Bare Minimum Dinners, by Jenna Helwig****

What a good idea! Helwig’s approachable, practical guide is one of the most useful cookbooks I’ve seen in recent years. My thanks go to Net Galley and Mariner Books for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

One of the drawbacks to growing up with easily available readymade meals, as most Americans have done, is that nobody has to learn to cook anymore. It’s optional, the way that baking elaborate meals and desserts used to be. But it’s always more expensive to order take-out food than to make it yourself; it has to be, since you are essentially paying them for not just ingredients, but also the labor costs, utility and rent, and other expenses associated with producing it. The meal that you pull out of your freezer is a bit cheaper, and so is the ubiquitous ramen, but neither is useful nutritionally. A lot of people have become born-again cooks over the course of the pandemic, and after all we have been through, it’s nice that at least some of us have benefited in small ways.

Most cookbooks—and I love the things, even the useless ones—aren’t especially helpful. They call for elaborate preparation; tools you probably don’t own; unusual ingredients that have to be hunted down; and then in some cases, produce far more food than a single person or couple can make use of. Helwig’s is different. Her recipes call for ordinary, inexpensive ingredients, and most of them require only basic kitchen equipment. Right up front she explains what pans, machinery, cutlery and other tools she recommends we buy, and although this chapter looks like the one that a lot of people will skip on their way to find a recipe for tonight’s dinner, I recommend you read it when you purchase the book. This reviewer is a Boomer, and I was thirty before I had a microwave oven. I know how to cook and am fairly good at it. Nevertheless, reading this chapter persuaded me to add one more item to my collection. Her practicality is undeniable.

The recipes that look the most tempting to me also require the largest number of dishes to be washed. That’s the way it goes, right? Chilaquiles; Apple Dutch Baby; Mushroom and Gruyere Quesadillas; yum! But she also has an entire chapter titled “Bare Minimum Cleanup” which faithfully adheres to a rule of one pot or pan, period. Because some nights we don’t care to be creative. We just want to grab the food, fix it, and get dinner out of the way so we can move forward with our evening. Helwig gets that.

The sole complaint that prevents my fifth star for jumping on board is that there are certain ingredients and flavors that appear too frequently. Not everybody loves cabbage, for example. Helwig rhapsodizes about its taste, low price, and versatility, and whereas the latter two claims are obviously true, the first is subject to the cook’s preferences. As for me, I do like cabbage once in awhile, but I don’t want it all the time. There are also a few other places where I would have preferred some more versatility.

Nevertheless, this book is a gem, and every recipe in this cookbook has more appeal than that freezer-burnt burrito you bought last March. If you are a newbie with a limited income and not much kitchen experience, you should get this book now. If you are more seasoned, you might want it anyway. And as a bonus feature, I notice that although almost every cookbook is frustrating to read digitally, this one is better than most. If you can get it in print, I still advise doing so, but if your budget only runs to digital versions, that shouldn’t stop you. Someday you’ll wonder how you got by without it.

How to Grill Vegetables, by Steven Raichlen****

Raichlen is the author of The Barbecue Bible, which won the Julia Child Cookbook Award. I won a copy of that excellent tome in a Goodreads First Reads drawing, and I’ve used it every summer since then. So when I noticed that his guide to vegetables on the grill was available, I leapt on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Workman Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Summer is the best time of the year to eat healthy foods, and yet when we attend a barbecue, often the only vegetable dish is the potato salad, and possibly an anemic tossed salad or plate of tomatoes. Raichlen proves that it doesn’t have to be that way. This nifty cookbook provides starters, entrees, and includes some ideas I’d never considered, like making bread or pizza on the grill. I made the green bean rafts (stuck together with skewers, cooked on the cooler part of the grill, liberally oiled) and the hobo packs. I think the latter is due for change to a more sensitive name, but Raichlen didn’t invent this category of food preparation, and we cannot hold him responsible for the term. As to the food inside the pack, it was delicious, and has made its way into the regular rotation for summer barbecues at my house.

The sad part here is that for those of us eating vegetables as part of a weight loss regimen, the benefits are limited. Again—not the author’s fault. It’s impossible to cook vegetables on high heat this way without adding a lot of fat into the mix. It’s a matter of physics, and there’s nothing we can do about it; if I surrendered rather easily to the need for gobs of olive oil, surely no one can fault me. I look forward to trying the recipe for Tuscan Edamame next.

One of the things I appreciate most about this author is that he doesn’t use his book as a sales tool. It burns me up when I purchase a cookbook, only to find that many of the writer’s recipes include some secret blend of flavorings that can only be obtained by ordering it from—you guessed it—the author. Raichlen doesn’t stoop to this practice, and his recipe calls for ingredients that are are readily available and reasonably affordable. My one complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that too many of these recipes call for me to do a great deal of kitchen prep, involving many dishes and sometimes a food processor, before venturing out to the barbecue. For me, the joy of barbecuing, apart from its delicious results, is to spare myself all that time in a hot kitchen (or a cool one that results in astronomical energy bills.) I don’t want to come back inside after a barbecue and have to contend with a mountain of bowls and pans that need washing. I like to keep it simple.  However, this can be done by picking and choosing which recipes to try.

Most of these recipes are not vegetarian in nature, so if that’s your wheelhouse, you will be happier looking elsewhere, assuming that someone somewhere has written such a book. I don’t need it, so I haven’t searched. But what you can make here is scrumptious.

I generally like reading digitally, but cookbooks are a pain in the butt to read on a phone or tablet, so for that reason, I suggest you buy this nifty cookbook on paper. Summer isn’t over yet, so get it now!