Lemongrass and Sweet Corn Soup (see recipe) from Maria Elia's The Modern Vegetarian makes for a refreshing summer meal.
This year's crop of spring and summer cookbooks is a sprawling, eclectic collection, hard to summarize and harder to sort.
The best of the lot seem to betray a fascination with the arcane: Here we find cooks who didn't know how to stop when it was good enough. Trapped by the ferocity of their own passions, they plunge into the pickles and brines, the secrets of the spice cabinet, the sausage casings and pantry condiments we're usually content to leave to their mysterious, silent shelf lives.
In these books we find a world of thrilling arcana, seemingly custom tailored for a summer in which eating in looks to be the greatest adventure of all.
Soaked, Slathered, and Seasoned, by Elizabeth Karmel, Wiley, paperback, 352 pages, list price: $19.95
Every spring when the grill books arrive I have the eerie sensation that maybe last year's books were cloned and rejacketed in the hopes that people forgot they had bought them already. Not so with Soaked, Slathered, and Seasoned! Elizabeth Karmel skips the usual macho seminar on flame-taming and gear; instead, she trains her laserlike focus on the real prize: where the flavor comes from.
If you've ever worshipfully bowed your head before some barbecue master's "secret sauce," it's time to make those secrets your own. And, as you'll see, "secret" doesn't necessarily mean "difficult," "elaborate" or "unreproducible" (although it might still mean "macho"). It turns out that getting people to lick their fingers is not really a mystery — more likely it's Karmel's Port and Cherry Reduction Glaze, which, like Green Olive and Lemon Salt, you are likely to conclude you should have learned to make years ago. (Fortunately, it's not too late.)
Preserved, by Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton, Kyle Books, paperback, 224 pages, list price: $22.95
I know what you're saying: I'm happy to expand my cooking horizons, but preserving? Give me a break. In previous years I may have agreed, but this year brought at least six new books on canning and preserving, and Preserved is the one that sold me. It was the fruit leather recipe — I had no idea I could make fruit leather at home, nor that it could be so easy.
But even if you don't want to salt your own pork, smoke your own duck or preserve your own lemons, that's OK. This book isn't just a how-to — it's filled with recipes that will work with dried, canned and preserved goods from the store too (check out Smoked Salmon, Noodles and Sweet Chili Sauce or Dried Porcini and Gruyere Tarts). And don't believe anybody who says he couldn't use another recipe using sausage or chorizo, because it's just not true.
When you're not using the book, it's fun to read, too. Who can resist headnotes that start like this?: "This recipe comes from Mexico, where Nick was once accidentally flung downstairs by a salsa dancer."
Cooking Know-How, by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough, Wiley, hardcover, 416 pages, list price: $34.95
If you recognize Weinstein and Scarbrough from their series of Ultimate books — (Ultimate Ice Cream, Ultimate Potato etc.), you know that it's not their way to just dip a toe in. Cooking Know-How is the most ambitious project yet from this intrepid pair. It's nothing less than the complete process-engineering of 64 basic dishes, including risotto, roasted birds, frittata and stir-fry.
Each dish gets an analytic breakdown of the general technique used to make it, followed by a breathtaking, wonky chart of ingredients and variations. Learn the method, and then you can take your pick from Crab and Spinach Frittata or Mushroom Frittata; Sauteed Chicken Breasts with Asian-Influenced Orange Sauce or Shredded Pork and Dried Tofu Stir-Fry.
Some of my favorite books in the world are technique books, and with The Method In The Madness, I can geek out to my heart's content. It's the opposite of the approach that says, "My recipe is special because only I could have chosen these arcane ingredients you have to order online." Hey, we're all special! Once we know the technique, we all can choose ingredients. This book just has the nerve to set you free to do it.
Why I Need Another Ceramic Peeler for My Birthday
Memorable Recipes to Share with Family and Friends, by Renee Behnke with Cynthia Nims, Andrews McMeel Publishing, hardcover, 256 pages, list price: $35
All evidence to the contrary, I'm always certain that the people who own high-end cookware stores live in some alternate food universe where the chives are always greener, the cuisine is haute and the ergonomic lemon zester is easy to find. So when former Sur La Table President Renee Behnke published a casually elegant collection of recipes called Memorable Recipes to Share with Family and Friends, I was taken aback.
Sure, Artichoke Risotto with Spring Peas and Mint and Mini Corn Muffins with Roasted Garlic and Fresh Herbs are dishes that aspire to something more than their earthy origins. But they're not 10 steps more than you feel like tackling, and many look as though they might even work on a weeknight. The book's heavy emphasis on summer produce makes it a good source to turn to after one of those trips to the farmer's market where you accidentally got one of everything and don't know what to do with it (answer: Ratatouille with Fresh Rosemary).
Tacos, by Mark Miller, 10 Speed Press, paperback, 176 pages, list price: $21.95
In case you were wondering when would be the best time to get beyond the fast-food tacos you grew up with, that time is now. The tacos in Mark Miller's book Tacos are a far cry from the unlamented hamburger-and-iceberg of yesteryear. These are authentic Mexican tacos, in fresh masa tortillas, filled with anything from beer-marinated pork or skirt steak to Baja-Style Tempura Fish or Potato Hash with Pasilla Chiles. They might have roasted tomatoes and pumpkin seed pesto, or squash blossoms. And whether you mean to or not, you're likely to feel an uncontrollable urge to make your own tortillas when you see the ones photographed throughout the book in all their blistered splendor. It's a good excuse to finally get that tortilla press you've been wanting — in case you needed an excuse.
The Flavors of Asia, by Mai Pham for the Culinary Institute of America, DK Publishing, hardcover, 272 pages, list price: $35
Trust the Culinary Institute of America to find a way to teach what most people don't. I privately think of The Flavors of Asia as an emancipation from eating out, filled with recipes for dishes many of us are accustomed to letting other people make for us: Singapore Stir-Fried Noodles, Vietnamese spring rolls, samosas. The recipes are not uniformly original — I recognize recipes from many outstanding recent Asian cookbooks — but there is a great deal to be said for having them all in the same place. If you're the sort of person who has to have pad thai at least once a week (and I know you're out there, because I was once you too), this is the book you want. Finally, you can own your craving instead of letting it own you.
Vefa's Kitchen, by Vefa Alexiadou, Phaidon Press, hardcover, 704 pages, list price: $45
So many of the elements of the Greek kitchen are well-known — the grape leaves, the phyllo, the olives and feta — yet for one reason or another they don't add up to something we turn to night after night, as people do with Italian-based pastas or Chinese-derived stir-fries. Maybe that's because there hasn't been a basic, here's-how-we-do-it Greek Joy of Cooking — until now.
Vefa's Kitchen fulfills that role. Described without fuss and lovingly photographed, dishes like Chicken Pilaf Wrapped in Phyllo and Octopus with Eggplants suddenly seem like pretty straightforward dinner choices. You'll also find familiar Greek-American classics like moussaka and pastitsio, as well as a number of intriguing recipes that read like a pan-Hellenic national tour: Meatballs with Yogurt from Thrace, Cracked Potatoes Tossed with Coriander from Cyprus, Cretan Wedding Pilaf, Phoenician Honey Cookies.
The Spice Kitchen, by Michal Haines, Interlink Publishing Group, hardcover, 192 pages, list price: $29.95
In her quirky, globe-trotting book, The Spice Kitchen, Michal Haines displays a range of culinary endeavor that would dazzle the most jaded spice merchant on the Silk Road, leaping from Szechuan to Mexico to Istanbul with nary a segue. Caraway onion cheese scones follow Armenian street bread, which in turn follows Vietnamese baguettes. Born a daughter of many cultures, Haines seems every bit as happy working with cumin, sumac and coriander as she is with ginger, garlic and lemongrass. Spiced Spanish Squid, with its ground almonds, smoked paprika and allspice, reinvents the fried calamari you thought you knew, while the Spicy Chocolate Ginger Tart crosses new frontiers of chocolate with fennel, cloves, caraway and ginger.
Real Cajun, by Donald Link, Crown Publishing Group, hardcover, 256 pages, list price: $35
You may not have realized before now that you need to know how to make sausage, but that's only because you haven't yet succumbed to the pork-worshipping, boudinacious, jambalayicious world of Real Cajun. I don't want to hear it's too hot to make Lake Charles Dirty Rice or Smothered Collard Greens, because no matter how humid and sticky it is where you live, it's worse in Louisiana, where this extraordinary culinary effort comes from. In any case, you can trust Donald Link to make the journey worth your while — the ingredient list for his Super Bowl Sunday Seafood Gumbo recipe starts: "At least 6 cold beers for the chef." Next thing you know, you'll be preaching okra to anyone who will listen and biting the heads off raw jalapenos without batting a lash.
The Modern Vegetarian, by Maria Elia, Kyle Books, hardcover, 160 pages, list price: $24.95
Lest you think the Top 10 list has been taken over by an omnivorous chilehead who has lost the ability to taste anything below 5,000 Scoville units, let's close out the list with a less fiery, but no less exuberant coda. The Modern Vegetarian, an import from BBC chef Maria Elia, shows us just how far we've come since the Big Bang of Western-style vegetarianism in the 1970s.
You won't find the words "mock," "faux,"or "almost" in any of these dishes; this book loves its grains and vegetables for their own sake, not for their ability to masquerade as meat or camouflage its absence. And there's something sweetly avant-garde about the recipes, which tweak familiar dishes in unexpected directions, whether its Ginger Beer-Battered Stuffed Tofu with Asian Mushy Peas, Lemongrass and Sweet Corn Soup with Creme Fraiche, or Watermelon Panzanella. For vegetarians who have long since succumbed to the steamed-tempeh blues, this smart and startling book could be a surefire cure.