It's that time again. What do you give the friend, relative, or teacher who likes to cook but isn't exactly ready for a guest appearance on the Food Network?
There's always a kitchen gadget, but who really needs one more garlic roller, olive pitter, or, the all-time most-useless tool out there, grapefruit slicer? Food gifts, especially homemade ones, are always appreciated, but they are either such a hit that they vanish too quickly, or they are put on a pantry shelf and forgotten.
Once again, the same smart solution comes to mind: a cookbook. What better gift is there for the wannabe Rachel Ray than a book that introduces new cooking techniques, recipes, or a particular cuisine? Or that deepens the recipient's familiarity with a chef or style of cooking they already enjoy. Cookbooks can enlighten, inspire, and satisfy.
Recent cookbooks are more in step with today's cooks, offering quick and easy recipes that don't compromise flavor. A fresh batch of books strikes this balance, catering to today's time-strapped cook with recipes for dishes that are hassle-free yet great tasting. Surely, with these offerings, you'll find the right match for the aspiring chef on your gift list.
Among this year's convenience-minded cookbooks are two full of tantalizing, flavor-packed recipes for one-pot meals: Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals, by Tom Valenti and Andrew Friedman ($30, Scribner), and All About Braising: The Art of Uncomplicated Cooking, by Molly Stevens ($35, W.W. Norton & Co).
If you think New York restaurants serve only fussy dishes made with obscure ingredients, think again. Mr. Valenti, chef-owner of two Upper West Side restaurants, Ouest and 'Cesca, is known as the city's grand master of comfort food. Well-heeled diners, including such celebrities as Judy Collins, Jerry Seinfeld, and Steven Spielberg, pack his restaurants for a taste of his down-to-earth, hearty meals.
Just in time for winter, "Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals" dishes up 125 recipes for the rest of us. The authors don't just give lip service to an approach they call "cooking in the real world." Along with one-pot recipes, their nod to reality includes such shortcuts as using high-quality store-bought stock and canned beans.
Amid recipes for split-pea soup, beef stew, and tuna-noodle casserole are such elevated dishes as lobster bisque, fried oysters, and Shrimp, Lemon, and Tarragon Risotto. But whether simple or sophisticated, every dish is based on the authors' premise that the right ingredients, left alone to cook in a single vessel with little intervention from the cook, build glorious flavor and leave far fewer pots to clean. Now that's cooking in the real world.
Ms. Stevens's "All About Braising" also features simple, low-maintenance cooking with complex, high-quality results. With training in classic French technique and years as a chef and instructor, Stevens backs up her writing with expertise.
In her bible of braising, she demystifies this method, which involves first browning food, then cooking it, tightly covered, in a small amount of liquid at low heat for a long period of time. Braising helps to develop rich, intense flavors and thoroughly tenderizes meats. Recipes include Yankee Pot Roast, Osso Buco, Short Ribs, Coq au Vin, and Chicken and Dumplings. If the recipes don't tempt, the glorious color photographs will.
Also a bible of sorts is Bruce Aidells's Complete Book of Pork ($29.95, Harper Collins). The "other white meat" has fast become the world's most popular meat, period. Americans spent $40 billion on pork products in 2001. But popularity doesn't always equate with know-how.
That's where Mr. Aidells comes in. The award-winning chef and founder of Aidells Sausage Co. and his coauthor, Lisa Weiss, deliver the whole hog. Starting with the history of the pig, including cultural and religious taboos associated with it, the authors segue into an extensive guide to buying, storing, and cooking pork. From grilling kebabs, ribs, and chops to making your own pancetta and chorizo, recipes and tips speak to a range of skill levels.
All in all, Aidells and Weiss's exhaustive cookbook is an invaluable resource for pork lovers who want to refine their methods and expand their repertoire beyond BLTs and pork chops.
For the adventurous cook on your list, one who dreams of shopping at farmers' markets in southern France or lingering over a plate of pasta at a Tuscan trattoria, two new cookbooks might be just the ticket: The Provence Cookbook ($29.95, Harper Collins) and Florence: Authentic Recipes Celebrating the Foods of the World ($24.95, Oxmoor House).
"The Provence Cookbook" transports readers to Patricia Wells's farmhouse and to the Provençal countryside surrounding it. Through her eyes, one glimpses Provençal lore and customs, the region's colorful market life, and the warm and generous farmers and food purveyors with whom she shares a friendly repartee.
After 20 years in France, where she now teaches cooking in both Provence and Paris, Ms. Wells is right at home there. Also the food critic for the International Herald Tribune and the author of nine books, all culinary guides or cookbooks, she knows a few things about crafting an inviting food story. It's no wonder her book is a delightful read.
Wells's credo is to savor ingredients in their fresh, natural state and to cook with a light hand, so as to avoid camouflaging distinct flavors. "Over the years," she writes, "my food has become simpler and simpler."
But simple is a relative term. Recipes such as Two-Minute Steamed Squid With Garlic, Lemon, and Parsley; Potatoes From Mas Haut; and Swiss Chard Two Ways look straightforward, but others appear daunting with their long lists of ingredients and multiple steps. Also, far from practical for American cooks are recipes made with such ingredients as truffles, rabbit, or tellines, those tiny, opalescent clams one can find only in Provence.
But when enjoyed as a culinary tour that also features many appealing and accessible recipes that reflect the region, "The Provence Cookbook" is an ideal gift for cooks who can't get enough of French Mediterranean cuisine.
The other culinary tour worth giving this year is offered via "Florence," the latest in a series of books from Williams-Sonoma. From antipasti to desserts, this gorgeous cookbook covers the five courses of the traditional Tuscan meal with 45 recipes. Also included is discussion of culinary traditions, stories of artisans behind the food, and the nourishing connection between la terra and the food that comes from it.
The book's layout, with facing pages of recipes and corresponding photographs, is easy on the eyes. But don't let recipe titles fool you. They appear in boldfaced Italian, giving the impression that dishes are more complicated than they actually are. Tagliata di Manzo, for example, is translated in small, skinny type below as Grilled Florentine Steak, and Cioccolata Calda Con Panna Montata is simply Thick Hot Chocolate With Whipped Cream.
"Florence," with its sumptuous photographs and inviting cultural stories, might be relegated to your friend's living room coffee table, but it belongs on the kitchen counter. To get it there, you might offer to help prepare a Florentine feast. Start with an antipasti of Bruscetta With White Beans and Olive Oil, follow with bowls of Pappa al Pomodoro (tomato and bread soup), plates of Lemon Roasted Chicken and Asparagus With Fried Eggs and Parmesan, and finish with a dolci of Peach Sorbet. Never again will "Florence" sit, stain-free, on a table far from the stove.