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FIRST COURSE: RULE ITALIA
In the culinary new world order, Italy reigns. "It's where French used to be," says Tommie Bloemer, director of administration of the International Association of Culinary Professionals in Louisville, Ky. "Everything has its time. This is Italian cooking's time."
Long before American supermarkets stocked fresh pasta, Marcella Hazan was preaching the joys of making your own. An Italian married to an Italian-American, the veteran food writer has long understood how to make authentic Italian cooking accessible to Americans. Hazan's fiercely loyal admirers will find it hard to believe that she could improve her first two best-selling volumes (1973 and 1978), but she has. In ESSENTIALS OF CLASSIC ITALIAN COOKING (Knopf, $30), she has integrated the two, reduced fat and added 50 new recipes. Hazan believes food should comfort, not astound. Ingredients lists tend to be short, and you won't find yourself traipsing around in search of exotica. But what makes her books indispensable is as simple and as rare as this: Her recipes always work.
Bread, olive oil and wine form a gustatory trinity in Tuscany, the mountain-fringed region of Central Italy whose culinary traditions date back 3,000 years to the Etruscans. To Americans, Tuscany, with its strong rustic flavors and never-waste-anything ethos (stale bread is recycled in to ribollita, a savory soup with black cabbage and oil), is a perennial symbol of Italy's bounty. Though the photos in TUSCANY: THE BEAUTIFUL COOKBOOK (Collins, $45), the latest in the Beautiful Cookbook series, are sumptuous, the book's large format is awkward and at odds with the simplicity of Lorenza de' Medici's culinary style. It's a shame, because her text is informative, and many of her recipes, like the roast potatoes stuffed with sprigs of rosemary, are winners. More suited to De' Medici's relaxed approach is her own THE DE' MEDICI KITCHEN (Collins, $14.95, paper, sold in conjunction with the current PBS series; a hardcover edition will be published in January at $22.95). This comfy little paperback, one reliable recipe per page, is a delight to work with. It also makes a fine companion to the series, which showcases De' Medici's enviable lifestyle as mistress of Badia a Coltibuono, an 11th-century monastery in the Tuscan hills, producing wine, olive oil, vinegar and honey. Her casual brio will have you measuring rice by the handful.
Cookbook star Giuliano Bugialli has combed the villages and family archives of his native Tuscany for the unusual and distinctive. In GIULIANO BUGIALLI'S FOODS OF TUSCANY (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $50), he unearths a Renaissance dish of chicken with pomegranates flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger, and a dessert of cucumbers marinated in lemon and sugar, among other robust sensations.
If Americans think the culinary capital of Italy is Tuscany, Italians know it is Emilia-Romagna. So writes Lynne Rossetto Kasper in THE SPLENDID TABLE (Morrow, $30), her fine introduction to this narrow region just north of Tuscany. The area is so soaked in history that people still prepare the tart created to celebrate Lucrezia Borgia's marriage nearly 500 years ago. Kasper's intriguing recipes use the province's famous ingredients: balsamic vinegar, Parmesan cheese, prosciutto di Parma. Following her clear directions you could prepare a modest version of a Renaissance dinner, with such curiosities as dome of rice stuffed with braised pigeon. But her simple dishes—roast chicken with balsamic vinegar or grilled veal chop—are equal treasures.
Another narrow Yank notion is that risotto is the only way Italians cook rice. In RISO: UNDISCOVERED RICE DISHES OF NORTHERN ITALY (Crown, $16), Gioietta Vitale and Lisa Lawley show that rice is to the north what pasta is to the south—a versatile staple. Risotto aside, it can be a cinch to prepare. A whole class of tasty dishes, called risi in bianco, are as easy as boiling rice, then tossing with butter and sage. Her imaginative recipes, like rice salad with tuna and anchovies, are nutritious too. You'll turn to Riso often.
For the adventurous, A TASTE OF ANCIENT ROME (University of Chicago Press, $29.95) is a fascinating and lively account of an Italy before tomatoes, peppers, pasta or espresso. Haria Gozzini Giacosa, a food writer with a background in archaeology, goes back to Cato, Apicius and other Roman authors and re-creates ancient recipes with modern ingredients. She offers no modem equivalents for such Roman delicacies as nightingale tongues and camel heels, but the prevalence of chicken and other fowl, bacon, sausage, seafood, cheese and many fruits and vegetables makes the Roman diet seem surprisingly familiar. The Romans favored a sweet and sour taste; many of their recipes call for honey and a ubiquitous flavoring known as garum—originally made by leaving crocks packed with salted fish and herbs in the sun for seven days. Fortunately, Giacosa suggests as a substitute a reduction of grape juice and anchovy paste. When not in Rome, you don't have to do as the Romans did.
SECOND COURSE: VEG-GIE! VEG-GIE!
Maybe broccoli's time has come. In THE BIG BROCCOLI BOOK (Random House, $10), Georgia Downard, a former food editor of Gourmet magazine, offers a stocking-stuffer-size collection chock-a-broc with soups (curried with split pea), salads (with peanut sauce), seafood (crab soufflé), stir-fries, casseroles, pizzas and pastas, plus five sauces to perk up the presidentially put-down green.
Who says the Brits can't cook? London-based food professional Louise Pickford sidesteps the usual bran and bulgur with imaginative meatless dishes inspired by French, Italian and Middle Eastern traditions in THE INSPIRED VEGETARIAN (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95).
Turn to Martha Rose Shulman's snappy little MAIN DISH SOUPS and MAIN DISH SALADS (Bantam, $10 each) for a lip-smacking batch of single-course meals that span the seasons. Recipes are easy yet fun, with tips on drizzles, dressings, stocks and garnishes.
If you like to think as well as cook green, try RECIPES FROM AN ECOLOGICAL KITCHEN (Morrow, $25), a gabby guide to "Healthy Meals for You and the Planet." Eco-zealot Lorna J. Sass trumpets the nutritional value of grains, fruits and veggies over processed grub, offers 250 recipes and translates health-food mumbo jumbo for tyros who don't know their tofu from their tamari.
The seasoned vegetarian will rejoice in the 15th-anniversary revision of Mollie Katzen's classic MOOSEWOOD COOKBOOK (Ten Speed Press, $19.95). Katzen has trimmed taste and dairy products from her reliable comfort foods without rimming taste and has added 25 new recipes.
THIRD COURSE: LOAF MAKES THE WORLD GO ROUND
The most universal food? Any way you slice it, the answer has to be bread. Joe Ortiz, owner of Gayle's Bakery and Rosticceria in Capitola, Calif., spent a decade trying to figure out what makes the rustic breads of Europe so moist, chewy, crusty, yeasty. Hanging out in bakeries and interviewing the resident masters, Ortiz learned that the secret lies less in ingredients than in technique. Densely packed with his findings, THE VILLAGE BAKER (Ten Speed Press, $21.95) records an enormous variety of methods for manipulating flour, water, yeast and salt. Although some of the recipes are simple, this fascinating book is definitely for the experienced baker ready to tackle Ortiz's eight different sourdough starters or his formula for fava bean improver, a French way to improve texture and height.
More neophyte-friendly is Beth Hensperger's BAKING BREAD (Chronicle Books, $18.95). While her guide-to ingredients, equipment and technique are comprehensive and accessible, what will get you into the kitchen are her appealing recipes, particularly such combinations as yam country bread with sesame, and saffron bread the scented-geranium sugar.
There's nothing fancy in ken Haedrich's HOML FOR THE HOLIDAYS (Bantam, $25)—no gussied-up photos, no gushy text—just first-rate suggestions in a friendly guide to seasonal baking. Haedrich, a food columnist, offers dozens of warming winter meals using whole grains for taste rather than virtue. He'll jump-start your taste buds with such delicious novelties as Indian pudding cake or whole wheat fig swirl bread. He also tells you how to cook with kids (he has four), pack baked goods for mailing and feed drop-in guests without flipping out.
INTERMISSION: CALLING ALL CORKSCREWS
Wine books have traditionally offered photographs of Cabernet vines at sunset and sketches of rustic vintners at work and at play. Andrew Barr's WINE SNOBBERY (Simon & Schuster, $20), which has been called one of the most important wine books written in the last decade" by mega-taster Robert Parker, and THE VINTNER'S ART (Simon & Schuster, $40), by omnipresent wine guru Hugh Johnson and Australian wine writer and winery owner James Halliday, are significant steps beyond. They are treatises for the dedicated oenophile, those who would decant a 1963 Fonseca, settle in to a wing chair and ponder the meaning of wine.
The Vintner's Art is a how-to on wine making, a perfect gift for anyone who fantasizes about selling the family accounting firm and settling in the Napa Valley. It is clearly written, stoutly photographed and admirably organized, but it is without charm. At one point the authors describe the evolution of Madeira as an "epic of serendipity," then summarize the epic in a single sentence. From there, it's on to the fermentation process.
The title of Wine Snobbery is puzzlingly inappropriate. This is a how-not-to book on the wrongs of the wine industry. Writes Barr, "...as sex scandals expose the fundamental dishonesty and arrogance of many politicians, wine scandals briefly expose what is rotten but generally hidden in the wine business." He decries restaurant wine prices ("a rip-off"); complimentary meals and trips for wine journalists ("the bribe"); and misleading labels—one New York State White Zinfandel, the consumer learns in the fine print, comes from Brazil.
Although subtitled An Exposé, the book is not quite that, since almost everything in it has been previously reported. Barr, a young Englishman with an inquisitive mind and a muckraking heart, seems to have read everything ever published about the wine industry and found little to admire. Sometimes his fury seems a bit excessive, as when he titles Chapter 5 "Wine Tastings Are Bunk."
In Great Britain, Wine Snobbery caused a sensation, mostly because of the outrage it provoked in the disparaged wine-writing establishment. In this updated American edition, Barr takes on American wineries, wine writers and drinking habits, but without nearly the impact. He gleefully refers to "the philistinism of the American palate," but this is hardly damaging stuff. I, for one, a card-carrying food and wine critic, do not recoil with self-loathing when a man who exists on British food tells me I don't know how to eat or drink.
FOURTH COURSE: COOKBOOK SMORGASBORD
From now to New Year's, when people are most likely to be standing in your living room with a drink in one hand and a toothpick in the other, Barbara Kafka's PARTY FOOD (Morrow, $25) can supply finger-food first aid. Kafka, a syndicated food columnist, offers 425 creative suggestions for nibbles in this handsome volume (a tip of the toque to designer Michelle Wiener). There are fresh ideas for canapés, crudités, kabobs, seasoned nuts and peppery popcorn. Kafka tells you how to curl a lemon peel, score a cucumber, perk up a dip, fill a phylo. Filling out the guest list, of course, is up to you.
So you've spied those packets of fresh herbs in the market and haven't the foggiest what to do with them? Crack open THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HERBS, SPICKS & FLAVORINGS (Dorling, Kindersley, $34.95), a remarkably comprehensive survey of seasonings. In color illustrations, simple recipes and lively text, author Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, an award-winning contributor to Gourmet magazine, makes plain the history, variety, use and shelf life of ingredients as familiar as mint and as exotic as konbu (a Japanese seaweed). From sauces to teas, peppers to chocolates, queries both routine and unusual are best brought here.
Thanks to Brazil's colonial history and its natural mix of rain forest, ocean and rugged plain, the country's cuisine is a dazzling variety of meats, seafood, spices and tropical fruits. TASTING BRAZIL: REGIONAL RECIPES: AND REMINISCENCES by Jessica It. Harris is an equally absorbing mix, documenting customs and regional cultures zestfully while offering succinct recipes for everything from the national dish, feijoada, a potent stew of black beans and pork, to caipirinhas, a wily drink made with white rum and limes. (Macmillan. $23)
You don't have to be a New Yorker to love THE NEW YORK COOKBOOK (Workman, $27.95), New York Times food journalist Molly O'Neill's fat treasure of food lore and recipes. It's as much fun to read as it is useful. The recipes range from such fare as Marrakesh carrots, cold sesame noodles and Haitian chicken in a pot, and while favorites from the occasional chef and socialite can be found here, they mostly reflect the city's rich immigrant foodstyle.
O'Neill's five-borough cook-off will not tax the skills or the batterie de cuisine of average home cooks, though some of the ingredients called for (cherry pits, dried shrimp, kaffir lime leaves) may not be sitting in their pantries. No matter. Procuring the right stuff is just the motivation needed to take of on O'Neill's great culinary adventure, her neighborhood food walks, street festivals, church suppers and greenmarkets. Along the way, she drops in chunks of the city's historical love affair with food.
Best of all are the profiles of the people who are consumed with their part in New York's food story. There's Lou Singer and his noshing tour, Allan Vernon, King of (Jamaican) Jerk Barbecue, and Steve "Wildman" Brill, who takes groups foraging for edible exotica in the city's parks. If you want to pick up some deli lingo—"baby" is milk—that's here too. And yes, the recipe for Ebinger's famous blackout cake. Yum.
When one jazz musician admires another's chops, he's not necessarily talking embouchures. In JAZZ COOKS (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95), the great vibraphonist Milt Jackson reminisces about Dizzy Gillespie "always asking me to cook something wherever we were. I could usually make him happy with my fried chicken and biscuits, or grits and eggs in the morning." Jackson also whipped up pork chops "for the guys," but his most famous dish is his peach cobbler, requested by no fewer than a dozen other musicians interviewed for the book. The recipe is included here. Jackson advises "cooking it low and slow, just like my mother did."
Lovingly and skillfully edited by writers Bob Young and Al Stankus, and puckishly photographed by Deborah Feingold, Jazz Cooks celebrates 95 leading jazz musicians who can strut with some barbecue—in both the gustatory and Satchmo senses. Each talks about life, food and music, and shares a favorite recipe. The range of dishes—soul, Tex-Mex, Creole, Oriental, vegetarian, with humble ingredients and hearty flavors dominant and improvisation encouraged—mirrors the spicy musical mélange that is jazz today. Taylor's Wailers chicken, with its Szechuan, lemon and Dijon mustard flavors, is as piquant as the drumming of its creator, Arthur Taylor. Drnmmer Max Roach contributes a family recipe for fried (pan-simmered) corn. Growing up in Brooklyn in the Depression, he recalls, "everybody cooked in the family. People were very inventive. It was the art of making the most out of the least." A definition applicable to chord changes no less than to corn.
FINALLY, DESSERT: READY, SET, SIN
On the topic of to-die-for desserts, consider these: double mocha madness, chocolate devastation, chocolate rum delirium ice-cream cake—all on dazzling display in DEATH BY CHOCOLATE (Rizzoli, $25). These are mere samplings of chef Marcel Desaulnier's deadly creations for those who are still hungry after a meal at his restaurant, the Trellis in Colonial Williamsburg, Va.
Writing of his lifelong passion, the author confesses, "As a Marine Corps grunt in Vietnam, I did temporarily abandon all sensual obsessions, except that of staying alive. But once the fear of dying dulled, my lust for chocolate reignited." Students of designer desserts will be challenged on each page of this glossy production geared toward the sophisticated cook. Others can simply savor Michael Grand's delectable photos.
Contrarians and chocolergics are hereby directed to MAKE MINE VANILLA (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, $10, paper) by Lee Edwards Benning, a tiny, nophotos, no-frills paperback with a global array of non-chocolate confections like crème brulèe, Norwegian spare pudding, rice Trautsmannsdorf and good old baked Alaska.
In THE GREAT AMERICAN PIE (Simon & Schuster, $20) editor and chef Judith Choate presents not just Mom's apple pie (and nine others) and some 80 dessert pies but a fat chapter on main-course meat and poultry pies, and another on tarts, turnovers and dumplings, all sprinkled with tips on crusts and toppings.
In MRS. FIELDS' COOKIE BOOK (Time-Life, $18.95), the franchise founder pops up with 100 variations of America's after-school favorite. Here is an enticing assortment of plain and fancy munchies, crunchies, crispies, gooeys and chewies loaded with sugar, butter and eggs that will keep cookie jars brimming through the winter. Simple instructions and savvy illustrations in a book that lies flat make this a sweet package.