About Carol

Carol likes to read for fun. Her reading material tends to be fluffy, funny, and/or frivolous. If she were stranded on an island with only one author's books she would take Dave Barry. She obsessively records what she reads and what she wants to read on GoodReads.

Is Poetry Literature?

Is poetry literature? Should one consider written verse, poems or prose, to be classified as literature? For someone not really big into labels, I am going to give the tie to the runner in this case so that I can cross off yet another of my self-imposed reading resolutions:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature (see below)
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel 
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

So, why poetry? Poems are, in a word, transcendent. Badly written verse can make even the most pleasant person go a little mad. But well-written poems can take the reader on a journey into a corner of their soul they haven’t yet seen before.

Pretty crazy, right? Well, not really. Take my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. What makes her my favorite is partly due to the fact that my mom gave me a book of Dickinson verse when I was a teenager. Once I actually started reading Dickinson, however, I did feel a bit transformed. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson once said,

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots…flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life.

Who doesn’t crave a little insight? That’s the thing about Dickinson: it’s like she knew me, what was going on inside of me, things I didn’t even know how to express myself. As a teenager, this was my favorite poem:

My friend must be a bird,
Because it flies!
Mortal my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a bee.
Ah, curious friend,
Thou puzzlest me!

What teenager has a favorite poem? Apparently, this girl! My love for poetry waned over the years, but I always come back to Dickinson. In January the library acquired The Gorgeous Nothings. The book contains actual scans of Dickinson’s handwriting on the backs of envelopes. This is truly an exciting look at this poet’s process:

Envelope

AnotherEnvelope

These scans really don’t do the book justice. Check it out and behold the genius that was Emily Dickinson’s reclusive scribblings. Hold in your hand a tome of untold wonders. Celebrate National Poetry Month.

Carol

Getting Graphic

We’re heading steadily through March, and I have to say I’m a wee bit proud of myself for continuing to work through my only New Years resolution this year. If you’re a regular reader, you may recall my self-imposed reading challenge which was designed to stretch my mind and read outside of my comfort zone.

Here’s a quick rundown of my 2014 Reading Resolutions:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel (see below)
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

You’ll kindly overlook the fact that I’m skipping around on my list. Sure, it would have been more organized to tackle these in list order, but it turns out I can’t quite ignore that little voice inside my head that still wants to rebel against prescribed reading–even if I am the person who came up with the guidelines! The only way to drown out the voices is to read what I’m in the mood to read. And this month I decided to get graphic.

I’ve always gotten a bit lost trying to read graphic novels. My brain can’t stop looking around at all the images, and comparing and contrasting what I see with what my brain is trying to imagine on its own. Rogue brain. Be silent!

PrestoEnough of my neuroses. Let’s talk about Bandette. Presto! is the first book in the Bandette series by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. Bandette is a teenage thief who calls Paris home. I like to refer to her as a modern-day Nancy Drew meets Robin Hood meets Sherlock Holmes. She always dons her costume, complete with cape and mask, before venturing out to clean up the streets, thwarting the criminal underworld as well as the local police inspector, Belgique. She has a weakness for first editions–her personal library is split between the books she’s purchased with her own money and books she has “liberated,” also known as stolen. And her skills as a thief are only matched by her quick wit and unique sense of humor. Bandette may not take the world so seriously, but is that due to her age or her occupation? Take this line, for example. She’s in the thick of battle and still manages to quip:

Hush, Matadori! The air is already thick with bullets. Do not overcrowd it with drama as well.

Presto! combines the first five issues of the Monkeybrain comic book series Bandette. And while I hadn’t read them until I happened upon this tome in our Young Adult graphic novel collection, I am hesitant to read any more until the next bound volume is published. For one thing, it will build anticipation. It will also allow me to work on other reading challenges in my list. And honestly, reading them bound together with all the little extras in the back (including author interviews and a behind-the-scenes look at the process of writing, drawing, and coloring the comic) is in and of itself a beautiful thing I’d miss out on.

When I started reading Presto!, which can be easily consumed in an afternoon, I knew I would need to take notes on my reading experience for the blog. Here are my reactions, perceptions, and ideas that I recorded during my introduction to Bandette. You can click on each image to make it larger and easier to read.

Notes1 Notes2

Since it’s past my deadline (Bandette wouldn’t follow any but her own deadlines!) I’ll let my handwritten notes above speak for me. You can also take my husband’s word for it, as he devoured Presto! the night I brought it home to read and nagged me about it until I had time to read it myself. I even purchased my own copy, knowing I will re-read it in the future.

Overall I’ve come out of this third reading challenge with a better appreciation for the illustrated novel and a definite plan for Halloween. I’ve also got what I would call a new literary best friend. Bandette, I can’t wait until we meet again in volume two.

I Love Bernie (And So Will You)

This year I decided to give my reading life a little bit of direction and structure. Though I tend to prance through life with copious amounts of chaos, I decided that I could and would cram in some reading goals for 2014. Why not stretch my mind a little? Though I’ll still be reading fun, fluffy, and frivolous books (currently reading a YA spy thriller) I thought if I mapped out my year I could easily shift in some unexpected titles and see how well I do following directions, even if they are from myself. I detested assigned reading in school but I’m hoping that taking orders from myself will go over better.

Yeah, I’m a hot mess.

Let me recap for you what I’m calling my 2014 Reading Resolutions:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book (see below)
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

wheredyougobernadetteThis month I decided to tackle the Everett Reads! book. As Kate mentioned already, Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is what we’re hoping all of Everett will try this month. On February 23rd at 7pm Maria will be at the Performing Arts Center downtown. We’re told she’s a very engaging and entertaining speaker, and those who wish to meet her/have a book signed afterwards will have that opportunity. Oh, and did I mention it’s FREE?!

We’ve been doing this “one book for the whole community to read” type of program for several years now. The first year we read The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. I love mysteries, so that year I read the book, discussed it with colleagues, and went to the programs offered. In the intervening years I didn’t really get excited about any of the other titles. That’s not to say they were bad books. They just didn’t capture my interest.

This year everything changed. This year we picked a book that was funny.

I’m not great at summarizing stories without giving anything away. What you should know is that, although everyone told me this book is all about teenager Bee searching for her mother Bernadette who just disappeared, it’s so much more than that. I checked out the eBook edition and Bernadette didn’t disappear until about 2/3 of the way through the book. While many books heavy on exposition and background can be tedious and overbearing, it’s just not the case here. The writing is laugh-out-loud hilarious, the best lines coming straight from Bernadette herself:

Greetings from sunny Seattle, where women are “gals,” people are “folks,” a little bit is a “skosh,” if you’re tired you’re “logy,” if something is slightly off it’s “hinky,” you can’t sit Indian-style but you can sit “crisscross applesauce,” when the sun comes out it’s never called “sun” but always “sunshine,” boyfriends and girlfriends are “partners,” nobody swears but someone occasionally might “drop the f-bomb,” you’re allowed to cough but only into your elbow, and any request, reasonable or unreasonable, is met with “no worries.”

Have I mentioned how much I hate it here?

The whole story is told through varying forms of communication: school memos, emails, faxes, magazine articles, and even a captain’s report from a cruise ship. This structure really held my interest and also provided deep insight into each characters’ motivations, feelings, and personalities. That’s a really tricky thing to do well in a book but Maria Semple pulls it off.

Unfortunately this format can be tricky to follow when listening to the audiobook, as one of my colleagues discovered. So I would suggest if you’re getting lost or losing interest in the audio, grab a hard copy of the book and try that instead. Give Bernie a chance to win your heart like she did mine.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette (yes, it bothers me that the official title does not include a question mark) has something for everyone. Bernadette’s husband, Elgie, is an avid cyclist, so this will appeal to my friends who bike to work. Elgie also works at Microsoft, and the book goes into great detail about life on a business campus. I read these parts out loud to my software engineer husband. There’s a lot of coverage of the school Bee attends and the moms Bernadette refers to as “gnats” since they’re annoying but nothing you’d really exert effort over (hello, all my parental friends who have experience in the trenches). Ever been on a cruise? Deal with motion sickness? You’ll be nodding your head (nothing that would trigger that horrible nausea feeling, though). If nothing else, this book is a great fit for anyone who has had a complicated relationship with their parents (who doesn’t?) and, of course, any humor fans.

bernie

I want to hear from you. Are you joining your neighbors in reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I’d love to see you all pack the house at the Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 23rd. The program starts at 7pm but if you want the good seats you’ll want to get there a little early.

If Bee can search the ends of the earth for her mom, surely all of Everett can enjoy the same book.

Reading Resolutions

Back in the day I was a mess. I made resolutions each New Year’s Eve and promptly broke them the following morning. After several years of this self-destructive (and totally pointless) cycle I just stopped making them. I’m still a mess, but I stopped trying to annually catalog my flaws and failures.

This year is different.

This year I’m trying a different approach: reading resolutions. I’m going to read. I’m going to read a lot. Why not give myself some goals to broaden my literary horizons? So dear reader, I give to you my 2014 reading resolutions:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends (see below)
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

Ask anyone who works in a public library and they will agree: everyone gives us book recommendations. All. The. Time. I’ve been working in public libraries for fifteen years. That’s a lot of book recommendations. After a few years of indiscriminate reading suggestions, you stop trying to tell well-meaning folks that you just don’t enjoy reading that type of book or that you already have a ‘to-be-read’ stack taller than yourself. You just sit back, nod, smile, and maybe write the title down for future perusal. There’s no way we can read them all.

Well I got lucky. I got to talking with a patron who frequents both the brick-and-mortar libraries and our Facebook page. After we bonded over our love of Walter the Farting Dog, she gave me a book suggestion that actually sounded like something I would enjoy. She described it as “funny, a Harriet the Spy for grownups.” Who wouldn’t respond to such a description?

TheSpellmanFilesThe Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz definitely lives up to the hype. Izzy Spellman’s family is odd. Her parents are both PIs and she and her siblings grew up learning the family business. As such, they are completely dysfunctional but love each other very much—even if they have some odd ways of showing it to each other: running a complete criminal and financial background check on your date, following you around town for a week straight, bugging your phone. You know, the little things. One day Izzy snaps and wants out of the family business. Her parents give her one final case: a missing person case that’s more than a decade old and so cold it’s freezing.

Told from Izzy’s point of view, the story jumps through time from the present-day to the distant and then not-so-distant past. The reader really learns what it is to be a tight-knit family with trust and privacy issues. A family whose members will truly fight for those they love and solve a lot of cases together to boot.

The patron who recommended this to me said she had some issues with the lax editing (tenses were mixed up at a few points, things like that) as well as an ending she disliked. Knowing that a bad ending can kill an otherwise enjoyable book for me, I rolled the dice and cracked the spine of this book anyway. And I have to say the patron’s assessment was right on the money, but I feel like I enjoyed the book enough to read the entire series. Who knows? Maybe this will be the start of crossing #12 off my reading resolutions list.

So what I have I learned from this? Through all the static that is the volume of book recommendations library staff receives, I was lucky enough to finally have a book recommendation that was right up my literary alley. I’ll be slightly more likely to actually try the book you suggest to me instead of adding it to that “someday” list from now on. And to the person who recommended this book to me: thank you for taking a chance on this jaded reader.

Use the comments section below and tell me what you’d like me to read. I’m feeling lucky.

Carol

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 3: Finishing Flourishes

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know we’re on a shared journey together. We’re on the quest for a simple, stress-free holiday party. You may not be a master chef but you’ve learned a lot of techniques that enable you to try more complicated recipes and maybe even have some fun as well. Now I give to you the final installment. Today I’ll go over the little extras that will take your holiday party from just a success to an absolutely stellar occasion.

1A Baker’s Field Guide to Christmas Cookies by Dede Wilson contains the number one absolute easiest recipe for cookies ever. You don’t need an oven, but you do need some high-quality alcohol. And let’s be honest: if you’re taking a few nips of the top shelf stuff while prepping cookies (as I assure you is required by law) you really have no business near an oven. Hey, I’m just looking out for you. Chocolate bourbon balls (page 40) combine the best food groups: booze, chocolate and sugar. There are variations where you can substitute other liquors and get an entirely different product. I wonder if anyone has shared this recipe with Hannah Hart of My Drunk Kitchen yet?

2

Top 100 Step-By-Step Napkin Folds by Denise Vivaldo is full of simple ways to make any place setting outstanding. Toss aside those napkin rings: you won’t need them this year. I’ll be honest: outside of a cruise I went on last year, I’ve never actually eaten someplace where the napkin has a special fold—except maybe a fan in a wine glass. Who thinks of doing this, anyway? Only the most accomplished hosts and hostesses like you. Bird in flight (pages 26-27), buffet roll (pages 36-37), fir tree (pages 58-59), and shield (pages 90-91) are simple to make but are special enough to add that little bit of flair to your table. Your guests will be surprised and flattered that you took the time to pay such attention to detail…and that you used cloth napkins in the first place.

3The Kitchen Pantry Cookbook by Erin Coopey shows you how to make your own condiments, chips, stocks, and more. What we’re going to care about is in chapter six: dips. There’s nothing I look forward to more at a party than dip—except maybe the drinks. But we’ll get there, so slow it down, champ. If you’re feeling ambitious you can make the potato chips (page 140) or pita chips (page 152) but I confess I’ll just buy some pre-made. The French onion dip (page 146), herb dip (page 148),  and even the spinach dip (page 158) are simple to make and don’t require those seasoning packets you can buy at the store. I guarantee you everyone will be impressed when you tell them that you made these dips. From scratch. I mean, who does that? You do.

4Make Your Own Soda by Anton Nocito has dozens of syrup recipes you can use either with a home carbonating device or simple seltzer water to make your own sodas. And we’re not just talking cola. Guava (page 28), sarsaparilla (page 58), spiced maple (page 68) and hibiscus (page 70) are just a few flavors you can create to delight your unsuspecting guests. There are recipes for egg creams, cocktails, and even warm drinks, like the hot apple toddy (page 139). When I hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I can practically taste a nice, warm hot toddy and smell the cinnamon.

5Cocktails for a Crowd by Kara Newman has over 40 recipes for a good time. Many of my guests enjoy being offered a nicely crafted drink but I do not enjoy spending my time bartending. That’s why this book is so incredible. Your group can enjoy one of several beverages that you can prepare in bulk (can you ever own too many pitchers?) and actually spend time socializing with your guests. Raspberry Bellinis (page 30) serves 16. French 75 punch (page 32) serves 8. Spiked and spiced apple cider (page 42) serves 8. Those all feature flavors that go well with a typical holiday feast. On the other hand, Suffering Bastard (page 77) serves 8 and is more of a summer drink. However, if you are suffering from ‘Too Much Family at the Holidays Syndrome’ you might get a secret thrill by serving these to your family. Quick, someone tell John Green!

Still looking for a little bit of extra polish? Why not whip together a fun holiday playlist? I’ve created a list of holiday tunes that combines the classics with some of today’s more modern spins. If you celebrate Christmas and you actually have your party on December 25, this will be your last chance until next year to hear those carols without someone clobbering you. I say go all-out and don’t turn the music off until bedtime.

123

Take my advice. The right mix of fancy napkins, alcohol (or non-alcoholic fizzy beverages), music, and homemade dips will be sure to cement your place as future host or hostess of your family/friends’ annual gathering. Try to stay modest, though. You had help getting where you are today. You can send praise to my boss. It’s performance review time!

Carol

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 2: Planning Perfection

Welcome to the menu portion of my three-part series intended to help you master your holiday host or hostess responsibilities in style. Part I introduced you to the basic cooking skills you need as a foundation for cooking confidence. Today I’ll share delicious and simple recipes guaranteed to bring applause and tears (the good kind, at last!) to your gathering. Or, more realistically, you’ll be sure to stress less and have more fun this holiday season, even if you’re not a pro in the kitchen…yet.

1After Toast: Recipes for Aspiring Cooks by Kate Gibbs appears to be designed for the post-college crowd—but any budding chef can benefit from the recipes inside. I found two great snacks you can scatter in small dishes around your living areas. Guests can nosh on spiced crispy chickpeas (page 175) made with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, and ground cumin. Sugar-and-spice nuts (page 176) feature walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. The beauty of both recipes? You can make them ahead of time, they’ll make your house smell amazing, and they are as simple as tossing the ingredients together and baking in the oven.

2High Flavor Low Labor by J.M. Hirsch proclaims to “reinvent weeknight cooking.” You just need to know it has decadent appetizers that are perfect for your holiday gathering—or any time. Grilled bacon-wrapped figs with blue cheese (page 9) are simple and make a dramatic presentation. Polenta cakes topped with prosciutto and peppadew slivers (page 11) are so pretty, yet so easy. Half the work is already done for you with ready-made polenta. Fig and manchego puff pastries (page 21) pair the dream team of flavors: sweet and salty. Once you master this recipe it’s easy to switch it up later to make mini pizzas, perfect for movie night. Pesto-drenched tomato wedges (page 35) show off the red and green color combination perfect for the holiday season. Blend ingredients in the food processor and pour over sliced tomatoes. How easy is that?

3Aida Mollenkamp’s Keys to the Kitchen is “the essential reference for becoming a more accomplished, adventurous cook.” While this is indeed a fantastic cooking reference (are you paying attention, Santa?) what it’s bringing to our party is the salad. Butter lettuce salad with tahini-honey dressing (page 200) is a great basic salad to get your palette revved up. I’m not sure why I haven’t made my own dressings before—it’s super easy. Step 1: put stuff in food processor. Step 2: blend. Step 3: let’s eat! Or if you’d like to be more adventurous, try the raw kale salad with heirloom tomatoes and roasted cashews (pages 202-203). Aida swears that making this salad ahead and letting it sit helps wilt and soften the kale. It makes for a fabulous presentation on a serving platter. And your health-fad cousin will love that you used kale, that trendy ingredient.

4Come Home to Supper by Christy Jordan has the dough—meaning there are some terrific bread and roll recipes in here. Cheesy garlic biscuits (page 219) are super-simple to make. And they happen to be my favorite type of biscuit: drop. That means you just mix the ingredients and drop them onto a baking sheet. Ten minutes later you have biscuit nirvana. Need an even quicker recipe? Ten-minute rolls (page 224) utilizes muffin tins and has a secret ingredient: mayonnaise: “The mayonnaise gives them a subtle flavor as a sour cream would, acts as shortening, and produces a tender crumb.” Sometimes the shortcut recipes turn out to be the most rewarding, both in time saved and flavor savored.

5Choosing Sides by Tara Mataraza Desmond contains nothing but recipes for side dishes. I implore you to look beyond the mashed potatoes (pages 201-204) and focus instead on switching up the holiday menu a bit. There’s a lot to cover, so I’ll just be listing the recipe names and pages. Please try not to drool as you read them. Charred asparagus with shaved parmesan (page 84), chimichurri green beans (page 85), crisply roasted garlic potatoes (page 90), sugar snap peas with grana padano crust (page 95), ginger honey carrots (page 101), golden cauliflower with herbed breadcrumbs (page 133), red quinoa with cherries and smoked almonds (page 142), legacy cornbread dressing (page 199), and sugar-glazed sweet potatoes (page 205). Now wipe your chin. Drool is very unbecoming in a host or hostess.

6Christmas Slow Cooking by Dominique DeVito is like the holy grail of holiday cooking. It really does cover every course of the meal and then some, but I like it best for the hassle-free main courses. I don’t know why I’d never considered using my slow-cooker for a holiday roast. Short ribs of beef with rosemary and fennel (page 113) become so tender after ten hours in the slow cooker. Prime rib (page 117) has exactly four ingredients: rib roast, olive oil, salt and pepper but it looks incredible. Turkey, bacon, cranberry bliss (page 125) blends some of my favorite ingredients: just use one turkey breast, bacon, apples, cranberries and spices. Holiday ham (page 131) requires a spiral-cut precooked ham and not a lot of effort. Remember, all of these recipes are made in the slow cooker. Your stress level will automatically lower when making one of these easy recipes.

Layout 1One Bowl Baking by Yvonne Ruperti takes the guesswork out of baking. I’m an okay cook but I’m not a great baker. That’s probably mostly due to the fact that I am impatient and imprecise in the kitchen. But this book makes me wonder why I freak out over baking so much. Pumpkin cheesecake with gingersnap crust (page 186) uses crushed gingersnap cookies in the crust and a can of pumpkin puree in the filling. With those serious flavors taken care of, the rest just seems like child’s play. Deep dish plum pie tart (page 198) is a decadent—and simple—alternative to either making a pie from scratch or buying one of the pre-made frozen variety.

You have just read an incredibly simple road map to Party Successville. Population: you. If you make some things a day ahead (snacks, salad) and use the slow cooker to do your main dish’s heavy lifting, you’ll be free to whip up multiple appetizers and side dishes your whole family will love.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will share the little details that transform a good holiday party into a great one.

Carol

Holiday Meal Helper, Part 1: Cooking with Confidence

Uh oh. You really did it this time. You have achieved the goal you’ve dreamed of since childhood. You’ve secured the designation of host or hostess for your family’s holiday gathering. Why the long face? You don’t know how to cook, do you? Well never fear—I’ve got your back! The library has tons of great resources to help you pull off the party of the decade. And it all starts with learning the ropes. Get some practice with basic cooking techniques now and you won’t sweat it on opening night.

SeinfeldThe Can’t Cook Book by Jessica Seinfeld is a great place to start choosing some simple recipes that will become your kitchen staples. Seinfeld knows that the number one thing holding most ‘Can’t Cooks’ back is fear of failure—either real or imagined. She takes the guesswork out of buying the right equipment and using it correctly. She also has a fantastic how-to section that literally illustrates important skills step-by-step, from chopping herbs to pitting an avocado and even the best ways to wash different ingredients. The recipes are amazingly simple and have a “don’t panic” tip right off the bat that addresses a part of each recipe that might make a ‘Can’t Cook’ hesitate. There’s also a photo for each recipe. If you’re like me this is one of the most important pieces of a recipe–it illustrates exactly what your finished product should look like. This is usually where I notice that I forgot the carrots because there is orange in the photo. You get the idea. Now get this book!

200 skills200 Skills Every Cook Must Have by Clara Paul and Eric Treuillé is not a cookbook. Let me get that out of the way right now. It is, however, exactly what the title proclaims. There are two hundred skills that the authors illustrate step-by-step. While there are a few recipes, it’s mostly what I would call a great companion book to any cookbook you may be using. I find it an especially handy reference when using an old family recipe that may not be very descriptive in its instructions. Right now I’m working on skill 174: soaking and cooking dried beans. I’m on a mission this winter to discover the best chili recipe and I have a feeling that recipe won’t start with canned beans.

everyoneEveryone’s Time to Cook by Robert L. Blakeslee promises to be “the best starter cookbook you’ll ever need.” It also aims to teach you “how to start a love affair with cooking.” From the ideal kitchen layout to choosing the best bean roast and grind for the perfect coffee, this book is a must-read for anyone hoping to create delicious meals that aren’t too complicated to make. Cooking with dried beans is covered in detail starting on page 214 with recipes following. Did you know you could make refried beans at home without a can? It sounds like a no-brainer but it’s not something I’d ever considered before. After seeing the mouth-watering image of the finished product of “OMG! Refried Beans” I am raring to go!

ATKThe America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook is going on my list for Santa. I’ve always sworn by the ATK to provide well-researched recipes and this book is no different. Like the other books I’ve already mentioned, this one goes in-depth with the techniques required to make each recipe. Also included, in true ATK style, are the reasons why one particular ingredient should be used over another. ATK tests consistency of flavor and texture, so you know you’re getting a crowd-pleasing recipe from them. As an example of how far this book goes, let’s look at the BBQ section. It shows you how to set up both charcoal and gas grills, using wood in a grill for added smoke flavor—and then follows that up with incredible recipes. ATK is not afraid to warn you in advance as to what may go wrong with each recipe. So, like Jessica Seinfeld, ATK is setting you up for success.

BurrellOwn Your Kitchen by Food Network star Anne Burrell was written with the beginner in mind, with “recipes to inspire and empower.” Let me share with you Anne’s ten ways to own your kitchen:

Read a recipe all the way through before you start cooking
Do your mise en place (prep work)
Taste and season as you go
Embrace salt
Salt and pepper are not married, they’re only dating (they don’t always have to be used together)
Fresh herbs rock, dried herbs don’t
Spices are sexy!
Toast your nuts
The right equipment makes cooking fun
Keep your pantry stocked

I have a very difficult time with the first few items, as I am always well-intentioned but not necessarily well-prepared. This can lead to a total meltdown on my part before the oven is even preheated. The recipes in this book aren’t exactly basic, but once you’ve gained some confidence mastering the skills above, you can attempt more. This is the cookbook meant to bridge that gap between beginner and intermediate chef. Wouldn’t you like to try your hand at homemade ricotta cheese? I would! Fried rice made right in your own kitchen? Sign me up! How do I know Anne will steer me in the right direction? She doesn’t use a lot of fancy cooking terms (aside from mise en place) but instead uses wordage more apropos of girl talk. My favorite term? Crud: the delicious brown bits on the bottom of the pan that help develop deep, rich, meaty flavors. Oh, yum!

So there you have it—my five best no-fail cookbooks to bring out the inner Julia Child in you. Julia always reminded me of my maternal grandmother, Helen: she made mistakes but made cooking fun. If I can run my kitchen like Julia or Helen I think I will be doing quite nicely indeed.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll break down the perfect holiday meal that even you can’t mess up.

Carol