old and new,
reviewed in brief
From Radiance Winter 1999
Cookbooks can conjure up intimidation for many of us. We want to cook
well and make the food look like the pictures. We often leave these books on the shelf for
years, maybe with the spine cracked at the one recipe we tried that worked, but with the
other pages as fresh and pure as the day they came off the press.
This timid cooks syndrome can be combated by treating cookbooks as
they should be: works of literature. The best will have drama, character, plot, and
evocative description; even the merely good can offer some damned fine food fantasies.
Read your cookbooks. If you find you dont use or enjoy one of your cookbooks, pass
it on to a friend or trade it in at your local used bookstore. Following are some synopses
to whet your appetite for this genre of literature.
Cooks Bible: The Best of American Home Cooking
BY CHRISTOPHER KIMBALL
(Little, Brown: 1996)
Dont let the title fool you: there is nothing
preachy about this eminently scientific collection of recipes, reviews, and illustrations.
Christopher Kimball, founder and editor of Cooks Illustrated Magazine, brings
nearly two decades of thorough food research to bear on the problems that home cooks face,
from choosing a fry pan to cutting a tomato. The results of his inquiry form a sensible
book that is half the size of the informational but immense Joy of Cooking, and about
twice as useful.
Kimball is most known for his Consumer Reports style of investigating
cookery: he runs tests and tastings on different methods, ingredients, and equipment, and
then offers up his findings as neutrally as possible. Articulate recipes for old and new
favoriteschocolate cake, salsa, roast beefconstitute a heaping one-third of
the book, which may not seem like a lot at first. But the engaging commentary and test
results that fill the remaining pages provide you with enough know-how to get creative on
your own. Among other mysteries revealed, you get more than fifty pages on outfitting the
kitchen, master plans for constructing salads, knife-sharpening tips, and a liberal
sprinkling of charts and sketches to better illuminate Kimballs many principles.
The California Pizza
BY LARRY FLAX AND RICK ROSENFIELD
and food, the suburbs are always the last to know. Brightly lit malls across the country
are still snapping up California Pizza Kitchen franchises nearly a decade after the
gourmet pizza craze first hit sharp-edged city storefronts and unassuming college-town
Fortunately for CPK founders Flax and Rosenfield, pizza
remains one of the most flexible food items on the planet, third only to rice and pasta. A
properly chewy and unadulterated crust (no herbs and no stuffed crust!) can support any
topping you want to pile on it, and these guys have shoveled a lot of crazy stuff onto
theirs, most of which works out just fine. Their square little cookbook, which just
happens to be about the size of one of CPKs personal pizzas, contains instructions
for recreating several dozen of their popular novelty and ethnic-based toppings, including
their best-selling Thai Chicken and, of course, BBQ Chicken. More playful possibilities,
such as Eggs Benedict pizzas and a smoked salmon topping with dillshallot sauce,
certainly keep the mind open!
The recipe for pizza dough is lengthyas are most
recipes for good breadsso following it will be a good stretch for home bakers. The
rest of us may opt for Plan B (grocery storebought Boboli). After all, you
dont need perfect crust to pick the toppings off.
The Greens Cookbook:
Cuisine from the
BY DEBORAH MADISON WITH EDWARD ESPE BROWN
plain-jacketed book has earned a position of honor in the kitchens of my vegetarian
friends. A roundup of careful recipes from the upscale Greens Restaurant in San Francisco,
this book doesnt get used nearly as often as, say, Moosewood or other, more
homely workhorses of the meatfree life. But its owners do tend to place it eye level on
the bookshelf so that visitors can see that the cook has taste.
The recipes in The Greens Cookbook display a pleasing
attention to gustatory detail. The section on stock-making alone looks like a
wine-makers manual with its discussion of each possible component of the stock in
terms of nose and aftertaste and its suggestions for artful combinations. And you thought
it was just a matter of popping carrot butts and wilted broccoli into a pot! Pasta is also
given plenty of play. If you are fortunate enough to have a pasta machine, here is your
chance to use it in the way God and the Italians intended. A good winter squash ravioli
will guarantee that neither carnivores nor herbivores will feel neglected.
The book has great appendices, with seasonal menus, a
glossary of terms, and a wow of a wine-pairing guide for when "red for beef and white
for chicken" just doesnt apply.
The New Basics Cookbook
BY JULEE ROSSO AND SHEILA LUKINS
This is Julee Rossos last book before she went low-fat.
Too bad for her, because the realm of unself-consciously good food is where her talent
After selling their Manhattan restaurant (The Silver
Palate), Julee Rosso and business partner Sheila Lukins retreated to their respective
country homes. But you cant take a fish out of water; these two women were still
cooking and wanting to share it with the world.
The organization of this book leaves a little to be
desired. It feels a little jumbled together, and the table of contents doesnt really
capture the extraordinary range of whats included. But the food is undeniably
luscious and the text sparkles with lively illustrations and a kind of party-all-the-time
feel that suggests that the new basics are anything but boring.
Breakfast in Bed: 90
for Creative Indulgences
BY JESSE ZIFF COOL
BY MARION CUNNINGHAM
(Alfred A. Knopf: 1987)
Ten years separate these two books, but it might as well be one
hundred. These two authors have such different takes on the breakfast table that if
youre truly interested in the meal that starts the day, youll buy both and
have the subject completely covered.
Jesse Ziff Cool has penned an evocative ode to
1990s-style luxury. Her twin themes of simplicity and ease of eating (dont want
stuff falling out into the sheets) meld nicely with a hearty Northern Californian
sensibility, yielding fresh, jazzy twists on old breakfast favorites. Her prose is so
persuasive, so thick with a life-style of dawn-touched porches and cool cotton nightgowns,
that you might end up wanting breakfast more than once a day, which is just as Cool
advocates. Breakfast food skeptics, for whom anything more than an apple and
yesterdays cold coffee is too much work, will surely experience a change of heart,
at least on the weekends.
Marion Cunningham, who has been called the modern Fannie
Farmer for revising the century-old cookbook and baking book of that venerable
cooking-school mistress, has incorporated much of the dignity of the Victorian era into
her breakfast book. The collection of more than four hundred recipes is more traditional,
but no less engaging, than Cools hip, photo-laden book. What pulls you in is
Cunninghams sketch of breakfast as the meal that brings families together at that
critical juncture of private and public life: the morning. You probably dont know
what that warm, half-fuzzy time is like anymore, if indeed you ever knew. But if you can
get up twenty minutes early one day and sit down with Cunninghams lemon curd and
wheat toast and a glass of fresh juice, youll be on your way to remembering.
BY JANE AND MICHAEL STERN
There are no recipes in this book. Much
of the best food in the country doesnt lend itself well to cup-by-cup replication,
and, above all, Jane and Michael Stern are faithful to their sources.
Their 1976 guide to Americas cheap good eats
defined the oeuvre, and the 1990s revision makes it clear that the husband-and-wife team
is still making the rounds with as much enthusiasm as ever. Here youll find a
mouth-watering state-by-state guide to the food phenomena of Americas diners,
small-town cafés, BBQ joints, and other regional eateries. The Sterns have eaten
everything they write about, and they write only about places they like. They admit
upfront to a preference for certain kinds of eating and environments: Southern plate
lunches, big portions, delis with crabby waiters, and local cafés with the parking lot
full of pickup trucks. I see a commercial coming on: Hit the side streets! Thats
where the flavor is!
You know how they say that most of our sense of taste is
based on smell? Thats only partially true: a good part of it is in the setting. But
if, after reading Roadfood, you decide that you simply must get some recipes for this
great grub (not seeing a trip to Alabama or Nebraska immediately on the horizon), you
should check out Real American Food and others in the Sterns cookbook line. (See
this issue of Radiance for an exclusive interview with Jane Stern, vagabond food lover and
woman of size.)
Everybody Loves Meatloaf
BY MELANIE BARNARD
Okay, maybe not everybody loves meatloaf, but the
author of the cookbook sure does, and her affection is contagious. With
nearly one hundred recipes for loaves, patties, and terrinelike and mousselike
items, Barnard clearly has been spending a lot of time in her kitchen elaborating on the
basic formula of protein, starch, binder, and seasoning.
The most substantial portion of the book addresses
"true" meat loavesthat is, a loaf with red meat in itand the
variations contained therein are remarkable, ranging from Thai beef to a Reuben loaf, ham
and hominy loaf, and some nice little lamb koftas. There are poultry and fish loaves that
go beyond the bland turkey loaf and salmon patties that weve all seen before, and a
small presentation of vegetarian options that does not really justify the purchase of this
book by a nonmeat eater, but nonetheless offers some savory alternatives for when
youve got some leftover noodles or beans in the fridge.
The best thing about this book can be summed up in three
words: no calorie counts. The second best thing is its serving and leftover suggestions
with each recipe. But if youre a member of the catsup-mayo-white-bread cult, you
wouldnt be interested in that, though, would you?
Best of Lord
BY YAMUNA DEVI
All the recipes in this easy-to-handle book come from a
much larger, almost encyclopedic tome on Indian vegetarian cooking, which is some six
hundred pages longer and far too much for a newcomer to the cuisine to absorb. The hefty
ancestor did, however, win the International Association of Food Professionals Best
Cookbook of the Year award in 1987, which testifies to the quality of its distillation.
This book is an excellent introduction to the flavors
and textures of a food culture that has been "other-ized" to the point of
bafflement. There is something exciting and complex about Indian seasonings and
presentation, but curious cooks neednt be mystified. As with many older cuisines,
the food of the Indian subcontinent has evolved around certain principlesspiritual,
medicinal, and culinarythat can be learned and applied with relative ease. The
dishes that result are so right that you may wonder why other cultures didnt come up
with them, too, and why more people dont eat Indian food.
Devi has thoughtfully included a selection of recipes
for the little thingsghee, halva, chutneys, and beveragesthat really make an
Indian dinner work. Throw a dinner party with just one of the stews, some rice, and a
homemade chutney, and people will be amazed.
A Writer in the Kitchen
BY LAURIE COLWIN
If you were housebound during a
rainstorm and could have only one book in the house (heaven forbid!), this is the one. The
New York Times Book Review said it best: "As much memoir as cookbook and as much
about eating as cooking."
This book and its sequel, More Home Cooking, are
collections of Colwins columns from Gourmet magazine from the late 1980s and early
1990s. When you think about the rushing, achieving, on-the-go pace of everyday life, the
success of her short, serene vignettes makes sense. In her narratives (her directions for
making food are too conversational to be called recipes) on pot roast and homemade bread
are embedded gentle lessons on taking it slowly, and on being flexible. Her confessions of
salt love and stuffing hate, her recollections of meals both memorable and monstrous,
invite head-nodding empathy and frequent laughter. Cooking fiends who may be tired of
discussing food with people who say "Whatever" when asked what they want to eat,
will find a friendly, passionate kitchen companion in this book. You are not alone in
loving food, and loving to talk about it. ©
lives in Santa Rosa, California, where, when shes not writing, she tries to cook at
least one recipe out of every cookbook in her collection (one hundred titles and growing).