8 volumes for those who love food

The Best Of The Cookbooks

April 07, 2002|By Donna Crivello | Donna Crivello,Special to the Sun

Are you still digging through those food-stained cookbook pages stuffed with clippings, looking for a new way with chicken? Are you forever searching for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe? Should you wash mushrooms or not? Whether you have 5, 50 or 500 cookbooks (yes, some of us do), there's a new crop out there and some are worthy of a prime spot on your shelf.

Presented with a cache of cookbooks, I had to pick only six or seven as "keepers." (I wanted them all.) So many were beautifully designed with stunning photographs, not just of food, but of faraway places. Others were full of information and new ideas, with recipes and techniques by famous chefs and knowledgeable authors. Through the process it became clear that the ones we would want to buy (or receive) were the ones that we could really cook from, use as a reference, and share with our friends.

Janet Theophano's Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote (Palgrave, 400 pages, $26.95) is the perfect introduction. It is an extensive study of the cookbook past and present with copies of some original early 17th- and 18th-century recipes from cookbooks written by women who passed on not only their methods and techniques, but their values and ideals.

About present-day cookbooks, Theophano writes: "Many cookbook writers strike a balance between the sensual pleasures of the table and social responsibility; they write fervently about the need to alter our taken-for-granted habits of eating and preparing food. Despite cookbooks' distinctive historical manifestations and subsequent transformations, authors still explore the quest for health, beauty, and life's meaning through food."

Art Smith comes close to that exploration with his book Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family (Hyperion, 288 pages, $29.95). This famous chef (Oprah's personal chef) presents inviting recipes with striking color and sepia-toned photographs surrounded by Art's childhood memories and commentaries on sharing food with family. Why not spend a Saturday afternoon with your child making biscuits or ravioli, covered in flour and full of love? Art gets across his message of savoring the tastes and the memories with those who mean the most to you.

Learn how to cook or cook more efficiently with Lauren Groveman's Kitchen: Nurturing Foods for Family and Friends (Chronicle Books, 527 pages, $19.95). A cooking teacher and host of a public television cooking show, Lauren provides answers to questions in sidebars on almost every page.

She really wants to teach you how to cook, and to make cooking easy for busy people with families. From "time management and tips from the teacher" to "how to buy, store and chop onions" and "how to cut a chicken into eight pieces" you follow the teacher and learn with step-by-step illustrations.

A few years ago, I was attracted to the beautiful food presentation and fresh new approach of Donna Hay. This young, self-taught Australian chef and food stylist amazes me with her simple yet playful combinations.

Luckily for us, she has come out with another in her series. New Cooking: Off the Shelf, Cooking from the Pantry by Donna Hay (William Morrow, 192 pages, $19.95) is in the same large, solid-feeling paperback with full color, stark, yet lush photographs within a clean and easily accessible design. The combination of Asian and Mediterranean recipes are creations from ingredients that you can have on hand to pull off a great dinner, along with Donna's inventive tricks and tips for each.

This could be one of my all-time favorite cookbooks: A New Way to Cook, by Sally Schneider (Artisan, 739 pages, $40). It is a weighty tome that's over 700 pages, but will keep itself open easily on your kitchen counter, and you will want to keep it open, often.

This self-taught chef, a food stylist and food writer for over 10 years has produced a book that reflects her personal style. Simple and uncluttered, keeping to the basics and explaining the fundamentals of cooking. She writes: "Cooking ... with flavor, in moderation, healthful, not diet food, but favorites and standard recipes that use less fat and more flavor!"

Madhur Jaffrey's Step by Step Cooking (Ecco Press, 272 pages, $37.50). Since the '70s and '80s, we have followed Jaffrey's teachings on Indian cuisine and world vegetarian cooking. Now we can discover the Far East by way of the regional ingredients and recipes from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. A glossary of the exotic ingredients, along with suggested substitutions is a great addition and, like Jaffrey herself, a valuable resource.

The Baker's Dozen Cookbook, edited by Rick Rodgers (William Morrow, 368 pages, $40). Some of us are cooks, and some are bakers, and we know the difference. Bakers follow recipes. Baking, even with its scientific methods and measurements, doesn't always provide the baker with satisfying results.

This book is the collective experiences of some 13 bakers who have been getting together over the past 10 years to discuss and solve some of the mysteries of baking. From how to measure your flour, to how to keep the peaks in your meringue from weeping, these experts bring you into the group of those in the know.

Donna Crivello, was the design director of The Baltimore Sun. She now co-owns and operates Donna's Coffee Bars and Cafes in Baltimore, Annapolis and D.C., teaches cooking classes, travels with her husband collecting recipes and is putting together a book of her own recipes.

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