Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cookbook Review: The Casserole Queens Make-A-Meal Cookbook

Well, it's that time of year again: fall.  Not my favourite time of year at all, since the days get shorter, colder, and darker, and I tend to get moodier, more sluggish, and feel the need to indulge in a lot of comfort foods.  And who doesn't love a good comfort food, really?  And nothing says comfort food more clearly, more resoundingly than a casserole.

Oh, how I luvs me a casserole!  So I was stoked to get a review copy of this pretty little book entitled The Casserole Queens Make-A-Meal Cookbook, which touts that it contains "100 mix and match casseroles, salads, side dishes, and desserts."  The Random House page breaks it down further, saying that there are 46 casserole recipes, 37 sides and salads, 13 desserts - and more.  For many of the recipes, there are gluten free options and diabetic-friendly options.

Upon receiving the book, I was taken in completely by the charming writing style and anecdotes shared by the authors, and the recipes looked fantastic.  I couldn't wait to try them!  They seemed simple and involved ingredients that were generally inexpensive and easy to find.  The first recipe was dying to try was the Deconstructed Cabbage Rolls on page 36.  I totally love cabbage rolls, and even have fond memories of my mom making a cabbage roll casserole that was to die for.  This recipe was even more tantalizing because it contained a decent whack of bacon in it, and bacon makes everything better!

The verdict, however, is a different story.  The casserole was disappointing.  For one thing, my 9x13 pan couldn't contain all the ingredients, so I had to move up to my largest lasagna pan - but not a big deal.  The issue I had with the casserole was that it was bland!  I made the recipe exactly as the cookbook stipulated, but I found the casserole lacking in flavour.  My roommate, T, thought it was fantastic, though, by my other roommate was on my side with this: he found it bland, too.  It was very disappointing, despite all the bacon.

But onto the next, which was another recipe which really tickled my fancy because it contains two things I love: tator tots (which I NEVER eat!) and cream of mushroom soup (something you can't go wrong with in a casserole).  This is the recipe on page 110, and I found that it did fit into a 9x13 pan just fine, which made me happy.  There was also an option to make your own cream of mushroom soup for the casserole, but I decided to go with at can of Campbell's. This was very easy prep-wise, which also made me very happy, and once the tator tots crisped up, it looked delectable!

The verdict, however, was: milquetoast!  I found it very salty, my male roommate found it salty as well, and T, who usually likes everything, found it kind of blah.  I was very disappointed, and started wondering if this cookbook was a complete dud.

But I wasn't going to give up on it yet.  One more recipe!  This time, a non-casserole: the Dill Bread recipe on page 160.  It's basically a batter bread you bake in a casserole dish.  Again, I made it just as the recipe stated to, but during the rising process the dough didn't do diddly, so I began to worry that my yeast was dead.  I baked the bread anyway, though, and...drumroll...we finally had a winner!  This bread was a huge hit with everyone!  It looked great, and it smelled fantastic.  It had a great moist texture, somewhere between a scone and a cake.  It was nice and spongy and soft, and it was tasty as hell.  This is something I'd definitely make again.  In fact, I think this will be a very versatile recipe to have on hand as I can think of all kinds of things you could put in here either with dill or with other herbs.  Or just plain, too.

I didn't get around to making any of the desserts, but there are certainly quite a few that look worthy of testing out. There are squares, brownies, cakes and pies, and the recipes all look terrific.

So despite having two so-so casserole experiences from this book, I am going to keep it on my overstuffed cookbook shelves, because it definitely has a lot of potential.  I am not going to write it off just yet - after all, fall has just begun and I'm eager to try a few other recipes in it, like the Chicken Enchiladas and the Savory French Onion Tart.  There are too many ideas in here to pass by!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cookbook Review: Tyler Florence Fresh

The flap says: "In Tyler Florence Fresh, real unprocessed foods shine in simple yet creative recipes designed to maximize the flavor of each component.  Using easy techniques like quick pickling, searing, and dehydrating to heighten tastes and textures, Tyler masterfully mixes and matches flavors to create plates of elegant simplicity that are naturally brimming with wholesome nutrition."

I have really enjoyed Tyler Florence's TV shows on the Food Network, and he is one of the nicer celebrity chefs to look at - as the cover of his latest cookbook can attest to! - so I was super excited to get ahold of this new release.  But I have to say, very sadly, that I was disappointed with the cookbook overall.

I love the earth-to-table movement.  I love the concept of using fresh, locally procured ingredients and doing as little as possible to them to create spectacular stuff, and it on the surface appears that that's what Tyler has done with this book, so that's not my main beef.

My main beef is the presentation of the food in this book.  I'm not a fan of deconstructionism in food; I think it's unappealing, I think it's very fussy and pretentious, and I think meals made up of several components need to blended together to show how they work together, rather than dissected on the plate to show how separate everything is.  And this is what the presentations in this book do; they remind me of biology class where we had to dissect things and splay them out in their bare parts so we could analyze all these parts and pass the lab.  So I found many of the photographs didn't show the food off in an appealing manner and it really put me off.  It mad the food look broken and uncohesive.

And some of the food just looked plain unappetizing.  For instance, the yogurt foam on page 89 is one example.  I hate foam on foods - it's gross.  And there are a lot of sauces in this book that looks similar, and of course, since everything's broken down into its components it looks even worse.  Even the Key Lime Pie - a dessert I love! - is reduced to a puddle of green puree on a plate with crumbs of graham crust sprinkled on top and some little blobs of meringue dabbed here and there.  This did not inspire me at all to make the recipe!

I liked the concept of the hero ingredients Tyler used in this book, ingredients that are the nutritional star of each dish, like asparagus, salmon and tuna.  But the recipes overall seemed - despite what the flap says - overly fussy and too chi-chi for my tastes.  Plus, there are a lot of ingredients on here that fall outside my budget: truffles, fresh tuna, octopus, and squab, for instance.  This leads into my main complaint about the whole buy local/earth-to-table/sustainability movement: some chefs take it a bit far and turn simple things into elaborate haute cuisine dishes that the average person can't afford to make because some of the ingredients, while healthy and sustainable, are too expensive for the average joe.

I have gone through this book a few times, and I just don't feel there is anything in here I would consider making.  Even the chocolate cake would cost me a fortune to make, with 9 eggs and a pound of decent chocolate in it.  I'm sure it's divine, but that's a huge investment for a dessert for me.

So conceptually, a great idea for a cookbook.  Execution-wise, a totally different story.  I don't think I'll be keeping this cookbook around on my already overfilled cookbook bookcase. :(


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