Phil's Cookbook Reads of 2021

phatch

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Speaking of desperate food, my mom would nostalgically eat bread in milk with a side of spring onions and radishes dipped in salt. This was something she ate growing up in the depression. I always found it inedible as a kid but i didn't grow up the same way.
 

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The Food of Singapore: Simple Street Food Recipes from the Lion City by David Wong & others.

For some reason, the early part of this book just didn't click with me. The last third held my attention pretty well.

First, the recipe intros are quite short. My preference is for more understanding of the context and history of a dish, but not a family history or travelogue by the author. So for my preferences, this is not as much as I want. But there's nothing wrong with the amount offered.

I liked that they point out that Singapore imports most of its food and water. I'm struck by the contrast of a city state without the available land to have it's own food heritage from the local soil. Though seafood is much more locally harvested. The import nature struck me with the Oxtail soup recipe. I don't see a lot of beef recipes from Singapore and to have a street food focused on the tail when the rest of the animal is not so often seen just shows how the import situation can work out.

The ingredients lists of the recipes here ran a bit longer than many others I've read this year. Perhaps because of my Chinese food fascination I found that reassuring. I was excited to have a Chile Crab and Black Pepper Crab/Crayfish recipe finally on offer. Those have been missing from my reading. I'll have to compare the Chile Crab here to the Chile Shrimp in that earlier book and see how they compare. There's a sort of hacked soy sauce chicken cooked in a bowl lined with par-cooked potato slices that caught my eye as well. I've certainly had Tandoori Shrimp at Indian restaurants. I've not seen fish cooked tandoori style that I recall, but that makes an interesting appearance. There's also a tea smoked fish which I usually think of duck or chicken for that preparation.

And then there's a new years dish that isn't street food at all, a New Year Raw Fish Salad. This looks pretty good and while there's some knife work in the preparation, not to difficult. They don't give sashimi instructions for freezing fish properly yourself or buying from a vendor that has already done this so keep that in mind. This is mostly eaten against seasonings like plum sauce, sesame oil, and fruit vegetable shreds.

I've mentioned in another post their use of the term sweet black sauce for kecap manis. As is common, various curry powder variants are considered commonly available. So meat curry powder and fish curry powder are things you'll have to figure out on your own. I'll give you a starting point which is all I've got for myself as well.


You'll also have to be on the lookout for some scarcer ingredients. Barbecued Stingray is probably not going to be something I can cook here in landlocked Utah very easily.

There's an interesting coconut mango custard in the dessert section. I'm a little put off by the amount of starches used, but I can't say If I think it will work out or not, It just strikes me strangely. Let me know what you think from the recipe copied below.

Tropical Fruits in Steamed Coconut Custard

These steamed cakes made with jackfruit (or other tropical fruits) make a delicious snack or dessert.


1 cup (150 g) rice flour

1/2 cup (60 g) tapioca starch

3 cups (750 ml) thin coconut milk or 1 cup (250 ml) coconut cream mixed with 2 cups (500 ml) water

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 pandanus leaves, tied in a knot, or 1/4 teaspoon pandanus essence

11/2 cups (200 g) diced jackfruit or mango or sliced banana

16 pieces banana leaf, each about 20-cm (8-in) square

1/2 cup (125 ml) coconut cream

1/2 cup (125 ml) Palm Sugar Syrup (page 73)


1 Prepare the Palm Sugar Syrup by following the instructions on page 73
Note: To prepare Palm Sugar Syrup, bring 1/2 cup (100 g) shaved palm sugar and 1/2 cup (125 ml) water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add a pandanus leaf or a drop of pandanus essence to the water, if desired. Then reduce the heat and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes until the liquid thickens and becomes syrupy. Strain, discard the pandanus leaf (if using).

2 Combine the rice flour, tapioca starch, coconut milk, salt and pandanus leaves or essence in a saucepan, and cook over very low heat, stirring constantly, until the creamy mixture becomes very thick, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and discard the pandanus leaves (if using). Allow the mixture to cool, then add the fruit and mix well.

3 Place one piece of banana leaf on top of another and spoon 2 tablespoons of the cooked mixture onto the centre, then spoon 1/2tablespoon each of the coconut cream and Palm Sugar Syrup over the mixture. Fold two opposite sides of the banana leaves over the filling so they overlap each other, then seal the two ends with toothpicks.

4 Alternatively, roll the banana leaf into a cone and spoon 2 tablespoons of the cooked mixture into it (see photo). Serve the coconut cream and Palm Sugar Syrup in small bowls on the side.

5 Steam the bundles for 25 minutes in a bamboo steamer or on a steaming tray inside a covered wok. Remove from the steamer and allow to cool to room temperature or chill before serving.


Serves 4-6 Preparation time: 15 mins Cooking time: 35 mins
 
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I'll have a look at my notes for banana-coconut desert, steamed in banana leaf (from a cooking course in Thailand), as it sounds somewhat similar. As far as I remember, they were very filling. This may also had something to do with the 7 other dishes that we cooked and ate ;)

I had a look at the Malaysian meat curry powder and it seems very high in cloves....
 

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Rodney Scott's World of BBQ by Rodney Scott.

This has been getting a lot of hype. James Beard Award for the restaurant in the first year and so on.

Very straight forward and even simple in the recipes for South Carolina whole hog barbecue and related items The specific technique, that's harder. He cooks over direct but low heat for his barbecue.

He gives instructions for building a suitable cinderblock pit and burn barrel. You're cooking a few feet above the coal bed and that helps moderate the heat. The burn barrel is the other half of the system. This is the hardwood coals generator for building and maintaining the coal bed. He burns fairly fresh downed hardwood of the usual smoking sort: oak, pecan, hickory. And every 15 minutes or so you add a shovel full of coals to the pit where its needed. Cooking times are pretty traditional as the heat is about the same, just direct instead of indirect. You have to have the heat just right which helps control the grease fire flare-ups. He advocates dousing flare ups with vinegar.

But dripping grease and juice flashing into fire and smoke is the key to the resulting flavor. He's cycling the meat juice back in as smoke by-product for taste. He mops about a gallon of vinegar and pepper based sauce on while cooking a whole hog. So there some added juice and flavor for the drippings. And he's an advocate for high grade hog breeds too.

The barbecue recipes are very Carolinas. A local Carolina's style BBQ joint says this about their food. https://www.crcbbqut.com/home


We make no apologies...​

Our food is Southern. This means that no dietitian, nutritionist, or novice health aficionado for that matter, would recommend anything we serve. Well, maybe our kid's meals. They are moderately healthy. Almost everything we serve is made with copious amounts of butter, salt, sugar, milk, fat... and tastes great, as a result. Upon reading this warning/disclaimer you will be prepared to make an informed decision. We refuse to calculate, let alone publish the amount of cholesterol, calories, etc., in the food we serve, as it would undoubtedly be incriminating.
For those of you still confused,
"Bless Your Heart"

Scott's is in that vein too. Maybe less sugar. My taste in US barbecue is eclectic. My favorite sauce is usually a Carolina's mustard sauce, a Memphis dry rub rib, a no sugar coleslaw, low sugar no flour cornbread. That belongs to no one place and certainly not to Scott's. He's all about the vinegar sauce and sugar. And I do like that too, it's just not my favorite.

I'd happily eat his Q. But it's not what I'm persuing in my barbecue.

I opened this up just to look and finished it all last night. It definitely held my interest. Lots of biographical content and pictures, a bit short on recipes. Great for Carolina's centric Barbecue lovers. Less so for others.
 

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Chinese Cookery by Ken Hom.

This is a bit of an update of parts of some of his other books dating back into the 80s and forward until 2001 when it was first published. I think it shows some age. He often speaks of adapting recipes, or giving his version of a dish. It seems that hinges on his view of ingredient availability and I can certainly respect that. However, from my perspective 20 years on with pretty good product availability, this is showing some age. About the most rare ingredients called for are chili bean paste and yellow bean paste.

Additionally he shies away from what I consider traditional naming practices such as calling Ma Po tofu" braised pork with beancurd". And he may not give any indication of a traditional name at all though he does with the Ma Po recipe.

So a technical digression. Most of the books in my to-read "stack" are electronic, epub format by preference. Most ebooks use some form of the epub, format sometimes with some proprietary tweaks for DRM and reader software compatibility. The core conceit of an ebook, beyond reading it on a screen, is that it is reflowable. This means that the text paginates itself based on your preferred settings for font, size, margins and the like. Unlike a PDF which is focused on a fixed page centric layout and display default. For text, reflowing is a good thing. For an art book, probably less so.

Chinese Cookery has an excellent epub conversion. The linking to recommended menu choices is consistent and functional. Recipes are laid out to focus on the current recipe, and load a new "page" for the next recipe. For older books, you are often lucky to get a reasonable text conversion. I have one from Eileen Yin Lo Fei on Chinese Chicken that messed up most every fraction in the conversion as they did no re-editing or correction.

There is a mix of photos and drawn technique illustrations. I tend to prefer cookbooks with fewer photos than more. Cook's Illustrated books are close to my ideal with key drawn technique info and light photo count if any. I think Ken Hom hit a pretty functional balance. The photos help you identify ingredients, learn knife skills or give you an idea of the ideal result. Rodney Scott's book above went for lots of photos, and many of people which gives you some idea of the cooking or people focus of that book.

I also commented above on Hom's like for cooked lettuce. Besides cropping up in soup, there is a blanched iceberg with oyster sauce. My Japanese friend grew up calling this sort of thing "Dead Lettuce" so I suppose it's more prevalent than I would have guessed from just books. When I've cooked lettuce, Romaine is the only type I thought took to that technique, though there are a few types I haven't tried it with. Iceberg just fails for my taste. I've seen Pepin use lettuce greens in similar ways a time or two as well.

I liked a number of his fish dishes, I've been cooking a bunch of tilapia the last two weeks, so the recipes were timely and good. Most of them are based in par-fry technique and finished in the sauce. A few are fried to completion, and of course there are steamed recipes too.

I like his calling out fresh orange use for some of the orange flavored dishes rather than relying on dried tangerines. It's a reasonable and easy substitute here in the west.

It's certainly approachable versions of Chinese cooking, and "authentic" to immigrant experience in many places and times of the Chinese diaspora. I think it's a good choice for a person just starting to cook Chinese and will yield pleasant dining. There are Hom books I like better such as Ken Hom's Top 100 Stir Fry Recipes.

There is a similar sounding book of his, Simple Chinese Cookery, that is a version of Foolproof Chinese Cookery that was produced to go with a BBC cooking series. Those books are more step-by-step photos and directions if you want something similar but with more detailed instruction.
 

phatch

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100 Techniques: Master a Lifetime of Cooking Skill from Basic to Bucket List by America's Test Kitchen.

For being a technique book, it's sadly short on theory and still mostly about specific recipes.

Right off the start, in their first section on salting food, they give no guidance. If you're going to talk about the technique of salting, talk about. No discussion of salt types and uses. No discussion of how much salt. I mean if you give me a 2 inch steak and a chicken breast, I'm going to salt them differently from each other. So some discussion of how much salt per volume of meat cooked or even surface area should be present in a discussion of salting technique.

What you do get is a suggestion to lift the skin of chicken to season beneath it because the salt doesn't penetrate the skin. This is true and of use.

They also espouse using a salted liquid to season carrots before grilling or for seasoning shell on shrimp. But they offer no direction at all about concentration of salt in liquid. They do give an example for the shrimp where they add salt to Shao Hsing wine. However, most Shao Hsing wine a US cook will encounter is already salted somewhat. Some discussion of proper concentration would seem in order. And it all strikes me as pointless as the dish they use is Salt and Pepper Shrimp where the fried coating is salty and you eat the shrimp shell and all.

Further, they talk about salt penetrating the cell walls of the vegetables. At least they didn't say by osmosis which salt does not do, but they do just a few pages later. They also say osmosis is from high concentration to low--that's diffusion. Osmosis is special because it is from low concentration to high.

And as long as we're talking salt seasoning, why is brining off on it's own late in the book? Why is pickling in another section? Or salt wilting vegetables? I think they were short on identifying 100 techniques. If they had focused more on the theory of applying techniques, this would be a much better book.

It's not all bad or wrong.

They try to simplify dark roux with a hands off oven baked method. Yes, that's simpler, but not any time savings. And it's not particularly hard to make a dark roux in 5 or so minutes. You just have to pay close attention.

Similarly, they bake the rice for idiot proofing. But saucepan stovetop rice requires only a timer and making a few heat setting changes. Not worth the extra time and hassle IMHO for the oven. And why does tadiq get its' own section as a technique?

The section on a two level grill fire is good. Oven braising is useful and hands off.

The aquafaba section was interesting but they mostly focused on things I really don't do. Cupcakes, frosting and alcohol.

The section I like most was actually on cakes and the reverse creaming method for a flatter even rise. Here at a mile high, cakes really like to dome.

My judgement is that this book was a way to recycle content they had already written and sold in other books and wrap it up under a new title. If you have other content of America's Test Kitchen, this book is a pass. They failed to really go into technique level detail and explain how to apply the technique beyond the demonstration recipes.
 

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Next book in my non-fiction stack is not cooking related, Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman. So expect a slight delay before the return to cooking.

On the fiction side, I got bogged down in Master of Poisons--too heavy handed, but that's done now too.
 

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That one took a while. But there was some time consuming car travel in there too. Back to cookbooks. I'm starting into Nina Simonds Simple Asian Meals. I discovered her on a list of significant Chinese cookbooks some years back that included a lot of out-of-print cookbooks. The book on that list was Classic Chinese Cuisine and it is a great Chinese cookbook. Not too hard to find used, especially if you can tolerate some wear.

In her more modern work, she tends to simplify and fuse cuisines more for achieving weeknight meals in the west. And I think she does it better than most others. I've criticized Bee Yin Low's work for simplifying too far and also Christopher Kimball's Milk Street series he's currently making. I think the difference is that Simonds is not trying to recreate particular dishes and experiences, but riffing on particular flavor combinations and techniques.

In that vein I also like her China Express cookbook. I was a bit disappointed in her Asian Noodles. I find many of the Asian noodle meals are too noodle centric and lack the vegetable matter to really satisfy my tastes and preferences.

That is today's update.
 

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So what about Simple Asian Meals?

I like her recognition and endorsement of shortcuts. Pre-fab slaw bags, rotisserie chicken, using leftovers, cooking extra amounts of some things like rice and portioning and freezing for later fast use. I have the luxury of time for the most part so it doesn't benefit my particular form of cooking much. But my younger kids transitioning to their first adult independence will find these ideas more useful. I do indulge in rotisserie chickens though.

I was a little concerned with two soup recipes that used fish sauce in amounts disproportionate to my experience. The Vietnamese Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup calls for 5 1/2 tablespoons of fish sauce to 6 cups of water. This is the only sodium source so it could work, but it seems pretty high. The Soothing Saigon-Style Chicken Noodle Soup (chicken pho) also hits 5 1/2 tablespoons of fish sauce to to 7 cups of liquid, 4 of which are "low" sodium carton chicken stock. I was also put off by the rice wine in this version, it just strikes me wrongly for a chicken pho. She adds no other sweetener so it might provide some of the sweet balance.

I like the fairly heavy vegetable load of most of the dishes. For a quality fast meal, it still needs to tick off the nutrition and flavor checkboxes and vegetables are good for that. Her lettuce cup/wrap is pretty simple. I'd probably go with eggs instead of the tofu just for simplicity. It's also a common ingredient in many versions so I'm kind of suprised she didn't mention the variation.

Probably my favorite section is the Stews and Casseroles. These are pretty straight forward and simple dishes.

I was disappointed at how often balsamic vinegar came up. And not as a substitute for black vinegar. For that substitution she recommends Worcestershire sauce. No, these are sort of Italian ideas, sometimes with a fusion twist and sometimes not. In the Seared Ginger Balsamic Salmon dish, uses the balsamic on the fish. The recipe also includes a hot and sour slaw using black vinegar. I actually like balsamic and black vinegar together as the acid for a vinaigrette. And that could play out in this dish. But it just doesn't seem to be well thought through here.

Balsamic-Soy Swordfish seems like black vinegar would work maybe better to my taste.

Red wine and balsamic braised short rib gets some soy sauce instead of salt but otherwise is pretty Meditteranean. And out of place really.

There's also balsamic sweet potato fries.

Many recipes get health notes informed mostly from Chinese traditional medicine. I didn't know that asparagus contains a diuretic aspargine and thus is considered good for the kidneys. I don't put much faith in such forms of medicine, but if you do, you might like these notes.

I don't consider this a great cookbook. If you enjoy the particular niche of quick meals with an Asian slant, it's useful. I found that I already do a lot of similar things. Still, Pepin's two Fast Food My Way books were more impactful in teaching me quicker cooking techniques and ideas. If that's your focus, do start with Pepin over Simonds. Save Simonds for later.
 

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And a separate idea for Butzy. Lao Gan Ma is a hot oil/chili crisp condiment brand ,that has recently taken off in the US. The main chili crisp is a bit bitter and one-dimensional. Not bad to spike up a dish though. However, there is a variation packed with fermented black beans that I really like. And the fine folks at Chinese Cooking Demystified have a guide for making your own. As Butzy is a fan of chilis, this seems something you might like.


a written version can be found at reddit. Which for some reason the link inserts the whole post for me this time. Kind of odd, but OK then.
 
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Northern Chinese Favorites by Daniel Reed. This is part of series of Pan-Asian cuisine books by Periplus/Tuttle publishing, often with a Mini prefix. I only have a handful of these. I think there are 44 in total, according to Amazon.

A short cookbook covering a less well known region of Chinese Cuisine.

Highlights for me included some cold dishes labeled in western parlance as salad. The western idea of a salad of fresh greens really isn't part of Chinese cuisine, most likely because historical hygiene didn't serve that practice. But you'll find peeled vegetables like cucumber can sidestep that and crop up as a sort of salad. Additionally, cold dishes of this type bring another item to the table that to add diversity without being stirfried -- something that a westerner may mistakenly perceive from eating in a Chinese-American restaurant.

Other ideas for this from the book are a sweetened walnut appetizer, a tofu and preserved egg presentation or, very new to me, cilantro/coriander itself as the salad.

Being a book of northern cuisine, wheat flour plays a more prominent role. Think dumplings, pancakes, buns and noodles. A pan-fried bun is offered, something I've seen eaten in videos about the cuisine but don't recall seeing a recipe. I may be mis-remembering on that, but it struck me as a first. The cooking technique is sort of like for a pot-sticker with a low fry, then pan steamed. But with a thicker wrapper, the fry is a low heat affair, as is the steaming.

Soups, he offers up a reasonable version of Hot and Sour but with a little tomato and frozen peas and a small shot of ground sichuan pepper. So a bit different than you might normally see. A more interesting soup to me was whole chicken seasoned with a number of whole garlic cloves. Very simple, but intriguing.

Touching on noodles, I want to discuss his version of Zhajiangmian, fried bean sauce noodles. Wikipedia notes many regional variations of this dish, even as it jumped to Japan and Korea. Most will use a yellow bean or ground bean sauce along with sweet bean sauce tianmianjiang https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tianmian_sauce (which has no beans but it now increasingly called sweet flour sauce). The version here is with black bean sauce which is more of a Korean take on the dish to my understanding. And no tianmianjiang. This dish is sometimes translated as black bean sauce noodles, but I think that's more descriptive of the appearance of the dark sauce rather than the beans used.

In the meats section, the north is known for using more beef and lamb than the other regions. And those do appear here. I had hoped for cumin grilled lamb skewer, but was denied that recipe. That's more of a street food I suppose so its exclusion is reasonable.

I enjoyed a fresh take on a less popular (in the west) part of Chinese Cuisine. There are a number of recipes that made it to my to-try list. Recommended.
 
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phatch

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Chopsticks, Cleaver, and Wok by Jennie Low

This is a real physical book, not an ebook. First published in 1987 and again in 1997, the book is showing some age in its contents but is still relevant, even insightful in ways. I discovered it on a list of recommended Chinese cookbooks a few years ago. I've picked up most of the other books on that list over the years, but had skipped this one for some reason. That oversight has now been remedied.

Other books of note on that list
  • The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo quite good, but with some overstatement.
  • Classic Chinese Cooking by Mai Leung--my copy is New Classic Chinese Cooking, an updated version, but still excellent. This book changed my use of dark soy sauce dramatically.
  • The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking by Barbara Tropp- a classic of the genre
  • Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Coookbook by Ellen Shrecker--I like this one but it bothers me on some social guilt level. Shrecker is the employer of Chiang for household duties.
  • Chinese Gastronomy by Hsiang-Ju Lin I like this one particularly for some of its theory more than the recipes.
As to the book at hand, it has some outdated Pinyin that will likely be more confusing than helpful to the modern reader. This is also true of many of the other books in the above list.

She gives a pretty good list of ingredients and descriptions. Her cutting instructions and diagrams are good. There are no photos. At the beginning she summarizes the techniques and tools so spend some time there for sure as the instructions at the recipe level assume you read that section. I actually like seeing that collected as it's a good way to see the ideas as a whole rather than trying to piece them together from descriptions among the recipes. But at the recipe level is useful too when you refer back to a book later looking at a specific recipe.

One of the stand-out features of the cooking here is her callouts for sugar and salt in the recipes. Most traditional kitchens in China have a condiment jar set. This is most often sold as a three jar set, sometimes two, sometimes four. The local asian grocer carries two and three jar sets in plastic inexpensively. They'll be filled with sugar and salt. For three jars, add corn starch. For four, add MSG. In the US, i've not seen a box kit as in the following video. Chinese Cooking Demystified talks about this a bit starting at about the 20 second mark in the video


Salt, sugar and corn starch crop up in most every recipe in a "Seasoning" section along side the more usual suspects. And while I see it now and then in other cookbooks, it's really only come together for me in the last couple of years as a quintessential concept in much of Chinese cooking. Low describes the purpose of cornstarch as helping seasoning adhere to the food. I suspect its more a textural effect, or at least that's the explanation I see most often. Specifically, the corn starch buffers the food from the direct heat so it cooks more gently. And when coupled with egg as in velveting, it interferes with the binding and constriction of the protein creating a silky slippery texture.


Anyway, it's worth looking at the ratios of primary ingredient of a dish--usually the protein--and the amounts of salt, sugar and cornstarch. Then consider those against the soy and oyster sauce and such to see how the dish is seasoned as a whole. I've never seen a theory of flavor described that covers how the Chinese use these ingredients together but you'll start to develop your own feel for it looking at it this way I think. And this book gives you a lot of material to analyze.

As to recipes, I like the detailed variations she offers for congee--though I think she uses too much water. Her Egg Flower Soup includes flank steak chopped finely which I thought strange. And I've never seen Chicken Whisky Soup anywhere else. And as I often talk about the Hot and Sour Soup entries, this one is very 1980s using white vinegar and omitting dried lily buds. Bonus points for focusing on pepper rather than chiles

She gives 5 or so clay-pot dishes which is more than you'll usually see. Her Dan Dan noodles were of the time and lack a lot of the heat and sesame paste I would expect to see today.

The reasons I like this cookbook are more for the theory to be gleaned than most of the actual cooking. Recipe wise, I think her congee variations and clay-pots are the ones I'll refer to for my actual cooking. For it's time, it was ahead of its time. But it's dated by today's standards overall I think. Certainly worth the priced used and cheaply shipped.
 
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phatch

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Lots of my reading time this month has been hijacked by prep and some fitness training for a return to the Buckskin Gulch and some other backcountry travel later this year. And a general increase of covid-delayed things that are now ready to process.

Cookbooks will return with what looks to be a pretty useless tome by Doreen Yen Hung Fen, The Joy of Chinese Cooking from 1992.
 
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Bress 'n' Nyam gets added to my wishlist. Always good to see the Gullah/Geechee ways preserved before they're gone.​

 

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Adding Makan to the list. This releases on July 13 in the US. I can see it jumping to the top of the reading list.

Looks like "Uncle Roger"on YouTube has an advance copy lurking in his YouTube background.
 

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