Food, family, friends and fun often end up at the same table together, whether it’s in sharing a homey pot of spaghetti and meatballs, a tray of knockout appetizers that promises an even more spectacular meal to come, or an intimate celebration of a special anniversary or other event. The key is that good food and drink, lovingly prepared and served, are the body and soul-satisfying threads that knit us together. Join me as we look at three very different books all covering the same subject: The celebration table.

Everyone Can Cook for Celebrations; Seasonal Recipes for Festive Occasions
By Eric Akis
Published by Whitecap Books 2009, softcover, $24.95; 261 pages

This is Akis’ fifth book and carries through on the appealing and easily accessible dishes that have made his previous books so popular. Akis, a trained chef and food writer for the Victoria Times Colonist and other CanWest newspapers, knows that the average cook wants to create dishes that are relatively easy to prepare with ingredients that are easy to find and yet ones delicious and impressive enough for even the most finicky table mates.

He goes the extra mile, too, in adding helpful hints on what can be prepared ahead or substituting ingredients that might be more popular with your crowd. The book is arranged seasonally, beginning with winter gatherings and ending with the year-end holidays in which we now find ourselves.

In between, he offers recipes and menus for romantic dinners, spring celebrations and those long and lazy summer weekends that we always hope will never end. But, alas, they do and in this season of short days, we turn inward to share a tipple, defy the darkness with blazing light displays and prepare tables laden with the rich harvest of just-past seasons. (more…)

Here it is, almost July, and I am finally forced inside because of the rains. The hot, dry and sunny weather which blessed us from mid-May on have had me working on our two acres from sunup to sundown while the computer — and everything else inside the house — gathered dust.  So while I have some gardening down time, let me tell you about several new cookbooks that celebrate our favourite  season.

Weber’s Way to Grill: The Step-by-Step Guide to Expert Grilling
By Jamie Purviance
Published by Sunset/Raincoast 2009, soft cover, $27.50; 320 pages

Jamie Purviance is at heart a teacher. This is his third grilling book for Weber and carries on the meticulous and inspired work he puts into both the recipes and the full-colour illustrations of specific methods. He shows you how to prep leeks for grilling, how to skin a halibut fillet, how to char-grill oysters. He covers all the bases in this one, from meats, poultry and seafood to flatbreads, vegetables and fruit. We’ve tried a number of recipes in the book and came away delighted with most of them (the  grilled squid wasn’t a hit). We bought fresh spot prawns off the boat and grilled them with Purviance’s recipe for Thai-seasoned shrimp and a watermelon salsa (he mixes his cuisines to great affect). Fabulous! We tried his cedar-planked chicken thighs with soy-ginger glaze, also very good but I must tell you, they made a big mess of the grill as the marinade and juices ran off the plank while the chicken cooked. But probably our favourite was his Dr. Pepper-brined pork loin with cherry-chipotle glaze. I did not have any tart cherry preserves so substituted rhubarb sauce with delicious results. In fact, any tart-sweet preserves should work just fine. Because there were only two of us, I used individual loin chops cut from a whole loin. I brined them, oiled them as directed, then grilled them over medium-high heat for about 6 minutes on each side. I did not grill them with the sauce, but served that with the chops, once they were cooked. Here’s Purviance’s recipe for the whole loin.

4 cups Dr. Pepper (don’t use diet pop)
½ cup kosher salt
1 boneless centre-cut pork loin, 3 to 4 lbs.

1 jar (9 oz.) tart cherry preserves
½ cup Dr. Pepper
½ cup water
1-2 tbsps. minced canned chipotle in adobo
4 tsps. Dijon mustard

Vegetable oil

Pour soda (the Americans call it that; we call it pop) into a large bowl and slowly add the salt (the mixture will foam up quite a bit so be sure to use a bowl large enough to prevent overflowing). Stir until the salt dissolves completely, 1 to 2 minutes. Place a large disposable plastic bag inside a large bowl, and carefully pour the brine into the bag.

Trim excess fat and silver skin from the pork. Submerge the pork in the brine, seal the bag, and refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours.

In a small bowl, combine glaze ingredients.

Remove the pork from the bag and discard the brine. Pat dry with paper towels. Lightly coat the pork with oil and let stand at room temperature for 20 to 30 minutes before grilling. Prepare the grill for direct and indirect cooking over high heat.

Brush cooking grates clean. Sear pork over direct high heat, with lid closed as much as possible, until the surface is well marked but not burned, 8 to 12 minutes.

Place a large disposable foil pan over indirect high heat and pour the glaze into the pan. Transfer the pork to the pan and turn to coat with the glaze. Grill the pork over indirect high heat, with the lid closed as much as possible, until barely pink in the centre and the internal temperature reaches 145° to 150° F, 25 to 30 minutes, turning in the glaze every 8 to 10 minutes. If the glaze gets too thick or starts to scorch, add a little water or more Dr. pepper to the pan. Transfer pork to cutting board and let rest for about 5 minutes. Cut pork crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices and serve with remaining pan sauce on the side. Serves 6.
– From Weber’s Way to Grill

Sips & Apps: Classic and Contemporary Recipes for Cocktails and Appetizers
By Kathy Casey
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast 2009, hardcover, $25.95; 204 pages

Cocktails are hot and don’t call those who mix them up for you bartenders. If they’re doing the right job, they’re  known as  mixologists. Forget the standard martini or the plain ole margarita. Think fresh raspberry bellini, fresh apple (or cherry) mojito, or even ginger sake cocktail sushi, a gelled bite of cocktail dynamite served on a slice of cucumber. That’s the tone of Kathy Casey’s latest book, a full array of inspired drinks that can take you from brunch to backyard gathering to wedding reception. Casey, Pacific Northwest chef, mixologist, savvy culinary entrepreneur and author of nine cookbooks here offers enough cocktails to make your parties sing into the next century, along with a host of wonderful appetizer recipes, — lamb sliders served on home-made rosemary buns, Bollywood chicken skewers with spiced yogurt dip, Asian shrimp cakes with sweet chili sauce, sausage olive poppers, chipotle deviled eggs. So bottoms up! It’s party time. Here are two recipes to get you going, one for a fabulous variation on the classic sangria, the other an appie created by Casey to bring out its best sides.


An inexpensive dry sake works best with this, says Casey.

1 (750ml) bottle sake
6 tbsps. honey
2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1 stalk fresh lemongrass, halved lengthwise, then cut into 3- to 4-inch pieces (use the entire stalk)
½ lemon, thinly sliced
1 small tangerine or orange, thinly sliced
1 large plum or apricot, pitted and cut into think wedges (optional, if not in season)
In large pitcher, combine all ingredients and stir with a spoon, crushing some of the fruit. Cover and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, or up to 2 days, to let flavours marry before serving. Serve over ice and include some of the fruit in each serving. Makes about 4 cups, 6 to 8 servings.

¾ cup soy sauce
¼ cup sake (or substitute dry sherry or dry white wine)
2 tbsps. very finely minced peeled fresh ginger
1 tbsp. minced fresh garlic
¾ cup sugar
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
¼ cup thinly sliced green onions, white and green parts
3 tbsps. unseasoned rice vinegar
3 tbsps. cornstarch
3 tbsps. water
1 dozen whole chicken wings or 2 dozen drummettes, about 2 ½ to 3 lbs.

2 tbsps. toasted sesame seeds
Thinly sliced green onion tops

In small saucepan, whisk together soy sauce, sake, ginger, garlic, sugar, pepper flakes, green onions, vinegar, cornstarch and water. Set pan over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking constantly to thicken. Mixture will be very thick. Let cool. If not using immediately, store covered and refrigerated, for up to 4 days.

If using whole wings, disjoint the wings and remove and discard tips; you should have 24 pieces. Put them in a large bowl and set aside.

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Add sauce mixture to bowl with chicken and mix well to coat wings evenly. Spray a 9- by 13-inch  baking pan with cooking spray or lightly oil it. Arrange drummettes and sauce in a single layer in the dish.

Bake for 30 minutes. Stir and turn the chicken pieces over and bake for 20 minutes more. Stir and turn chicken pieces again and bake for 10 minutes more, or until chicken is tender and sauce is thick and glazy. Total cooking time is about 1 hour.

Stir drummettes in sauce once more, then transfer the chicken to a serving platter. Spoon some of the extra sauce over the chicken, then sprinkle with sesame seed and green onions. Makes 24.

– From Sips & Apps

Cooking Light: Fresh Food Fast; 5-Ingredient, 15-Minute Recipes
By Cooking Light Magazine
Published by Oxmoor House, 2009, softcover, $32.50; 368 pages

It may be tempting to just throw burgers and dogs on the barbie and serve them alongside a store-bought tub of potato salad. But this is the impossibly fresh season, and with a little forethought and a well-stocked pantry, a delicious meal using fresh and good quality ingredients is only 15 minutes away, according to the promise of this book. High flavour ingredients such as mustards, capers and olives coupled with the fabulous fresh ingredients available everywhere now make for easy and delicious eating. Although the book is geared to all the seasons, with plenty of quick recipes for the busy fall and winter seasons, there’s no need to forego a refreshing snooze in the hammock when dinner’s only a few minutes away. The salad chapter is loaded with fresh and fabulous ideas for great summer eating, such as steak salad with creamy horseradish dressing, spinach salad with grilled pork tenderloin and nectarines, and curried chicken rice salad. Here’s another example.


6 cups water
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed and cut into 3-inch pieces
1 cup uncooked orzo (rice-shaped pasta)
1 ¼ lb. skinless salmon fillet
¼ tsp. salt
¼ freshly ground black pepper
Cooking spray
¼ cup thinly sliced red onion
Lemon-Dill Vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Preheat broiler.

Bring 6 cups water to boil in large saucepan. Add asparagus; cook 3 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove asparagus from water with tongs or slotted spoon, reserving water in pan. Plunge asparagus into ice water; drain and set aside.

Return reserved water to a boil. Add orzo, and cook according to package direction, omitting salt and fat.

While orzo cooks, sprinkle fillet evenly with salt and pepper. Place fish on a foil-lined broiler pan coated with cooking spray. Broil 5 minutes or until fish flakes easily when tested with a fork or until desired degree of doneness. Using 2 forks, break fish into large chunks. Combine fish, orzo, asparagus, onion and lemon dill vinaigrette in large bowl; toss gently to coat. Yield: 6 servings.

1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 tbsp. chopped fresh dill
3 tbsps. fresh lemon juice
2 tsps. extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl, stirring well with a whisk. Yield: 1/3 cup.

– From Fresh Food Fast

Puff: 50 Flaky, Crunchy, Delicious Appetizers, Entrees and Desserts Made with Puff Pastry
By Martha Holmberg
Published by Chronicle/Raincoast, 2008; soft cover $21.95; 144 pages

The word “flaky” is often used to describe behaviour or bearing that is bizarre or eccentric. But there’s nothing bizarre about biting into something that crunches lightly but spectacularly, then melts into a buttery caress of flavour.

That’s the stuff of perfect puff pastry, something Martha Holmberg, the food editor for the Oregonian in Portland, describes as a cook’s “secret weapon”. Yes, homey pie crusts, delicate pate brisees and cookie- crumb bases are a wonderful way to enclose a savoury quiche, enrobe fresh fruit, or give a sturdy base to a rich cheesecake. But all bow down before the queenly bite of the sensuous puff.

Puff pastry isn’t as easy to make as any of the above, so Holmberg devotes 10 fully illustrated pages to taking you through the entire process. She even gives two versions: the classic French butter and flour mixture (known as pate feuilletee) that, by the time you master it, will give you 2,187 layers of flakiness (Holmberg says she did the math); and something called rough puff pastry (demi-feuilletee), which is much easier to make and works just fine for quiches, galettes, turnovers and potpies.

Not up to rolling butter so thin, it could probably cover a football field? There’s no shame in buying ready-made puff pastry, Holmberg says, and the challenge of making your own is just that. You feel you’ve accomplished something, but when you have other things you’d rather do, go out and buy a slab of frozen puff pastry and try some of her recipes. The key to using puff pastry successfully, particularly   store-bought, is to make sure it’s completely thawed by putting it in the fridge overnight before rolling it out, she says.

Once you have the finished product — whether home-made or store-bought — puff pastry is a cinch to work with, says Holmberg. “It’s surprisingly not that delicate, it isn’t sticky and you can refreeze the scraps.”

Imagine a tray of appetizers that includes melt-in-your-mouth spicy parmesan puffs, spiced samosa puffs with cilantro-chile dipping sauce and caramelized onion, crisp bacon and roquefort tarts. Or go for an irresistible main course such as swiss chard and goat cheese tart, or melted leek tart with fennel sausage and goat cheese, or wild salmon in pastry with savoury mushroom stuffing and lemon-caper beurre blanc. Even pizza can be taken to new heights with a flaky rough puff crust.

Then, of course, there’s the ultimate puff indulgence: dessert. Holmberg has recipes for brown sugar and brandy pear turnovers, honey-spice walnut tart, profiteroles with coffee cream, rich chocolate-espresso sauce and toasted almonds, sugar-crunch palmiers and roasted pineapple and ginger napoleons with salted caramel sauce.

Enough talking. Try a bite of the following.

Spiced Samosa Puffs with Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1 ½ lbs.Yukon gold or russet potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
3 tbsps. olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 medium onion)
Kosher salt
2 to 4 tbsps. minced fresh chile, such as jalapeno
2 tbsps. minced fresh ginger (from one 2-inch piece)
1 tbsp. garam masala
2 tbsps. unsalted butter
1 cup fresh or frozen peas (no need to thaw)
Juice of half a lime or lemon, plus more to taste
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
2 sheets (about 9 oz. each) frozen puff pastry, thawed
Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce (optional; recipe follows)

Place potatoes in pot of generously salted water, bring to a boil and cook until very tender, about 10 minutes. Scoop out  about a cup of the potato water, then drain potatoes.

Meanwhile, heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat; add onion, season with salt and cook until very soft and slightly golden, about 3 minutes. Add chile, cook for another minute, then add ginger and garam masala and cook until mixture is fragrant, another minute or so.

Dump the drained potatoes into the pan along with the butter. With a rubber spatula, fold to blend (it’s fine if the potatoes get a bit mushy), adding enough of the reserved potato water to make the mixture a bit creamy, then add peas and lime juice. Fold until well blended. Taste and season generously with more salt and some pepper. Let cool slightly, then fold in cilantro.

Heat oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats (you’ll probably need to bake these in batches if baking all 36 in one session).

On a lightly floured counter, roll a sheet of pastry into a 14-inch square. Cut it into thirds lengthwise and thirds crosswise to make 9 squares. Roll one square to enlarge it to about 5 by 5 inches and cut in half to make two triangles. With a triangle in front of you at a right angle, spoon about 1 tbsp. onto the pastry just to the lower right of centre. Moisten the edges of pastry with water. Bring the top corner to the bottom corner to create a smaller triangle and pinch all around to seal tightly. Repeat with remaining squares and the second sheet of pastry.

Arrange samosas on the baking sheets and bake until lightly puffed and rich golden brown, 18-20 minutes. Let cool for a few minutes on a rack, then serve hot, with or without Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce. Makes 36.

Make Ahead Note: You can make samosas and keep them in the fridge for one day before baking, or freeze the unbaked samosas for up to one month. Bake them directly from the freezer and add a few more minutes to the cooking time.

Cilantro-Chile Dipping Sauce

1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 tbsp. minced onion or shallot
½ tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 to 2 jalapenos, cored, seeded, and roughly chopped
1 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
1 cup lightly packed fresh mint leaves
2 cups lightly packed fresh cilantro leaves
Put everything in a food processor and process until creamy. Taste and adjust seasoning. Chill for at least 30 minutes to let flavors blend. Make about 1 cup.
From Puff