Cookbook Critiques

Italian dinner for seven awaitsAfter trying out recipes from a Tagine cookbook and a Cake cookbook , the next supper adventure for the SASSY Supper club was to try the recipes from Italian SENSATION! (cucina). This is a coffee table-perfect work of love for all things Italian, written by a Vancouverite, who has cooked Italian family dinners most of her life.

Seven members of the SASSY Supper Club picked a range of recipes from the book, encompassing seafood, chicken, vegetables, pasta, salad and a frittata. Four of us original SASSY Club members picked our recipes during our SASSYs Taste Soft-Ripened Bloomy Rind Cheeses evening.

Shallots, Pepper Salad and Asparagus (with Asiago Sauce) The other three guests,  all of whom live various walking distances away, on a later occasion picked recipes that appealed to them, and that could be carried easily. The consensus was that the recipes seemed straightforward family style cooking that we should all be able to handle easily.

Since I was host, and instigator of the SASSY recipe testing series, I thought I would try something special and chose a lobster dish - Lobster (surely there is an Italian word for lobster) con Arance & Limoni. Disobeying my own injunction to stick exactly to the recipes, I headed off to Costco and bought two boxes of frozen lobster tails. A bit pricey but this was going to be something special.

Lobster and orange saladThe recipe looked so simple that I felt a little guilty about only doing one dish, so I turned to a page that had a  picture of a delectable looking Pepper Salad, and decided to make that. scallopsUrban fare was featuring shallots this week so I added the Baked Shallot recipe on the same page. Then I looked at the dish I was going to serve them in and decided that green asparagus would finish off the look of the dish. So I found a recipe for Sauce All' Asiago- milk, cream and Asiago cheese that could be poured over the asparagus ... and thought "how simple is that?"

Bookcover: Italian SENSATION! (cucina)Italian SENSATION! (cucina),
by Anna Maria McClenaghan
256 pages filled with colour photographs
Publisher: Christoforo Publishing
ISBN No. 978-0-9867598-0-2
Can $39.99

Anna Maria, Mama Magaret and Matthew, Anna's son at the book launch party.The first aspect that struck me about "Italian SENSATION! (cucina)" was that this is not your conventional recipe book. This book is as much about love of family and food as it is about the recipes.

The Canadian born daughter of Italian parents, mother from Puglia and father from Sicily, McClenaghan was steeped in the traditions of Italian home cooking. 

a medium and large tagine on the stovetopFor the first of what I hope will be many Cookbook Critiques on this website, I enlisted the help of my fellow foodies of our SASSY Supper Club to try out a range of recipes from Pat Crocker's "150 Best Tagine Recipes."

Since we were simultaneously trying out recipes from Camilla Saulsbury's  "Piece of Cake!" cookbook,  we enlisted 5 additional couples as "honorary SASSYs" for the evening. Three of these guests volunteered to make recipes from the salad and dips sections of the Tagine book. Three guests (two regular and one occasional cake baker) undertook to provide desserts from the cake recipe book. (The SASSY Club Eats Cake)

Raspberry Sour Cream CakeThe desserts designated for the first Cookbook Critique event were cakes from the second cookbook that I have for review. It's called Piece of Cake! by Camilla V. Saulsbury, and the recipes are all designed to be "one bowl, no fuss , from scratch cakes." In other words not to belabor the point, theoretically the recipes should be "a piece of cake" to make. But could they also satisfy the discerning palates of the SASSY foodies and cake-baking friends?

The first part of the  evening (The SASSY Club Tastes Tagines) was devoted to eating tagines and discussing the recipes from the Tagine cookbook.

Salted Caramel Peanut and Chocolate Upside Down CakeBut after indulging in a plethora of tasty dishes, the SASSY cooks and their guests decided to let  some  time go by  before tackling the arduous task of eating cake!

150 Best Tagine Recipes
by Pat Crocker
240 pages with 16 colour photos
Publisher: Robert Rose Inc.
ISBN 978-0-7788-0279-2
Cover price US$ 24.95 Can 27.95

When I first examined the brightly coloured cover of this paperback cookbook, my attention was caught by the description of the author as a culinary herbalist. I assume that the herbs and spies that are so widely used in the cuisines of the North African countries of the Maghreb (Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia) must make these foods particularly interesting to a writer with a strong interest in culinary herbs.

After a brief summary of the culinary specialties of North African cuisine, the author introduces the concept of tagine and tagine cooking. 

A medium sized tagine from Le CreusetA Tagine is a two part, conical-domed cooking dish based on the traditional Moroccan clay pots used for slow cooking  of stews on stove top or in the oven.  The term tagine" is also used  as a name for the food prepared in one of these vessels. She describes how modern tagines have been derived from the traditional clay pot,  provides a table for comparison of four popular brands of tagines and talks about the use of tagines in meal preparation and service.

I liked the illustrated section on herbs and spices that make up a North African Flavour Footprint.  A series of recipes for rubs and other spice combinations is followed by recipes for tagine dishes. The sections include recipes for poultry, lamb, beef, seafood and vegetables. Other recipes include those for dips and sauces, sides and salads, beverages and sweets.

For a fair evaluation of recipes in this book I enlisted members of our Supper club to join me in cooking. We planned an evening to taste recipes from this and another cookbook. The appetizers and entree recipes came from this book (The SASSY Club Tastes Tagines) while our desserts were cakes from the second cookbook (see The SASSY Supper Club Eats Cake). And for my experiences in acquiring and cooking with a tagine  see Gillian Tries out her Tagine.

Le Creuset medium tagineBefore you read any further, it is necessary that I explain that I am not renowned for my prowess in the kitchen. My qualification for food-writing lies in the fact that I am a dedicated foodie  who loves eating "not wisely but too well".

My cooking skills have definitely improved since the time that my Bolognese sauce imploded showering the  walls of our kitchen and our avocado green appliances (that dates this event!)  with a burst of red speckled sauce that Jackson Pollock would have admired. However my meal prep these days tends towards baking salmon and chicken or occasionally barbecuing steak or sausage.

With the introduction of Cookbook Critiques on, I decided it was time to get back in the kitchen, sharpen my knives and restock my herbs, spices and condiment shelves.

But if the results of my cooking do not look like illustrations in a cookbook, it's not necessarily the fault of the recipes but my partly my kitchen skills and also  that I am not a "food stylist." My food photos are all WYSIWYG - 100% authentic,  unstaged and taken by my "point-and-shoot" camera.

Piece of Cake!
by Camilla V. Saulsbury

288 pages
Publisher Robert Rose Inc.
ISBN 0778802779

Well I confess that from sheer metabolic necessity  ( I put on weight just thinking about food) I rarely eat cakes or desserts but the picture of a luscious Cream Cheese Frosted Red Velvet Cake on the cover of Piece of Cake! was not to be denied. I paged through the book looking at more mouth watering pictures and reading recipes. Who can resist the thought of Mocha Cake with Coffee Buttercream or Butterscotch Blondie Bundt? I just had to try some of these cakes.

So with the help of my SASSY Supper Club, I persuaded some of my friends who regularly bake to produce some cakes from this book as desserts for a dinner in which we would evaluate two cookbooks.

Cookbooks old and new -see upcoming storiesFrom time to time I receive offers of new books to review. Recently my attention was captured by the titles of two new cookbooks from Ontario publisher Robert Rose Inc., and I thought that as a natural expansion of our SASSY Suppers, undertaking practical evaluations of recipe books would be a useful new feature in the Sipping and Supping food-writing section of ReviewFromTheHouse.

Our SASSY (Serious  About Sharing Suppers, Yeah) group's supper themes have included Moroccan  and Spanish, and after I became determinedly (but intermittently) "Low Carb", we also tried recipes from Karen Barnaby's 2004 book on low carb cooking, a moussaka recipe and cauliflower fried "rice".  So when I approached my fellow SASSYs about trying out recipes from these and other new cookbooks, I got enthusiastic agreement.

So enthusiastic in fact that our kickoff SASSY Cookbook Critique evening has morphed into a 16 person supper. We will be tasting tagine entrees and appetizers from Pat Crocker's "150 Best Tagine Recipes" and cakes from Camilla  V. Saulsbury's "Piece of Cake!". For this special evening in addition to 6 of our 8 core SASSY group members, we have enlisted 5 couples, all enthusiastic foodies who enjoy baking and experimenting with new recipes.

So watch this space for my reviews of these two cookbooks and forthcoming stories on The SASSY Supper Club Tastes Tagines and The SASSY SUPPER CLUB Eats Cakes. And to learn more about my "expertise" in the kitchen, watch for Gillian tries out her Tagine!

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