Cookery Bookshelf

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals Cookbook by Maria Speck

“Cooking made me appreciate food. It made me slow down and enjoy. Today we call this ‘mindful eating.’ I believe this happens naturally- when you cook (Speck, p. 5).”

BOOK REVIEW- Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck

If you ask a person on the street what they think about whole grains, healthy might come to mind. Whole grains are the rage right now and touted by everyone from diet books to call-outs on the front of food packaging.

Author and self-declared whole grains enthusiast Maria Speck takes a very different approach as she starts her cookbook “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals” when she says, “I don’t want to tout the health benefits of whole grains because I don’t believe this will actually make us eat them (Speck, p. 6).” She describes her style of eating by something she calls “the truffle theory” wherein she could easily eat more store-bought truffles but finds herself satisfied with only one or two truffles rolled by her hands. Her preface in a book on whole grains comes from a passion for eating good food that happens to be good for you.  She cooks what she likes to eat.

“[E]ating is about pleasure first, and dieting last. I believe food has to be mouthwatering and seductive to stay in our meal plan for good. This is why I use rich natural ingredients like butter, cream and bacon, though in moderation. To me, whole grains, are the ultimate comfort food (p. 3).”

Her playfulness essay “Never Give up Baguette, with Butter” points to indulging but comes after 33 pages disseminating interesting details on specific whole grains as well as tips on baking with whole grains. In these pages, she shares historical data, provides tips on what to look for when you shop for whole grains and defines the differences between whole grains and pseudo-grains or pseudo-cereals like quinoa.

This book serves as a sturdy resource and Speck makes a good teacher, coaxing you on the way to store whole grains (in glass jars to line the pantry shelf, p. 19) and providing two excellent charts on quick-cooking whole grains and slow-cooking whole grains on pages 24 and 25 that serve as good advisors on which whole grains should be reserved for weekend cooking projects when time is not as much of an issue and which can make it into your weeknight meal in 30 minutes.

Throughout “Ancient Grains”, Speck includes helpful endnotes on how to get a head start with a recipe or how to make a recipe vegetarian. I particularly found the surplus of tips peppered through her book to be helpful such as inverting a baking pan if you don’t own a pizza stone (p. 176) or how to quickly soak your grains (p. 7). The par-boiled brown rice recipe on alone (p. 26) will add a handy tool to the busy home cook’s weeknight arsenal. She asserts that the most important tool you have in the kitchen are your hands. I couldn’t agree more and credit my early developmental years in pottery class for a penchant in getting my hands dirty.

Knowing that I would be embarking on a gluten free regimen, I considered the ample opportunities that discovering other whole grains would allow. For those avoiding gluten, they cannot eat wheat, rye, barley, triticale, spelt, kamut, einkorn and others. This leaves a stunning array of other whole grains that are feasible and gluten free like the pseudo-cereals, quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat, to name a few. If we find that we get back on a gluten eating pathway, I will deftly turn to page 203 and whip up a batch of Wheat Berry Fools with Grand Marnier Figs.

Lemon Quinoa with Currants, Dill and Zucchini from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

Last Saturday, the sun warmed our typically chilly city. The last thing I could imagine doing was staying inside instead of finding a spot of grass with a book in a park. The ease in making the Lemon Quinoa with Currants, Dill and Zucchini (p. 90) gave me something refreshing to nosh on for a late lunch and later accompanied me as a welcome substitute to airplane food on a recent flight. Fresh and bright lemon blends with the dill and zucchini along with a vaguely sweet flavor note of currants and the slight toothsome texture of quinoa.

Warm Muesli with Figs, Pistachios and Anise from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

For a fast breakfast, one morning I pulled together the ingredients for the Warm Muesli with Figs, Pistachio and Anise (p. 42). While I opted for gluten free oats and serving this cool with a cup of kefir poured atop and left to sit for 10 minutes, I found this combination of dried fruits, nuts and oats satisfying.

Wild Rice Frittata with Mushrooms and Crisped Prosciutto from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

I had been eyeing the Wild Rice Frittata with Prosciutto (p. 67) from that quick glance at the table of contents in the bookstore and it did not disappoint. Instead of adding the prosciutto, we made it vegetarian and that combination of mushrooms, hearty herbs and wild rice imbued a meaty and savory quality to this dish. The frittata made a fantastic to-go lunch tucked in my bag as I rushed out for an appointment.

Are you still with me? If you are, good things come to those who read, er, wait, at least I’ve always thought so.

“Be it a quick meal on a weeknight or a slow feast for a special occasion, good food is worth the wait. Waiting helps me to appreciate the effort that goes into cooking (p. 166).”

If I was to summarize “Ancient Grains for Modern Meals” in one word, it could easily be “indomitable.”  She won an IACP award recently for “Ancient Grains” and rightly so. This book is a life’s work. The amount of research and kitchen time that went into writing this book is worth praise. I found myself in Thessaloniki and also wanting to be learning Greek cooking from her mother. Her storytelling is engaging. The one thing I think would serve it well in reprints is to add a page on gluten free grains or perhaps include this demarcation for gluten free recipes in the back of the book. While I know its intent is not to be a gluten free cookbook, I do find a curiosity and eagerness for tackling acceptable grains by the gluten free community.

Speck’s appreciation for the good life with good food serves as a reminder that eating healthfully doesn’t have to be boring or restrictive. A dash of cream or a dollop of butter sometimes really brings out the flavor of food. I like her European approach to cooking, cuisine and probably could talk her ear off about my adventures in Greece.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Speck’s Artichoke-Rosemary Tart with Polenta Crust recipe.

Artichoke-Rosemary Tart with Polenta Crust from Ancient Grains for Modern Meals


Cookery Bookshelf

Blood Sugar Cookbook by Michael Moore

BOOK REVIEW- Blood Sugar by Michael Moore

Chef Michael Moore invited a room of food bloggers to join him for a morning run.

This may sound strange for a chef to be so up front about personal healthy living habits, but his story quickly lets you know that just like Jamie Oliver came from the UK to broach food in schools, Moore has  a message for Americans too and it’s this: healthy food doesn’t have to be flavor-less. Instead, the flavor pairings make the plate sizzle.

His story is simple: at 35 he was diagnosed with diabetes and eight years later he had a stroke. Even though he was already active and fit, his diabetes diagnosis called for lifestyle change. He wrote “Blood Sugar” to share his method of healthy good eats.

When I received a review copy of the cookbook, I found the title “Blood Sugar” a bit hard to swallow since it’s isn’t typically something I think about when it’s time to cook.  Thumbing through the luscious and gigantic photos of fresh food, I began to warm up.

Then meeting him at a blogger conference and getting to hear him describe his rationale for pairings of ingredients and more about his personal story firsthand clinched my enthusiasm to explore “Blood Sugar.” And explore we did.

He divvies up the types of food as the types of fuel. There’s coal foods- the ones that allow your blood sugar to burn low and slow for long periods of times- such as protein and high fiber foods. Water foods keep you hydrated and full- mostly vegetables. Fire foods are the ones that burn the fastest and have high GI- things like processed, starchy, sugary or fatty foods. These visuals really work in terms of thinking of food as fuel and how your body will react to certain kinds.

I don’t know how you work through cookbooks, but I tend to read them like if they were novels- front to back. I like to flip through them once and get a lay of the land before going back to recipes I’ve tabbed to try out. We worked our way through the Blood Sugar cookbook, trying out a slew of recipes. I can honestly say they stretched my pantry and encouraged playing with ingredients in unexpected ways.  Here are some of the recipes that stood out and wet our palates, like they might yours!

  • Spinach, Pea and Fetta Salad– This salad has been a regular at our dinner table for the ease of preparation and the bright flavors of lemon and mint. We tend to go for double servings when this salad is on the menu.
  • Baked Ricotta, Pear, Celery and Walnut Salad– We served this for a dinner with friends. The crunch of the celery salad paired well with the creamy baked ricotta and roasted pears. This would work well for brunch.
  • Romesco Soup with Chicken and Chorizo Sausage– Oh my goodness. This soup was quite popular and went quickly. The roasted red peppers, the almond meal and savory flavor of chorizo with chicken all worked symbiotically.
  • Pumpkin-Crusted Fish on Mash– We liked that the fish coating was comprised of crushed nuts and the use of yogurt sauce with the mashed sweet potatoes.
  • Lamb with Pomegranate, Pears and Sumac– The earthy flavor of the lamb paired with the tartness of the pomegrante arils, sweetness of the pears and the sumptuous sumac made this one decadent dish.

In my kitchen, my cookbook collection is pretty serious. That said, this cookbook is one I will continue to revisit because of the refreshing take on real food recipes that also considers your blood sugar in the process.

I’m giving away a copy of Blood Sugar to one winner. To play along, leave a comment about an a-ha moment you’ve had about your health and lifestyle. I’ll select a winner Sunday night and share it on Monday. Good luck!