James McNair's Favorites
by James McNair
Published by Chronicle Books
616 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Cooks as Good as it Looks
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
In the opening chapter of James McNair's Favorites, the author tells us that he was born, "shortly after a traditional Southern midday Thanksgiving dinner." Knowing McNair's work, it's somehow not that surprising that he would be called into the world by "the smell of turkey and dressing wafting through the halls of the Old Baptist Hospital in Alexandria, Louisiana," an experience, he thinks, that likely started his lifelong interest in food.
As someone who has been enjoying McNair's cookbooks for almost as long as he's been making them, I'm thankful it wasn't the scent of engine grease wafting through the hospital. Or puppies. Or anything that would have pushed his genius in a different direction.
And it is genius, of a sort. On many levels. McNair's work as an author of cookbooks has been characterized by two things: he's developed a reputation as "the king of the single-subject cookbook." In fact, in many ways he cemented -- if not launched -- the genre. As well, all but his earliest books include his own food styling and photography. His work with the camera is as lush, lavish and inviting as his recipes. In fact, he was the first recipient of the International Culinary Professionals Award of Excellence in Food Photography.
As anyone who's ever worked from a cookbook knows, however, beauty is only page deep. If McNair's cookbooks were only beautiful, he'd likely be merely photographing the work of other chefs by now. The fact is, McNair's books consistently cook as good as they look, a fact that has seen him become one of the world's leading food writers.
In the single-subject books that McNair has published since his first one, Cold Pasta, in 1984, the author has written books on as broad a band of food-related topics as can be imagined. James McNair's Beans and Grains, James McNair's Beef Cookbook, James McNair's Breakfast, James McNair's Cheese Cookbook as well as Chicken, Corn, Custards, Mousses and Puddings, Fish, Grill, Italian, Pie... 28 cookbooks in all.
The sum of all 28 of those parts is James McNair's Favorites . The sum and a little bit more. The over 400 recipes in this dense new cookbook are McNair's own favorites from his many books. But McNair has taken it all a step further and rethought and reinvented even some of these favorites. The results are often more refined, as well as fat reduced to reflect the late-90s penchant for healthier cooking. "But," maintains McNair in the work, "I refuse to sacrifice flavor and instead advocate a well-balanced diet that maintains both a healthy body and spirit."
At over 600 pages, James McNair's Favorites is naturally more encyclopedic in tone than previous works. This is a book that will be especially appreciated by the one-cookbook household because the gamut of McNair's favorites completely covers the food spectrum. The table of contents includes Breakfast; Appetizers; Soups; Salads; Noodles, Pasta, Polenta, Risotto and Gnocchi; Pizza; Hot and Hearty Main Dishes; Cool and Satisfying Main Dishes; Accompaniments (the Roman-Style Spinach is sublime); Condiments; Breads; and Desserts.
That covers the recipes, but the last chapter cements the book as a must have. Called "Back to Basics," it includes recipes for what McNair considers to be basics in the modern kitchen; a section on ingredients that might be difficult to find; a completely realized index; and the by now de rigueur equivalency table.
All of these elements combine to make James McNair's Favorites an important addition to almost any cookbook library. | October 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.