I RECENTLY RETURNED from a trip to Greece, visiting islands in the
Ionian (or Adriatic) Sea between Greece and Italy and ending up with two days in Athens. I knew I would get my fill of culture and beautiful landscape, though I was not expecting to eat well. The food in Athens was no great shakes, but I was astonished at the high quality of the meals on the islands: fresh ingredients full of flavor, delicate cooking, plates that were a feast for the eye as well as the palate.
At certain well-known restaurants, such as the Taverna Tripa on the island of Corfu, where lambs and suckling pigs turn on spits as you enter, the variety of dishes boggled the mind. But even in lesser places, the salads were crisp and colorful, meat and fish perfectly cooked and country cheeses a delight. So it was with particular remembered pleasure that I found Greek Vegetarian Cooking, by Jack Santa Maria (Shambhala, paperback, $8.95) among the current crop of cookbooks. It is a book as simple and uncomplicated as the Greek countryside itself. There are 200 recipes, many only a few lines long, each one giving another blow to the theory that a vegetarian diet must be dull. And for us meat-eaters, the dishes it proposes provide a refreshing and healthy change of pace.
How about this for a different sort of meal? Chickpea stew with small pasta, accompanied by zucchini fritters and a rice pilaf made with onions, almonds and raisins. Alongside the plate, a salad of apple and chestnuts. It would make a dinner party for six for about the price of a lobster. And if you are planning a bash where you'll need some noshes, you can try the book's recipes for squash balls, eggplant-sesame dip or chestnut patties. Greek Vegetarian Cookery is nicely written, is a fount of information on Hellenic cuisine, and is a bargain to boot.
The New Complete Book of Pasta, by Maria Luisa Scott and Jack Denton Scott (Morrow, $24.95) is a reissue -- with 50 additional recipes -- of the classic American work on the subject, written in 1968. In their introduction, the Scotts (with a good deal of justice) say "we told you so," referring to their early championing of the nutritional value of pasta. But they also have harsh words for some aspects of the pasta boom.
They rail for instance against pasta served cold, correctly pointing out that it is unknown in Italy. The Scotts also give the back of their hands to home pasta machines and to fresh pasta that is too quickly made, arguing that it often produces a gluey result when cooked. They say that commercial semolina pastas (they specifically mention the Italian brands de Cecco, del Verde and Siga) frequently produce a tastier dish than fresh pasta. I am in complete agreement, adding only that I find American comercial pastas made with No. 1 durum semolina to be every bit as good as the Italian brands -- and cheaper. If you are a pasta fan, the Scotts' thorough survey should definitely be on your shelf.
The Town & Country Cookbook, by James Villas (Little, Brown, $24.95) is a stroll through the world of food with a guide who is at once cosmopolitan and commonsensical. James Villas inaugurated the food and wine department at Town & Country magazine in 1973 and has since established himself as one of the country's leading writers on food, particularly about American dishes. There are nearly 600 recipes in his book, covering all the categories of cooking.
In his articles for Town & Country, Villas deals with restaurants as well as recipes, and one of the most interesting aspects of the volume is that it is sprinkled throughout with wonderful dishes from some of the world's finest eating places. So we find "Eggs Commander's," a favorie at the Sunday jazz brunch at Commander's Palace in New Orleans; the black bean soup and the rack of lamb from the Coach House in New York's Greenwich Village, and pheasant with garlic cloves from Ernie's in San Francisco, to name just a few. It is a varied and wide-ranging book, and well worth having.
In discussing the next two books, I should say up front that I occasionally pen an article for Food & Wine magazine, but I hope that does not cloud my judgment. Good Food Fast: A Menu Cookbook, by Anne Walsh and the editors of Food & Wine (American Express Publishing, $19.95) includes recipes from the pages of Food & Wine while Menus for Contemporary Living by Elvie Righter (Knopf, $27.50) includes those from Gourmet magazine. They both address an important problem -- how can you eat with a certain amount of elegance when you are confronted with a busy and full schedule? Each book presents complete menus and recipes for a variety of meals and occasions, from breakfasts for two to small dinner parties. With dishes like eggs in roquefort cream, smoked fish chowder and tamale pie, the Gourmet magazine book might have a slight advantage in inventiveness, but the Food & Wine book more succinctly deals with the problem of time and organization. Each two- page spread contains everything you need. On the left is the menu, with a tightly written commentary as a game plan for proceeding. On the right-hand page are the recipes themselves. At the end of the book is a section on mixing the various recipes to create yet different menus.
The Gourmet volume has 90 full-color photos against 34 for the Food & Wine book (which somewhat accounts for the difference in price). Either book would make an excellent gift for a young working couple, but for sheer practicality, the Food & Wine volume is the better investment.
A comparison between Chez Panisse Desserts, by Lindsey Remoif Shere (Random House, $17.95) and Maida Heatter's Book of Great American Desserts (Knopf, $25) yields two winners. The Heatter book is slightly longer than the Chez Panisse volume and is in a larger format, so the price differential is understandable, but both books are first class. I'd give a slight edge to Chez Panisse for its very classical introduction to what it calls "the basic repertory" of dessert and for a superior section on ice creams, including fantastical flavors such as jasmine and fig never dreamed of by Howard Johnson. Heatter is better on cakes, and positively soars whenever the subject of chocolate comes up. But every chocolate junkie is already aware, I'm sure, of her great 1980 book on chocolate desserts. If you have to choose one over another, give the Chez Panisse volume to the young cook and the Heatter to the hardened veteran of the kitchen wars. It will rekindle the spirit.
The kind of ,elan that Maida Heatter brings to chocolate, Sherry Golden brings to practically everything in the cupboard. Good Tastes (Knopf, $22.95; paperback, $14.95) is a startlingly eclectic book, zooming in and out of Chinese, Indian, Italian, Greek, Jewish, Mexican, North African and health-food cooking -- and crossing bits and pieces of them all. At one point, she incorporates pasta into a basically Chinese dish and then turns the whole thing into a salad. Curry and phyllo pastry abound, hoi sin sauce becomes the basis of a marinade. She uses ratatouille as a stuffing for manicotti, lasagna, and crepes and as a topping for spaghetti and linguine (a bit repetitive here). T
HE WOMAN is indefatigable at
finding new combinations. Sometimes they don't sound attractive
at all (vinegar chicken with broccoli and kielbasa shall not see my plate), yet many strike a responsive chord. I'm resolved to try some of Golden's soups -- particularly a gingered carrot and pear bisque and a curried bisque of butternut squash. And I am intrigued by her suggestion of using pureed bananas for moistening and sweetening a whole variety of breads.
As our shelves groan with products bought for various kinds of ethnic dishes, it is not surprising that cooks have begun to combine them in previously unheard-of ways. Like some bizarrely syncretic religion whose pantheon includes Confucius, Buddha, Dante, Melina Mercouri, Adele Davis, Emperor Hirohito and all the stars of Miami Vice, the current eclectic cooking ransacks tradition, makes the exotic commonplace and venerates the new. If Sherry Golden doesn't watch it, she'll become a priestess of the cult.
If, like myself, you are a Craig Claiborne fan, reading through The New York Times Food Encyclopedia (Times Books, $24.95) will be like having a cozy chat with an intelligent and well-informed old friend. But be aware that this book is in no way an encyclopedia, even though it is composed of alphabetically arranged entries Among the A's, for example, there is a little disquisition on airline food but no entry on asparagus. Among the L's we find lefser (a flat, rolled- out cake) but not lima beans. This is my only complaint about an immensely readable book. Much praise must go to Joan Whitman, who distilled this treasury of wit and wisdom from Claiborne's newspaper writings over the years. Every entry delights and informs.
I began this review with praise of an $8.95 book. I close with a grumble about Glorious American Food (Random House), a $50 one. The rationale for the coffee-table book was best put, I guess, by Andr,e Malraux who posited the idea of a "museum without walls." But that applied to art books. I find it sad that where American coffee tables once bore hefty tomes on the Lascaux cave paintings or Flemish art, they now sport equally hefty volumes containing nothing but a few recipes and pictures of food. It is a degeneration in our standard of conspicuous consumption.
I'm not complaining about Christopher Idone's 275 recipes. They are fine. And the photographs by Tom Eckerle are certainly professional. I object to the whole glitzy package. The Town & Country Cookbook is beautifully printed and bound and it delivers 600 excellent recipes for half the price. But perhaps I labor under the delusion that cookbooks are supposed to be useful. Grrr. I know one thing for damn sure. Anyone who pays $50 for a 275-recipe cookbook doesn't need a cut in taxes.