Cookbooks satisfy hunger for simplicity

From low-key to lavish, new food-magazine cookbook crop offers tasteful, tasty gifts

Of the thousands of cookbooks published each year, those by established food magazines appear most in touch with the home cook. They know better than to feature a recipe that calls for crawfish without noting that the tails alone would suffice, black truffles without flagging that they will cost you dearly, or grapeseed oil without suggesting a substitute that might already live on your pantry shelf. More likely, however, magazine-produced cookbooks will skip esoteric ingredients altogether in favor of a simpler, more accessible approach.

It's their job to stay in step with the American cook, and for the most part, they do. They know that, for weekday suppers, 20-minute recipes are barely fast enough. But they also realize that the best home cooks aren't willing to sacrifice flavor or freshness, and that on weekends and for special occasions, they enjoy making more elaborate meals.

So the Emeril Lagasse or Julia Child wannabe on your holiday list could glean plenty of practical inspiration for every day of the week from this year's stellar crop of magazine-produced cookbooks.

It's no surprise that the most lavish among them comes from Saveur magazine, known for spotlighting the world's diverse cuisines with authentic recipes and stunning color photographs.

But Saveur Cooks Authentic Italian: Saving the Recipes and Traditions of the World's Favorite Cuisine (Chronicle Books, $40), is no candidate for dust-collecting on the coffee table.

Such inviting, unpretentious recipes as Pappa al Pomodoro (Tomato and Bread Soup), Spaghetti alla Carbonara (Spaghetti With Eggs and Pancetta), and Ossi di Morti (Almond Meringue Cookies) would send even the rare Italian-food curmudgeon to the stove.

Pretty pictures can be found in The America's Test Kitchen Cookbook (Boston Common Press, $29.95), but they're far from the focus of this companion book to the hit public-television show.

Anyone familiar with Cook's Illustrated magazine, launched in 1980 by Christopher Kimball, knows it's one of the best sources of accurate, reliable, exhaustively tested recipes that also taste terrific. This book is all that and more.

Led by Mr. Kimball, the Cook's Illustrated team of 12 cooks and a staff of 30 brings an unassuming, real-life approach to its work, revealing mistakes made and lessons learned while doggedly striving to find the best methods of preparing America's favorite home-cooked foods - including steaks and roasts, pies and tarts, and ranging from the most basic tuna-salad sandwich to a prime rib. They also rate cookware, taste-test ingredients, and even perform a few science experiments.

Snap up a copy for the cooking scholar you know, and watch how the book is shuttled from bedside table to kitchen counter.

Casual isn't the first word one might associate with Gourmet magazine. But ever since the warm and witty Ruth Reichl took over as editor-in-chief, the venerable "magazine of good living" has shed its stuffy formality.

With Gourmet's Casual Entertaining: Easy Year-Round Menus for Family and Friends (Random House, $29.95), the editors at Gourmet set out to show even the most harried host how to entertain with little fuss and lots of style.

They deliver 30 menus for relaxed occasions - from summer picnics and pool parties to seasonal suppers and fireside pizza gatherings. "A picnic on the lake," for instance, features a creamy onion dip, roasted chicken, rice salad, and a choice of dessert bars - lemon, chocolate, and pecan.

Did you know that 75 percent of men and 61 percent of women eat hamburgers in the car? Such findings are the result of an annual survey on "How America Eats," conducted by Bon Appétit magazine.

Bon Appétit has a long history of catering well to its readers' habits and keeping up with current food trends. The Flavors of Bon Appétit 2001: Over 200 of the Year's Best Recipes (Clarkson Potter, $29.95) is no exception.

The most significant food trends of 2001, the editors say, are a craving for simplicity; a renewed interest in down-home American foods, such as meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and chicken pot pie; and the growth of vegetarianism.

Simplicity can be infused into cooking without sacrificing sophistication and good taste, the authors insist, and, with the exception of some recipes with a daunting number of ingredients, this collection appears to strike that balance.

The back of the book highlights recipes using what Bon Appétit's survey revealed are America's top 10 favorite foods: asparagus, broccoli, corn, cheese, pasta, strawberries, raspberries, peaches, ice cream, and chocolate.

As lunchtime draws near, it's all I can do not to drop everything, dash out of the office, and scour the streets for something resembling the Grilled Cheddar, Tomato and Bacon Sandwich and Raspberry-Crème Fraîche Tart, both of which appear so tantalizing in this section.

It's always a bit risky to name the "best of the year" in any category, but especially with food, since palates and preferences are so infinitely varied.

But once again, Food & Wine magazine has taken the leap with its Best of the Best: The 100 Best Recipes from the Best Cookbooks of the Year (American Express Publishing/Food & Wine Books, $29.95). And the choices of this team of professional testers and tasters, many of whom hold impressive cooking-school credentials, are intriguing.

Most recipes were plucked from the books of world-famous chefs - such as Julia Child, Rick Bayless, Todd English, Mark Bittman, and Jasper White. But don't let that intimidate you. Many of them, such as Julia Child's chicken salad, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Fast Gazpacho, or Faye Levy's Old-Fashioned Roasted Chicken, don't require a degree from the Cordon Bleu.

For those dishes that are a bit more "chefy," test-kitchen tips from the folks at Food & Wine are a welcome addition.

Now for that final decision. If Aunt Janet or brother-in-law Craig already subscribes to Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Cook's Illustrated, Saveur, or Food & Wine, there's your clue. If either of them receives all five, sleuth out which are most dog-eared and soiled. Olive-oil stains and notes scribbled beside recipes will tip you off.

Or take a chance and introduce your favorite Gourmet fan to Saveur, the Cook's Illustrated devotee to Food & Wine, or a nonsubscriber to Bon Appétit. It could be a match that'll last.

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