AFEW YEARS ago, a married couple from Toronto, Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen, made a splash in the food world with an absoutely wonderful book called Cooking From an Italian Garden, a compilation of Italian vegetarian recipes. Pasta aside, Italian cooking is closely associated in the popular imagination with veal, chicken and seafood, and its vegetarian tradition had really remained in the shadows until the superb rescue effort mounted by Scaravelli and Cohen.
Now the pair -- both of whom labor at the University of Toronto -- have cast their net wider and produced A Mediterranean Harvest, covering the cooking of much of the Mediterranean littoral, including Spain, France, Greece and Morocco. While the recipes remain meatless, Scaravelli and Cohen have, thank Neptune, included seafood.
What struck me about their first book -- and it is equally true of this one -- is how nicely they meld the traditional and the contemporary. Their recipes have the spice of regional authenticity and yet none would be out of place on the table of the most health-conscious contemporary eater. At the same time, they have a genius for simplification. There is a minimum of frippery and faddism. Perhaps living in Toronto has allowed them to escape the curse of the momentarily chic. Their recipes are very easy to cook and, by and large, just as easy on the pocketbook. The Frugal Gourmet with a tan.
Here's a handful of Scaravelli-Cohen recipes that I really look forward to preparing soon: chilled squid salad with peppers; fettucine with walnuts and ricotta; vegetable paella; sweet and sour vegetable soup; bell peppers stuffed with fish; croquettes of salt cod and potatoes seasoned with garlic and parsley; sole with sherry; cold swordfish steaks with vegetable sauce; shrimp omelet; cauliflower and lentil stew; mushrooms baked in parchment; and a dessert called rice fritters. Indeed, there isn't one of the 300 recipes in the book that doesn't appeal.
Try this Scaravelli-Cohen recipe from Morocco for a different taste in salad. It's perfect for hot days. Peel two lemons, leaving the white membrane. Cover with water and two tablespoons of salt for two hours. Rinse, halve, squeeze, and remove some internal filaments. Cut into quarter-inch cubes. Sprinkle with a half-cup of chopped parsley. Add stirred dressing of two tablespoons each of olive and peanut oil, quarter-teaspoons of cayenne and cumin and a tablespoon of paprika, along with 10 green and 10 black olives, halved and pitted. All this can be made a day in advance and kept in the fridge. Before serving, add two tablespoons of lemon juice. When everyone asks what this tasty thing is, just say "Shalada bel hamed au zitoun, of course."
Another book very much in the same spirit is Modern Italian Cooking, by Biba Caggiano. A native of Bologna, Italy's great food city, Caggiano is a cooking teacher and proprietor of a restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., called Biba. I never wanted to go to Sacramento before, but now I do. For omnivores, her book has the advantage, as compared with A Mediterranean Harvest, of including meat recipes -- poultry, veal, lamb, beef, pork and (an animal that the Italians do better than anyone else) rabbit.
The book is divided between spring-summer recipes and autumn-winter ones, probably a more sensible way to handle the seasonal problem than having separate sections on spring, summer, autumn and winter. An introductory section covers sauces for all seasons, notably four simple tomato-sauce recipes, one of which is expressly intended for use with those good canned tomatoes imported from San Marzano, Italy.
Among Caggiano's enticing spring-summer recipes is one for sea scallops served over toasted slices of Italian bread. Chop up two garlic cloves, a small piece of dried red pepper and enough parsley to fill a tablespoon, and gently saute' 50 seconds in four tablespoons of olive oil. Raise heat, add a pound of scallops, stir them for a minute and remove. Add a half-cup of white wine and cook until evaporated. Add another half-cup of wine, plus a cup of canned tomatoes (seeded) and two tablespoons of seasoned bread crumbs. Cook over high heat for three minutes, return scallops, add another tablespoon of chopped parsley. Cook for 30 seconds or so and serve over toast slices.
Caggiano says this dish will serve six to eight as an appetizer, but it sounds to me just right for two as a main course. Since you'll probably want to drink a glass or two of white wine with it, I wouldn't serve this dish after the Scaravelli-Cohen lemon salad, which will desensitize the taste buds. But the lemon salad might be fine as a palate-clearer after the scallops and wine are finished. Along with a little sherbet for dessert, this would make an interesting light summer meal.
NORMALLY, I shy away from large-format, glossy-paper cookbooks. I just don't think they are worth the money as cookbooks, although some people might like them for the coffee table. Shellfish, by Anton Mosimann and Holger Hofmann, however, is an exception. This book opens with a marvelously informative, lucidly illustrated 90-page section devoted to explaining all the different varieties of shrimps, prawns, lobsters, crabs, crayfish, mussels, oysters, clams, scallops and sea urchins. This thorough, fact-filled section alone is worth the $30 price and will turn you into an instant expert on the subject. The 100 pages that follow -- classic shellfish recipes by Mosimann, the renowned chef of the Dorchester Hotel in London -- are a pleasant bonus.
Hearst Books, an affiliate of William Morrow, is to be praised for issuing this volume. But I must note that Shellfish is a reprint of an English edition that is itself a translation of a book originating in Germany. I knew from the moment I opened it that no American publisher would ever have originated such a cookbook, so devoted to the scientific and factual aspects of gastronomy. And that is a shame because Shellfish, despite its glitz, is a book to cherish and we should have more like it.
A major problem in America right now is that so many people are working such long hours that their diets are deteriorating. They simply don't have time to cook. More and more cookbook authors are addressing this question. In The 15 Minute Vegetarian Gourmet, Paulette Mitchell provides a whole range of delicious, easily prepared and nutritious meals that can be done in a quarter of an hour. Instant gratification -- almost. A spinach-parsley pesto for pasta makes an interesting alternative to the basil-based sauce. Mushrooms and almonds are combined in an ingenious pa~te'. There is a meatless chili. Cold blueberry soup. Oriental potato salad with soy dressing. A chick pea and zucchini curry. Good stuff. The book is nicely designed and easy to use, but having flashed the word "gourmet," the publisher thinks it can mug the poor vegetarian. At 150 pages, this volume should be at least two dollars lower than $18.95.
I cook Chinese a lot and have a half-dozen Chinese cookbooks, and over the years I thought I had encountered most dishes that the wok is heir to. But Kenneth Lo's New Chinese Vegetarian Cooking is full of intriguingly different variations. Lo is particularly good with bean curd. Cold bean curd with sesame paste and cider vinegar, and carrot and cucumber with bean curd in a hot soy dressing are two dishes I want to try soon. He stir-fries lima beans with straw mushrooms, and zucchini with braised bamboo shoots and button mushrooms. There is an excellent and simple recipe for cauliflower in a black bean and tomato sauce. The whole book has a fresh and authentic feel about it.
Kenneth Lo is a cooking teacher and restaurant owner in London. In his next book, which has already garnered a lot of publicity because it fetched a giant advance, he will combine eastern and western cooking. It sounds fascinating, and New Chinese Vegetarian Cooking is certainly a good ad for it.
I am a meat-eater myself, but I like to have vegetarian recipes handy to vary my diet and keep consumption of animal fats down. Indeed, all of the books reviewed here (like nearly all of the 40 I examined for this review) reflect the public's concern with healthy eating. Eat Smart for a Healthy Heart, by Denton A. Cooley MD and Carolyn E. Moore, makes this concern explicit. Denton Cooley is, of course, the famous Houston heart surgeon. His co-author, Carolyn Moore, is a nutrition consultant at Cooley's Texas Heart Institute. Cooley and Moore list 13 steps relating diet to a healthier heart, including reduction of fat to 30 percent of total calories, limiting saturated fat to 10 percent of total calories, putting a lid on caffeine consumption and increasing the intake of fish oil, starches and fiber. Most interesting of all, though, they advocate the increased use of garlic and onions. This will come as good news to the manufacturers of Clorets and Life Savers, but it also should please the authors of A Mediterranean Harvest and Modern Italian Cooking, who use these ingredients with gay abandon.
Indeed, if you read the very informative introductory material in Eat Smart for a Healthier Heart, you realize that a diet constructed from Scaravelli-Cohen and Caggiano fills the Dooley-Moore health prescriptions very well. While the detailed nutritional information that accompany the entries in Eat Smart is of immense value to those with current or incipient coronary trouble, some of the recipes themselves are a tad wan -- grilled swordfish, scalloped potatoes, oatmeal cookies. But Eat Smart, A Mediterranean Harvest and Modern Italian Cooking -- together on your cookbook shelf -- can provide a lot of intelligent and delicious meals.
Charles Monaghan writes frequently about food, wine, restaurants and travel.