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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Berry Bible by Janie Hibler

Despite the beautiful potential of the original (hardback) cover, this book is thick, wordy, and lacking the info I was expecting. Even in her introduction, she explains that not every berry is covered. Not every berry is pictured either, even though many types of blackberries and raspberries are pictured—all looking the same to me. Also, some fruit is pictured and not discussed, such as the pink and white currants. In the A-Z section, the relevant information to me would be: what does the plant look like, what does the fruit look like (color, size), and what does the fruit taste like? These key questions are not directly addressed, but some of that information can be gleaned from picking it out of the named paragraphs. The sections of info included about each berry are: name, classification, habitat & distribution, history, commercial growth, how to pick, how to buy, how to store, and notes for the cook. For example: she doesn’t describe the berry itself (or the flavor) but does mention that they will stain. So the berry therefore must be dark colored, right?

I would rewrite those sections as: Plant Growth and Range; Berry Information (info about season of ripeness, berry size and color, taste and traditional or native uses); How to Find (either commercially or wild picked), and Other useful information (such as picking tips, storage tips, and cleaning and cooking tips).

If you approach this book as a cookbook only, you’ll be rewarded with tons of recipes in every category you can imagine. But if you approach it like I did, as a “bible” of berry information, you will be disappointed. There are 70 pages of berry info (the “bible” section of the book, in my opinion), and 236 pages of recipes. There is also a section of colored photographs of some berries, but when you realize how many are not covered, this section become a bitter reminder of lost oportunities.

Original (hardback) Cover Art: This cover implies a botanical and historical wealth of information could be inside. Alas, it is not meant to be. . . The new cover as changed brings the focus back to using berries in the kitchen which is admittedly the true purpose of this book. 

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Chocolate & Zucchini by Clotilde Dusoulier

This is a beautiful little book with very interesting recipes from a real French woman who happens to have a blog. I never heard of her until the title came up somewhere in passing. I mistakenly thought her book would feature either chocolate or zucchini in every recipe. Nope. She didn’t even have a recipe that included both ingredients until after she named her blog that. She chose a very classic chocolate cake, by the way.

Since the book didn’t meet my expectations, I will not be making any of her recipes. I’m not into French cooking (sorry Julia!), and the titles of the recipes being in French puts me off despite my 5 years as a French student. I like to page through and glance at the titles to see if I’d make the recipe. Since it’s in French (the English is just underneath but I can’t read the font easily), I have to go by the photographs (which are superb, by the way—I wish I could take food photos as good as her!) But anyway, it’s probably a great book if you are already a fan of hers, she’s an excellent writer and her recipes seem authentic and delicious. I do have to say though, her Chocolate-Dipped Hazelnut Marbles should be called by their proper name: Buckeyes. I’m an Ohioan, people.

 

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The Compleat Squash: A Passionate Grower’s Guide by Amy Goldman

This is my favorite of her books by far. My only complaint: it’s not long enough! I’ve read it straight through a bunch of times and it gets shorter each time. I love this book, and I love that we have the same taste in squash so I can be absolutely sure of her recommendations. I’d already determined that Buttercup squash was the most delectable of the grocery stores selections, and here is Amy confirming that fact and adding more to it. I can understand now why Buttercup tastes so superior, it is a different species (C. maxima) versus regular old pumpkin, which is C. pepo or Butternut, which is C. moshata. I’ve read some complaints about knowing the genus-species of the squash types, and referring to them often, but really people, it’s mainly just the three groups. And gardeners need to know what they’re planting for seed saving. If all you’re planting is C. pepos, then you’ll have to tape flowers shut and hand pollinize. But if you’re growing one each of the three species, then you won’t get any cross pollination and you can relax about it.

This book has excellent text about growing squash, and the paragraphs of her describing her adventures in fair growing had me reading out loud to my mom, who used to compete in the handmade clothing categories. Amy actually grew zucchini and yellow squash into plastic bags so they wouldn’t get scratched by the plants barbs! Hilarious, but it must have worked as she won the top prize not just once but several times.

As usual, the photographs of each variety are superb! I absolutely love all the shapes, textures, and colors that squash can create. And the history of each kind is so fascinating! I loved reading about the Iran squash [in case you don’t know, Iran’s vegetable history is being erased by the effects of war there.], Triamble and all the blue squashes of Australia, and the Japanese squashes. They all look so amazingly diverse, yet they all mostly kinda taste pretty much the same. It’s amazing!

That’s another thing I love about squash, is their absolute versatility in the kitchen. They can be breakfast, lunch, or dinner, savory or sweet, or even desserts. One of the best moves I made in 2009 was making tons of puree and stocking my freezer with it so we could have pumpkin bread for breakfast almost every week throughout the winter. And Amy is always right: maximas make the best “pumpkin” puree. The c. pepo pie pumpkins were better than the field pumpkins (yes, that’s right, I cooked field pumpkins), but they couldn’t compete with the maxima squash for color, texture, and flavor. And when Amy said that the Rouge d’Vif Entemps would be watery, she was right again.

My top picks for squash based on her picks are: Thelma Sanders acorn squash, Seminole pumpkins (she says the vines are vigorous, so I can be assured they won’t accidentally die in my garden), Essex Hybrid (not actually a hybrid, but an heirloom, oddly), Lemon squash, and many more.

Yes, squash make me smile!

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The Heirloom Tomato: From Garden to Table, by Amy Goldman

This is the quintessential book on growing tomatoes. Everything about it is superb: the time and effort that went into creating it is obvious on every page and paragraph, making the value of the book on par with the price. Having read this book many many times now, I’ll just go over my favorite highlights.

The book is well-organized, covering history, growing information, pollination and seed saving. She divides up the varieties by size, shape, and color and gives her criteria for judging flavors, and colors.

Her descriptions of the 250 varieties go far beyond seed catalogs in that she brings back the gardener behind the variety. Each of these tomatoes isn’t just a tomato. It is a living memorial to a real person who saw something special in their garden and took the effort to save the seed or cross it with something else to make it even better. The epitome of this storytelling comes with the variety German Pink, which comes from the recent ancestors of the founders of the Seed Savers Exchange. These people saw so much heritage and memories in this one variety of tomato that they labeled the seeds “Tomato #1” out of maybe 5000 today. This is also the tomato that graces the cover of the book, reaffirming Goldman’s level of seriousness about the tomato’s heritage and tomatoes as a heritage for future generations.

Another great example of the gardener behind the variety is the full page she devotes to telling the story of Green Zebra. This was a variety that was bred by Tom Wagner when he was just a kid tagging fruit trusses with his sister’s hair ribbons. And to think that this variety provokes so many smiles from gardeners and chefs alike. It might not be an “heirloom” variety depending on your definition, but it has definitely become part of our seed heritage.

Other varieties with fascinating stories: chili verde (which is now commercially available), Goldman’s Italian American (stabilized by the author and now commercially available), San Marzano and cousin Tillie’s canning factory and forbidden romance, Thai Pink and the inclusion of a fabulous flower arrangement on page 248, Purple Calabash and it being described as the color of a bruise, Pruden’s Purple, and gardeners everywhere looking for a “true” purple tomato., Orange-Fleshed Purple Smudge (which is now commercially available as a plum sized fruit, not the beefsteak she tests). Hollow stuffing tomatoes that look just like sweet bell peppers, Risetomate, the traveler’s tomato that breaks apart like a clump of grapes. And who knew there were 16 different Mortgage Lifter varieties? The “original” if you want to call it that (really the most famous) is Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter which puts out huge pink tomatoes. Versus McGarity’s Mortgage Lifter which made tomatoes so small and poor, Goldman writes “I don’t think you could pay off a car loan with it.” Thankfully in this case, the McGarity’s is not commercially available.

And then there is the recipe section. The recipes I’ve tried are

  • Corn polenta with tomato sauce (I don’t think I like polenta, sorry!),
  • Cherry Tomato Focaccia (it was hard to follow it since she divides up the quantities of flour needed—makes it difficult to divide in half, etc. but the roasted garlic was excellent),
  • Fried Green Tomatoes (I like these as FGT Parmesan—as in topped with marinara sauce. So tasty!).
  • Her original “Tomato Sauce” made with celery and carrots is as good as you can get, even with dried herbs. It is a very good hearty sauce with a bit of a zip to it and no added sugars.
  • And finally, I’ve made the Ketchup recipe. I had to simmer mine way longer because I started with regular tomatoes over plums. It turned out good, with a distinct homemade taste that is different—not superior to the “red stuff” as she calls it—but worth the effort nonetheless. She doesn’t say, but I’d remove the spice bag after 1 hour if simmering longer than that.

Overall, I really appreciate Goldman’s scientific approach and her historian’s accuracy. It makes this book so complete and timeless. It will stand on gardeners shelves for years and years and will always be relevant. Tomatoes are not going away anytime soon, but these varieties might if we don’t make the effort of seeking them out and growing them, plus saving seed for yourself and some gardening friends too. It gives us hope.

Varieties I’ve grown that are included in the book:

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Melons for the Passionate Grower by Amy Goldman

This is Dr. Goldman’s first book and unlike her next two, is much smaller (in dimensions) and includes less of herself as both an author and gardener/seed historian. In that respect, there is probable demand that it needs to be republished to the standards of her next two books. But that aside, this book features 100 melons, both watermelons and other melons which are categorized by species and varieties or types.

It also includes a lot of recipes, considering melons is not something we normally cook with or alter other than just putting it in our mouths and chewing. Her growing notes are top notch, as always.

It might be my lack of appreciation for melons, but this is my least favorite of her books. I’ve never really had a taste for muskmelon (which we continue to insist on calling cantaloupe—it’s not), nor honeydew, and despite my appreciation of watermelon, my tummy rejects it. But I still enjoy growing watermelon unless the slugs continue to decimate my seedlings. But maybe, oh maybe we’ll grow something new and if so, I’ll pick based on her recommendations. So far my top picks are: Bidwell casaba melon, Orangeglo watermelon, and Blacktail Mountain watermelon.

Here’s my pic of my home grown Sugar Baby watermelon, mentioned in the book:

So cute and cuddly!

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Sebastian, by Anne Bishop

and Belladonna, by Anne Bishop

In this pair of fantasy books, a new and amazing world is described where the characters’ world has been fractured in the ancient past and can only be joined up again by the work of magic Landscapers and their Bridge-makers.

But an evil exists. It has been shut up in a landscape without a door until a naive and young landscaper investigates and makes mischief one day at the landscaper school. When the evil escapes, it has the power to change landscapes and speed innocent victims to their demise.

In the first book, Sebastian is the main character. He is an incubus and makes his living in The Den, a landscape in perpetual darkness. It is a landscape for mischief makers and the underside of society. His cousin, Glorianna Belladonna is the only landscaper who visits this hidden society. When the evil comes to the Den, Sebastian has to quickly assume a greater role for himself in his small community as he and his friends stake out the battleground to come.

In the sequel, Glorianna becomes the main character. With several new characters, the good side becomes more clearly defined. With each evil-infected landscape, Glorianna gets more clues to fight the evil and defeat it for good. The world had been fractured for a reason in the ancient times, after all. It is a great conclusion to a wonderful new and imaginative world.

From a gardening perspective, this book was amazing! To have the power to create new landscapes through an ancient magic. Where working the soil in your personal garden creates soil in another place altogether. The concept is so original and unique it is hard to accurately describe.

If you appreciate fantasy books, these books challenge the imagination and quite literally, “rock your world.” To pin the genre down more, it is very close to being a feudal-type society without higher technologies. It had the flavor of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind if I had to peg it down.

 

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The Host, by Stephanie Meyer

You may be asking yourself why is a futuristic sci-fi novel being reviewed on a gardening and cooking blog? Because it is a great book for one, and it does have some gardening in it in a most unexpected way.

The word I’d use to describe this book is “vivid.” Meyer’s mind-pictures are transmitted directly to my imagination through the text. It’s like I’ve really been there. It is so clear in my mind, in fact, that it seems more real than is really possible. Just saying the plot of the book out loud makes you seem like a sci-fi groupie: alien parasites taking over the earth. Been done a hundred times: boring! Except that this time, it’s new again. Meyer has taken a standard sci-fi theme and made it entirely new again in a most creative way.

The book is told from the alien’s point of view. Her name is Wanderer and she has been inserted into the host, Melanie. Melanie has been hiding from the aliens for years out in the Arizona desert with her rebel friends and relatives. She has gone back to the city to search for a friend that they suspected was still human. But it was for naught. She was caught and became a host to an alien parasite anyway.

Except that she doesn’t go away. She remains present in her own mind, while the parasite has control of her body and most of her brain too. But Melanie’s thoughts are so obsessive that Wanderer can’t help but abandon her own race and try to find the man Melanie loves.

The gardening comes in when the rebels are found living in a convoulted cave system out in the desert. Jeb, the leader and uncle of Melanie has spent years fixing up the place to be self-sufficient. They have mirrors on the celinings for light, and actually grow crops in the caves! As a gardener, I was most facinated by these small inclusions. Growing corn and melons, and other things inside a cave! Will wonders never cease?

This book is extremely easy to read, is very imaginative, and is overall a great story. It is more about humanity and survival than aliens. The back stories of Wanderer are really interesting, however. But this book is not your typical science fiction book. You might just call it fiction and be done with it.

Gardening moral: save your seeds. Grow plants and produce your own food. You never know when you might need the skills to grow food for your own survival rather than just as a hobby.

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