Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Book Tour Stops Here: A Review of the "Signs and Seasons" Cookbook by Amy Zerner and Monte Farber, with Chef John Okas, Served with a Recipe for Seared Scallops and Israeli Couscous

Happy Tuesday! On today's TLC Book Tour stop, I'm reviewing the unique new cookbook Signs and Seasons by Amy Zerner, Monte Farber, and Chef John Okas. Along with my review, I am cooking up one of the recipes from the book, Scallops and Israeli Couscous.

Publisher's Blurb:

Discover how to eat for your sign and nourish your soul in Signs and Seasons, the one-of-a-kind cookbook that pairs chef-driven seasonal recipes with deep insight into how astrology shapes our appetites, from iconic astrologer Monte Farber and artist Amy Zerner.

Food connects us to our families, history, culture, and to the natural world itself—to the seasons and the cycle of life. Just as our path around the sun—and through the Zodiac—dictates the seasons, the seasons dictate what will flourish, from the tender greens of early spring to late summer’s lush and impossible perfect tomatoes.

In Signs and Seasons, Farber and Zerner—along with chef John Okas—take home cooks through the four seasons and each of their astrological signs in over 95 tantalizing seasonal recipes that include starters; meat, seafood, and vegetarian mains; sides; and desserts for each sign.

Inspired by the cuisine of the Mediterranean, home of the Greco-Roman cultures that named the planets after their gods, Signs and Seasons teaches you how to:
·         Feed friends and loved ones based on their signs and the season
·         Deepen your understanding of Nature and the Universe
·         Discover how astrology shapes our personalities, tastes, and appetites

Whether exploring the “Twin nature” and “Mercurial spirit” of ramps (a spring delicacy well suited Geminis) in a recipe for Ramps al Olio or the historical association of saffron with Venus in the recipe for Roasted Corn Orecchiette, Signs and Seasons is the perfect guide for eating in a way that emphasizes both sensual nourishment and psychic satisfaction. Beautifully photographed in full color by Monte Farber and illustrated by Amy Zerner, Signs and Seasons is a one-of-a-kind source of inspiration for astrology enthusiasts and home chefs alike.

Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: HarperElixir (May 2, 2017)

My Review:

I am not an expert in astrology--I read my horoscope and I do believe that I possess some definite characteristics of my Libra astrological sign. I also believe that there are various reasons that our bodies crave certain foods or do better when we eat or don't eat foods that effect our chemistry in certain ways. Too much wheat, dairy, and red wine are not friends to my allergies and asthma and I feel better eating certain beans, nuts, and produce than others. I am not sold on whether or not that is because of my body type, blood type, astrological sign, or just individual chemistry, but I am always interested in reading about what foods I "should" eat and why. I found the Signs and Seasons cookbook both entertaining and interesting to read, although it's not something I would have a tendency to follow too much--other than for entertainment purposes. It's a combination of astrology primer and cookbook focused on how to "feed your sign the food it craves" as well as feeding the signs of your friends and family.

I liked reading the explanations for why our signs may crave certain foods and how astrology is, at its core, an expression of life as an annual cyclical process. It makes sense to me that my sign, Libra--the only non human or animal sign is associated with fall and the harvest, its scales bring to mind the fall, when harvest crops were weighed and measured. The book is set up seasonally--with Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter recipes for the associated signs in that season and an introduction to each seasonal grouping of signs with color photos of many of the recipes to follow. Recipes are categorized by Starters, Salads, Pasta, Vegetarian, Seafood, Meat, Sides, and Desserts with a recipe for each of the three signs in that season in each category. Each recipe has an explanation/introduction about it and beautiful astrological drawings accompany the recipes. I thought the artwork surpassed the food photography in the book. There seemed something slightly dated about some of the photos and I would have also liked having them mixed into and accompanying the recipes rather than preceding them. 

I found the book a bit awkward to sort through when I was looking for a Libra recipe to make and although the book proposes that there is a rhythm in nature and that when the sun is in a certain sign, it also says that seasonally, all individuals regardless of their sign share in the characteristics and energy matrix of that season of the cycle--so not to get too hung up on picking a dish for every sign you are feeding. For example, I'm reviewing this book in early summer but my sign kicks off fall, so the bulk of the Libra recipes to chose from feel like fall recipes with foods that are not as readily available this time of year. I would have liked more variety in seasonal recipe options and ideas for my sign as I really wanted to try one of "my" Libra recipes when reviewing the book. My sign wants to be fed food it craves all year round! ;-) I eventually picked the least fall-seeming recipe for Libra and made a couple of small changes to make it feel more appropriate for summer weather and eating styles. I think this is ultimately OK because while the book does guide the reader to balance the menu and look for foods that each sign would like when hosting them, it leaves a lot open to interpretation and doesn't seem to take itself too seriously. I do think a bigger selection of foods--maybe more shared or 'secondary' foods that more than one sign enjoys--would have been helpful. In any case, definitely read the introduction section and the section on How Each Sign Eats, Cooks and Entertains first, to guide you through the thought process and to learn interesting facts and background about the different signs.

The section of "How Each Sign Eats, Cooks and Entertains" was most interesting to me and I agreed with much, but not all of the information for my sign. Libra foods were listed as apples, walnuts, scallops, fennel, capers, pomegranate, broccoli, and oats. For me they got the apples, fennel, and capers totally right--these are foods I love and crave. I find walnuts, pomegranate, and oats less crave-worthy and I like broccoli, but it doesn't like me--unless it is pureed in a soup, it gives me terrible stomach cramps. Scallops are OK--I prefer fish, crab and shrimp to them and generally don't order or cook them much. The Herbs for Libra are vanilla and cinnamon--both big favorites of mine and I won't argue with the Personal Qualities: "artistic, refined, poised, intelligent, tactful." Hah! ;-) 

The book goes on to mention Libra's difficulties in deciding what to eat--totally true for me--I want all the food, and that eating is an art and Libras want what they eat to be "absolutely garden fresh and also look photo ready." Guilty--especially since I started food blogging. They also got right "simple meals with an elegant, gourmet flare" and not liking food too spicy or too bland--I like some spice but I want to taste my food more than feel the burn. I didn't agree as much with needing a partner to help make entertaining decisions or that my "indecision, vacillation, and a lack of sensible, consistent reference points will cause delays" when entertaining--I get my Libra indecision out in the beginning and it isn't something I let my guests see or something that delays me in feeding people on time. Still, overall it was a fairly accurate portrait of my personality and entertaining to read. 

All in all, I think Signs and Seasons is a unique and fun cookbook for astrology buffs, those who like to read more than recipes in their cookbooks, those who enjoying hosting and entertaining, and home cooks looking for something different for their cookbook collections. Although I was only able to cook one dish (made up of two recipes) from the book so far, it was quite good in flavor and simple to follow. The recipes were created by a chef and seem clearly written and accessible to someone with some basic cooking skills under their belts. The recipes don't have a lot of steps or difficult-to-find ingredients and I would say that while they lean to the healthier side of eating, there are also more decadent dishes mixed in. Vegetarians and fish eaters can get by with this book as there are a good amount of meat-free options in the over 95 recipes and there are meat and poultry options to please carnivores. 

Unless you have a heavy interest in astrology and/or entertaining and feeding people through their signs is something that really calls to you, Signs and Seasons may be better as a cookbook that you check out of the library to read and consider or use for an event or two. For me it's not a book that I will be pulling out a lot, but I do plan to share it with a (Virgo) foodie friend to jointly put together a dinner party for a small group. I think it will be fun to try and a good way to shake up the normal party routine this summer.

Author Notes:

Since 1988, AMY ZERNER, a U.S. National Endowment for the Arts award-winning fine artist, and her husband, author MONTE FARBER, have created what they call their family of “spiritual power tools,” including The Enchanted Tarot, Instant Tarot, Sun Sign Secrets, Karma Cards, Little Reminders: The Law of Attraction Deck, Chakra Meditation Kit, The Truth Fairy Pendulum Kit, The Soulmate Path and Quantum Affirmations. There are over two million copies of their works in print in sixteen languages. The couple lives in East Hampton, NY. They believe that adding love, light, and laughter to everything one cooks is essential to creating great meals and a great life.  More at www.theenchantedworld.net.
CHEF JOHN OKAS began his career in childhood, cooking alongside his Sicilian grandmother in their family kitchen. He has cooked at Paradox in Manhattan, Georgette’s in Easthampton, and the Captiva Inn in Florida. Under the pen name John Penza, he is the author of Sicilian-American Pasta and Sicilian Vegetarian Cooking. He currently lives in Bridgehampton, New York, where he is a personal chef and is also associated with the Highway Restaurant.

The Recipe:

After checking out my Libra choices: Butternut Soup with Roasted Pepitas, Waldorf Salad, Broccoli Rabe, Sausage, and White Beans with Penne, Butternut Squash Lasagna, Apple-Stuffed Pork Tenderloin, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, and Apple Crumble, I selected the Seafood option and tried Scallops and Israeli Couscous. It still had a slight fall feel, but I decided to add some fresh lemon juice and fresh mint to put in some green color and brightness to make it feel a bit more like early summer. I also added capers--it said my sign preferred them but put kalamata olives in the recipe. I like olives, but I LOVE capers so I used my Libra balancing skills and used them both! My changes to the recipe are in red below.

Signs and Seasons says, "For this simple preparation, the scallops must be absolutely fresh. You may use sea scallops, but if you live near a bay, the dainty autumn wonders that are bay scallops --which are a quarter of the size of their deep-sea cousins--become available during the fall months. For its symmetry, the scallop shell is associated with Venus, ruler of Libra. Its link to Beauty can be seen in Renaissance art, where the goddess is depicted cutting through the waves on a scallop shell."  

Scallops and Israeli Couscous
Slightly Adapted from Signs and Seasons
(Serves 4 to 6)

For the Couscous:
1 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup Israeli couscous
12 cup coarsely chopped toasted almonds
1/2 cup slivered dried apricots
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
(I added 2 Tbsp capers)
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp lemon zest
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
(I added 2 Tbsp lemon juice and 1/3 cup chopped fresh mint)

For the Scallops:
2 lbs scallops
3 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 tsp (salt-free) lemon pepper
3/4 tsp seasoned salt (onion, garlic, or celery)(I used celery salt)
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper

Make the couscous. Bring the stock to a boil in a saucepot set over high heat. Add the rest of the ingredients for the couscous and stir. Lower the heat to a simmer, and cover. After 4 or 5 minutes, stir. If all the liquid is absorbed, add a few tablespoons of water. Continue cooking until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is al dente or just short of al dente. Remove it from the heat, and let it sit, covered, while you prepare the scallops. It will cook further in its own sweet and savory steam.

Make the scallops. Add the scallops to a mixing bowl. Add 1 scant tablespoon of the olive oil, the lemon pepper, seasoned salt, and the cayenne, and toss gently to coat. 

Heat 1 to 2 teaspoons of the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet until it is smoking hot. Carefully add a few of the scallops at a time, searing them in small batches. To keep the oil hot, do not overcrowd the pan.

Let the scallops sit without touching them for about 2 minutes. DO not stir the scallops, or they will give up liquid and poach instead of sear. After about 2 minutes, gently turn up the edge of one of the scallops. It should have a deep brown layer of caramelization. Gently flip the scallops, and sear for another 2 minutes or so until they are well-seared on both sides. Transfer to an oven sheet, allowing each scallop room to breathe. Repeat with the remaining oil and scallops until you have seared all the scallops. 

Fluff the couscous with a fork, and put a generous scoop in the center of each serving plate Surround with a circle of scallops.

Notes/Results: This recipe really turned out really well--it is delicious and goes together easily and quickly, but it also looks pretty impressive on the plate, making it good for weeknight entertaining. (Especially if your quests are Libras like me!) ;-) I think it would have been good as written, but I liked the changes I made to the couscous with the addition of the capers, lemon juice and fresh mint and I felt they made it fit better for serving in the spring/summer or for year-round eating. I love celery salt and I really liked the flavor it added to the scallops when combined with the lemon pepper and cayenne. The scallops (I bought mine frozen at Whole Foods since fresh are hard to get here) were nicely caramelized on the outside but tender within, and enjoying them with the couscous salad may have moved them up a few notches on my seafood favorites list. I would happily make this recipe again or pair the couscous with local fish or shrimp for another option.

I am linking up this cookbook review with Foodie Reads 2017 as my fourth entry. You can check out the May Foodies Read linkup, hosted by Heather at Based on a True Story, to see what everyone is reading this month.   

I'm also linking this post up to the Weekend Cooking event at Beth Fish Reads, a weekly event that is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share. For more information, see the welcome post.

Note: A review copy of "Signs & Seasons" was provided to me by the publisher Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours. I was not compensated for this review and as always, my thoughts and opinions are my own.

You can see the stops for the rest of this TLC Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.



  1. It does sound like an interesting book. I think we all enjoy astrology at some level because we're just curious to see if predictions come true. This cookbook's premise sounds pretty unique; never heard of combining food + astrological signs. Will have to look for this at the library -- it sounds entertaining. I love couscous but am allergic to shellfish so no scallops for me.

  2. What will people come up with next! Cheers

  3. I find these books so much fun to look through, and am curious what it would say about my sign. I can't say I believe my birth sign rules my dietary choices, but still fun.

  4. Well I don't know about the astrology part but that scallop dinner looks amazing. Thanks for th tip to not stir them or they will poach rather than sear. Recently I learned if you let scallops sit out for a bit and not cook them immediately from the cold fridge, you will get better browning.


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