  When she meets a handsome stranger, not only does he understand what she’s doing, he dabs a bit of honey on her nose to help a bee find its way to her nose.  (The honey becomes a clue!)

9. What book is sitting on your nightstand right now?
I’m reading Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Laurie’s a friend and I’m blown away at how she nails the voice of a young black slave during the American Revolution.

10. Where is your favorite reading spot?
My living room has the comfiest couch on the planet and big picture windows that look out into the woods. It’s a peaceful place. (And there’s usually at least one cat sleeping next to me)

Nobody's Secret Book Trailer:

Interested? Read an excerpt!:

Thirsty for more? Check out the next tour stop!

Now BUY it online!