“Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.” – The Carpenters
I’m not going to mince words — the weather is shit right now. It’s grey and cold and the coffee I drank two hours ago has been unable to penetrate its dreary, low energy malaise. I feel like a zombie and I look like one, too. I often joke that I’ve spent so much time in the company of plants that I’ve become one. But the plants are bright, colourful, and standing up straight today — we are not in sync at all.
If you can stand to be outdoors, the overcast haze makes the perfect conditions for photographing the garden. I dragged my sorry ass out there this afternoon to capture some recent changes to the garden and photograph these books. The lemon balm is reaching a nice size now and I was reminded on sighting it that a fistful lazily torn and brewed in a cup of hot water is a good rainy day remedy. I added slices of fresh ginger and ginger honey purchased at the market to mine.
The cup is empty now and while I can’t say that I am feeling any more chipper than before, I am at least cheered by the prospect of more drinks made with fresh (rather than dried) herbs from the garden in the coming months.
It has been ages since I’ve done a book round-up on this site and I’ve got a backlog that I’ve been meaning to write about. Here are three:
- Planting the Dry Shade Garden: The Best Plants for the Toughest Spot in Your Garden by Graham Rice. I don’t have a dry shade garden at home, in fact I have very little shade at all, just an awkward, thin sliver that is cast in the shadow of the house and a wooden fence that the neighbours put up but then seemed to abandon less than a quarter of the way down their property line. However, my community garden plot has become increasingly shaded out by weed trees over the years and the water supply is growing scarce. I’ve been thinking about how I can still put the space to use rather than abandoning it in frustration. This book is a nice, inspiring resource if the tricky combination of low light and dry soil has left you baffled and lost in how to make the lush, woodland garden you hoped to grow.
- Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking by Pamela Sheldon Johns. This is simple, hardy cooking with ingredients that are readily available and on hand. A lot of the dishes are one-pot feasts and soups, which come to think of it would hit the spot on a day like today. Like all good cookbooks, the beautiful, richly textured photos in this one had be aching to get home to my kitchen (or fly to Italy) as soon as I picked it up at the store. Indeed, we have cooked from it a few times now. My favourite is the new-to-me concept of “gnudi,” a gnocchi-like pasta that is sort of like the filling of a ravioli without the hassle of rolling out the dough. Instead, you add the flour to the filling ingredients and drop spoonfuls into boiling water. The cooked dumplings are then served on sauce. I’m never slaving over a meal of homemade ravioli again now that this is in my repertoire.
- Secrets of the Red Lantern: Stories and Vietnamese Recipes from the Heart by Pauline and Luke Nguyen. I was drawn to this massive hardcover book by the photos, but it was the story of a family’s escape from Vietnam and their shared passion for food that tempted me to buy it. I’ll admit that I haven’t tried any of the recipes — I’m not particularly drawn to cook Vietnamese food, but man do I ever love eating it! At some point I will be forced to assemble the ingredients and make a go of it since I am yet to find a restaurant in Toronto that meets the standards of the kind of understated freshness that seems to be at the heart of real Vietnamese cooking (Please offer recommendations if you have them). Traveling there is in the top two of my dream trip wish list, and I kick myself daily that I didn’t have the time or the money to extend last year’s trip to Thailand and make that dream a reality.
Beyond the photos of tantalizing dishes and the overall beauty of this book, it is the honesty of the storytelling that has drawn me back to dip into its pages several times since I picked it up at the bookstore. I was initially floored and secretly thrilled by Pauline Nguyen’s straightforward telling of the difficulties and challenges in her family’s story. Most writers tend to glaze over family “problems”, especially in cookbooks where families are primarily depicted as glowingly warm and inviting, much like the food. Ms. Nguyen manages to strike a balance between firmness, compassion and love that was unexpected and makes this book so much more than a cookbook and worth reading even if, like me, you never cook any of the recipes.
Please note: Book publishers often send me books to review, but I only post about those that genuinely interest me. “Planting the Dry Shade Garden” was one such book. I purchased the other two books myself.