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Cookbook, Spring 1981

ISSUE:  Spring 1981

The Cook’s Bookshelf. Fundamental books for the cook, in spite of the many titles published each year, are few and far between. Notable exceptions and great contributions are the splendid La Technique and La Méthode by Jacques Pépin. These books teach us, with step by step photographs, how to make the essential preparations for cooking. Without the skills presented here the cook will always be an amateur. Home cooks should go back to these again and again. They will always be rewarded by the excellent recipes accompanying each technique.

French Cuisine for All, by Louisette Bertholle. Doubleday $19.95

French mothers like to offer an attractive, no-nonsense, foolproof but tasteful cookbook to their inexperienced daughters when they marry. Mme. Bertholle has produced the best such book we have seen in years. The unprepared American who wishes to venture into French cooking, or into plain good everyday cooking, would be well advised to begin with this volume. Mme. Bertholle starts where she should, with clear and concise descriptions of techniques and terms, condiments and seasonings, basic recipes and decorating. The five pages devoted to wine include all a beginner needs to know, including when to open wine bottles according to their age. The author then offers hundreds of recipes, very clearly presented. Most are traditional, but simplified and lightened according to today’s taste, and they are studded with more refined, and more expensive, preparations for special occasions. The chapter devoted to appetizers offers stuffed raw vegetables and a delicious Tuna Mousse a child could prepare, but it also contains a delicate Tomato Sherbet and an excellent Chicken Liver Mousse flavored with Port Wine. In the soup section, the cook finds both exquisite fresh vegetables, Veloutés, and solid, peasant soups like the traditional Garbure, for which Mme. Bertholle rightly blanches her cabbage, a procedure too often ignored here. Each of the following chapters, on eggs and souffles, fish, poultry, game, or meat, follow the same pattern. We tried the Special Court-bouillon for frozen fish and discovered we could finally enjoy this otherwise tasteless food. We were as successful with the easy Chicken Strips on Canapes and Lacquered Roast Pork as we were with the more complicated Pot Roast Molded in Aspic, made with leftover meat, or Chicken and Sweetbreads with Morels and Cream, in which we replaced the too-expensive morels with dry oriental mushrooms. The best chapter may be the one on vegetables, an excellent source of inspiration for the home cook. Since Mme. Bertholle is very concerned by the cost of food and stretches her leftovers in the best French tradition, we would like to add a tip: in most recipes requiring cognac, we find it can be replaced by whiskey, provided it is bourbon and not Scotch. French Cuisine for All is an important book. After all, food is food; although it should be as enjoyable as possible, there should be no mystique about it.

Cuisine of the South of France, by Roger Vergé. Morrow $14.95

The fourth in a series of cookbooks written by famous French chefs, Roger Vergé’s will delight the epicurean. Vergé’s taste is less exquisitely esoteric than Michel Guérard’s, but his down-to-earth approach to Nouvelle Cuisine is as rewarding as that of the Troigros brothers. He dares to offer his customers, and his readers, a simple recipe for pork chops, although he had to disguise it under a funny name. The result is a glorified pork dish which can be served to any gourmet and a superb addition to the family cook’s repertory. We tried it with other cuts of pork, and also with a baking hen which came out rejuvenated. Vergé’s Duck in Red Wine with Winter Fruits has the same earthy, full flavor; it is indeed an easy, old-fashioned recipe which, as he says, he has “brightened” with the addition of prunes, walnuts, and apples. But the Nouvelle Cuisine is here also, especially in the chapter devoted to seafood. Besides the Salmon and Shellfish in Winebutter Sauce, the cook will find Lobster with Sauternes (the real one), the delicate Oysters in Champagne Sauce, or the pretty Bass wrapped in Lettuce Leaves. One pure gem in that chapter is the perfectly simple Baked Fish with Bay Leaves, for which the cooking technique is remarkable. To achieve a flavor as close as possible to Vergé’s fish, we used delicate bay leaves from Provence, remembering that the quality of the ingredients is of foremost importance in Nouvelle Cuisine. Vergé’s fruit desserts, from sherbets to tarts, are very good, and his Bitter Chocolate Mousse scrumptious.

The Cuisine of Venice, by Hedy Giusti-Lanham & Andrea Dodi. Barren’s $16.95

This elegant book is an eye-opener for all those who think that Italian cooking is plenty of tomato sauce, oregano, Parmesan, and of course, pasta. The Venetians, who have been for a very long time indeed some of the most civilized people on earth, and their neighbors of Northern Italy would rather use Barolo wine, rosemary and sage, and risotto or polenta. The result is a tasty, yet refined, cuisine, very clearly presented here by two authors who were both born in Northern Italy but who both now live in the United States. There are, of course, some pasta recipes in the book, but they are overwhelmed by polenta confections and more than 20 excellent risotto preparations. We particularly liked the Risotto con l’Uvetta, with prosciutto and raisins, and the Risotto with Shrimps and Mussels, a dish for company. If the fish section is a touch disappointing, the chapters devoted to meat are rewarding. The Roast of Veal in Milk is a perfect way to prepare American veal, which ends up as tender and juicy as its European namesake. The Beef Stew with Barolo Wine is tasty to perfection, with a mild game flavor. After presenting vegetables, salads, and dessert recipes, the authors conclude with a list of excellent luncheon and dinner menus, often ending with fresh fruit preparations, and illustrated techniques on how to master basic starch preparations. It should be noted that a share of the profit deriving from the book’s sale goes to the Save Venice Inc. fund.

The Four Seasons, by Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi. Simon & Schuster $29.95

A good cookbook should rely on the excellence of the recipes it offers to sell well and not on various PR gimmicks. Messrs. Margittai and Kovi, the two present owners of the famous New York restaurant, do not know this basic principle. Each page of their book is adorned (?) with the signature, and sometimes the enlightened comments, of their past customers. The index lists more celebrities, from Bella Abzug to Emil Zatopek, than exciting dishes. The cook will find a gem here or there, like the “Crisp Duck” which is a clever adaptation of a Chinese recipe. But, on the whole, the recipes lack subtlety; too often the salmon steak is topped with caviar, the veal with oyster puree, or the squab “enhanced” by both sweetbread and crayfish. The older Four Seasons Cookbook, edited by Charlotte Adams, is still more handsome, more tasty—and cheaper.

The New New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey. Times Books $16.95

The recipes presented in book form here have appeared in the New York Times food pages during the past decade. Many of the recipes have been contributed by a wide range of other cooks including Jean Troisgros, Danny Kaye, Virginia Lee, and Dinah Shore. The book has its ups and downs. In spite of a charming preface, one comes away with the feeling that the author did not have his heart in it. Probably he was already at work on his excellent gourmet diet book.

The Master Chefs Cookbook, by Sandy Lesberg. McGraw-Hill $14.95

This collection of recipes from restaurants all affiliated with “Carte Blanche” has the usual highlights and pitfalls of such compilations. First, the best-known chefs tend to share only one recipe and not their best. Second, the editing is erratic: in the Navarin of Caribbean Seafood, for example, the enclosing crust is never baked. The cook who follows the recipe word for word ends up pouring an otherwise excellent mixture in a “preheated” crown of raw dough. Third, restaurant chefs sometimes give proportions for one serving which should not be multiplied by four or six without modifications. This is the case, for example, with le Coup de Fusil’s Gâteau aux Foies de Volaile. Now for the good things. Many lesser known chefs go out of their way to shine. We enjoyed very much the original Duck with Apricot of the Californian Chez cary. The flavor is deep yet fresh because of its slight tartness and is unusual. The Bay Scallops Malgache, from Sign of the Dove in New York, has a velvety rich texture, a smooth taste which then explodes in the mouth. As for the extremely simple Roasted Prime Ribs of Beef of Ichabod Crane’s, again from California, it has become a favorite of ours. We use the recipe for cheaper roasts, and it works just as well. A book for the would-be traveler.

Jane Butel’s Tex-Mex Cookbook, by Jane Butel. Harmony Books $12. 95

We like this book. All the traditional dishes we tried worked perfectly, and, better, they tasted the way they should. At last we enjoyed Enchiladas with Chiles and Cheese and Beef Tacos with the flavors we remember from the Southwest, The preparations are invariably light and flavorful. Tex-Mex cuisine is by no means as limited as many persons believe it to be. There are recipes here, good ones, for fish, vegetables, and desserts, as well as for better-known meat and egg dishes. We also prepared recipes new to us, like the Terrific Tamale Pie and the Pecos River Pot Roast: they were excellent. The chili recipes are varied, all worth trying and unusually good. We will keep this at hand.

The Michael Field Egg Cookbook, edited by Joan Scobey. Holt, Rinehart & Winston $9.95 paper

The egg, too often cooked in hot, toughening grease, has been for a long time the centerpiece of the American breakfast. It is seldom used, therefore, in other meals. Too bad, since it is the food par excellence, recommended by nutritionnists to pregnant mothers and growing children. It is also a lifesaver for single persons, and, last but not least, it is, by today’s standards, cheap. This is why we recommend this good little book. Not only does it explain how to cook eggs properly, which is rarely done in most homes, but the recipes are tempting, easy, and often very quickly prepared. We liked the chapter on mousses; we made the ham and the chicken ones with leftovers, and plan to combine both the day we have only one cup of each. The crab filled crêpe, crabmeat soufflé, or salmon mousse may be prepared with canned salmon or even tuna, since the seasoning is very flavorful. Needless to say, most basic preparations are here, with their variations: omelets, shirred eggs, crêpes, and pancakes, and so on, with the exception of scrambled eggs—our favorite. This is not the Egg Bible, but it is very useful in the home kitchen.

Guide to the Wines of the United States, by Dominick Abel. Cornerstone Library $2.95 paper

This is an excellent introduction to wines produced in this country, It manages a great deal in a relatively brief compass because the author is intelligent and thorough. He provides a general background history of viniculture in the United States and then describes wines cultivated now around the country. The bulk of the book, of course, is devoted to California and New York. But the author’s information is up to date. A year ago, for example, he noted, “Five hundred acres of Vinifera vines? In Virginia? If nothing else, the story of American wines is far from told. The future, in Virginia and across the country, will bear watching.” This year 28 different wines are offered for sale in Virginia, and at least two of them are quite decent, one white, one red. His advice about jug wines and about storing and serving wine is useful and sensible. We think decanting is a bit much, however, for these wines. The best way, in almost every case, to allow a wine to “breathe” is to gently remove the cork and then to replace it, halfway in, at once. The time this is done before serving depends upon the wine.

The Cheese Buyer’s Handbook, by Daniel O’Keefe. McGraw-Hill $12.95

Americans consume a vast quantity of cheese. Yet most buyers go back forever to the same brands: sliced “American” cheese, so-called Swiss, canned Brie and garlic Boursin for cocktail time, and, of course, Ricotta and Parmesan for pastas. This handsome and clear book offers the cook a good opportunity to vary the family’s diet and the friends’ pleasures. After a concise introduction explaining all that one needs to know about cheeses, from their manufacturing to their proper storing at home, the author describes more than 400 varieties, presented in alphabetical order. The reader will learn here, for example, the difference between Greek Feta, the real thing made of ewe’s milk, the American Feta, which is “quite sharp,” and German or Australian Feta, which are mild and “suited to the average taste.” Here, as well, one learns that the only Romano made of sheep’s milk is called Pecorino, and why real Roquefort is so superior to other blue veined cheeses. Excellent illustrations, in color, are provided throughout the book to guide the buyer’s eye as well as his (or her) nose.

Indonesian Food and Cookery, by Sri Owen. Prospect Books $10.95 paper

The American cook who wishes to use this elegant book, produced in England, must first carefully read the introduction, which depicts the essential ingredients of Indonesian cookery. There we learn, for example, that the chili powder used in many recipes actually is the powdered chili pepper, Capsicum annuum or frutescens. Whenever it is needed, therefore, the cook should use Cayenne pepper or powdered dry chili peppers, but never, ever, the mixture called here “chili powder.” This done, one can safely try the exquisite recipes presented. We still debate whether we prefer the Marinated Fish Baked with Coconut, for which we used a firm flesh monkfish, or the Fish “Curry” for which we used shrimp, and shortened the cooking time. Both were superb. Chicken, either in aromatic sauce or poached in a delectable concoction, which it absorbs, before being fried, as in Ayam Goreng Jawa, comes out glorified. Recipes for bean curd are refreshingly new and the many rice preparations simply excellent. A word of warning: the author wrote her book for the English cook; you may want to shorten cooking times and also add fresh produce more available here.


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