Cooking the books: At the end of each spring, publishers shower the food world with new cookbook releases. Although no copies of To Serve Man have yet crossed my desk, it wouldn't surprise me if one did, considering the variety of books that have been appearing lately. For those who, like me, read cookbooks instead of novels in bed at night, the choices are overwhelming--especially since general-interest cookbook authors are making more of an effort to explain where a food came from and how it works rather than just telling you which way to cook it. Otherwise, the trend right now is either to write about something--anything--vegetarian or to focus on one food item, such as rhubarb or lentils, and pretend to thoroughly exhaust the subject.
One such tell-all is Crazy for Corn ($16), by Betty Fussell, a food nerd if ever there was one. The woman is obsessed with corn, which is a little weird, but anyone with a remote interest in the vegetable will get a kick out of this book. I tried Fussell's suggestion for roasting corn on the grill; she is dead-set against soaking the corn in water before grilling, because it steams rather than grills the corn--and she's right. Just grilling it with the husks on gives the corn a smoky flavor and still cooks it through, although I found it took about ten minutes longer than the eight minutes she recommended.
Nothing in Kevin Graham's Grains, Rice & Beans ($30) was appealing enough for me to try to make it. I'm sorry, but the thought of tabouleh with blueberries and mint makes me want to consume a greasy steak. Still, I owe Graham thanks for giving me an idea for using the amaranth--an obsolete weed with a nutty-pepper flavor--that's growing in my garden; he adds it to pears, which go great with black pepper, in a pie. But that tip isn't worth thirty bucks.
I had high hopes for Gather 'Round the Grill ($20), by George Hirsch, because I thought it might come in handy for camping--but who wants to lug the fixin's for chicken Florentine around? There are too many frou-frou meals in this one--and since cookbook authors have only recently talked people into marinating and rubbing meats before grilling, I question whether weekend chefs want to take the time for much more.
The preparations are simple, but the ingredient lists are longer than the title of A Well-Seasoned Appetite: Recipes From an American Kitchen ($25.95), by Molly O'Neill, who also wrote one of my all-time favorites, the New York Cookbook. Ignore the fact that in Well-Seasoned she tries to do some sort of new-age thing by matching the meals up with the seasons--just make whatever you want, whenever. The emphasis is on pairing strong flavors, such as the ones in the roasted-corn salsa with poblanos and shiitakes--which, when I made it, turned out to be a condiment for all seasons. It's definitely the right time of year for Starbucks' Pleasures of Summer ($14.95), but this is one of those cookbooks made for looking, not cooking. There are six menus with themes such as "Poolside Afternoon Treats," and each one--surprise!--is paired with appropriate coffees. If you have time to make homemade ice-cream sandwiches, I guarantee your lawn looks like hell.
Quick meals abound in Main-Course Vegetarian Pleasures ($15), by Jeanne Lemlin, but they're nothing we haven't seen before. Fettuccine with spinach and goat cheese, autumn vegetable soup? Come on. On the other hand, while the title for Mostly Macro ($16.95), by Lisa Turner, is enough to make anyone run for a Whopper, the recipes are interesting. I tried the chick-pea fritters with apple-date chutney on a group of people under the age of thirteen and no one cried. Just skip the first half of the book, unless you're eager to read a guilt-inducing treatise on the environment and meat.
Turner would love a potluck with the bunch who wrote Cooking With the Dead, (7.99), by Elizabeth Zipern and her fellow deadheads. Everything in this silly cookbook is vegetarian and accompanied by adorable stories about the people who came up with the recipes. An excerpt: "Tim, down to his last dollar, sells huge plates of his Sumptuous Stir Fry and makes enough cash to get to one more show." What a relief. Hey, I did the Dead thing for a whole summer, and I have eaten Good Lovin' Lentil Soup. But I never came across Dead Hemp Seed Falafel or a Psychedelic Vegie Sandwich. No recipes for hash brownies, but Deadheads will revel in the fan photos (this book was not endorsed by the band, by the way) and the beautiful karma emanating from the tome. And non-Deadheads can get some great ideas for cooking on a Hibachi in the back of a van.
You'll need more than a portable grill to make the healthy dishes in Chez Nous ($25), by Lydie Marshall, but it turns out that most of the recipes in this book on the south of France are light, heavy on vegetables and herb-oriented. A few of the recipes will be hard to manage in this area--wild-boar stew just isn't going to happen here--but the chicken with yogurt and mustard is one of those incredibly easy recipes that turn out impressively. Easy-to-follow formulas are also the hallmark of a foodie's version of a coffee-table book: Harvest America Recipes ($24.95), by Marianne Moore-Rotenberg, which features lovely impressionistic rural art by Barbara Dougherty and recipes for such things as fusilli with zucchini and garden linguine that appeal to those with green thumbs. I whipped up a super-easy batch of sun-dried-tomato herb muffins.
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Even more beautiful, although not a cookbook, is Sonoma: The Ultimate Winery Guide ($18.95), by Heidi Haughy Cusick. For anyone planning a tour of California wineries, this is a great book. There are photos of each place, with access information, directions, tasting prices and other pertinent info; the book gives a list of restaurants, markets and picnic areas near each vineyard as well.
My favorite cookbook in this recent batch was made right here in Colorado. Cooking With Colorado's Greatest Chefs ($35), by Marilynn A. Booth, while pricey, is a wonderful collection of recipes from 42 restaurants in the state, including many in Denver. A visitor to my house can always tell which cookbooks are my favorites: Either they have folded-down page corners to mark recipes I'm interested in, or they have food all over them. This one has both. Although the meals look complex and daunting, everything I've made has been unbelievably easy. For instance, the seared scallops with citrus couscous and sun-dried-tomato vinaigrette from the Aspen Cache Cache was stunning but took only about an hour from start to finish--and I have since made just the couscous to eat by itself.
In a previous column, I raved about a book that the Tattered Cover informs me is out of print. My apologies. You'll have to scour secondhand stores to find A Glutton for Punishment, by former Gourmet restaurant reviewer Jay Jacobs. It's worth the search.