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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. : Michael's Cookbook by Michael McCarty (Macmillan: $29.95, 246 pages, illustrated)

December 17, 1989|ROSE DOSTI

You have to hand it to Michael McCarty. Anyone who can sell you frozen French fries at a price that would make most people think you need a lobotomy if you pay it, and make you think you're eating a piece of heaven, deserves every success coming his way. And success has been coming McCarty's way since he conceived of bringing "the most expensive restaurant in town" idea to Los Angeles. It worked. And so does his book.

The French fries, called pommes frites in French and by McCarty, by the way, are on page 46 along with an explanation: "Believe it or not, good quality bulk frozen potatoes cut into 1/4-inch thick fries are your best bet for dependable French-style pommes frites. We use a brand called Mor-Fries, from Wesson, Oregon. (We) fry the potatoes in beef suet or any good deep frying oil," says McCarty.

And, boy, are they good. Really good, mostly because, we suppose, French French fries are quite dry, almost spun dry, and the frozen potatoes might contain the proper amount of "demoisturization" for good fries.

So, if you've got a hankering to try some dishes from Michael's expensive and very creative restaurant, one of the original pioneers of California cuisine, now is your chance. McCarty provides some his best recipes in this book. And not all of them are hard to duplicate. The grilled saddle of lamb with black currants is a breeze, so is the grilled swordfish with tomato-basil vinaigrette, and the one with Pommery mustard cream sauce. In fact, you'll find most of the recipes in the book doable, if not affordable. Did you ever price fresh duck foie gras (needed for foie gras with sherry wine vinegar sauce on page 70, or white truffles for the grilled quail on page 148? Fresh white truffles run $700 to $900 per pound. Or six (one-pound) live lobsters and Beluga caviar needed for Lobster with Beluga Caviar on page 71?

But that is not entirely fair. You can find dozens of terrific recipes that are also dirt cheap. I've always loved Michael's fried Maui onions, even though Maui onions are double the price of regular onions. But they are sweet and delicious. His walnut bread and brioche are outstanding. So are the soups, such as leek and potato, corn chowder with jalapeno peppers and cream of asparagus. You won't go too far wrong with pastas, such as pasta with shrimp, vegetables and olive oil. But do go for the imported dark green extra-virgin olive oil. It gives the pasta "a good clean-tasting sauce," says McCarty.

McCarty, who graduated from Cordon Bleu and Ecole Hotelier and Academie du Vin in Paris added some good chapters on matching wine with food. The chapter on brunch is strictly Californian in flair and you'll find among the recipes blood orange mimosas, brioche French toast, paper-thin blueberry pancakes, steak sandwiches with Pommery mustard and salsa, molasses-barbecued pork sandwiches and Scottish smoked salmon with bagels, cream cheese, Maui onion and red, yellow tomatoes.

Need we say more?

MICHAEL MCCARTY'S GRILLED CHICKEN WITH TARRAGON BUTTER

3 medium chickens, about 2 1/2 pounds each

Salt

Freshly ground white pepper

Pommes Frites

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh tarragon leaves

2 bunches watercress, stemmed

Quarter chickens to yield 6 legs attached to 6 boneless thighs and 6 boneless breast halves attached to wing bones, pounded cutlet style.

Sprinkle chickens lightly with salt and pepper. Place on grill or broiler with skin side facing heat and cook 8 minutes per side for thigh-leg pieces, until cooked through, but still moist and slightly pink at bone. Cook small breasts 4 to 5 minutes on skin side, then flip and cook 1 to 2 minutes longer, until cooked through but still moist and pink at bone. Halfway through cooking on skin sides for all chicken, rotate 90 degrees to give crosshatched grill marks.

While chicken is cooking, fry Pommes Frites.

Minute or 2 before chicken is done, melt butter in small saucepan over moderate heat. Add tarragon leaves and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Arrange clump of watercress in center of each heated plate. Place big mound of potatoes at top of plate. Place chicken thigh and leg portion and breast at bottom of each plate and spoon some of tarragon butter over chicken. Makes 6 servings.

Pommes Frites

Rendered beef suet or vegetable oil for deep frying

3 pounds frozen French fries

Salt

In deep-fryer or large, deep, heavy skillet, heat at least 4 inches of suet or vegetable oil to 375 degrees on deep frying thermometer.

Add potatoes to hot fat in batches, if necessary, to prevent crowding. Fry until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain potatoes on paper towel and sprinkle lightly with salt before serving.

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