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Dueling Cookbooks, at the Count of 3

Suddenly, there are two guides to three-ingredient cooking. Whether that's a coincidence or not, the books offer very different paths to simplicity.

May 30, 1996|CANDY SAGON | THE WASHINGTON POST

Are six ingredients too many to qualify as a simple recipe?

How about five? Four? OK, OK, three.

Three measly ingredients. Wouldn't it be great if you could make a fabulous dish using only three ingredients?

Absolutely. What a great idea. That's what New York chef Rozanne Gold thought when she decided to sell an idea for a cookbook she had been carrying around in her head for four years.

Gold wanted to write a three-ingredient cookbook that used top-notch ingredients and some clever professional chef techniques to produce simple but exceptional meals. The dishes would be upscale enough to appeal to proficient cooks but simple enough to tempt beginners.

After talking to two interested publishers, Gold sold her idea to the one that offered more money. But the publisher that offered her less ended up publishing a three-ingredient cookbook anyway, releasing it within weeks of Gold's.

A coincidence? Naw, just the cookbook publishing biz, where publicity is crucial and timing can be everything.

In this case, when HarperCollins didn't get Gold's book, the publisher jump-started a similar proposal its editors said they had been mulling over from an outside editor-book packager. That outside editor then made a deal with a Philadelphia writer to put together a three-ingredient cookbook in just six months.

The result: Within a month of one another this spring, Gold's "Recipes 1-2-3" (Viking, $22.95) and Andrew Schloss' "Cooking With Three Ingredients" (HarperCollins, $17) were published, and food writers have been comparing and contrasting them ever since.

A spokesman for HarperCollins says there's no mystery or controversy about what happened. "HarperCollins received both proposals at the same time. We bought one over the other and published it in a timely fashion," says Steven Sorrentino, vice president and director of publicity. "That's it in a nutshell."

But a cookbook editor at another publisher says the "timely fashion" part of the deal, in a notoriously pokey industry, was deliberate. "It's a clever way to ride the coattails of the publicity for Rozanne's book. If [Schloss'] book had been published six months before or after, it wouldn't have gotten nearly the attention."

As it is, the attention has been somewhat less than desirable. Although New York foodies have gushed over New Yorker Gold's clearly more sophisticated book, Schloss' book, aimed at the shortcut-happy home cook, has been savaged.

The New York Times dismissed the book in two paragraphs, saying some of the recipes "defile every meaning of taste." Newsday gave Schloss a single sentence, calling the book's reliance on convenience products a throwback to the 1950s. Newsweek magazine accused Schloss of being "so happily wedded to packaged foods that some of the recipes might have sprung from the test kitchens at Kraft or Campbell."

Other media have been gentler. The Baltimore Sun refrained from making any judgment on the book, opting to interview Schloss (as well as Gold) and to include two of his recipes that don't call for convenience foods. The Associated Press food writer commented on the 1950s-like recipes but added that "many [of the recipes] use ingredients that 1950s moms never considered, like jasmine rice, black-bean sauce, fresh ginger and coconut milk."

Although both authors limited themselves to three ingredients (salt, pepper and water don't count), their books couldn't be more different in the types of recipes they include.

Schloss, a Philadelphia cooking teacher, has co-written three other cookbooks, including an easy-baking book called "One-Pot Cakes" (William Morrow, 1995). He says he was asked to do a book for "everyday middle America," one that would appeal to cooks who don't mind using convenience products like canned soups and bottled salad dressing.

Three months into writing the book, he learned that Gold also was doing a three-ingredient cookbook, but, he says, "I knew that the two books would be completely different. My editor and I talked about this. The feeling was if [my] book was too esoteric in ingredients or flavors, the concept wouldn't appeal to the right people."

Although he includes some upscale recipes, such as fresh tuna with caramelized Vidalia onions and mashed potatoes with celeriac, most of the recipes are closer to the kind he recently prepared for a television show in Dallas: Baked Hot Lips Jalapen~o Chicken, in which skinless chicken parts are marinated in jalapen~o ranch dip, coated with corn-bread stuffing mix and baked.

He also includes such pedestrian combinations as ground-turkey meatloaf made with ranch dressing and corn bread stuffing mix, as well as a vile-sounding sauce that combines condensed tomato soup, grape jelly and lemonade concentrate.

His recipes that come closer to hitting the mark include spicy grilled jumbo shrimp marinated in Old Bay seasoning and yogurt.

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