Casual Kitchen's Holiday Reading and Gift Guide

One of the unexpected advantages of having a relatively widely-read blog is people send you free stuff in the hopes that you'll talk about it with your readers. Much of it isn't worth talking about. But some things are actually really good. And over the last several months, I've received quite a few intriguing books, cookbooks and products, all of which (with one huge exception, as you'll soon see) are worth bringing to readers.

Normally I'd dedicate a full post to, say, one cookbook, but this can be a slow and inefficient way to share ideas with readers. So, I thought I'd instead create a "holiday gift guide" post, with short reviews of several items. I want my readers to be able explore the things that catch their interest--and quickly skip those that don't. As always, my goal is to warn you away from bad products and draw your attention to the best ones.

A few (unabashedly self-promotional) words about one of the easiest ways to support your favorite bloggers is to keep them in mind when you're about to make a virtual trip to For example, when you use the links here at Casual Kitchen, I receive a small percentage commission on everything you buy during that visit. Amazon builds this modest commission into their overall cost structure, which means you pay no extra.

To me, this is one of the best win-wins out there, and it helps bloggers like me continue to provide readers with hundreds of free articles and recipes. As we approach the holiday gift buying season, I would be grateful if you would keep Casual Kitchen in mind and use the links here whenever you go to!

Thank you so much for your support. Now, on to the reviews!

1) The Farmer's Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Enjoying Your CSA and Farmers' Market Foods

This exceptional, multipurpose cookbook is an absolute standout of all the things I've seen this year. The Farmer's Kitchen helps readers make the most of their local regional produce: it explains thoroughly which produce is available when, how to choose truly ripe vegetables and fruits, how to best to store them--and how best to prepare them.

But this book is much more than a guide for handling and dealing with seasonal produce: There are also more than 200 easy, affordable and delicious recipes in this book, which means at just $15 at Amazon (and just $9.99 on the Kindle) this book is a stunningly good value.

One of the best parts of this book is a brilliantly arranged index organized by fruits and vegetables. Which means if you happen to be overwhelmed by a specific veggie or fruit from your garden or your CSA share, you can easily use the index to find exactly the right recipes to use them up.

By the way, CK readers might recognize co-author Julia Shanks as the both the author of Grow. Cook. Eat. and as a regular, insightful commenter here at CK. That's why when she sent me a review copy of her book, I was overjoyed to accept it. Once again, let me repeat: this book is a unique standout.

Click here to buy The Farmer's Kitchen

2) Family Feasts for $75 a Week

Let me start off by admitting that I'm totally biased. I absolutely love Mary Ostyn and have a ton of respect for everything she does. She a gifted writer, an expert on healthy and frugal home cooking, and she's even written authoritatively on adoption and homeschooling issues. And don't forget: while she does all this, she's managing a family of ten--yep, ten--kids.

But I don't have to rely on favoritism to say that this is easily one of the smartest books I've found on how to cook, shop and feed your family for less. Family Feasts for $75 a Week came out a little over a year ago, but as the economy continues to struggle, the wealth of frugal wisdom and knowledge in this book is even more valuable today.

For just $11 at Amazon, Family Feasts will give you an entire arsenal of tips to save time and money in your supermarket and home. On top of that, it offers hundreds of scalable and easy to prepare recipes across a wide range of cuisines.

Mary writes from a unique position of authority, because she's a real-world woman living in a real-world home, and yet she still makes it all work on a modest income. Finally, if you are willing to apply just a fraction of the ideas in this book, it will quickly pay for itself many times over.

Click here to buy Family Feasts for $75 a Week

3) The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May

Readers, if any of you out there are planning to visit coastal New Jersey in the future, you simply must read this guidebook.

Authored by Jen Miller (find her @jerseyshorejen and at her blog Down The Shore With Jen), this is by far the best and most complete guidebook I've ever seen about the Jersey Shore. It contains everything: restaurant recommendations, information on lodging and logistics, historical and cultural events, and activities for all ages.

As a New Jersey resident myself, let me just say that the Jersey Shore isn't a single place: it's an entire region of coastal cities, towns, villages and communities along the New Jersey oceanfront. It has nothing to do with that puerile show on TV, and everything to do with the rich diversity and history of one of the USA's oldest vacation destinations. If you've ever had an inkling to visit or vacation at the Jersey Shore, buy this book.

Click here to buy The Jersey Shore: From Atlantic City to Cape May

4) The EatSmart Precision Pro Scale

For me, this sleek-looking and surprisingly affordable kitchen scale by EatSmart Products was an unexpected standout. It's exactly the sort of thing that would make a great gift to a friend or family member who's interested in managing portion control, wants to keep a precise diet log, or who simply wants to be able to measure ingredients accurately.

It's easy to use. It has a digital readout that measures to the tenth of an ounce. You can easily weigh items in kilograms/grams or in ounces/pounds, making this scale ideal for converting recipes to or from metric units.

Best of all, this product sells for a reasonable $25 at Amazon. If you or someone you know is looking for a small, sturdy and highly accurate kitchen scales that will take up next to no space in your cupboard, consider this one.

Click here to buy The EatSmarket Precision Pro Scale

5) The Deen Bros. Get Fired Up

I briefly wrote about Jamie and Bobby Deen's cookbook in my recipe post for Citrus Orzo Salad--which by the way is one of the most striking pasta dishes I've cooked in years.

This was an unexpected gem of a cookbook. It offers a great range of healthy, original and highly creative recipes, as well as tons of great tips and advice on making your tailgating, grilling and outdoor picnic experiences easy and fun. I was truly positively surprised by this cookbook, and at an inexpensive $14.00 at Amazon, I recommend it.

Click here to buy The Deen Bros. Get Fired Up

6) The I [Heart] Trader Joe's College Cookbook

Here's where I break up the rhythm and talk about a cookbook that, quite frankly, sucked.

Normally I like to protect my readers from books like these by not talking about them. But I'm rethinking this approach, because I think from time to time there's value to be gained by pointing out a cookbook's flaws, even if they're fatal. Why? Because gives readers rules of thumb on what to look for--and what to avoid--when shopping for any cookbook.

What I don't like about this particular book is that it's little more than a walking advertisement for Trader Joe's ingredients. Every single recipe in here calls for some sort of product you can only buy at Trader Joe's, and almost always, those products are already prepared, second-order foods. This might add convenience, but it also stacks unnecessary costs onto your food budget. Uh, and it's not really cooking to make "recipes" consisting of pre-made foods.

For example, on page 54 is a "recipe" for Chickpea Penne. It's more or less representative of what's in this book. It has three ingredients: half of a 16-ounce package of Trader Joe's frozen penne pasta, a 10-ounce package of Trader Joe's Channa Massala, and Trader Joe's crushed garlic.

Look, I heart Trader Joe's too. But sorry, that's just not a recipe. And this is simply not a worthwhile cookbook.

Obligatory Link to The I [Heart] Trader Joe's College Cookbook (but please don't buy it.)

7) Joy Bauer's Food Cures

I'm often suspicious of books by TV pundits, "experts" or celebrities. Readers who've read my Cooking Like the Stars post, for example, know that celebrity chef endorsed cookware is rarely worth the price premium. That's why my frugality radar was on high alert when I got this book.

I shouldn't have been so cynical.

This is an enormous, encyclopedic, and incredibly useful reference guide--newly revised and updated just this year--that you can refer to for nearly every kind of food, diet, weight loss or health challenge. Best of all, it sells for the laughably cheap price of $13 on Amazon! There are resources in this 500-page guide for everything from cardiovascular problems to arthritis, from IBS to celiac disease, from insomnia to memory loss. Each chapter concludes with a program of lifestyle advice and dietary suggestions to help manage and address each health situation. (Be sure to check out her companion Food Cures website too.)

This is an impressive and extremely affordable dietary and lifestyle desk reference.

Click here to buy Joy Bauer's Food Cures

8) Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

About a year ago, a friend visiting from Italy asked me, in all sincerity: "Why do tomatoes here taste so bad?"

This book will teach you exactly the answer to this question, and it will forever change how you look at grocery store tomatoes. It's by far the most unusual book on today's list, but it's also by far the most striking and interesting. It's part history, part science and part muckracking expose on the tomato growing industry, and when you finish reading it you'll radically rethink your tomato buying habits. I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it to readers. An engrossing read.

Click here to buy Tomatoland

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Jen Blacker said...

I'll second Mary Ostyn's book. It's helped me become a better/smarter cook. I make her mac and cheese frequently, adding frozen veggies then putting it in individual servings in the freezer for my toddler to eat. Healthy and inexpensive. I also use the onion soup mix for adding to roasts (much much cheaper than buying it in the store) and her homemade "cream of" soup bases. If you follow her on her blog/Facebook she often posts new recipes besides all the things she does for her family.

Anonymous said...

Dear Casual Kitchen--
Brett here, the co-author of The Farmer's Kitchen. Many thanks for your kind review! Julia and I priced the book at below our labor cost in part to encourage my CSA members to buy it (even in these tough economic times) and use it. Life is too short to eat bad foods. Our farm and our cookbooks focus on great foods to help consumers enter the same arena of gastronomic pleasure that is enjoyed by chefs and by Europeans. best wishes to you!
--Brett Grohsgal

Daniel said...

Jen, couldn't agree more. Thanks for chiming in.

Brett: thank you for your comment! I simply loved your book, as you can obviously see by my comments above. It's an absolutely great resource for readers.