These days cookbooks are almost as ubiquitous as indigestion, to which they sometimes bear relation. Each season brings its hopeful new entries as expectations, nutritional and gastronomic, and life styles change. Judging from the quality of most cookbook prose, I'm inclined to think that their authors don't mind their Bacon suficiently -- Francis Bacon, that is. In a famous passage of his Essays he wrote, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."
Rosalie Swedlin's A World of Salads happily belongs in the third category. That came as a surprise to me. I had never heard of Swedlin. A Long Islander transplanted to London, where for the past eight years she has worked as a literary agent, she alludes at the outset to "this neophyte act of authorship." Then, too, I can't claim to be much of a salad freak. My own taste runs mainly to a classic French dressing -- olive oil (a good Italian olio d'oliva puro ), wine vinegar, and some Dijon mustard -- over Boston lettuce, with chopped parsley and chives: nothing fancy, none of those mixed-salad sophistications, cucumber and tomato and the like. In France I've never, needless to say, encountered that nauseous concoction which in this country passes for French dressing; but, then again, I've never been offered an English muffin in England either.
Swedlin expanded my horizons. She literaly covers the world in pursuit of salads. Follow her instructions and you can savor the delights of kuah lada (spicy Malaysian dressing), gaghamp aghstan (Armenian cabbage salad), carpetas elixatas (Roman carrot salad), and gobi ki sabzi (Indian spicy cauliflower). Despite the exotic nomenclature none of these calls for far-out ingredients. For something like nam prik pak (raw vegetables with Thai hot sauce), however, you'll have to hot-foot it over to an Oriental specialty shop for fish sauce and dried shrimp cake.
That is, if only the genuine article will satisfy you; Swedlin isn't uptight about substitutions. She knows that nowadays nobody uses Roquefort cheese, which costs the earth, in Roquefort dressing; blue cheese, which looks similar but doesn't taste the same, being the customary substitute. (So why don't people, especially restaurateurs, frankly call it blue-cheese dressing?)
Swedlin has a section on flower garnishes -- chrysanthemums and violets, marigold and rose petals -- which maybe someday I'll summon up the courage to sample. I've had rose petals only once, years back in a fancy Indian restaurant Manhattan, and wasn't much taken with them; but I've never much fancied eating a corsage.
The author tells you how to prepare your own sauerkraut and mayonnaise, and she includes a handy recipe for a speedy whole-egg mayonnaise. I tried her simple mushrooms a la Grecque, and it worked fine. But what especially turned me on was Swedlin's historical sense. She gets started on lettuce by giving its derivation, from Latin lactuca , and noting that it was know to the Greeks as tridax "and features in Herodotus' accounts of the feasts served to Persian kings in the sixth century B.C." Swedlin remarks that broccoli, although familiar to the ancient Greeks and Romans, wa almost unknown in America before the 1920s, when the D'Arrigo brothers of Northern California began their highly successful promotion of it. She reminds us that Green Goddness dressing was introduced at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco to honor the actor George Arliss after his triumph in the play The Green Goddess . There is a lot more of this sort of thing in A World of Salads , making it fun to browse in even when you aren't planning a salad.
Carol Truax's book is a different kettle of fish in more than one sense. It naturally features kettles -- or, rather, steamers -- some of much contain fish. So she includes a reasonable recipe for Chinese sea bass calling for -- in addition to the obligatory soy sauce -- a tablespoon of mashed black beans and the same amount of hoisin, sake, or sherry; best to get hoisin, that familiar plum preserve which accompanies Peking duck. You might think from this that Truax has a reasonably sophisticated cook in mind. Think again. She is capable of this mind-boggling intelligence: "Poached eggs are usually steamed in an egg poacher, which has little pockets to hold each egg." Truax recommends serving an individual fish wrapped in foil as (among other things) a conversation piece. It must be a pretty dim party, I thought, if, to get things the host has to stick a dead fish before each of his dinner guests.
The problem is that Truax, despite having over 20 cookbooks to her credit, hasn't a clear fix on her audience, and so she doesn't scruple to patronize. Never mind. Her chapters on fish and shellfish, poultry, game birds and eggs, meats, vegetables, bread and desserts have some nice dishes, although she favors more flour than I like. Among the recipes is one for lamb couscous, and another for the chicken variety. These North Afican specialties, not too readily available in D.C. restaurants, are great favorites of mine. I first sampled them long ago in Paris and again, some years later, in Tunisia. The couscous itself -- crushed wheat or coarsely ground semolina -- serves as a bed for an aromatic stew of chicken or lamb, with vegetables, including chick peas, on the side. When I asked for couscous at my local Giant, the manager told me they didn't have any. They did, however. Moral: never take your manager's word.
Marilyn (my wife) and I tried both lamb and chicken. I rang up a French-Moroccan friend, now an esteemed restaurant chef in Philadelphia, and she confirmed what I suspected -- that the Truax recipes aren't all that authentic. She leaves out some ingredients -- squash, green pepper -- and puts in others not called for: sugar, ginger. Still, we enjoyed these unreasonable facsimiles, evoking for us remembrance of couscous past, and I think you will too. Truax doesn't mention harissa , the sauce for those who like it hot. Don't expect to find it in these parts; we made do with sambal oelek, a Dutch hot pepper condiment available from Safeway's international department. Nor does Truax provide any equivalent for merguez, the spicy sausage sometimes used in couscous, especially the Algerian variety. Mexican chorizo is a handy substitute. To go with couscous, A World of Salads recommends schlada l'filfil, a Moroccan green pepper salad, which proved -- as Swedlin promised -- a delicious accompaniment.
The dust jacket of Keep It Simple features a beaming Marian Burros, set to chomp a chicken drumstick as she stands over her groaning board. It's a winning photo of a winner. The back of the jacket cites "advance praise" from James Beard, who needs no introduction to enthusiasts of the trough; also from that renowned gourmet and bon vivant Ralph Nader. He is -- surprise! -- especially taken with Burros' "gripping introductory tour of food fraud in the marketplace." Much of this information will already be familiar enough to informed consumers, but I can't imagine anybody failing to read this chapter with profit. Take Burros on chicken. Citing a Department of Agriculture expert, she confirms that the main difference between a fryerbroiler and a roaster is in the price, not the taste. Practical tip: buy the roaster, which has more meat in relation to bone, if it costs less than 20 cents more a pound.
The menus and recipes which follow offer two- or three-dish meals from scratch for two to four people, dessert excluded. A chapter on hors d'oeuvres and desserts and another on prepare-ahead mixes round out the book. For each dinner Burros starts out by listing the required staples -- olive oil, apple-cider vinegar, or whatever. Then follows the shopping list, and after that the "Game Plan," beginning with the dish which take longest, and shuttling the cook back and forth among the various constituents so that everything falls into place on time. The prose is efficient journalese, notable for Burros' no-nonsense candor. She knows Tex-Mex pasions run high and fears that the cognoscenti will disapprove of her chili, "but that doesn't stop it from being a pretty good tasting chili even if I took too many shortcuts." It is. I add a tablespoon of wine vinegar myself to enhance the flavor; others will have their own refinements.
Burros' recipe for Greek salad is disappointing, the usual D.C. taverna version, big on lettuce. But we tried the fish fillets marinara, with zucchini and vinegar, also green noodles. A neat quickie for the calorie watcher. We also did the orange chicken with kasha pilaf and watercress and mushroom salad in a mustard-yogurt dressing. Not quite as luscious as Mexican pollo con naranjas, which is very similar and only marginally more complicated, calling as it does for capers, a pinch of saffron, and chopped onion and almonds. The Burros version is quite okay, though.
Her book will not transform the novice into a gourmet cook, but will help wean anyone away from the expensive degradation of junk-food take-aways and convenience meals which somtimes look as though they have already been eaten. Keep It Simple is good for both the pocketbook and the gastronomic cause. And for Ralph Nader.
Ann Willan offers a short course, as distinguished from a crash course, in high-class French cookery as taught at L'Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, founded by Willan and directed by Chef Fernand Chambrette, once owner and chef of a two-star Parisian restaurant. Willan is interesting on the way this bilingual school on the Left Bank, established only five years ago "to bridge the gap between the French and American food worlds," goes about its business with a faculty of seven, including the author.
All give favorite recipes, which deliberately vary in complexity, ranging from simple sauteed potatoes to much less simple sauteed sweetbreads with glazed root vegetables. High marks for the duck ragout with pears. I also like the recipe for garlicky Provencal scallops. Lots of the dishes call for heavy cream -- eggs with cream, salmon with cream; chicken, shell fish, and pork chops -- you name it -- with cream. Not especially to my less volupuous taste; but chacun a son gout , as my Italian grandmother always used to say.
The heavy cream substitutes for the slightly acid French creme fraiche, but the real thing, prepared with heavy cream plus buttermilk, yogurt,or sour cream, is not all that intimidating to prepare yourself, and Willan tells how to go about it. The formula appears in perhaps the most useful section, a round-up of basic recipes: bouquet garni (the little sachet of spices I used to get ready-made when I lived in London), various stocks and sauces, pastries, cakes, fillings, and frosting. And, along the way, you'll find some practical tips which only experienced chefs are in a position to share.
Of these four books my own favorites are Swedlin and Burros, which, all things considered, have wider appeal than the more elegant Willan and more specialist Truax. But all will help yo to dine better. "Bon appetit!", to quote another of my grandmother's favorite locutions.