Some cookbooks are heavy with sumptuous, full-color photographs of dishes that look better than anything you'll ever make; call them culinary porn, less likely to prompt you to pick up a whisk than they are to send you to the telephone in search of a restaurant reservation. Others, like the redoubtable "Joy of Cooking," are reference works that come in handy when you forget what temperature to set the oven at when roasting a potato, or you're wondering what the heck marshmallows are made from, or you want to cop a weird thrill from studying the instructions on how to clean a squirrel. Still others are filled with recipes so dauntingly complex and expensive that they're more theories about cooking than viable instructions -- sort of the way literary theory isn't actual literature.
Then there is that volume, the one streaked with pepperonata sauce, its pages mangled and steamed into perpetual ripples from everyday use until it's almost twice as thick as it was on the day you first opened it. Most cooks have a book like this, a faithful friend that has carried them through everything from dinner parties to seduction suppers to pasta meals whipped up for solitary delectation at the end of a long day. These books are our Virgils, our Obi-Wan Kenobis of the kitchen. They teach us, gradually, to trust ourselves with a skillet and maybe even a potato ricer. They've made cooks out of us, and we celebrate them here.
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Marcella's Italian Kitchen
By Marcella Hazan
Knopf, 276 pages
Who wouldn't be a little bit intimidated by Marcella Hazan's revulsion at "the pallor of deep-freeze counters, those cemeteries of food, whose produce is sealed up in waxed boxes marked, like some tombstones, with photographs of the departed"? By her dismay at the "undiscriminating condemnation" of that "vital substance," salt? ("When I try something new, even after I have seasoned it to my satisfaction, I sprinkle a touch more salt on a separate biteful.") By her wholesale rejection of cold pasta? ("If I had invented pasta salads I would hide.") By the exuberance of her disdain for innocent cinnamon? ("I loathe cinnamon, so the less said about that the better.")
For more than 25 years now Marcella Hazan has been goading, browbeating, hectoring, shaming and, not incidentally, inspiring her readers into preparing Italian cuisine the proper way, which is to say, according to the traditional methods of the Italian kitchen. I use all five of her books all the time, but my favorite is her third, "Marcella's Italian Kitchen," in which she starts to break away from the wrist-slapping classicism of her groundbreaking early volumes, "The Classic Italian Cook Book" and "More Classic Italian Cooking," and lets her imagination play a little.
The result is such inspirations as her shells with green, red and yellow peppers and cream (the sweetness of the peppers, the sweetness of the cream); her sautied veal chops with mushrooms and white wine (the fresh button mushrooms taking on the funkiness of the dried porcinis); and, on an uncharacteristically weird note, her tonnarelli with cantaloupe (I wouldn't believe it, either, if I hadn't served it more than once to incredulous guests). Her eggless fig ice cream -- just figs, sugar, milk and water, processed and then frozen -- says all the good things there are to say about the late summer.
Marcella Hazan's impatient and judgmental tone often makes her seem like a pain. (She is one hero I've never wanted to meet.) But her recipes are so beautiful and so reliable and, most of the time, so brilliantly simple that what can you do but venerate her and love her in spite of herself?
-- Craig Seligman
The Martha Stewart Cookbook: Collected Recipes for Every Day
By Martha Stewart
Random House, 620 pages
Until I picked up a dogeared copy of "The Martha Stewart Cookbook" at a
San Francisco used book store last year, my kitchen was a
post-collegiate, taste-bud depriving packaged pasta wasteland. But with
a little help from Martha, the kitchen in my historic Washington
apartment is turning into a place worthy of its elegant
architectural setting. My pantry is stocked with fresh herbs and greens, and
something else is happening that would both please and shock my parents
and friends -- my smoke alarm has been amazingly quiet in recent months.
I'm no Alice Waters, but I don't think my cooking would make her wince.
After a long day of editing stories on the latest political scandals,
plane crashes and high school shootings at Salon.com's Washington
bureau, preparing one of Martha's appetizers, side dishes or, time
permitting, main courses, can be as therapeutic as aromatherapy or a
shiatsu massage. It's easy not to dwell on George W. Bush's foreign
policy stumblings or what Cassie Bernall may or may not have said when
you're salivating over sliced pears slathered in gorgonzola or olive
oil-bathed sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil. Granted, these
aren't very elaborate dishes, but they're simple, quick and tummy-pleasing.
And I would never think to make these things on my own. Enter
Why would I eschew more traditional books directed at kitchen newbies
like me who can't tell their measuring spoons from their measuring cups?
I grew up in two worlds in Napa Valley, where my eating habits
were influenced by the comfort foods dished up by my parents and the
experimental California cuisine of the local restaurants where I spent
my weekends as a busboy. (It was an unusual contrast for a teen -- New
England pot roast at home and, occasionally, foie gras at work.) As I
set out to cook my own meals, I was looking for a cookbook that would
both instruct me on the nuances of baking a chicken and coach me in
making some of the froufrou European and Asian peasant foods that have
become my guilty pleasures.
Martha's recipes for polenta with mascarpone and pesto -- a dish I often
top with a breast of chicken or turkey -- and risotto with porcini
mushrooms are always reliable. And her recipe for green enchiladas
competes favorably with the best enchiladas I've ever had served to me
from the choicest kitchens in Guadalajara and Mexico City.
And here's the best kept secret about "The Martha Stewart Cookbook":
Martha's not known for her minimalism, but in fact, her cookbook is
filled with spare recipes that are fast and easy to prepare, perfect for
the most demanding schedule. And where else are you going to find
recipes for simple and erotically charged desserts that take only five
minutes to prepare, like pomegranate seeds (fruity salmon roe for
vegetarians) or blood oranges bathed in Grand Marnier?
-- Daryl Lindsey
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By Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman
William Morrow & Co., 270 pages
I've always thought the most amazing first line of any book is "You know
more than you think," from Dr. Spock's "Baby and Child Care." But a
couple of sentences from the beginning of Viana La Place and Evan
Kleiman's "Pasta Fresca" --"The truth is that both fresh pasta and dried
pasta are equally good ... Neither is superior to the other" -- had the
effect on me, as a beginning cook, that Dr. Spock must have on new
To someone just starting to pay attention to what he might do in the
kitchen, afraid of doing the wrong thing or of choosing "inferior"
ingredients, those sentences were reassuring, and freeing. "Pasta
Fresca" was the first cookbook I turned to when I wanted to do something
more than boil some spaghetti, heat some sauce and dump 'em together.
The simplicity of the recipes and the implicit confidence La Place and
Kleiman show in their readers were a great confidence booster. Imagine
going from heated Ragu to linguine all'agnello (that's linguine with
lamb sauce, don't you know) -- and not having it look like muck. The
great lesson of cooking is one you never stop learning: The ability to
do the basics well is not just the foundation of cooking but, in some
ways, its height. It's real praise to say La Place and Kleiman know how
to keep it simple.
-- Charles Taylor
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Sundays at Moosewood
By the Moosewood Collective
Fireside, 733 pages
I baked coconut bread last week -- and though I haven't baked
anything in more than a year, my cookbook peeled right open to
the page; a decade of flour and coconut milk have stiffened it for easy
reference. The recipe is simple -- just nine ingredients, plus the
optional raisins -- and so I pounded the dough automatically, pressing
it against the walls of the same red mixing bowl I've used for more than
a decade, my fingers working from memory.
For seven years, "Sundays at Moosewood" was the only volume in my
kitchen. Its recipes, like the one for coconut bread, have become a part
of me: Friends now ask about "that apricot chutney you make" and "that
cornbread you do"; they think these are mine, and I don't disabuse them.
I eventually expanded my cookbook collection, but whenever I need to add
something to a menu, or to find a use for some new vegetable that turned
up in the market, "Sundays" is still the first place I look. (It's
become a family resource, too -- at one point six years ago, the four
members of my family actually owned four and a half copies, including
one I had joint custody of in Budapest.)
Put together by the collective that runs the Ithaca, N.Y., Moosewood
Restaurant, "Sundays" has a vaguely political (and distinctly lefty)
approach to cooking: It encourages improvisation, de-emphasizes
presentation, fosters cross-cultural exchange. Each chapter is defined
by a geographic region ("Provence," "Japan," "Armenia and the Middle
East"). Though the book doesn't presume to impose meal plans, each
chapter includes appetizers and entrees, and usually soups and sweets.
I've mixed the West African groundnut stew with the "jajoukh," a
cucumber and yogurt dip; paired the Trinidad mango salsa with a
cornbread recipe from the American South. Nobody seems to complain. I'm
guessing the folks at Moosewood wouldn't mind either.
-- Rachel Elson
The Silver Palate Cookbook
By Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso
Workman Publishing, 384 pages
For years, my fridge contained exactly three staples: a six pack, cat
food and a giant tub of low-fat margarine. But once I moved in with my
spouse, a guy who actually knew the proper way to season a chicken and
how long to boil a potato, I felt the need to get up to speed. A friend
who managed a Williams-Sonoma shop offered two simple words of advice
--"Silver Palate" -- and I never looked back. With its folksy
illustrations and simple, friendly instructions, the seminal volume from
caterers-turned-authors Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins had me whipping up
fruits de mer pasta and carpetbaggers steak like a champ in no time.
Today, the pages in my 9-year-old copy of "The New Basics" are
obscured in some parts with thick white smudges of dough, rendered
translucent in others by big dollops of olive oil and butter. Mostly,
however, they're brown. Depending on what section of the book I'm
perusing, the brown may be a light, basalmic vinegar hazel, a deep soy
sauce auburn, a creamy biscuit gravy chestnut or an unmistakable dark
chocolate mahogany. Even the parts of the book that aren't stained have
the weather-beaten look of pages that have sopped up more than their
share of milk, water, white wine and chicken broth. In short, it's all
shot to hell.
While it's admittedly disgusting, the condition of my cookbook is also
pretty handy -- the encrusted, wrinkly pages with the recipes for salmon
croquettes and Grandma Clark's soda bread practically open themselves
when I need them. And they remind me that even though over time I've
managed to become a pretty decent chef, I'm still also the same slob my
beloved first fell in love with all those years ago.
-- Mary Elizabeth Williams
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Fields of Greens: New Vegetarian Recipes from the Celebrated Greens Restaurant
By Annie Somerville
Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, 437 pages
I'm not a vegetarian, but too many salmonella warnings have left me with
an abiding horror of raw meat, especially chicken, which in its uncooked
form reminds me of the monsters that come slithering up the cellar steps
at the end of H.P. Lovecraft stories. (Besides, I'm not up for the hassles of
cleaning up after it -- you practically have to don a decontamination
suit and spray down your kitchen with liquid nitrogen.)
So vegetables it is, and Deborah Madison's "The Greens Cookbook" it was,
for a year or two, until I got tired of recipes that, even if they
turned mere produce into ambrosia, all seemed to take three hours to
prepare. Then along came Annie Somerville's "Fields of Greens."
(Somerville was, like Madison, a chef at the famous San Francisco
vegetarian restaurant.) Somerville has Madison's sorceror's touch, an
uncanny knowledge of which little additional ingredients -- diced
olives, lemon zest, saffron, chive blossoms -- will punch a pleasant
vegetable pasta dish into indisputable scrumptiousness. One of the
recipes here can transform stolid, sulfury broccoli into something
downright yummy (it's the broccoli and roasted red pepper linguine) and
another manages, through the heroic deployment of a whole head of
roasted garlic, to make lentil soup taste like something other than
clay. But Somerville's recipes, with some exceptions, are less
time-consuming and fussily demanding than Madison's.
Somerville has never written another cookbook, and when ordering a copy
of "Field of Greens" off the Web for some friends, I noticed several
forlorn reader reviews indicating that I'm not the only one dismayed by
this. A comeback is definitely in order.
-- Laura Miller