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On the Menu was On the Books Last Week

April 29, 2011

When I saw that Glamour was coming out with a cookbook, 100 Recipes Every Woman Should Know: Engagement Chicken and 99 Other Fabulous Dishes to Get You Everything You Want in Life, I knew I had to take a peek. Then, when I got my review copy in the mail, I discovered an awesome surprise. I was also sent a copy of Food Network Magazine’s new cookbook, Great Easy Meals: 250 Fun and Fast Recipes! Awesome.  I cooked my week’s meals from these two books to test them out.

I’ve been reading Glamour for years, and I’ve always really enjoyed their short but sweet housewifey section. Their recipes are very accessible, have a nice level of health-consciousness without being too overbearing, and – while they sometimes verge on mundane because of this – are appropriate ideas for the skill set and budgets of their audience. I was definitely excited to have them all in one place. 100 Receipes did not disappoint! This may be a funny way to describe a cookbook, but this book is really cute. It has a wonderful, friendly voice that makes you feel like you’re in the kitchen with your best friend. I love the angle it’s going for, organizing their recipes by occasions you would prepare the dish for, like “Who Calls a Meeting at 5 pm? Stir Fry” or “Mea Culpa Cheesecake” or “Forget the Mistake You Made at Work Margarita.” (Yes, there are drink recipes too. Another bonus!)

Or, Engagement Chicken. The largest issue I took with 100 Recipes was the focus on the damn engagement chicken. If you’re not a regular reader of Glamour, they have this funny phenomenon where readers have been writing in with stories of how they cooked a recipe for roast chicken the mag printed a few years ago and were proposed to shortly afterwards. This has apparently happened to more than 60 women, and that is pretty amazing and a fun story, but its prominence felt a bit pandering and turned it into a cookbook that, if it were a novel, I’d be too embarrassed to read on the subway. Which is a shame because I do love this cookbook. Also, I think the engagement chicken focus misses the mark. This is a really great resource for girls in their twenties in those first couple of years where they’re feeding themselves and perhaps feeling their way around a kitchen for the first time and building their repertoire. I know that girls in their twenties want to get engaged too, but I think it sends out some mixed messages. I guess that’s just my inner marketing dork speaking.

Anyway, like I said, this is a sturdy, well-rounded collection of recipes for young women who are interested in cooking nice meals for themselves but are too intimidated by or uninterested in more seriously presented cookbooks. For a more adventurous cook (like myself, *brushes shoulders off*) there are a handful of recipes that are a bit boring, simple, or standard, but you’re right, Glamour, every woman should know how to make a meatloaf or their own tomato sauce. Thankfully, it’s still packed with plenty of tasty recipes of various difficulties and intrigue.

Last week, I made three recipes from the book. I ate the “It’s All About the Dressing Salad,” an arugula and grapefruit salad with shallot vinaigrette as a side three times and I even at the third time I was really excited to eat it. This is super simple, but delicious! It has also, apparently, launched a grapefruit obsession phase because I just bought a bunch more to snack on this week. The dressing is indeed really tasty and, as an added bonus, it gives me a chance to use my red wine vinegar, which I can never come up with uses for. I decided to try the “Instant Seduction Pork Chops” because I’m not a huge fan of pork chops and I figured if they can sell me pork chops it’s a cookbook worth its ink. It was an interesting cooking method where you bake the chop in a little pouch of tinfoil right on the oven shelf. Even though the setup for this is super easy, I actually had trouble with this recipe. The glaring mistake is they didn’t indicate how hot the oven should be. I set it to the standard 350 degrees, but after the 5 minutes on each side it suggested, the chop was nowhere near cooked through. Maybe I’m not too familiar with how pork is supposed to look when cooked, but even when I gave up and took it out to eat it I was never really sure if it was right. Since I normally don’t like pork chops because they tend to be dry, this one was juicy almost to the point of sogginess. Or maybe it was still basically raw. I’m not really sure. However, it was tasty, so I can’t complain too much. The last recipe I tried was “Beach House Grilled Shrimp,” which is sort of a shrimp salad with corn, tomatoes, and basil. This was awesome! I never have thought about eating shrimp this way. I can only imagine how good this would taste in late summer with tomatoes from the garden and locally grown corn on the cob…..mmmmmmm….

Along with recipes, this book has intermittent tips for general cooking, as well as a section dedicated to menus combing recipes throughout the book for themed occasions. Some of these “Kitchen Basics” include: Five Breakfasts for Very Busy Women, How to Make a Perfect Cheese Plate, A Girl’s Guide to Grilling, Five $5 Chicken Dinners, and How to Serve Fruit for Dessert. It’s really quite helpful. And, because of its accessibility, I can see myself taking this book off the shelf and actually using it with some frequency. I could make these dinners on any ol’ night and not have to wait to feel inspired to take on a project or for a fancier event. Hint: This would make an amazing gift for graduation!

Now, on to my surprise present. The first thing I noticed while flipping through Great Easy Meals is that it is really well designed. That’s important! It’s nicely laid out, it has big color photos for every meal that are food porny without being ridiculously so (even in thumbnails for the table of contents, which is a genius touch!) and it has fun colors and fonts. As for the recipes? Top notch. I always get a bit wary of cookbooks and other DIY publications that have the word “easy” featured so boldly on their cover. And, yes, these recipes are easy, but hardly any of them come off that way. This book is the perfect example of how silly it is to make excuses about cooking nice meals for yourself, because it really isn’t as difficult as you’re making it out to be in your own head. The Fancy is on a slightly higher level than 100 Recipes. If I had to pick an audience for this, I’d say it’s perfect for young wives.

Easy Meals has a couple of features that I’m swooning over. Along with the illustrated table of contents which makes it perfect for scanning, they have a fun section at the end of each chapter called Mix and Match that gives you a template for essentially creating your own recipes. The poultry section has a particularly impressive one for stuffed chicken which gives you five options for stuffing and five options for sauce. The Mac and Cheese one at the end of the pasta and grains section has tons of options for pastas, cheeses, protein and/or veggie add-ins and interesting toppings to make it super customizable. The recipes are littered with little tips and tricks in stand-out boxes, but what I’m obsessing over is they’ll occasionally have suggestions like what sides to pair it with or – better yet – how to use the leftovers from an ingredient you might not normally use regularly (like parsley, sour cream, or capers) so they won’t go to waste and it could help you coordinate your weekly meals. They also have nutritional facts for each recipe, which is nice. One judgement though: their cover is a bit misleading. That red circle claims that inside you’ll get “kitchen tips from the stars” which I imagined to be at least a solid spread about insider cooking secrets or how to decorate or something. But, all it is that at the end of each section you get a single quote and one tip from a few of the network’s stars. It’s still a fun touch, but I was a bit grumpy at the disappointment. A particularly exciting section is the 10 Minute Desserts finale, which has so many exciting prospects to try! Some of them are a bit obvious due to the time limit (chocolate fondue, s’mores, yogurt with fruit), but others give you ideas for intriguing ingredient combinations (blue cheese and pears, ricotta with balsamic drizzled berries, grapefruit mousse) while others still are hard to believe something so good and interesting only needs ten minutes to make (chocolate cream pie, tiramisu trifles, cheesecake parfaits). Yum!

I only cooked one big dish from Easy Meals last week, along with learning a nice simple way to prepare snap peas. (The wealth of easy yet interesting side dishes is one of the best parts of the book. Side dishes so often get overlooked!) The meal was Tortellini with Peas and Prosciutto, only I substituted ham for the prosciutto because I had leftovers. It was really tasty, but I think I did something wrong. It’s made with a creamy tomato sauce, and I’m pretty sure I put in way too much tomato paste because the sauce ended up much thicker and more red than how the dish looked in the picture. I also might have doused it in too much sauce anyway. It wasn’t a bad mistake, nor was it the book’s fault. Just thought I’d mention it. Like 100 Recipes, I appreciate that there are tons more recipes that I’m eager to try and could easily go out and do next week. It’s too often with cookbooks that you find only a handful of recipes that you feel you can do with any ease and the rest of it goes unused. I had trouble picking out good test recipes! I could probably eat off these two books alone for weeks.

I rounded the week out with one recipe from Power Foods: 150 Delicious Recipes With the 38 Healthiest Ingredients from Whole Living Magazine, which I got when I was in the audience for Martha Stewart in January. I wasn’t totally inspired by this book, hence why it took me four months to cook from it, but I was definitely pleased with the recipe I made. Super health-conscious foods aren’t really my thing, and I was especially dissuaded by the lack of range. 38 might seem like a lot of ingredients to work with, but it gets pretty repetitive after a while. However, if I tried to rewire my brain into comprehending the individual recipes as standing alone, rather than being part of the whole of the book, I did quickly discover that there are actually a lot of good recipes in here. (That must sound like an unnecessarily complicated relationship with a cookbook, but what can I say? I take my books very seriously.) It also has a ton of information about the health benefits of their prized ingredients and how to buy, prepare, and store each one. The biggest complaint was that while they have a table of contents for the sections (Power Foods, Recipes, The Basics) they don’t have a table of contents for the recipes themselves. You have to browse them at the title page of each section, or go to the index. This does not make using this book for inspiration very easy either. (Nor does it help with remembering which recipes caught your eye in previous flip throughs.)

One of the recipes Martha demonstrated on the show was Turkey and Quinoa Patties in Pita with Tahini Sauce, which looked really tasty. A few others that caught my eye are Sweet Red Pepper and Beet Soup, Walnut Crusted Chicken Breasts, Grilled Pork Tenderloin and Apricots with Honey Glaze, and Savory Stuffed Sweet Potatoes. (It should be unsurprising that if Martha is affiliated with the product, the Fancy level is going to be at Schmancy.) The recipe I tried was Citrus Roasted Salmon, since I was apparently having a citrus-themed week. The book had it served with a Spring pea sauce, but I did without that because I just wanted to embrace the citrus. I loved the combination, and I enjoyed the elegant presentation it yielded. It was a perfect early Spring meal.

As a warning, I’m going to go a week without an On The Menu feature. For some reason my cooking mojo is on hiatus and I just did some incredibly boring grocery shopping. There’s really going to be nothing to share. Now, set aside your jealousy at my rolling in free cookbooks, and try out some refreshing Spring recipes!

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