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Holiday Cookbooks

Stoveside Reading

December 19, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

In last week's issue of Food, we described our favorite cookbooks of the year. But that list left out several excellent books. Here are a few more good books for giving--and for keeping.

--LAURIE OCHOA

*

"Rogers Gray Italian Country Cookbook," by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. (Random House, $40; first published in England as "The River Cafe Cookbook" in 1995)

I must have a zillion Italian cookbooks, yet I find myself thumbing through the pages of this new book from the chefs of London's River Cafe with what I can only call lust. The ideas are terrific, and the photos, which depict restaurant cooking and dishes that haven't been teased into elaborate still-lifes, make you want to run out to the farmers' market and stay home all weekend to cook. If that's not a good cookbook, I don't know what is.

There's just one teensy problem: Not all of the recipes work as written. An experienced cook can pretty much suss out any potential problems by reading through the recipe and adjusting accordingly (say, proceeding cautiously with such generous amounts of butter, oil and cream). Even a novice cook, though, should be able to guess that a 1/2 cup dried oregano in a recipe serving six (bucatini with fresh and dried oregano) might just--yikes!--be a tad too much.

But it's so refreshing to read a cookbook that isn't trying to masquerade as low-fat or wholesome. Instead, it offers a take-no-prisoners attitude toward flavor. Bring on the handfuls of Parmesan, dollops of cream and butter, more mascarpone and pancetta. The blueprint for a series of glorious meals is bound into these pages.

What do I want to make next? Chickpeas with Swiss chard, spaghetti al limone (with basil, lemon and Parmesan), pan-roasted squab with chestnuts, grilled peaches with amaretto and blood orange sorbet.

The recipe (and accompanying photo) of patate al forno con pancetta is worth the price of the book, although I don't think the dish (potatoes cooked with pancetta, garlic, sage leaves, olive oil, cream and grated Parmesan) really needs an entire cup of cream; a third of that seems to do nicely.

What's frustrating is that some of the most alluring dishes are out of reach. Where, I ask you, am I going to find fresh anchovies and sardines, cavolo nero (the long black cabbage of Tuscany), Modena's richly marbled cotechino sausage, wild partridge or hare, or a whole veal shank? Well, I can dream.

*

"Sauces: Sweet and Savory, Classic and New" by Michel Roux, (Rizzoli, $35)

I know cooks who have mastered a formidable array of culinary techniques--even puff pastry--whose knees buckle at the idea of creating a sauce. This deceptively slim volume, which contains techniques and recipes for more than 200 sauces, may provide some courage. The clear writing and directions from Michel Roux, the distinguished three-star chef of the Waterside Inn in Bray, England, make the mysteries of sauce seem less daunting. And maybe even fun. "Cooking a sauce intoxicates the senses of smell, taste and sight," Roux writes.

Spectacular photos make the book the closest thing there is to a hands-on lesson in the art of the saucier. Close-ups reveal exactly what the sauce is supposed to look and feel like at every stage along the way. Roux takes readers through the building blocks of a sauce from the stock to roux (white, blond and brown). When he discusses vinaigrettes, he gives some lovely examples: lavender vinaigrette flavored with flowers of fresh lavender, thyme and a teaspoon of honey. Or another made with vinegar steeped with a few Ceylon tea leaves.

To accompany shellfish, he folds in sea urchin roe and, in summer, he makes a mayonnaise-based sauce verte that looks like spring itself. For pesto, he uses a mortar and pestle. There are chapters on flavored butters, vegetable coulis, hollandaises, beurre blancs, sabayon, white sauces, brown sauces --all of which I became reacquainted with in the pages of this book.

Throughout the text, Roux sprinkles tips, both sensible and intriguing. An example: "Shallots become bitter after chopping, so rinse them under cold water before using in a sauce." Now, that I didn't know.

Already, "Sauces" has become an indispensable reference.

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