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The Boston Phoenix Kitchen Tools

Cookbooks for your favorite at-home chef

By Jason Weinzimer

DECEMBER 14, 1998:  Though today's cookbooks sometimes seem more like travelogues or history books than collections of recipes, it's not because the genre is losing its focus. The recipes are more diverse, authentic, and interesting than ever before, and today's literary cookbooks may have made gourmet cooking accessible to more people. Instead of framing cooking as a difficult, highbrow task, today's cookbook authors write gushingly about the roots of their chosen cuisine, whether it hails from peasants in the latest trendy region of Italy or from their own mothers' kitchens. Though they focus on interesting flavors, they keep the techniques classic and the ingredient lists manageable. The result is more than enough creativity to expand the cooking expert's mind, with none of the jargon or near-surgical complexity that novices often associate with fine food.

One of best examples of this is Mario Batali's Simple Italian Food: Rustic Cooking from My Two Villages (Clarkson Potter, 288 pages, $30). Fans of this TV chef (Molto Mario) and New York restaurateur have an idea of what to expect before they open the book: rustic Italian food that favors brilliant simplicity over tricky techniques. Recipes such as snapper Livornese -- a one-skillet meal of fillets cooked in tomato sauce, olives, capers, and white wine -- have a depth that belies their simplicity. Batali is expert at adding spikes of fun flavor, such as orange to a lamb stew, while still keeping true to the roots of the cuisine. (The book's title refers to Borgo Cappene, a northern Italian hill town, and Greenwich Village.)

Batali's dedication to showcasing tasty ingredients such as baby octopus and broccoli rabe delivers electrifying results, often kicked up with interesting tapenades and dressings. His turkey breasts stuffed with pears, chestnuts, and rosemary are wonderfully rustic, as is his not-to-be-missed roast chicken. Ingeniously stuffed with flavorful but inedible rinds of Parmigiano-Reggiano, it's a heady, delicious tribute to frugal country cooking.

Another Food Network star, David Rosengarten, has also created a stellar cookbook. Taste: One Palate's Journey Through the World's Greatest Dishes (Random House, 384 pages, $45 hardcover, $29.95 paperback) is a borderline-compulsive guide to the perfect everything: perfect Thai chicken soup with coconut, perfect barbecued ribs, perfect Dover sole.

It sounds like a stuffy, almost arrogant approach, but Rosengarten's tone is actually quite gentle and even humorous. Obsessive about the ingredients and techniques that make food taste best, he's not afraid to modify a centuries-old recipe if he thinks he can improve it. For a good example, just check out the strawberry risotto.

One of the best cookbooks for a quiet read, Taste swings between sentimental family memories and amazingly researched food history. Rosengarten's creative tactics for perfecting these dishes are often inspired, making this a great book of hints for home cooks of any level. Weighting down soft-shell crabs to make them less watery is not only unusual but works fabulously.

Of particular note is the chapter titled "12 Wines I Always Rely On." Refreshingly down-to-earth, it's another example of the pretense-free passion that makes this book so accessible and valuable to novices and experts alike.

Bistro Latino: Home Cooking Fired Up with the Flavors of Latin America (William Morrow, 288 pages, $25) brings Latin flair and family warmth to an exploration of one of today's most intriguing cuisines -- Nuevo Latino. Such highbrow Latin fare is unfortunately scarce in Boston despite the city's large Hispanic population; Rafael Palomino's cookbook (coauthored with Julia Moskin) is a handy guide to everything from pisco sours to coffee-glazed flourless chocolate cake.

Some of the dishes here, such as Honduran fish stew and duck-breast escabeche, might sound challenging to shop for, but the ingredients are surprisingly accessible. Most supermarkets stock everything from chipotles to yuca these days, and Nuevo Latino cuisine draws as much on French techniques as on Hispanic flavors. Citrus and exotic fruits, cilantro, and even vinegar keep dishes sprightly, and the seafood section is one of the most useful around. Dessert recipes for caramelized ice cream and passion-fruit flan, among others, are mind-expanding. In an early chapter, Palomino details simple salsas and sauces that work as well with sirloin as they do with swordfish. It's a fine example of why this book works -- recipes manage to be both instructional and inspiring. City cooks in particular will enjoy Palomino's approach, which makes expert use of stovetop techniques and ingredients to re-create the clean, bright flavors of an open grill.

Best of the Best: The Best Recipes from the Best Cookbooks of the Year (American Express Publishing, 320 pages, $29.95) is the "greatest hits" of cookbooks -- a sampler of 35 publications chosen by the editors of Food & Wine. Plenty of cooking heavyweights are represented -- Marcella Hazan, Pierre Franey, Good Housekeeping, Joy of Cooking -- along with plenty of less well-known topics (ever read a book on Mennonite cooking?).

Thanks to page layouts and graphics that reproduce those of the original volumes, aficionados get an interesting preview of some great books -- sidebars, tips, and all. Best of the Best is no replacement for a cookbook collection: it's a bit short on the non-Western cuisines, and because it is laid out by sales category (books by chefs, bestsellers, vegetarian) rather than by cuisine, it may be a bit impractical for the novice who just wants to find out how to roast pork. Still, this is a fine tool that will surely prompt cooks to acquire a few of its brethren for their shelves.

Jason Weinzimer plans to spend the holidays watching the Food Network.

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