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Cookbook, Autumn 1982

ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

Charles H. Baker, Jr. has left us a treasure. A gentleman and a man of ample means, he also had wit and taste. We turn often to his The Gentleman’s Companion. This is a two-volume work: Volume 1, Being an Exotic Cookery Book, Volume 2, Being an Exotic Drinking Book. These are priceless collections of recipes for dishes and drinks gathered from around the world in the 1920’s and 1930’s when life was a less complex affair. Baker comments on them all with just the right touch. If you wonder what it would be like to have a South India curry in Trichinopoly or to drink a Buck in Shanghai you have it here. We modify the cooking recipes; a preparation for wild boar in Java works well for ham. The drinks stand as they are. A classic, it can never be updated, rewritten, or replaced. The last edition was a 1946 Crown reprint. You are blessed if you can find it.

Antiquitates Culinariae, by the Rev. Richard Warner. Limited and numbered edition $75

A facsimile edition of the Rev. Warner’s famous treatise, this superb large quarto is printed with the utmost care. The reverend was curious about the history of the culinary arts, and, being as learned as one could be in the late 18th century, he conducted a good deal of methodical research. He studied the Old Testament, the Greeks, and the Romans, More revealing to us, who still have access to Pliny or Apicius, he gathered some early English collections of recipes. The most important of these was compiled by the cooks of Richard II around 1390. In 1791, the reverend finally published his Antiquitates Culinariae. The first part is his own Preliminary Discourse; the second contains four collections of curries or cookery recipes and a description of the feasts celebrating the “Inthronizations” of two bishops in the early 16th century. Warner’s historical survey is fascinating reading. He describes how the taste of the Britons, who fed on a simple gruel, was transformed by the occupying Romans; how it later fell back to a “gloomy mode of eating” to which Saxon and Dane invaders added only gluttony. With the Normans and, even more, with the Plantagenets came refinement. Richard II, “an egregious epicure, as well as sumptuous entertainer,” employed two thousand cooks, many of them French. The recipes following this section are excellent reading, the understanding of old English being helped by Warner’s notes. Spices, of course, are omnipresent: saffron, “powdor douce” (allspice), ginger, cinnamon, and even galingale. It is remarkable to see here how food, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, had much more variety than it has today. Lampreys and eels, the offals of all animals, rabbits, dolphins, peacocks: everything found its way to the table, seasoned with violets or borage. This great classic deserved to be republished. Prospect Books has done it with elegance. Prospect Books

English Provincial Cooking, by Elisabeth Ayrton. Harper & Row $16.95

This handsome book has been an eyeopener to us. Mrs. Ayrton is a cook, an antique dealer, and a professional writer. She has produced a book full of taste, knowledge, and intelligence. The recipes presented here, by regions, are for the classic dishes from England. Some, like the delicious Prior’s Sweet Omelette, come from abbeys; others, like the complicated Chickens as Lizards, were used at Hampton Court; more were prepared by colleges, inns, or were traditional farmer’s fare. The collection gives a fascinating insight into English social customs of the past. From the days of the Roman occupation until the 18th century, the basic dish in every household was a heavy and hardy “pottage,” a mixture of meat, cereals, vegetables, spices, and liquid. The nobleman put “a brace of partridges” in it, the farmer mere oatmeal and a piece of mutton or salt pork. The “pottage” often was presented encased in crust, hence the innumerable recipes for pies and pot pies. Mrs. Ayrton presents them all, including three recipes for Cornish Pasties. All are perfect for cold winter days. Later recipes, like the excellent Victorian Salmi of Duck, are lighter, more refined; still fish, meat, and cake made the essentials of the meal. A word of warning: the index is not helpful. We did not find “scones” there, for example, while there are many recipes for them in the book, but under their regional names. This small defect does not mar what is, and will remain, the classic book on English cookery.

Great British Cooking: A Well-Kept Secret, by Jane Garmey. Random House $15.50

Those who think that “the English lack both a cuisine and a sense of humor,” as Calvin Trillin states in his highly amusing foreword to this book, should immediately read Mrs. Garmey. She proves that both assumptions are wrong. Simple family fare, such as the unusual Mussel Pie, the delicious Pork with Chestnuts, or the Beef stewed in Guinness are quite a discovery. Wisely, Mrs. Garmey also offers here proven recipes for classic dishes such as Crumpets, Bosworth Jumbles, or Cornish Pasties. If we remain unconvinced that our British friends can actually prepare good vegetables, we liked the chapters devoted to breakfast, tea, or savoury fare. Mrs. Garmey briefly introduces each recipe with great humor. Of Aunt Rachel’s Scones she writes: “They are fattening, indigestible, and quite glorious.” One could not be more accurate.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, by Karen Hess. Columbia $19.95

Old cookbooks can be fascinating but difficult to decipher. In this model of a book, we find side by side an original text as good today as it was then and the extraordinarily learned comments of Mrs. Karen Hess, who has tested the recipes. The Booke of Cookery and The Booke of Sweetmeats, also included in this volume, are collections of English recipes of the 16th and 17th centuries transmitted to Martha Washington in 1749. It is from recipes such as these that the colonists evolved their own regional cuisines. The fare is surprisingly light: Mrs. Hess notes that sauces then were not “cheapened by flour,” a process she rightly abhors. The Capon Roasted with Oysters is still a grand dish, especially if prepared with tasty Chincoteague oysters. The French still make their pot-au-feu the way Martha would make “French Pottage.” Apple Fritters is a recipe which has not been improved because it could not be. The Booke of Sweetmeats is particularly useful with its recipes for jellies, like the excellent “leley of Pippins,” and lightly alcoholized fruit wines, a lovely tradition of the past. Besides her erudition, Mrs. Hess has strong opinions. She never misses an opportunity to castigate progress, and what it has done to milk, bacon, chicken, or fish. “Ultra-pasteurized cream” she writes, “cannot be described in polite society.” If she were here today, Martha Washington would approve.

Netty Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book. The Historic New Orleans Collection $9.95

Nelly Custis was the adopted daughter of Martha and George Washington. It was to her, therefore, that Martha transmitted her Bookes of Cookery and Sweetmeats upon her marriage to Lawrence Lewis in 1799. As the mistress of Woodlawn plantation, Nelly started soon her own book of recipes and household remedies. Written a century after Martha’s, these show how Virginia had by then evolved a cuisine of its own. The Virginians were amongst the first Westerners to use tomatoes lavishly without fear of poisoning. Nelly records here five recipes for catsups, soup, or preserves, which are still excellent. Preparations rely heavily on fresh fruit and vegetables as well as “sweet herbs,” whether it is for soup, “fromages” (ice creams), or pudding. As could be expected in the aftermath of the Revolution, French cooking is highly regarded. Nelly transcribes here 40 recipes from a French book “a la mode.” Mrs. Patricia Brady Schmit has edited lightly, but thoroughly, this remarkable and handsome volume, which will be of interest not only to the cook but to the social historian as well.

French Regional Cooking, by Anne Willan. Morrow $29.95

This extremely handsome cookbook suffers from the fact that it has been “edited” by the Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, The recipes are well chosen, and truly represent the twelve gastronomical regions of France, but they have often been adulterated to suit the Parisian palate. In Burgundy, the famous Jambon Persillé always includes the chopped ham rind, a good deal of garlic and vinegar, and at least two bunches of parsley. Mrs. Willan discards the rind, omits the garlic and vinegar, and uses a parsimonious three teaspoons of parsley. The result is flat. In her Carbonnade, she omits the brown sugar and, again, the vinegar. There are no breadcrumbs—so necessary for crunchiness—in her Stuffed Mussels. Refined recipes, such as her “Cul de Veau a L”Angevine” come out extremely well. On the other hand, decidedly local recipes, like the Breton pastry Kouign-Aman or the various regional charcuteries (sausages, pate’s, etc. ), retain their original character. For all the recipes, Mrs. Willan gives measurements both in the metric and American systems. It would be a good idea if they were correct. But she constantly equates the American pound (453.6 grams) to the French one (500 grams), and her “ounce” varies from 28 grams to 32 grams. The book is beautifully illustrated, and it offers dozens of asides where the cook will discover the difference between Cognac, Armagnac, and Marc, or at what age a frog should be eaten, All in all, it is both informative and enjoyable.

More 60-Minute Gourmet, by Pierre Franey. Times Books $12.95

Pierre Franey is so much at ease in the kitchen that it is a pleasure to follow him. He is not an arrogant or self-righteous cook, but a man who enjoys wondering what else he could do with his fresh oysters. He whips up a little butter sauce and presents an exquisite dish, “Huitres au Beurre Blanc,” without even saying: “Voila!” Bravo. His personal version of Shrimp Imperial includes crabmeat as well because, he says, “he had both in his refrigerator.” His devotees will find here, as in the first 60-Minute Gourmet, classic recipes such as C6tes d”Agneau Champvallon, as well as new inventions, like his Steak en Chevreuil which stands now in our list of favorite dishes. As usual, Mr. Franey presents his recipes by menus: one main dish, one side dish. It is a light and healthy way to dine. This book deserves a great success.

Larousse Light French Cooking. McGraw-Hill $15.95

Eating lightly and soundly all year round makes much more sense than crash dieting after Christmas and before summer. With this book, it is also much more agreeable. One hardly notices that there are no carbohydrates on the table to accompany the excellent Pork Roast with Garlic, or the refreshing Marinated Mackerel, And there are enough good vegetables recipes, Broiled Tomatoes or Braised Carrots, for example, to accompany delicate fare such as Quail with Grapes. In many of these, since butter and oil are “out,” the cooking medium is a small amount of stock. This should not frighten the cook, who has learned long ago to always keep various stocks in the freezer. In the second section of the book, renowned cook Madeleine Kamman offers recipes for French regional meals. But this is not to be read until you have lost five, ten, or 20 pounds. Mrs. Kamman also wrote the introduction, which is a short adaptation of the general dieting guidelines originally offered by a French doctor. It is the most important section of the book.

Cold Cuisine, by Helen Hecht. Atheneum $12.95

This is a splendid book for the summer cook. Mrs, Hecht’s taste is delicate; she uses refreshing ingredients such as lime juice, fresh herbs, or yogurt with discrimination. It is also light: she does not overload her dishes with unnecessary embellishments. The result is very good. Whether they are salads, such as her Pasta Salad with Mushrooms or her Duck Salad, or mousses and aspic, like her delicious Ham Mousse or her Summer Pork with Apple, Mint, and Ginger, all the main dishes we tried were easy to prepare and a pleasure to eat. We liked the chapter on soups and even more the one on ice creams and sherbets. Mrs. Hecht makes them in her freezer, without any machine, and it works. The Frozen Lime Souffle” and the Lime and Honey Ice Cream are simply delicious.

Vegetarian Cooking, by Madhur Jaffrey. Knopf $9.95 paper

When the government put tofu on the list of the protein-rich foods to be served to schoolchildren, most Americans thought the tofu was some kind of a snark. We still feel pretty much the same about dais, kimchees, and tempeh. Yet we read with pleasure Mrs. Jaffrey’s exceptional collection of four hundred Oriental recipes for curds, eggs, noodles, salads, yogurt-based dishes, or relishes. Our favorites are the preparations for legumes, rice, and grains. We liked the Red Beans with Garlic and Tomatoes, which we also served cold, and the Spiced Rice with Cashews. Mrs. Jaffrey’s Cream of Tomato soup is a masterpiece, and her condiments and chutneys are quite original. This is the perfect gift for your vegetarian friend.

The 40-Second Omelet Guaranteed, by Howard Helmer. Atheneum $12.95

Too bad the author of this slim volume is so garrulous. We nearly threw the book away when we reached page 21 and he still had not broken an egg. Fortunately, we persevered; his trick works. It works very well. After eight pages devoted to the basic fluffy omelet, the author offers suggestions for fillings and quick sauces. Mostly, they rely on leftovers, which is why omelets are a lifesaver for singles. Mr. Helmer forgets to advise his reader to heat the filling before adding it: otherwise, all one gets is a savory version of Baked Alaska.


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