DID YOU MAYBE get, or give, a cookbook or two for a holiday gift? Well, hopefully you can make room on the shelf for another couple of good ones. Our expert guide who’s been browsing and cooking from the latest crop is Alexandra Stafford, aka Ali, who has some goodies to share—perfect fodder for another January of sticking close to home as I know a lot of us are again with cooking as one of our mainstays of comfort and creativity.
Ali Stafford, author of the essential cookbook “Bread Toast Crumbs” and creator of the website alexandracooks.com, is here to highlight some of the recent cookbook titles that she’s finding irresistible. They range from topics like cooking more vegetable-centric meals, to creative use of grains, and yes, even more ideas for delicious cookies.
Plus: Giveaways! I’m giving away two of the cookbooks we discussed, and Ali is giving away a membership in the semester of my Virtual Garden Club that begins January 13, 2022. Enter to win by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page…and then click over to her lace and do the same to double your chances.
Read along as you listen to the January 10, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Margaret: Ali, are you ready to curate some of the latest ones for us and be our guide to what looks good?
Ali: I am. Hi.
Margaret: Have you been cooking again over there, girl? [Laughter.]
Ali: I have. I actually feel like I’ve been cooking more since the holidays or cooking more new things since the holidays. I feel like around the holidays, I always get stuck in just the holiday staples, everything leading up to the sort of big meals, and it feels really nice to kind of be back to just regular cooking again.
Margaret: Yeah. And before we get started, I should say you have almost 200,000 Instagram followers at the moment. I was just like, wow, what’s been going on over there? You with those great videos you post and so forth, those how-to videos. Before the holidays, you had a biscuit one that was so good. And you just do these like demystifying… where you just take a technique… or pie crust, I think you had. Oh, that was a great one. And where you just clarify it in these little short videos. They’re so good. So we’ll give people the link to that, but yeah, no wonder if so many people are following you.
Ali: Oh, thank you.
Margaret: Now, does that mean you’re an influencer, and I have to salute you or something like that? [Laughter.]
Ali: No, no. I’m allergic to that word.
Margaret: O.K., good. So you’re @alexandracooks on Instagram, and we’re going to have some giveaways. I’m going to give away a couple of the books we’re going to talk about, some that have sort of a vegetarian slant, and you’re going to do a giveaway on your blog, too.
Ali: Yeah. I’m going to give away a membership to your Virtual Garden Club, which is so exciting.
Margaret: Oh, you’re crazy. Oh, that’s so sweet though. We’re in the thick of it and it’s fun to have people signing up and so forth. So thank you; that’s great.
But let’s get down to it then. The last pandemic winter, you were teaching virtual cooking classes, and I bought tickets for my extended family. We all had a blast, and I always look for your gift ideas and recommendations around Christmas time, great cookbooks you recommend and tools and stuff.
And so you’ve been browsing and trying recipes from… Where do you want to begin? What are some of your highlights?
Ali: Yeah. Well, I feel like maybe… And I hate to sound cliche, but because it’s January and so many people are kind of trying to reset and eat more healthy, whatever that looks like to them [laughter], I think that two great books that everybody would be happy adding to their libraries are Jenny Rosenstrach’s “The Weekday Vegetarians,” and Heidi Swanson’s “Super Natural Simple” [affiliate links].
Both are vegetarian cookbooks and both are really simple. I think that’s the emphasis is simple. I think people really need simple recipes, especially if they want to stick to a healthy eating plan. It has to feel doable and not overwhelming. And I think what has really struck me about the recipes in both of these books is that they are short ingredient lists, but they’re really flavorful. And a bunch of the recipes and each of the books have become staples for me—and kid friendly as well, which has been really nice.
Margaret: Yeah. And so Jenny, dinneralovestory dot com is her website and a matching book that was kind of a memoir-y cookbook. And she’s done really well, very popular. And actually on your recommendation, as I said, I always look at your Christmas gifts ideas, and I gave this book to my niece and her girlfriend for Christmas, among other things, including that crazy rectangular deep-dish pizza pan—you’re laughing already—that you can make Detroit-style pizza. And I got that recipe from your blog and gave that to them, and they were like, “Oh, Aunty, Aunty, this looks amazing.”
Ali: That’s so cute.
Margaret: And the idea that you not just oil the pan, but put a little butter and oil in the pan and it makes a really crispy crust. Wow.
Ali: So good. Yeah. That Lloyd baking pan [affiliate link], I can’t recommend enough. It’s such a good one to have on hand.
Margaret: Yeah. So they loved it. So anyway, but so that’s who Jenny is—she’s dinneralovestory dot com—and Heidi is probably one of the first food bloggers I ever met. I mean, she’s been at it almost 20 years, 700 recipes on her site, two James Beard awards, “New York Times”-bestselling book, blah, blah, blah. I mean she’s… And the interesting thing is she was in San Francisco forever and ever, and now she’s down by L.A. and she’s a member of a community garden. So she’s in the gardening fold now, which is beautiful.
Ali: Yeah. Oh, that’s so cool.
Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. She’s a hero. I think she’s amazing; 101cookbooks dot com is her website.
Ali: Yeah, no, same for me. She was one of the first blogs I ever followed. And yeah. What I think is interesting also about both of these books is they come from two different perspectives. Heidi’s a longtime vegetarian. She’s been at it for a really long time.
And Jenny is a longtime omnivore. She writes that she was basically cooking meat for her family five times a week. And it was really just one day kind of struck her. She was like, “We have to stop eating so much meat for our health and for the planet.” So it’s almost like Heidi’s is sort of a streamline of her process to become sort of more simple vegetarian, and Jenny’s is the sort of overhaul, but also very simple.
Jenny, what I’ve always appreciated about her recipes are they’re very no-nonsense. And so she’s all about using canned chickpeas or using store-bought pizza dough, whatever it is to make it simple and doable.
And I think also what both of these books do, they sort of give you not like a game plan, but they just give you strategies. You don’t have to necessarily… If you love chicken Caesar salad, you don’t have to say goodbye to chicken Caesar salad. You can replace the chicken—this is a recipe in Jenny’s book—with crispy chickpeas, which arguably are tastier than chicken [laughter]. So it doesn’t even really become a sacrifice; it’s just it’s familiar, but without the meat.
And what Heidi’s book has helped me do is stock my freezer. One of the tips she gives is to use the freezer, which I know you are someone who’s very good about doing that. And-
Margaret: Yes, I’m a freezer queen, definitely, totally. Yeah.
Ali: Yeah. And not just by freezing, I know you make lentils ahead of time and freeze them, but I have been stashing frozen vegetables, which is something I have not done in the past, but Heidi has this recipe for crispy artichoke, crispy garlic artichoke hearts. I forget exactly how she titles it. And they are so delicious and the recipe, it’s so simple.
You heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a skillet. Dump in this bag of frozen artichoke hearts. Put the lid on. Cook it over sort of medium high heat for six to seven minutes. Uncover it. The artichokes at this point are getting kind of crispy and brown on the bottom. Dump in a bunch of garlic and sea salt, and that’s it. You could squeeze some lemon over the top if you want. And they’re so delicious. It’s like kind of mind-blowing to me how much I love artichokes, but I am unwilling to prep them.
Margaret: So these are frozen artichokes. Is that what you’re saying?
Margaret: Oh, cool. Oh, I didn’t know. Huh.
Ali: Frozen artichoke hearts, yeah. I didn’t even know. And I think not every store carries them, but they’re becoming much more readily available and I’ve had a stash on them on hand ever since. And just knowing that I can get a vegetable side dish on the table in under 10 minutes is so nice.
And then the other recipe that I’ve been making from that book that my kids love, it’s called Everybody’s Favorite Fried Rice [below]. And Heidi says, it’s a recipe she makes for when her friends with kids come over, but it’s something that everybody loves, and it’s really been true. And it’s so simple. You sauté some carrots, add rice. I’ve been making big batches of brown rice in the Instant Pot, so I have it on hand. And frozen peas, a little soy sauce, a little sesame oil, garlic. It’s just, it’s so fast. And the kids gobble it up. So it’s good.
Margaret: Oh, that’s great. And I’m glad to hear that you’re making rice in your Instant Pot. I’ve been cooking two cups of brown rice, some kind of brown rice. Once a week on usually Sundays, I make two cups—when I say two cups, two cups dry. So four cups or three and a half, four cups of water. And that’s my thing that I do on Sunday. And then I eat that during the week, and I’m just one person. So that’s enough for me for the week to have rice every day. So, yeah. And so important, I think, to get grains into our diet. And even if we have to shortcut like that, if we’re not going to cook it every night, that’s O.K. Better than skipping it.
Ali: Totally. No, exactly. Yeah. I’ve been using my instant pot a lot for short-grain brown rice. Same thing, I have to cup… If I cook one cup, it’s not enough. It goes too fast. So two cups, and then I’ve been using my slow cooker a lot for beans. I’ll dump them in at night, and then cook them overnight. And it’s so… First of all, the kitchen smells amazing when you wake up, and then you have a stash of six cups of beans on hand in the morning to use. So yeah.
And both of these books, what is great about them, I think sometimes vegetarian recipes can rely on lots of carbs and cheese, and these recipes don’t. They’re loaded with vegetables, beans, grains. And so there’s really just really healthy, but super-tasty vegetarian cooking.
Margaret: So from there, we go to…?
Ali: O.K. So I think another great book with super simple recipes is “Big Little Recipes” by Emma Laperruque [affiliate link] from Food52. She has a column that was started in 2018 on Food52, also called Big Little Recipes. And all of her recipes are five ingredients or less, not including salt and pepper.
And I love her approach. She quotes Marcella Hazan in her intro. She says, Marcella Hazan used to tell her students what you leave out is just as important as what you put in. And I think this idea is so often overlooked. So often, I look at a recipe and I feel there are about seven ingredients, too many, and I’ll push forward anyway and make the recipe. And they probably weren’t necessary. More isn’t always better.
And Emma says, minimalist cooking is all about healthy skepticism. Do I really need four different herbs as a garnish? Probably not. If I’m out of vegetable stock, will water work? You bet. So I just love her approach. I think she has such a good… She gives you kind of almost like hacks.
The first recipe I made from the book, which I loved, was it’s this super-simple tuna melt [above], which I guess a tuna melt is sort of simple to begin with. But what she has you do is you take a can of artichoke hearts, drain it, you save the marinade, chop up the artichoke hearts, put them back in the marinade, add tuna. And then you just heap this on top of bread and broil it with cheese. You toast the bread first.
And the first time I made it, I remember we were starved. There was like, we had no time. The recipe came together in about five minutes and we were eating about five minutes later and it was so tasty. And I was just so grateful for her and this recipe and this book that’s filled with other… She has this page of six super-simple salad dressings, each with just two to three ingredients and-
Margaret: Oh, good idea.
Ali: Yeah. She writes it: “If you can make cereal, you can make salad dressing” which I think is so funny. And also just really encouraging. I think people think salad dressing is something that’s intimidating, and it’s not. And when you have a vat of salad dressing on hand, meals can come together so quickly.
Margaret: I love the title “Big Little Recipes.”
Ali: Yeah. No, totally. And she’s really great. Lots of little… Yeah. Back to that artichoke, tuna melt, sorry. The first time I made it, I just put it on in English muffins, and it was delicious, but she recommends brioche. I did that recently and it was so good. The sweet, the little subtle sweetness of the brioche with the artichoke and tuna was delicious. So that’s another great one that people should check out. How are we on time? Should we move on?
Margaret: Oh, we’re fine. No, no. Go for it. Yeah. No, we’re good. We’re good.
Ali: O.K., great. So another one I’ve been loving is “Grains for Every Season” by Joshua McFadden [affiliate link]. I think probably a lot of your listeners, I think, have “Six Seasons.”
Margaret: Yes. His last book was “Six Seasons.” Right, right.
Ali: Yeah. And it’s so good. And I feel like, and I haven’t cooked as… I mean, I’ve cooked so many recipes from “Six Seasons,” and I haven’t quite made the same progress in this one yet, but it feels very familiar.
I love the way he writes recipes, and the recipes all are just filled with lots of different flavors and textures. Well, first of all, the book: So the goal of his book is to help you realize it doesn’t take a lot of effort to incorporate whole grains into your cooking life. And he says he was not trying to write an encyclopedic book on grains. He was trying to write a “useful and inspirational” one. So he’s limited the information to the grains he cooks the most frequently, which I really appreciate. I think that’s pretty practical.
So the book is organized alphabetically by grain from barley to wild rice [laughter]. And it’s just, I mean, there are lots of delicious grain salads. In every section, he has this like a pilaf for every season, a grain bowl for every season, stir-fry for every season, sheet pan for every season. And what I love about it is that there’s six seasons, like his last book. So that’s really fun.
Margaret: Well, and he’s really connected… Like I mentioned that Heidi Swanson was gardening now in her new… has a community garden space in L.A. Joshua McFadden is involved with a farm. He’s sort of revitalizing a historic 50-acre farm in Oregon. He’s a chef, a restaurant chef, and he has a whole group of restaurants that he owns and manages. And so he’s very connected to the land and the way things grow, so the food and farming connection. So he’s creating this agricultural complex at this farm and so forth. So it’s very… You can tell that from the way he cooks, that he understands the ingredients and honors the ingredients and relishes them.
Ali: Yes, yes, no, absolutely. So the two recipes I’ve made so far, one was a farro salad [above]. Well, also just one thing I like about the book, too, is there are basic guides on how to cook the grains, but you don’t… With every recipe, he still tells you how to do it. So you don’t have to go back and say, “Oh, how do I cook farro?” [Laughter.}
It’s like he tells you how to do it. And most of the recipes are… At least the farro and the wheat berries, he has it… You cook it the way you would rice. So you add the farro and the water and the salt together, bring it to a simmer, cover and keep it covered for 30… Depending on what kind, if you’re using pearled or semi-pearled or whatever, you cook it for 30 to 40 minutes. And it cooks… I was kind of astonished how perfectly cooked it was. I’ve just been boiling farro and salted water and then kind of-
Margaret: Oh, and then draining it off. Yeah.
Ali: Yeah. And testing it periodically until done. And farro, I think, is really forgiving. It’s not as unforgiving as… Rice can sometimes feel a little tricky, but farro is pretty easy, but still, it was just, it was so nice. I opened the lid after 35 minutes, the farro was perfectly cooked. All the water had been absorbed.
And then this one, that I loved in particular, it had sun-dried tomatoes, pepperoncini, red onion, lots of parsley, an Italian vinaigrette, salami. You could definitely leave out the salami if you wanted to, but it sort of tasted like a chopped salad, but it was with farro. And then he also said, if you wanted to bulk it up, you could add it with lettuce. So I did that and it was nice, because it made a decent amount, but I could also see if you just left out the lettuce, this is the kind of salad that would keep well in the fridge for days. So for people who like to meal-prep, this is a great make-ahead salad.
Margaret: Well, and the point you were just mentioning there, grains and salad. And we have a friend who has a restaurant near us, David Wurth. And he’s always plating his salads with a sort of grain on the side. And I think that’s something else. If you have that pot of grain, if you’ve made some quinoa, you’ve made some whatever, they do well with a little dressing on them, and with the greens. The texture is different. It adds some oomph to the meal; it makes it into a meal. And I think most of us don’t do that, don’t think about that. And it’s a great idea to do that to…
Ali: Yeah, no, it makes all the difference. Not too long ago, I had nothing to make, and I had leftover Caesar dressing and romaine, and I threw in the dressing and then threw in some tuna. And that was it, and it was so bad. It was so unfulfilling, because there wasn’t any bulky or substantial. And yeah, since that moment I’ve kind of had a stash of rice or chickpeas on hand because just throwing those in makes all the difference.
Ali: Yeah. Yeah. Oh, sorry. Go ahead.
Margaret: No, no, I was just going to say, so what next?
Ali: O.K. Yeah. So I know people, they might be baked out, but I think just two of the baking-
Margaret: Baked out! [Laughter.]
Ali: Yeah. Two of the baking books that I’ve loved are Vallery Lomas’s “Life Is What You Bake It” [affiliate link] and Jesse… And I’m totally going to botch his last name. I don’t know if you say-
Margaret: It’s Szewczyk [sev-check].
Ali: Szewczyk. O.K., great.
Margaret: Yeah. Jesse Szewczyk. Yeah.
Ali: O.K. “Cookies.” They’re just really fun. Just really, I feel like uplifting. Every time I flip through them, I want to make all of the recipes.
So Valerie, if people don’t know, so she won “The Great American Baking Show.” I didn’t watch. And this won’t ruin it for your readers because she says this in the first paragraph of the intro, but the show was canceled before they revealed the winner. So there was a lot of… I don’t want to tell… The introduction is just a great read in general about her whole story growing up in Louisiana and moving to Los Angeles for college. She was an attorney, and then she quit law so that she could pursue baking.
So it’s a great story, and I had no idea that the show was canceled. So that was interesting to read. But she’s very just cheerful and positive, and the recipes are just fun. One of the recipes I made shortly after getting the book was the Blueberry Buckle and it’s so fun. You take a stick of butter. You melt it in a loaf pan, as the oven is preheating. In the meantime you make the batter, which does not include eggs. So it’s super-simple. She calls for self-rising flour, but if you don’t have it, she tells you how to make the regular… to add baking powder and salt to your flour. It’s like very some sugar, vanilla. I forget. What else?
Ali: Blueberries. Yeah. That’s it. So yeah. You pull the melted, the butter, the pan out of the oven, pour the batter in, top it with blueberries [above, before then baking it], and it’s just exactly as it sounds. The batter buckles around the fruit. It really slumps in the middle. It sinks. It’s not supposed to be this perfect cake that’s even on top. And you serve it with vanilla ice cream, and it’s just so good. And I used frozen blueberries and it was delicious.
And I have so many other recipes I bookmarked. She has a pound cake that looks delicious, a red velvet sheet cake. I have so many sweet potatoes from my CSA that I’m still working through. And there’s a sweet potato waffle recipe that I’m so excited to make. So yeah, that’s a fun one.
Margaret: And then “Cookies,” Jesse Szewczyk’s “Cookies.” [Affiliate link.]
Ali: “Cookies.” So the first recipe I made was the Brown Butter Snickerdoodles with Bourbon [below].They have just-
Margaret: Now wait a minute. Did he put the bourbon in? Or you put the bourbon in? Who’s the bourbon?
Ali: [Laughter.] He put the bourbon in, and they have been a smashing success. I can’t tell how many people just absolutely love them. So in his book, all of the recipes are familiar, but a little bit different. So Campari Shortbread, Preserved Lemon Crinkles, Chocolate Tahini Bars. That’s another one I’ve been loving. It’s a no-bake recipe. So you mix tahini with crushed graham crackers, a little vanilla and melted butter. Press that into a pan. Then you make a chocolate ganache and spread that over, and then you top it with sesame seeds. And then you chill it. And then… So I just have this square in the fridge, and I just keep cutting off little squares as I walk by. And it’s like that tahini is so-
Margaret: Tahini is an underrated ingredient. It’s-
Ali: Yeah, especially in baked goods. And it’s nice. I don’t know, I’m really loving it. So there, I have lots of more recipes in that book to make and yeah, it’s just inspiring.
Margaret: One of the reviews of that book of “Cookies, the New Classics: A Baking Book” called him a cookie mastermind. And he’s a top flight food stylist. I think he’s New York-based and he’s a well-known, very in-demand food stylist as well. So yeah. Beautiful book.
Ali: Yeah. If he did the food styling for the book, you can tell. The photos are beautiful. Yeah. And another thing, I know I mentioned this with the chocolate tahini bars, but again, they were no-bake. And the thing I loved about the the Brown Butter Snickerdoodles also, I didn’t have to use a mixer because you brown the butter; the butter’s melted. So it typically becomes this almost like a one-bowl recipe, and yeah, just super-easy, super-delicious.
Margaret: So in the last one minute, I’m just going to tell you, besides that I’m excited about your Detroit-style pizza, which I have my niece, etc., making. But a farmer the other day was telling me… He’s actually a seed farmer, and he was scooping the seeds out to prepare for eventually selling from squash. He has a lot of winter squash, and he said, “And I made biscuits with winter squash in them. And I bake a lot with winter squash.”
Have you done that? Have you used winter squash flesh, roasted winter squash, in baking?
Ali: I have used it in a pie. I have a roasted butternut squash pie that’s basically like a pumpkin pie, but uses the butternut squash.
Margaret: But not in the crust, not in a baked-
Ali: No, not in the crust and not in a baked good and-
Margaret: I’m going to find out more about this and give you the assignment, because I want to know. He says it’s fabulous in biscuits and stuff.
Ali: Oh, I’m sure. No, that sounds… Actually, in “Grains for Every Season,” I believe there’s a recipe, like a millet recipe, that also calls for roasted squash. I could be wrong. And then also, Lukas Volger who you’ve had on a few times or maybe once, but he has a roasted squash quick bread, I think, recipe that he’s done. And ever since, yeah, I keep seeing them pop up and I’ve been me need to try this as well.
Ali: Thank you, Margaret.
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(Photos except book covers from Alexandra Stafford at Alexandracooks dot com.)
enter to win cookbooks–or a ticket to my virtual garden club
I’LL BUY ONE EACH of “The Weekday Vegetarians” and “Super Natural Simple” for two lucky winners. And Ali Stafford will buy a membership in my Virtual Garden Club for one person, for the semester about to start January 13, 2022. Two ways to enter to double your chances: Answer this question in the comments box below, then head over to Ali’s to enter there, too.
Did you get, or give, a cookbook this holiday season? Which one?
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in,” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, January 18, 2022. Over on her website (click to get there) Ali will pick her winner on January 12, the day before the garden club membership begins with the first class. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the January 10, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).