Review: Smitten Kitchen Keepers by Deb Perelman

My Quick Take: Just yum! Great recipes that are truly “keepers.” I cooked three recipes and there are so many more I want to try.

The last twenty years or so has significantly transformed how I approach cooking and baking. Not so much the actual cooking itself, or the recipes I ultimately choose (though I now use far less meat and poultry), but rather the process of selecting recipes. As a kid, I started with the recipe books that my Mom had on her shelf. There were the really old books–the beat-up and stained Betty Crocker cookbook, or the torn up Five Roses cookbook that was sadly missing its cover. Then came Jean Paré’s Company’s Coming series, which my Mom collected. They provided basic recipes that all made sense and tasted pretty good to me as a teen. Those recipes even used handy things like canned cream soups and packets of onion powder.

Maybe that seems retro now, but in actual fact those recipes fed us well and were the workhorses of my teens and early 20s. I remember making Paré’s scones over and over. My first attempts at pancakes and muffins came from those books as well. I still have a couple of the books, truth be told, though I haven’t cracked them open in awhile. Hmm…this is giving me ideas for a retro cookbook feature…

All this to say that while I still have some cookbooks on my shelf, over the last decades I’ve gravitated to using the internet to find recipes. I even have a way to collect them digitally using the wonderful RecipeSage website, which is free and amazing. When you Google “black bean chili” or “banana loaf” enough times, the same websites tend to show up on search results. was always one of them; I’ve cooked and bookmarked so many of Deb Perelman’s recipes over the years that I’ve lost count. She’s an OG internet recipe warrior and has taught me much.

I haven’t used her cookbooks, so when I scored tickets to see her speak this month for the Vancouver Writers Fest Incite series, hosted by the Vancouver Public Library, I borrowed my neighbour’s copy of her most recent book, Smitten Kitchen Keepers. I got to work cooking some new recipes. Her talk, by the way, was amazing. Deb is a hugely engaging speaker and I had a great time.

Smitten Kitchen Keepers has a lovely introduction and I now recognize that it’s written in a wonderful Deb Perelman positive and chatty voice. “I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I think this is the book I was always meant to write. Given that it’s my third cookbook, this is a bit awkward. It would be like declaring a new child the one you got right, while the first two glare at you from across the room.” As to what makes a recipe a keeper for this book? “It’s a brilliantly fuss-free lemon poppy seed cake. It’s my favorite way to roast winter squash. It’s an epic quiche. It’s a slow-roasted chicken on a bed of unapologetically schmaltzy croutons.”

With those words, here are the three recipes I chose:

Simple Black Bean Chili

I eat a lot of beans, and apparently so does Deb! This chili is different in that she advises charring the peppers, onions and garlic under the grill in a bit of oil for just 5-10 minutes then assembling the chili on the stovetop. I learned that you can get some nice soft garlic by broiling. Simple and satisfying, we loved this bean-forward chili with its hint of chipotle.

Soy-Glazed Tofu with Crisped Rice

This was the winner of the three recipes for me. This was more a complete meal than one recipe, with three separate components that sang on the plate when combined. First you take rice and make a layer of it in your pan with oil and salt, let it crisp, turning it once. It’s like the rice at the bottom of a dolsot bibimbap. Then shallow fry some tofu, and make a very basic glaze to pour over top. This glaze? It’s simple but it packs a flavour punch. Finally, I made the accompanying slaw, composed of crisp veg and a rice vinegar/sesame oil dressing. Put it all on a plate and magic happens. Even more magic? I can make any of these components separately for dinner, and I learned an awesome way to use up slightly-less-than-ideal thawed leftover white rice in a delicious way.

Pumpkin Snacking Cake

Okay, here’s how much I hate food waste. At Halloween, we carve two pumpkins, but only on actual Halloween. This is because after the kids are done trick-or-treating, I put them in a hot oven and roast them (which has the unintentional effect of making the holiday more macabre as we watch the Jack-O-Lantern faces slowly burn and sag as they cook). The next day I spend an inordinate amount of time prepping then puréeing it all in my trusty Vitamix. As a result, I have excessive amounts of frozen pumpkin that I have difficulty using up by the next Halloween.

Needless to say, I have developed laser vision that seeks out pumpkin recipes at all times. Of course, then, I had to make this pumpkin cake. Also, I love making Wacky Cake (egg, butter and milk free Depression era cake), because it never fails. This is a pumpkin Wacky Cake and it didn’t fail either. It all got eaten so quickly it didn’t make it to the freezer, and I was able to use up ¾ cup of my puréed Halloween pumpkin. Huzzah!


Cooking from Smitten Kitchen Keepers was a great experience. It’s a cookbook that is friendly and welcoming, and everything I tried worked out! Perhaps one day Deb will have a fourth cookbook child? But in the meantime, I’ll be avidly following her website.