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Book Smart

A bibliophile reviews the season's best selections

I have shelves jammed tight with Sicilian, Thai and Basque cookbooks. I have picture albums of Paris restaurants and pocket-size guides to making muffins, as well as cozy memoirs from long-ago cooks and stern, get-rid-of-the-fat prescriptions from important doctors (with recipes, inevitably, from the doctors' wives). Do I cook? Now and then.

So, if we Americans aren't cooking, why do we buy so many cookbooks?

I asked a bookshop owner that question. "Vicarious travel," he said. "We'd rather read Paula Wolfert than go to Turkey. It's safer, it's cheaper and it takes a lot less time."

I asked a publishing executive. "Fantasy," she said. "When we read recipes we cook without dirtying the kitchen and eat without gaining weight. Cookbooks are like diet books. We buy them so we don't have to use them."

And it's just because they satisfy so many different needs that cookbooks make such good gifts. At this time of year, when those of us who love reading cookbooks get to share our favorites with our friends, we're lucky to have an exceptionally strong list to choose from.

Americans eat out so much that it's not surprising to see so many chef's books again this season. What is surprising is that many of them are easy to cook from. My favorite is the Café Boulud Cookbook ($35; Scribner) by Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan. Boulud, possibly the best chef in Manhattan, feeds an impressive group of customers at his restaurants Daniel and Café Boulud and with his Feast & Fêtes caterers. The menu at Café Boulud, like the book based on it, has four sections, one traditional, one seasonal, one vegetarian and one exotic (which to a French chef means gravlax and gazpacho).

I'm sure it's his classical training that lets Boulud translate such varied and elegant dishes into recipes we can use. Because he knows the bones of a dish, he can deconstruct it and simplify it for the home cook. There's not one page in the book that made me snort, "Who's he kidding?" as I often do when I'm reading books by chefs who forget that most of us don't have veal stocks, tamis (a drum sieve found in all French kitchens) and sous chefs. And I'm thrilled to have a recipe for tarte tropézienne, a puff of sweet brioche filled with pastry cream and powdered with sugar that's everywhere in France but nearly impossible to find here.

Pastry chefs are the technicians of the kitchen, perfectionists with a passion for detail and highly developed small-motor skills. If that sounds like you, take a look at Simply Sensational Desserts ($35; Broadway) by François Payard. Payard, chef and owner of New York City's Payard Pâtisserie and Bistro, is Boulud's equal at communicating with home cooks. Of course, it helps that his book has no chocolate pianos, no spun sugar cases: in fact, not even edible marzipan animals. Just good stuff to eat.

Although some of his pastries are simple, this isn't Brownies 101. But the directions are as clear and the attitude as encouraging as those you'd get from a good science teacher. Once you master a few basics like genoise, sweet tart dough and pastry cream, you'll be equipped to make everything from Payard's super-voluptuous milk-and-dark-chocolate mousse cake and delicate apple-almond raspberry tart to his warm praline soufflé.

Many of the best new chef's cookbooks come from California. One of the handsomest is the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook ($34; HarperCollins) by Alice Waters. Waters, as if you didn't know, is the Berkeley restaurateur who became legendary when she encouraged local farmers to grow organic ingredients for her restaurant. All she wanted, she claims, was to be able to cook with the kind of produce she had used in France. What she accomplished may have been a gastronomic revolution.

But this is a cookbook, and I found it both enchanting and infuriating. Enchanting because the recipes are the French and American classics I love, like goat cheese salad, country terrine with pistachios and grilled skirt steak. (First-time visitors to Chez Panisse are often surprised at how traditional the menu is.) And infuriating because unless you live in California, you're just not going to get excellent tomatoes for an heirloom salad in November, and if you shop at a supermarket, you can't cook with foraged morels. I'm second to none in my admiration for Waters's purity of vision, but most of us have to work with what we can get.

If Waters is a California goddess, what are we to make of Rose Pistola? She was the bar owner who gave her name and recipes to an Italian restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach and, ultimately, to The Rose Pistola Cookbook ($35; Broadway) by Reed Hearon and Peggy Knickerbocker. Pistola, incidentally, wasn't her real name: it's the affectionate nickname her waiter husband was given when he went after a cook with a pistol.

The book is a totally lovable celebration of the kind of food we've come to call Cal-Ital: simply prepared recipes, many of them from the days when North Beach was home to Ligurian immigrants, and all of them thrifty and chosen with a sense of the seasons. I recommend the green garlic soup and the spaghetti with clams and broccoli rabe. And if you want to have a near-religious experience, make the stuffed focaccia. That's what Rose Pistola named her thin pizza stuffed with creamy Teleme cheese and topped with prosciutto, mushrooms and--if you can get them--shavings of white truffle.

Also Cal-Ital, but on a totally different level, is Season by Season at Tra Vigne: California Wine Country Cuisine ($35; Chronicle) by Michael Chiarello with Penelope Wisner. The beautiful pictures made me want to visit Chiarello's restaurant in St. Helena; the seasonality made me envy all Napa Valley cooks; and the recipes, especially his mother's meatball-stuffed peppers, his grandmother's gnocchi with tomato sauce and other family dishes, sent me to the kitchen. Possibly because Chiarello learned to cook from an Italian mother, his recipes, while always interesting, are unintimidating. Even recipes as untraditional and chef-like as pasta with corn and dried tomatoes or marinated-and-fried onion salad are written so that you feel you can do them.

On the other hand, The French Laundry Cookbook ($50; Artisan) by Thomas Keller with Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman is the ultimate star chef's cookbook. It's beyond gorgeous, with breathtaking photos of kitchen moments: a spoon dipping into black caviar, a sauce being scraped through a sieve or a chef's finger just starting to combine the eggs and flour to make pasta. It takes you on an imagined visit to Keller's celebrated Napa Valley restaurant and tells how he became what many critics consider the best cook in America today.

But this book is hard to cook from because the recipes are so complicated. Everything that makes Keller such a dazzling chef makes him impossible to emulate, even if you do as the co-authors suggest and pick out just one part of a recipe. (Oddly enough, the book is full of the kind of kitchen lore that in a less impressive volume would be called tips.) Maybe cooking from it isn't the issue; maybe we should think of a book like this as a genre apart, an art book with images created by sushi-quality tuna and chive tips instead of oil paints and watercolors.

You can't get farther from the jewel-like perfection of Thomas Keller than The Italian Country Table ($35; Scribner) by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. Kasper is the rare writer who can be both passionate and informative. Her recipes are mostly traditional and are all from country people: chunks of Parmesan drizzled with balsamic vinegar; smashed potatoes seasoned with olive oil and chopped anchovies; chicken with peppers and olives, roasted in an oven with the heat turned down to emulate the cooling of a bread oven.

Dream travelers will envy Kasper's exploration of Italy's countryside and the harvest meals she helped make in farm kitchens. Cooks and fantasy cooks will be fascinated by her descriptions of the different ways Italians sauce their pasta, by her explanation of the principle of si sposa, or "they go together," and by the "Cook to Cook" chats that accompany many of the recipes. Check out her guide to building flavors in a tomato sauce and, even better, her assertion that some domestic canned tomatoes are just as good as San Marzanos from Italy.

A Gracious Plenty: Recipes and Recollections from the American South ($30; An Ellen Rolfes Book from Putnam) by John T. Edge is also about as far away from restaurant creations as you can get. Rolfes, a publisher of community cookbooks, collected recipes from these books dating from the Civil War to the present in order to build a picture of what makes Southern food unique. I loved the depression-era photos and the memory pieces from regional writers like Roy Blount and Reynolds Price. But most of all I loved the instructions for making old-time dishes like beignets and wilted lettuce salad, dirty rice and batter-fried pork chops. Since the recipes come from community cookbooks, I know they've been made thousands of times; I also know that the instructions will be a bit skimpy because in these circles a cook is expected to know what the finished dishes taste like.

What's more, A Gracious Plenty supplies a quotation that answers the question of why we are so enamored by cookbooks even when we don't really use them in the kitchen: "Any cookbook, read in its entirety, creates its own imagined view of the world."

Irene Sax reviews inexpensive restaurants for the New York Daily News.

Published December 1999
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