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choice cookbooks,
old and new,
reviewed in brief

by Marina Wolf

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 cook’s 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 don’t 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.


The Cook’s Bible: The Best of American Home Cooking

(Little, Brown: 1996)

cooks_bibleDon’t 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 Cook’s 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 favorites—chocolate cake, salsa, roast beef—constitute 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 Kimball’s many principles.


The California Pizza
Kitchen Cookbook

(Macmillan: 1996)

PizzaIn fashion 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 parlors.

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 CPK’s 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 dill–shallot sauce, certainly keep the mind open!

The recipe for pizza dough is lengthy—as are most recipes for good breads—so following it will be a good stretch for home bakers. The rest of us may opt for Plan B (grocery store–bought Boboli). After all, you don’t need perfect crust to pick the toppings off.


The Greens Cookbook:
Extraordinary Vegetarian
Cuisine from the
Celebrated Restaurant

(Bantam: 1987)

GreensThis 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 doesn’t 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-maker’s 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 doesn’t apply.


The New Basics Cookbook

(Workman: 1989)

basicsThis is Julee Rosso’s last book before she went low-fat. Too bad for her, because the realm of unself-consciously good food is where her talent shines.

After selling their Manhattan restaurant (The Silver Palate), Julee Rosso and business partner Sheila Lukins retreated to their respective country homes. But you can’t 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 doesn’t really capture the extraordinary range of what’s 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 Recipes
for Creative Indulgences

(HarperCollins: 1997)


The Breakfast Book

(Alfred A. Knopf: 1987)

breakfastTen 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 you’re truly interested in the meal that starts the day, you’ll buy both and have the subject completely covered.

breakfast_bookJesse Ziff Cool has penned an evocative ode to 1990s-style luxury. Her twin themes of simplicity and ease of eating (don’t 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 yesterday’s 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 Cool’s hip, photo-laden book. What pulls you in is Cunningham’s sketch of breakfast as the meal that brings families together at that critical juncture of private and public life: the morning. You probably don’t 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 Cunningham’s lemon curd and wheat toast and a glass of fresh juice, you’ll be on your way to remembering.



(HarperPerennial: 1992)

Roadfood.jpg (27437 bytes)There are no recipes in this book. Much of the best food in the country doesn’t lend itself well to cup-by-cup replication, and, above all, Jane and Michael Stern are faithful to their sources.

Their 1976 guide to America’s 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 you’ll find a mouth-watering state-by-state guide to the food phenomena of America’s diners, small-town caf�s, 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 caf�s with the parking lot full of pickup trucks. I see a commercial coming on: Hit the side streets! That’s where the flavor is!

You know how they say that most of our sense of taste is based on smell? That’s 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

(HarperPerennial: 1997)

MeatloafOkay, 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 loaves—that is, a loaf with red meat in it—and 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 we’ve all seen before, and a small presentation of vegetarian options that does not really justify the purchase of this book by a non–meat eater, but nonetheless offers some savory alternatives for when you’ve 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 you’re a member of the catsup-mayo-white-bread cult, you wouldn’t be interested in that, though, would you?


The Best of Lord
Krishna’s Cuisine

(Plume: 1991)

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 needn’t be mystified. As with many older cuisines, the food of the Indian subcontinent has evolved around certain principles—spiritual, medicinal, and culinary—that can be learned and applied with relative ease. The dishes that result are so right that you may wonder why other cultures didn’t come up with them, too, and why more people don’t eat Indian food.

Devi has thoughtfully included a selection of recipes for the little things—ghee, halva, chutneys, and beverages—that 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.


Home Cooking:
A Writer in the Kitchen

(HarperPerennial: 1988)

home_cooking.gif (46950 bytes)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 Colwin’s 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. �


MARINA WOLF lives in Santa Rosa, California, where, when she’s not writing, she tries to cook at least one recipe out of every cookbook in her collection (one hundred titles and growing).


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