The one great recipe

If you single out a recipe, will all the other recipes in the book feel unloved?

Published March 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When I read a recipe whose headnote begins, "If you make only one recipe from this book, let this be the one. The deceptively easy yet indescribably delicious maple-soy marinade creates a candied salmon fillet that melts in your mouth, while the black pepper crust provides the perfect savory foil" -- well, when I read a headnote like that, I head out to the fish guy right away. In this case, the headnote and recipe are from "Off the Eaten Path" by Bob Blumer, the Surreal Gourmet, and in this case the results are, well, pretty good. Just about exactly like salmon marinated in a maple-soy mixture and topped with a black pepper crust (which, by the way, could use some salt). When I first tried it I thought, "Eh," and forgot about it.

But a few days later the memory of that salmon drifted back into my head, and I began longing for it. Hearing that I was going to have grilled salmon at the house of a friend in Lawrence, Kan., I thought excitedly, "Maybe she'll make Bob Blumer's recipe." How could she have? She didn't own the book. Nevertheless, I was stupidly disappointed, and the instant I got back home I made Blumer's salmon a second time. I decided that the recipe was, in fact, very good, and that my original "Eh" had been due to the fact that no actual food can live up to a really luscious prose description. (You'd think I would have learned this from eating in countless restaurants whose menus have been written by food poets, but I haven't.)

If you're my age, 154, the rest of "Off the Eaten Path" may seem too young for you. What busy centenarian has time to mess around with poaching fish in the dishwasher, baking shrimp on top of a car engine, cutting honeydew and cantaloupe so that they look like (pale green and orange) fried eggs or making a bed of polenta that actually looks like a bed, with little ravioli pillows? ("You can find uncut sheets of pasta at fresh pasta stores. Alternatively, use extra wide sheets of dried lasagna pasta and make single 'beds.'") What's the point of food that looks wacky but tastes ordinary? Still, that maple-soy salmon ...

If you buy only one cookbook from which to make only one recipe, let this be the one. Add a little salt to the pepper crust, though. And maybe sprinkle some chopped scallions on top when you take the salmon out of the broiler.

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When you think about it, it's odd how often cookbook authors single out only a few recipes in their books for particular attention. Doesn't a comment like "This is the best chicken I've ever tasted" hurt the feelings of all the other chicken recipes in the book? Aren't all the book's dishes supposed to be the best the author has ever made? You can't introduce a recipe with "This is only OK," of course, but that seems implied when just three or four recipes in a book are given a red-carpet introduction.

On the other hand, raving over every single recipe in a cookbook is asking for a different kind of trouble. This is the challenge faced by Fran McCullough and Suzanne Hamlin in "The Best American Recipes 1999." Reading the book makes you aware that choosing the year's best recipes is a task akin to writing restaurant reviews. To an outsider it may sound like fun, but there are just so many recipes out there.

When we first embarked on this project [say the authors], we were filled with joy and a huge sense of fun. There we were, let loose on the entire world of food to do our favorite thing: search out the year's most fascinating recipes and race into the kitchen to cook them. At first slowly, then at a more alarming rate, our house began to fill with hundreds of cookbooks, towering stacks of magazines, piles of Internet printouts, newspaper clips, handouts and even the odd recipe clipped from a food package. We were literally drowning in recipes (well, not literally), thousands upon thousands of them ... Sometimes a recipe that sounded great on the page failed to deliver in the kitchen. Just about as often, really good dishes came from obscure sources, not the celebrated food establishment.

Many of the recipes we tried were perfectly pleasant but not truly great. So, just what IS a great recipe? Margaret Ann Surber, the recipe tester for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, puts it simply: "It gives you maximum return on your effort."

Exactly. And yet a cookbook has to be well balanced, which means the authors had to find as many "great" recipes for vegetables as for the much-easier-to-track-down "great" desserts and main courses. Thus there is a certain amount of hype for recipes like roasted green beans with garlic: "This is one of those astound-your-guests recipes; everyone who tastes them will be amazed by the beans, and they won't guess the secret ingredient." But I made it, and my guests did guess -- the secret ingredient is anchovies -- and I noticed that none of them was "amazed" enough to have a second helping. On the other hand, this book is well worth buying for its cajeta poundcake alone and also for Marion Cunningham's buttermilk pancakes. And while we're at it, the "amazing" roast duck brushed with Thai curry paste actually is amazingly good, and easy.

Besides, it's plain old satisfying to see a year's worth of food trends summed up in one book. I hope this book turns into a series. Are you listening, Houghton Mifflin? You should do much better with recipes than with the year's best short stories and essays.

What's the opposite of preparing a great meal for people you love? There are two answers. The first: force-feeding an ailing rabbit from a syringe, as I've been doing for the past few days. I bet you didn't know there was a rabbit food called Critical Care, did you? It's mainly powdered hay, with powdered oat groats and soybean hulls added for fiber. Still, I'd rather eat Critical Care than squirrel, which brings me to my second opposite: reading "Swamp Cookin,'" a book I swore I wouldn't review because it's in dialect and it has lots of disgusting pictures of people gigging frogs and wrestling alligators. Just the introduction lets you know what kind of trouble you're in:

Now, if y'all are slap in the middle of a big city where most people have never tasted a mudbug, Gator Stew, or Smothered Frog Legs in their whole lives, it's high time you met the River People. Read this here cookbook and learn how to hunt, catch, cook, and serve up a whole mess of scrumptious fixin's at your next supper party.

Scrumptious fixin's for Cletus, the Slack-Jawed Yokel on "The Simpsons," you mean. Tree rat stew (it's just squirrel, but still!) ... Terral's barbecued nutria ... Barbara's needle-nose gar -- what we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a Two Fat Ladies cookbook for people who think poor people are funny.

So why am I mentioning "Swamp Cookin'" at all? Because these days, I get a lot of cookbooks in the mail. I never get them put away; stacks of them are piled up on my kitchen counters for my friends to paw through. And this is the one that has gotten most of the attention in the past month. People toss aside all the glossy chef books to fight over it, squealing like boys in the past looking at bare-breasted women in National Geographic. "Gross! Look at this wedding picture with the two brides having their garters taken off!" "I know, I saw them," I say tiredly, but my friends don't notice. "Ugh, what's a mudbug? Why is that man stapling that fish to a tree?" If you need a birthday present for A Certain Kind of Friend, this is the one to get. You deserve to go to hell for lining the author's pockets, but the book will be the hit of the party.

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"The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside" is exactly the same kind of thing -- oh, no, wait, it's not. This is no gag gift; it's a genuine treasure, a culinary Beauty and the Beast that should become required bedside reading for anyone who appreciates Elizabeth David and M.F.K. Fisher. Amanda Hesser, a New York Times food writer, spent a year in France as an apprentice chef at the Chateau du Fey. (Hey, that's the dream job I wanted!) During that year she gradually befriended the chateau's cranky old gardener, Monsieur Milbert.

"I had been warned to be polite when making my daily request for vegetables," she writes, "and to avoid him whenever possible. He was a coarse and unpleasant old man." But of course he actually wasn't. As she hovered at the garden's borders, Hesser gradually began to appreciate Milbert and to learn about the kind of gardening that has shaped French cuisine for centuries:

Although I couldn't barrage him with questions, observing his everyday life spoke volumes. Sometimes he seemed as though he had been brought back from two centuries ago, dusted off, and set free in today's world ... While most French gardeners go down to the Bricomarche for a new handle for their shovel, Monsieur Milbert still cuts and trims tree limbs for his. While most of his gardening friends use fertilizers to boost growth, he follows the moons.

The book contains 200 excellent recipes that rely on fresh produce, but its real charm is in Hesser's month-by-month storytelling about a castle garden as bewitching as any in a fairy tale. In spring, she helps the gardener plant radishes. "After dragging the spade along the rope to scratch the crusty soil, he sprinkled the wispy seeds, then stroked the soil with his iron rake, gently smoothing it over the trench. It was like icing a cake." In summer, she picks hundreds and hundreds of raspberries. "The best were the squat berries with supple, overgrown cells. They had a velvety fuzz all over their swollen cells that collapsed on your tongue." In fall, in the woods, she discovers a cache of trompettes de morts -- delicious wild mushrooms that

are extremely difficult to spot. They avoid sunlight, preferring to bathe in dank earth littered with oak leaves, acorns, chestnuts and bugs. Because they are disguised to the unfamiliar eye as dead, gray leaves, searching for them is much like trying to make out constellations in the night sky.

"The Cook and the Gardener," which has been out for a year now, is a remarkable find itself and deserves the wide audience it's undoubtedly reaching.

By Ann Hodgman

Ann Hodgman is the author of three cookbooks, most recently "One Bite Won't Kill You," and of 40 children's books.

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