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Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Kitchens Unconfidential, Part One

From the Spattered Pages Dept.: I have a passion for good cookbooks, and have enjoyed writing about them for many years. Today and tomorrow I’m sharing pieces I wrote over two decades ago about books I still consult.


THIS CULINARY TOUR OF EUROPE is the best kind of armchair (or stove-side) touring: getting to know a culture through its food. The evolution of any country's menus is closely tied to its political changes, and the “Heritage of ... ” series that Random House has been producing takes special note of that evolution.

The Heritage of Spanish Cooking, like its antecedent tribute to France, is a big, colorful volume filled with photos of gorgeously styled food as well as art reproductions illustrating customs of cooking and eating through the centuries.

Like The Joy of Sex, the book is divided into courses; unlike Joy, the courses keep coming. The section on appetizers, tapas and salads looks too tasty to break away from, yet further on are preparations of vegetables, of fish and shellfish, of meat, poultry and game – there's even a savory chapter that instructs you in making your own preserves and marinades.

Alicia Roos’ text introduces each chapter by tracing historical and cultural changes in cooking, a wonderfully scholarly exposition that puts the recipes that follow in much better perspective.

And I kitchen-tested several of those recipes, by Madrid’s cooking maven Lourdes March, and found them well presented and easy to work from. “Baked rice with currants and chickpeas,” for example, showed a new combination of familiar ingredients – those in the title are baked with a whole bulb of garlic in the center – that proved irresistible in a recent holiday meal.

Good-looking photos are one of the selling points of Potager, a rich, slender book that will convince you to go outside and plant a garden immediately. Well, maybe not today – but the recipes and pictures make a very convincing argument in favor of having the freshest possible produce at hand.

Potager, which comes from the French term for soup, refers to a (usually) small garden with a wide variety of seasonal items. It’s planted early for early access to potatoes and greens, and it’s planted throughout the year to provide a summer harvest of herbs and tomatoes and peppers as well as squash and apples and such in the fall. Even winter is discussed in terms of very late harvests as well as items you can preserve.

The sixty recipes are arranged by season, and Brennan introduces each with a toothsome discussion of the ingredients, their characteristic flavors, traditions of the dish itself and even interesting alternative ideas. The recipes themselves are obviously developed in the detail required by nervous home cooks, so the more experienced will find plenty to work with.

Although the recipes are collected under the aegis of “the French style,” there’s a lot of Provence-based particularization. Which only makes sense: the use of absolutely fresh herbs and spices is something of a tradition of that area, and it’s good to see the influence spread.

The pages are decorated with those aforementioned photos, many of them, as Alice Waters observes in her introduction, taken in natural light to emphasize the natural flavor. The food styling rule of showing finished product is broken now and then to illustrate how good the “before” ingredients look, and for that I’m grateful.

You’ll be astonished at the simplicity of many of these recipes, but it only makes sense: in Potager, fresh produce is the star of the show and there’s often very little you need to do with a just-ripe vegetable except sink your teeth in it. Be sure to buy a few packets of seeds when you pick up this book.

It’s common wisdom that remakes rarely come up to the standards of a good original. Marcella Hazan’s Classic Italian Cookbook has for nearly twenty years stood apart from its competitors thanks to Hazan’s skill at interpreting a complicated subject and presenting it in easy-to-fathom terms. It’s another recipe collection illuminated with lots and lots of good exposition about the many different cultures that combine into Italian cooking.

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking combines the above title with Hazan’s own sequel, More Classic Italian Cooking, but turns out to be a sound and very up-to-date volume of its own.

She did a lot of rethinking and rewriting for the new book, and added recipes just as vigorously as she let some go. At its heart, it remains not only a food-based travelogue of Italy; it also teaches food-preparation techniques to any style of cookery. You could work from this book and no other and never get bored with your meals.

How can you resist a recipe that begins, “Wherever in the world you may be when having fish prepared in the salmoriglio style, you might think you are breathing the pungent summer air of the Mediterranean.” It goes on to describe a process of grilling swordfish steaks and then immediately brushing them with a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice and oregano. And that’s it! Simple and evocative.

Sure, it’s fascinating to follow the drama as king supplants king and foreign armies try to plunder a land, but I’m much more riveted by Hazan’s account of how pasta supplanted polenta in much of the Lombardy region a few generations ago to become what amounts to the national dish. There you can follow the changes of an entire culture, and not just what happens in court.

Hazan maintains the presentation style of her earlier books: it’s arranged by course and ingredient, passing from appetizers to desserts with many, many stops along the way. Although line drawings appear from time to time, there are few visuals to break up a page. Your relationship with this book is bound to become as intimate as your relationship with your saute pan. In my house, there’s a pretty tight bond.

The Heritage of Spanish Cooking by Alicia Roos and Lourdes March
Random House, $45
Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
Knopf, $30
Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style
by Georgeanne Brennan and John Vaughan
Chronicle Books, $18.95

 – Metroland Magazine, 11 December 1992

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