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Paging the hot new food books

By Ray Pride

AUGUST 3, 1998:  Books about food seem so lonely in profusion on a bookstore shelf: a wildflower garden that no one's bothered to arrange, with new varieties sprouting up every week.

Memoirs always provide a patch of color. One of the season's bestsellers is New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl's "Tender at the Bone" (Random House, $23), her amusing remembrances of her eccentric family's relationships with food. While her Times reviews verge on keen sociology, she admits of her book, "Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual."

Chefs get their say as well, and "Diary of a Tuscan Chef" by Cesare Casella and Eileen Daspin (Doubleday, $35), is both heartfelt story and a recipe-filled discourse from Casella's childhood in his family restaurant in the hills of Tuscany to his current incarnation as executive chef to the rich and hungry at New York's Coco Pazzo.

Southerners are all storytellers, and food makes for some of the best tales. At first glance, L. Elisabeth Beattie's "Savory Memories" (University Press of Kentucky, $19.95) seems an elevated version of the comb-fastened junior club cookbooks mimeographed throughout the land, but her selection of evocative writings on good Southern food is filled with scenes that prompt smiles and stomach grumbles: "I only need to hear a metal spoon being stirred slowly around the bottom of a skillet and I am back in my mother's kitchen... waiting for the chipped beef and gravy she will feed my father before he goes off to the night shift at the distillery."

More sensory delights await in the seasonal panoply of scents evoked in Damon Lee Fowler's "Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches: The Southern Way of Cooking Fruits and Vegetables" (Broadway, $16). Fowler's fascinations range across the Deep South through the traditional tang and aroma of classics like fried green tomatoes and Hoppin' John, but also fresh variations such as leek spoonbread and a crispy, piquant recipe for Creole deviled new potatoes.

From down Atlanta way comes "The Flying Biscuit Cafe Cookbook" (Longstreet, $14 paper), April Moon's chronicle of her a.m. specialties that Georgians line up for. Moon's recipes bear no great revelations, but the pages sing with one cook's flair with essential comfort foods.

Vegetarian friends often complain about food writers who don't make special asides about non-meat dishes at restaurants. While they often have tattered copies of the "Moosewood Cookbook" on their kitchen counters, a book I recommended was Nava Atlas' "American Harvest," which collected corny Americana alongside a couple hundred dishes from colonial times forward. A new edition is out, "Great American Vegetarian: Traditional and Regional Recipes for the Enlightened Cook" (M. Evans, $24.95). Atlas has made the disastrous choice to update her recipes to current fitness fads, and considering the key ingredient in most of the dishes, it could be called "The Canola Oil or Margarine Cookbook." A more toothsome read is Vasantha Prasad's "Indian Vegetarian Cooking from an American Kitchen" (Random House, $18).

Prasad's abiding concerns with freshness, as well as the senses of touch and smell, saturate her accessible, direct recipes. There are always a few explosively colorful varietals about as well, usually showcasing the trendiest tastemakers of recent seasons, the kind of decadently colorful volumes that demand heavier and heavier coffee tables. One of Manhattan's more successful caterers brings out a praise-emblazoned collection of her "style" in "Pamela Morgan's Flavors: What's NEW, What's HOT, What's COOKING from New York's Premier Catering Shop" (Viking, $29.95). You can figure the circles Morgan travels in from her cover blurbs, from the likes of Gotham Bar and Grill's Alfred Portale, New York magazine's unflagging foodie Gael Greene and John Mariani, Esquire's been-there, ate-that food writer at large. Her co-writer, Michael McLaughlin, collaborated on the best-selling Silver Palate cookbook, and that catering concern is also where Morgan began her career. All this information's jammed in before you get to page one: brand names reign in contemporary publishing. It's an attractive book, but many of the dishes, such as Creamy Pink Shellfish Chowder and Veal Meatballs and Baby Carrots in Creamy Dill Sauce, seem more like nice impulse purchases while packing a picnic hamper than remarkable recipes you'd be compelled to try at home.

With more pecan-log-rolling cover blurbs from Sheila Lukins, co-author of the original Silver Palate books and, yes, the deathless Gael Greene, "Bobby Flay's From My Kitchen to Your Table" (Potter, $32.50) is even more assertively branded, but Tom Eckerle's blazingly colored photos of the work of the Food Network personality and proprietor of New York's Mesa Grill make the stomach rumble with greed and anticipation. Presentation counts, and Flay's recipes are designed for big, bold platters such as Red and Yellow Gazpacho with Grilled Sea Scallops; Honey-Rum Baked Black Beans; and one I'm dying to make, a Grilled Steak with Garlic and Hot Pepper Marinade.

And if you can't stand the heat, stay out of Jean Andrews' "The Pepper Lady's Pocket Pepper Primer" (University of Texas, $17.95). Summer's savories need just a little more heat if you believe the studies that suggest cultures in hot climates have that extra dash of fire to keep the dengue down. Hot pepper expert Jean Andrews' latest peck of facts delineates the forty-two fresh and dried forms of capsicum generally available in North American markets. Every other page is a spread of marzipan-bright pepper-porn, making these hot little babies seem as kind and shiny as baby toys. This dazzlingly complete book takes a place of pride on my shelf of hot sauces.

To clear the palate, there's the over-designed-but-information-rich "Cocktail: The Drinks Bible For the 21st Century" (Viking, $19.95), a collection of 275 drinks assembled by WIRED's website mixologist Paul Harrington and Laura Moorhead. There are annoyingly laid-out drinks histories done up like HTML screen captures, but the lively writing makes a cool companion to the likes of Mr. Boston and the drier drinks compendiums.

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