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OUR ANNUAL COOKBOOK SPECIAL

The Beauty of Simplicity

December 12, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Yes, there are too many cookbooks being published. Too many recycled low-fat ideas, too many cute books, too many recipes and not enough real writing, too much packaging and not enough passion. Still, it wasn't easy for each writer on the Times Food staff to choose just one favorite book from the year. Many worthy cookbooks are not mentioned--though we will describe several notable ones in next week's issue. What follows on the next few pages is a highly subjective list of the cookbooks that pleased us most this year.

*

If you've just remodeled your kitchen into a high-tech wonderland, do not read Viana La Place's new book lest you find yourself yearning for a serene, minimal kitchen like hers.

If you dare, you may lust for just a few wooden spoons, a heavy stone mortar and her grandmother's battered colander; for worn work surfaces, potted herbs and dry goods stored in plain Mason jars.

In "Unplugged Kitchen: A Return to the Simple, Authentic Joys of Cooking" (William Morrow, 1996, $25), the author of "Verdura" and the more recent "Panini, Bruschetta and Crostini" describes the difference between the unplugged kitchen and the plugged-in, high-tech kitchen replete with all the gadgets-of-the-moment as "the difference between walking and driving."

Amen.

This, La Place's most personal book, is more a statement of a philosophy of eating than an ordinary cookbook. In her measured, sensible voice, she encourages readers to taste their way through a recipe. She reminds us that ingredients are always different; one peach is sweeter than another.

And that recipes are not written in stone. "Feel and smell and sight will become your touchstones," she writes. Your hand will be the measure of flour; a pinch of salt from a saltcellar will represent a teaspoon; a larger pinch a tablespoon."

The book is charmingly designed. I love the thick cream paper, the olive green scrawl of the titles, Maria Robledo's evocative black-and-white photos, the loose line drawings inserted in the text.

In the pages of this book, she calls up the tastes that linger in her memory, offering "recipes for the seemingly rough, almost rudimentary food I almost always prefer to cook at home."

And for La Place, a first-generation American who grew up in the embrace of an Italian family, much of what she likes is Italian, the cooking of the south of Italy, with its emphasis on freshness and vibrant flavors.

So there are recipes for children's bread and milk "soup" (hot milk in a small bowl with a few drops of espresso, a little sugar and cubes of day-old Sicilian bread, to be eaten with a spoon), grilled bread with goat cheese, walnuts and a drizzle of honey. Lentils cooked with wild borage and Swiss chard, garnished with olive oil and lemon. Green tomato risotto perfumed with almonds and basil. Figs macerated in sweetened orange juice and crushed mint leaves.

She also includes anything else she happens to like--and she has exquisite taste. So she's included a version of tomato cocktail as served in America in the 1930s, old-fashioned potato and nasturtium salad and a Persian appetizer of spring herbs--just a basket of fresh wild herbs. "Eat the herbs leaf by leaf," she says, "or wrap a tender sprig or two in a piece of torn flat bread."

It's a lesson in how to eat beautifully and simply.

RED SQUASH AND BREAD SOUP

La Place writes, "Italians call winter squash zucca rossa, red squash. The best of the winter squashes do have an orange color so deep it is almost red. For this sublimely good, utterly simple soup, I use kabocha squash, freshly harvested and straight from a local farm. When cooked the flesh turns as sweet and dense as pudding. If you can't find kabocha squash, hubbard or butternut squash make worthy substitutes."

2 1/2 pounds kabocha squash

6 cups water

12 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

4 large fresh sage leaves

Fine sea salt

4 cups diced, untrimmed country bread

Grated Parmesan cheese

Cut squash in half. Scrape out seeds and fibers. Bake, cut side down, at 450 degrees until tender, about 30 minutes.

Use teaspoon to scoop out flesh. Put in soup pot and add water, garlic, sage and salt. Stir. Bring to boil, then simmer 20 minutes with lid partly off.

Add bread, cover and let rest, off heat, 5 minutes. Stir well, then cover for few more minutes.

Ladle soup into serving bowls and generously grate Parmesan cheese over top.

Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

78 calories; 127 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 18 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams protein; 2.92 grams fiber.

* Dinnerware from Pallets of Plates in South Pasadena

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