When it was first published in 1970, a year roughly post-Julia Child but pre-Nouvelle Cuisine, French Menu created a sensation. It was the first time such a book was arranged by seasonal menus—and what menus! Imaginative, brilliant, refined, exquisite . . .they are still unsurpassed. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, which is not surprising coming from the author of Simple French Food. We must applaud the publisher for reissuing this delectable classic in an updated edition. And we must congratulate him for doing so with such beautiful paper, typesetting, and elegant illustrations. This new French Menu is also a feast to the eye.
Sometimes we get tired of frenzied cookbooks, tired of smart cooking, tired of dull cooking—just plain tired of all cooks and cooking. That is when we go back to an exquisite, elegant little volume, The Tuscan Year, It is the mere chronicle, month by month, of daily life in a small valley between Tuscany and Umbria. There Orlando, the farmer, tends his tobacco, his vinegrapes, and his olives; Andrea, his shepherd, overlooks the flock of sheep. Silvana, the farmer’s wife, helps to feed the animals, gathers wild berries and herbs for her kitchen, and cooks, mostly on an open fire, just as her mother did, arid generations of women before. Life has not changed much for the past centuries. People are born to earth, live off the earth, go back to earth. Mrs. Romer has captured the flavor of this life in an admirable way. Following Orlando in the fall, when he goes hunting, we taste the thrush fed on wild berries. When Silvana, always severely clad in black, walks through the woods with her twig basket to gather mushrooms, we can feel the texture of the porcini, smell the aroma of the guatelli. Every episode ends by the fireplace, where Silvana smothers the thrushes in olive oil and herbs, grills the precious mushrooms with garlic, or in another season stews any mixed meat she has at hand with a glass of dark red wine, and gently fries or simmers the vegetables of the season. Since Mrs. Romer “translates” Silvana’s recipes, we can try them in our kitchen, and they are very good. But they do not have the flavor of the Tuscan earth.
We tend to think that rice is the staple of China. We forget, in doing so, that this vast country has many different climatic and agricultural zones. Indeed, for centuries, wheat was the staple of the northern part of the country, and cooks, very early, developed many recipes for its various edible forms: noodles, dumplings, and bread. Mrs. Lin, who has been teaching for years at the China Institute in New York, has gathered all those preparations in one excellent volume. Her directions are clear and detailed. She often suggests accompanying dishes to make a whole menu, and she never fails to indicate when a preparation can be frozen to be finished later. The cook could spend a whole dreary winter day making dim sum and, with a minimum of work, have a feast in summer.
We would love to recommend this extensive, authoritative book, which we suspect is every bit as good as Mrs. Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. But we were hampered in our testing by two facts. Many preparations require a great length of time, which makes them impractical for the everyday home cook. Worse, even with two excellent specialty food stores at hand, we could not find charoli nuts, split white gram beans, or milk fudge—which, says the author, “requires considerable time and skill” to prepare—among myriads of other ingredients. But we tried the Bengal Red Lentils with spices, which is delicious; and we liked the Spicy Mushrooms, in spite of the overwhelming fragrance of the fresh hot green chilies. We would not be surprised to see this book become a classic for vegetarians, especially idle ones. It deserves it.
What a wonderful, irresistible book this is! Especially after last year’s overabundant crop of solemn American Cookbooks. “This,” to quote from the cover, “be’s the victuals of white, Southern, rural folks,” the pale cousin of Soul Food. But if you replace the swamp cabbage by the plain green one, the sweet ‘taters by the Idaho, the cooter by whatever you can catch in the Plains, and hold a bit on the oleo, our guess is that this be’s the victuals of more folks than you think. Some recipes are just plain fun to read, such as Fannie’s Five-cup Salad, the High Calorie Pick-me-up, or Aunt Rosie Deaton’s All-American Slum-Gullions. But many more are just real good trash. The chili, made with ketchup, is a great hit with teenagers; Bosie’s Barbecue Sauce, Mamma Two’s Pralines, Mary Linder’s Washday Soup, the cornbreads, “puddins,” and many others could become family regulars. One learns a lot about Southern ways of life here, too. It is always suggested, never lectured. We already suspected that “what is guaranteed to resurrect” a Resurrection Cake is . . . Whiskey sauce. But we would not have guessed that what made Clara Jane’s Peach Pie “Unforgettable” was that Clara Jane read her Bible three times a day. Mr. Mickler has added to the text a portfolio of poignant photographs taken throughout the South.
One might think, as we did when we read the title of this slim volume: “Here we go again.” Wrong. This is “Here we go at last.” Mr. Neal has used a great natural sensitivity, developed by a classical education and some travels abroad, to analyze the Southern Cooking he had known since he was weaned. He has studied the food of the twelve southeastern states, prepared it in his own restaurant, and, as he writes in his introduction, “at some point I realized my food always had been telling who I was, when, and where, how I felt about my family, and how I related to nature.” The nearly 130 recipes which follow this show the same sincerity and feelings. Mr. Neal offers us classic, and excellent, Charleston “purloos,” raised biscuits, gumbos, daube glacé, and coleslaw. But the most interesting recipes come from side roads, so to speak. Here we find an original jambalaya of Duck and Sausage, the real Braised Greens of the South, a lovely Oyster and Veal Sausage, irresistible small Meat Pies from Natchitoches, Louisiana, and a Charleston’s Crab Soup fit for a King. Throughout the book Mr. Neal writes agreeably about Southern or family traditions, historical background, and bits of folklore, which make his book as interesting for the reader as it is exciting for the cook.
The latest book to come out of Alice Waters’ famous restaurant in California, Desserts is a handsome volume illustrated by Wayne Thiebaud. The book is organized by ingredients, such as “Tropical Fruit” or “Flowers, Herbs, and Spices,” which gives it a seasonal approach as well. Each main ingredient, and many are decidedly exotic or even startling, is treated in mousses, sherbets, tarts, “feuilletés,” compotes with caramel or other sauces, and the like. We found there, at last, several recipes for passion-fruit preparations (which we adore), and also learned, in one of the excellent appendices, that this exotic fruit is ripe when it starts shriveling. An excellent book for the epicure who wishes to make ice-cream with the blooms of his rosa rugosa, or a sabayon with his Beaumes-de-Venise. But not a volume to offer to a beginner or a shy hostess.
This sumptuous book, with lavish photographs of extraordinary cakes, should not intimidate the cook. Its chapter on Basic Recipes is actually one of the best we have seen in a long time. The authors, an international team of professional cooks, explain how to make the impossible génoise, for example, with clear, short explanations, each accompanied by a color photograph. After stating that success is “more or less guaranteed,” they offer an easier version, and later on, in the chapter devoted to Cakes & Company, they give a third, light, and even simpler preparation for this basic sponge cake. The chapters on Icing & Decorating and on Fruit Flans and Tarts are spectacular, and we loved the Apricot Flan we tried. The classic pastries and cakes are often inspired by German, Austrian, or Swiss traditions with a lot of creamy custards and marzipan, and the Sachertorte is certainly more authentic than the Saint-Honoré. But then, who wouldn’t turn down a Saint-Honoré for a Sachertorte?
What makes this exceptional book so attractive is that the author is not a professional cook, even less a dietician. Mr. Giobbi is an artist whose family loves to eat well everyday “the Italian Way,” has never been on a diet, and is fit and trim. The secret? It is, of course, in the very limited use of fats, including dairy products which were not easily available in the Marches region of Italy whence the Giobbi family came. The secret is also in the liberal use of poultry and seafood, cooked with a minimum of fruity oils (a mixture of olive and safflower for lightness); the generous amount of fruit or vegetables included in the meals; and the judicious use of side ingredients such as spices, mushrooms, or wine to impart a delicious taste to any dish. Since this is everyday cooking, each recipe is very easy and usually economical and quick to prepare, be it the Shellfish on Toast, the Baked Stuffed Zucchini, the Veal Chops Ciociara, the excellent Swordfish Steak Sicilian style, or any of the delicious pasta recipes. To each of the 560 recipes, Dr. Wolff adds a breakdown of the fats and cholesterol involved. But the cook needs not be on a diet to enjoy this superb book. It is a must for anyone who admires the balance between economy and harmony which is an innate component of the Italian genius.
Many restaurants famous for their unctuous sauces and rich fare have started to offer, as well, lean, low-sodium dishes for the health-conscious and the ever-dieting ladies. Chef Renggli of the Four Seasons, a leader in this field, has worked with the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia to establish menus which, aside from being lean, are fully nutritious. The result is a very successful American “Cuisine Minceur,” presented in this book. First, the bad news: no desserts. Fresh fruit will do. Then the good news. The menus and recipes are delicate and tasty. The recipes for fish are particularly imaginative and run from the delicious and easy Fish Mousse with Wild Mushrooms to the spectacular Squid Salad with Black Beans. Veal, poultry, and rabbit appear frequently on the table, of course, but beef, treated lightly, and shellfish, used sparingly, are here as well. At first sight many recipes will appear time-consuming. This is because each course is served with the appropriate vegetable or pasta, for which the preparations are included. More seriously, quite a few recipes read like dining with the Rich and Famous, with morsel of breast of quail here, a medallion of veal tenderloin there, two cups of pheasant stock somewhere else. The cook should adapt those recipes to his or her means. Also, we suggest that the cook taste the dish for doneness before serving, since the length of cooking is excessively Nouvelle Cuisine. But then, if you like quail, love it al dente, and adore it with raw peas, welcome to Spa Cuisine.
Some people have a particular genius for complicating simple matters. The authors of this book go a step further. Besides boggling the mind of the novice cook with unnecessary directions, they forget to explain the actual tricks of the recipes. Take the example of the Veal Kidneys in Cognac Sauce. “Clean the Kidneys by . . .cutting out the cores,” say the authors, then slice them. It happens that the trickiest part of the recipe is, indeed, to “cut out the core,” and the only contribution the authors could have made to this simple classic dish would have been to tell the cook to slice first, then cut the core out. Further, they say that only kidneys from mature animals need pre-soaking. Soaking in what? No word about that. (It is in milk, of course.) We could make the same comments on the Coq au Vin or the Créme Caramel. Also, we were dismayed to discover that the Shrimp Bisque is actually the classic crayfish bisque, in which “shrimp may be substituted.” It may indeed, but the preparation would have to be altered quite a bit. The book is good-looking, with handsome photographs. That is its greatest merit.
Since most of the recipes offered in this large volume are not worth mentioning, we thought that the raison d’être of the book was to offer innovative ideas for parties. Alas, under such promising titles as “Cabaret in Berlin” or “Harlequin Ball” we found that the décor, the table, the details, were never refined, gaudy at worst, childish at best. (But careful: for the Punk Party, we are advised to keep the decorative razor blades out of reach.) What is left then are the careful instructions on how to plan and prepare the party, two months ahead, three weeks before, two days to go. . . . So far, so good. There disaster strikes: “Fifteen minutes before the guests arrive. Assemble the sablés and the filling. Make a custard lake on eight plates, carefully add the melba sauce and the green pears. Bake the ham to reheat it and brown the glaze. Make the hollandaise sauce. Pipe the decoration on the main plates. Put the lumpfish roe on the slices of egg.” And after the guests have arrived? “Cook the rice!” At that point, we are afraid any decent cook might his quietus make with his bare carving knife. We could not blame him.