Top 12 Books of 2014


Happy New Year!  It's chilly and miserable here so we've been immersed in good books, good food and good company (i.e., lots of warm cats) as we welcome 2015.  Thought we'd share 12 of our top picks from the past year on the topics of food and gardening, in case you're holed up by wintry weather as well and looking for some good reads!

1.  The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green, 1994)  

Mr. Logsdon is one of those writers that writes and writes and...writes! Thank heavens.  This is just one of his fabulous books about his farming adventures on 32 acres in northern Ohio.  Mr. Logsdon was one of the early leaders of the back-to-the-land movement of the '70s, and he's remained a powerful (and prolific) voice in the field ever since.  His rambling, poetic and always contrary reflections on farming will get you inspired.

2.  The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening by Gene Logsdon (Chelsea Green, 1997)  

Another wonderful book from Mr. Logsdon, with this time (you guessed it!) a focus on the home gardener.  In words that resonate just as well today as they did in the late '90s, the author writes: "Economic 'invisible hands' continue to force people not only from the land,  but from owning a house that has enough land with it for an ample garden, and even, in many cases, from owning a house at all...The alternative of heading off into the frontier with a cow and an ax no longer exists; the frontiers are all covered with Coke cans.  But the other alternative to regaining some portion of independence, and therefore self-esteem, remains: the garden." This book has some excellent practical gardening tips we've used, particularly his methods for building low, mulched planting beds.

3.  Ten Acres Enough: The Classic 1864 Guide to Independent Farming by Edmund Morris (Dover, 2004)

This book is fascinating.  What, one might ask, can I gain from reading a book written 150 years ago?  Turns out, quite a bit, especially about how times have changed for small farmers in the US.  Mr. Morris moved from Philadelphia to a 10-acre farm in New Jersey in 1855, and proceeded to teach himself how to farm, growing strawberries, blackberries, peaches, tomatoes and other crops for the big markets of New York and Philadelphia.  Back then, making a living as a small farmer was a fairly straightforward process: grow the crop; sort through the crop for the finest-looking, freshest specimens; pack it up in wooden crates and take it to the train station, where the train whisks the produce away to your agent; the agent haggles a good deal for you with city vendors; finally the agent sends you back the money and the empty produce boxes via train.  At the end of 1857, just two years into his farming venture, Mr. Morris (a meticulous record-keeper) recorded net profits of $567.  Adjusted for inflation, that comes to about $15,300 in today’s dollars, which may not sound like much until you consider that Mr. Morris had no mortgage, no car loans, and no credit card debt.  He was able to pay a farm hand year-round, and supported his wife and six children in comfort.  Those were the days.  Today, many small farmers have to maintain some type of off-farm job to help cover the bills.

4.  Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Harper Collins, 1953)

Wait.  This is a kid’s book, right?  Yes and no.  While we’re ensconced in the late 1800s, let’s turn to Mrs. Wilder’s classic tale (first in a series of nine books) of her childhood on the frontier.  It’s 1871, Laura is four (almost five), and the stories of life in the Big Woods are definitely not just for children. The things Laura considered run-of-the-mill (panthers and bear encounters, for example) are guaranteed to make you have a lot of respect for these pioneers.  What’s really fun about re-reading this book as an adult is the amazing self-sufficiency Laura’s family exhibits: they raised the majority of their own food, Pa went hunting and fishing to get meat for the family, and they survived in the wild without cell phones or the internet.  Hard to believe.

5.  Harder Than Hardscrabble: Oral Recollections of the Farming Life From the Edge of the Texas Hill Country, ed. by Thad Sitton (University of Texas Press, 2003)

Can you tell I (Sarah) was a history major?  Here we have another farming retrospective, this time from 1930s Texas.  These first-person accounts were gleaned from interviews with residents of the farming communities that were taken over by the U.S. Army in 1942 to build Fort Hood.  We picked this book up during our visit to the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm (you can read our piece about that visit here.)  This book was particularly interesting to me since my grandmother grew up in Texas in the 1930s, picking cotton and leading a life fairly similar to the ones described in this book.  I have a whole new respect for Grandma Bess now.  If I’d had to pick cotton in a sweltering summer field full of rattlesnakes, I would have lasted about 2 minutes.  Make that 30 seconds.  This book is full of great recollections of life on the farm, such as this one from Frankie Trantham: “I’d have to get up early of a morning.  Now, my mama never stayed in the bed until after daylight.  Before daylight she was up!  Getting breakfast ready and this and that, and she’d always call me, she’d say, ‘You better get up!  You got to go milk.’”

6.  Backyard Homesteading: A Back-to-Basics Guide to Self-Sufficiency by David Toht (Creative Homeowner, 2012)

On to something published in this century.  This is the “view from 30,000 feet” book on homesteading, so it’s a good place to start if you haven’t really begun gardening/raising chickens/canning/etc. yet (but you’ve been thinking about it!)  Mr. Toht casts a pretty broad net with this book, so don’t expect a lot of detail on each individual subject, but as an overview it does a great job.  We especially liked his suggestion to build a little scale model of your garden layout (out of paper, foam or whatever suits your fancy) before you start digging/building raised beds.  Hear, hear.  It’s a lot easier to move a little 2-inch model bed than it is to relocate a 20-foot bed.  Not that we’ve ever needed to do that.

7.  Fodor’s Pacific Northwest, 18th edition (Fodor’s Travel, 2011)

There is a 19th edition of this book, we just haven’t tried it out.  The 18th edition, we can vouch for. We had the opportunity to spend two weeks exploring northwest Oregon in October, and this was a handy guide for finding our way around.  We visited some great farms along the “Fruit Loop” of Hood River County, where we found pears for sale at just 69 cents per pound.  Then we tried to figure out how to get them all back to Texas with us.  

8.  The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (Clarkson Potter, 2007)

Beautifully written and illustrated, this is a wonderful cookbook from one of the founding mothers of the local food movement.  We love her practical tips on eating locally, seasonally and with zest.  Follow her recipes and suggestions, and you’ll never eat another boring dinner!

9.  The World’s Healthiest Foods by George Mateljan (World’s Healthiest Foods, 2007)

A massive tome on how to eat in a way that is nutrient-rich, satisfying, and cost-effective.  Mr. Mateljan, who has studied cooking in France, Italy and England, brings together a mind-boggling amount of nutritional information and recipes in this 880-page book.  We’ve found it a very helpful reference point when faced with puzzling questions (such as: how to cook fill-in-the-blank-vegetable-that-we-bought-but-have-no-idea-what-to-do-with-now).  We are still working on cooking our way through the wonderful recipes in this book!

10.  Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, ed. by Judi Kingly and Lauren Devine (Robert Rose, 2006)

This is the book you really should buy BEFORE you embark on any canning adventures.  I bought it afterwards.  I am still afraid to eat the garden tomatoes I canned over the summer.  So just do yourself a favor and buy this book if you're going to can!  Great reference point, as is the Ball website.  Home canning can be totally overwhelming, so this is a great resource.

11.  The Okinawa Program: How the World’s Longest-Lived People Achieve Everlasting Health—And How You Can Too  by Bradley Willcox, M.D., D. Craig Willcox, Ph.,D., and Makoto Suzuki, M.D. (Harmony, 2002)

The result of the Okinawa Centenarian Study (a 25-year study of over 600 Okinawan centenarians, as well as Okinawans in their 70s-90s), this book is a must-read for anyone who plans to get old someday.  The bottom line of this study is that the folks in Okinawa who live a traditional lifestyle and eat a traditional diet are, for the most part, successfully able to dodge the ills that plague our western societies (heart disease, hormone-dependent cancers such as breast and prostate cancer, osteoporosis, dementia, and obesity, to name a few.)  We read this book and went, where do we sign up?  The authors suggest both dietary and lifestyle changes for us in the West, and they include recipes towards the end of the book for those who want to work elements of the traditional Okinawan diet into their meal plan.  They also offer advice on stress reduction practices (we are currently trying to learn some Tai Chi…emphasis here on trying!)

12.  The Folk Art of Japanese Country Cooking: A Traditional Diet for Today’s World by Gaku Homma (North Atlantic Books, 1993)

In the spirit of The Okinawa Program, we dove into traditional Japanese cooking!  This book by Aikido instructor and head chef at Domo Restaurant in Denver seemed like a great place to start.  It’s a wonderful introduction to traditional northern Japanese country cooking, full of recipes as well as narratives about the history of the different foods.  A dizzying and culturally-rich overview of traditional cooking…next time we’re in Denver, we’re definitely making a stop at Domo!

And that wraps up our Top 12 Books of 2014!  All of us here at Four Cats In The Kitchen would like to wish you a happy, prosperous and book-filled New Year. 

Giving Thanks (Despite all the Holiday Chaos)

Saw this in a McMinnville, OR church window--love!

Saw this in a McMinnville, OR church window--love!

In our neck of the woods school is out, traffic is snarled, and Christmas trees are up for sale. Thanksgiving must be right around the corner.  The one and only year we tried our hand at roasting turkey was an unmitigated disaster*, so we will direct you to the experts at The Kitchn for any and all turkey questions:  

Turkey-Buying Guide

Time to Thaw that Turkey

How To Cook A Turkey

How to Take Your Turkey's Temperature

30 Essential Thanksgiving Recipes

Side-Dish-Only Thanksgiving (this, we could do.)

8 Smart Ways to Enjoy a Thanksgiving for Just Two

6 Ways to Host Thanksgiving When You're on a Budget (our tip: talk your way out of it)

And then, of course, there's pie, as if wrangling the turkey wasn't bad enough.  Once again, some of our very favorite cooking experts to the rescue...

Classic Pumpkin Pie

Ginger Pumpkin Pie

Classic Double-Crust Apple Pie

Old-Fashioned Pecan Pie

Pie Recipe Roundup from Simply Recipes 

How to Freeze Unbaked Pies

Pie Mistakes to Avoid

Preventing Soggy Pie Crusts

Now are you hungry from perusing those mouth-watering recipes, or what??

For our readers here in the US, if you plan to travel this Thanksgiving season so are 41 million other Americans (by car) and 3.5 million more (by air.)  Or so AAA projects.  Also keep an eye on the icky weather forecast for the East Coast this week.  We do not plan to travel.  We routinely boycott holiday travel, in favor of mental health.  Our far-flung relatives have stopped expecting to see us at their holiday soirees by this point.  FaceTime is a beautiful thing...although eating dinner in front of an iPad may not hold quite the appeal that eating turkey together around Grandma's table does...

So whether or not you roast that turkey, whip that pie into shape, or head over the river and through the woods to reunite with loved ones for Thanksgiving, we hope you have a wonderful holiday!  If you do plan to drive, check out this great winter driving checklist. We are thankful for YOU, our readers, and for all the blessings of this special season!  




*We have undying respect for those cooks out there who make Thanksgiving look so easy. Please note: we would like to be invited over some time.  We are excellent, appreciative diners. We also do dishes!



Meal Planning Essentials

Meal planning doesn't have to give you heartburn...

Meal planning doesn't have to give you heartburn...

Meal planning is sort of like budgeting.  It isn't exactly a fun process, although as with budgeting, there are fabulous people out there who LOVE it.  To them we say: please come to our house!  Without a meal plan, things tend to fall into chaos around here, especially during hectic weeknights.  There's that dreaded question: "What's for dinner?" You, the cook, must then come up with something, when what you really feel like doing is vegging out in front of the television with frozen pizza while your hungry family members fend for themselves.

The trick to avoiding this whole unhappy scenario is to plan ahead.  There is beautiful software available to assist you in this endeavor, complete with printable shopping lists and nutritional information. For a review of some of the highest-rated meal planning tools, click here.  For us, however, keeping it simple (and cheap) has been the key to developing workable meal plans that we can rely on to get us through the week.  We can't tell you how to plan your meals, because only YOU know what you and your family like to eat, what your budget is, and so on.  

What we can share are some general principles that have worked well for us.  They are, in no particular order:

  1. Go through your refrigerator/pantry and see what ingredients you currently have on hand.  Food waste is a terrible sin. Build your meal plan around ingredients you already have, then shop for the extra bits and pieces that will complete the picture.  Too often food gets tossed simply because we didn't have a clear goal in mind for it when we bought it.
  2. You don't have to make everything from scratch, every night.  If you're just starting out in your cooking adventures, don't sweat it if your meal plan for the night includes rotisserie chicken.  Or frozen pizza.
  3. Plan meals you and your family like to eat.  If you have kids, bring them in on the planning process...this is a great way to get them interested in cooking! 
  4. Hang up your meal plan in a prominent location.  For us, this is the fridge.  You may find a whiteboard handy, or a chalkboard.  This way, if anyone asks "What's for dinner?" you may simply direct them to the list (in a tone that brooks no argument, of course.)
  5. If you're just warming up to the idea of meal planning, we suggest that you start with planning DINNER for Monday-Friday.  This is only five meals.  You can do it!  You can always work your way up from there later on.  You can plan two weeks worth of meals...then a month...complete with breakfast and lunch plans...dessert...the sky's the limit! 
  6. Never hesitate to break from your plan, as needed.  Life is messy.  Adjust accordingly. 

Please feel free to share your favorite meal planning tips and tricks in the comments section below.  We wish you the very best in your meal-planning adventures!