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The Very Best Cookbooks of 2004

Every year we review dozens of good cookbooks to find the great ones. Here's a preview of our picks for the next edition of F&W's "Best of the Best."

Marcella Says

By Marcella Hazan ($30)
"When I demonstrate a recipe to a small class," says Italian cooking legend Marcella Hazan, "I alternate between two voices, the instructor's and the friendly experienced counselor's." Both warm-yet-authoritative voices are here, in a fascinating book inspired largely by the intimate master classes she taught in Venice for nearly 20 years. She is decisive, whether the subject is matching pasta shape with sauce ("Long, thin strands—spaghettini and linguine—ought to be your first and possibly only choice to carry sauces that are cooked in olive oil and served without cheese") or using just the right amount of garlic ("The unbalanced use of garlic is the single greatest cause of failure in would-be Italian cooking"). And of course, the recipes, like Shrimp Braised with Tomato, Chili Pepper, and Capers, and Spicy Beef Meatballs with Bell Peppers, work marvelously well.

All About Braising

By Molly Stevens ($35)
Slow cooking may seem out of step with our fast-paced world, but it doesn't have to be. Braising won't produce dinner in 30 minutes, but once the ingredients are in the pot, as Molly Stevens points out, they require remarkably little attention from the cook. The recipes—both traditional braises, such as the delicious Short Ribs Braised in Porter Ale with Maple Rosemary Glaze, and unexpected ones, like Braised Whole Chicken with Bread Stuffing & Bacon—promise superb home cooking.

Breath of a Wok

By Grace Young and Alan Richardson ($35)
If your new wok imparts a metallic taste to your dinner, use it to stir-fry some Chinese chives in pork fat and the problem will disappear. This new homage to wok cooking, the follow-up to Young's award-winning The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen, is both inspiring and refreshingly practical. The 125 excellent recipes for dishes like juicy, delicate steamed Scallop Siu Mai Spring Moon dumplings and Sweet and Sour Chicken prove the wok's versatility, and the photographs demonstrate its beauty.

Go Fish

By Laurent Tourondel and Andrew Friedman ($35)
Laurent Tourondel, an F&W Best New Chef 1998, anticipates his soon-to-open New York City restaurant, BLT Fish, with an appealing volume. This isn't a cookbook you're likely to use on a busy weeknight, but it's perfect for weekends when you want to spend some time in the kitchen. Although some of the recipes are complicated, every seafood lover will find something here, from the smoky Corn and Haddock Chowder, made with smoked haddock, to the creamy Lemon-Crab Risotto with Grilled Asparagus.

Fresh Food Fast

By Peter Berley and Melissa Clark ($35)
The subtitle of this book says it all: Delicious, Seasonal Vegetarian Meals in Under an Hour. Peter Berley—who used to be the chef at Angelica Kitchen in New York City—has put together 48 quick, flavorful three-course meals (12 per season) that are dominated, he says, "by foods that are relatively low on the food chain." Each menu comes complete with a shopping list, an equipment list and a game plan. Berley uses interesting ingredients in unexpected ways. One summer menu: Pita Pizza with Green Olives, Monterey Jack and Chopped Salad, paired with Pan-Seared Summer Squash with Garlic and Mint. Berley's modern sensibility carries through from the recipes to the eye-catching design.

Barefoot in Paris

By Ina Garten ($35)
Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa books have perfected a fail-safe formula: easy, appealing recipes that are just sophisticated enough to make the results seem special. In her latest book, Garten gives her own twist to French bistro classics like Provençal Vegetable Soup and Filet of Beef au Poivre. The beef demiglace for traditional Filet of Beef is a hassle, she says, so why not leave it out? The results are excellent either way. Garten's recipes are delicious, from the tangy Blue Cheese Soufflé to the hearty Lentil Sausage Soup, and they work.

Bouchon

By Thomas Keller with Jeffrey Cerciello ($50)
"It's easy to make foie gras and truffles taste good. But how do you combine lettuce, salt, vinegar, and oil in a way that is elegant and exquisite?" That's how Thomas Keller, the chef and owner of Bouchon and the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Per Se in New York City, introduces his book on bistro classics. What makes his onion soup, quiche Lorraine and roast chicken work, Keller argues, is precise technique, such as cutting the perfect-size lardons for boeuf bourguignon. The gorgeous photography by Deborah Jones and the hefty price make Bouchon seem like a coffee-table book, but it belongs on your kitchen counter—it's a volume to cook with. Admittedly, the recipes can be fussy (expect subrecipes), but they're enormously satisfying, both to make and to eat.

Rick Stein's Complete Seafood

By Rick Stein ($40)
Stein, the proprietor of the Seafood Restaurant and the Padstow Seafood School in Cornwall, England, is a culinary celebrity in Britain, with two popular cookbooks and several television cooking shows to his credit. In this comprehensive guide, he takes on seafood from around the world. Both a cookbook and a reference, it's divided into three parts. First come more than 80 pages of clear step-by-step photos for such tasks as filleting fish and removing meat from a cooked lobster. The second section contains Stein's easy-to-follow recipes like the Braised Ling (cod) with Lettuce, Peas and Crisp Smoked Pancetta. To ease shopping, Stein offers alternative fish for many recipes. The final section includes descriptions of seafood families and tips for cooking them, variations in names, a table that classifies fish and shellfish by common and Latin names, and illustrations ranging from barramundi to gooseneck barnacles.

The Weekend Baker

By Abigail Johnson Dodge ($30)
Abigail Johnson Dodge understands that there are some days when you need a quick dessert and others when you want something spectacular. That realization is behind this book's unusual—and sensible—structure. The recipes are organized according to how long it takes to make them: "Baker's Express" (quick recipes), "Baking in Stages" (easy recipes broken down into steps) and "Productions" (showstoppers put together from simple components). Whether you're looking for a speedy dessert—say, Crunchy Berry Summer Crisp—or an elegant finish to a dinner party, such as Layered Chocolate Mousse Cake, you'll find it here.

Pure Chocolate

By Fran Bigelow with Helene Siegel ($35)
Fran Bigelow has owned the celebrated Fran's Chocolates in Seattle for 20 years, but this is her first cookbook. A self-described purist, she says she pares away sugar and other ingredients that might "distract" from "the pure, clean flavor of chocolate" in desserts that range from soft, chewy Pure Chocolate Chunk Cookies to an insanely rich Princess Pudding made with semisweet chocolate and topped with Cappuccino Whipped Cream. Along with recipes that run the gamut from easy to tricky, you'll find inspiring photos, sources, lists of equipment and useful advice on working with chocolate.

Published December 2004
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