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Cookbook, Spring 1985

ISSUE:  Spring 1985

The renewed interest in authentic American cuisine has led many publishers recently to issue facsimile editions of old classics. Read one after the other, they provide a fascinating view on the evolution of American cooking in the 19th century, from the richness and variety of postcolonial country fare, to the codified blandness of early 20th-century city cooking. The first of those books, chronologically, is The Virginia House-Wife by Mary Randolph (South Carolina, $14.95) first published in 1824.This facsimile edition provides the reader with an excellent introduction and appendix by Karen Hess, who explains how the Southern wives managed their kitchen and why their cookery differed so soon and so drastically from the bland cooking of New England. The recipes themselves, coming from a woman who had been famous for her lavish hospitality before “a change in fortune,” are extremely interesting in their variety. Here we find how to roast woodcock, wild duck, and rabbit. There are three recipes for calf s head, and some for hare soup, stewed carp, and skewered eels. Of course, the reader will find here also classics which have survived modernism, like “ochra soup,” custards, pudding, and “nice biscuits.” Twenty-one years later, Elizabeth Ellicott Lea published her Domestic Cookery(Pennsylvania, facsimile of the fifth edition, $20). In his very interesting introduction, William Woys Weaver explains how this woman, bred in Maryland, married in Delaware, and after some years settled with her family on a Maryland farm. She was influenced in her cooking not only by her Quaker upbringing, but also by the cuisine of Tidewater and that of Pennsylvania. This is still country cooking, in days when husbandry was an art, and no good housewife would discard a pig’s foot or a calf s brain. From Pennsylvania, probably, come many recipes for scrapple, souse, sausages, and the like, besides more classic fare and instructions to corn or pickle various meats and fish. Mrs. Lea adds to this cookery a useful chapter of “miscellaneous receipts” where she gives directions to “wash Calicoes,” take spots out of mahogany, make shoes waterproof, or take ink out of linen (no recipe for wine stains, alas, since this is a Quaker cookbook). Eventually, those independent, strong-minded, and energetic women moved to cities. Their cooking evolved, as we can see in The Atlanta Exposition Cookbook (Georgia, $12). First published in 1895 as a souvenir of the Woman’s Building at the Cotton States and International Exposition, this is a precursor of today’s Junior League cookbooks. All the recipes were contributed by members of the agriculture and horticulture committee of the fair. The long, fastidious cooking of the plantation kitchen is shortened wherever possible. There are even shortcuts: here the reader is instructed to use “the sauce that comes in a can.” Instructions, measures, and cooking times are much more precise, probably because the contributors were far less experienced cooks than their grandmothers and also, of course, because ingredients had to be bought at stores instead of coming off the land. The fare becomes more dainty, with Charlotte Russe, Swiss Biscuit, Balaklava Nectar, Coquille de Volaille, or Patties au Salpicon. Game is on the way out, and there are many fewer recipes for variety meat. Taste is beginning to be codified. We find here, for example, a revealing list of which sauce or accompaniment “should” (a should which reads like a must) be served with each meat or fish. Still, it is elegant fare and particularly interesting to read when one remembers that this book was published only one year before Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, the first wide-ranging, popular treatise on urban cooking in the United States. Last on our list is The Settlement Cookbook (Hugh Lauter Levin, distributed by Scribner, $12. 95), a facsimile of the 1903 edition of this volume compiled by the women of a Settlement House in Milwaukee. How far we are from the previous books! This is not lady’s cookery, of course, since the immigrants coming to the Settlement House were working people. Therefore, the fare is solid, filling, full of potatoes, and most of the time rather uninspired, with the exception of the “company dishes” called Entrees or Chafing Dishes, where there are a surprising number of recipes for lobster. Of interest too are the many recipes contributed by German and Jewish settlers, from matzo balls and Hasenpfeffer to Kuchen and a good array of tortes. The 20th century begins to appear here. The authors provide a whole chapter on ice-cream, sherbets, and frozen puddings. More surprising, the very first page of the book is devoted to the nutritional value of various foods. Since it was published, The Settlement Cookbookhas sold two million copies. For that reason alone, it should be in every collection on American cookery.

The American Table, by Ronald Johnson. Morrow $19. 95

Aside from an exceptional number of personal cookbooks—Cooking with Barbara, Madeleine, Nela, Bobby, and Arthur— the past year also brought us a good collection of American cookbooks. Johnson’s work is by far the best, at least to our taste. He has traveled extensively throughout the country to assemble this volume of 400 recipes. There are no folksy tales here, just succinct information on the origin of these dishes and what would accompany them best. We were elated to discover here our favorite recipe for chili, the superbly named Beverly Hills Rangoon Racquet Club Championship Chili, beside the ubiquitous, but excellent, Senate Bean Soup. Readers will find in this book classic American fare, such as a Maryland Pot Roast with Madeira, various jambalayas, delicious Shaker food, and some very pleasing yams flavored with orange juice and rum. There are also some surprises, like a delicious Rabbit with Tarragon or a festive Chicken Stuffed with Crab Apples. All in all, the cooking tends to be rather simple. But it is good and authentic.

Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen, by Paul Prudhomme. Morrow $19.95

“Don’t be timid about it,” writes chef Prudhomme on cooking, “just jump right in the skillet!” Just don’t do it in the winter, though, for if you heat that skillet until “you see white ashes at the bottom,” or until the oil smokes fiercely, you will need to have all the windows open, and the kitchen outside door too—for a prompt escape. Once these precautions are taken, cooking with Prudhomme is fun. His gumbos and jambalayas are marvelous, exactly the way they taste down along the bayous. His seafood, predictably, is delicious and sometimes even light and elegant, like the Shrimp Diane or the Seafood Crêpes. He combines veal and oysters in several interesting dishes. His Oyster and Brie Soup with Champagne, a recipe we would never have dared to try but which was served to us by a friend, is extraordinary. The most interesting point made here by this famous Cajun cook is that although he seems to always use the same basic ingredients— onions, celery, bell peppers, and a seasoning mix where only the herbs seem to vary a little—he produces dishes with a wide array of tastes. This comes simply from the cooking, either the technique or the length of time. Chef Prudhomme does not have the sophistication of a Creole cook. His food is hearty, authentic country fare. And his book is a superb tribute to the Cajuns’ tradition.

The Complete Book of Soups and Stews,by Bernard Clayton, Jr. Simon & Schuster $17.95

Nothing reads better in the winter than a book on soups and stews, but this one will send the cook to the kitchen with an urgent need to start the stockpot. Clayton’s recipes for stews are few, about 50, but well chosen from America’s Chilis, Jambalayas, and Gumbos to Greek Lamb Stew or Oxtail Ragout, It is in the field of soups that the author really soars. He has collected his recipes from all over the world, bicycling to a small Brittany village to get the secrets of an Oyster Soup or dining in Denver to obtain the proportions of an Asparagus and Crab Soup from a Vietnamese cook. Most of the great classics are here, from Avgolemono or Billi-Bi to the famous U.S.Senate White Bean Soup. But there are also some rare gems. We particularly loved the Champagne Melon Soup and the simple, excellent Cream of Wild Mushrooms. For a very fancy dinner, we shall try the Chanterelle Soup under Puff Pastry, or maybe the Stilton and Cheddar Cheese Soup. And we shall keep this book on our kitchen shelf at all times.

Food for Friends, by Barbara Kafka. Harper if Row $19.95

What will one of America’s most famous food consultants cook when, after a hard day’s work, she entertains friends for dinner? A Scallops Seviche, Pasta with Tomato Sauce, a fish soup, or a Herbed Roasted Leg of Lamb—like anyone else. But Mrs. Kafka is a remarkable cook and a highly intelligent person, and her recipes, which we expected to be more original, were fruitful reading nevertheless. She has found a way to extract bitterness from poultry livers by marinating them in milk. She has solved the problem of the tough, fat, American duck: she poaches it before she roasts it. She knows that adding a quartered lemon to the various herbs stuffing a roast chicken will enhance the flavor greatly and that the only way to roast the bird evenly is to not truss it. Most people who have worked seriously with food for years have discovered many of these tricks by themselves, but the majority of home cooks have not. They will wonder at the Sole Mousse with Grapefruit Sauce, the Duck Breasts with Pears, and the Couscous Risotto. That is, if they can stand the me-myself condescending tone of the author. And if they skip the first page of the Cold First Courses chapter, where they are advised to “collect the small plastic spoons given with espresso on European airlines” to eat. . . their caviar.

The Gold and Fizdale Cookbook, by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. Random House $19. 95

This is the ultimate book to offer to a cook who is also a compulsive name-dropper. Drawing from it, he could offer a meal starting with a Salad George Balanchine (which the authors served not only to “George” but also to the Stravinskys), proceed with an omelet “made with Paul Bocuse,” then offer the poached salmon of Roy Lichtenstein’s wife, and crown the feast with either Michel Guérard’s chocolate mousse or the praline ice-box cake “invented for Julia Child.” It would not be a bad meal either, especially if one would include some nameless side dishes such as the excellent Tomatoes a la Créme one does find scattered in the book. But this is clearly a book written at the request of friends, with a limited appeal to those who are not part of the “coterie.”

Nela’s Cookbook, by Nela Rubinstein. Knopf $18. 95

From a childhood in Lithuania and Poland to a life around the world following her gourmet husband, Arthur, Nela Rubinstein, cooking in vast kitchens or in tiny hotel “kitchenettes,” has accumulated a collection of recipes gleaned everywhere. With a masterful sense of taste, she has added a Polish touch to a French dish, a Spanish accent to an American meal. The result is highly personal, the kind of book a mother would bequeath to her daughters. There are sensible, good recipes here, like Nela’s basic Pot Roast, which could become your favorite, her delicious Sweet Raisin Bread, or her Monkfish baked with Tomatoes and Shallots—as well as a lot of little kitchen “tricks,” which work. There are also unexpected delights such as her Onions with Raisins and Port, and her Caramel Mousse. Mrs. Rubinstein also offers us the best of her own family treasures: dozens of proven recipes from the cold Chlodnik to the Carp in Jelly and the classic Polish hunters’ stew, Bigos (for which the meat must be mixed: pork alone makes it flat). A book for the cosmopolitan.

A la Russe, by Darra Goldstein. Random House $16,95

Miss Goldstein put an enormous amount of work in this book. Too much. Scholars will like it, for A la Russe is jammed with information on the culture, mores, literature, et al.not only of Russia but of the satellite countries of the Soviet Union. The scholars, though, might be distracted by the recipes. The cook, on the other hand, will have to hunt for the recipes that are scattered through the scholarly text. Some are presented in a chapter devoted to the “Days of the Tsar,” others in “Holy-days Preparations,” more in the “Dacha” section, others in the “Republics” section. It is too bad, because here and there are excellent recipes, for a whole roasted calf s liver for example, or a surprising steamed cabbage soufflé. Miss Goldstein should have written two books; maybe one day, she wisely will do so.

Recipes for an Arabian Night, by David Scott. Pantheon $8.95 paper

The title of this slim volume is slightly deceptive. The more than 250 recipes gathered here do not come only from Arabia but from all the Arabic countries stretching from Morocco to the Fertile Crescent. This gives a great diversity to the excellent dishes selected by Mr. Scott. His chicken preparations, for example, run from the refined Moroccan Chicken with Olives to the deliciously sweet Honey Roasted Chicken from Lebanon or the more austerely flavored Pastries from Iraq. His collections of recipes for stuffed vegetables, grains, and legumes, savory pastries—including “pizza” made with pita bread dough—or hors d’oeuvres are even better, offering unusual combinations of flavors and texture. The salads are dazzling, marrying oranges and radishes here, zucchini and caraway seeds there. The highlights of the book are the recipes for lamb, as could be expected. Starting with the excellent Arab Lamb Stew, we tried too many to be mentioned and loved them all. In its modest way, Recipes for an Arabian Night is a classic.

The Cuisine of Fredy Girardet, by Fredy Girardet. Morrow $17.95

Girardet is the latest great European chef to contribute to the famous series “The Cuisine of—” Girardet is Swiss, and it was in his father’s “café” that he learned to cook his first egg. It was in France, however, that he found inspiration for his genius, especially from the Troisgros brothers. And it may be France who gets the greatest benefit from this genius, since each and every three-star chef from that country crosses the border regularly to have a meal at Girardet’s, wonder about his new gustatory ventures, and go home with new inspiration. Obviously, this kind of cooking cannot be taught between the covers of a 245-page book. For one thing, the extraordinary ingredients used by this master are not at hand: the buttery duck foie gras which melts on the tongue and leaves behind a craving for one more bite, the rare “Omble Chevalier” from the nearby lake which gives his fish terrine a taste of heaven, the fresh fava beans which Girardet uses so skillfully to provide a counterpoint to a morsel of lobster. . . .(Yes, we have been there several times, and the memories still bring tears to our eyes), Still, this is a book which every serious cook should read for his or her own inspiration. And there are many recipes here which can be tried successfully, like the Sweetbread Salad, the Onion Tart (for which only blanched sweet onions should be used), the Monkfish Stew with Saffron, or the Salmon Papillotes with a lime sauce which is so exquisite that we use it with other fish and even chicken breast. Girardet also provides here recipes for some of his famous sherbets and for his fabulous Passion Fruit Soufflé. The results are not quite what one would get at Girardet’s, but it saves a trip to Europe.

Michel Guerard’s Cuisine for Home Cooks,by Michel Guérard. Morrow $15.95

The most remarkable quality of this book is its conciseness. Recipes which flowed over three pages in Guerard’s Cuisine Minceur and Cuisine Gourmande are confined here to a mere few paragraphs. Do they lose much of their flavor? Not really. The veal stock used for finishing sauces is replaced by chicken stock; “Malvoisie” vinegar becomes plain wine vinegar; truffles and caviar have nearly vanished. What we are left with is a splendid collection of easy recipes, still far and above the usual level of cooking. Because of Guérard’s deep interest in nutrition, most of his superb dishes are also suitable for the dieter.

Provincial French Cooking, by Helge Rubinstein. Morrow $10 paper

Another book on French country cooking? We are not sure that it was needed. But—duty prevailing—we went through it. We read the concise, well-documented introduction on French Provinces. We attacked the chapter on soups, all classic ones, tried the Mussel soup and the “Potée,” and loved them. We sailed through Appetizers and Seafood, dining here on a Roquefort Puff and there on a Trout with Ham. With growing enthusiasm, we went through the Poultry chapter, where our favorite was a Normandy stuffed chicken, and the sensible meat section, out of which we tried, and liked, Pork Chops in Cider. Finally, we served the Garlic and Walnut Sauce (in which we used walnut oil rather than olive) to friends who loved it so much that we had to make another batch for them to take home. We thought all the way that the recipes were clear and easy, even when their French titles were incorrect (“De” Puy instead of “du” Puy, “Au” Rhubarbe instead of “a la” Rhubarbe). The conclusion: the book, though attractive, looks modest. It is also modestly priced. Anyone who wishes to have a repertoire of very good, rather simple French dishes should have this at hand in the kitchen.

Pates and Terrine, by Friedrich W. Ehlert, Edouard Lonque, Michael Raffael, Frank Wesel. Morrow $30

It is impossible to look at this book without drooling like a Spaniel on the scent of a partridge. The photographs are outstanding, and the finished pates, mousses, terrines, and pies they depict are simply works of art. The pictures will also tell the cook at a glance that this is not a book for the pussy-footed or the marmiton.But there are ways of approaching it fearlessly. We suggest that the cook start with the mousses, which are here a trifle more complicated than the ones we get from our various processor cookbooks but also much more refined. Then a logical step is to try the Salmon Timbale Stuffed with Frog’s Legs (which we replaced by scallops, since we do not like those frozen tough legs commonly available). Feeling a little more comfortable, the cook can now try the English Venison Pasties; they may not look as pretty as the illustration, but they will be excellent. The Russian Pirozhki are also easy and delicious. After that? Our choice would be to be bold, and attack the Pheasant Parfait with Foie Gras and Morels, served with “a rosehip sauce delicately flavored with Armagnac.” For, as one of our grandmothers used to say, “this must be good, since it is made only with good things.” On the other hand, we feel that this is a dish to be served only to a queen, and the opportunity has not come yet. Aside from techniques, recipes, and pictures, the authors of this European co-production also offer a mine of information on wine, spices, truffles, and other accompaniments or ingredients of their superb pates.

Perfect Pasta, by Valentina Harris. Morrow $12.95

The latest book published on the trendiest food, this lovely volume is also the best The reader should not be discouraged by recipes’ ingredients such as bombolotti and pecorino, or torciglioni with mascarpone: the author provides a short, clear glossary for both cheeses and pastas, which makes substitution easy. The first quality of this book is that the chapters are very well defined. If the cook is in a hurry, there is an excellent section on quick and easy pastas. If more time can be spent in the kitchen, one can select the still easy Cannolicchi with Basil, or the one-meal-in-a-dish Tagliatelle with Veal Stew. The second quality of Perfect Pasta is that Mrs. Harris, born and raised in Italy, has a casual approach to her subject. Her short introduction to each recipe as well as the charming anecdotes scattered in the margins help the reader realize that this is simply good food. Soon the cook finds that by using the book carefully, he can turn any leftover—half an avocado, two pieces of chicken, a can of tuna—into a very gratifying pasta sauce. The last quality of Perfect Pasta, which we should have mentioned first, is that the recipes are delectable.”Bravo” to Mrs. Harris.

Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza & Calzone, by Alice Waters. Random House $17.95

The pasta served at Chez Panisse, in California, are noodles in Sunday clothes. And not everybody’s Sunday clothes at that. With shavings of truffle here, dollops of caviar there, or a dozen fresh quail’s eggs somewhere else, this is Dior’s (or, rather, Galanos’). But the inventive cook should be undaunted by these details and should read carefully not only the recipes but also the introductions to each seasonal section. Mrs. Waters and her helpers compose their pasta dishes the way other talented women compose their flower arrangements—by going around and picking whatever catches their fancy and by marrying unexpected components to achieve an harmonious ensemble. Aside from providing inspiration, Chez Panisse also offers some good feasible recipes. We liked the simple Pasta with Garden Peas and Cream, all the preparations involving squid or mussels, and the excellent Fettucine with Rabbit Stewed in Wine. The stew is a classic fricassée with an expanded sauce; but since Mrs. Waters bones her cooked rabbit and cuts it in small pieces, we were able to serve it without hearing one protest about “eating a bunny.” The second, and very short, part of the book is devoted to pizza. Again, the recipes go from the esoteric to the delectable and always are interesting and inspirational. There is only one recipe for calzone, but it is the technique which counts: any pizza topping can be used for a calzone filling. The cook who wishes to dazzle his friends should get this book at once and serve them Mrs. Water’s Truffle Pizza.

Cooking for All It’s Worth, by Jay Jacobs. McGraw-Hill $14. 95

What an amusing, iconoclastic, clever book this is! Jacobs, a well-known restaurant critic and food writer who has to be polite in his profession, has vented here all his scorn against the solemnity, the wastefulness, and the pomposity of self-proclaimed gourmet cooks—and cookbook authors. To produce good food, states the author, one needs only a good knife, a good pot, fresh ingredients, a solid knowledge of cooking techniques, and imagination. More important, to Jacobs, is what the cook does to stretch the food and how he deals with so-called leftovers. To illustrate his point, he will indicate in some “loose” recipes how to use every last bit of bone, stem, or peel. One of his best examples is a leg of lamb, out of which he makes four meals. But there are dozens of others. The most amusing recipes are the ones which had to be invented when necessity struck, like the Crab Bait Recipe or the Mousse de Raton Laveur which illustrates “a Cautionary Tale.” Throughout this book, we found not only wit but a very sensible approach to food, cooking, and eating.


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