French cookbooks to put under the Christmas tree

Among the cookbooks published this year there are several on French cooking, from the provincial country dishes of Brittany and Alsace, to the chefs' specialties at a Paris cooking school. These are more than cookbooks - they give you a genuine feeling for this country, with its wonderful contrasts in landscape, regional customs, and cuisine.

We have also received a score of cookbooks based on meals that can be prepared quickly with fresh, seasonal ingredients picked up on the way home from the office. Others focus in-depth on one topic, such as the pastry book reviewed below, and, finally, there are Christmas cookbooks to help you plan for the parties and celebrations of the holiday season.

For a regional tour of the French provinces, Anne Willan's ''French Regional Cooking'' (William Morrow and Co., Inc., $29.95) is devoted to the traditional home and peasant cooking of France, the country dishes that tourists rarely encounter. A few are deceptively familiar - such as quiche lorraine and ratatouille, but most are surprising and delightful dishes using the fresh ingredients and cooking techniques indigenous to a particular area of France.

From the Loire valley comes asparagus with tarragon butter, cream of chestnut soup and pork cooked with prunes. The Southwest offers mussel stew with saffron and cream, sauteed scallops with shallots and parsley. And the specialties from Normandy, whose countryside reminds the author irresistably of her native Yorkshire, include camembert fritters and a latticed apple tart.

Although Ms. Willan suggests that ''it might be asked why a foreigner should delve into the subject of French regional cooking at all,'' she and four members of the La Varenne staff have done a remarkable job, traveling around the country and testing some 1,000 recipes to arrive at the collection of 400 in the book. The recipes may be reproduced authentically with ingredients purchased in the United States.

Each of the twelve divisions includes boxed features on special regional ingredients, culinary customs and techniques, a discussion of local cheeses, and a list of traditional specialties difficult to reproduce at home, but well worth sampling in the region itself.

The color photographs are excellent and nostalgically French - of farms and markets, charcuteries and patisseries, fishing ports and pastureland.

Denise Schorr, author of ''My French Kitchen'' (Brattleboro, Stephen Greene Press, $17.50), reveals her love for France when she asks ''Where else do street vendors garnish their glistening grey oysters with bright lemons, or farmers scatter daisies among the beans they pack in crates for the wholesale market?''

She believes that the one great lesson of the French kitchen is that attitude and commitment to quality make the difference when turning raw materials into meals which delight the eye and palate.

After 29 years of teaching and lecturing, Mrs. Schorr has gathered together in book form the menus which have proved popular with her classes and are traditionally French. With variety and contrast as her guiding principles, she suggests a menu to celebrate autumn, with a leek and potato soup to start, followed by marinated pork chops sauteed with a tangy sour cream sauce, sauteed cabbage, and a butter cake with raisins.

By working with complete menus, cooks who use her book discover how to combine simple recipes with more complex dishes so that when it is time to enjoy the meal, the cook is as relaxed as her guests.

For a taste of the regional food of Provence, a menu begins with a Soupe au Pistou, a vegetable soup with tomato, garlic, and basil, and ends with Beignets Souffles, puffed fritters with orange zest.

Other suggested meals revolve around such themes as ''Let's Eat on the Terrace'' and ''In the Mood for Seafood.'' Most of the dishes are cuisine bourgeoise, or home cooking, with a few more elaborate ''haute cuisine'' dishes towards the end of the book.

''Experience begets confidence'' are words of wisdom for the beginning pastry cook. After having written a best-selling book on bread baking, Bernard Clayton, Jr., decided to switch fields and concentrate on pastry. His newest book is The Complete Book of Pastry, Sweet and Savory (Simon and Schuster, $17.95).

Clayton quickly discovered that pastry dough requires a more tender approach, as it must be rolled gently and lifted with care. He spent a summer in Europe, listening to patissiers and home pastry bakers in a dozen countries, and later gathered recipes from every part of the United States.

Next came the task of recreating all of the pastries in his home kitchen with American ingredients and measurements. The book is dedicated to Clayton's wife who tasted all the pastries first abroad, and later at home, and said that after three years she never gained a pound.

Each family of pastries is thoroughly explained, whether it be pies or puff pastry, Hungarian strudel or pizza. At no point will you be left wondering what to do next, or what your dough should feel or look like - Clayton is always there to advise.

Although this collection of recipes for the working person includes such oddities as Roast Beef with Cranberries and a dessert pie made with beets, Colette Rossant in ''After-Five Gourmet'' (Random House, $15.50) is on the right track with her suggestions for speedy, imaginative meals. The two secrets of her menus are shopping daily on the way home from work, and to choose only the freshest, seasonal ingredients.

Each dish is labeled with its preparation time and cooking time so there is no guesswork involved in how long it will take to prepare dinner. All of them fall into categories of 15 minutes or less, 30 minutes or less, or 60 minutes or less. Some of the more adventurous, but still appealing recipes, are Halibut with Avocado and Hot Pumpkin Mousse. There are lovely sketches accompanying the text.

Colette Rossant cooks dinner for her family after a full day of teaching French literature and acting as chairperson of the language department at the St. Ann's School in Brooklyn, N.Y. She chooses a pivotal point for the menu, selecting one dish that seems particularly appealing. It becomes the star of the meal, accompanied by good bread, a salad, a vegetable, and fruit.

The dish does not have to be complicated; it may be something simple and traditional, such as a sizzling steak topped with a crown of tarragon butter, or an omelet stuffed with asparagus spears and a vinaigrette. The emphasis is on seasonal foods carefully planned and attractively prepared with the least bit of fuss.

When Mimi Sheraton, food and restaurant critic of The New York Times, thinks of Christmas, the first thing that comes to mind are sweets. Visions of Sugarplums (Harper and Row, $14.95) is a collection of recipes she has gathered for cakes, cookies, candies, and confections from all the countries that celebrate Christmas.

Revised since it first appeared 13 years ago, the book now includes a special chapter containing recipes from friends such as Andre Soltner of Lutece and Dieter Schorner, formerly of Le Chantilly in New York.

The reader will find recipes for Old English Mincemeat, French Twelfth Night Cake, Honey Lebkuchen, Swedish Cinnamon Sand Cookies, Dutch Apple Fritters, as well as some of our own special Christmas sweets, such as Peppermint Candy Canes. Some of the same recipes with minor variations turn up in four or five different countries, and all these variations are included.

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