Monthly Archives: September 2014

EYEING AND EATING GERMAN FOOD AT THE AMANA COLONIES

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Many states have communal societies existing over a number of years in different forms. Some of these communities share food, crafts, and other products, history and entertainment with the public, while operating a variety of businesses. So it is with the Amana Colonies in Amana, Iowa. The history of these villages begins in 1714 and continues today. It is one of America’s longest existing communal societies. Here visitors can find good food, lodging, history, theater, golf, arts and crafts and more.

Highlights of a quick visit to one of the several villages this past weekend may well have you thinking about a trip to the Amanas. We drove through the scenic Iowa River valley on a sunny Indian summer day. This is the area where along with various businesses, the Amana Society farms land, and maintains the largest private forest reserve in Iowa.

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You will not be surprised to learn that first Jerry and I had lunch, sampling German food at the Ronneburg Restaurant. The Amanas are known for traditional German and American food. At this restaurant cooking is done in an original communal kitchen. Jerry’s piece of rhubarb pie disappeared so fast, I missed the photo op.

Garden Salad with homemade Ronneburg dressing made with buttermilk and sour cream

Garden Salad with homemade Ronneburg dressing made with buttermilk and sour cream

Jerry cuts his Amana Sausage Combo

Jerry cuts his Amana Sausage Combo

Wiener Schnitzel with lemon, sauerkraut and other sides

Wiener Schnitzel with lemon, sauerkraut and other sides

The Ox Yoke Inn, another very popular restaurant

The Ox Yoke Inn, another very popular restaurant

The general store is a sandstone and frame building built in 1856 with an addition erected in 1890. It held so many attractive and interesting items, I couldn’t decide what to buy.

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I wish I had bought a cookbook.

We also checked out the bakery, jams and jellies and other shops, though we left some for our next visit.

The Amana Colonies are located just north of I80 west of Iowa City. Check out their website at www.amanacolonies.com. Our quick stop only scratched the surface of this amazing place. I missed the woolen mills, the bookstore, browsing antiques, the winery and much more.

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ITALIAN BEEF

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With thanks to “The Sandwich That Is Chicago” by Michael Stern in Fried Walleye and Cherry Pie.

I know there are readers out there in blogland who love Italian Beef. Seems I’ve been hearing about it all my life. True Confession time: I’ve never eaten it, and I do not even know what it is. I do know lots of people love it. So I decided to use this blog and an essay by Michael Stern to learn about Italian Beef. And, I’m counting on you Italian Beef lovers out there to send recipes and knowledge about Italian Beef. Do tell us where to get the best Italian Beef where you live or at another favorite location. Those of us who know little or nothing about Italian Beef are counting on you.

Michael Stern describes Italian beef as “ a heap of thin-sliced roast beef soaked with brothy gravy piled into a length of sturdy Italian bread and garlanded with spicy vegetable giardiniera or roasted peppers.” (That sentence gives a clue why he is a celebrated food writer and I’m a wannabe.) He tells us Chicago is a mecca for this sandwich. Apparently Italian beef is ubiquitous in Chicago. He describes Al’s #1 Italian Beef as the king of such establishments in Chicago.

Here’s what I learned from the Sterns essay:
1. Italian beef is sliced very thin.
2. It is cooked long and slow.
3. It is often served with sausage cooked over a charcoal fire.
4. It’s almost always served on a crusty sturdy absorbent loaf of Italian bread.
5. The beef cut is usually top sirloin or top or bottom round.
6. Spices perfume the cooking pot along with garlic. (Stern did not reveal the spices) Other sources suggest Italian spice (what else?), cayenne, paprika, red chili flakes, oregano, and basil.
7. It’s a cousin of Philly cheese steak and the French Dip

OK, Italian Beef lovers! Dazzle us with your stories, recipes, restaurants, anything you can tell us about Italian beef. Thanks for joining the conversation. This story is posted on the home page to make it easy for you to comment. Click on Leave a Reply right under the title. Thanks!

WHAT DO YOU HEAR? : READING FOR SOUND

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I listened as I walked through our condo complex yesterday morning. I heard the usual falling leaves, the pop-thud of a falling branch. Sound tumbled through the storm sewer with the melodic crashing of fast moving waters. When I got too close, a large blue heron took sudden flight from a small pond and the rushing thrashing of wings and air was nearly as loud as the echos from the storm drain. Birds tweeted and one had a deep-throated bark I did not recognize. My own feet drummed a soft rhythm on the asphalt. These sounds were hit-and-miss, separated, not orchestrated in any way I heard.

I like the sounds I hear in the opening of some novels because they create a picture with connected meanings. For me, choosing a book to read has something to do with the sounds the writer creates on that first page.

Here are several books with sound beginnings. Listen and smile. What do you hear?

How The Light Gets In by Louise Penny. On page one a woman drives through the Ville-Marie Tunnel in Montreal. “The truck ahead would veer, skidding, slamming sideways. An unholy shriek would bounce off the hard walls and race toward her, all-consuming. Horns, alarms, brakes, people screaming.”

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert. In these sentences from the first page, we hear sounds, some the author only suggests. ….palm fronds rustling like locusts high above, as she and her brother played among the rice paddies and fishponds of Waikiki….She remembered riding the trolley cars with her sister up King Street––the two of them squeezed in amidst everything from squid to pigs, chickens to Chinese laundry––mules and horses exuberantly defecating as they dragged the tram along in their wake.”

The Good Luck Girls of Shipwreck Lane by Kelly Harms. “It is the middle of the afternoon and my phone has been ringing on and off for about ten minutes. I don’t want to answer it––it might distract me from the single most important thing in my life at the moment: hollandaise. Sometimes a thought bangs around in our brain making so much noise we cannot think. I can hear the whirr and buzz of hollandaise in her head as I read this. For the character it is louder than the telephone.

Neverhome by Laird Hunt. “The tenth or eleventh night on the road we drank whiskey and hollered under the stars. There was a running race. Knife throwing. Cracker-swallowing contest. Feats of strength. One of the boys tried to arm wrestle me and got the back of his hand scraped when I smacked it down.” A reader can hear the ruckus of a group of young Civil War recruits on their way to war.

The purpose here is to encourage us to listen when we read, to hear the sounds, to inhabit the mind or the place where these sounds are heard. Do you often read the first page or two before you choose a book? I do. I would like to learn to listen more carefully.

You may have a favorite sound bite you would like to share from a book you are considering or one you read recently. Will it help readers choose what to read? Or perhaps we will just enjoy the words and the sounds they evoke.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE SHINES

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All the Light We Cannot See
Author: Anthony Doerr
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Historical Novel
Hardcover Edition: 530 pages
Source: Personal Copy

The detail in this novel mesmerizes the reader, even overwhelms. The reader may feel overwhelmed by detail similarly to how the characters feel overwhelmed by their wartime experiences. The novel is carefully structured, and its beautifully composed sentences stun the reader’s senses with metaphors honed to a fresh edge. “Berlin. The very name like two sharp bells of glory.” “The sky drops silver threads of sleet.”

Marie-Laurie is a blind girl from Paris who lives with her father, a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. As the Nazi occupation tightens, they flee to the walled city of Saint-Malo on the Breton Coast.

The story also follows a talented German orphan Werner, with a keen understanding of transmitters and electrical circuits, and he, too, eventually arrives at Saint-Malo. Various threads of the storyline connect these two and intertwine to produce interesting minor characters and aspects of the wartime experience less well known to many readers.

There are times when the pace slows. This writer challenges the reader’s intellect. There are blurred lines about what is real and what is hoped for. But no reader need complain about the necessity to think in the midst of such lovely writing. The short chapters and white space are appreciated.

Some reviewers see Werner as the sustaining character. But to this reader, the heroine Marie-Laurie is the light of the book. She experiences joy at the beach. The mist and the feel of the sea creatures calm her. In a small grotto near the sea, she is alive and autonomous. “….the tide is rising. She finds barnacles, an anemone as soft as silk; she sets her fingers as lightly as she can on a Nassarius.” She is nurtured by reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea from huge brail volumes her father and uncle gifted her. She develops the strength of a whelk.

Light is darkness and darkness is light, these themes enrich this story, providing a light to understanding. The detail of the six story house where this girl and her father live in Saint-Malo, the contained spaces of the citadel, and the models Marie-Laurie’s father makes for her combine to aid in understanding the perimeters of a life without sight.

The story dazzles. If you are a reader who likes challenge and a fresh look at an era you thought you knew well, this is the book for you. It is a book to keep and a book to reread.

I’m grateful to the fellow reader who encouraged me to stick with this story and to appreciate it.

AN UNCONVENTIONAL MOVIE REVIEW

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Why Not A Movie Like This One?

The Hundred-Foot Journey
Starring: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, and Charlotte Le Bon
Written by Steven Knight
Directed by Lassee Hallstrom
Based on the book The Hundred Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

Audiences love this movie about a young Indian chef and his family forced to leave their home country, who arrive in France and open a restaurant in the countryside a mere 100 feet across the street from a Michelin starred establishment owned by the character Helen Mirren plays. We loved it too, my friend and I. The critics did not.

What follows is my two cents worth directed to potential movie-goers, the movie industry and the print and online movie critics.

Why not a movie about a smart family displaced from their home country and making their way successfully in a new home country?

Why not a story about creating food, even if every detail is not perfect?

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Why not a cheerful upbeat tale with a happy ending?

Why not excellent writing: clear storyline, crisp dialogue, brief scenes filled with information to move the story forward?

Why not excellent acting? The newcomers held their own in scenes with pros like Mirren and Puri. Director Hallstrom gets the most from his actors.

Why not a movie with gorgeous scenery and beautifully composed frames? Viewers see the characters at the market, in the countryside, cooking, fishing, loving and arguing, solving problems, and examining their feelings. If the lighting was distracting (as one critic complained), I did not notice.

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Why not a movie in which the characters solve problems by taking a hard look at their actions and goals? There was no time for useless handwringing, nor were impulsive actions used to drive plot.

Critics complained (among other things): no heat between characters, forgettable story, contrived and melodramatic. NO!

The movie was a feast for the eyes and the heart, great fun and left my friend and I ready to try Indian food.

Perhaps local readers of this blog will have recommendations for good Indian food. Please send them along.

My final words: Go and see this movie.

All comments are welcome. Did you agree with the critics? Are you a fan of Indian food?

GOOD TIMES AT THE WIDE RIVER WINERY ON THE BLUFFS OF THE MISSISSIPPI

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On the bluffs high above the river anywhere along the Upper Mississippi, one experiences some of the most beautiful views in our country. The Wide River Winery is located just north of Clinton, Iowa at the widest spot on the Upper Mississippi and high on a bluff overlooking the river.

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We all have our favorite places. The high bluffs overlooking the Mississippi qualify for Jerry and I. The scenic beauty compares favorably to Laguna Beach, San Francisco, Gulf Shores, Glacier National Park and Maine’s inlets, to name some special spots. A visit to the Wide River Winery, owned and operated by dear friends, offers good times, good wine and a magnificent view of the Upper Mississippi. We sipped wine on the deck,

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listened to the upbeat music from the Unidynes,

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and purchased bottles of our favorites and some new wines at the wine bar indoors.

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We chatted with the wine-makers. They had finished a day of wine picking in their own vineyard. On the next day three tons of new grapes were expected from a vineyard in the Iowa City area, a pinot noir type grape known as petite pearl.

This picture provides evidence it is a real winery.

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It’s the end to a perfect day when one is lucky enough to enjoy a glass of good wine, the best summer fresh food Iowa has to offer: seasoned sweet potatoes, arugula from the garden and tender, tasty beef steak grilled by a master on high heat. All this thanks to the courtesy of our hosts with views of the river!

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I must mention another plus of the good times at Wide River Winery: the discovery of a new-to-us wine, Caught Red Handed. This wine is described as a dry red with big fruity aromas and a smooth finish, easy-to-drink. It is a 2014 Gold Mid-American Wine Competition winner. See mention on the food page post of this blog “Sausage and White Bean Soup.” I especially liked this wine with food.

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A big thank-you to our hosts and the staff at the winery who always make a visit memorable. If you are on the Mississippi at LeClaire (just off I80 north of the Quad-Cities) or Clinton, stop in at the Wide River Winery tasting rooms. I predict you will be glad you did.

Visit their website. www.wideriverwinery.comphoto[3]
Follow the winery on Facebook

MORE FROM CHICAGO: THE FIELD MUSEUM

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Jerry and I drove into the beauty of the lake front area that is home to Soldier’s Field, Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and more on a sunny morning last week. Not finding the street that led to close parking for the Field, we pulled up to some workmen to ask questions. They were smiling and helpful. But one said to us, “Oh, you mean the old museum?” I’m sorry to say this turned out to be a prophetic statement. And not just because this grand museum celebrated opening day in May, 1921.

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We made our way to the parking and soon we were climbing the stairs to the front entrance of the Field. Both of us had been there as children. I was especially interested in the exhibit of The Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair. Though neither my Dad nor my maternal grandmother actually visited the fair, both had talked about it often, telling me how fabulous it had been. They had seen buildings and parks left in the city after the fair.

That World’s Fair introduced the world to the Ferris Wheel. The Fair, called the Columbia Exhibition, was so popular that the Midwest author Hamlin Garland said, “sell the cook stove if necessary, but come to the Fair.”

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Last fall, excited about this exhibit at the Field, I wrote a post “ Five Ways to Travel to the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.” (Scroll through the November, 2013 archives to find the story.) Someone views it every day on this blog giving it most-popular status, no contest. Finally, a week before this exhibit closed, we were about to see it. I had so looked forward to this visit.

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The lobby of the museum was filled with the large replicas of African Elephants I remembered from a previous visit. We found ourselves under the banner “Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair.”

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But as we entered that area, the museum seemed dark, and while some signs and placards explained things, others were brief, hard-to-read, and in light colors hard to see and find. The majority of the exhibit consisted of artifacts exhibited in 1893 such as minerals, gems, plumes, and other items from cultures in faraway lands. Very large grainy photos of some type gave a sense of the grand buildings, the exhibits, and the crowds that filled the Fair in 1893. Those photos made me believe the Fair had existed in a way that glass cases filled objects could not.

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From a personal standpoint, I enjoyed the plumes. My grandmother was a milliner who for several years at the beginning of the 20th century owned and operated a hat shop at the corner of Wabash and 28th street in Chicago. Later she trimmed hats all over the west, including in San Francisco. Here were examples of some of the plumes she had talked about, and shown to me over the years. These plumes from birds such as the snowy egret were used as ornaments in hats of the era.

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The actual Fair was located in Jackson Park––seven miles south of the Field––and this world-famed exhibition marked Chicago’s recovery from the Great Fire and offered visitors information of Western Civilization at that time. The many beautiful white buildings were known as “the white city.”

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I had hoped to buy a book about the fair that would include pictures and supplement my knowledge of the event. Alas, the gift shop saleswoman told me they had all been sold and not reordered. These five titles, carried earlier in the gift shop, are available from Amazon. I sadly suggest one of these books is most likely a better investment than the Field Exhibit.

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Titles are:
The World’s Columbian Exposition, Spectacle in the White City,
Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair,
America at the Fair,
Chicago World’s Fair of 1893
There is also a DVD from a 2 hour PBS Special titled Expo: Magic of the White City.

A 3D film about Ancient Egypt and mummification gave scant information. And so we went to the top of the museum hoping to see some of the reconstructed dinosaur skeletons we remembered from earlier visits. The stegosaurus pictured and others filled the third floor, and the spectacular views out toward Lake Michigan and into the city from the windows at the top of the building made our ride to the third floor well worth it.

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We enjoyed our visit in spite of the disappointments. Maybe the intense anticipation robbed me of some of the joy. Most likely, I simply like turning the pages of a book better than looking in glass cases and reading placards. A good photo can be better than the real thing?

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BANDERA IN CHICAGO: EXECUTION, QUALITY, FLAVORS AND FRIENDLINESS ADD UP TO AN UNBEATABLE DINING EXPERIENCE.

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A friend in the food business recommended this restaurant. We enjoyed a delicious lunch. Our rating: five stars. Here are the details.

We entered off the street, up the escalator to the second floor. Bandera is located at 535 N. Michigan Ave in Chicago. We were warmly greeted. Tired after a morning at the Field Museum, we settled into a roomy booth with a lovely view of the restaurant. The casual atmosphere, chic and comforting, radiated friendliness.

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I sipped a perfect glass of California Sauvignon Blanc and Jerry seemed to enjoy his beer. Our waitperson offered a complimentary appetizer, the house specialty, Iron Skillet Cornbread. We smiled and said yes, and thank-you. This stunning cornbread arrived hot, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and tasted wonderful with a hint of jalapeño.

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Jerry ordered the luncheon plate of prime rib and classic Caesar salad with cornbread croutons. The dressing was superb to my taste. Juicy, tender, big beef flavor and perfectly cooked medium-rare described his meat. I tasted it, thought it was like steak instead of prime rib.

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I chose grilled trout with a mixed green salad dressed in champagne vinaigrette. When Jerry tasted my fish, he said, “Oh my that’s good.” Fish, perfectly cooked, is rare, even though I almost always order fish. I would guess the fish in this restaurant was given the care that Michael Gibney describes in his book Sous Chef.

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The flavors of the champagne dressing made the salad shine. In my judgment many restaurant vinaigrettes add little to the greens; I often reject them for something creamy. This time I took a chance and I savored an extraordinary salad. I asked the waitress if the chef would divulge the ingredients. She said he tells no one. She did say some of the ingredients are olive oil, champagne vinegar, turbinado sugar and a bit of jalapeno. I guess that’s where I will start when I try to recreate it at home.

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Work progressing in the open kitchen added interest to the dining experience. The cornbread was on display behind the hostess station. I loved the open, inviting and friendly atmosphere. I did not notice the kind of posturing and busyness I observe in many Detroit area restaurants with a pretense to excellence. We felt well cared-for due to the exemplary service.

Our friend Michele, who recommended the restaurant, told us well-executed food and friendly atmosphere topped the list of reasons she and her husband ate there whenever they were in Chicago. They go for the food, not to be seen or to especially enjoy a social experience. Our food was probably the best prepared I’ve eaten in any eating establishment in the past few years, and certainly the best I’ve eaten in the Midwest.

If you are in Chicago, I urge you to ride the escalator to terrific food and a grand dining-out experience. Thank you, Michele for your recommendation. And, thank you to the staff at Bandera, who made our visit memorably special.

Follow Bandera on Facebook.

American Women: Heartbreak and Bravery in the Military

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Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War
Author: Helen Thorpe
Publisher: Scribner
Genre: Biography
Hardcover Edition: 394 pages
Source: Personal Copy

Three women signed up to serve in the Indiana National Guard. In this riveting account of what happened in their lives, readers gain enormous insight and understanding of the sacrifices required of those who serve our country in uniform. There’s heartbreak, bravery, and perspective on woman serving in the military that broadens understanding of the complexities of military service.

The push and pull of living life in two places is made real as the reader follows Thorpe’s narrative. Damage to parents and children who must be separated is hard to read. But Thorpe is never sentimental nor sensational. She sticks with the facts. It is facts that clarify feelings. She is a masterful reporter. Her writing is both meticulous and empathetic. The book holds the readers attention on every page.

If you support fellow Americans serving overseas in combat zones, you will want to know more about the reality of their experience. If you have never understood why a young woman would join the National Guard, the experiences of these women and the decisions they make will capture your interest. Their stories help the reader grasp what we Americans owe them, for their service and sacrifice. Their struggle for resilience is completely compelling. After reading the book, service and sacrifice are no longer just words. This book is for all of us, no matter our attitude toward military service.

The story here, the heartbreak and the happiness, is in the details. Helen Thorpe does not let the reader down. She lifts up her subjects and her readers and brings the reader’s grasp of these complex ideas and experiences to new levels. This gripping tale is utterly moving in every way.

For this reviewer this book is a must-read, quite possibly the best non-fiction of the year!

Follow Helen Thorpe on Facebook and at her website www.helenthorpe.wordpress.com

FIVE COOKBOOKS TO SURPRISE YOU: TAKE THIS LIST TO YOUR NEAREST LIBRARY OR BOOKSTORE AND FEAST ON BEAUTY AND DREAMS OF CREATING WONDERFUL FOOD

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Taming the Feast: Ben Ford’s Field Guild to Adventurous Cooking by Ben Ford (2014)
It is an adventure to feed a crowd. He makes it look like the Amazing Race: scrumptious, sumptuous and fun (maybe not always so easy). The pictures are amazing, along with step-by-step directions and illustrations. This one will surprise you, and there is plenty of reading material for a rainy afternoon.

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Extra Virgin: Recipes and Love From Our Tuscan Kitchen by Gabriele Corcos and Debi Mazar (2014)
Taking a look at this delightful book, I’m convinced they are having fun and creating wonderful food. I begin to believe I could do it to. I love their passion.

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My Drunk Kitchen A Guide to Eating, Drinking And Going With Your Gut by Hannah Hart (2014)
I understand the book is smart and funny with plenty of variety. And, the food is good. Reviewers love it, the book I mean. Does it surprise you that drinking and cooking might go together?

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Make It Ahead: A Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten (Oct. 2014)
It’s not a surprise. We trust Ina Garten. If she says you can make a dish ahead and have it be very good, I believe her; and I think you will too. I love to make it ahead so I can’t wait for a look at this new cookbook of hers. We have to wait a bit to see just what recipes she has for us.

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Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with 12 Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, with over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes by Deborah Madison. (2013)
OK. For this book, not so new as the others, it is not a surprise to see it listed. I’ve written about it before. I’m still lusting after it though I have been eyeing it in bookstores for a year. Saw it again this past week at the bookstore. I want to read this book as much as to cook from it. I want to believe the recipes really would be delicious, and that would be a surprise. My luck with vegetarian cookbooks is very limited.

Check these out at the book store or the library. Maybe, read some reviews. See which one surprises you most, or which one makes you want to get in the kitchen cooking. And a surprise about this post is the length of the title. Breaking the rules. These cookbooks do that, too. Let us know if you buy one. I love your comments and readers do too.