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Cathy's Picks

Book Cover for Wild Flavors Emmons, Didi
Wild Flavors: One Chef’s Transformative Year Cooking from Eva’s Farm

Nominated for an International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award in 2012 in the “Food Matters” category, Wild Flavors will be of special interest to cooks who garden and especially to those who garden sustainably. Didi Emmons is a chef in Boston who makes the acquaintance of Eva Sommaripa, a Connecticut gardener who supplies the top chefs in the area with organic vegetables, herbs and greens. It is the quirkiness of Eva that makes Wild Flavors such a joy to read. Eva’s frugality is refreshing in this throw-away age: she takes tupperware containers to celebrity chef events so that leftovers don’t go to waste; she eats all of the apple, including the core; she saves everything: clothes hangers, plastic utensils; and wastes nothing: food scraps are compostable and weeds are edible. Naturally, this frugality rubs off on Emmons, who develops many recipes using the vegetables, herbs and, yes, even weeds that Eva grows on her farm. Emmons exhibits a similarly broad-minded approach to a recipe: if you don’t have the ingredient called for, substitute something that you do have; after all, these recipes were created to provide a tasty use for whatever Eva happened to be harvesting at the moment – that is why the book is arranged by season. Fortunately, the climate of Boston is pretty close to that of Pittsburgh, and so the herbs, greens and vegetables featured will grow fine here as well. Some you will not find easily in our farmer's markets: parsnips, lovage, anise hyssop, bronze fennel, African blue basil or sunchokes. But most of them you can grow yourself. In fact, I have some sunchokes in my backyard that are just begging to be cooked and served up with lovage butter. Or maybe I should try those Sunchoke Dumplings with Swiss Chard and Walnuts on page 278….
Recommended October 2012

Book Cover for Cooking with Italian Grandmothers Theroux, Jessica
Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

If you like to read your cookbooks rather than cook from them, you will find this one particularly enjoyable, especially if you like Italian food and grandmothers. Theroux begins her travels through Italy in the urban north, first visiting a nonna her family had stayed with when she was a child. Interviews with these older women tell of their lives, their traditional cooking techniques, and highlight special recipes, many of which are simple and often unique. Theroux eventually winds her way down to the more rural and less developed South (during which travel her northern Italian friends are concerned for her safety). She is charmed by the people there as well. There are other “Italian grandmother” cookbooks but in this one you really meet the characters.
Recommended March 2012

Book Cover for I Curse the River of Time Petterson, Per
I Curse the River of Time

The Norwegian writer Petterson (author of Out Stealing Horses) again follows flashbacks of the narrator, in this case the 37-year-old Arvid Jansen, an introverted and somewhat ineffectual Communist factory worker in Oslo. In the present, his wife is leaving him, and his mother, a very strong woman with whom he has an unresolved relationship, is dying of cancer. This takes place in 1989 when the Berlin wall crumbles and the Soviet Union is falling apart. When Arvid’s mother abruptly leaves Oslo to return home to Denmark, where their family also spent their summers, Arvid follows her and this, naturally, stimulates more memories of the past. Petterson paints a vivid picture of their lives, of the rather bleak city and Danish coast, and of Arvid’s internal struggles.
Recommended March 2012

Book Cover for Hypothermia Arnaldur Indridason

I’ve enjoyed the Swedish mysteries by Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell so I thought Hypothermia by Icelandic writer Arnaldur Indridason might be a good follow-up. The audiobook version was a good choice for my daily commute because it is short (7 discs) and mysteries keep my attention and are easy to listen to. And it's read by George Guidall, perhaps my favorite reader (listen to his Lord of the Rings). The main character in Hypothermia, Erlendur, is a middle-aged divorced police detective (reminiscent of Mankell’s Wallender), privately investigating the suicide of Maria, a depressed woman who was intrigued by the afterlife. The friend who finds her hanging from the rafters of a lakeside cottage is convinced it wasn’t suicide and sets Erlendur off on a hunt that uncovers seances, the traumatic drowning of Maria’s father during her childhood, and the experimental death and revival of a university student. The topic of suicide also prompts Erlendur to find closure to two missing person cases which were presumed suicides thirty years ago. Throughout the novel, pieces of Erlendur’s own life surface, in particular a blizzard in which he and his younger brother were lost when he was ten, and in which his brother disappeared, and his estranged relationship with his wife, son and daughter. This is not a bloody action thriller but a thoughtful investigation of interrelated events from the past that are tied together by “hypothermia,” an appropriate Icelandic topic.
Recommended January 2012

Book Cover for Murder in the Marais Black, Cara
Murder in the Marais

If you liked Lisbeth Salander, the female computer-hacking investigator in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you might like the Aimée Leduc mysteries by Cara Black. Aimée is also an unconventional and computer-savvy private investigator but the series has the advantage of taking place in Paris. Each book highlights a Parisian neighborhood so, if you are planning a trip to Paris, you might want to pick up the volume corresponding to the arrondissement in which you are staying (it’s an easy read for the plane ride). Here’s the background: Aimée’s mother, an American, abandoned Aimée when she was eight, leaving her in her father’s care. Aimée worked with her father, a police investigator, until he died in a bombing. Despite these traumatic experiences, she continues investigative work as Detective Leduc. Black’s stories take place in the 1990s. The history and politics of each neighborhood play a large part in the plot. For instance, in Murder in the Marais, since the Marais was an historically Jewish neighborhood, the murder has its roots in the Nazi occupation of Paris in the 1940s. Paralleling LeDuc’s investigation are chapters on individuals who play a role in the murder or the political situation and it is always interesting to see where they come in. Cara Black gives the reader a taste of Paris that is not in most guidebooks. Aimée lives in an Ile St. Louis apartment with “a temperamental electrical system, archaic plumbing and warped seventeenth-century parquet floors overlooking the Seine.” And the neighborhoods she investigates are often gritty. Cara Black, who lives in San Francisco, does historical research for each book. If you enjoy spunky female private investigators and Paris, I recommend the Aimée Leduc mysteries.
Recommended January 2011

Book Cover for 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement Ziegelman, Jane
97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement

Ziegelman portrays five families who lived in the tenement at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan (now the Tenement Museum) to tell the history of immigrant foodways between 1863 (when the tenement was built) and 1935 (when it was no longer used for residences). An easy and interesting read, the author gives a broad and entertaining history of food and social conditions in New York City during each period. Ziegelman begins with the Glockners in the 1860s, a German family who built the tenement. Then comes the Moore family from Ireland, the German Jewish Gompertz family from Prussia in the 1870s, the Russian Jewish Rogarshevsky family in the early 1900s, and finally the Italian Baldizzi family in the 1920-30s. Ziegelman describes the living conditions of each immigrant group and the food they would have commonly eaten. 97 Orchard gave me the final impetus I needed to visit the Tenement Museum ( on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, a followup I highly recommend, especially during this time of immigration controversy.
Recommended October 2010

Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East Summers, Carolyn
Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East

If you’ve read Douglas Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens and are interested in implementing its philosophy, Summers’ book is a helpful resource for the Pittsburgh gardener. Tallamy’s book offers a new gardening paradigm: instead of choosing “insect-resistant” plants, one should choose native plants that native insects can feed on, which in turn will provide food for native birds and other wildlife. It is a way to make your garden sustainable and a haven of biodiversity. Summers shows you how to “go native” by providing alternative indigenous plants to invasive non-natives we all seem to have in our gardens. And she’ll tell you what sorts of insects, especially butterflies, feed on them. I must admit it is tough reading when one feels guilty for growing forsythia, butterfly bush and Japanese barberry, especially when they are thriving. And my lovely hostas and daylilies don’t qualify as natives either. I might not tear these plants out, but I will introduce more native plants and for this, Summers's book is a great help. She provides lists of native alternatives for commonly grown trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses, and since she is from New York state, the plants she recommends should do well here. My only complaint is the paucity of color photographs, but the internet provides photos for identification. Any person interested in sustainable gardening should find Summers’s book thought-provoking and useful, and at the least, it will change the way you look at plants and insects.
Recommended September 2010