The Complete Cook With his latest, cookbook author Mark Bittman provides the answers to basic questions about food preparation.

November 11, 1998|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

We've had ethnic cookbooks, regional cookbooks, appetizer and dessert cookbooks, and books about a particular kind of food - soup, say, or salsa. But in the past few years, there has been a mini-trend developing for compendium cookbooks.

These are the encyclopedias of cooking, the ones that tell you how to prepare everything from soup to nuts, from asparagus to zabaglione. The new ones are aimed at those baby boomers and others who eschewed cooking when they were growing up, and now are scrambling to learn.

"People haven't learned to cook since between when I learned to cook and now," said Mark Bittman, the 48-year-old food journalist, editor and cookbook author whose latest book is "How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food" (Macmillan, 1998, $25).

And that lack of cooking skill, in his view, is a shame.

"I'm not a super-passionate person, but in the last few years, I've developed almost a mission: I want people to cook. I want them to cook, and I want them to eat together."

Thus from Bittman's book you can learn to make lamb medallions with shallots, tarragon and red wine - and you can learn to make basic popcorn. Real, not microwaved, popcorn. You can learn to make Linzer torte or simple buttered peas. Or how to de-beard a mussel or chop an onion.

"It really is a basic book," said Bittman, who was in town recently to promote the book. "Two different people said to me, 'It's so great you told how to make popcorn.' "

Bittman's book is one of those addressing "a real need for getting our most basic cooking questions addressed," said Lisa Ekus, whose Hatfield, Conn., firm specializes in publicity for cookbook authors.

Others that have come out in recent years - some of which are newly revised - are: "The New Joy of Cooking," by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker (Scribner, 1997, $30); "The Dean & DeLuca Cookbook," by David Rosengarten with Joel Dean and Giorgio DeLuca (Random House, 1996, $35); "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," by Marion Cunningham (Knopf, 1996, $30); and "The Woman's Day Cookbook," by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley and the editors of Woman's Day (Viking, 1995, $24.95).

In addition, a pair of recently revised books offer compendium breadth with a professional spin: "The New Making of a Cook," by Madeleine Kamman (William Morrow, 1997, $40) and "On Cooking," by Sarah Labensky and Alan M. Hause (Prentice Hall, 1998, $49.95).

Ekus said the compendium books are needed not just for the boomers but for a whole new generation of cooks in their 20s and 30s - because cooking has changed in the 47 years since the first edition of "The Joy Of Cooking" appeared, or the 102 years since Fannie Farmer published "The Boston Cooking School Cook Book."

"The old standbys that I learned to cook from are decades old," Ekus said. "The new books are updated with all the new products that are in the market, and with all the new techniques," such as grilling and stir-frying, that have become popular.

Bittman said, "The old 'Joy' and the other cookbooks were about cooking from the first half of the century, a time when most American food that was codified and written down was French. Now French is just one influence among many - actually one influence among secondary influences, since Italian [cuisine] has become so dominant."

David Styrmish, president of Jessica's Biscuit, a mail-order bookseller based in Newton, Mass., said compendiums are usually pretty good sellers, partly because they make great gifts. The recent compendiums have been extremely popular, he said.

However, the company's current No. 1 seller is Bittman's "How to Cook Everything." Interestingly, the No. 2 seller is "Jean-Georges," a book Bittman collaborated on with New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

"Americans have this new, recent bipolar disorder about food," Bittman said. "They either have to have the best food in the world at a four-star restaurant, or they go to McDonald's and tank up on fast food."

Most of the food served at an upscale Italian restaurant - dishes such as veal with tuna sauce and risotto with seafood - "wouldn't be out of the range of a home cook," Bittman said. People just need a little guidance, he said.

Bittman spent about four years working on the book, learning so much in the process that when he got to the end he went back and rewrote the beginning.

"The beginning wasn't good enough any more. I had begun to see the real pattern of cooking. For instance, what's braised beef? What's the universe of braised beef? It's liquid, beef and aromatics."

It's just the details that make the difference between a Thai-style dish and Irish stew, he said.

"It's an assembly thing. There's a basic recipe and variations on a theme - if you learn that, you're really learning to cook."

Like most compendiums, Bittman's book is full of tips, techniques and other information, both general and specific. There are also lots of illustrations and - his personal favorite touch - lists.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.