Gift cookbooks: Tidings of great food

(Tony Fitts)
Posted: December 10, 2009

Uber-chef Thomas Keller takes on American comfort food, with 350 pages of lush photos and laborious recipes for classics like fried chicken and split pea soup - and trust us, Paula Deen it's not.

Moosewood Restaurant dishes out another vegetarian cookbook, this time with less cheese, more whole grains, even more vegetables - and some very tasty recipes - in its charming no-frills design.

And the Lee Brothers give us another gem: quick and easy Southern dishes updated from the long-simmered and the deep-fried, presented along with charming food memories from the South.

Clearly, the economy hasn't slowed the publishing industry from churning out cookbooks this season, from the lavish to the practical.

But a few themes dominate: comfort, home-style, and healthy, with a hearty helping of you-can-do-this encouragement, perhaps for those forgoing take-out to save money, and those putting pan to stove for the first time.

Some of these books are beautiful, some are flawed, but, most important, some contain truly great recipes.

Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health, The Moosewood Collective, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, $24.99.

It has long seemed that the crunchy-granola fare from the Moosewood gang was more about being earnest than being actually tasty. But a couple of things can't be disputed: When the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., opened in the '70s, it was ahead of its time in championing ethnic grain-based dishes. Second, it seems to have finally noticed that flavor counts - even in cheap, hippie-dippy, vegetarian cookery. We were pleasantly startled at the transformation of a plain-jane sweet-potato and vegetable stew called Spanish Stew once we added the recommended romesco sauce, a mildly spicy, nutty Catalan sauce that doubles nicely as a dip. And we were just as happy with the simple Mexican scrambled-egg breakfast dish, called migas, that perfumed our kitchen with the crushed corn tortilla chips you add to the batter. You won't find any sexy food photos in the book. But you will find impressively clear typography and instructions geared to real, everyday cooks in everyday kitchens.

- Rick Nichols

My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh, Andrews McMeel, $45.

For most Americans, the food of New Orleans has been indelibly defined by larger-than-life celebrity chefs, from the blackening craze of Paul Prudhomme to the spice-tossing Bam!-tics of Emeril Lagasse. We would be lucky if the more nuanced John Besh becomes the heir-apparent.

Besh is a bayou-bred former Marine steeped in local culture, who learned to cook in Europe and now owns some of the city's finest eateries. Few are as qualified to illuminate the passion for local ingredients, tradition, and sophistication that defines the post-Katrina generation of chefs. And he makes a compelling case for the city's culinary relevance with 200 recipes that give the full sweep of today's New Orleans table, from stellar renditions of classic redfish court bouillon and gumbos galore, to the immigrant influence with his Vietnamese shrimp Creole. It's as richly colored as the subject at hand and a welcome introduction to New Orleans' most appealing culinary ambassador in years.

- Craig LaBan

Good Eats: The Early Years, by Alton Brown, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $37.50.

OK, I'm unlikely to ever actually buy a book stamped with a logo "As Seen on Food Network." But that doesn't mean I won't seriously browse through one if it lands on my desk. To wit: I've been browsing Good Eats, which is like watching the TV series with the mute button on; not a bad thing in my book. The fact is, Alton Brown can be comic, and he has tasty side notes - don't drain your noodles all the way or they'll stick; anchovies weren't in the original Caesar salad; a long nylon spatula from Matfer is great for flipping trout. But his campy shtick can be wearying unless you're still in college or just getting out. Enter the pause button (also known as the print version). This book covers his first 80 episodes, and if you have an Alton Brown addict on your holiday list, well, why not give 'em what they like? The recipes are elementary and classic. The layout is jump-cutty and personality-driven (lots of candids of Alton). And there are instructions for a 10-minute microwave applesauce with honey and cognac that I've decided to give a try.

- R.N.

Ad Hoc at Home, by Thomas Keller, Artisan, $50.

It's comforting to know that even culinary gods like Thomas Keller, the chef behind the gastronomic temples French Laundry and Per Se, love to make good fried chicken, beef stroganoff, or strawberry shortcake. But do we all need to approach our comfort food with the rigors of a four-star chef? I'm not so sure after tackling Keller's latest book. Based on recipes from his casual Napa restaurant Ad Hoc, this gorgeous tome makes a strong photogenic appeal for upgrading American standards. But even the "uncomplicated Keller" is bound to challenge most amateurs with daylong simmer-and-strain projects, Vita Prep blending, ice baths, and, yes, the inevitable plumber's torch. There are plenty of nice little cooking tips (snuggling short ribs in cheesecloth to keep them tidy), and yes, Ad Hoc's fried chicken is fantastically juicy (albeit a tad sweet). But when it comes to spreading the gospel of home cooking for most Americans, Paula Deen has little to worry about.

- C.L.

Mother's Best, by Lisa Schroeder, Taunton Press, $28.

This new comfort-food cookbook, a collection of recipes from Lisa Schroeder's popular Portland, Ore., establishment Mother's Bistro and Bar, is written "in the voice of a mother teaching her adult child to cook," she says.

It's filled with tempting recipes, insightful tips, and bits of Mother's wisdom, or "Love Notes." Unlike many books that assume you know how to cook, Mother explains technique thoughtfully, explaining both why and how.

It's worth buying this book for the incredible pancake recipes alone. The Almond Poppyseed Pancakes were so good my husband wants them to replace the French toast I have made for a decade of Christmases.

An entire chapter is devoted to macaroni and cheese, with nine recipes and variations: bacon and cheddar, one with spinach and ricotta, and a Southwestern version, too.

It wouldn't be a "Mother's" cookbook without cookies. The Triple Chocolate Chubbies are the ones we all want in the cookie jar: a cookie-fudge-brownie studded with nuts and chocolate chips. All you need is a glass of milk.

- Robin Currie

Momofuku Cookbook, by David Chang, Potter, $40.

The rise of wunderkind David Chang, from kitchen grunt to "it" chef of New York, is an improbable tale worth the price of his Momofuku Cookbook. But learning how this Korean American from Virginia turned a trio of restaurants named after the inventor of instant ramen soup into an East Village sensation is only half the fun. Chang cooks with the in-your-face abandon of a man obsessed (pork, kimchi, noodles, and more pork) and there's a wealth of stellar recipes here that are destined to become fixtures in my family. Not necessarily all the hipster chef moves - though there are plenty of those, including "ghetto sous-vide." No, Chang proves his genius to home cooks by working magic of the most minimalist order, like the 10-pound pork butt that's transformed with only sugar and salt (and six hours in the oven) into a bo ssäm masterpiece, or brilliant condiments like the ginger scallion sauce or "octo vinaigrette," or the puffy steamed Chinese buns. The range of Chang's eclectic palate, from Southern country ham to sweet corn with miso butter, may be at times startling, but his ability to bring them together is exactly what makes him one of our most compelling chefs.

- C.L.

New American Table, by Marcus Samuelsson, Wiley, $40.

Born in Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, trained in Austria and Switzerland (with a stop in Philadelphia at the late Washington Square), Marcus Samuelsson dedicates his cookbook to "the millions of immigrants who brought these wonderful foods to their new home."

Samuelsson, of New York's Aquavit, writes of his culinary journeys across America, discovering Creole in New Orleans, barbecue in North Carolina, Texas, and Kansas, low-country fare along the East Coast, and salmon and wine along the West. The cookbook/travelogue is sumptuously designed and great fun. The recipes, though, are not for the faint of heart. Many are complicated and time-consuming and require hard-to-find, expensive ingredients. (A search for pumpkinseed oil was ultimately successful at the Reading Terminal Market, $17 for a tiny bottle.) But the completed pear-pumpkin salad with pumpkinseed vinaigrette produced spectacular results. Fish goulash with gnocchi, a major production, resulted in a delicious stew, redolent with smoky paprika.

Whether for the ambitious cook or merely a reader who loves food lore and beautiful photography, it's a volume worth owning.

- Elise Vider

Simple Fresh Southern: Knockout Dishes With Down-Home Flavor, by Matt Lee and Ted Lee, Potter, $35.

The Lee Brothers' new book is true to its title: straightforward, simple recipes using fresh ingredients, with a magical Southern flair. It promises "easy, healthy dishes for every day that won't compromise an ounce of Southern flavor." And it's all true.

The charming introduction tells how the delicious Shrimp and Deviled-Egg Salad Rolls came to be, a reworking of a 1960s Shrimp-Deviled Egg Casserole with a mass of deviled eggs, cheese sauce, shrimp, and canned Chinese noodles. From that overblown wonder came their Southern spin on the Maine lobster roll recipe with an amazingly light touch.

The Collard Greens With Poblano Chiles and Chorizo was a revelation to me. The only collards I had eaten before were the overcooked, grayish variety swimming in pork liquor. Well, the heavens opened and the sun shone brighter after I made the collards from this book - earthy and tender, with just a hint of spice from the poblanos and chorizo sausage. It doesn't get much better than this.

- R.C.

So Easy: Luscious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Week, by Ellie Krieger, Wiley, $29.95.

Ellie Krieger, host of Food Network's Healthy Appetite, is a commonsensical nutritionist. Rather than preach dietary orthodoxy, Krieger suggests that no food is ever off-limits; instead she categorizes food as "usually," "sometimes," or "rarely." So recipes that incorporate a bit of white flour or sugar, a dollop of butter or cream, populate her newest cookbook.

The cookbook is organized by quick and then more time-consuming breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and desserts. Especially good is the "dinner-rush hour" chapter of 25 meals that can be prepared in 30 minutes or less.

Krieger's lemon-garlic turkey breast with roasted rosemary potatoes and brussels sprouts achieved her "delicious-healthy-easy" trifecta, although the recipe states that a 6-pound bone-in turkey breast can be roasted in no more than 11/4 hours. If label directions and experience hadn't guided us, dinner would have been seriously delayed.

Still, for a sensible and sunny philosophy about balance and moderation in diet, Krieger excels.

- E.V.

Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source, by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, $30.

To the lexicon of healthful eating comes "clean food" - naturally grown, minimally processed, local, and now the basis for the aptly named new cookbook by Terry Walters, a Connecticut-based holistic health counselor. Walters' gospel includes admonishments to "chew, chew, chew!" and a suggested daily meditation. More valuable is her 35-page primer on basic cooking methods, the pillars of clean cooking, such as grains, vegetables, and soy, and a glossary of lesser-known ingredients.

Less successful are some of the recipes. A brown rice pudding sweetened with maple and brown rice syrup was sickeningly sweet. Tofu kale lasagna was somewhat better, especially as a second-day leftover. Although never explicitly stated, Clean Food is essentially a vegan cookbook and as such can be a valuable resource. But for most cooks, a pinch of "dirt" might be a good thing.

- E.V.

Nigella Christmas, by Nigella Lawson, Hyperion, $35.

OK, we get it. Nigella Lawson is a fetching woman.

I like that her hair is a little messy and her food never quite looks perfect. I like that she looks like she actually eats the food she's prepared. But some of the photos are just plain silly. Look! There's Nigella in a red reindeer apron. And she wears a robe!

Nigella's Christmas has some good tips for planning holiday menus and timing various dishes so they are all ready at the same time (always tricky). And there are tons of recipes for holiday fare: Chestnut Soup With Bacon Crumbles, Ginger-Glazed Ham, and Roast Goose.

My favorite: Hot Schnocolate, an adult version of the cold-weather classic made with peppermint schnapps.

I wanted to love Nigella's Christmas, but I didn't. It seemed a little dated and even a little recycled. Again with the pavlova? Well, maybe that's just another way to say tradition.

- R.C.


Pear-Pumpkin Salad

Makes 6 servings

1/3 cup olive oil

2 red onions, thinly sliced

1/2 cup roughly chopped pumpkin or butternut squash, cut into 1/4-inchpieces

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 Asian pears, cored and thinly sliced

4 heads curly endive, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped chives

2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

1 cup feta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Pumpkinseed vinaigrette (see accompanying recipe)

1. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and pumpkin or squash, season with salt and pepper, and saute until the pumpkin is lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

2. Remove from heat and transfer to a bowl. Let cool slightly, then toss with the pears, endive, chives, and vinegar. Garnish with feta and drizzle with the pumpkinseed vinaigrette.

- From New American Table by Marcus Samuelsson (Wiley & Sons, 2009) 

Per serving (without vinaigrette): 219 calories, 5 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams sugar, 18 grams fat, 22 milligrams cholesterol, 292 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Pumpkinseed Vinaigrette

Makes about 1/2 cup or 6 servings

2 tablespoons pumpkinseeds

1 large egg yolk

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 garlic clove, chopped

1/2 cup olive oil

Juice of 1 lime

2 teaspoons pumpkinseed oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Heat a small saute pan over low heat. Add the pumpkinseeds and toast until golden and fragrant, about 3 minutes.

2. Combine the egg yolk, cream, and garlic in a blender and blend until frothy and lemon-colored. With the blender running, add the olive oil in a thin, steady stream until emulsified. Add the lime juice and pumpkinseed oil. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the pumpkinseeds.

- From New American Table by Marcus Samuelsson (Wiley & Sons, 2009) 

Note: Because pumpkinseed oil's strong flavor can easily overpower other ingredients, cut it with other liquids, like olive oil and cream.

Per serving: 225 calories, 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace sugar, 25 grams fat, 44 milligrams cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.


Spanish Stew

Makes 3-4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 1/2 cups chopped onions

1 1/2 cups chopped red or yellow bell peppers

2 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 bay leaves

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 cup dry sherry

1 1/2 cups cubed, peeled sweet potatoes or winter squash

1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes

1/2 cup water

2 cups green beans, cut in half

1 15-ounce can butter beans, drained

Romesco Sauce (see accompanying recipe)

1. In a soup pot on medium heat, warm the olive oil and cook the onions, bell peppers, and garlic for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables soften. Add the salt, bay leaves, thyme, paprika, and red pepper flakes, and cook for 3 minutes or so; stir often and lower the heat if necessary to avoid scorching. Add the sherry, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, and water, cover and bring to a boil; then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

2. Add the green beans and butter beans and simmer until the green beans and sweet potatoes are tender but firm, 10 to 15 minutes.

3. Remove the bay leaves and add more salt to taste. Top each serving with a dollop of Romesco Sauce.

- From Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health (Simon & Schuster, 2009) 

Per serving (based on 4): 310 calories, 10 grams protein, 48 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams fat, no cholesterol, 329 milligrams sodium, 13 grams dietary fiber.


Romesco Sauce

Makes about 13/4 cups

1 dried ancho chile

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, sliced

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 slice whole wheat bread, lightly toasted and crumbled

3/4 cup chopped fresh tomatoes

1/3 cup toasted hazelnuts or almonds

2/3 cup drained canned roasted red peppers

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

Ground black pepper

1. In a small bowl, pour boiling water over the ancho chile to cover and soak for about 15 minutes. Drain, remove the stem, chop, and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, warm the oil in a small skillet on medium-low heat and cook the garlic just until it begins to show color. Add the red pepper flakes, bread, and tomatoes. Cook for 3 minutes, stirring well to coat the bread with the garlicky oil and to soften the tomato a bit. Remove from the heat.

3. In a food processor, briefly whirl the nuts to chop coarsely. Add all the other ingredients, including the soaked ancho, and process until the sauce is fairly smooth. Add the salt and a dash of black pepper.

- From Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Notes: If you can't find a dried ancho chile, increase the red pepper flakes accordingly.

Romesco can be made ahead and refrigerated, but allow it to warm a bit at room temperature before serving. It will keep, refrigerated, in a covered container for a week.

Per 1/4-cup serving: 157 calories, 1 gram protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams fat, no cholesterol, 510 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

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