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The year's best cookbooks

By David Valdes Greenwood

DECEMBER 28, 1999: 

This has been a great year for cookbooks from favorite chefs and new stars alike. That means great choices for every kind of foodie on your gift list, from the results-oriented cookbook reader to the romantic who prefers a literary approach.

The biggest splash in the cookbook world this year was actually a title released at the end of last year. How To Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, by Mark Bittman (Macmillan), won the culinary equivalent of two Oscars in one year: a James Beard Award and a Julia Child Award. What makes this even more impressive is that it's a cookbook entirely without glitz, offered up as a useful tool rather than a dazzling display of a chef's achievements. Think of it as a Joy of Cooking for the coming millennium: it contains 1500 recipes, indexed by ingredient and speed. In each section, Bittman offers introductory information about the nature of a particular type of food and the most basic methods of preparing it; then, in clear and concise language, he offers variations on that base (nine versions of a muffin, for instance, or eight variations on a butter cookie).

The heavy tome also includes a cook's glossary that covers everything from adzuki beans to zest. And, in a humble touch, Bittman provides a bibliography of 50 other cookbooks he'd "rather not live without," a reminder that no one chef has the last word on food. What he does try to offer is an encouraging word, carefully walking the reader through dishes as diverse as ambrosia and simmered flounder. One of our favorites is his recipe for shrimp, grilled or broiled. Described as "the kind of dish that makes people eat more than they should," it's a summer party favorite that takes only minutes to make. That combination of simplicity and success has made him popular with readers of "The Minimalist," his column in the New York Times.

If you love elegant writing as much as you enjoy food, you cannot do better than The Cook and the Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside, by Amanda Hesser (W.W. Norton). Hesser's first book shows the same skills that have earned her fans as a Dining In/Dining Out writer for the Times. Her voice is warm and lyrical, and her enthusiastic preparation suggestions make even homely ingredients (e.g., Brussels sprouts) sound enchanting (those sprouts are glazed with walnut oil and red wine). Best yet, she has quite a story to tell.

Hesser spent a year cooking for a chateau in Burgundy, where she realized that to succeed she must forge ties to the taciturn gardener, Milbert. As the seasons passed, he opened up to her, yielding charming stories; once, he climbed a tree and shook the branches to shower her with the plums she wanted for baking. Their friendship fundamentally altered the way she cooks. She became a champion of seasonal ingredients, and her cookbook is organized that way: we toasted summer with her wonderful beet-orange soup and welcomed autumn with warm potato-leek salad with pistou. The recipes and the prose alike are transporting.

Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home (Knopf), the meeting of two legendary culinary minds, is the companion volume to the new PBS series starring Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. Color-coded by chef (oatmeal for him, mint for her), it offers two (often opposing) opinions on all the true classics of French cuisine, from mussels to pâté to brioche. Gorgeous color photos include action shots of Julia gleefully wielding a huge knife on a turkey and Jacques using a straw to blow up a papillote packet.

One of the joys of the book is the good-natured dialogue running along the borders of each page, reflecting their cooking personalities. While Jacques offers tips on how to make "the kind of omelet you would be served in a three-star restaurant," Julia (our hero!) proudly announces that one can "cover flaws [in an omelet] with a well-placed sprig of parsley" -- we used his ingredients and her cover-up. The recipes are mouthwatering, and the dinner conversation has never been better.

If the idea of cookbook-as-manifesto appeals to you, the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook (HarperCollins) may be up your alley. Author Alice Waters, the mother of California cuisine, has long championed a regional network of small organic farms that provide ingredients for her celebrated restaurant. This cookbook features recipes from the restaurant's upstairs café, which serves foods from Catalonia, Campania, and Provence. Waters's tone tends toward the polemic as she tries to recruit you to go organic, but the effect is softened by the gorgeous illustrations of David Lance Goines, whose previous work for Waters has been displayed at the Smithsonian. And her quite manageable recipes may just win you over to her philosophy of letting ingredients shine. Baked goat cheese with garden lettuces . . . soupe au pistou . . . she's warmed our kitchen already.


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