Hot off the shelf, cookbooks to devour

One morning about 20 years ago, I was awakened by a screaming smoke alarm. I called upstairs and asked the young woman who was renting a spare bedroom if everything was all right. She appeared through a billow of smoke and calmly informed me that all was OK, she was just toasting English muffins.

Seems she buttered the muffins before putting them in the toaster. The dear woman's culinary skills have, if anything, gotten worse in the past 20 years.

She is not getting a cookbook from me this Christmas. Many of my friends, however, most of whom know their way around a stove, would appreciate any of the following new releases:

In Passionate Vegetarian, (Workman, 1,110 pp., $24.95 paperback, $35 hardcover), Crescent Dragonwagon has, after a labor of 10 years, gathered more than 1,000 recipes, most as original as her moniker. Take East-West Lasagna for example. Here Dragonwagon places layers of rice-paper wrappers between gingered tomato sauce, grilled sweet potatoes, and tofu. For breakfast, she suggests recipes for Gussied-up Oatmeal with peanut butter, apricot preserves, or pineapple-coconut juice. There's even a Reuben sandwich with Emmental cheese, and sauerkraut (hold the corned beef).

Stews, soups, and salsas are all here, made without a whiff of meat. "Passionate Vegetarian" brims over with more wisdom than tofu. And don't limit this cookbook just to vegetarians on your list; it deserves a place in every kitchen.

This is a mighty tome. The paperback edition weighs in at 4 pounds, 7 ounces - the size of a fine boneless leg of lamb. (Better make that a chunk of Hubbard squash.) With this, her third cookbook, Crescent is definitely on a roll!

It wasn't that many years ago when, if you declared yourself a vegetarian, you'd get a look as if you had radishes growing out of your ears.

Then along came the "Moosewood Cookbook," "The Enchanted Broccoli Forest," and "Vegetable Heaven." All of a sudden, vegetarianism was almost mainstream. (In California, anyway.)

The author of these classics now offers Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Café (Hyperion, 302 pp., $29.95). Katzen starts the book, subtitled "Breakfast served all day," with an explanation of orange juice (Guess what? Oranges don't get their name from their color) and ends with homemade protein bars, coffeecakes, and "sweet somethings." In between, she sandwiches in some intriguing fare you won't find at your local diner: Breaded Sautéed Goat Cheese Patties, Fried Green Tomato Quiche, and Cherry-Vanilla Ricotta Muffins.

We all know that Yan Can Cook. Martin Yan's Chinatown Cooking (William Morrow, 364 pp., $34.95) is a companion cookbook to his public television series. This is a collection of 200 traditional recipes from his travels to 11 of the world's Chinatowns. It's a great book for those willing to dispense with the pu-pu platter and move toward White Cloud Wok-Seared Scallops. There's even a nod to Chinese-Mex fusion with a recipe for Roast Duck Nachos. A helpful, 17-page glossary explains some of the more esoteric Asian ingredients and how to store them. Another section on equipment and techniques is also useful. Yes, Yan can cook, and he can also teach.

If you watch the Food Network, surely you know Mario Batal. A big, bold, and confident cook with arms like mortadellas, he has a flair for making relatively simple Italian offerings accessible to the home cook. In The Babbo Cookbook, (Clarkson Potter, 336 pp., $40) most entrees consist of no more than a handful of main ingredients. But what a handful! There's a calamari dish with currants and cranberries. And Grilled Pork Chops With Peaches and Balsamic Vinegar.

Screaming for pasta? Batal doesn't disappoint. How about a provocative MintLove Letters With Spicy Lamb Sausage?

A beautiful color photograph accompanies each recipe.

No one puts more passion into their cooking than Alice Waters, owner and chef of the legendary Chez Panisse Restaurant. During the past three decades, her commitment to fresh, locally grown organic foods has revolutionized cooking in California and throughout the country.

In Chez Panisse Fruit (HarperCollins, 326 pp., $34.95), Waters serves a cornucopia of fruits in a number of fresh, unexpected ways. She introduces each chapter with a slice of history, advice about cultivation, helpful hints on choosing the best fruits, and anecdotal reminiscences from Chez Panisse. Like all her books, and Waters herself, this is a classic.

Just as you can't talk about the revolution in American cuisine with mentioning Alice Waters, the same must be said about Jeremiah Tower. From his start in the Chez Panisse kitchen in the early 1970s, Tower and Waters became soul mates. In a era when fine cuisine was spelled F-R-E-N-C-H, they moved American cuisine to the front burner. Since then, Tower has launched several restaurants in the US as well as in the Far East. His creativity and imagination are not lost in Jeremiah Tower Cooks (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 296 pp., $35), nor are his writing and storytelling ability. Tower takes us on his pursuit of white truffles with Alice Waters in Venice, and introduces us to a simple Parsley and Onion Salad at St. John's Restaurant in London. Certainly this is a book for any serious cook.

If, when you think of a sandwich, tuna salad or PB&J come to mind, one with brandade, sautéed pea tendrils, poached egg, and Moroccan olives may sound like, well, a mouthful. But in Nancy Silverton's Sandwich Book - The Best Sandwiches Ever From Thursday Nights at Campanile (Alfred A Knopf, 238 pp., $24.95), Ms. Silverton blows the top off the conventional school lunch.

Seems that when Silverton and her husband, Mark Peel, started serving sandwiches at their award-winning restaurant, they struck a chord with the American palate. And if a recipe for a Braised Artichoke, Ricotta, and Mint Pesto Sandwich With Pine-Nut Currant Relish is more than you can swallow, there are many other less daunting offerings such as a simple French Baguette With Butter and Prosciutto or Classic Grilled Cheese.

Chapters on desserts, snacks, and salads complete the meal.

The point that Silverton - and her collaborator Teri Gelber - make here is that just about any foods you can eat with knife and fork might just be better between two pieces of good bread.

You can take off your Birkenstocks; just bring along your appetite for Anissa Helou's Mediterranean Street Food (HarperCollins, 277 pp., $29.95). Born in Lebanon, Helou knows her subject. Not only does is she familiar with which streets have the best stuffed mussels in Istanbul, the most savory Lamb Stew With Cumin in Marrakech, and the most refreshing pomegranate juice in Damascus, but she is also an expert on how to make these specialties - if you don't happen to be in those neighborhoods.

Photographs taken by Helou accompany the text.

From down under comes a beautiful, practical book by Donna Hay, Australia's bestselling food writer. Modern Classics Book 1 (William Morrow, 192 pp., $24.95, paperback) reinvents many old favorites with a new twist. Hay takes a simple coleslaw and peppers it up with thinly sliced radishes, and daringly challenges the classic Caesar salad with an addition of bacon.

It's a book brimming with sumptuous recipes and glorious photographs by Con Poulos. A white-on-white photo of a single strand of spaghetti twisted around the tines of a fork fills an entire page. And you can fairly smell the orange-and-Dijon-mustard glaze on a ham that practically pops off another page. Hay promises Book 2 in the near future.

The Anatomy of a Dish, by Diane Forley with Catherine Young (Artisan, 223 pp., $35), is a novel and studied work for the analytical cook. Forley goes into great detail with flavor charts for umbelliferae (parsnip, carrot, fennel, celery, and celery root) and the cucurbitaceae family, including watermelon, butternut squash, and zucchini. She also explains the various families of fishes. Salmon, for example, are anadromous fish, those that live in saltwater but breed in fresh. Forley also details the botanical relationship between fruits and vegetables. Inviting recipes for entrees, appetizers, and various accompaniments follow the anatomy lesson.

The Sopranos is over for another season, but your friends still long for something Italian to fill the gap on Sunday night. A less violent hour might be spent in the kitchen with Italian Comfort Food (ReganBooks, 176 pp., $29.95), by Marion, Rosanna, Anthony Jr., and Elaina Scotto. This is a warm and fuzzy collection of family photographs and recipes from Fresco by Scotto, their restaurant in New York City. Try the Veal Osso Buco that Hillary Clinton had flown to the White House on Air Force One; the Artichoke Alla Parmigiana, a favorite of Yankees boss George Steinbrenner; or the Tuna Rice Salad ordered by actress Jennifer Aniston.

Pear and Parsnip Soup

You could serve this creamless potage 'with utter confidence if Julia Child came to supper at your house,' writes Crescent Dragonwagon in 'Passionate Vegetarian.'

Ms. Dragonwagon substituted vegetable stock for chicken stock, which was in the original recipe from her British pen pal Wendy Newman.

If you're not familiar with parsnips, she offers the following hint: 'Parsnips look like white carrots, with a flavor that's a cross between carrots and parsley, quite sweet.'

The soup is pale yellow, so garnishing is essential to give it vibrancy.

3 ripe pears, peeled, cored and chopped
3 to 4 medium parsnips, peeled and chopped
6-1/2 cups vegetable stock (store-bought is fine)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Watercress sprigs, arugula, or Italian parsley for garnish

Combine the pears, parsnips, and 2-1/2 cups of stock in a medium soup pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, and let cook, partially covered, until the parsnip pieces are tender, about 15 minutes.

Drain, reserving the liquid and the solids separately. Purée the solids, with just a little of the reserved stock, in a food processor.

Return the puréed mixture and reserved stock to the soup pot. Add the remaining stock. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and simmer for 15 minutes. Garnish and serve hot.

Serves 4.

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