Reading Cookbooks -Julia Child and Yotam Ottolenghi

Julia Child long ago inspired me, along with my mother and grandmother, to have courage in the kitchen. They all recorded their successes in books, and reading their cookbooks has become one of my favorite pastimes. Of course, trying the recipes is a treat too.

9780385351751_p0_v3_s192x300  A friend recently sent me an excerpt in The Boston Globe of  The French Chef in America by Alex Prud’homme, Julia Child’s great nephew,  prompting me to look for this latest examination of my favorite chef.  Prud’homme co-wrote his great-aunt’s 2007 memoir, My Life in France, and he describes The French Chef in America as the story of Child’s “second act – her life after the publication of her classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

After Julia and Paul Child returned to the United States from France, they settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she reinvented herself as a TV personality and dealt with her husband’s challenging health issues, never losing her optimistic view of the world – a role model who didn’t find her true voice until her seventies.   After reading Steven Krage’s  review I downloaded the book from audible and look forward to learning more about Julia Child.

9781489126672_p0_v1_s192x300   I also recently discovered Yotam Ottolenghi, the British chef with Israeli roots. His first cookbook – The Yotan Ottolenghi Handbook –  published eight years ago, has just been reissued with a shiny red cover. I found two more of his books in the library – Plenty and Jerusalem – and now have them on my shelf.

Both books are heavy with padded colorful covers.  Jerusalem focuses on traditional fare with food ranging from roasted potatoes with figs to chocolate krantz cake – better known as chocolate babka for Seinfeld fans – with step by step pictorial instructions.  Some recipes met my expectations – tabbouleh, hummus, couscous; others were a pleasant surprise – Clementine syrup cake, herb pie, lamb stuffed with pomegranate.  Plenty offers all vegetarian dishes but the desserts caught my eye: pear crostini, watermelon and feta, and Halloween soufflés.

Always looking for a new way to cook chicken, I found Ottolenghi’s recipe for roast chicken easy to follow, but finding the accompanying ingredients of sumac and za’atar required my best research skills. An easy substitute for sumac is lemon zest, and I found an easy recipe for za’atar: fresh-zaatar-rub-su-x

Grind together 3 Tbs. dried thyme, 1 Tbs. lightly toasted sesame seeds, 1/2 tsp. dried oregano or marjoram, 1/4 tsp. kosher salt, and add 1 tbsp lemon zest.

Years ago, a friend gifted me a small jar and I used it as a wonderful topping for cheeseless pizza. Just drizzle the dough with olive oil and pat in heaps of za’atar before baking. I may try it again now that I’ve found the recipe for making my own.

Yotam and Julia share the same philosophy in cookbooks, with the careful attention to detail and their determination to simplify instructions and clarify the process. Yotam noted in an interview: “So long as a recipe made sense and our readers could make a delicious meal by following it, that was that. Job done: let’s eat!”  Julia is famous for saying, “”Well, if I can do it you can do it.” Unlike Julia Child, Ottolenghi’s books have full page pictures with mouth-watering plates to tempt me to try making them. But for now, I’m content to read the recipes, look at the pictures, and  savor the food vicariously while listening to stories about Julia.

Related Review:   Cookbooks 101


River Road by Carol Goodman

9781501109904_p0_v2_s192x300   Carol Goodman’s mysteries cannot come fast enough for me, and her latest – River Road – has all the plot twists and Gothic flavor of her earlier books – The Seduction of Water and The Lake of Dead Languages.  Goodman once again mixes grief and revenge with office politics and murder.  Her mystery thriller brought back memories of the politics and secrets of academia, most notably the English department.

Nan Lewis, an English professor up for tenure at a state college in upstate New York, hits a deer on her way home from the department Christmas party.  The next day, Nan learns from the police that her favorite student, Leia Dawson, has been killed the night before on that same road.  The site is the same bend in the road where, years earlier, Nan’s 4-year-old daughter, Emmy, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Nan becomes the main suspect in the death of her student, but the investigation quickly spreads to include students and other professors in a tale full of unreliable narrators and red herrings.

As mysterious clues appear linking her daughter’s and her student’s death, a handsome police chief comes to Nan’s rescue more than once – adding an inevitable romantic storyline to the fast-paced killer pursuit.  The unforgiving cold weather adds to the drama, as well as Nan’s guilt over her daughter’s death.

A quick and satisfying read, River Road joins Goodman’s prolific output of books with murder, ghosts, and secrets.

Related ReviewArcadia Falls

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

9781338099133_p0_v5_s192x300  Scripts can be tricky and the new play – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – offered some challenges in the reading.  The only modern script I remember liking is Lily Tomlin’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – still among my favorites on my bookshelf.

I’ve always been a fan of J.K. Rowling’s creation of the boy wizard series, buying first editions as soon as published, but I’ve never liked the movies.  Despite the talented actors who grew up with the stories, something about seeing Harry amid all the magical effects on screen did not seem as exciting as reading about him and imagining the possibilities.  In this case, I suspected the reverse – reading the script may not be as satisfying as seeing the play.

Rowling and her fellow writers, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne, deliver a clever addition to the Harry Potter saga, with Harry a faltering forty year old, married to Ginny, with a son named after two memorable characters from the series, Albus Severus.  The disconnect between father and son fuels the plot, and other progeny join the adventure as Harry once again battles the villain Voldemort, but the trick this time is time travel.

Trying to change the past has its consequences, as readers appreciate from so much fiction warning us of its terrors – notably the classic Ray Bradbury story imagining a careless time traveler who changes the present by stepping on a butterfly in the past; nevertheless, Rowling manufactures a new twist on trying to improve the past – with dire results.  The action is fast, despite three trips back to Harry’s childhood, and fans of Harry Potter will enjoy the references to the books series.

The ending is not predictable, offering a moral lesson.  All ends well, with everything and everyone back in place, and good conquering evil, possibly preempting a sequel – or not.  Young Albus seems destined to reinvent the adventures of his father – the book has the subtitle of “Parts One and Two.”

Related Review:  The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

A Whole Life

61zD-lZzJUL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_  Reading like a meditation on life, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life chronicles the journey of Andreas Eggers, from the time he is delivered as a four year old orphan to the small mountain farm until his death at seventy-nine.  Although his life is ordinary, Eggers daily approach to enduring, one day at a time, is inspirational and heroic.  Translated from German, A Whole Life is a short book of less than one hundred sixty pages, yet Andreas Eggers’ quiet life resounds with a calm philosophy.

Andreas lives his whole life in the Austrian Alps,  a quiet man of very few words. When he falls in love with Marie, he lights her name at dusk across the mountain with bags of paraffin to ask her to marry him. After she dies in an avalanche, pregnant with their first child,  a heart-broken Andreas leaves his valley and later joins the German Army to fight in WWII.  After many years as a prisoner in Russia, he returns to find that his remote village has been modernized.

As he reinvents himself, from cable car laborer to soldier to mountain tour guide, Andreas finds an appreciation for his simple and solitary life.  Although other people’s actions may confuse him, Andreas remains true to himself – always the calm, thoughtful, introspective man – with a limp from a childhood beating.

“You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him…but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment.  That’s the way it is…”

Through ordinary moments in the life of a man who ” thought slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where…such marks were supposed to be,”  Seethaler demonstrates how each life matters, and how – sometimes without realizing – we influence and are influenced by the examples of ourselves and others.

Although A Whole Life was published in 2014, I eagerly awaited the translation into English and its availability last month.  Pre-ordering the book to my iPhone, I let it rest there – until I was not in the mood to read anything.  The ideas of this short contemplative story seem to have jogged my reading inertia.  The character of Andreas Eggers is memorable and soothing in his simplicity.  We all do what we do to get through the days – some better, some worse, but mostly ordinary.

Today Will Be Different

9780316467063_p0_v2_s192x300    No matter how miserable or crazy your life might be, Maria Semple manages to make her characters’ problems worse, and in Today Will Be Different – more poignant.  Eleanor Flood, a quirky graphic artist married to a serious hand surgeon, battles her past and struggles with her present. Of course, she wins, as do all Semple’s idiosyncratic heroines.

The story unfolds in one day, packed with more trouble and good intentions than most of us have in a year. The theme, however rings true: how many of us wake up each morning determined to turn over a new leaf and reform our ways. Despite the one day format, Semple delivers Eleanor’s backstory and reveals her past demons through her interaction with other characters. As she tracks down her husband who is missing from his office, Eleanor has a series of missteps.  She sabotages the opening of an art exhibit, steals a set of keys from a parent at her son’s school, loses her contract for an unfinished graphic novel based on her childhood, and more.  Sample was the screenwriter for several successful television series, and she packs a season’s episodes in this book.

For fans of Where’d You Go Bernadette?, this story is also set in Seattle.  Those blackberry bushes reappear, Eleanor’s son Timby attends the infamous Galer Street School, and Semple can’t resist a few disparaging remarks about Amazon “squids.”

Although the plot jumps around and takes a while to get settled into the story,  this latest Semple offering will have you laughing, nodding in agreement at her pithy views on life, and hopeful – maybe life will be different – tomorrow.