Tempting dishes from the `Best'


Recipes selected out of 25 cookbooks


July 31, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Here's a brilliant idea: Assemble a cookbook from the best recipes selected from the best 25 cookbooks of the past year, kind of like one of those greatest-hits-compilation CDs you see on late-night television.

Too late. The folks at Food & Wine magazine have beaten you to the punch (by about five years or so). Their latest effort is Best of the Best, Vol. 5 (Food & Wine Books, $29.95), with recipes from such diverse sources as Jamie "Naked Chef" Oliver to Chicago's Charlie Trotter and Emeril "Bam" Lagasse.

The result is a kind of multiethnic mulligan stew, with recipes from Thailand, Italy, India and Europe all mixed up together. (In the section on vegetables the recipe for polenta with beans is followed by mi kho hanh, a Vietnamese noodle dish, which is followed by a good old American potato, leek and bacon pan fry. Now there's a transition.)

Not that there aren't some really great recipes here. The Parmigiano-crusted grouper from Union Square Cafe can cause bouts of heavy salivation just from reading the instructions.

Nevertheless, the book's wide-ranging approach does make one wonder: Where does this book go on the kitchen library shelf? It defies classification. Not by author. Not by nationality or course. Next to Joy of Cooking, maybe? Good luck trying to refer to these recipes in the future.

And one other small aside: You guys at Food & Wine really like your celebrity chefs and big-name restaurants. Pretty safe picks, these. Half the winners seem to have a television gig of some sort. You need to get out of New York once in a while.

Still, if you buy a cookbook because it has recipes you'd like to try, you have to give Best of the Best its due: Like the recipe for chocolate banana blintzes on page 250, it sure has some tasty stuff inside. This is a book that's been assembled thoughtfully and professionally.

The little test-kitchen notes that accompany the recipes at the bottom of the page are a nice touch, too - and provide proof that someone besides the recipe's original author can make these dishes.

One of the book's more tempting (and relatively easy) choices for summer is a Vietnamese twist on cucumber salad, dua leo ngam giam, from Pleasure of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham (HarperCollins). The salad can be a piquant accompaniment to grilled meats or seafood.

Cucumber Salad (dua leo ngam giam)

Serves 4

1/4 cup rice or distilled white vinegar

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 pickling cucumbers, halved and cut into 1/8 -inch-thick slices (about 2 1/2 cups) (see note)

2 shallots, thinly sliced

1/2 serrano or other fresh chile, sliced (optional)

6 sprigs cilantro, chopped

Combine the vinegar, lime juice, sugar and salt in a bowl. Stir well and add the cucumbers, shallots, chile, if using, and cilantro. Set aside to stand for 15 minutes, then transfer to a bowl and serve.

Note: English cucumbers can be substituted for pickling cucumbers, and a relatively inexpensive mandoline is an ideal way to get uniform, thin slices.

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