Cookbooks offer global tasting tour

Williams-Sonoma revives popular Time-Life series

In the early 1970s, the Time-Life Cookbooks were the cooking novice's introduction to international cuisine, conveniently adapted to the American kitchen. Each two-book set included a hard-bound volume with color photographs and commentary on individual countries, their cuisines, and native ingredients. Then, cooks could try the recipes included in a small spiral-bound manual.

Sadly, the books went out of print.

Now Williams-Sonoma, the retailer and publisher, has launched its own series of beautiful, enticing cookbooks that bring the world's cuisines to new cooks.

The first four books in the Williams-Sonoma Collection, published by Simon & Schuster, offer updated recipes that make you want to grab your chef's knife and start cooking. The collection begins with "Hors D'oeuvre," then "Soup," "Pasta," and "Chicken." The books are edited by Williams-Sonoma founder, Chuck Williams, who balances photographic presentation with text, explaining everything from various types of Gorgonzola to seeding chiles.

Although these books are aimed at cooks of all levels, they may be most useful for those who are new at donning an apron. As such, preparation times and menu suggestions would have been helpful.

But the recipes appear well thought out and are inviting.

For a recent family dinner, I made the Butternut Squash and Roasted Garlic Purée and the Three-Cheese Filo Triangles.

The soup was simple to make and had a wonderful depth of flavor from roasting the squash and adding sautéed leeks with the broth. If the garlic is not roasted to a sweet, caramelized finish, however, the 20 cloves it calls for could be quite overpowering. This should have been highlighted in the headnotes.

If you have never had a freshly baked tiropita, as the cheese filo triangles are called in Greece, then you should be sure to try this recipe. Fresh from the oven, the first bite was like dipping into a cheese soufflé wrapped in crunchy filo crust. The triangles were puffy and light, a perfect complement to the earthy squash soup.

The triangle recipe includes instructions for working with filo. I was fortunate to locate unfrozen sheets at a Greek grocery store, and found them to be less delicate and easier to work with than the frozen I have always used.

The "Pasta" volume offers great variety, including recipes for classics, quick suppers, elegant entertaining, seasonal choices, and hearty vegetarian dishes.

The Fusilli With Braised Fennel, Sweet Sausage, and Pecorino made an easy weeknight dinner, with clean flavors highlighted by the fresh tarragon.

Included in the chapter on classics is Spaghetti Alla Carbonara, which was foolproof and also a perfect weeknight supper when paired with a green salad and crunchy semolina bread. The sauce was just the right amount to coat the spaghetti, which kept it from being too rich and offered the right balance to the crispy, delicate pancetta.

Lasagna With Duck stood up to its billing as an Elegant Entertaining star. The wine could be replaced with a second cup of chicken stock and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. The clove and allspice are exotic, and your guests will feel indulged by luxurious ingredients.

Your global tasting tour can continue with French-inspired tiny Roquefort popovers, which are easy to make, impressive to serve, and delicious. The Mexican Black Bean Soup With Salsa Cream will please a crowd in January, and you can look forward to Tuscan Tomato Soup when tomatoes are ripe and plentiful in August.

While it may not be possible, or even desirable, to return to the food of the '70s, these books bring back the excitement of the old Time-Life series, which inspired many cooks to think globally.

Fusilli with Braised Fennel, Sweet Sausage, and Pecorino

5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling

4 leeks, white part only, thoroughly cleaned and thinly sliced

2 fennel bulbs, trimmed, cored, and thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, ground or minced to a powder

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1-1/4 cup chicken stock

1 pound sweet Italian pork sausages, casings removed and crumbled

Splash of sherry vinegar

1 pound fusilli (spiral-shaped pasta)

Leaves from 6 large fresh tarragon sprigs, coarsely chopped

Handful of fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley leaves, coarsely chopped

1 cup grated pecorino toscano (from Tuscany) or pecorino romano (from Rome) cheese

In a Dutch oven or large, heavy flameproof casserole dish over medium heat, warm 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the leeks, sliced fennel, ground fennel seeds, and salt and pepper to taste and sauté until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of the chicken stock and cook until reduced by half. Add remaining 3/4 cup of chicken stock, cover, and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, warm the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a heavy frying pan over high heat. Add the sausage, breaking it up with a spoon. Cook until well browned, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour off most of the fat (keep a little to add flavor) and add a tiny splash of sherry vinegar.

Generously salt the boiling water, add the pasta, and cook until al dente, 8 to 11 minutes.

Meanwhile, add the sausage to the pot with the fennel and simmer for 1 to 2 minutes to blend the flavors. You should have some liquid left in the pot to form a sauce. If not, add a little warm water or more chicken stock.

Taste and adjust the seasoning and add a drizzle of olive oil.

Drain the pasta and put in a warmed large, shallow bowl. Add a drizzle of olive oil, the tarragon and parsley, and about 3 tablespoons of the cheese.

Add the fennel mixture, toss again, and serve immediately. Pass the remaining cheese at the table.

Makes 4 main-course or 6 first-course servings.

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