Whether or not you like to treat yourself or others to something nice for the holidays, consider these interesting items and worthy causes. Some are old and some are new. Several came out of the blue. I grouped these things according to interest.
I vowed to spend more time reading fiction in 2014 and my friend Shane Mitchell mailed me a copy of Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, The Frangipani Hotel. It’sa collection of ghost stories that take place in Vietnam and abroad. She’s a remarkable first-time author who weaves dreamy, eerie threads to reflect the nuances of Vietnamese culture.
Aussie expat, chef and Hanoi Cooking Centre owner Tracey Lister has a totally below-the-radar book out on Vietnamese home cooking. Look for Real Vietnamese Cooking if you’re interested in what’s going on in kitchens in Vietnam. The photography is vivid and perfect for those who’ve traveled to Vietnam.
Vietnamese people are incredibly industrious and Helen Le embodies that. She produced her own cookbook to pair with her YouTube cooking channel. There’s a QR code and URL for a video to go with each recipe in Vietnamese Food with Helen’s Recipes. Her earnest, energetic effort represents the savvy, young generation of Vietnam. Helen was born in Vietnam and lives in Germany.
These days, Thai food is being demystified on many levels. Over the past year, I’ve enjoyed cooking from Leela Punyaratabandhu’s Simple Thai Food and Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok. Pick your poison – the first is more flexible than the second, or heck, get both. Among the recipes I’ve tried are grilled chicken and ribs.
I didn’t have enough opportunity to cook from Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat’s Japanese Soul Cooking. It’s a true, charming cookbook with moderately accessible recipes – which means that they are smart, doable and delicious. Great cultural insights such as how many popular Japanese foods originated elsewhere. Japan travel stories are woven throughout.
Fermented vegetables are popular these days and among those leading the charge is Karen Solomon and her book, Asian Pickles. It’s nicely sized to sit on your kitchen counter and get used. I made a wonderful Japanese pickled ginger from Karen’s recipe.
Francophiles are well served by David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen. It’s loaded with recipes (from duck terrine with figs to salted butter caramel-chocolate mousse) and honest anecdotes on living in the City of Light. It’s been years since I’ve visited Paris and his book made me want to.
David got me thinking about French cookies, which I love and I ended up buying this out-of-print baking book by Bruce Healy. Older works have invaluable information as I found in Billy Joe Tatum's field guide to foraging and wild food cookbook. It was a 1976 publication filled with timeless lessons.
If you want to glean tips and tricks from the pros, Dana Cowin’s Mastering my Mistakes in the Kitchen is a helpful and humorous guide. She’s the editor in chief of Food and Wine magazine. I attended a book event of hers in San Francisco and we got talking about how to help people cook well. She openly admits her flaws and offers a recipe collection of personal favorites, punctuated by instructional tidbits by chefs and authors.
And, if you are gifting one of my books and would like to include an autographed bookplate, email me and I'll mail it to you!
Practical Kitchen Tools
I recently had to replace several things in my kitchen and the new stuff really upped my game. After the $20 baking stone from Bed Bath and Beyond broke, I hobbled along on the two broken pieces until my husband said, “Why don’t you spend more for better ones? You would have spent less than you have on all these cheapie ones that you have to periodically replace.”
After considering a baking stone that’s a favorite of Cook’s Illustrated, I spent a tad more for a set of Dough-Jo baking stones. They’re thick and the relatively lightweight five pieces are easier to move around the oven than one thick stone and they’re not likely to break. They’re made of 3/4-inch-thick cordierite and get super hot. My banh mi rolls and pizzas are getting an extra tiny lift.
The blender that we got as a wedding gift in 1996 died this year. I could have purchased a Vitamix but didn’t see the need to spend a small fortune, roughly the cost of a very basic stove. Plus, a restaurant supply salesman once told me that the motor on the professional-grade Vitamix is better than the one made for home use so I’d have to spend more.
Instead, I purchased a KitchenAid Diamond Blender for a lot less money. It’s powerful, easy to clean and comes in several colors; I went with a basic grey. Grinding soybeans for making tofu is easy and faster than in my old blender. Pureeing soups and the like is fabulous in the large container. I made fresh mayonnaise in the blender too.
It’s not like I needed new bread knife but my knife man suggested an offset sandwich knife as the means toward effortless slicing of bread and banh mi. I tried out a 7-inch knife made by F Dick and Terry was right. It’s the better bread knife.
This time of the year my husband and I also donate a modest amount to charity. Among our causes are:
Hunger Relief: These types of organizations have made a huge impact on reducing hunger and poverty in America. Surely there’s one in your local area. Ours is the Second Harvest Foodbank of Santa Cruz.
Art and culture: There are many arts organizations out there but I’m partial to the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. It puts on a variety of events and exhibits that range from movies to food. Yes, we give to the Smithsonian through our tax dollars but it needs a little extra to document and spotlight the diversity of America.
Education: It’s great to support young scholars and compelling projects at educational institutions. My mentor and friend, Professor Michael B. Preston, taught me a lot about race and ethnicity in America during my time at the University of Southern California. He passed away this summer at the age of 80, and the university established and undergraduate scholarship in urban politics and civil rights in his honor. We will also renew our membership in the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi at Oxford.
There are many non-profits out there and you can check sites like Charity Navigator for options.
What are some of your favorites books, tools or charities these days?