Banquet of books

The year's cookbooks can tantalize, tempt and teach, or take us on culinary trips to exotic places.

Posted: December 11, 2008

The cookbooks keep coming: Beautiful, glossy, exotic cooking/travelogues; secrets and shortcuts from Food Network stars; impossibly perplexing recipes from über-chefs; quick and easy dinners for busy parents; and, of course, the many treatises on following the song of the season, shopping, cooking and eating local.

There are plenty of stories in the current crop of books: the chef who took a break from his day job at Chez Panisse and moved to Paris; recovering the lost recipes of New Orleans; a journey through Turkey that produced gorgeous photographs and, surprisingly, useful recipes.

More and more of us love to linger over these books - as evidenced by the explosion of cookbook publishing over the years - if only to dream of the elaborate feast, or to swear at the insanity of pressed quail, liver and pastirma terrine with spiced almond butter, or, the most rewarding of all, to actually be inspired to put pan to stove to create something new.

Here is the holiday roundup of this year's cookbook offerings:

Cooking Up a Storm

Chronicle Books. $24.95

One unexpected casualty of Hurricane Katrina, an especially cruel blow to food-obsessed New Orleanians: An entire city's worth of family recipe boxes and newspaper clippings had been washed away by the flood.

The Times-Picayune newspaper undertook the task of reassembling its readers' favorite dishes in a column called "Exchange Alley," republishing the most-requested hits from editions past, as well as new offerings from chefs and home cooks. Assembled into a new book by Times-Picayune food editor Judy Walker and legendary food writer Marcelle Bienvenu, it's like rediscovering a treasure once thought lost, a stellar trove of 225 Creole and Cajun recipes that bring the flavors of pre-storm New Orleans vividly back to life.

There is a full complement of well-wrought classics, from jambalaya to red beans and myriad variations on gumbo, that make a fine primer on the NOLA essentials. But there are also dozens of lesser-known local gems, from Austin Leslie's "Creole soul" mirliton gumbo to Drago's grilled oysters and white chocolate bread pudding from the Palace Cafe, enabling any New Orleanian still "abroad" to truly conjure a taste of home. There are even recipes for classic cocktails like the Sazerac and Ramos Gin Fizz to celebrate those meals with a proper French Quarter toast.

- Craig LaBan

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics

By Ina Garten.

Clarkson Potter. $35

Let us defer here to Narberth's reigning Ina Garten groupie, my neighbor Robin Currie, one of the savviest home cooks in the metro region. She has every page Garten has published. Her verdict after cooking from Back to Basics? "A keeper," but not her favorite. (Garten's other "everyday" cookbooks have basics, too, she notes.)

Currie cooked the tomato soup, Pappa al Pomodoro, a classic Italian soup thickened with leftover bread: "Great depth of flavor." (It was also a hit with the kids.) Next up was Tuscan Lemon Chicken, flattened and marinated in olive oil and lemon juice. The recipe called for grilling. But Currie stuck it in the oven at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes, then ran it under the broiler to crisp it: "Absolutely so tasty I cannot wait to make it again." She served it with the Maple Roasted Butternut Squash, another winner and simple to boot.

Some quibbles: An orange maple vinaigrette was too sweet. The granola bars, OK, but not great. The Mustard Roasted Fish a little salty, though the accompanying roasted parsnips and carrots were superb.

The bottom line? This may not be essential Ina Garten. But it's good as a supplement; perfect for a starter.

- Rick Nichols

Best of the Best

The Best Recipes From the 25 Best Cookbooks of the Year

(Food & Wine Books, $29.95)

Many believe that if a cookbook contains one or two really great recipes, it is worth its price. This one surely passes that test. From their favorite 25 cookbooks of the last year, the editors of Food & Wine have culled the best recipes to produce this new anthology. Turning the pages, I found myself marking recipe after recipe: Alice Waters' take on macaroni and cheese (or Cheese and Pasta Gratin, as she calls it); Sauteed Cod with turnips, carrots and parsnips from David Pasternack, fisherman and chef at Esca in New York; and a mouthwatering treat from baker Jill O'Connor, Coconut Shortbread Cookies.

- M.F.

Turquoise

A Chef's Travels in Turkey

By Greg and Lucy Malouf.

Chronicle Books. $50

This big, fat, heavy and beautifully designed tome, as much visual travelogue as recipe book, boasts sumptuous photography, plenty of cultural context, and, unlike many expensive, lavishly produced coffee-table cookbooks, useful recipes. The pickled red onions is one keeper.

In the authors' words: "Food is, of course, both the product and expression of a culture, and in Turkey we found this to be profoundly different from and more exciting than anything we had been expecting."

- Denver Post

The Best of America's Test Kitchen, 2009

America's Test Kitchen. $35

For years, I've been a fan of Cook's Illustrated, the sober-sided, fanatically lucid journal that chronicles the findings of America's Test Kitchen, the cookery lab outside Boston. I even savor the paeans to small-town New England from founder Christopher Kimball.

Our previous encounters with its recipes have been happy ones: My wife still makes a Test Kitchen version of Pad Thai that beats out most Thai cafes. (Really!)

And so it was with a generous predisposition that I picked up the 2009 report. Right off the bat I found a roasted broccoli recipe that was so tasty - nicely charred, sweet and accessorized with sauteed shallot and fennel seed - that we sat down and ate the whole head of broccoli for lunch. (The trick is first heating the pan to 500 degrees.) Next was a succulent - you really could taste the sage and thyme - herbed roast pork tenderloin, butterflied and, again, high-heat roasted. This was accompanied, as many of the recipes are, with tiny-steps photos, meant to instruct, not show off.

The book explains some of the food science behind its conclusions - why very low temperatures turn a cheap cut of beef into something as tender as prime rib; how baking powder can crisp a chicken's skin; why mayonnaise (thinned with olive oil) can stand in for the raw egg in Caesar salad.

This cookbook is going on a low shelf in my kitchen. It's full of news you can use. And it has the hands-down best feature of all: fresh recipes that you want to make - and that taste great - again and again.

- R.N.

Quick & Easy Chinese

70 Everyday Recipes

Chronicle Books. $19.95

Everyday Chinese cuisine, like any everyday cuisine, is based on a few basic principles: fresh ingredients, simple techniques and hungry mouths. This book offers 70 smart, straightforward Chinese-American recipes for appetizers, main courses, desserts and condiments.

In the author's words: "Clearly we love Chinese food, and we partake of it in its various incarnations all across the land. The place we need to see it next is on our own kitchen tables."

- Denver Post

Ten

All the Foods We Love and Ten Perfect Recipes for Each

By Sheila Lukins.

Workman, $19.95 paperback

Veteran cookbook writer Sheila Lukins identifies 32 foods that she rates a perfect 10 - chicken, beef, vegetables, pizza, etc. - then entices us with 10 creative recipes for each. Lukins has not lost her magic touch in the kitchen.

- United Press Syndicate

A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes

By David Tanis.

Artisan. 2008

Half the year David Tanis is the head chef at the most famous kitchen in America: Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' influential restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. The rest of the year, he lives in Paris, cooking for guests in his tiny apartment kitchen. From that kitchen comes this book, a paean to simple, seasonal, beautiful cooking.

From the author: "Do you really need a recipe for a platter of figs? No. ... But you need to know about ripeness and seasonality. ... Are they sun-ripened and bursting with jammy sweetness? Are they succulent enough to eat as is, or do they want a sprinkling of salt, a drizzle of good olive oil, perhaps a thin slice of prosciutto?"

- M.F.

The River Cottage Family Cookbook

By Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr.

Ten Speed Press. $32.50

Throw out any cliched ideas about British food: This lively book by two food activists offers detailed and entertaining explanations throughout the recipes. It's as if they are reading your mind as you make the dish, answering the "why" as well as the "how."

In the authors' words: "When you come down to breakfast to find that the gluey paste that you set aside the night before is now bubbling away of its own accord, you're entitled to get excited. Suddenly you're Dr. Frankenstein, and that bowl of fizzing gloop is your Monster."

- Denver Post

The Amish Cook at Home

By Lovina Eicher with Kevin Williams.

Andrews McMeel. $29.99

If you're looking for new ways to load up on copious amounts of butter, Cheddar cheese, sausage and brown sugar, The Amish Cook is your ticket. That said, it has an endearing, innocent streak, reciting the joys of truly cooking with the seasons, and unafraid to list onion powder and crushed saltine crackers as key ingredients.

It's adapted from the newspaper column "The Amish Cook," syndicated in about 130 newspapers, many in the Midwest (the author resides in Michigan). But for all its sweet homespunness, the recipes come off more childishly simplistic to me than simple: The chicken and dumplings recipe involves dumping two cans of cream of chicken soup over boneless chicken breasts.

If you really want to delve into the intricacies and ancient secrets of early America's German-inspired cookery, a better bet is the devoutly meticulous, but user-friendly Pennsylvania Dutch Country Cooking, by Devon's own William Woys Weaver (Abbeville, 1993). (Last time I checked, Amazon still had a few dozen in stock.)

- R.N.


Chicken and Citrus Slaw Tostadas

Makes 6 servings

Vegetable oil for frying

Six 6-inch corn tortillas

3 ounces firm tofu, diced

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

1 canned chipotle chile in adobo (more for garnish)

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest

1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 cups finely shredded green cabbage

1 1/2 cups finely shredded red cabbage

1 small red onion, thinly sliced

1 large carrot, coarsely grated

3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro

3 1/2 cups shredded roasted or grilled chicken

Lime wedges for garnish

1. In a small skillet, heat 1/2 inch of oil over moderate heat until hot but not smoking. Add 1 tortilla and fry until golden and crisp, turning once, about 2 minutes. Transfer the tostada to paper towels to drain. Repeat with the remaining tortillas. (Or substitute tortilla chips; see note below.)

2. In a food processor or blender, combine the tofu with the lime juice, vinegar, honey, mustard, and chipotle and process until smooth. Add 1/4 cup oil in a thick stream and process until creamy. Transfer to a bowl. Stir in the orange and lime zests and season the dressing with salt and pepper to taste.

3. In a large bowl, toss the cabbages, onion, carrot, and cilantro; season to taste with salt and pepper. Add all but 3 tablespoons of the dressing and toss. Set the tostadas on plates and mound the slaw on top. Add the chicken to the bowl, toss with the reserved 3 tablespoons of dressing, and mound on the slaw. Garnish with lime wedges and additional chipotle peppers in adobo, if desired.

- From Paula Disbrowe's Cowgirl Cuisine and Best of the Best:The Best Recipes From

the 25 Best Cookbooks of the Year (American Express Publishing, 2008)

Note: To save the step of frying tortillas, substitute good-quality store-bought tortilla chips, or lighten the recipe by serving the chicken and citrus slaw in warmed corn or wheat tortillas.

Per serving: 312 calories, 29 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 12 grams fat, 69 milligrams cholesterol, 162 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Roasted Broccoli

Makes 4 servings

1 large head broccoli (about 13/4 pounds)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon sugar

Pepper

Lemon wedges, for serving

1. Trim away the outer peel from the broccoli stalk, otherwise it will turn tough when cooked. For Roasted Broccoli With Garlic, stir 1 tablespoon minced garlic into the olive oil before drizzling it over the broccoli.

2. Adjust an oven rack to the lowest position, place a large rimmed baking sheet on the rack, and heat the oven to 500 degrees. Cut the broccoli at the juncture of the florets and stems; remove the outer peel from the stalk. Cut the stalk into 2- to 3-inch lengths and each length into 1/2-inch-thick pieces. Cut the crowns into 4 wedges if 3 to 4 inches in diameter, or 6 wedges if 4 to 5 inches in diameter. Place the broccoli in a large bowl; drizzle with the oil and toss well until evenly coated. Sprinkle with the salt, sugar, and pepper to taste and toss to combine.

3. Working quickly, remove the baking sheet from the oven. Carefully transfer the broccoli to the baking sheet and spread it in an even layer, placing it flat sides down. Return the baking sheet to the oven and roast until the stalks are well browned and tender and the florets are lightly browned, 9 to 11 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and serve immediately with lemon wedges.

Note: For another variation, saute 2 large, chopped shallots until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon fennel seeds, roughly chopped, and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer. Remove from heat and toss the roasted broccoli with shallots; then sprinkle with 1/2 cup shaved Parmesan.

- From The Best of America's Test Kitchen (America's Test Kitchen, 2008)

Per serving: 159 calories, 6 grams protein, 14 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, no cholesterol, 356 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.


Pappa al Pomodoro

Makes 6 servings

1/2 cup good olive oil

2 cups chopped yellow onions

1 cup medium-diced carrots

1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and medium-diced

4 teaspoons minced garlic

3 cups (1-inch) diced ciabatta bread, crusts removed

2 (28-ounce) cans Italian plum tomatoes (see note)

4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 cup chopped fresh basil leaves

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

For the topping:

3 cups (1-inch) diced ciabatta bread

2 ounces thickly sliced pancetta, chopped

24 to 30 whole fresh basil leaves

3 tablespoons good olive oil, plus more for serving

1. Heat the oil in a large stockpot over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, fennel and garlic and cook over medium-low heat for 10 mintues, until tender. Add the ciabatta cubes and cook for 5 more minutes. Place the tomatoes in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process just until coarsely chopped. Add the tomatoes to the pot along with the chicken stock, red wine, basil, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper. Bring the soup to a boil, lower the heat, and allow to simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

3. For the topping, place the ciabatta, pancetta, and basil on a sheet pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes, until all the ingredients are crisp. The basil leaves will turn dark and crisp, which is fine.

4. Reheat the soup, if necessary, and beat with a wire whisk until the bread is broken up. Stir in the Parmesan and taste for seasoning. Serve hot, sprinkled with the topping and drizzled with additional olive oil.

Note: Instead of crushed canned tomatoes, use whole canned San Marzano tomatoes.

- From Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics (Clarkson Potter, 2008)Per serving: 637 calories, 18 grams protein, 68 grams carbohydrates, 22 grams sugar, 32 grams fat, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 1,435 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.


Herbed Roast Pork Tenderloin

Makes 6 servings

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme

Salt and pepper

2 pork tenderloins (about 3 pounds total, see note)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Beat the butter, mustard, lemon zest and juice, garlic, herbs, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl.

2. Pat the tenderloins dry with paper towels and butterfly the tenderloins by slicing down through the middle of each, leaving 1/4 inch of meat intact. Spread the interiors evenly with the herb-butter mixture, interlock the tenderloins, and tie securely with kitchen twine at 11/2-inch intervals. Rub the pork with the oil and sprinkle the sugar evenly over the exterior.

3. Roast the meat on a rimmed baking sheet until the exterior is golden brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of the tenderloins registers 140 degrees, about 35 minutes, flipping the pork halfway through cooking.

4. Transfer to a cutting board and brush the top of the pork with the reserved herb-butter mixture. Tent with foil and let rest until the center of the tenderloin registers 150 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 15 minutes. Remove the twine. Slice and serve.

- From The Best of America's Test Kitchen (America's Test Kitchen, 2008)Per serving: 383 calories, 53 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 17 grams fat, 153 milligrams cholesterol, 180 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.

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