SEVERAL OF THIS season's new cookbooks emphasize technique. Two big picture books, patterned after Jacques P,epin's La Technique and La Methode, offer enough that is different to merit them serious consideration, especially by cooks who see better than they read. A book on pastry-making is an instant classic, as is a serious, scholarly new work on French regional home cooking. An updated version of a basic cookbook achieves its goal as does a charming book on British food. Two other books--one which aspires to be a kitchen primer and the other which presents itself even more grandly as a household primer--are, to put it mildly, disappointing. But the reissue of a tried and true classic and of a book for devotees of sushi are not.
Wonderful things are to be learned from Cooking Techniques: How to Do Anything a Recipe Tells You to Do, by Beverly Cox with Joan Whitman, and from Chinese Techniques: An Illustrated Guide to the Fundamental Techniques of Chinese Cooking by Ken Hom and Harvey Steiman. These big picture books, which are meant to be adjuncts to cookbooks, contain thousands of black-and-white photographs showing skilled hands demonstrating almost every conceivable technique for making the simplest to the most elaborate Western and Chinese dishes. Both use color photographs to illustrate some of the rewards of learning new skills.
Cox's approach in Cooking Technique is singleminded, straightforward and no-nonsense. She uses neither recipes nor chit-chat, but when she is done, the cook who follows the pictures and the captions can learn plenty about what can be done with or to food. Many of the skills can make daily life in the kitchen more rewarding. Others, such as forming a boneless leg of lamb into the shape of a duck, may never be applied, but what fun to know how it's done. A purist, Cox occasionally uses the electric mixer, sausage stuffer, processor or pasta machine. But most of her results are achieved with a knife, wire whisk or rolling pin coupled with a knowledgeable pair of hands, which she is bound to help others cultivate.
Ken Hom's Chinese Technique belongs in the kitchen of cooks who want to make wonderful dishes they have eaten in Chinese restaurants. As might be expected from a Californian, Hom is more relaxed and more discursive than Cox. He prepares Peking duck using an air compressor or bicycle pump; she uses a straw and air blown through a pair of human lungs. He suggests the tortilla press as a possible alternative to the rolling pin for making Chinese pancakes; she ignores the existence of the tortilla press even for making tortillas.
Hom takes the cook through the basics of Chinese food preparation, beginning with taming the dread cleaver. Instructions for preparation, cooking and presentation are accompanied by recipes, the most clever of which is a whole chicken skin that is stuffed with rice and then steamed and deep fried. The dish, as Hom says, makes "something seem to be what it isn't." Very Chinese, these Chinese.
Bernard Clayton's The Complete Book of Pastry is confidence-giving, anxiety defusing and invaluable for beginning and experienced bakers. Sensible hints, warnings, explanations and working notes make it an exceptional teaching document.
The recipes for both sweet and savory pastries follow the admirable format devised for Clayton's excellent The Complete Book of Breads. They are clear, easy to follow and avoid the irritating cross-references that litter so many baking books. Several pie crusts are included, along with doughs for cream puffs, turnovers, cannoli, puff pastry, strudel, Danish pastries, dumplings and a variety of pizzas. Instructions cover three methods of making these doughs--by hand, with an electric mixer and in the food processor. Useful supplementary chapters and sections include information on ingredients, equipment, sources of supply, standard weights and measures, including a fascinating pastry "program" for determining equivalent U.S., British and metric measures, a glossary and instructions on rendering fresh lard. My idea of heaven would be to bake through this book non-stop and cover-to-cover.
For all the countless French cookbooks that have inundated the market over the last several years, French Regional Cooking, which is devoted to the home cooking of France's 12 regions, fills a void and does so with both form and substance.
This excellent book, by Anne Willan and the staff of La Varenne, the cooking school Willan founded, is handsomely produced and filled with information cooks want. The recipes are unaffected yet fascinating, clearly presented and well-tested. The essays on techniques and regional ingredients are thoughtful and informative and the introductions to each section give a real feeling for the regions and their foods. The many handsome photographs of people, places and foods are used to reinforce the text rather than as frivolous fillers.
The focus of the recipes is on simplicity, as it should be in home cooking, with the interest coming from the rich diversity of the foods themselves. Willan includes a number of dishes that have long been standards in the repertoires of both home and professional cooks but has resisted any temptation to make them flossy or "different." Many of the recipes are extremely interesting, surprisingly typical and not widely known. Kig-ha-farz, the Breton buckwheat pudding with meat and vegetables, brings to mind a medieval dining hall or maybe a Middle European tzimmes. Other noteworthy offerings, chosen entirely at random, include recipes for a beef stew with carrots and whole shallots from the Southwest, pork pancakes from the Languedoc, venison with pears from Alsace and veal with vegetables and chestnuts from Aix-les-Bains.
Until recently, guests at the British Embassy were not likely to be served a meat pie or kippers or a pudding. The food had to be French, or quasi-French, which was a relief since British cooking was a joke, as everyone knew. Then the Hendersons came to Washington and transformed the food at the British Embassy. Surprise! Real British food has about as much relationship to the slop that is dished out to tourists in London as Algerian rotgut has to a Mouton Rothschild.
The publication of Jane Garmey's amusingly titled and excellent Great British Cooking: A Well-Kept Secret should help the rest of the country to discover that a Cornish pasty made at home is light and delicious, that kedgeree is a glorious alternative to eggs for breakfast and that British children are not raised on vegetables boiled to a stinking mess. Garmey's is by no means the only good cookbook available on British food, but it does have the virtue of using a format that American cooks are comfortable with and it addresses with humor a wrongheaded view of a very good cuisine.
James Beard, the exalted high guru of the American food world, is a man of many talents, not the least of which is the ability to identify acceptable trends and then popularize them by making them unthreatening to cooks and eaters. Like the old James Beard Cookbook, the New James Beard combines information about ingredients and techniques with short, easy recipes, many of which are followed by variations on master themes. Freely given advice about the new and the fashionable is delivered in the reassuring, almost fatherly tones that are sure to transform kitchen klutzes into cooks.
The new volume is a reflection of the times, what with recipes for seafood sausages, sauteed salmon cheeks (six per serving), a cassoulet with salt cod and chicken legs garnished with walnuts. Peppers vinaigrette are dressed with sherry vinegar, mustard fruits are a suggested accompainment to an Italian boiled dinner and baked tomatoes are stuffed with mozzarella, preferably fresh chly made. For those who want a all-around cookbook with all the latest, this would be it.
Many will be tempted by How Cooking Works: An Indispensible Kitchen Handbook. The look is good, but the promise is empty. The explanatory sections, whose purpose it is to state principles and set standards, are barely adequate, misinformed or ignorant. The statement that "chicken and goose fat can be useful in cooking, but duck fat is too strong in flavor for general purposes and is not considered desirable as a cooking ingredient" could only have been written by one who has neither rendered nor cooked with duck fat, a staple and delicate ingredient in the cuisine of Southwest France. Some of the drawings are misleading. One shows a knife slicing through a turkey's or chicken's drumstick, leaving the thigh behind, yet the caption directs that both be removed together in one cut. In another, the perspective is so inept as to be dangerous: one hand appears to hold a chicken breast upright while the other hand wields a knife in the air to remove the bone. As for the recipes, they range from banal to bad. Both the recipes and the results for the two I tried, for apple pancake and for cheese puffs, would have been throwm down the garbage disposal by any self-respecting test kitchen.
Pamela Harlech's Practical Guide to Cooking, Entertaining & Household Management has a lovely still-life photograph by Lord Snowdon on the jacket and favorable quotes from reviews of her first book on the flyleaf. Inside, there is advice on how to fit out a guest bedroom so friends feel spoiled and welcome, how to clean various stains from sundry objects and how many linens are needed per bed in the house. There is also an incomplete list of standard culinary terms as well as a list of "traditional accompaniments for standard dishes," from which I learned to have Yorkshire pudding, horseradish sauce, browned potatoes and gravy with my roast beef. I am worried about the baked bacon rolls for the roast chicken or fowl, the grilled bacon rolls for the veal roast and the fried savory balls for the roast hare or rabbit because I don't know what they are and can't find them in the index. From the list of American and British culinary terms, which is titled a glossary but isn't, I learned that the British call maple syrup and pecans by the same names as we do and that if I want a popsicle in England I should ask for an iced lolly. I didn't find a definition of self-rising flour, an ingredient ubiquitious in English cookery, in the section on baking ingredients. I suppose I better get out the Joy of Cooking.
Two notes for an upbeat ending: The Cordon Bleu Cookbook by the late, great Dione Lucas has been issued in an agreeable, expanded format. This book, first published in 1947 and now in its 28th printing, stands the test of time. Sushi aficionados should not miss The Book of Sushi, an elegant slim volume that tells all, including how to do it yourself.