THERE ARE COOKBOOKS that tell you how to cook everything from A to Z and cookbooks entirely devoted to Z, as in a million ways to cook zucchini. There are astrological cookbooks for people who want to know what the stars predict and celebrity cookbooks for people who want to know what the stars eat. There are over 3,500 cookbooks in print in the United States; could we possibly have room for more?
Well, yes, it turns out we could.
One new cookbook which any sensible, sensual chef will make room for is the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook (Random House, $16.95). When you finish it, it's difficult to decide whether to head for the kitchen or for Berkeley, California, where Alice Waters has her famous Chez Panisse restaurant.
"I don't ever want to write anything in this book that is so precise that the reader must invoke great powers of concentration on every detail in order to ensure the success of a recipe or a dinner: ingredients are simply too variable. . . . Everytime we make pesto at the restaurant, it's different. If it isn't garlic with a hotter taste or the basil with a bitterness from too much sun, it's the cook pounding it differently."
The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook is about Alice Waters' love affair with food, the happy moments like the time James Beard visited the restaurant and she devised a menu consisting of her now famous, whole baked garlic accompanied by white cheese and peasant bread, spit- roasted squab with anchovy-olive butter, new potatoes in parchment, garden salad and Linda's chocolate cups, the latter "tiny molded chocolate cups filled with cream . . . the entire mold, cream and all, was dropped into the coffee, which created a divine melange of bittersweet chocolate, sweet cream and coffee."
And there were the nights when, as too sadly happens in love affairs, everything went wrong. The "charcoal-grilled Cajun hot sausage" was "so hot I couldn't eat more than two bites of them, and I had nothing else to serve our visitors." Or the jellied salt cod with olives, tarragon and garlic, served with a sauce, where "Our jelly didn't set in large quantities--it melted as soon as it hit the plates, but we had to serve it anyway."
The recipes are as simple as the menus are creative and if the use of ingredients unavailable in some parts of the country gives the reader pause, there is Alice Waters' voice in the background reminding that the good cook, the cook who loves food, will substitute ingredients and devise new ways of filling in the outlines she provides.
Many of the new cookbooks take the staples of American cooking and use them in more sophisticated ways. This is the case with American Food & California Wine by Barbara Kafka (Irene Chalmers, $6.95). After devoting half its pages to a discussion of California wines, the book moves on to pair American foods and wines in creative fashion. Recipes for "Buckwheat Noodles with Golden American Caviar" and "Lemon Beurre Blanc," or "Duck Breast with Rhubarb Sauce," or "Grits Timbles" are easy to follow, though not for the beginner. I would not copy the author's method of testing for temperature -- "Remove the pan from the heat and touch the bottom. It should be just hot enough to permit you to withstand the heat for a second or two" -- but I would adopt her approach to easy desserts: "Sometimes what I do is as simple as hollowing out a ripe papaya, filling the hollow with sour cream and patting a layer of brown sugar over the cream. Left to sit for a half hour, the acid in the cream caramelizes the sugar -- and we have a delight to eat with a spoon."
American Food & California Wine is one of a series of soft cover books on "The Great American Cooking Schools" put out by Irene Chalmers Cookbooks, all of which are handsomely designed, easy to follow and a bargain at $6.95. If you can't find them at a bookstore, they can be ordered from the publisher: Irene Chalmers Cookbooks Inc., 23 E. 92nd St., New York, New York 10028. First class postage is $3, book rate $1.25.
Another cookbook from California, Cooking With Jack Lirio (Morrow, $15.95), also offers imaginative combinations like oysters on saffron bean threads or fresh white figs with squab livers, but its range is narrower, and the book is laid out in a way that makes it difficult to use. Recipes should not be so brief they omit essential information, but they should also not be so chatty it takes 41/2 pages to follow a seafood soup from start to finish. Much general information that should have been pulled out and boxed (how to buy and store things, for example) has found its way into individual recipes, making them hard to follow.
For those who do not live in the land of wine and rose hips, there is a charming, eccentric volume, The Country Gourmet Cookbook, by Sherrill and Gil Roth (Workman, $14.95; paperback, $8.95) which proves how far rural America has come from corn bread and breaded pork chops. The book tells not only how to make your own cottage cheese, but also how to put together garam masala (a spice blend used in Indian cooking). It gives recipes for hush puppies but also for baba ghanouj and empanadas. If you were wondering what to do with a 12-pound Halloween pumpkin, they'll tell you, and also give you a recipe for making dog biscuits. Most useful for people whose supermarket shelves are more likely to yield baked beans than truffles, the authors include an appendix listing mail order sources for many of the ingredients.
In an earlier book, Better Than Store Bought, Elizabeth Schneider Colchie told readers how to make such exotica as candied mint leaves and such staples as pretzels. In her new book Ready When You Are: Company Food That's a F.ete Accomplie (Crown, $15.95) she offers menus and recipes geared to life as most of us live it -- 10 minutes behind schedule and racing to catch up. Her menus range from the inexpensive like a deep dish chicken pie served with a California chenin blanc or muscadet (more and more cookbook writers are suggesting appropriate wines with their menus), a green salad, strawberries and pineapple, and sugared almonds, (the whole preceded by a brief and witty discussion of the sumptuary laws) to a more elaborate "Sensuous Birthday Dinner, on the Lavish Side." After first recalling the kind of excess we all committed in childhood -- "a dinner . . . composed of a large bowl of spaghetti and butter and an equally large bowl of whipped cream and colored sprinkles," she steps back into adulthood with "peppered raw salmon appetizer with a Sancerre or California Chardonnay, sweetbreads with chestnuts, wild rice with dried mushrooms accompanied by a Margaux; avocado and arugula salad, a tart lemon mousse with berry sauce and either extra dry Champagne or a Moscato di Pantelleria Spumante." This is not a meal to whip up in a minute, and most of the recipes in the book require work. But they are varied, and for people who like to cook, the results make the effort worthwhile.
Lessons and Recipes from the School of Contemporary Cooking by Sherri Zitron with Charles G. Powell (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95) takes the reader through the year with a series of sophisticated, three- course menus such as artichokes with tarragon mayonnaise, "Fillet of Sole Dugl,er,e," and "Chestnut Cream Dacquoise" or mussels with hazlenut butter, braised duckling and apple tart. It would be ideal for someone who is serious about learning to cook but still needs help working out menus.
There are also three new and very good specialty cookbooks. The Victory Garden Cookbook does go from asparagus to zucchini. The book grew out of the TV program, Crockett's Victory Garden, and shares the same handsome design and comprehensive approach as the program's books on gardening. There is information on how to grow a vegetable, store it, what yield to expect (from one pound of fresh snap beans, you will get 4 cups) and how to prepare it. This is the kind of book that becomes a classic.
Time-Life Books has brought out its volume on Terrines, P.at,es & Galantines ($13.95) with easy to follow photographs and instructions for putting together meat, vegetable and fish terrines, pat,es, galantines, aspics, mousses, etc. The anthology of recipes ranges from "Mrs. Rundell's Duck Pie," first published in 1808, to "Vegetable Terrine Olympe" from The Nouvelle Cuisine of Jean & Pierre Troisgros.
Last, as befits a book about desserts, is Maida Heatter's New Book of Great Desserts. Her fans, frustrated in Great Chocolate Desserts by her failure to duplicate a remembered best-chocolate- cake-ever will be delighted to know that she's done it. It's "rich/dense/dark/delicious, a cross between fudge candy, chocolate pudding and chocolate cheesecake." If that does not satisfy the chocoholics, there are chocolate hermits, chocolate pepper pretzels, the Robert Redford (chocolate) cake, as well as a great many non-chocolate pies, cakes, cookies, custards, etc. The book should come with a companion volume on exercise, but it is a must for cooks who think the best is last.