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Read it and eat 

My first cookbook, well-thumbed and food-stained, was one I both wrote and published. I was 11, and it was plagiarized from my mother's recipe drawer and badgered from her brain. I wasn't culinarily motivated--I was taking a typing class and transcribing recipes seemed like good practice, more purposeful than copying random passages out of books.

Neither my mother nor I was a talented recipe writer. I knew far too little about cooking and my mother knew far too much. The dictated recipes tended to look like a list of ingredients in no particular order (4 eggs, 1 cup flour, salt, some sugar, water), followed by cryptic directions (mix, roll out, cook). Other recipes I transcribed from her hoard of newspaper clippings, creatively rewriting them as only a non-cook with words-per-minute on his mind could.

I was ahead of my time in the belief that cookbooks could be written by anyone. Today, there's a rushing, fulgent stream of books on desserts, crockpot cooking, meals-in-20-minutes, cake-mix repair, chocolate, Indian food, Italian food, regional Italian food; on bread, fish, meat and stews. There are single-ingredient books (Pears, Potatoes, and, no doubt soon, Pomegranates), chef's books, chef's dessert books, beginners' books, giant recipe compendia, tiny recipe compendia, and on and on.

The good news is that, despite the sheer quantities of careless crap out there, cookbooks have been getting better. It used to be very easy, for example, to make fun of chefs' cookbooks. They were often handsomely produced and, maybe, useful mementos of your dining experience at Chez D'Elegante. ("Ahh, no wonder the duck sauce was so intense-- a triple reduction!") But as kitchen helpers they could be annoyingly undomesticated. A straightforward recipe for a chef with a full brigade, and a walk-in pantry full of rarefied product, can be a struggle even for the dedicated hobbyist cook. And the results, shorn of professionally honed technique and impeccable presentation, weren't worth the sweat.

But there have always been some good books by chefs, and now, I think, there are more. I still have fond memories of chef Albert Stockli's very usable Splendid Fare. More recently, from our local white tablecloth Mom and Pop restaurant, Magnolia Grill, Ben and Karen Barker gave us Not Afraid of Flavor--a book whose recipes, though sometimes complex, actually work in home kitchens.

Lately I've been reading through three new and very different chefs' books. The surprising one is Aquavit, from the chef and co-owner of New York's successful restaurant of the same name. It's a coffee-table book--expensive, pretty, glossy, heavy. I was prepared to dislike it. I don't; the recipes are actually quite simple. The dishes have a soulfulness unexpected in such a slick production, much less one that boasts "the new Scandinavian cuisine." But it becomes clear that Marcus Samuelsson's cooking was still intimately connected to the homecooking of his grandmother.

Judy Rodgers' Zuni Cafe Cookbook is another animal entirely. Despite the fact that her food is more overtly downhome and earthy, many of the recipes are more complicated than in Samuelsson's book. They aren't always more complicated to make, but they are more complicated to read. Not that that's a bad thing; what Rodgers is accomplishing here is not just a collection of recipes, but an engagingly written tutorial on how to cook (the Zuni Cafe way). Aquavit, I'll take a few recipes from. Rodgers' book, I'll read, cook from, learn from and enjoy.

If the Zuni Cafe Cookbook is a second-semester tutorial, then Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand is a senior seminar. It's a handsome book and some perfectly wonderful simple recipes skein their way through the text. Most of the text, though, is an amalgam of musings and disquisitions on ingredients and techniques. Richard Olney's Simple French Food is the model for this sort of book and Bertolli's writing isn't quite up to that standard. The musings are sometimes superficial and mannered (for example, on the differences between French and Italian cooking). But this is carping, for Bertolli is really a wonderful teacher, covering a number of topics in his seminar. The section "Twelve Ways of Looking at Tomatoes" will be invaluable come August; the "Pasta Primer" illuminates the world of pasta and its saucing, including pastas made from spelt and chestnut flour; and the section "The Whole Hog," a detailed treatise on ham and sausage making, will probably have to wait until my retirement years. Bertolli also has a lot to say on polenta, balsamic vinegar and meat sauce. Give this book to your favorite obsessive.

Now that Richard Olney is dead, Paula Wolfert is the one food writer whose cookbooks I buy automatically. Her beautiful new book has my favorite sort of cooking: slow, brown and homey. The subtitle of The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen is: Recipes for the Passionate Cook. This is, of course, self-description on her part; these are recipes not just for but from the passionate cook. Wolfert is also a careful researcher, gathering from around the Mediterranean dishes of home cooks and earthy professional cooks alike and carefully reworking them for the non-Mediterranean home kitchen. (She is also the most scrupulous of attributers, acknowledging sources and inspirations with a generous hand--a practice not universally followed in the food writing world.)

Wolfert's book is enormously fun to read and the recipes are splendidly written, with just the right amount of detail and technique to make the difference between a slapped together melange and luscious harmony. EndBlock

The cookbooks

  • Barker, Ben & Karen, Not Afraid of Flavor (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000)
  • Bertolli, Paul, Cooking by Hand (Clarkson Potter, New York, 2003)
  • Rodgers, Judy, The Zuni Cafe Cookbook (W.W. Norton, New York, 2002)
  • Samuelsson, Marcus, Aquavit (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2003)
  • Wolfert, Paula, The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen (John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, 2003)

    Low-speed taste
    One recent trend in cooking that pops up in many of the books under review has been a return to low-temperature roasting. No more searing, high-temperature roasts. Even fish are treated this way. The general idea is you take a roasting cut (rack of lamb, beef roast, side of salmon, duck...) and cook it long and slow at not too much higher than its target temperature. If you're used to roasting at 350 degrees and above (or grilling), this can be a revelation. Another slow-cooking trend has been poaching meats in olive oil. Here's an example, lifted and abridged from Wolfert's book:

    Pork Coddled in Olive Oil with Tuscan Beans and Arugula
    2 1/4 lbs. lean boneless pork shoulder
    1 T. coarse salt
    1 T. crushed peppercorns
    2 bay leaves, crushed to a powder
    1/2 tsp. bruised fennel seed
    2 sprigs thyme
    2 cups plus 3 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
    1 small head garlic, halved
    2 1/2 tbs. red wine vinegar
    1 small red onion, sliced paper thin
    Tuscan Beans (cook up a recipe of dried white beans)
    2 large bunches arugula

    Trim meat, cut into 2-inch chunks. Toss meat with salt, pepper, bay, thyme and fennel. Massage, cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.

    Squeeze the meat into one layer in a ceramic or enameled casserole. Pour on 2 cups olive oil. Cover with a sheet of crumpled parchment and a lid, set over very low heat and cook until oil comes to a boil, about 30 to 45 minutes.

    Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Add the garlic, transfer pan to oven and cook another 2 1/2 hours. Check that the oil bubbles only slightly; the meat should not brown. (Many ovens run hot, so this is an important check.) To test for done, remove a piece of pork and tap it lightly; it should break into smaller chunks and be a soft pink color. Remove from oven and let stand until cool. Refrigerate for up to 5 days. Be sure the pork is completely covered in oil; top it up if necessary.

    To use: Reheat the pork gently. Meanwhile, soak the red onion in 1 tbs. of vinegar for 30 minutes. Drain the pork in a colander set over a bowl; discard garlic and thyme. Allow the juices in the bowl to settle, then pour off the oil and reserve for future use; reserve the meat juices separately.

    In a large bowl, whisk together 3 tbs. olive oil, 1 1/2 tbs. vinegar and the meat juices. Add the room temperature beans and toss to mix.

    To serve, heap beans on a large platter, scatter the onion slices and chunks of warm pork on top. Garnish with arugula.


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