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Inspiration in Ink: The Kitchn Cookbook

thekitchncover-largeIf you are a home cook, you can easily find a treasure trove of quality recipes and other cooking information on the internet. For some, it raises the question of whether cookbooks have outlived their usefulness. The question is doubly perplexing when authors of popular websites and blogs publish cookbooks that repurpose some of the material already available (for free) on-line.

As a bona fide cookbook addict who enjoys sitting unplugged to peruse the pages of a book, I haven’t bought into this general argument. Enjoying cookbooks doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of browsing websites, and The Kitchn website is top-notch with bountiful new content published daily. I am a faithful follower and can easily get absorbed in reading the posts for hours. So, I was curious to see how the authors (and editors of the website), Sara Kate GIllingham and Faith Durand, translated this long-running website to print in The Kitchn Cookbook, released in October 2014.

The Kitchn Cookbook would more aptly be named The Kitchn “guidebook” or “handbook”. While the book includes recipes, they cover less than half of its pages. Cooking is at the core of the book’s theme, motivating you to enjoy cooking at home. but it offers so much more.

The key message presented is encouragement to transform your kitchen into a place where you enjoy spending time and cooking. Creating a comfortable environment does not require an expensive renovation or remodeling job. It is presented as an achievable project for anyone, homeowner or renter, novice or experienced cook, by focusing on beauty and function in your kitchen.

The first part of the book provides practical ideas to help you set up your kitchen to enjoy spending time there and to put you in the mood to cook while you’re there.  There is no one definition for a perfect kitchen. Your perfect kitchen is unique to you. In fact, what makes your kitchen perfect for you today tends to evolve over time, so the authors encourage you to embrace the continuous process.

Highlights from the first part of the book include a daily cleaning plan for a constantly clean kitchen, recommendations for environmentally friendly cleaning products along with some DIY recipes, and photo shoots in ten different home kitchens for inspiration.

The second part of the book shifts its focus to cooking. The same thread about personalization now extends from where you cook to what you cook. The book encourages you to cook wholesome homemade food as you define it at home more often.

Before jumping into recipes, there’s a chapter on stocking the pantry and planning meals. The properly stocked pantry depends on what you enjoy cooking, but guidelines are suggested with ideas of staples to keep on hand so you can cook spontaneously even when you don’t have much fresh food in the house. With all the potential landmines about which foods are nutritionally or politically correct to eat, I appreciated the reminder that, when making buying decisions, only you can prioritize and choose the compromises and tradeoffs that are right for you.

There is also chapter that presents a mini cooking school with 50 essential skills for cooking at home. Even an experienced cook can get a quick refresher course and maybe learn something new. For example, did you know you can caramelize onions in the slow cooker overnight?

Finally, the recipes start, not quite halfway through the book. About a hundred recipes are included. Some are reader favorites from the website, but there are some new ones as well. All seem accessible for any level of cooking expertise. I found many appealing flavor and ingredient combinations plus new techniques that I’m inspired to try. Top contenders for my “make this soon” list include (by section):

Morning

  • Kale and Gruyere Breakfast Strata with Smoky Tomato Sauce
  • Sweet Potato and Caramelized Onion Hash with Baked Eggs

Small Bites

  • Roasted Chickpeas with Dukkah
  • Three Tuscan Crostini

Drinks

  • Pure Mexican Margaritas
  • Sparkling Peach Sangria

Main Dishes

  • Roasted Chicken Thighs and Squash over Polenta
  • Slow Cooker Carnitas
  • Baked Brown Rice, Lentils and Cauliflower with Cucumber Yogurt Sauce

Sides & Salads

  • Fennel and Radicchio Salad with Farro and Pecans
  • Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower, and Radishes with Garlic Aioli

Desserts

  • Meyer Lemon Bars
  • Jam Hand Pies

The final chapter in the book, called “Gathering”, pulls everything together. Sharing meals is a form of sacred offering to people we care about. It’s something we should do often and not stress over. Becoming comfortable in your kitchen is the first step to enjoying yourself. The chapter shares advice for hosting worry-free gatherings and simple tips for decorating the table.

Taken as a whole, this book intends to boost the confidence of the home cook by always emphasizing that there is no right way to set up your kitchen, no right way to cook and no right foods to buy. It is all very personal. The book wants to help people feel comfortable cooking at home on a daily basis. This comes from setting up your kitchen, choosing kitchen tools, and stocking your pantry to work for you to cook what you like to cook. Even the most experienced cook can benefit from these reminders.

Now back to the question of book vs. website. This specific website has been on-line for nearly a decade. That’s a lot of content. I think the writing of this book provided an opportunity for the authors to compile, curate, and distill the best of the site’s material with the addition of new observations and reflections for a cohesive narrative that provides inspiration any time. Ideas and tips from readers and staff of the website are scattered throughout the book, bringing in voices from TheKitchn community to add to the authors’. As I mentioned before, I’m already a fan of TheKitchen website.  After reading the book where their positive, encouraging philosophy is clearly spelled out, I now understand what has subconsciously kept me coming back for more.

A Plateful of Happiness Rating: 4 plates (out of 5)

 

Disclosure: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. The opinions expressed are my own.

 

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Melissa Clark, My New Cookbook Hero

I go through phases where I’m mildly obsessed with a different cookbook author. Rick Bayless and Mark Bittman have held a top place in my affections for the longest stretches at a time. This week, a new author sits comfortable in that seat: Melissa Clark. If you don’t know about Melissa, that needs to change right now. She writes a regular column for the New York Times, but, as a Bostonian, I’m not a daily reader and often forget to check it out on-line on Wednesdays. No worries. Melissa has published two wonderful cookbooks, complete with delightful headnotes or full-blown essays to accompany each recipe.

I made a two winner dinners from her books this week. The first was one of my newest favorites. Melissa’s Mother’s Roasted Chicken on Mustard Croutons, from In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite. This recipe reminds me of Dorie Greenspan’s Roast Chicken for Les Parasseux (Lazy People), but it’s even quicker and easier. Chicken pieces, in my case, thighs and drumsticks, are roasted on top of slices of country bread coated with Dijon mustard. Everything is seasoned with salt and pepper, decorated with thyme springs, bay leaves, and garlic cloves and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. It only takes 40 minutes in the oven. The best part is the bread cushion that each piece of chicken gets served on. It’s rich with chicken fat and juices mixed with a generous dose of mustard. We love, love, love it!

Each piece of chicken gets its own cushion

On the side, I made Roasted Bagna Cauda Broccoli from Food 52 that was amazing! The blasted broccoli is tossed in a warm Caesar-like sauce. It called for a sprinkling of almonds on top, but I used toasted pinenuts instead.


The other dinner was a slight variation of Braised Pork with Cinnamon, Tomatoes, and Olives from Melissa’s newest book, Cook This Now. This book is organized seasonally, month by month. I jumped a little bit ahead to the March chapter. The recipe called for pork shoulder, but I used boneless country-style ribs, which are from the shoulder end of the loin. As I do with many stews, I used half the meat (one instead of two pounds) and added more vegetables. I would usually double the veggies but this recipe didn’t really have any other than tomatoes and leeks. I threw in an extra leek, and then added two cans of drained and quartered artichoke hearts for the last bit of cooking along with the olives. All the ingredients melded together like old friends. Melissa suggested serving the braise over polenta, but that’s not a favorite at our house. Instead, I served it over barley with carrots and scallions, another recipe from the April chapter of the same book.

Melissa Clark remains my cookbook hero of the month, and the foreseeable future! Both of her books offer many more tempting recipes to try, so stay tuned for my next choice. If you have a favorite from either of these books, please suggest! Or, if you have your own cookbook hero, share! I’m always open to jumping on a different bandwagon.