Reviews

Book Review: Kitchen Matrix

Check out one of Mark Bittman’s latest cookbooks, Kitchen Matrix. It’s a great visual cookbook that fans of Bittman will enjoy.

Check out one of Mark Bittman's latest cookbooks, Kitchen Matrix. It's a great visual cookbook that fans of Bittman will enjoy.

A description of the book from the publisher:

Bestselling author Mark Bittman anthologizes his popular Matrix series in a boldly graphic new cookbook that emphasizes creativity, improvisation, and simplicity as the keys to varied cooking.

For years, Mark Bittman has shared his formulas, recipes, and kitchen improvisations in his popular New York Times Eat column, in which an ingredient or essential technique is presented in different variations in a bold matrix. Accompanied by striking photographs and brief, straightforward instructions, these thematic matrices show how simple changes in preparation and ingredient swaps in a master recipe can yield dishes that are each completely different from the original, and equally delicious. In Mark Bittman’s Kitchen Matrix, Mark’s matrices come together to create a collection of over 400 flexible recipes covering vegetables, fruits, meats and chicken, and even desserts. Whether you’re cooking up soup (creamy, brothy, earthy, or hearty), freezing ice pops (in fruity, savory, creamy, or boozy varieties), or preparing asparagus (steamed, roasted, stir-fried, or grilled), following Mark’s approach to culinary improvisation will deliver stand-out results.

As usual, my five point review:

  • I have been a fan of Mark Bittman for awhile. I enjoyed his column in The New York Times, and of course his How to Cook Everything series is great. His views [along with Michael Pollan’s] on the American diet, processed food, and cooking have shaped my food philosophy quite a bit over the past seven years. I like Bittman’s approachable style, and the flexibility he gives to home cooks. For those of you not familiar with his cookbooks, they are recipes that contain lots of suggestions [i.e. for this rice dish, use these ingredients to make it Asian style, these to make it Italian, etc.]. I know newer cooks [or those who don’t like to be told what to do] really benefit from that approach. Kitchen Matrix is no different.
  • Kitchen Matrix is only about 300 pages long, but it has over 700 simple recipes in it that everyone, no matter their food style [paleo, omnivore, vegetarian, etc.] will love. Wow! The size, like all his cookbooks, is a little overwhelming but he breaks down the categories of recipes well–appetizers, vegetables, meat, fruit, etc. In many ways, this could be a replacement “bridal shower” cookbook for creative types instead of the typical Betty Crocker title.
  • This cookbook is by far the prettiest of any of his books. It looks more like a blog than a cookbook, with tons of full color illustrations, recipes, and commentary. It is so fun to just look at, even if you don’t plan to cook anything! You also can learn quite a bit about flavor pairings, ingredients, and basic cooking skills within this book as well. Bittman generally provides flavor profiles beyond just the “American” palate, including profile options for Mediterranean, East Asian, South Asian, and Latin American cuisine.
  • The layout of Kitchen Matrix does take some getting used to. Pages are oriented both ways [left to right and top to bottom]. Some recipes aren’t given in typical recipe format, but rather in paragraphs. But neither of these elements are deal breakers for me!
  • Overall, this is a great cookbook. I pull it out when I want to get creative in the kitchen, or when I have basic ingredients on hand and don’t know what I should make for dinner or for a side dish. For me, it’s not the best cookbook to go to when I don’t have any inspiration at all because it definitely is a bit open ended, but it’s a fun cookbook to have on hand.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books. However, I was not required to write a positive review. The thoughts expressed above are entirely my own. Thanks to for the chance to read this great book!

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Reviews

#UnearthedParty: Book Review + Cooking with Herbs

Today I have a special book review to share with you: Alexandra Risen’s new release, Unearthed: Love, Acceptance, and Other Lessons from an Abandoned Garden. You might know about my participation over the part year in the Book Club Cookbook cooking project [see all my posts here]. Well, the same lovely group of food and book-loving folks are now launching a new food blog party feature… and I am happy to be part of the fun! So without further ado… my contribution to #UnearthedParty!

#UnearthedParty - a book review & herb cooking ideas on thepajamachef.com

Here is a description of the book from the publisher:

In this moving memoir, a woman digs into a garden and into the past and finds secrets, beauty, and acceptance.

Alex’s father dies just as she and her husband buy a nondescript house set atop an acre of wilderness that extends into a natural gorge in the middle of the city. Choked with weeds and crumbling antique structures, the abandoned garden turned wild jungle stirs cherished memories of Alex’s childhood: when her home life became unbearable, she would escape to the forest. In her new home, Alex can feel the power of the majestic trees that nurtured her in her youth.

She begins to beat back the bushes to unveil the garden’s mysteries. At the same time, her mother has a stroke and develops dementia and Alex discovers an envelope of yellowed documents while sorting through her father’s junk pile. The papers hold clues to her Ukrainian-born parents’ mysterious past. She reluctantly musters the courage to uncover their secrets, while discovering the plants hidden in the garden — from primroses and maple syrup–producing sugar maples to her mother’s favorite, lily of the valley. As every passionate gardener knows, to spend time with the soil is the opposite of escapism — it is to embrace our own circle of life and hold it close.

As usual, my five point review:

  • I loved the theme of restoration and redemption in this book. The author had a hard family life… she never thought she would marry and have a family because of her past, but eventually she did. I loved reading about how she found healing through her garden. As she worked with the soil, clearing the overgrown land, her soul and her spirit were cleared as well. It was like this project was meant just for her… and reading about this was captivating. As the author’s story is told through present-day incidents and flashbacks, the result is a seamless story about triumph over life and the land.
  • The author’s parents survived World War II in the Ukraine, and later immigrated to Canada. I enjoyed learning about that country, and considering the effects of immigration and war on families and the next generation. We live in a privileged time, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that.
  • The book was well written and wove together memoir-type musings, information about gardening, and enthusiasm about foraging and even a little bit about living off the land [in the city]. The author’s passion for gardening is evident. My one complaint about the book is that some of the gardening/foraging information is a little dry and textbook-y. But it IS informative, and made me want to work outside. 🙂
  • Each chapter cleverly was named with a different food/plant that connected with the themes of the chapter. Sour cherries, sumac, mulberries… the plants run the gamut from common to unique, and each chapter includes a recipe using its respective plant. Now, I wouldn’t necessarily make many of these recipes just because I don’t have any idea where to forage these items in Nashville, but the book does provide suggestions on foraging if you are interested and emphasizes–multiple times–how to do so safely.
  • Lastly, this book has inspired me to tackle tough problems, whether the overgrown elements of our yard that we’ve ignored [#truth] or even things with #BabyVolde such as improving his nap habits. I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t just a book about the restoration of a garden, but about the restoration of a life too.

But wait, that’s not all! Normally my book reviews stop here, but since this book is all about food and gardening, I’ve gotta share the food love. 🙂 Instead of making a recipe from the book–they are all SO creative but the ingredients are a little tough for me to source seeing as I have a newborn… I thought I would round up some of tried and true methods of incorporating fresh herbs in my kitchen. I think herbs are a great way to ease into gardening [and maybe the author would agree]. Most are super simple to grow and only need some water and sunlight to thrive. Every year, I always grow a bunch out on my deck and it’s so fun to snip a few while cooking.

Here are some of my favorite ways to use fresh herbs! When I can, I’ve added links to recipes or basic instructions. If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments. Enjoy!

I like to make herbs the main star in the following dishes:

  • for grilling/baking – marinate chicken, fish, or beef with a herb marinade. Blend together several handfuls of fresh herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, and parsley with some vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Let meat marinate in a plastic bag for 8-24 hours, then cook as desired.
  • for pesto sauce to use with pasta, grilled meat, etc. – you don’t have to use basil and pine nuts for a fabulous pesto! I love making mint-pistachio pesto and thai basil-almond pesto. Yum!
  • for salad dressings – I grow thai basil just to make this dressing every year. No joke!
  • for flavored water – I love keeping a pitcher of water in the fridge and adding a handful of mint or rosemary leaves to the water, using a wooden spoon to muddle them. Mmm, so refreshing! Sometimes I add fresh berries too!
  • for making shortbread cookies fancy – these rosemary shortbread stars are my favorite!

Herbs are also great when you want to add extra flavor to your basic favorites.

  • homemade hummus – this cilantro lime version is fabulous! Don’t be limited by the hummus varieties in the store. Fresh mint + pineapple sage is a wonderful combo of herbs that would be great in hummus!
  • roasted chickpeas – basically, drain and rinse a can of chickpeas then toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper, and 3 tablespoons finely chopped herbs of your choice. I like fresh basil, marjoram, and chives. Bake on a rimmed baking sheet for 25-30 minutes at 400 degrees F, flipping halfway through. Roasted chickpeas are a great snack and are also wonderful on top of a salad.
  • any sort of cheesy or potato-y dish, like Baked Cauli-Tots or Mashed Potato Casserole
  • any type of biscuits or rolls
  • herbs can be mixed in with salad greens for added freshness and flavor
  • herb simple syrups are wonderful for making fresh drinks in the summertime. Your favorite lemonade, iced tea, or iced coffee recipes can be amped up by making a herb-based simple syrup. My ratio for simple syrup is to mix 1 cup each sugar [or honey] and water in a saucepan. Add 1/2 cup herbs, then bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Allow to cool and let the herbs infuse for 30-45 minutes. Strain out herbs, and store in a jar in the refrigerator. I like making honey lemon-thyme syrup, ginger-mint syrup, honey-rosemary syrup, and plain ‘ole mint syrup… but I can honestly say that I’ve never made a BAD simple syrup. 🙂 Mix into your favorite drinks as desired.

For more herb inspiration, check out this article from Fine Cooking! Don’t forget to harvest your herbs at the end of the summer. Just wash and dry, then hang up for a few days to dry completely. Store in a jar and use all winter long. You can also preserve herbs by freezing in olive oil using an ice cube tray. I’ve also heard you can just freeze washed and dried herbs in a plastic bag in the freezer. Never tried that but it sounds easy enough!

I know this post may be a little all over the place, but I hope you see how much I liked this book and cooking with herbs. Hope you check out this great book and start cooking with herbs. 🙂 Please share your favorite ways to use herbs in the comments below!

Please visit #UnearthedParty folks on social media to learn more. I also want to give a shoutout to the author for her WONDERFUL maple granola, and to Rolling Rock Farm for sending a gift pack of sea salt & pepper blends. Thank you all for making this party something special!
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher
Alexandra Risen, author
Book Club Cookbook, party organizer
Disclosure: I received a complimentary pre-release copy of this book from the publisher. However, I was not required to write a positive review. The thoughts expressed above are entirely my own. Thanks for the chance to read this great book and join in the party!

 

Reviews

Cookbook Review: Supermarket Healthy

I know everyone has differing opinions on the Food Network. Personally, I love it. I think the cooking competitions are so fun, especially Guy’s Grocery Games, Cutthroat Kitchen, and the Next Food Network Star. The first year Ben and I were married, we discovered the Next Food Network and watched Melissa d’Arabian win it all! That’s why I was so excited to receive a copy of her new cookbook, Supermarket Healthy, from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Supermarket Healthy: a cookbook review on thepajamachef.com

Here is a description of the cookbook from the publisher:

Food Network star and New York Times bestselling author Melissa d’Arabian proves that healthy eating at home is easy, achievable, and affordable.

Everyone wants to feel good about what they are eating, serving guests, and feeding their families, but most of us don’t do our weekly shopping at pricey specialty stores– we do it at the local supermarket and we don’t want it to break the bank. In her second book, Melissa demystifies the task of preparing nutritious and delicious food by showing exactly how you can make your grocery store work for you. She offers helpful strategies for shopping, cooking, and entertaining, as well as meal blueprints and nutritional information throughout. This book will make you confident about the food you’re buying, preparing, and eating. Delicious recipes like Almond Waffles with Raspberry-Basil Sauce, Kale and White Bean Caesar Salad in a Jar, Slow-Roasted Tomato Spaghettini, Flatiron Steaks with Quick Cauliflower Kimchi, and Flourless Fudgy Dream Cookies have something for every type of eater at every meal of the day. No matter your favorite flavors or dietary needs, cooking on a budget is empowering– and now you can learn how to make every bite count. If cooking at home is the key to healthy living, Supermarket Healthy is the only tool you’ll need.

And as usual, my five point review:

  • This is a beautiful cookbook. I know one of the draws of blogs over cookbooks is that [hopefully beautiful] photos accompany every recipe, and sure, I do love that. But cookbooks are their own breed of beautiful too even when each recipe doesn’t have its own photo. I love having the recipe printed in front of me, instead of worrying about keeping my iPad clean in the kitchen. And this cookbook is gorgeous… pretty typography, pretty pictures,  pretty colors… Pretty pretty pretty! It’s a paperback and seems very high quality too.
  • One thing I love about this cookbook is that almost every recipe sounds like something that we would actually a) like to eat, b) find in the grocery store right by my house instead of at a speciality store, and c) be able to afford on a budget. I’ve already tried a couple: this Caesar salad dressing and also red lentils and quinoa, and there are a few more on my “to make” list in the immediate future: jeweled wild rice pilaf, curry-glazed carrots, sesame and pumpkin-seed breaded chicken, and kale breakfast salad.
  • I think this cookbook is great both for people who already eat a healthy diet, because it has lots of new, delicious recipes. But I also think it would be great for people looking to eat healthier because the ingredients are simple, easily accessible, and not a bunch of weird one-use ingredients. Melissa also discusses “hot button” issues like organic, buying local, etc. and shares her thoughts on those subjects for an intro to her food philosophy and how SHE shops for her family. She also has a list of pantry staples that can be used in alot of the recipes in this book.
  • This cookbook also seeks to teach people how to cook, not just how to follow a recipe. Alot of her recipes can be altered by subbing out herbs and spices, or proteins to make a totally different dish. She also has meal “blueprints”–how to make a great frittata, salad, or her favorite 4 step chicken recipe. These seems super helpful!
  • All in all, this is a cookbook I know I will use time and time again. The meals in this cookbook can easily be accomplished after a day of work. Some can be made ahead of time for work lunches, or dinner later in the week too. I’ve looked at every section of this cookbook and can honestly say that every recipe [all 130+] sound good and sound like something I would make. Maybe I will make them all! 🙂 Definitely add this to your wish list, it’s a great cookbook!

Disclosure: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review. However, I was not required to write a positive review. The thoughts expressed above are entirely my own. Thanks to Blogging for Books and the publisher, Clarkson Potter Publishers, for the chance to read this great cookbook! 

Chicken, Main Dishes, Recipes, Reviews, Rice, Sides

Cheesy Molasses Chicken with Mushrooms and Homemade Rice a Roni Mix

This cheesy chicken and mushroom dinner is perfect for company, but also for a nice weeknight dinner for your family. It’s also nice to have some of this Rice a Roni mix in the pantry for an easy side dish too!

Cheesy Molasses Chicken with Mushrooms and Homemade Rice a Roni Mix | thepajamachef.com

Two recipes in one day! Whoa there, this is crazy! So last fall I read Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist and that book just makes me want to COOK! And eat, but that’s no surprise. It’s a collection of essays knit together thematically around the idea of food, community, friendship, and growth. Though it’s written from a Christian perspective it’s really not in your face Christianity, if you get my drift, and it’s just a lovely book. Being a librarian I pretty much ALWAYS check books out to read from the library prior to purchasing them, and I think this one is good enough to go on  my to-purchase [read: Christmas/birthday present] list. Though I made this dinner just for Ben and myself, it’s truly a company-worthy meal. Though it’s weeknight-doable, the flavors are rich, intoxicating, and delicious. It feels like a fancy escape from the week, even if only at the dinner table.

Cheesy Molasses Chicken with Mushrooms and Homemade Rice a Roni Mix | thepajamachef.com

As I sit here thinking about what I just wrote, I wonder… why do we consider things to be “company-worthy meals” or not? At the root of it definitely is our innately human desire to put on our best face for everyone and to receive compliments/praise/glory/affirmation of how great we are. Somewhere in there is a desire to treat others well. And why shouldn’t we do that for our families on a regular Tuesday? I know people are busier than ever but I still think regular family dinners–even if it’s just you and your husband–are so important. They don’t have to be fancy. In the same vein, “company meals” don’t need to be fancy either–they just need to be made with love, like this meal. This chicken dish only took about 40 minutes to put together, and much of that is baking time. Using a few pantry ingredients, some mushrooms, and cheese, it looks so special! And the homemade Rice a Roni mix is awesome too! Hope you give it a try–and check out this book. 🙂 Enjoy!

one year ago: Flourless Peanut-Chocolate Cookies
two years ago: Buffalo Pretzels 
three years ago: Camp Tecumseh Baked Oatmeal
four years ago: Crispy Honey Ginger Chicken

Cheesy Molasses Chicken with Mushrooms

  • Servings: 4
  • Print

Ingredients:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 thin boneless skinless chicken breasts [I cut one large 16 ounce chicken breast into 4 smaller cutlets]
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • dried tarragon
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced [I used shiitake but regular white mushrooms would be fine too]
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1-2 tablespoons molasses
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced or shredded swiss cheese

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Heat a large skillet over medium high heat with a bit of olive oil. Season one side of each chicken breast with pepper and tarragon, then sear chicken for a minute on the seasoned side. Flip to the other side, season, and cook for a minute. Remove chicken to an oven safe baking dish.

In the same skillet, add more olive oil if necessary and reduce heat to medium. Cook mushrooms and onion for about 5 minutes, until soft, then add garlic. Cook another 30 seconds until fragrant. Season with more pepper and tarragon. Add water, vinegar, and molasses and bring to a boil, letting most of the excess liquid cook off, about 3-4 minutes. Spoon mushrooms, onions, and sauce overtop chicken.

Cook for 10-20 minutes or until fully cooked. When chicken is almost done, top with cheese and return to oven until cheese melts.

Serve with homemade Rice a Roni [below].

Homemade Rice a Roni Mix

  • Servings: 12
  • Print

from Fabulously Frugal

Ingredients:

for mix

  • 2 cups uncooked white rice
  • 1 cup small pieces of angel hair, vermicelli, or thin spaghetti, broken into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 4 tablespoons dried parsley
  • 6 tablespoons chicken bouillon powder OR 3 tablespoons poultry seasoning [original recipe called for the former but I didn’t have any so I improvised]
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

for preparation

  • 2 tablespoons butter or oil
  • 1 cup of rice a roni mix [above]
  • 2 1/4 cups water or chicken broth

Directions:

Combine all ingredients in a large airtight jar or plastic storage container. Breaking apart the noodles was probably the most difficult part. I found it easiest to break just a few at a time, while the measuring cup was in a taller bowl. I used maybe 1/3 of a 16 ounce box of pasta. Orzo or another small pasta would be a good substitute I think.

To make the rice, heat 2 tablespoons of butter or oil in a saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add 1 cup rice a roni mix and stir. Cook, constantly stirring, for about a minute until pasta begins to turn golden brown. Add water and bring to a boil, then prepare as you would rice–reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 15-20 minutes until water is absorbed.

 

 

 

Giveaways

[CLOSED] Giveaway: A Family Farm in Tuscany

Update: 11/24/2012 – giveaway is closed. Winner is Alice, who said “Im following your blog!” Congrats! Please email me back with your contact information.

~

So remember a couple weeks ago when I shared the recipe for Pollo alla Poggia Alloro [aka the best roasted chicken I ever had] and reviewed the cookbook A Family Farm in Tuscany by Sarah Fiorini?

Cover of A Family Farm in Tuscany

Well, today I am happy to announce that I was given one [1] copy by the publisher to give away to one of my wonderful readers! Yay! I know you are going to love it just as much as I do. You can check out my previous post for more details about the book and it’s lovely photography, amazing recipes, and fabulous story of life on an Italian farm. If I could live there, I would in a heartbeat. Even though I’ve never been to Italy. Ha! 🙂

There are up to five entries for this giveaway. Please be sure to leave a separate comment for each entry so it is properly counted.

Here’s how to enter:

  1. Mandatory entry: leave a comment about your favorite Italian dish. That’s all.
  2. Optional entry: Visit the farm’s website and come back and leave a new comment about something you learned or were interested in or would want to do there. Could be as simple as telling me what kind of wine you’d like to try if you got to visit.
  3. Optional entry: start following Sarah Fioroni and me on Twitter, then tweet about the giveaway [include the link to this post and mention both of us in your tweet]. Come back and leave the link in a new comment.
  4. Optional entry: share this giveaway on Facebook, and then come back and tell me you did so in a new comment.
  5. Optional entry: start following my blog via email or RSS [links at the right] and come back and leave a new comment telling me you’re a follower.

Entries will be accepted until Friday, November 23, 2012 at midnight Eastern time. One [1] Winner will be selected randomly through Random.org and will be contacted via email on Saturday, November 24, 2012. The winner will have 48 hours to respond with their mailing address before an alternate winner will be chosen. 

Giveaway open only to residents of the United States.

Thanks and good luck!

Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this cookbook to try and review, and a second copy to giveaway to a reader. I was not compensated to publish positive comments. My opinions are my own.