In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Guide to the Baker's Pantry
by Regan Daley
Published by Random House Canada
692 pages, 2000
ISBN: 0679309748

Regan Daley's exhaustive work is the answer for anyone who has ever created a tough pastry, a fallen cake or a lumpy custard. In the Sweet Kitchen deals not only with technique but also with ingredients. If the dessert kitchen has ever seemed like a mysterious and uninviting place, Daley brings the answers. Vanilla bean or vanilla extract? (No contest, writes Daley). Callebaut or Valrhona chocolate? (It depends, says the master.) Non-stick or aluminum bakeware? (Aluminum for best results, says the author.) And these represent only the teensiest tip of the iceberg. Daley writes that her book will serve the expert as "a comprehensive, professional-quality reference," and the novice will find a "guide to the once mysterious art of baking." The included recipes are great, but represent only a small portion of this encyclopedic work.

Mrs. Cook's Kitchen: Basics & Beyond
by Gay Cook
Published by Whitecap Books
250 pages, 2000
ISBN: 1552850145

Not every home cook is born with the natural ability to chef it up. After all, if it took Emeril years of professional training to get that noisy and confident, it only makes sense that those of us suffering at home alone in our kitchens should need some help. Gay Cook's family has been in the food business since 1911. These days, the family makes frozen convenience foods, though Cook herself has been a caterer, food editor, and -- most recently -- award-winning food writer. "I am pleased," writes Cook, "that my family is in the convenience food business, even though I am in the business of cooking from scratch. They go hand in hand as they both play a role in our lives today." It's not surprising, then, that Cook's book is highly readable and useable and filled with 21st-century basics: from making the Perfect Pot of Tea to Shrimp Creole and from Leek and Potato Soup to Chocolate Pears with Ginger Cream. And all with Cook's straightforward, no-nonsense approach.

The Naked Chef
by Jamie Oliver
Published by Hyperion
250 pages, 2000
ISBN: 078686617

At 24, Jamie Oliver is the "culinary boy wonder" of the British food scene. A media darling in his native U.K. and host of his own hit cooking show on the BBC, Oliver doesn't cook sans clothes -- though he's pretty enough that those discussing him often sigh at the thought, it's the obvious joke, after all -- but rather, he evangelizes a simple approach to food. He writes that, after he'd been a professional chef for "some time" he found it difficult to create many restaurant-style dishes at home with the limitations faced by someone not culinarily connected and without a professional kitchen. "So, in an effort to re-create some exciting restaurant recipes in a limited kitchen, I found myself stripping down those recipes to something quite basic." Stripped down. Aha. The naked chef exposes himself. His take on food is perfectly nouvelle Brit and, of course, simply prepared. Ham Hock and Pease Pudding; Pot-roasted Guinea Fowl with Sage, Celery and Blood Orange; A Spottier Dick Pudding, "a proper 'blokes' pudding"; Praline Semifreddo and so on. Oliver's style is fresh, engaging and utterly unpretentious.

Offbeat Food: Adventures in an Omnivorous World
by Alan Ridenour
Published by Santa Monica Press
239 pages, 2000
ISBN: 1891661094

Offbeat Food inspires grazing. It's one of those books that it's just about impossible to pass on a shelf without picking up and flipping pages, just to see what sort of weird stuff might be there. Once flipping, you might as well kiss an hour good-bye: there's a lot of good stuff here -- weird and otherwise. Quite a bit more, in fact, than the book's slender spine would suggest. The history of Pop Rocks, Spam, Kraft Dinner ("Maddened with a sort of Frankenstinian desire to create artificial cheese, Kraft began experimenting with ways to reduce his American cheese down to its very essence."), the evolution of Betty Crocker, including photos of the venerable -- and fictional -- icon from 1936 through the most recent Betty update in 1996. Offbeat Food is no one's idea of a cookbook, but it is totally concerned with food, although from a pop culture angle. Jam-packed with interesting -- although fairly useless -- information, Offbeat Food is a must-graze for those who enjoy knowing stuff that no one else knows, if for no other reason than to know it.

Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook
by John Thorne with Matt Lewis Thorne
Published by North Point Press
390 pages, 2000
ISBN: 085475644

The renegade cook in question here is John Thorne, a highly esteemed food writer whose books include Simple Cooking, Serious Pig, Outlaw Cook and Home Body. Though recipes are included, Pot on the Fire is not really a cookbook, per se, as much as it is a literary ramble on the topics of food, its history and, finally, its preparation. For instance, in a chapter called "Cioppino in the Rough," Thorne rambles quite perfectly around the topic of the historic San Franciscan seafood stew for six pages until he gets to a recipe. The recipe out of the way, he rambles for five more. But the ramble, as Thorne fans well know, is the delight of this author's books. The history, the evolution, the possible precursors, a recipe for his own Maine Coast Cioppino (this four pages after the first recipe) and a couple of digressions about various ingredients. Like earlier books by this author, Pot on the Fire is a culinary expedition and Thorne is a worthy guide.

The Savoury Mushroom
by Bill Jones
Published by Raincoast Books
200 pages, 2000
ISBN: 1551923009

There is something undeniably elegant about mushrooms. A risotto is just a risotto, but make it a mushroom risotto and it sounds somehow elevated. Punch that up to Wild mushroom risotto and you've created a dish that can be fed to kings. Cookbook author and food consultant Bill Jones understands this very well. "Mushrooms have always been alluring to me," he writes, "part curiosity, part culinary desire and part danger." In The Savoury Mushroom Jones goes to great lengths to take the danger part out, and he discusses what sorts of mushrooms to use, what to avoid and what forms to look for (i.e. powdered, fresh, dried and so on). The book's intention, however, is not to be a field guide. The Savoury Mushroom is a cookbook and, when Jones begins tossing mushrooms around the kitchen, the book really starts to rock. Mushroom Yorkshire Pudding, Caesar Salad with Bacon-Roasted Chanterelles, Dungeness Crab and Enoki Mushroom Cakes and even Rabbit Fricassee with Horn of Plenty Mushrooms: if it can be done with mushrooms, Jones takes an appetizing stab.

Whisky: The Water of Life -- Uisge Beatha
by Helen Arthur
published by Firefly Books, 2000
ISBN 1552094251

With more than a touch of humor and a great deal of knowledge, author Helen Arthur goes through a loving history of one of the world's best known spirits. Whisky: The Water of Life -- Uisge Beatha is just one of those books that makes you realize how seriously people can take a beverage; more than a beverage: whisky as a tradition. From its country of origin -- Scotland or Ireland, depending on who you ask -- to other countries who have followed suit and created their own version of the drink, Whisky covers a lot of ground. Its origins and history, distilling, single malts and blends, a guide to some of the world's finest and where and how to obtain a bottle, even a section on the proper way to enjoy the drink (to be read and practiced over and over). Full of photographs of distilleries and what goes on inside, some brilliant and often funny ads and, of course, photos of the bottles themselves, just so you'll be able to identify them when you're out buying. Arthur -- with over 20 years of experience in the whisky industry -- breathes life into a subject that she obviously feels much enthusiasm for. One of the finest and most comprehensive whisky books. So, pour a wee dram and raise a glass to Whisky.

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