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Cookbook Roundup

This season look for volumes of help in the kitchen

There's something for every taste in this season's crop of cookbooks. There's something for every taste in this season's crop of cookbooks. (Michele McDonald/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / December 19, 2007

No doubt about it: 2007 has been a bonanza for cookbook lovers. It's not just that familiar names and faces (Mollie Katzen, Alice Waters, Anne Willan) have come out with some of their best work in years. And that last year's trend in authoritative references has continued, yielding treasuries of functional recipes for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Personally, I like to imagine that what's happening is a new kind of back-to-the-kitchen revolution, for all ages. Maybe people are really starting to believe that feeding yourself deliciously is every bit as important as knowing how to tie your shoes, use less energy, and gild your parachute.

You can almost see this year's authors lined up in your kitchen like a cheerleading squad: Dice those squash, sister! Way to grind that cumin in a mortar and pestle! Make those aromatics sweat, baby! Anybody who wants to cook has lots of books to choose from.

For professional advice, turn to James Peterson's Cooking (10 Speed, $40), easier to use than other cooking-school-in-a-book volumes. Recipes include the usual suspects - mother sauces and perfect omelets - but the yields are for four to eight, and the step-by-step photographs are superb.

If you're a restaurant chef, invariably you choose between writing a book that shows off your professional skill or one that offers a peek of your own kitchen. Jonathan Waxman's modestly titled A Great American Cook (Houghton Mifflin, $35) is a fine example of a chef at home. Maybe tuna steaks with ginger-black pepper sauce and zucchini blossom beignets with sun-dried-tomato mayonnaise are more involved than what you'd ordinarily go for. Nevertheless, most recipes remain plausible indulgences, attainable without an army of prep cooks.

If you like your basics with a bit of celebrity polish, the irrepressible Jamie Oliver is happy to oblige with Cook with Jamie (Hyperion, $37.50). Recipes come with a dollop of hyperbole ("incredible boiled butternut squash," "the nicest clam chowder"), but that's not to say they aren't great eating. You'll find more authoritative references elsewhere, but very likely none as charming.

Meanwhile, baking purists can rejoice about Peter Reinhart's Whole Grain Breads (10 Speed, $35). How lucky we are that Reinhart is willing to work out the nitty-gritty of enzyme activity and hydration ratios. Thanks to his monklike devotion, the rest of us can avail ourselves of a similar devotion to eating it.

I don't think I've ever seen an Indian cookbook like Modern Indian Cooking (Silverback Books, $29.95). Ingredients are what you might expect (mustard seeds, fresh green chilies, tamarind), but freely married with honored guests such as poblano chilies, tarragon, or soy. Larger-than-lifesize photographs make these fresh, yet somehow distinctly Indian dishes - crispy pan-fried shrimp with tamarind glaze, rosemary lemon rice with mustard seeds - mouthwateringly compelling.

There hasn't been a shortage of cookbook-memoirs in recent years, but it's rare to find a great story paired with great recipes. San Francisco restaurateur Cecilia Chiang's The Seventh Daughter (10 Speed, $35) reminisces candidly and unassumingly about early 20th-century China; her matter-of-fact good humor in the face of poverty and armed conflict would be striking in any language. Well-constructed recipes include mapo dofu, tea eggs, and dry-fried string beans.

Melting-pot cuisine gets a star turn in Niloufer Ichaporia King's My Bombay Kitchen (University of California Press, $27.50), which captures the cooking of one Parsi family. Parsis historically migrated from southern Persia (now Iran) to Gujarat in India, and the cuisine borrows liberally from Middle Eastern, colonial British, and colonial Portuguese tables. Goan rich pork stew is as much a staple as dals and chickpea stews; ginger-garlic pastes and dried red chilies abound.

Anne Willan's The Country Cooking of France (Chronicle, $50) is a powerful attempt to set forth regional classics, complete with history, provenance, and terroir. It's fascinating to watch the same fish stew transform from saffrony, Pernod-laced bouillabaisse near the Mediterranean to oniony, buttery chaudree by the Atlantic Coast. Gorgeous pastoral photography, too.

Droll, learned Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has done the meat-eating world a big favor with the River Cottage Meat Book (10 Speed, $40.). His is an important name in the nose-to-tail movement, and the book has its share of innards, game animals, and innards of game animals. But anyone looking for deep-flavored, well-thought-out recipes for lamb, beef, pork, veal, and chicken will find them, too. Fearnley-Whittingstall's essays on the treatment of animals and the quality of their meat make this the perfect book for mindful carnivores.

By contrast, Pork & Sons (Phaidon, $39.95), from French butcher Stephane Reynaud, is more documentary than manifesto. Lovingly illustrated with photographs of butchers at their trade, it's just the thing for the cook who thinks 125 Gallic-oriented recipes for pig sounds about right.

Alice Medrich, who captivated chocoholics with 2003's "Bittersweet," proves that chocolate is one arrow in her quiver with Pure Dessert (Artisan, $35). This is organized by what you might call the moods of dessert. Medrich isn't so much an innovator as a flavor junkie. If she's going to make a gingersnap, it's going to be gingered to the nth degree, and don't be surprised to find half a cup of lemon juice in the lemon bars.

Those of us dazzled by cannoli, millefoglie, and sfogliatelle sometimes forget the vast array of simpler Italian sweets - cookies and little cakes, semifreddi, and tarts. Gina dePalma of Mario Batali's Babbo offers these small delights in Dolce Italiano (Norton, $35). It's enough to make you feel like the world's best Italian grandmother, or, if you've eaten enough, two of them.

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