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Cook, if you feel like it
by Matthew Amster-Burton

December 15, 2001

In the future I'll remember 2001 as my year without cooking. It started off auspiciously enough as I rang in the new year making bacon-mushroom risotto at a friend's apartment in London. Midnight's panorama of fireworks was almost enough to make me forget the embarrassment of padding around Tesco Metro looking for canned chicken broth, which doesn't exist in England.

Not long after we returned from Europe, I was asked to write restaurant reviews for the Seattle Times. This shaved off a couple of home-cooked meals a week. An increasingly demanding biology curriculum at the university took care of a couple more.

I've heard it said that convenience foods aren't really timesavers. This is usually said by people who are paid to cook. The fact is, home cooking is quite demanding. That's why Hillary Rodham Clinton made her famous crack, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies," a comment for which she was later forced to repent by publicising her (mediocre) Toll House recipe. "Baking cookies," of course, meant being trapped in the kitchen against your will, a state of affairs many women and few men understand.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I probably enjoy cooking for the same reason I enjoy playing the guitar or writing cookbook reviews: because I don't have to do it. When I can't cook, I miss it in a way that only the luckiest people ever miss their jobs.

Maybe it's a bit of sour grapes when I say that 2001 was not a great year for cookbooks. Or maybe it's just that the previous two years were so good. Still, I have several to recommend, including three baking books and, oddly, a health food book.

One Potato, Two Potato
Roy Finamore and Molly Stevens
608 pages, $35

Single-ingredient books are hard to get right. You can almost hear the author's pitch: "A whole book about avocados!" And then you end up with, well, a whole book of avocado recipes, none of which are as good as equivalent recipes found in other books.

But Roy Finamore is a potato nut. He likes them fried, baked, stewed, or any other way you can come up with. Even his head is shaped kind of like a potato. He's also an experienced cookbook editor. So his potato book, which contains over 300 recipes, is a totally tuberous success. And the potato is such a chameleon that it can truly appear in this many recipes without repetition.

If you're overwhelmed by the options presented by One Potato, Two Potato, start with the central color photos, which are unusually appetizing, with none of the soft-focus "what are we eating?" style characteristic of too many modern cookbooks. Buttery pesto gnocchi. Could that be potato gatto, with mozzarella dripping from the center? It is. Ah, the gratin dauphinoise with baked-on gruyere dripping over the casserole edge looks perfect. "Never worry about making too much of this," the authors advise, "because a cold slice of gratin is one of the best breakfasts we can imagine." I can't wait to try it.

The funny thing is, I've never really loved potatoes. Fries and latkes, sure, but baked and mashed never did it for me. Some quality time with One Potato, Two Potato is going to change that. I've already enjoyed the Spanish Potato Omelet, a dense and salty concoction of thin-sliced russets, onions, and eggs. It will be a long time before I attempt Pommes Soufflées, which the authors describe as "heartbreak disguised as a potato," but isn't it nice when a cookbook author comes out and admits that a recipe is hard? Besides, there are plenty of simple recipes to keep me occupied on the road to potato mastery, and essentially all of them are in this book.

In the Sweet Kitchen
Regan Daley
692 pages, $35

This is really two books in a single volume. One is a vital reference to the baker's tools and ingredients. The other is an inexplicably fussy recipe book that the author (a professional pastry chef) keeps trying vainly to convince us is full of easy home recipes.

The first 370 pages of In the Sweet Kitchen are packed with delicious tidbits. Did you know, for example, that arrowroot starch is made from not one but several different species of tropical root? That a cracked cake may be the result of placing the pan on the wrong oven rack? That you can learn something from squeezing a stick of butter before you buy (and not just something about your grocer's temper)? The reader benefits from Daley's willingness to share what she knows about making better desserts, which is apparently everything. I will turn to this book first when I can't remember the difference between cinnamon and cassia or why my cake is overbaked.

I wanted to get the good stuff out of the way and tell you to buy the book before I discuss how infuriating it is.

If you open In the Sweet Kitchen randomly, aiming for the second half of the book, you will open to a recipe. It might be Cocoa, Date and Dried Fig Crostata; maybe Ricotta Pudding with Orange, Vanilla and Almonds; or even Sautéed Orchard Fruit with an Orange Muscat Sabayon. You will probably not open to something you want (or have even half the necessary ingredients) to make. There are a few gems hiding in there, though, such as a great Scottish shortbread that uses a couple of unusual ingredients (fructose and rice flour) to good effect.

Of course, this is not a book for those who want to learn how to make chocolate-chip cookies (that would be Nigella Lawson's book, below), and I'm not against complex desserts; the swoopy creations at La Côte Basque are breathtaking and delicious. But the recipes in this book do not make me hungry and don't help to illuminate the techniques and ingredients discussed in the excellent first half. Furthermore, Daley seems unsure of her audience. Is it professional bakers? Then why is the book being marketed to consumers and why does it contain so many recipes when professionals prefer to develop their own? Is it home bakers? Then why so many restaurant recipes?

That Scottish shortbread recipe offers a glimpse of what In the Sweet Kitchen might have been. From the basic recipe the baker can progress to Dark Chocolate and Marbled Mocha Shortbread (can't complain about that) and on to Candied Ginger and White Chocolate Shortbread. Last year there was an excellent book by Mark Bittman and Jean-Georges Vongerichten called Simple to Spectacular. In it, the authors first present a dead-simple recipe showcasing a particular technique. On the following pages that same technique and main ingredient features in four additional and increasingly sophisticated recipes. The last sounds like (and often is) something you'd be served at one of Vongerichten's restaurants, but you can see that underneath it's really the same old stuffed tomatoes or braised short ribs. This approach would have helped to put the unapproachable recipes of In the Sweet Kitchen into context.

There is another problem with In the Sweet Kitchen: the writing and editing. This prizewinning book (it won the IACP best-of-year award for 2000) is rife with surprising editing problems. The author is allowed to get away with rampant misuse of the exclamation point, and I kept grimacing at minor typographical errors. The exclamation points do little to liven up the flat, almost sullen writing style. This is a reference book, to be sure, but there is plenty of room in the format for jokes, anecdotes (all chefs have anecdotes), and unusual turns of phrase, and this book has little of that, though some of the recipe headnotes betray the author's enthusiasm.

Let me reiterate, now: In the Sweet Kitchen will be useful to anyone who bakes, and I expect to turn to it often. It is, however, not the book of the year. It boasts significant shortbread, but also significant shortcomings.

How to be a Domestic Goddess
Nigella Lawson
374 pages, $35

One must always, when making blondies, aim for "maximal squodge." Of a lemon loaf cake, you may feel that "its loafiness counts for a lot." And when faced with butterscotch cake, who could help but "go on to have three slices with languorous ease"? What a "more-ish" delight!

Welcome to the brain of Nigella Lawson. Most profiles of this English phenom can't resist the "sexy widow" angle (she is both, and clearly I can't resist mentioning it either). But it would be a mistake to begin and end there, since Lawson can cook, and more important, can write. (But please, what is "squodge"?)

Domestic Goddess (I'm not sure I like the title, but naturally it's meant in a campy spirit) focuses on desserts, with a few savory pies, including a lovely caramelized onion pie with cheese-scone crust. Laurie tells me this is what the British call "nursery food," the kind of simple and comforting stuff that children would eat in the nursery while the adults had other simple and comforting stuff in the dining room. So what you have here is a good collection of cookies and cakes and muffins, all tagged with adjectives from the formidable Lawson stable.

There's little more to the book than that, but I consider that a strong recommendation, since a recipe is a dead thing unless something grabs you and spurs you to make it, and many of these do. (And hey, if I make the blondies, I might find out what squodge is.)

Note: My copy of this book is the British edition, which contains the charming phrase, "I don't know if you've ever eaten Reese's Peanut Butter Cups..."

Art of the Tart
Tamasin Day-Lewis
144 pages, $24.95

We bought this book in England, and there is an amusing difference between the English and American editions. In the English edition there's a recipe for a fig tart with tobacco syrup, made from pipe tobacco. This has been neatly excised for the American printing. The editor explained that she didn't want someone to open the book to the tobacco syrup recipe in a store and shriek in horror. Presumably this means that in England people say, "Mmm...pipe tobacco. Jolly good."

This book was going to have to fight hard to make it onto bookshelves. First, people don't think about tarts. You never say, "What should I have for lunch? Man, I could really go for a good tart." Even those who love tarts for dessert (and we're not talking about a teeming horde, even in England) rarely consider savory tarts, which make up about a third of the book. Second, tarts are difficult to make, because there's pastry involved, then fiddly arrangement of ingredients atop the pastry. And Day-Lewis makes little concession to the inexperienced cook--these are not recipes you could make, say, with your left foot.

But The Art of the Tart is a marvelous book, for two unexpected reasons. First, Day-Lewis is an accomplished writer and personality. Her narratives are populated with eccentric characters and she uses phrases like "faffed-about." You get the feeling that she can sum up any experience in tart form. Here she is describing her scallop, sunchoke, and smoked bacon tart: "January. The leanest month. But there are fat, sweet scallops and earthily misshaped Jerusalem artichokes, twisted knobbly roots that are a peeler's nightmare, but worth every knuckle-grating minute."

The other asset is the book's beauty. As soon as I saw the tomato, basil, and prosciutto tart on the cover, I knew I would have to make it. And I did, even though it required homemade puff pastry and was too rich to serve as anything but an appetizer. This recipe, with its picture, is alone worth the price.

One section is called "Other People's Tarts," which was of course a Victorian-era rap hit.

A New Way to Cook
Sally Schneider
736 pages, $40

Twice a year Laurie and I have a great time at the Seattle Public Library's used book sale. The books (paperbacks 75 cents, hardcovers a dollar) consist of both library discards and donations. We always find at least a couple of cookbooks to take home and share a good laugh over the rest of the cookbook section, which consists in large part of recent diet cookbooks: fat-free, sugar-free, vegetarian, low-carb, and so on. You can almost hear people trying one recipe and saying, "Well, this tastes like shit--another one for the library book sale."

When this book came out, I was prepared to skim through and dismiss it as yet another preachy health food book that would be all over the library sale tables next spring. Boy was I off. Schneider keeps the discussion of things like omega-3 fatty acids to a minimum and is in love with bacon fat, which she likes to emulsify with water to stretch it. Her science is up-to-date and no one is going to feel deprived cooking from this book.

There's a wonderful coq au vin recipe that takes every opportunity to punch up the flavor of this often disappointing dish: she adds madeira and roasts the mushrooms, retaining their liquid. She gives a number of techniques for polenta (the very useful oven and double boiler methods are becoming part of the zeitgeist, it seems) and risotto. Each chapter casts many recipes as "guides to improvising," where she talks you through a technique which can turn into any number of finished recipes.

One aesthetic note: There are no glossy pages in this book, but there is plenty of color, including color photographs. I'd almost forgotten how nice color photos look on matte paper, and I hope other publishers follow the lead of this attractive volume.

Honorable Mentions

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