The best food books always enjoy repeat business

December 21, 1997|By Rob Kasper

WHEN IT COMES TIME to recommend new food books, I generally employ the same principle I rely on when I have to pick winning dishes in a recipe contest. Namely, that once is not enough. To be a winner, it has to be able to draw me back to it several times. One-shot wonders can provide an interesting evening, but overall, I prefer a book or dish that has some staying power, one that I can use again and again.

Among the mounds of new food books that I tried out during the past year, there are three that I rate as repeaters. These are books that I have no trouble recommending as holiday gifts, either to someone else, or to yourself.

The first book that comes to mind is the "Steak Lover's Cookbook" (Workman, $13.95) by William Rice. As a confirmed carnivore who spends a lot of his spare time standing over a fiery charcoal grill -- gas grills are for sissies -- I thought I knew everything there was to know about cooking steak. This book taught me new tricks.

It taught me to salt the steak as it cooked, not before. That way you get the pleasing flavor of salted meat, without drying the meat out. It taught me two ways to tell when a steak was ready to come off the fire. One was the touch method, a technique I am still working on, in which you poke the steak with your finger, and when the meat feels springy and slightly resistant, you know it is medium-rare.

Another is the teardrop method, in which you look at the beads of moisture, or teardrops, that appear on the top of a grilled steak. Since learning that red tears mean the meat is rare, and pink tears signal medium-rare, I have amazed friends and family members by presenting them pieces of perfectly cooked steak without return trips to the grill.

Moreover, I often use the book when we are serving potatoes for supper. The recipe for steak-fries -- hunks of potato covered with salt, pepper, cumin and paprika, baked in the oven -- has become a favorite of our kids.

In addition to grilling, another way I spend my spare time is baking bread. A book that I heartily recommend for anyone else with this habit is Charlie van Over's "The Best Bread Ever" (Broadway Books, $27.50).

Two years ago, I experimented with van Over's bread-making technique, mixing dough in a food processor. Since then I have not been able to stop myself. Now, part of my domestic duty is making the weekly supply of bread for the family. In addition to the food processor, I use my hands, the oven (bread machines are for the timid) and van Over's recipes. Following the instructions in van Over's book, I have branched out to bagel-making. During the holidays, I plan to use van Over's recipes to explore the world of rye breads.

The last book I recommend for gift-giving is a book for eaters who are baseball fans. It is "Ballpark Vacations," by Bruce Adams and Margaret Engel (Fodor's Travel Publications Inc., $16.50). This Montgomery County couple took their two kids to ** major- and minor-league baseball parks around the country and made note of the local attractions, including unusual ballpark eats.

I flipped through this paperback several times this summer. One night last August, inspired by the book, I took one of my kids to the Arthur W. Perdue Stadium in Salisbury for a double-header between the Delmarva Shorebirds and the Hagerstown Suns. Sitting behind home plate, I ate a grilled chicken sandwich, made, I presume, from local chickens. I even tried a sandwich made with scrapple, a regional delicacy made from some of the least popular parts of local pigs.

HTC Even sitting in this joyful regional setting -- behind home plate on a glorious summer night -- I couldn't finish the scrapple sandwich. Fortunately, I was able to wash away the residual scrapple flavor with a Maryland-made Blue Ridge beer.

The beer restored my taste buds and reminded me that good books can lead to good eats.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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