Home Cooked [A Review]

Cooking good food is one of those things we just do not seem to have time for these days. Most folks subsist on a combination of microwaved dinners, takeout, or dine-in. When we do cook, it’s usually a matter of popping open boxes from the pantry or pouring a frozen bag into a pan and coating it with a tear-open packet of sauce. After all, when creating a relatively decent hot meal is this easy, is it really justifiable to pour extra time into a meal just to make it from scratch?

home-cookedIn her new Home Cooked: Essential Recipes For a New Way to Cook (10 Speed Press, April 2016), Anya Fernald offers a middle ground between slow-cooked, high quality foods and fast but flavorless cooking. Her suggestion is simple, yet genius: put in time creating quality base ingredients and preserve them, and then when time is short on a weeknight you’ve got flavor-packed ingredients that are ready for use immediately.

Take, for instance, her sofritto: there’s nothing to it but olive oil, onions, carrots, and celery, and I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve made this to start a soup. I usually rush it, cooking it hot just to get it done, and the flavor is never as good as it could be. Her innovation is to cook it ahead of time and freeze it in ice cube trays for ready-to-go flavor later on.

The first portion of the book is devoted to such recipes for base ingredients, and then the rest of the book is divided up into appetizers/cocktails, meals, and desserts that utilize these base ingredients. Interspersed throughout are her various thoughts on cooking as well as stunning photography.

If there’s anything that turned me off about the book, it was the many recipes that I personally found rather unappealing (fried chicken hearts? raw beef?). I imagine it’s mostly because I’m vegetarian, but my omnivorous wife had much the same reaction as me.

That being said, there are plenty of other interesting recipes in the book that are appealing. I normally link to both the physical copy and a digital copy of the book, but in this case just do yourself a favor and pick up a hardback copy of the book from Amazon for $17.50. Not only is the Kindle Edition actually more expensive, but the hardback is worth it. It’s well-bound and sturdy, and quite aesthetically pleasing.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.


The Water-Saving Garden [A Review]

When my wife and I got married, we thought we’d try our hand at gardening—the fruits of our labor that summer were pitiful, but the joy of growing our own food carried us on. It’s a wonderful feeling to grow so much food for free, but the thing is that when you sit down and do the math, it’s not that free anymore. After the cost of seeds, good soil, fertilizer, and most importantly, water, it can end up being fairly expensive. If you don’t get a good yield from your plants, it can actually be more expensive than just buying groceries from the store.

61bu6y4v2yl-_sx258_bo1204203200_Because of these concerns, I was intrigued to pick up a copy of The Water-Saving Garden by Pam Penick. If I could learn ways to make a gallon of water go further in my garden, I would love to. While Penick offers plenty of advice on how to be more thrifty in terms of water usage, unfortunately most of her advice wasn’t very applicable to those who are trying to simply grow a small sustenance garden. I’ll offer a fuller critique in a moment, but first, what I appreciated about the book.

The Water-Saving Garden is divided up into 5 parts: motivation and inspiration for a water-saving garden, practical strategies and habits to use less water in the first place, how to landscape and pick more drought-resistant plants, how to evoke the illusion of water abundance, and a list of specific water-saving plants to consider.

Parts two and three were probably the most helpful bits; she gets very practical about how to collect and use (free) rainwater as well as the importance of permeable paving that lets rainwater soak into the ground, as well as mulching that slows the evaporation of that same water. Further, she also helps the reader understand that lawns gently sloping away from the house are good for the house’s foundation, but bad for water utilization because so much of what you sprinkle runs directly into the street. To that end, she gives practical ideas about how to replace lawns (which need tons of water in the first place) and re-landscape with native plants that are less thirsty and can trap water from running into the gutter.

Rainwater collection is a legitimately good idea that would help with my vegetable garden, except for the fact that I live in Colorado where it is very illegal to do so. I am very interested in trying some of her ideas with my front lawn, however, which is currently the epitome of water wastefulness. That’s a lot of money that I don’t need to be sending down the street! It was also valuable for me to think through the role of mulch in trapping water from evaporating, but I wish she would’ve spoken explicitly about vegetables (especially root vegetables) where you have to disturb the soil more frequently.

I hate to say it, but in general the book struck me as having a fairly pretentious tone. The introduction is mostly a guilt trip about using so much water in our country, and names sustainable living and climate change as the primary reasons anyone would want to save water. The pictures of gardens she presents in part one are these grand, sweeping vistas of beautiful shrubbery and carefully landscaped paths. I think gardens are beautiful as much as the next person, but it just seems like she’s writing exclusively to upper class middle-aged Americans who garden because they can and because they don’t have much else to do. Saving water, for this demographic, is mainly a moral concern rather than a financial one. I’m not in any way saying that these people shouldn’t save water, but only that it comes across as very pretentious to those who need to save water in order to make gardening a feasible endeavor.

For what it is, the book is a good one, which is to say that it accomplishes what it intends. That being said, it wasn’t the book I was hoping for. If you tend a largely non-edible garden, this will probably be a great read for you. You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $13.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Reading, Reflecting, Failing, Succeeding

One hundred books. That was my new year’s resolution last January: to read one hundred books during 2015. I tend to read a lot of books in general, so that number (though it was definitely a stretch goal) seemed attainable. It is the beginning of December and I’ve just finished my sixtieth book, so it’s safe to say that I wildly overestimated how much I could read. At any rate, here are a few miscellaneous thoughts about my reading experience this year.

On Setting a Quantitative Reading Goal

I came to find that one of the benefits of setting a specific number of books that you will read in a year is that it is an easily measurable goal, and it also keeps you honest. It can be an easy default when I’m commuting to work to just listen to music, read news/blogs, or play games on my phone. But then, after the course of a year, I find that I’ve largely wasted another year of my life frittering away the time on stupid stuff. Having a quantitative goal continually confronting me often helps to choose reading something substantive over slowly slouching toward intellectual death.

The downside of setting a quantitative goal, however, is that I start making decisions, whether conscious or not, to choose books that are quickly digestible, because my goal is to consume as many of them as I can. Similarly, when I start into a book and I can tell that it is not worth my time within the first few chapters, I am more likely to finish such a book because, well, I’ve already started it so I want these pages I read to count towards my goal. On the flip side, when I find myself in the midst of a really good book, I don’t have time to slow down and ponder, consider, or treasure it.

On “Moving Evenly Together”

I tried to read a fairly diverse diet of books this year, and one that was far afield of my normal fare was The Man Who Killed the Deer by Frank Waters. Written in the early forties, it’s an 51t14urxezl-_sy344_bo1204203200_exploration of the tension between Native Americans, Hispanics, and White settlers in the American southwest during the expansion. It’s a classic portrayal of how different cultures can so easily speak past one another and fail to communicate because of their differing presuppositions and expectations as well as power differentials.

There is an oft-repeated trope throughout the book’s tribal meetings that stuck itself thoroughly into my head: the idea of “moving evenly together.” For this tribe, the priority in decision-making is not the decision itself, but to move evenly together, which is to say that they want everyone to “be on the same page,” in modern parlance. It is more than just agreement, however; moving evenly together is about waiting and waiting and waiting until each is convinced in his own heart about going the same direction.

The implicit argument is that how decisions are made is more important than the decisions themselves. It’s a way of thinking that has influenced how I consider my marriage and the decisions that my wife and I make; it is not enough to simply understand one another—we must wait and wait and wait for one another until we can move forward together. We cannot live life in the fast lane this way, and we cannot get as much done. The benefit, though, is that we move through life feeling more valued by each other.

On Obedience as a Good, Beautiful, and Right Thing

I read John Frame’s 1,200 page magnum opus, Systematic Theology, this summer while I was unemployed for a few weeks. It is a wonderful work for a variety of reasons, but it is certainly not for the faint of heart, and as a reference 51gnmr5684l-_sy344_bo1204203200_work it is certainly not intended to be read straight through such as I did. Yet John Frame has an unusually razor-sharp mind, and it is fascinating to grasp snapshot of his entire mental belief system in such a short amount of time, because he truly is able to articulate himself so unusually well.

Frame’s governing principle in his theology is the idea of God’s lordship over the world and all that is in it (which is to say his control, authority, and presence), and the requisite response of obedience on our behalf. Though this concept is certainly draconian and repulsive to our modern ears, Frame elegantly and compellingly draws out the beauty, goodness, wisdom, and logic of laying down our autonomous, personal sovereignty in order to lovingly oblige God as our King. Perhaps you might ask why this is logical. Quite simply, submitting to a good God who only ever works for our best interests and his glory makes a great deal of sense. The sacrifice of libertarian freedom for the privilege of following such a God is a trivial price to pay. Frame helped me reframe (pun very much intended) my thinking about the concept of obeying God from duty to thankfulness.

On Violence and the Goodness of Sovereignty

My wife and I have been reading Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion trilogy, which is equal parts perplexing and fascinating (spoilers ahead). Lewis Gillies, a graduate student at Oxford, follows his roommate Simon through a cairn in northern Scotland to another world called Albion. It is an archetype of the British Isles where Lewis and Simon are trained as Celtic warriors to defend and fight for the kingdom of the good King Meldron.

9780310217923Within the first novel all hell quite literally breaks loose, and the innocent are slaughtered all across the land. The upheaval of order and justice results in the destruction of the most vulnerable, and those who wish to defend them. As Lewis eventually finds out, the source of all this horror and tragedy is none other than King Meldron’s son, who sought to rebel against the goodness of sovereignty and would do whatever he needed to usurp the throne. Meldron was a good king and exercised his control, authority, and presence over his realm in ways that worked toward the good of his people. His foolish son saw his father’s sovereignty as a right rather than as a responsibility, and was willing to kill—even the entire realm—to gain it.

Lawhead describes life in Albion with complex strokes: it is at once breathtaking in its vivid hyper reality and gritty with the all too realistic horror of violence and death of average people. It is neither the airbrushed Kinkade painting that you’d expect from American evangelicalism nor the unreal comic book violence of the modern sci-fi/fantasy flick. Lawhead’s brush is so photorealistic that it is disturbing. Evil is actually possible for normal people to inflict and to be victimized by. There’s a particular scene where Lewis is walking through the burnt husk of a town, ashes frozen into place by recent snowfall, and he comes across the frozen corpse of a toddler sprawled in the street. As I read those words, my heart churned within me and yearned for justice to be dealt swiftly, surely, wisely, and well, especially since I know what it’s like now to have a toddler of my own.

This is what good fiction does: it helps me to feel again and feel rightly about our world when I am all but callous and numb to the headlines I read. The violence and devastation in Albion is really no different from Paris, San Bernardino, Syria, and a thousand other places. Reporters and non-fiction writers may tell me what happened, but only the storytellers, the bards, and the artists can teach me how to feel rightly about it.

Concluding Thoughts

It was a fascinating experiment to press my nose to the grindstone of an impossible reading goal this year. I don’t plan on doing a quantitative goal again, at least not in 2016, but neither do I regret doing it. I failed at my new year’s resolution, and if this were a performance evaluation at a job I would certainly be fired. I cannot help but think, though, that in the end I succeeded; I read many good books, interacted with many interesting thinkers thinking about a multitude of topics, and I came by some truly pivotal concepts that have shaped the way I live my life.

The Imperfect Pastor [A Book Review]

The Imperfect PastorPost-apocalyptic movies always begin the same way. The scene opens upon the heels of catastrophe—all of humanity’s best laid plans have quite literally exploded around us, and the few survivors are left to pull together what remains and eke out some semblance of meaning and purpose from the ashes.

So call Zack Eswine’s latest book, The Imperfect Pastor, something like a post-apocalyptic pastoral theology. Having experienced desolation himself, both personal and pastoral, Eswine forges a way forward for pastors in the far from perfect world we live in. Simply put, he explores the calling we pursue (part 1), the temptations we face (part 2), reshaping our inner life (part 3), and reshaping the work we do (part 4).

What is immediately striking about the book is its tone. There are many books in pastoral theology today promising seven steps to a better church, or the secret key to unlocking ministry leadership potential in order to grow your church tenfold. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are many other books that react against this sort of “Leadership Industrial Complex” (to quote Jared Wilson) with uneasiness, distrust, and even cynicism. Having seen such grand promises fall through, the second sort of book warns the reader against the church growth movement and its allurement. While they rightly (in my opinion) point out the errors of the first, few go so far as to chart a practical way forward.

This is what is remarkable about Eswine’s work: his own personal disasters and disillusionment with chasing “professional” ministry seem to have chastened him and created in him a humble wisdom that is grateful for small things. What does pastoral ministry look like without speaking platforms, book deals, podcasts, and networks? What is a pastor to think when his church is not large, influential, strategic, or well-known? Consider these words:

We have trouble seeing how it is glorifying to God to eat food, learn to love, go to bed, and get up the next day for the same old work. The thought of living and ministering in one or two unknown and ordinary places for fifty years and then going home to be with the Lord feels like death. Of what account to God is an ordinary life in the grain fields?

As Eswine painted ever more clearly his picture of ministry, my heart kept saying, “Yes!” The cult of personality that the pastorate has become is neither good nor safe. Furthermore, it is hard to reconcile pastoral platform-building with, say, the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Eswine speaks an encouraging word to the majority of pastors in the world laboring in small congregations in the middle of nowhere, helping them shepherd their flocks with practical advice about how to care for the sick and how to handle well-meaning but hurtful comparisons to the former pastor.

If the book has any weaknesses, it is in its verbosity. Sometimes Eswine says in ten words what he could say in two. Notwithstanding, The Imperfect Pastor is a thought-provoking, incisive, and valuable meditation on what it means to be a pastor. I had something to gain by sitting at Eswine’s feet, and I trust that many others will, too.

You can pick up a paper copy of the book from Amazon for $15, or from WTS Books for the same price.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The Bible Story Handbook: a Resource for Teaching 175 Stories from the Bible [A Review]

The Bible Story Handbook is a useful tool that I’m glad to have on my bookshelf. I envision myself referring to this book in all my future teaching of Scripture.

My wife and I are big readers, and a little while ago she reviewed a cookbook here. We have a young son whom we wish to teach the Bible to, and so when we had the opportunity to read and review John Walton’s Bible Story Handbook, she decided to look it over to see if it would be a good resource for us.

One love that I very dearly hope to pass on to my child is a love for the Word of God. And yet, as I interact with my eleven-month-old son, I often find myself looking for fresh insights on how to do this. How can I effectively teach a small child (who understands very little about the world to begin with) the deep and precious truths of the Bible that still teach and challenge me daily? In their resource, The Bible Story Handbook, John and Kim Walton offer guidance to parents and children’s ministry volunteers in thinking through the weighty task of teaching the Bible to children.

The Bible Story Handbook consists mainly of case-by-case analyses of 175 Bible stories, designed to be referenced as needed. Each analysis includes key points of focus and application for the Bible story lesson, as well as brief essays on biblical context, interpretational issues, background information, and mistakes to avoid. Before jumping into this index of stories, though, the Waltons offer three general articles discussing the purpose of teaching the Bible to children, and asserting what they believe to be the right and wrong ways to accomplish it.

These front articles are, in my opinion, as essential to the book as the story surveys themselves. The articles guide the reader to consider the self-revelation of God’s glory found in the Bible, and then to note common fallacies in children’s curricula that present the text in ways that fall far short of this glory. While I do not necessarily agree with all of the Waltons’ conclusions in these articles, they are certainly instructive for any parent or Sunday school teacher in recognizing foolish ways we try to make Bible stories more relevant and digestible to children… and, in doing so, how we wrongly water down the truth of God! Instead, the Waltons encourage us to “allow the text to set the agenda, to speak for itself.” The subsequent Bible story analyses aim to do just that, carefully studying each story in pursuit of the truth God intends to reveal about Himself.

The structure of this book is what I would deem to be its greatest weakness. In addition to some distracting typos and layout issues (at least in the Kindle edition), I found myself wishing that the story analysis sections had been ordered quite differently, so that the background, context, and discussion of interpretational issues were treated first and built up logically to the summaries of lesson focus and application. With the lesson focus and application summaries at the top of each synopsis, it feels like the authors are asking the reader to simply trust their conclusions rather than taking a more inductive approach that includes the reader in the exegetical process. I would have loved to see more detailed explanations of each story – but of course that would have called for a much larger book and is, after all, what commentaries are for. Besides, it would sort of defeat the purpose of having a concise Bible story reference.

Even with these structural challenges, a copy of The Bible Story Handbook is a useful tool that I’m glad to have on my bookshelf. I envision myself referring to this book in all my future teaching of Scripture (directed to children or anyone else), both for its exegetical insight on specific stories and for the principles of correctly handling the word of truth. Whether or not you agree with all of the Waltons’ reasoning, the book is certainly thought-provoking and will at least guide you in the right direction.

You can pick up a hard copy of the book from Amazon for $18, or for $10 on Kindle.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

The River Cottage Booze Handbook [a review]

From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

Just about anything in this world can be transformed into a delicious alcoholic beverage, if you know what you’re doing. That is precisely the message of John Wright’s new River Cottage Booze Handbook. As the title perhaps implies, the booze culture of Wright’s world is more akin to Hobbits in hobbit-holes or Redwallian friar mice in forest abbeys. His passion is for the forageable fruits, nuts, berries, leaves, and roots you can pick for yourself in the wild, and the delightful concoctions you can then make from them for next to nothing.

The book is a series of recipes for the most unusual and delightful drinks, divided up into four categories: infusions, wine, cider, and beer. From rose hip vodka to green walnut grappa, from elder flower and gooseberry wine to blackberry cider, from puffed wheat beer to dandelion and burdock beer, it is clear that alcohol is really something of an art form for Wright. These brews are intended to stand out from the crowded shelf of normalcy.

Of course, the proof is in the pudding, and the true test here is whether these recipes are truly drinkable. Since the mint patch in my backyard is in season right now, I decided to follow Wright’s recipe for Watermint Vodka (67). My variety is actually chocolate mint, but the infusion was simple to make and turned out quite well within just a couple hours. (I decided to get a little crazy, however, and add some lemon thyme leaves after a few hours. I wouldn’t recommend it–the resulting flavor was close to cough syrup.)

One of my favorite parts of the book is Wright’s discussion on each recipe. Sometimes he offers tips on where to find various ingredients and how to identify them in the wild, or what sort of cocktails you might make, or how to maintain the correct specific gravity when adding high water content ingredients. All the while he maintains a wonderfully dry sense of humor.

The one downside to the Booze Handbook is that Wright is English, and the book is really aimed at the UK. Though the edition I am reviewing here is the US edition, there are plenty of terms that Wright uses that are unfamiliar to me as an American reader. This gets most problematic when certain ingredients don’t even grow (natively) in the US, such as Alexanders. One might expect that in a US edition of a book like this, substitutions would have been made.

Notwithstanding, this book is a pleasing collection of recipes, many of which I intend to try soon. The hardcover edition is gorgeous, with innumerable high quality photographs, thick paper, and a rugged binding. I would recommend it if you enjoy crafting your own beverages from raw ingredients and you’re comfortable with the necessity of figuring out substitutions for UK-native ingredients.

You can pick up a copy on Amazon for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.

Pure Food: Eat Clean With Seasonal, Plant-Based Recipes [a review]

My wife and I have been experimenting in the kitchen for the past few years, looking through various cookbooks and trying new recipes. She’s been doing the lion’s share of the cooking lately, and so the following review is written by her.

Two topics that we frequently consider in our home are the importance of healthy eating and the elements of a wise diet. A quick look at the news or a Portlandia episode confirms that we are not alone in this; many Americans are seeking to be more intentional with what goes on their tables, and many are contributing their own conclusions to the national conversation. One such voice is Veronica Bosgraaf with her new book, Pure Food: Eat Clean with Seasonal, Plant-Based Recipes.

Bosgraaf, founder of Pure Bar (a line of organic fruit- and nut-based snacks) offers a collection of recipes that is, as the title suggests, full of pure and fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains creatively combined to yield maximum nutrition. These recipes are organized seasonally, with each month holding its own chapter—a unique and useful feature when working primarily with fresh produce. She is a decided advocate for local, seasonal, organic, non-GMO, “real food,” as she passionately describes in her introduction, and she firmly champions the reader’s ability to cook this “real food” in fabulous ways. These two convictions sound clearly throughout all pages of the book.

My favorite characteristic about Pure Food is that it reads as a sort of Cookbook Plus. Each recipe is supplemented with reflective commentary on its inspiration or on the health benefits of certain ingredients. Bosgraaf also provides many tips with thoughts on broader topics related to health and green living. These side notes lend the book a fun and personal flavor, as if you’re sitting in Veronica Bosgraaf’s kitchen listening to her gush about the interesting food she’s just served you. Additionally, the notes are quite informative and thought-provoking; Pure Food is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to examine their practices in the kitchen. For example,

  • Is it really best to buy only organic, non-GMO foods?
  • How can fresh and healthy foods be increasingly incorporated into one’s daily diet?
  • How does food play into one’s way of life throughout the year?

As for the backbone of any cookbook—the recipes—I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the recipes I tried were clear and simple, and I felt confident following them. On the other hand, I have three hesitations about her recipes. First, many of them strike me as somewhat strange and acquired tastes—and we already strive to follow a health-conscious diet! For someone looking to take first steps from meat and potatoes to a more natural, plant-based diet, these recipes seem like they would be quite a stretch; at the very least, they would need to be incorporated into one’s meal plan one or two at a time. One potential difficulty is that many of the ingredients in Pure Food’s recipes are only available at health food stores. This ushers in my second hesitation: Bosgraaf urges a diet that tends to be fairly expensive. Unless you’re already willing to pay the price for “real food,” you will need to grapple with your food priorities and finances in order to cook from this book. My third hesitation with these recipes is that they generally lack common plant-based proteins like beans, soy, and seitan. Bosgraaf actually argues that the plant sources she uses provide sufficient protein. But I’m a nursing mother and runner, and the recipes I tried were too insubstantial to keep me full for long.

On the whole, Pure Food is a stimulating cookbook that encourages readers down the valuable path of healthier living. Although you may need to add some protein here and there or substitute some less expensive (and less healthy) ingredients, Veronica Bosgraaf’s cookbook will inspire you to go on creative and nutritious adventures in your kitchen.

You can pick up the book from Amazon for $16.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of a fair, unbiased review.