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Cookbook, Autumn 1985

ISSUE:  Autumn 1985

This beautiful book, lavishly set and illustrated, is more a gastronomic promenade through the British Isles than a real cookbook. For there are recipes here— hundreds of them—on every page diligently gleaned by Mrs. Grigson in the kitchens of the best inns, in the files of renowned cooks, even in the memoirs of epicures of the past. But they somewhat pale in comparison with the rest of the text, an extremely literate and refined musing about British cookery, what and who make it what it is. Mrs. Grigson does not pretend that this is the greatest in the world, but she knows also that her country offers some of the best ingredients, in dairy products, fish, and game notably.”I used to think. . .that salvation lay in improved cookery,” she observes, “now I conclude that salvation lies in shopping . . .for the best you can find.” Indeed, besides miners’ pasties, fishermen soups, or Irish stews, one will find here mostly elegant preparations for guinea fowl, with Madeira sauce or morrels, Mallard duck, quail, samphire, salmon. Most of these recipes are excellent and should be tried without fear of using good substitutes. But they do not actually represent everyday British cooking. There are two reasons for this, and one is that most of these recipes come from proven chefs. The second, which we offer as an hypothesis, applies to most British cookbooks: it seems to us that Great Britain may be one of the few countries in the world (possibly with Russia) where there never was a real osmosis between the cookery of the upper class (nobility, clergy, etc.) and that of the lower classes, so that none benefited from the experience of the others. We may have to go back once more to the Norman Conquest, the “pottage” of the Saxon shepherd and the roasted peacock of the foreign lord. Even if this were true, it does not explain why this cultural segregation has survived to this day. Mrs. Grigson, who writes regularly and intelligently about food, may give us an explanation in her next book. Meanwhile, British Cookery will delight all who have strolled through the old country and remember it with nostalgia.

The Cook’s Bookshelf.

Nouvelle Cuisine is out. People are turning now to those dishes grandmother would have cooked if only she had known how. We take this to mean that there is a growing interest in the charm and flavor of the great, often regional, dishes served in our restaurants around the turn of the century. Today those preparations can be lighter and more delicate, informed by the techniques we have learned from Nouvelle Cuisine. For this, the cook will turn to The Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer (Dover $29.95). Ranhofer was the master chef of the old Delmonico’s in New York, and his book is the American Escoffier. It contains more than 3,500 recipes with 800 drawings, along with menus, sections on table and wine service, and the like. The preparations for every conceivable kind of meat, fish, poultry, fruit, and vegetable are here along with an excellent index. And the recipes are sound, from “Hashed chicken, ancient style,” to “Chateaubriand sauce Colbert.” With sensible and slight modifications, the cook can contrive today’s most sought-after cuisine.

The Cuisine of Asia, by Jennifer Brennan. St. Martin’s $19.95

This is an ambitious book: the author tries to cover the cuisine of nine countries in more than 500 pages. It is also a book that falls short of its goal, and leaves the cook disappointed—even a touch irritated. Mrs. Brennan starts well by writing an interesting if not totally accurate or unbiased description of each cuisine. This is followed by a good chapter on techniques and basic recipes, such as rice, various “curry” pastes or powders, elementary sauces. Then she divides her recipes by courses, such as Snacks or Soups, and Techniques, like steaming or deep-frying, rather than countries, which is an interesting idea. But this is also where she goes awry. Her basic mistake is that she tries too hard to reach the general public, a public that shops only at supermarkets. The result? The recipes are full of substitutes, like anchovy paste for fish sauce, essence of coconut diluted in milk for coconut milk, or—even worse—food coloring instead of natural spice and vegetable colorings. It must also be to please the public that she manages to offer only one recipe for lamb, a basic meat in northern India and in Muslim Indonesia, and again, a single recipe for the most festive bird of Asia, duck. The latter, by the way, is for a Peking Duck which Mrs. Brennan fries, whole, in her wok, which must be of splendid proportions. The result of this thinking is an array of dishes which are agreeable, but quite often lack their distinctive bite or flavor. In all the recipes we tried, we had to add a missing ingredient. For example, Mrs. Brennan’s Vietnamese Spring Rolls do not contain the mushrooms and the noodles that provide a contrast in texture; and the accompanying sauce, the classic Nuoc Cham, lacks the indispensable tablespoon of vinegar.(Oddly enough, Mrs. Brennan forgets her wok here; she bakes the rolls in her oven!) If Mrs. Brennan were a novice, her approach to the great cuisines of Asia would be understandable. But she has written in the past a remarkable book on the cooking of Thailand. Remember it and forget this one.

The Frugal Gourmet, by Jeffrey Smith. Morrow $14.95

We are told that Mr. Smith’s book is very successful, and we are the first to applaud. The fact that the author has demonstrated his recipes on television, and still appears on PBS, is certainly an element of his success. But the main fact is his approach to cooking. Mr. Smith considers that cooking and eating are simple, elementary daily pleasures. He can spend a whole day in his kitchen preparing basic recipes that will allow him to put up the week’s meals with a minimum of last-minute effort, digging here in his brown stock, there in his excellent tomato or barbecue sauces. He can devote a long time to a Gumbo File or a Peking Duck. All this is always done without flourish and without fuss. How refreshing! The recipes are neither Nouvelle (California or French) nor folksy; rather they are an international collection assembled by an enlightened cook, which gives them an exceptional diversity. We loved Mr. Smith’s Cuban Black Beans, his Italian Beef Stew with Marsala, his Lebanese Lamb Kibbe, and his “Favorite Quick Oysters.” Some preparations are a bit simplified, some are modified to the author’s taste: his Hollandaise, with a touch of dry mustard and Tabasco, would make Escofier shriek with horror. But why not? This is the cook’s privilege and a good example of what we all can do when we are instructed to “taste for seasoning.”

New American Chef, by Lou Seibert Papas. 101 Productions $8. 95 paper

The 31 new chefs presented in this slim volume have come a long way. They are masters in the art of the Beurre Blanc and mesquite grilling; they know the numerous ways to use goat cheese and wild mushrooms, and they never hesitate to pour champagne in their truffle sauces. The result is somewhat overwhelming. One is tempted to suggest that the chefs—especially the 15 operating in California— would do better by going back to simplicity. Indeed, the Chicken with Morels, which could be prepared by a child, the exquisite Medallions of Veal with Chive Cream Sauce, or the gorgeous Chesapeake Oysters and Shiitake Mushrooms in Brioche, are proof that a dish needs only to be well conceived and precisely executed to become a simple masterpiece.

Carnegie Treasures Cookbook. Atheneum $19. 95

The Women’s Committee of the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, has treated this traditional cookbook as a fund-raiser with a charming bit of whim: half the volume is devoted to menus inspired by some of the masterpieces of the museum. The Venetian Interior by Sargent sets off an elegant Italian dinner for 16, while Monet’s Nympheas inspires a delicate meal for six, culminating with a delicious Lemon Mousse in Cookie Baskets. The second half of the book offers a traditional array of recipes, many of which, like the Mushroom Ragout or the Moravian Rabbit Stew, are worthy of a feast. Beautifully illustrated with reproductions of the museum’s works of art and with table settings prepared by the authors, this book makes a lovely present for the artist-epicurean.

The Romance of Food, by Barbara Cartland. Morrow $15.95

Mrs. Cartland has unabashedly turned love into a great source of gold, publishing hundreds of novels as well as “serious” books (Love, Life and Sex, etc.). She has acquired a great knowledge in her field and has not lost her wit. This lovely looking book reads just as well as her usual tales, for each recipe (written by her chef) is followed by a wonderful comment of her own. Where else will you learn that “The Ancient Greek believed the carrot excited passion” or that the Kama Sutra gives a recipe to prepare asparagus as an aphrodisiac? Perhaps as fascinating as this lore are the incredible illustrations—photographs of food presented on Mrs. Cartland’s own sumptuous china, surrounded by exquisite porcelain figurines from her collection, set over lace, or shaded by rare flowers. There is a presentation of Noisette of Lamb with Baby Vegetables which is so pretty that no one would dare to destroy it by eating it. The recipes, aside from being printed in pink, are all right. Some are even very good, like the Honeyed Chicken or the Orange Ice Cream with Lemon Sauce. Look no more for a Valentine present; this is it.

Hors d’Oeuvres and Canapes, by James Beard.Morrow $5.95 paper

At 45 years of age, this small book does not have many wrinkles. James Beard wrote it when he and his friends, Bill and Irma Rhode, were catering New Yorkers with. . . Hors d’Oeuvres and Canapes. Standing resolutely against a tide of tinned dips, soggy sandwiches, and “tidbits on toothpicks,” the trio evolved, from a vast culinary repertoire, such novelties as canapes, where meat or vegetable slices replace bread with delicately stuffed tiny vegetables and miniature brochettes of seafood or variety meat. Any host or hostess who missed the 1940 or the 1963 edition of Hors d’Oeuvre should get this simple volume.

Simply Delicious Cold Dishes, by Carol Truax. Doubleday $16. 95

Cooks who remember—and still use— Mrs. Truax’s Chicken Cookbook will be disappointed by her latest volume, Simply Delicious Cold Dishes, also published under the banner of Woman’s Day. Maybe Mrs. Truax is running short of ideas. Who would wonder, considering that she has published or edited more than 25 cookbooks and innumerable articles. Nobody can be that prolific and that good at the same time. What does she offer us here? The usual cold soups, from gazpacho to Senegalese. A mound of salads, either as side dishes or as entrees, where only the addition of some fruit does sometimes break the monotory of the list of ingredients. Some mousses, pates, or jellied dishes that are not going to awaken tastebuds dulled by steamy hot weather. And, to our surprise, a rather large number of hot preparations that Mrs. Truax merely serves at “room temperature,” like her good but slightly heavy Leek Quiche, or her various baked “can cooked” hams. Let’s hope that Mrs. Truax will take a sabbatical before her next production.

Pasta and Rice Italian Style, by Efrem Funghi Calingaert and Jaquelyn Days. Scribners $16.95

A simple, quite foolproof, and authentic book, Pasta offers the traditional recipes for antipasta, soups, salads, and all the canellonis and lasagna one will ever want. But in the middle of this is a much more exciting section devoted to rice. There are 55 recipes there, and all well chosen. We particularly liked the risottos with seafood: clams, mussels, squid, to name a few. They are imaginative, and each makes a marvelous main course—a pretty one too if the cook takes the liberty to add a little saffron to the broth. In a few welcome cases, besides a rather complicated recipe, the authors also offer a simplified version. A good idea for the newcomer to Italian cuisine.

A World of Vegetable Cookery, by Alex D. Hawkes. Simon and Schuster $24. 95

From akee to zucchini, this beautiful, erudite book offers the reader a delectable encyclopedic survey of some 200 vegetables. For each, Dr. Hawkes, who was a man of great intelligence, has provided an always interesting introduction about its origin, its lore, its scientific whereabouts, and its availability. This is followed by recipes, gleaned in this country and around the world during the author’s travels. Some preparations seem traditional, but more often than not they are enlivened by a twist: the onion soup is not French but Mexican; the Deviled Crab has a delicate crunchiness provided by simple sauteed chopped celery; the Festive Onions, which could replace the ever-present creamed onions served with turkey, have a wonderful, yet delicate, tartness. But Dr. Hawkes does not confine himself to common ground. Many of the edibles presented here are just beginning to appear in our supermarkets, and most vegetable cookbooks ignore them. We find here how to use radicchio, how to make the best of unripe papayas, how to saute Yucca flowers, or fricasse, Indonesian style, a bunch of Yardlong Beans. The careful reader will even learn here that Kudzu is not pure mischief: the Orientals extract a refined starch from its roots. A World of Vegetable Cookery, a revised edition of the 1968 original, is an invaluable, most attractive reference book which can be compared only to the best, like the works of Waverly Root.

The Great Dessert Book, by Christian Teubner and Sybil Grafin Schonfeldt. A Hearst Book (Morrow) $30

We have been somewhat puzzled by the rather large quantity of big, expensive cookbooks published recently. Books for the coffee table, maybe; for the kitchen counter, certainly not. Looking at the Great Dessert Book, we finally came to the conclusion that these superproductions are published for dieters, the lean and suffering whose only consolation, while they are sipping Perrier, is to contemplate pictures of forbidden puddings with tear-filled eyes. Not that this book, translated from the German, is useless. We found there a very interesting descriptive chapter on fruit, including several exotic varieties which deserve to be more used in this country, and many recipes for compotes, sherbets, and other fruit preparations that are light and delicate. Still, this is not enough to justify the investment—unless you are on a diet.


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