Sunday, December 02, 2007

Holiday Gift Guide: Cookbooks

Eat, Drink & Be Vegan: Everyday Vegan Recipes Worth Celebrating by Dreena Burton (Arsenal Pulp Press) 243 pages
You don’t have to actually be a vegan to enjoy Dreena Burton’s cookbooks and to make them a part of your usual kitchen library. This is healthy, nutritious cooking suitable for a family or anyone interested in eating for optimum health. So, OK: all of that you can get other places, as well. The magic that Burton weaves into her cookbooks is that she treats food in a sane and normal way and prepares her delicious and completely vegan family meals without fanfare or weird and convoluted steps and preparations. The resulting food looks more like what some kids (and even adults) insist on calling “normal food” than anything you’ve ever seen come from a vegan kitchen. And so you have Pumpkin Cheese Pie (made with soy cheese) and Rosemary Cornmeal Polenta Fries, there are all manner of curries and pestos and soups and stews. This is healthy eating, simply enough told that even the most amateur of chefs can follow Burton’s healthy and delicious recipes.

Fire Hall Cooking with Jeff the Chef: Surefire Recipes to Feed Your Crew by Jeff Derraugh (Touchwood Editions) 230 pages
In his introduction to Fire Hall Cooking, cookbook author and genuine fire guy tells a story that illustrates exactly where his head -- and his heart -- are at. Derraugh tells of putting in a shift at a firehall across town from his own. Someone called the guys for breakfast, and they all descended, fire guy style, to tuck in. Someone asked how many pieces of bacon each man was allowed. The cook responded “Nine.” And when Derraugh restrained himself, someone asked if he could have Derraugh’s. “That man had 14 pieces of bacon,” Derraugh writes. “That’s why our fire trucks now carry defibrillators, so that we can jump-start each other after we send that breakfast barge of cholesterol to our hearts.” So here’s what we can understand about this author: he knows from feeding hungry guys, he is concerned about health, he likes variety. And, additionally, he’s funny and he can write. The recipes in Fire Hall Cooking are mostly solid, well thought out versions of classic dishes, though some of them have been given funny names. (Funky Fire Hall Chili, Mozzasaurus Chicken, Scorchin’ Lasagna and so on.) This is a fun cookbook with lots of easy-to-follow recipes featuring the type of food most families will enjoy.

Gentleman’s Relish: And Other English Culinary Oddities (National Trust Books) 143 pages
For such a tiny book -- and it really is tiny -- Gentleman’s Relish packs a very solid punch. The introduction explains the book slightly: “The recipe for Patum Perperium, The Gentleman’s Relish®, has remained a closely guarded secret from the moment it was first devised by John Osborn in 1828. Since then this unique blend of anchovies, butter, herbs and spices has become established as one of the quintessential treats enjoyed by British gentlemen all over the world.” While the book never does get around to telling us how to make Gentleman’s Relish (I suppose some things are best left secret, after all) many other things are explained. Actually -- and again -- a surprising number of things, considering the diminutive dimensions of the book. For example, traditional recipes for Tipsy Cake, fudge, butterscotch, Mulligatawny Soup, pickled walnuts, kedgeree, bakewell tart, shepherd’s pie, barley water, spotted dick and many other things that a gentleman’s table had best not be without. Some items -- kippers, porridge, chelsea buns, boar’s head and good old gentleman’s relish itself, to name just a very few -- don’t include recipes, just information about the thing and how it fits into a proper gentlemen’s style of life. A well executed little book that would easily fit into a stocking, were one so inclined.

Menus from an Orchard Table by Heidi Noble (Whitecap Books) 320 pages
Heidi Noble’s first cookbook is a stunning personal reflection of her culinary art. While you can read about the 100 mile diet in other books, here we see it not mentioned, but certainly -- in most regards -- in action. There is nothing not to love in Menus from an Orchard Table, from Noble’s passionate and single-focused view of food, her artistic and uncompromised application, original recipes properly shared and wonderful and appetizing photographs by Chris Mason Stearns. My highlights: these two altered the course of summer 2007 for me. Noble’s Red Onion and Thyme Tarte Tatin and her Chickpea Soup with Fontina Finished with Lovage Pesto. -- Aaron Blanton

My Last Supper: 50 Great Chefs and Their Final Meals by Melanie Dunea (Bloomsbury) 218 pages
The structure and execution of My Last Supper is such that it’s perfect for this particular roundup of books. While it makes a fabulous gift -- it’s impressive, interesting, lovely -- I can’t imagine too many people actually purchasing it for themselves. And again, it’s impressive, but who needs to impress themselves? What we have here are themed photos by Melanie Dunea, whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Town & Country, Gourmet and many other magazines known for gorgeous photos and good ideas. Here Dunea asks 50 of the -- bar none -- top chefs in the world what sort of vittles they’d fix themselves if they were on their way out the big door. She publishes their replies without comment, accompanied by a striking, creative photo of each. Then, in a separate section, she hits the highlights of the last stated meals with a recipe or two from the final menu of each chef. And so you have Raymond Blanc talking about “something humble and simple” and Scott Conant “seated at a large table, covered with platters, spending time with the ones I love,” and Tyler Florence with “a great New Orleans jazz band playing a dirge” while on the table there’s “No froufrou French. No snout-to-tail. No fucking foie gras. On the table would be the classic Southern feast of my childhood.” But don’t take my opening words here as a negative criticism: the very fact that My Last Supper is so impractical and lush that few people would buy it for themselves makes it a fabulous gift for the foodie in your life.

New World Provence: Modern French Cooking for Friends and Family by Alessandra and Jean-Francis Quaglia (Arsenal Pulp Press, 215 pages)
Alessandra and Jean-Francis Quaglia met in Nice, at a restaurant where both were working in the kitchen. In the foreword to New World Provence, Dominique LeStanc, the chef and owner of Nice’s La Merenda touchingly tells their story. At the time LeStanc was chef de cuisine at an important hotel in Nice. LeStanc hired the passionate young French chef, son of an accomplished chef, Suzanne Quaglia. Not long after, she hired a young Canadian chef, named Alessandra. LeStanc noticed they shared similar sensibilities about food. “Their chemistry flourished,” writes LeStanc, “and soon they were never apart.” In 1997, five years after leaving Nice, they opened Provence Mediterranean Grill in Vancouver. A few years later, they followed up the neighborhood bistro with the posher Provence Marinaside. The restaurants, and the Quaglias (four of them now: the couple have two young sons) continue to flourish. But all of this is, in a sense, backstory and you don’t need to know any of it to enjoy New World Provence, a cookbook that, like the Quaglias, takes old world Provence-style cooking and retools it for North American markets and sensibilities: that is to say, the fare is lighter and more health conscious than the traditional versions might be, yet without loss of substance or flavor. A neat trick. A few of the recipes from the book have become fast favorites -- the Coco Bean and Wild Mushroom Ragout was comforting and surprisingly delicate, the Bouillabaisse was so easy, it practically made itself, the whole section on sauces alone makes the book worthwhile: all the classics, lucidly shared -- but everything looks wonderful. And everything we tried was a success.

Nigella Express by Nigella Lawson (Hyperion) 391 pages
Oh, Nigella. My love. My fantasy chef. If there’s one woman out there who represents everything there is to love about the world, it’s Nigella Lawson. Food goddess and self-proclaimed purveyor of food porn. This is Lawson’s sixth book of recipes, and everything looks good enough to eat. Arranged into somewhat arbitrary chapters -- why does Blackberry Crisp belong in Workday Winners rather than Razzle Dazzle? -- you’ll find appetizers, main dishes, side dishes, desserts, you name it. We’re talking about Caramel Croissant Pudding. We’re swooning over Pear and Ginger Muffins and Warm Potato Salad. We’re salivating over Roly-Poly Pudding, Broccoli and Stilton Soup and Caribbean Creams. As in all her books, Nigella’s signature style comes popping through in her highly dramatic and full-on delicious writing. Frankly, she writes just like she talks, in prose peppered (if you will) with allusion, alliteration and all-consuming (if you will again) passion. This new book is a confection of splendid ideas, and I defy you not to fly to the market to get some key ingredients the moment you open it. Nigella, I pray you read this. And after you’re done with whatever you’re making, that you let me lick the bowl. -- Tony Buchsbaum

River Cottage Handbook No. 1: Mushrooms by John Wright (Bloomsbury) 256 pages

River Cottage Handbook No. 1 is a wonderful book. I can’t imagine I will ever part with it. And, in the autumn, if you find me out of doors anywhere near my home, I’ll likely have the Handbook somewhere on me: in a good-sized pocket, or a medium-sized bag. That is, it’s small enough to be a field guide, but not as ridiculously small as some where you can’t really get a proper look. I should explain: though I imagine there will be over River Cottage handbooks, at present as far as I know, there is just the one. And it’s on mushrooms. But it isn’t just another mushroom book: it is the mushroom book I’ve always dreamed about but did not, as far as I know, exist before. That is, it’s like a field guide that concerns itself only with edible species as well as the few poisonous species that look like edibles. (Which, arguably, is just as important.) There’s also a very strong cookbook component, just in case you find a bunch of wild edibles and then don’t know what to do with them. Most of the recipes are simple, some are ingenuous and many would work with plain old get-them-at-the-market button mushrooms. The photos are all very good, as are the reproductions and, as far as I can tell, there are no color shifts. In other words, when you find them in the wild, they look just like the mushrooms in the book. (A no-brainer you say? Yet it’s not always the case.) I don’t know where River Cottage is, though I’m guessing the UK, since it’s obviously an Anglo book. However I live on the west coast of North America and recognized almost all the species mentioned. The habitats and seasons worked, as well. And, finally, I would imagine there will be a River Cottage Handbook No. 2 through some higher number and, when there is, I also imagine it will cover what it sets out to very well. But, honestly? I’m good to go. I’ve got my field guide to edibles and some new recipes: let me know when it’s morel season. Maybe we’ll talk then. -- Linda L. Richards

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