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Read All About It : From once-obscure Asian cuisines to classic French to the lastest grain craze, the variety of cookbooks available for gift giving swells as Christmas approaches. To help cull the best from the rest, The Times' Food Staff has reviewed the year's most intriguing cookbooks. : La Varenne Pratique by Anne Willan (Crown Publishers, $60, 528 pages, illustrated).

December 17, 1989|JOAN DRAKE

Willan deserves a good deal of credit for undertaking the monumental task of compiling this expansive culinary reference book. Each of its 22 chapters offers an overview of the particular food, then explains how to choose, store, prepare, cook and present it. Recipes included in the book illustrate specific techniques.

The 42-page chapter on fish is exemplary. There are step-by-step color photographs illustrating trimming, scaling, gutting, scoring, boning, filleting, skinning and cutting fish. This is followed by a section on the various methods of cooking, including an illustrated recipe for mousseline.

Remaining pages break the category into small flat-fish, large flat-fish, ray and skate, caviar and other roes, shark and sturgeon, meaty fish, monkfish, firm white fish, flaky white fish, the cod family, thin-bodied fish, bony fish, salmon and trout, fresh-water fish, rich oily fish and long-bodied fish.

Each of these sub-categories has identifying photographs of the fish and a section of useful information that includes nutritive value, cooking methods, problems, fresh forms, processed forms, storage and typical dishes.

Willan's 30 years of cooking experience in England, France and the United States give La Varenne Pratique a very definite global approach. Classic French techniques are stressed and the chapter on meat and charcuterie includes both U.S. and French terms for the various cuts.

The book's graphics are outstanding. A glance at the credit page will give you some idea of the many people and sources it took to bring this volume together. Whatever shortcomings it may have, the book is an excellent reference for any serious cook--both novice and experienced.

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