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The Boston Phoenix The Joy of Cookbooks

Jazzed-up basics, Italian inspirations, vegetarian adventures, and the reincarnation of a classic.

By Sally Sampson

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  As the author of four cookbooks and the reviewer of countless others, I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at, thinking about, reading, and cooking out of these volumes. If the shelf life of most cookbooks is roughly equal to that of a gallon of milk, the 1997 batch is full of exceptions to the rule. Chatty, charming, informative, and personal, these are destined to become classics; even if you don't buy them to give them away, put them on your own wish list. They are as delightful to read as they are to cook from.

I wish that I had written Cook Something: Simple Recipes and Sound Advice to Bring Good Food into Your Fabulous Lifestyle (Macmillan, $19.95 paper). Author Mitchell Davis, the director of publications at the James Beard House, obviously had a blast assembling this compendium of basic information and classic recipes covering every nationality, course, and time period. The dishes that he guides readers through include pancakes, cream puffs, lemon-parmesan dip, leg of lamb, guacamole, chicken soup, chicken paprikash, falafel burgers, and Meat Loaf to Be Proud Of (now, that's a feat). This is a great book to give a twentysomething beginner or someone who is experienced but needs some interesting new recipes.

Marcella Hazan has been called the godmother of Italian cooking in America, and her newest book, Cucina Marcella (HarperCollins, $35), inspires. Although the most obvious audience is the experienced cook, there are enough basic dishes here for the intrigued novice. Hazan wrote Cucina Marcella to explain what, how, and why she cooks. Trained as a biologist, she had stayed out of the kitchen until she got married; she cooked and still cooks to please her husband, and although that may no longer be PC, the culinary result is quite wonderful. It's the perfect volume to use as a learning guide, the way housewives in the '50s and '60s used Julia Child's books. After reading it, one wants to invite her over -- or get right to work on the recipes, including risotto with red cabbage and pancetta, Simplest Leek and Chickpea Soup, Fish in Crazy Water, mussel and basil sauce for pasta, and radicchio and finocchio (fennel) sautéed in olive oil. Try one recipe a week, whether to please yourself or someone else.

Vegetarian Planet(Harvard Common Press, $29.95), by local chef and author Didi Emmons, may be a vegetarian's dream come true, but it is also a great book for anyone who wants something interesting to serve next to (or instead of) a big hunk o' protein. The range of recipes is huge, including soups, sandwiches, burgers, stews, risottos, and pizzas so inventive and delicious that even the most hard-core carnivore will not notice the lack of meat. Although Emmons is an accomplished and inventive chef, her recipes are never time-consuming, inaccessible, or overly exotic.

For the first time in 22 years, The Joy of Cooking has been revised -- which makes The All New All-Purpose Joy of Cooking (Simon & Schuster, $30) a great gift for anyone who has the old edition, and a must for anyone who doesn't. I literally can't imagine a cooking life without the original Joy, and now that the new one is out, I can't imagine not owning it, either. The original Joy was written by a housewife whose innate culinary prowess was, to put it kindly, lacking. But she knew how to do something with almost every basic ingredient, which made her book an invaluable reference resource. The new Joy is that and more: it contains 2500 recipes -- some old, some new -- and draws on the talents of many well-known and revered chefs and food writers, including such local figures as Chris Schlesinger, Jody Adams, John Willoughby, and Nina Simonds. One caveat: it is a utilitarian and not particularly pretty book, so try giving it along with cookie cutters and spices, or wrap it with extraordinarily beautiful and festive paper.

Sally Sampson's cookbook collection is 1000 strong and still growing.

Sally Sampson doesn't recommend her own cookbook on this page, but we can't resist. The Olives Table (Simon & Schuster, $32), which Sampson cowrote with Olives chef Todd English (photographs by Carl Tremblay), gives the home cook insight into the kitchen artistry that has made English one of the country's premier chefs. The book makes the most complex meal easy (or at least comprehensible), and English provides entertaining (and enlightening) anecdotes along the way. Best of all, the recipes really work. This is passionate food.

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