Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cookbooks: How I Spend the Winter Months

I love to cook and read. Full stop. As a result, I think cookbooks might just be the greatest things in the world since they combine my two favorite past times, cooking and books.

When I'm not working, reading or walking the dog, you can usually find me in the kitchen shaping loaves of bread for a second rise or chopping vegetables for tonight's dinner. It's a hobby that generally keeps my roommates happy, my kitchen a mess, and me scrounging around for new ideas. I honestly wake up most mornings thinking about what I could cook that day. Needless to say, I go through recipes faster than my roommates can finish a fresh loaf of bread (which, if you've ever met them, is surprisingly fast).

Cookbooks are my best friend. In spite of all of my experimenting and my roommate's frequent accusations that I never follow a recipe (this is unfortunately true), I get most of my ideas from other people. The experimentation comes from adapting recipes and playing around with ingredients once I already have a recipe in mind. Cookbooks often provide the framework for improvisation and they are also great sources of inspiration if I come home after a long and grueling shift at the bookstore (just kidding, is there ever such a thing?) and just don't know what to do with the eggplant I have left over from yesterday.

Since I (surprisingly, given that it's textbook season) have a slow evening at the counter, I thought that I would update with a brief introduction to a few of the cookbooks that I use most frequently. And should you ever be in the store, please feel free to stop me and share any favorite recipes that you might have; I'm always looking for more!


2008 was a year of bread. My resolution last New Years was to develop a sourdough starter and learn how to use it. It was mostly a success; my starter is now a year old and delightfully sour! I've had a few mishaps, breads that didn't rise, ovens that were too hot or not hot enough, ingredients that just weren't quite right (although the time I mixed up the curry powder and cinnamon for a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread actually turned out to be delicious!). There are three bread books that I think are quite useful for the home baker.

The first is
Beard on Bread by James Beard. This book was a gift to me from another Odyssey employee and has truly served me well. It covers 100 of Beard's favorite bread recipes and is a great general introduction to baking. I like it because it is an approachable book even for the novice baker and has recipes for almost any occasion or ingredient. My personal favorites are the Sour Cream White Bread, the Portuguese Sweet Bread, and the Pullman Loaf Bread. James Beard is often considered to be the father of American cooking and I am always heartened by a quote from one of his other cookbooks that I frequently use, The Best Of Beard: Great Recipes From a Great Cook, in which he says, "I’m going to break one of the rules of the trade here. I’m going to tell you some of the secrets of improvisation. Just remember — it’s always a good idea to follow the directions exactly the first time you try a recipe. But from then on, you’re on your own."

After trying my hand at baking for a while and working my way through a fair number of Beard's recipes, I wanted more. I decided to tackle sourdough, partially because I loved the taste and partially because it's challenging. Before beginning my first starter, I read countless instructions for developing sourdough starters online and consulted many different cookbooks. One of the most beneficial was The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Even now that I have an active (and recently a year old!) sourdough starter, I continue to use Beranbaum's book for its wealth of recipes and great information about bread baking in general. It's an excellent book that teaches the user more than you would expect from simply following a recipe.

At this point I
felt like I had a pretty solid footing in bread baking and I was ready to up the ante so to speak. I had all of these questions about why recipes called for certain ingredients or what the benefit was of specific kneading techniques. I had sold my bread locally to a few folks at a few places and given away more loaves than I could count, but I had also continued to have mishaps and I really wanted to consistently turn out excellent loaves and to better understand what I was doing when I experimented. I turned to the next book Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart and it has truly improved my bread baking. I might have been intimidated had I started baking with this book, but I definitely would not have progressed as much as a baker as I have in the past few months if I had not read this book. If you want to waste a few minutes, come into the store and ask me about scouring techniques and how they change the shape of a loaf of bread. I'll get really excited! :)


Whew! That was a whole lot of blog post about bread! See what happens when I start to talk about food and books? I'll try to keep the rest brief. In addition to loving bread, I'm also a vegetarian. Folks who aren't often think that it must be quite difficult to be vegetarian, but really it's not at all. It helps that I live in Northampton and that I like to cook, but it's easy to do without either. Good cookbooks and recipe ideas are incredibly useful for vegetarian cooking, but I just as often adapt non-vegetarian recipes as I seek out specifically meat-free ones. Nonetheless, I have a few
favorite vegetarian cookbooks that you should definitely check out.

The whole range of
Moosewood Cookbooks might just be my favorites, and they have a few fish recipes as well for you meat eaters. I don't think I've ever made anything from a Moosewood book that I haven't liked. I recently reviewed Mollie Katzen's newest offering for our holiday newsletter, so I'll post that here to perhaps entice you to check it out. The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Life Without by Mollie Katzen is a new set of delicious recipes from best selling author of the Moosewood Cookbook. It features a range of vegetable dishes, from soups to sides and appetizers to entrees. Don't let the title fool you into thinking this is a book just for vegetarians; it's definitely not! This is an incredibly useful book for anyone who wants to add more vegetables to a plate, from beginners to well-versed cooks looking to expand their vegetable repertoire. I love the new twists Kazen gives to familiar staples and the playful ways she incorporates some unfamiliar flavors.

Well, I guess I wasn't actually very brief with that review. Here's trying again! My first vegetarian cookbook was a gift from my mother, who was worried that I would starve or that my diet would be devoid of nutrients when I stopped eating meat in high school. I hope that I have since changed her mind.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison has been my go-to book for the past 8 years. I can't tell you how many times I've flipped through it's well loved pages in search of something new to make for dinner.

Along with Madison's book,
Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian is the book I most frequently recommend to folks, vegetarian or not. It's incredibly approachable and has simple, tasty recipes. It is also a rather large book and thus always has some recipe that I have yet to try.


Oh my! It's time to close the store already! Time certainly flies at the Odyssey. I wanted to tell you all about the chocolate cupcakes with Irish cream icing I made last night from Krystina Castella's Crazy About Cupcakes and my other favorite food book, How to Peel a Peach: And 1,001 Other Things Every Good Cook Needs to Know by Perla Meyers. Oh well, maybe next time! Until then, happy reading (and cooking)!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Eight at Once...

Before beginning my tenure at the Odyssey Bookshop, I was the kind of reader who was virtually adamant about finishing one book before picking up another -- and I refused to not finish a book. It didn't matter if I disliked it or not, if I didn't finish a book, I felt that it would sit on my shelf and mock me for eternity. Why not, might you ask, simply give the book away then? Well, that's my other problem...I can't give away books.

Hello, my name is Emily and I have a problem...

However, upon taking my job at the Odyssey, I was also immediately put on a committee to select novels for our First Edition Club. This often meant/means reading five or more books for each month. I had to very quickly get over my "not putting down a book before finishing it" mantra.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, my new-found ability to read more than one book at a time has reached new heights and I'm now actively reading over eight books.

Each time I think I'm making progress, another book lands on my desk. I'm both a little scared and excited all at once, as not one of these eight books do I find disappointing. They are different and some are more my cup o'tea than others, but I WANT to finish all of them, and not because I feel they might taunt me later if I don't.

It seems to me that we're going to have a fantastic spring line-up.

So, Emily, what are these fantastic 8 books you're reading right now you might ask? Ok, I'll tell you. Here's what you can look forward to in the coming months (disclaimer: I have not finished one of these eight books yet and my opinion might change between now and upon turning the final page):

T.C. Boyle's The Women -- This (and here I duck my head in shame) is the first Boyle novel I've read. I've been meaning to pick up his work for years, but the five hundred or so unread novels on my shelves at home were starting to give me that look of "don't you love me anymore? You seemed so interested in me three years ago when you bought me." Yes, I give inanimate objects voices. The novel follows the lives of four women, all of whom were involved with Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect. It's gorgeously written and should you know little about Wright like I did (haven't read Horan's Loving Frank), fascinating in its historical detail.

Nafisa Haji's The Writing on My Forehead -- Haji is a debut Indo-Pakistani novelist whose novel centers around a young female journalist, who, growing up, was torn between pleasing her conservative parents and living the life of a normal American teenager. You may be thinking that you've read this story before, but Naji's novel has a few twists and turns that make it fresh and engaging.

Christian Moerk's Darling Jim -- I'm halfway through this new thriller and I'm loving it. It's suspenseful, creepy, and may keep you up at night. I'm chomping at the bit to get home this evening to finish it.

Paulette Jiles's The Color of Lightning -- Takes place in the days leading up to the Civil War and follows a recently "freed" black family as they make their way to Northern Texas to start life anew. Unfortunately, recent American-Indian raids soon tear their family apart. Jiles' second or third chapter is one of the most powerful I've read in quite some time. It's a delicate subject matter, one which Jiles handles beautifully.

Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire --- I don't know what else to say except I adored his first novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and after reading 19 pages of this next one, I have a good feeling this second one won't disappoint.

Rief Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet --- This, too, is a debut novel and follows the journey of a 12-year-old genius on his way to Washington, D.C. to except an award from the Smithsonian. They are unaware of his age. This novel is taking the bookselling world by storm.

Hyatt Bass's The Embers -- Having dinner with the author next week and am very excited. Unfortunately, I'm only a few pages into the book so don't have quite as much to say as I'd like, but so far, so good.

And finally, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action --- It's an oldie but a goodie. If you haven't read it, but like anything suspenseful, you'll love this. And, while it takes place more than two decades ago, it resonates well with today's current crises (corporate irresponsibility and greed).

Textbook rush is calling me away from this post, but I hope those of you reading might be interested in a couple of these titles and will stop by this Spring to pick them up. I'll post to let you know if any of these authors are henceforth scheduled to come to the Odyssey for an appearance. We're working on it!

Safe travels to all those in the area, actually to all those on the eastern seaboard, it's nasty tonight.

Emily RM

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Very Belated Thank You to Roy Blount

This is a very belated thank you to Roy Blount from the Odyssey Bookshop (and thanks to Porter Square Books for posting it on their blog for me to find!)
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You may have heard Roy Blount on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" or read his latest book Alphabet Juice. He has a way with words and I can't think of a better use. Read on and then organize your own book-buying party.

From: "The Authors Guild" <>
Date: December 11, 2008 12:07:04 PM EST
Subject: Holiday Message from Roy Blount

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards. We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance! There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild." Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
PresidentAuthors Guild

And So It Begins...

Hi, everyone,

This is my first official post on the Odyssey's new blog, or should I say, new blog to me? I used to post on our Myspace page a bit, but as things got crazier and crazier with our Stephen King event last fall, I found little time to read let alone post anything.

So, new year, new blog and I'll do my best to keep up with it.

For those of you new to the store and/or to our blog, my name is Emily Russo Murtagh and I am the events coordinator here at the Odyssey, a job I started a little over a year ago after working in New York City for five years in agenting.

What should you know about me? I adore fiction. I LOVE fiction. Unfortunately, that means I don't read much non-fiction. I am, however, going to make a conscious effort to read more of it in the coming year. In fact, I recently finished Carolyn Jessop's memoir, Escape, which is probably one of the more difficult books (in terms of subject matter) that I've read in quite a long time. I wouldn't say it's the most well-written memoir I've read, but it's certainly one of the most powerful. Carolyn, at the age of 18, was married off to one of the most powerful men in the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints. She had 8 children in12 years and as her religious sect grew more and more outrageous, (dogs were rounded up and killed when the cult's leader decided they were no longer allowed), Carolyn started to plot her escape. Readers may remember that back in April of 2008, 52 children were removed from a rural Texas ranch on allegations of child abuse (click here for more info). Well, Carolyn's husband helped run that compound. Her "step-children," kids she helped raise from birth, are still in there. It's astonishing, and this woman's courage simply cannot be measured.

I'm also in the middle of Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, a classic I never got around to.

Fiction favorites for 2008 were David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Ron Rash's Serena, and Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact, the sequel just landed on my desk today (and by landed I mean I forcibly tore the book out of my co-worker Emily's hands), so I hope to be able to blog about that soon.

Coming out in April is a wonderful new novel by Thrity Umrigar, The Weight of Heaven, which I just finished this weekend. I haven't been so "sucker-punched" since The Kite Runner. The book takes place in modern-day India and follows the lives of Frank and Ellie Benton, two Americans who leave the U.S. in order to recover from the trauma of losing their only son to illness. Only things don't go quite as planned, and when Frank begins tutoring their housekeepers' only son, he grows attached to him in a way he never could have anticipated. Couple that with the local workers' strikes, cultural misunderstandings, and unrelenting grief, and it makes for an ending that will stick with you long after you put the book down. I'm sure you'll be hearing more from Emily Crowe on this, as well. It's one of her favorite books of Spring season, thus far.

Also on the nightstand: T.C. Boyle's upcoming novel on Frank Lloyd Wright, The Women; Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet; Paulette Jiles' The Color of Lightning; and Nafisa Haji's The Writing on My Forehead. All of these titles are coming out later this Spring and I will do my best to update you on these selections as soon as possible.

Yours, awaiting text book rush,
Emily RM