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Do the Old Standbys Stand Up? : Cookbooks: The old standards were--and still are--great, but don't expect them to help you in using a microwave.

July 05, 1991|GRACE KIRSCHENBAUM | Kirschenbaum is the publisher of "World of Cookbooks," The International Cookbook Newsletter. "

We used to have heated discussions about which was better: "Joy of Cooking"; "Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook"; "Fannie Farmer," or any of the other standard cookbooks.

Each had its loyal supporters. These weren't books you bought for a season. They went through life with you. The memories of your culinary milestones were woven into your standard cookbook.

I can still remember how, as teen-agers, my friend Florence and I made our first cream of potato soup from "Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook." It was a simple soup, but we thought it was special, and our success with it encouraged us to venture further into the magical arena of the kitchen.

But recently I found myself consulting the standards and not finding what I sought. When I wanted was a recipe for Senate bean soup, I looked in four cookbooks; not one of them had it.

Similarly, when I turned to the standards for a tapioca pudding recipe using small tapioca pearls (better than quick-cooking tapioca and available in Asian markets), I could only find recipes using quick-cooking tapioca.

This prompted me to take a new look at our standard cookbooks. Are they still serving our needs?

I chose to examine "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" by Marion Cunningham (Knopf: 1990), "Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook" (Meredith: 1989), "The New Doubleday Cookbook" by Jean Anderson and Elaine Hanna (Doubleday: 1985, reissued with a new cover in 1990), "Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (Macmillan: 1975) and "The New Basics Cookbook" by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman: 1989).

To get an idea how well these standard cookbooks addressed basic cooking questions, I first compared how each of them treated flank steak, and their recipes for Spanish rice, potato salad and split pea soup.

I was surprised at the enormous diversity I found, even as to basic cooking questions. How do you make Spanish rice (an American invention)? Do you bake it, steam it or stove-top cook it? Do you make it with bacon? With mushrooms? With cheese or cheese sauce? The answer depends on which standard cookbook you use.

It was the same with all the recipes I compared. I was bewildered and felt like the TV host of a game show, asking, "Will the real split pea soup please stand up?"

I also compared the books with attention to baking, ethnic recipes and microwave cookery.

"Better Homes and Gardens" always had a good baking section and still does, especially with its coffee cakes. "Joy of Cooking," the oldest of the books reviewed here, is in need of revision but still has some excellent cookie recipes.

I do hope, though, that I'll find a recipe in any of the standards for the wonderfully moist, plain old butter cake I remember from my youth. I'm sure a lot of young people don't even know what good cake tastes like, and I'm not talking about one of those puffed-up, full-of-air mixer recipes.

In specialized areas of microwave, vegetarian and ethnic cookery, the standards must compete with specialized cookbooks, many of them written by experts who have extensively explored their subjects and who have acquired admirable expertise that cannot be equalled by generalists.

When I want to cook ethnic food, I don't turn to the standards, because I'm not interested in Mexican recipes made with canned chiles instead of fresh and dried ones, or Jewish recipes that use meat and dairy foods together. Yet, some ethnic recipes have earned a place in American cooking (aren't pizza and tacos part of growing up in America?). Such recipes belong in the standard cookbooks, but not as watered-down adaptations.

So too with microwave cookery. Today, almost 80% of American households have microwaves, and, obviously, the authors of these cookbooks think they must pay attention to it.

I don't recommend using "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook" for microwaving, especially with vegetables, because I can point to at least half a dozen microwave specialists who have written books with excellent techniques for vegetables, none of which you will find in "Fannie Farmer." The author used the same technique with every vegetable, and in no case did she find any vegetable that the microwave does better than conventional cooking. Microwave specialists and others say otherwise.

In "The New Basics Cookbook," the authors say, "After spending so many years simmering jams, marmalades and chutneys . . . for hours, we were delighted with the fresh fruit and vegetable chutneys turned out in less than 20 minutes in the microwave . . . . It's hard now to buy a jar of mango chutney when fresh mangoes are in the market." This is a good approach, not claiming all-around microwave expertise but rather focusing on some of the highlights.

Finally, the standard cookbooks would be more useful if they included information and recipes about new foods that now are part of the contemporary American food scene: tofu, sun-dried tomatoes, sweet onions, new grains and many exotic fruits.

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