Tour’s Books Blog

December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas! Let’s Get Cooking!

Filed under: Editorial,Favorite book,General,Musing on life — toursbooks @ 6:47 pm

(I might wish this was my house, but it isn’t!)

Yup, same time every year, it’s Christmas!  For many, it’s all about the latest wiz ding electronic toy or hottest fashion item, but always high on the list in my family was books.  I remember when each Christmas would bring a whole host of coffee table type books, art, archeology, travel, you name it.  I have many books on ancient Egypt that I read more years ago than I care to count!  I have shelves still stuffed with gems on everything from Hopi art and culture to a reprint of Howard Carter’s book on finding Tutankhamen’s Tomb.  By the time I reached my teens and began taking over the kitchen (my mother’s vapor trail lead to the living room sofa and never budged), I was also collecting cookbooks.  Yup, I was a foodie back in the day when The Galloping Gourmet was the forefront of food prep.  We’ve come a long way from Graham Kerr and I’ve kind of surrendered the kitchen duties as much as possible,  but I have all my cookbooks.  Since I never talk about them, and they’ve always been a big part of my life, I figured I share some of my favorites.


Yes, “Eat Dessert First ……. Life Is So Uncertain” is my motto.  Very often I plan my meal backwards and select the dessert and then decide what to build around the choice.  For Dad, apple pie or apple strudel were always the top of the list and must haves for Christmas.  For Mom, mince pie and pumpkin pie.  I learned to tolerate mince pie, but I’ll never be a fan.  As for pumpkin pie, well I tried a whole range of recipes for that and still like pumpkin spice cake better.  I recommend Ina Garten’s Pumpkin Spice Roulade.  Better than pie, but a bit tougher to make.

Of course, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without cookies.  I’d start after Thanksgiving and bake most every weekend till the holiday.  Cream cheese spritz cookies were always carefully decorated with colored sugar and or glaceed cherries – red and green never found in nature, just in chemicals.  The favorites in our house were – Oatmeal Crunchies, a Toll House kind of cookie made with rolled oats, chopped walnuts and lots and lots of chocolate chips, rugelach – the classic made with a pound of sweet butter, a pound of cream cheese, a pound of flour, and 3 oz of sugar then rolled out, brushed with melted sweet butter, sprinkled with sugar mixed with finely chopped nuts, or cut into squares, piped with apricot or raspberry jam then folded like tiny danish, and baked, and finally Thumbprint cookies.  Over the years I made many different desserts, some amazing that can only be made with fruits that are locally fresh, like the blueberry cream deep dish tart that was my aunt’s favorite, others could be made anytime.

If you buy only one dessert cookbook, buy Madia’s Heatter’s Book of Great Desserts.  And don’t be afraid of mixing things up or add things.  I always modify recipes.  Just know what you’re doing with cakes.  Cookies and other things are more forgiving.  And remember, the single most expensive ingredient is your time, so use sweet butter when called for, and quality chocolate.  Otherwise, you might as well buy some supermarket junk.  The Black Velvet Cake is just AMAZING and I brushed the sponge with Frambois and spread raspberry preserves on all the surfaces.  Loved it!  Served it with a raspberry coulis and lots of whipped cream.  Do use the chocolate she recommends.  The brownies are great (I double the recipe, beat it a bit longer,and a cross between and cake and fudge brownie and grease and sugar the pane and cover the top of the baked brownies with sugar as well for a crunchy outside) , love her pumpkin spice cake (I use half melted sweet butter and half oil) and her Raspberry Strawberry Bavarian is idiot proof for non-cooks (I use raspberry Jello and more frozen raspberries than strawberries).

The Main Course

This was always easy with my crew – they hate change.  Really, really hate change.  You can sneak in new stuff, but heaven help you if you take away what they expect!  For us it was prime rib and turkey – two complete sets of vegetables, only common element was mashed potatoes – for Christmas and a whole ham for New Year.   Some years I did try goose, didn’t like it, another year duck, same problem, but always had the prime rib at Christmas.  Since we’d usually just finished eating the damn Thanksgiving turkey, I was given a teeny bit of slack on that.  Mostly, it was the same main course with a lot more in the way of appetizers and stuff.   Since we had all the pies and cakes at Christmas, for New Year I’d make rice pudding and brown sugar shortbread cookies and usually a triple layer lemon cream pie.   And apple pie or strudel.  (You’re detecting a trend here, I’m sure.)

I was able to experiment more with other occasions and enjoyed several good cookbooks:  Vincent and Mary Price’s A Treasury of Great Recipes (out of print but can be found at Alibris) – recipe’s from famous restaurants around the world as well as the Price’s own kitchen(Pineapple Macadamia Nut Bread from the Hotel Hana Maui and Chicken Sweet and Hot, one of their own), and The Romagnolis’ Table (try the stuffed breast of veal and use a good white wine!), and James Beard’s American Cookery.  I have a large selection of cookbooks for regional cuisines all over the world and collected them when I traveled.  I even have one written by a witch in Salem, MA!  Oddly enough, even as I picked up skills over the years, ones that Food Network still teach (not that there was a Food Network for me, dammit!), are in a very odd multi-volume set (12 books) sold way back in the 60’s, The Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery.  Amazing amount of general information on everything from apples that are best for pies, to some good quick and easy foods.  Educational about ingredients in a way most cookbooks of the time were not.  Yes, I still have them.  Lots of techniques and some good ideas and very well illustrated with color photos.

Food and Wine magazine has given me some of the family favorites.  I have never made a dish that’s been so widely liked as Steak Budapest, a little Gem I picked up there.  It’s best made with good, thick cut chuck roast and like most stewed meat, must sit several days before eating.  It smells like hell when it’s cooking – and you MUST buy REAL Hungarian paprika – both sweet and hot – and get good red wine (I use an Italian or a California burgundy) or you’ll wast your time.  Not expensive to make, but all ages just lap it up and fight over the sauce with my garlic bread.  I also tried a recipe for Blueberry tart, that ended up modifying heavily.  Amazing summer dessert and a July 4th ‘must make’ along with my tri-color macaroni and shrimp salad.


If desserts were kind of my specialty, and main courses were often limited by my family, appetizers were where I could experiment even on my relatives.  I mean really, there were so many choices, who cares if you didn’t like some?  I could play with puff pastry and phyllo to my heart’s content.  If the marinades and sauces turned out well, they were sometimes moved up to a starring role in the Main Course.  I never did find a book that taught me a lot about appetizers.  Unlike national or regional cuisines, appetizers kind of grew up as step-children of all countries.  They could fun, or spicy, or just plain in simple like fried zucchini with honey mustard (my aunt’s favorite), or a baked brie with sliced almonds and sweet butter (that got old), or classics like spanakopita (I think my whole family liked these, though they swore they wouldn’t).

Want to try a marinade?  A new sauce?  Use it in your appetizers.  If it doesn’t work, that’s no big loss.  It’s a great way to try things with chicken and seafood.  Want to try shrimp and fish Provencal?  This is the place.  It’s a fast dish and very tasty.  Going for a classic?  Coquille St Jacques is easy.  Easier still – how about shrimp or crab stuffed avocados?  Just buy the shrimp and or crab cooked and cleaned the whip it is up.  Keep in mind, like New England Lobster rolls, this is not about balancing a long list of complicated ingredients, it just a few things that need to be the freshest and highest quality available.  Simple food leaves a cook with nowhere to run.  In that way, it can be harder to make simple things than complex ones.

Sauces take awhile to learn, and unless you’re a master chef, you’ll never be perfect.  Guess what, unless you’ve got Mario Batali or Bobby Flay in the family, relax.  And if you don’t like cooking, that’s ok too.  I’m past the elaborate meal phase and back to simple and good.  A good set of knives, quality pots and pans are a lot more important than acres of granite counter-tops and a pot filler behind your giant 8 burner stove.  And nothing ever replaces quality ingredients.  So buy the best – and that’s not always the most expensive.  And childhood favorites can bring back memories.  My brother and I make a point of getting pitted dates, stuffing them with good quality peanut butter, then rolling them in sugar.  We learned to make these in kindergarten (that would be about the same time T-rex was running around).  What can I say, I still like them!

A table is where the family gets together, sometimes, not often enough.  It doesn’t have to be exotic or elaborate – Black Velvet cake took me two days, while Raspberry Strawberry Bavarian takes 15 minutes and many like the Bavarian better! – just good.  But most of all, whether it’s prime rib or meatloaf, take time and enjoy your family’s and make eating a celebration of being together.

So to all of you- Merry Christmas!!!!! Enjoy your holidays and may you not gain an ounce no matter how much chocolate you eat!

Books I’m giving this year:

Desert Jewels: North African Jewelry and Photography from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermes Collection by Kristine Loughran, Cynthia Becker

The Iona Sanction by Gary Corby

The Diamond Frontier by John Wilcox

Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer

The Adventures and Memoirs od Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle,  Scott McKowan

and a selection of books for second graders that were needed at a school in the  the mid-west.

December 10, 2011

Happy Holidays and Short Reviews

Well, between work, reading, and football, life has been busy – yet somehow I seem to have little to show for it.  Except a pile of finished books.  Honestly, I am such a book hog.  It’s amazing how quickly time passes these days.  First days seem to fly by, then weeks, and before I know it, Christmas is almost here.  So dressed in my holiday best, here are some very short reviews on a few of the books I’ve plowed through.

  • Title:  The Ideal Man
  • Author:  Julie Garwood
  • Type:  Romantic Suspense
  • Genre:  Lightweight romance with some suspense and weird family
  • Sub-genre:  Brilliant woman doctor with stalker meets hunky FBI agent and chasing a killer arms dealer
  • My Grade: C- (2.8*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price:  Novel – about 90,000+ $7-17 (used to new)
  • Where Available:  Available at most bookstores, online, and used
  • FTC Disclosure: rec’d through an online book swap site

Julie Garwood made her writing bones with Regency romance novels with unusual, plucky heroines.  The settings have changed with the clothes and technology, but the plots remain the same.  Competent, intelligent woman meets big, protective man who wants to save her ….. and basically just wants her.  Light on plot, Garwood, as always, uses characters rather than research to drive her stories.  The results are pretty predictable, basically, you read one Garwood book, you’ve read them all. (more…)

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