IN ONE OF Barbara Pym's delicious novels, Excellent Women,2 the heroine tells us that cookery books make "the most comforting bedside reading" and that especially good ones can soothe you to sleep. A couple of these fall into that slumber-inducing category.
Lee Bailey's Country Weekends: Recipes for Good Food and Easy Living is easily the best among the books here. And despite the over-orchestrated presentation--there are pictures of outdoor table settings in which the blades of grass look as though they've been to Elizabeth Arden--it's full of sensible recipes that shouldn't throw a timid cook into a tizzy. American food, with a strong southern influence (Bailey is a native Louisianan), is the key to what he's offering: Grits Souffl,e, Turnip Greens with Hot Pepper Vinegar and Cornmeal Dumplings, Fresh Ham with Pan Gravy, Chicken and Okra Gumbo. But it's country fare that's seen "Paree," and you can't keep it down on the farm. Thus, the appearance of such European imports as arugula, mascarpone cheese and, inevitably, pasta.
Each recipe is given in the context of a menu. Probably these meals are a soupcon more elaborate than, say, what you or I might carry on a picnic in a meadow or take to the beach, but there's none of them that wouldn't work in a city apartment. And, even if we can't crawl into the lap of luxury with Bailey, he is a generous tipper. That is to say, he tips us off to the fact that, if we've gone ahead and made his Sour Cream Cornbread, it keeps best out of the fridge. Other examples include his wonderful notion about what to do with leftover biscuits ("good buttered and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, then toasted"). And I like his suggestion that dish towels make good napkins for sandy seaside lunches.
Lee Bailey is a New York designer who entertains in the Hamptons. Helen Hecht is a poet's wife (her husband, Anthony Hecht, is consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress) who serves up meals in Washington and in Rochester, New York. Her Cuisine for All Seasons: A Menu Cookbook is a compilation that's somewhat appealing but flawed. For one thing, her notes on each menu ("A Simple and Elegant Italian Dinner for Four," "A Special Dinner in Shad Season" and so forth) for me are the opposite of what she intends: they're unappetizing. We don't really care what her son, at age 5, thought of Thanksgiving turkey treacherously stuffed with oysters instead of the usual mixture. Nor are we necessarily interested in whom she prepares dinner for --poet Joseph Brodsky, for example, as in "A Dinner for Joseph Brodsky" (he likes Chinese food, in case you're thinking of having him over). She may like playing Alice B. to her husband's Gertrude--concocting a m,elange of the culinary and the literary arts--but cookbook chat is something that either works or it doesn't.
A number of Hecht's carefully chosen menus contain combinations of foods, in different courses, that seem far too similar--a meal with a main dish of chicken curry, for example, accompanied by condiments (chutney, raisins, coconut), with a side dish of baked bananas, and a ginger-and-kumquat cake for dessert. That's a little too fruity for my taste. A better side dish for curry is the traditional cucumber-and-yogurt raita, which, unlike the bananas, provides a refreshing contrast to the richness of the curry. Moreover, a lighter dessert, like melon or sherbert, would be preferable to a cake for dessert.
"A Quick and Easy Ham Dinner" is comprised of "Ham Flavored with Port, Apple, and Apricot," pur,eed beets as the vegetable, with fresh strawberries with Curacao to finish. That's more fruit and spirits than I could imagine serving at time, nor does the first course of "Avocado and Shrimp Cocktail" or the "Arugola, Mushroom, and Feta Salad" seem complimentary. There are further instances of this anomalous tendency on the part of an otherwise admirably inventive cook.
Still, forgive Hecht her infatuation with such trendy foods as chevre (it figures in eight recipes) and fennel (eight, also); after all, 50 million Frenchman can't be wrong. She does offer some inspired recipes, particularly for desserts: Warm Pear and Lemon Souffl,e Pie, Frozen Honey and Almond Tortes, Pumpkin-Praline Mousse, Cranberry-Cassis Ice and numerous others. And when she hits it just right--"A Venetian-Style Supper for Four or Six" or the "Special Italian Dinner for Four"--these are menus we want to add to our repertoire.
Colette Rossant is a language teacher and food writer who gained weight, she says, after she quit smoking. Born in France, she was not a user of such low-cal foods as tofu until the urge to reduce (and still make appetizing meals) came upon her. Thus was born Colette's Slim Cuisine, and it is a book of some value. Can a Frenchwoman learn to love bean curd? Can we? Well, the tempting recipes here are not the ones that use tofu; rather, think of "Hot Rabbit and Chicory Salad" or "Fricassee of Turkey on a Bed of Leeks."
Rossant, however, has a peculiar notion of absolutes: she states emphatically, "I never buy frozen food." And yet, in the next breath, she tells us she makes exceptions for "frozen, boned trout and tiny green peas." (Lee Bailey, by the way, only buys frozen lima beans, he says.) Plus, she is not especially talented at cookbook prose, and she shares Hecht's unfortunate weakness for inflicting the culinary opinions of her children upon the hapless reader.
"The recipes in this book," Rossant writes, "by themselves, will not make anyone lose weight." What she proposes, instead, are "delicious dishes sans beurre and sans boredom." Innocuous is too strong a word for Collette's Slim Cuisine, but for those ever in quest of what The Joy of Cooking didn't take into account about putting on the old avoirdupois, it's fine if you've got the extra shelf space, and aren't sans cash for extra cookbooks.
The Festive Vegetarian by Rose Elliot comes with a lovely naive painting on the front, and the recipes inside seem only minimally more sophisticated. I'm a hardened carnivore with good will towards all vegetarians, or so I always think until I start trying to imagine a life of nut roasts. Actually, Elliot's enthusiasm is nearly infectious, and, as my mother used to chide me, you can never tell what a dress is like while it's still on the hanger. So, these meatless treats--"Stuffed Red Peppers with Almonds," "Vegetarian Scotch Eggs," "Bean and Ripe- Olive Pat,e with Hard-Boiled Eggs"--demand to be tasted. Herbs and spices play a large part in vegetarian cookery, so Elliot's recipes don't sound too bland. It's just that my reservations have to remain in place if only because Elliot admits to having never tasted oysters. Salsify may satisfy her, but not me.