Thursday, September 29, 2011

Candy Corn

Brach's Autumn Mix by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I opened my first bag of Halloween candy today - Brach's Autumn Mix. I like candy when  it's around, but I don't crave it. I like Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (you know you're in the South when folks call them "Ree-Cees") and Tootsie Rolls and a few handfuls of candy corn.
How about you, what's your favorite candy of the season? Leave a response in the comments section.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Amazing and True Adventures of Squash and Pumpkin

Squash and Pumpkin do some light cleaning. Susan Loper/Thoughtful Consumption

My friend and blogging buddy Susan has a whimsical wit and a CSA subscription. Some folks open up their produce boxes and see supper on the hoof (so to speak); Susan sees comic opportunity. Last fall, she took the weekly cucurbitae and had a little fun, with a post called “More Fun with Squash and Pumpkin.”

Squash and Pumpkin plan Halloween mischief. Susan Loper/Thoughtful Consumption
Just like other vegetable tales that met with mainstream success (“Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” “VeggieTales” and many many movies with Sylvester Stallone), Squash and Pumpkin sprouted sequels:

Even more fun with Squash and Pumpkin

Squash and Pumpkin Ride Again!

Squash and Pumpkin Keep it Real

Squash and Pumpkin bundle up for cooler weather. Susan Loper/Thoughtful Consumption

If you need a seasonal giggle, or inspiration before decorating your house for fall, visit Squash and Pumpkin over at Thoughtful Consumption. Thanks, Susan, for letting me use your pictures and tell another corner of the world about S&P!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Booty

Cookbooks from the closing of Borders. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 Nearly four years ago, when I was casting about for a name for this blog, I had two criteria. The title must begin with an "A" so that it would land near the top of alphabetical blogrolls, and it must express my love of two things: cooking and books. You see, I've spent too many years in bookstores, both as an employee and a customer, and I have a little problem with saying no to the voices that call to me from the stacks. "Take me home!" they say as they fall into my arms.

When we designed our kitchen, we built bookshelves all around to hold my collection of cookbooks.This is just a small part of the shelves - they go around three walls.

Kitchen. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Throughout the house, stacked on bedside tables, in corners, bookshelves and my pantry floor, are books, and truth be told, they're mostly cookbooks and food memoirs, with a little Gladwell and chick lit thrown in. I still have my very first cookbook, a paperback copy of "The Winnie-the-Pooh Cookbook" (my mom even let me make a quiche-like Cottleston Pie from it!).

My bookselling job ended last week when the lights were turned off and the locks turned counter-clockwise for the last time at Borders. You can read my melancholy story on Open Salon about the end of my bookselling days. Right now, though, I want to be one of the giddy bargain-hunters who loaded up on deals when the store tanked. Within about six weeks, I purchased at least 50 books and magazines, most of them food-related. Here's a selection:

Love Soup by Anna Thomas - a lively vegetarian soup cookbook, hoeing the same quirky row as Mollie Katzen's Moosewood books.

A trio of doorstopper-sized books published by Phaidon: 1080 Recipes by Ortega, Spanish cuisine; Silver Spoon and Silver Spooon Pasta, both on Italian cuisine.

Junk Foodie: 51 Delicious Recipes for the Lowbrow Gourmand by Emilie Baltz. A novelty cookbook with a novel gimmick - gourmet recipes created from snack foods. I picked it up as much for its visual style as its recipes.

Best Food Writing 2010, edited by Holly Hughes. Essays from Barry Estabrook, Francis Lam, Kim Severson, and many other favorite writers.

Gourmet's Guide Cheese from the bargain table, and it kind of has that book club look to it, but a very well done overview of the world of cheese. For $3 and some change, I think it will be a useful resource.

Two of food scientist Harold McGee's titles: On Food and Cooking, and Keys to Good Cooking. I've already used a tip from the latter in perfecting apple pie - drain the fruit, boil the liquid and thicken with starch.

Patricia Wells' Salad as a Meal a lovely, lovely book for diving into on a rainy winter Saturday, when all I want to do is dream of spring.

The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. An excellent reference book that is enjoyable just for browsing, flipping through and finding out something new.

One Big Table by Molly O'Neill. This is One Big Book - 880 pages - and is popping up on remainder tables and bargain book sites. Pick it up if you find it - it's a highly enjoyable, well-written tour of American kitchens.

David Tanis' Heart of the Artichoke - I already have a signed copy of the marvelous book. This is a copy to share.

The End of Overeating by David Kessler. I know there's a certain irony to including this, but Kessler's work on how food is manufactured and marketed in the U.S. has been on my must-read list for awhile.

My $1 box. I paid $1 apiece for these books on Borders last day. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Did you shop the Borders liquidation sale? What finds did you bring home?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Blue Ribbon Dreams Redux

It's late September and time again for the North Georgia State Fair, always an event for our family. From the petting zoo to the smoked turkey legs to the kiddie rides, we have a blast. Last year, I caught blue ribbon fever with my first entry into the baking categories. My Morning Glory Muffins took the honor, but my entries in the cookie and pound cake categories didn't place.

Well, I'm back at it again and planning my baking strategy for this week. I have three items that I plan to bake and enter, but I'm giving myself a break if all the recipes don't turn out as well as planned, or if my baking time gets cut short. (Let's see, two night meetings, piano, soccer, and a Very Important Birthday, all this week).

I'm going to go bold and enter the pie category with the best pie I baked this year - PieLab's Apple Cheddar Pie:

Apple Cheddar Pie by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

For the cookie category, I'm thinking of submitting my all-time favorite cookie: Ginger-Raspberry. 

Ginger Cookies with Raspberry Jam. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 And if I have time, I might whip up the most-viewed recipe on my blog, Lemon Cream Cheese Pound Cake.

Lemon Cream Cheese Pound Cake by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Three stellar recipes, three shots at blue ribbon glory. I think I might be able to make it. My family may be eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for supper, but sometimes, sacrifices must be made. I just noticed that there's a cheesecake category, and I make a mean cheesecake....

How about you - have you caught blue ribbon fever? Do you plan to visit a state fair this fall?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Sweet tea peach scones

Scones with tea-soaked peaches by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Summer in the South means sweet tea and peaches, at least for this Georgia girl. But two weeks past Labor Day means that the peaches are fading fast. One way to keep the sweet, floral peach flavor in my baked goods is to use dried peaches. I chopped up a package, soaked them in the table wine of the South - sweet tea, and added them to my buttery buttermilk scone recipe. Oh, my heavens, these are good.

Peaches by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Sweet tea and peach buttermilk scones

My favorite tip for tender scones is to shred chilled butter into the dry ingredients. I just use an ordinary grater, the kind I use for shredding rat-trap cheddar cheese, and run the chilled stick of butter across it. The resulting butter curls are uniform and perfect for blending into the flour mixture.

1 (6 oz.) package dried peaches
1/2 cup sweet tea
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup unsalted butter, frozen
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
Milk or cream for glazing
Turbinado, demerara or sparkle sugar for glazing

1. Dice dried peaches by first slicing them into thin strips, then chopping crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces. Use your sharpest chef's knife. A bit of cooking spray on your knife might also help. Place diced peaches into a microwave safe bowl, add 1/2 cup sweet tea and zap in microwave for 1 minute. Remove from microwave and let cool on counter while preparing the scone dough.

2. In a batter bowl, mix dry ingredients together. Using a regular grater, shred the chilled butter and with a light hand, gently mix the shavings into the dry ingredients. Using your hands and a gentle, quick touch, make sure the butter is evenly distributed throughout the flour mixture.

3. Pour in the buttermilk and stir gently with either a wooden spoon or my instrument of choice, a silicone spatula. If mixture seems dry, add additional buttermilk until a cohesive dough forms. The dough should be slightly wet and sticky, but not overly so.

4. On a floured countertop, press dough into a rough 12 X 6 inch rectangle (helpful shaping instruction visuals may be found on my blueberry scone post here). Spread soaked peaches onto dough, using your hands to press the fruit into the dough. Fold into thirds, letter-style. Press into 12 X 6 rectange again and fold letter-style again. If any little peach guys pop out, just press them back into the dough. Press again into a 12 X 6 rectangle and cut into 16 triangles. Place scones on a lined baking sheet. The scones can be refrigerated, covered, for up to 24 hours.

4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 400 degrees. Carefully brush each wedge with buttermilk or cream and sprinkle turbinado sugar over the top. Bake at 400 for at least 15 minutes. They may need a bit more time, depending on your oven, convection, etc. Scones are ready when they are golden brown on top and bounce back when touched lightly in the center.

More variations on the scone theme:
  1. Scones for breakfast (1/2 recipe buttermilk scones)
  2. Raspberry scones
  3. Cream cheese and apricot scones
  4. Pineapple and ginger scones
  5. Blueberry and lemon scones (includes shaping instructions and pictures!)

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Easy ice cream, vegan and gluten-free

Banana soft-serve ice cream. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Looking for a simple frozen dessert recipe? One that will please vegans, the gluten-free crowd, the lactose intolerant, diabetics and kids big or small? Try this one-ingredient frozen dessert that doesn’t even require an ice cream maker – banana soft serve.

It’s a tasty and frugal dessert that can be whipped up in just a few hours. Purchase over-ripe bananas from a local Atlanta supermarket, peel and slice them, freeze for a couple of hours and blitz in the food processor for a minute or two, until it’s fluffy and smooth. The soft serve dessert may be eaten right away or frozen for a scoopable texture.

Sliced bananas, ready for the freezer. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

In its purest state, this is an easy dessert to please guests with dietary challenges, but it’s also a blank canvas for culinary upgrades. A bit of honey (not vegan, though)  or agave nectar and lemon can perk up the flavors, and mix-ins such as chocolate chips dress up the dessert.

Super-ripe bananas. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Banana Soft Serve “Ice Cream”

Serves 4 to 6

6 medium ripe bananas

Optional: Juice of ½ lemon, 2 tablespoons honey or agave nectar

Mix-ins such as chocolate chips, chopped peanuts or almonds, fresh berries.

1. Peel bananas and slice into 1-inch chunks. Place in a zipper lock bag and freeze for at least two hours.

2. Remove bag from freezer and place banana chunks into bowl of food processor. Add lemon and honey or agave nectar, if using.

3. Process for one minute, then check consistency of frozen banana puree. If mixture still has chunks, continue processing in 10 second intervals until it reaches the desired texture.

4. Serve immediately, with mix-ins. The banana soft serve may be stored in airtight container in the freezer.

If you have extra uber-ripe bananas, make my favorite banana bread or create an elegant and easy ice cream topping.

Best banana bread - ever! Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11: A bulwark never failing

Yellow Daisies. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

On this sacred day, the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, my memories and my loss mean so little against what so many have lost. I didn't lose a spouse, a relative, friend or acquaintance. It seems so minor to say that I lost that easy sense of security that I had in 2001, when my first daughter had just turned three and I was busy with volunteer projects. Our country had never been attacked on our soil, airplanes had never been used as bombs. Terrorists were in foreign countriees and movies, not among us in our neighborhoods and airports. As I watched the towers fall, all I could think about was "how can I tell my daughter about this world she's going to grow up in?"

I still don't know what to tell her or her sister about 9/11. But we'll go to church today and remember that sad day and I'll do my best to make my girls feel secure in their world. I feel like the best I can do is give them a foundation of faith and the rest is up to God.

I remember so much of September 11, 2001 - my morning trip to the thrift store, listening to the first sketchy news bites on the radio, the panicked call to the preschool director (whose husband was a pilot on an unaffected airplane), the email from the church asking all to an evening service. I remember sitting in the sanctuary, listening to the preacher comfort us. There were no tears, no wailings, no murmurings. We're Presbyterians, after all, the frozen chosen even on days that shake us to the core.

We alll stood at the end to sing the powerful hymn, "A Might Fortress is Our God." There's so much about this hymn that I love, especially the line "a bulwark never failing." The definition of bulwark is "any person or thing giving strong support or encouragement in time of need, danger, or doubt." My God, my church, my family and friends are my bulwark.

"A Mighty Fortress" is a very old hymn, nearly 500 years old, and was written by Martin Luther, who knew a thing or two about bold statements and the power of words. The final stanza gives me chills, especially reflecting on 9/11.

"Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;

the body they may kill; God's truth abideth still;

His kingdom is forever."

Here's a clip of Steve Green singing an a capella version of "Might Fortress" and it is indeed powerful. It's from the 80s, so it's a bit dated, but Steve is the best kind of singer, one who lets the words do the work.

God bless you and your families on this day of remembrance. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Denouement for a bookseller

Borders press pass lanyard and earpiece. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 This weekend, I’ll pull my last shift as a bookseller, and if God is with me, my last retail shift ever. My Borders store hasn’t flatlined yet, but it’s just a matter of days, and I’ve decided to hang up my lanyard and radio earpiece a few days early. I'm worn out and worn down by the customers, most of which are bewildered and bitchy while picking apart the store. "When is your last day?" they'll ask. "When are the next discounts?" "Can you hold this for me?" "Do you have 'The Help?'"

Borders #376. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I’ve worked at store #376 for nearly three years and the Angel of Death has hovered over the store the entire time. Outsiders have an “84 Charing Cross Road” idea of booksellers, that we read on the job and hold forth on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky if ever given the chance. Well, the truth is, during my tenure, reading on the job at Borders was considered stealing from the company. And most folks wouldn’t know Tolstoy if he walked up and introduced himself. The job was mostly about getting product on the floor and getting customers to the product they wanted, and in some cases, didn't know they wanted. Along the way, there were titles we were told to push in order for the company to get some slack from the publishers, and within the past year a rewards program that we pushed that was a good value for the early subscribers, but not so for the last to sign up. People will say that the Kindle killed Borders. The truth is more complex than that - overexpansion during the height of the real estate market; five CEOs in five years, none of whom had bookstore experience; a corporate culture of waste. I could go on, but what's the point? Maybe someday, someone will write an e-book about what went wrong at Borders.

Shakespeare was here two weeks ago. Now it's fixtures awaiting pick-up. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
  I'll miss many things about my job. My colleagues, who put the "q" in quirky. Some are long-term friends, from a previous independent bookselling gig, and some will continue to be my buddies. We get each other's jokes, something that has to do with not wincing when a customer asks for "Withering Heights" or mispronounces Albert Camus. I'll miss, too, the privilege of being around so much reading material. While reading on the clock was frowned on, reading on your lunch break was considered a right and the greatest perk of the job. I'd grab the latest magazines and newest cookbooks to peruse on my lunch hour. My friends and I would huddle around the table in the dingy breakroom, feeding our reading habits and ourselves.

Childcare/Psychology/Self-Improvement. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
  I’ll miss a few of the customers and those precious bookselling moments where you sell a preteen her copy of “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret,” or a new mom “The Velveteen Rabbit” or a newly pregnant woman “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

Bookstores are for ages and stages and now the experts tell us that the new age demands books via byte.

I don’t buy it. I think there will always be a market for tangible, dust-gathering books made of real, tangible, forest-clearing paper. Gutenberg had a good thing going and I think there will always be a market for brick and mortar bookstores. I just hope the grand poobahs of the remaining bookstores chains will find my suburban county and realize what a great location it is for a bookstore.

In 2006, a few years before he passed, John Updike addressed the BookExpo convention in Washington, D.C. His speech focused on Google’s plan to digitize books and how that would influence the writer; it ended with a call to arms for booksellers.

The full text of Updike's speech can be found here, but my favorite part is near the end: “Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

"So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts. Keep your edges dry. Your edges are our edges. For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.”

Now it seems the revolution has passed us by and there are fewer forts for us to defend.

And I’m not sure what hurts more – my feet or my heart.

Text and images copyright 2011, Lucy Mercer.

This story was published first on Open Salon, where it was selected as an Editor's Pick and received many comments from book lovers and those who embrace the e-revolution. Check it out here.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Pear and Gorgonzola Crostini from "400 Best Sandwich Recipes"

Pear, gorgonzola and walnut crostini from "400 Best Sandwich Recipes" by Alison Lewis.
Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
The versatile sandwich can be elegant or casual, like a little black dress. It is also a perfect expression of seasonal ingredients. This snappy little number from Alison Lewis’ "400 Best Sandwich Recipes" (Robert Rose, 2011) speaks of late summer to early fall, when the harvest is rolling in and the evenings are cool. A crostini with a shmear of gorgonzola-spiked cream cheese, topped with a slice of ripe pear. A drizzle of honey adds sweetness to offset the pungent blue cheese.

Lewis’ book catalogs 400 recipes from casual wraps to elegant appetizers, all with an eye for nutrition and tastiness. Give the book and this smart little app a try.

Pears. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Pear, Pecan and Gorgonzola Crostini

Serves 8 to 10

8 to 10 baguette slices about ½ inch thick

4 ounces cream cheese, softened

¼ cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

1 ½ cups thinly sliced pear (about 2 medium)

4 tablespoons honey

½ cup chopped pecans, toasted (I used walnuts and it was delicious!)

1. Preheat oven to 350. Arrange baguette slices on a large baking sheet. Bake in a preheated oven for 5 minutes or until lightly toasted.

2. Preheat broiler with rack 4 inches from heat. In a small bowl, combine cream cheese and Gorgonzola. Spread bread slices evenly with 1 tablespoon of the Gorgonzola mixture. Top with epar slices. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with pecans.

Broil crostini for 1 to 2 minutes or until pears are tender and cheese is slightly melted. Serve immediately

“400 Best Sandwich Recipes” by Alison Lewis (Robert Rose, 2011), 360 pages with index and 24 color photographs. Paperback, $24.95 list price. A review copy was provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

400 Best Sandwich Recipes, including Lunchbox Sushi

Lunchbox Sushi from 400 Best Sandwich Recipes by Alison Lewis.
Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Reading through Alison Lewis’ “400 Best Sandwich Recipes” (Robert Rose, 2011), I can’t help but think how lucky her kids are. Lewis is a nationally known recipe developer, accomplished cook and writer, a veteran of Southern Living magazine, and her book brims over with family-friendly recipes. She’s a busy mom with three active children, living in Birmingham, Alabama.

Just how did she decide to develop 400 sandwich recipes? She describes in the introduction to the book that her son suggested a cookbook of sandwich recipes as they were driving to the beach. When her editor suggested 400 recipes and producing a “bible” of sandwiches, “I laughed at first, then I was a little nervous,” Lewis wrote by email last week.

Lewis uses fresh, wholesome ingredients in her recipes, always with an eye on what’s appealing to children and how quality meals can be quickly assembled. This collection of recipes is a reminder that the original fast food, the portable vehicle called a sandiwch, can feed active families easily and well.

So how does a busy mom get healthy, tasty meals on the table? “I try to really plan ahead. With three super busy kids, you have to think ahead, prep ahead and involve kids in the menu planning process as well as getting them to cook with me in the kitchen,” Lewis says. “ I also make it a point to teach my kids how to make the healthiest food choices."

Lunchbox sushi by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 A few of her Alison's tasty go-to sandwiches for weeknight cooking are Taco Burgers (a taco-seasoned burger with salsa, beans and cheese), Burgers with Grilled Onion and Smoked Cheddar, Lime Shrimp Tacos, Classic Barbecue Chicken Sandwiches.

This cookbook is also inspiration for kids old enough to pack their own lunchboxes. In fact there’s a chapter with 15 sandwiches that her kids love to pack themselves, including a Garden Tuna Checkerboard Sandwich, the enduring classic Peanut Butter and Jelly (we love PB and J in our house) and Sandwich on a Stick - bread, turkey, cheese, pickles and olives threaded on a skewer served with dipping mustard.

What's next for Alison Lewis? According to Alison, her mind is “always brewing” with creative culinary ideas. Check out her blog, Ingredients, Inc, for new recipes.

This is a fun sandwich from "400 Best Sandwich Recipes" I like the innovative use of tortillas to encase the roll, making it much easier to work with than the nori alone.

Lunch Box Sushi

Serves 4 to 6

1 teaspoon wasabi powder
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 cups cooked sushi short-grain rice, cooled
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 teaspoon mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon hot pepper flakes (optional)
6 (10-inch) white or whole wheat tortillas
6 sheets nori
1 ½ pounds cooked shrimp, chopped (or an equal amount of chopped, cooked white meat chicken)
1 cup chopped avocado
1 cup finely chopped cucumber
1/3 cup soy sauce

1. In a small bowl, combine wasabi and 1 teaspoon water. Add 2 tablespoons soy sauce and mix well.

2. In a medium bowl, combine rice, wasabi mixture, green onions, mayonnaise and hot pepper flakes, if using.

3. Line each tortilla with nori. Arrange rice mixture equally in center of each wrap. Add shrimp or chicken, avocado, and cucumber. Fold both ends over filling. Roll up and serve with soy sauce.

“400 Best Sandwich Recipes” by Alison Lewis (Robert Rose, 2011), 360 pages with index and 24 color photographs. Paperback, $24.95 list price. A review copy was provided by the publisher. All opinions are my own.