The yuletide season of 1986 did find me with a minor grouse: a mantle full of stockings and nary a culinary tome nestling in a darned toe or heel.
Now, don't get me wrong. This is no complaint about a lack of largess. On the contrary, my cupboard literally runneth over. But if you, like me, were the recipient of some rather odd-ball remembrances, it is important to note that every battery-operated whisk, computerized calorie-counter and matching tweed apron-and-potholder set does have a use the day after Christmas. Each such eccentric bestowal may be returned and redeemed for a really good cookbook.
My list of the year's best, hard- and soft-covered joys to the world of the kitchen follows:
"New Southern Cooking" by Nathalie Dupree (Alfred A. Knopf, 1986, $18.95). For years, Atlanta's Nathalie Dupree has been in my opinion one of America's highly regarded cooking teachers and, coincidentally, a well-kept secret north of the Mason-Dixon line. Luckily she is no longer a strictly regional treasure. Her new public television series, "New Southern Cooking," is whetting taste buds all over the map for the wondrous bounty our Southern cousins have been stirring up for years. But with a major difference. In my opinion, Dupree knows how to coax traditional fare into eclectic culinary experiences. Her dishes are lighter, highly imaginative and remarkably abbreviated in terms of cooking time and calories.
Outdoor Cooking at Its Best
"Cooking With Fire & Smoke" by Phillip Stephen Schulz (Simon and Schuster, 1986, $17.95). It's a long, long time from December to May when this bible of barbecue and smoke-bronzed cooking was first published, but it's never too late to know how to tame a flame and produce the best outdoor cooking imaginable. Schulz's book with its on-target timing charts, and encyclopedia of rubs, marinades, bastes and grilling techniques is a gift for all seasons. A well-illustrated Baedeker, it gives even an novice at the grill important information on choosing equipment, electing seasoning woods and even mail-ordering barbecue sauces.
"Simply Sensational Desserts" by Sharon Tyler Herbst (HP Books, 1986, $9.95). My favorite dessert cookbooks are those that do not intimidate a would-be pastry maker at first sight. No such occupational hazard will befall the uninitiate who dips into Herbst's new book. In my opinion "Simply Sensational Desserts" is sensationally simple. Herbst is a master at making recipes fail-safe no matter how fabled they appear. This colorful easy-to-read paperback is furthermore annotated with helpful hints that literally hold the cook's hand through any bout of confectionary angst.
"Ismail Merchant's Indian Cuisine" by Ismail Merchant (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1986, $19.95). From burnt-thumb experience, I can state that celebrity cookbooks are usually not my dish. Merchant's Indian cooking, however, is an exception to that rule. For this noteworthy film maker ("A Room With a View" and "Heat and Dust") is a kitchen virtuoso whose dishes--neither formally Eastern or Western--are an absolutely stunning refute to all that talk of twains never meeting--at least in the kitchen. Anyone who samples Merchant's recipes will, I promise, become addicted to his wholly unconventional palate at first bite. And if taste alone were not the final test, Merchant's spare recipe style and minimal ingredient lists would easily earn him four stars from every kitchen practitioner in my circle.