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THE COOKBOOK ISSUE

So much new to savor

At last, a fall publishing season brings a crop of truly compelling cookbooks.

November 02, 2005|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

IF you could choose only one new cookbook this fall, you might have a problem. Publishing has had a little outbreak of seriousness, and the selection of new titles is wide and deep.

Say you're looking for a taste of India, either in a light and easy recipe collection for weeknight cooking or a long and luxurious virtual journey. You might have to take both: "India With Passion" and "Mangoes & Curry Leaves."

Or you might want to explore Middle Eastern and North African cooking, either with a respectful interest in how Syrian food differs from Jordanian, or just to find some jazzy new party recipes. Again, take two: "The Arab Table" and "Moroccan Modern."

Or even, let's get greedy, you want an Italian cookbook that will either transport you to Rome or Tuscany, or give you a one-stop source book for recipes with flavors well beyond the boot. You might have to take three: "Cucina Romana," "True Tuscan" and "The Silver Spoon." And you would still be tempted by "How to Cook Italian."

Fall is always harvest season for cookbooks, with a veritable cornucopia as gift season looms. But this year publishers have something meaty for everyone, including irresistible books that will change the way you bake bread ("Dough") and approach America's new addiction ("Cheese: A Connoisseur's Guide to the World's Best").

For those who would rather ponder than saute, there is even a reissue of a 1927 French cookbook that almost makes Julia Child look breezy ("La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange").

After a long dull spell when publishing seemed to be bunkering down with fast comfort food and silly celebrities, a new awareness seems to be growing of a big wide world out there. American authors are finding subjects they can really sink their teeth into, and foreign publishers are increasingly realizing how big an untapped market there might be for books with authenticity and soul.

These are not the cookbooks you're likely to find front and center at your local Barnes & Noble, where such titles as "The Best Recipes in the World" and "In Style Parties" will probably always dominate. They are not the three food books among the top 100 bestsellers on Amazon, where a couple of television personalities hold sway. And they are certainly not the chefs' vanity productions that too often pass for serious in recipe land.

They are either buried a little deeper in stores, are on display in dedicated cookbook shops or sold online, the equalizing outlet that should be the great liberator for timid publishers everywhere.

Imports for home cooks

AFTER all, Ferran Adria's $492 cookbook is the big news in some circles, but imports aimed more at home cooks are growing. Interlink Books in Northampton, Mass., in particular has three great titles first published overseas. "Cucina Romana" is a lively little neighborhood-by-neighborhood exploration of what makes the food of Italy's biggest city so fascinating, by a writer raised near the famous Campo dei Fiori, with its amazing produce market and food shops. The recipes are a mix of the very classic (spaghetti alla carbonara) and restaurant modern (whole onions baked in sea salt). Both the food and street photography is almost like being there, without the Vespa din.

Interlink's "Moroccan Modern" is just as lavishly photographed, but it's less about a sense of place and more about a flavor profile. Written by a chef with a restaurant in Sydney, it has that singular Australian take on an ethnic cuisine: respectful of history but not afraid to mix in New World flavors.

A tortilla, for instance, is the typical baked egg dish with potatoes, but it also contains olives and harissa and is finished with a frosting of sour cream and caviar that does not exactly evoke Marrakesh. But this is just what makes "Modern" a keeper: The recipes can be integrated into a dinner party menu that does not contain a grain of couscous.

And Interlink's "India With Passion: Modern Regional Home Food," actually from Britain, is a small but vital book because the recipes are so doable, without a special trip or online search for ingredients and with an understanding of how an Indian meal is never about one dish but several. A dish such as stir-fried chicken in an exhilaratingly stinging, double-peppercorn sauce is so simple that you have the time to make the fragrant cumin rice and radish salad that take it to a higher level. Nothing is greasy or heavy, just satisfying.

Another import repackaged for Americans, by Kyle Cathie Limited, is borderline revolutionary. Not only is the basic technique for bread in "Dough" quicker, easier and less floury, but it is laid out in step-by-step color photos and on a DVD that is invaluable. The 50 variations on five essential recipes by a French baking teacher working in Britain are exemplary as well: Gruyere and cumin is just one flavor combination. Even if you give up on baguettes on your first sticky try and throw the dough into a loaf pan, you should get a loaf as good as you could buy.

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