THE DOZENS of cookbooks I looked at for this review continue the main trends of the past few years. There is a lively interest in healthy cooking and vegetarianism: Fats are now about as popular as Saddam Hussein. Ethnic cuisine remains a major topic, with more Italian cookbooks than you can shake a breadstick at. And an array of attractive recipes is being developed for the microwave oven -- it's not just for popcorn any more. Here are some recommendations for holiday gift-giving.
Jane Brody is our leading guru of good health -- a perky, peppy cheerleader for commonsense eating. Jane Brody's Good Food Gourmet: Recipes and Menus for Delicious and Healthful Eating (Norton, $25), her sixth book and second cookbook, has a wonderfully congenial tone to it -- every recipe seems to conjure up the name of a good friend or a memorable occasion. Yet there is nothing sappy about it. That's because Brody is so well informed about nutritional science -- her introduction is a model summary of current thinking in the field. She dismisses the idea that there are too many changes in the nutritional information the public receives. "Only quackery stays the same year after year," she says.
Brody's 500 recipes are appetizing and unfussy. Not surprisingly, the book is heavily skewed to vegetables, fruit, salads and grains (60 bread and muffin recipes alone), but there are also 28 chicken recipes and 23 fish recipes. Brody's range is so wide that this volume can very easily be given as a basic cookbook, and the recipes are easy enough for someone just starting out in the kitchen.
The genial tone that characterizes Brody's book is even more evident in the Family of the Spirit Cookbook: Recipes and Remembrances from African-American Kitchens (Simon and Schuster, $24.95), by John Pinderhughes, where the nice recipes take second place to the fascinating and amusing commentaries of the cooks it celebrates. Each chapter centers on a family member or friend, talking about his or her experiences and giving favorite recipes. These range from time-honored dishes such as chitlins to inventions such as papaya flambe'.
One Pinderhughes friend is the famous New Orleans cook Leah Chase. Here she is on growing up as one of 11 children on a farm in the South: "My father raised hogs, and there was nothin' too good for the hogs, my dear . . . You know, usually you throw a hog trash or slop or whatever, not those hogs that Charlie Lange had. He would kill ya. We had to wash sweet potatoes and boil them! Those hogs didn't eat anything raw. We had to cook for those dumb hogs, would you believe!"
Here's another, Brenda Marie Goodwin, talking about her days as a chemistry major at Morgan State University: "The food in the cafeteria was so bad that when you got back to your room you were still hungry. We would bring things from home that could stay out a long time, things like cheese . . . I would make these cheese sandwiches, and the only way I had of making them hot was to use my iron. So I'd just make them on my iron -- put them on some foil and put the iron on high. You have to be inventive, you know."
You certainly do. Thank heaven for college students, their eternal hatred of cafeteria food and their infinite invention. And thank you, Mr. Pinderhughes, for this delicious book. It crushes cliches on every page.
Claudia Roden, a London-based cookbook writer and expert in Mediterranean cuisine, did a formidable amount of legwork for The Good Food of Italy: Region by Region (Knopf, $24.95). But she traveled through the country wearing rose-colored glasses -- Italy's rivers and lakes fairly leap with fish and no speck of pollution mars the country's pristine shores. "Ligurians eat shellfish raw, sprinkled with lemon and pepper," Roden blithely tells us, without a peep about their subsequent hurried visits to the gastroenterologist. I would no sooner eat raw shellfish from the Ligurian coast -- the sewer around Genoa -- than I would gobble down oysters from Hong Kong harbor.
I also suspect that the cooking Roden so romanticizes is more that of a generation or two ago than that of today. She has hardly a word to say, for instance, about the insidious march of "pasta sciutta" -- dry, machine-made pasta that originally was the food of the southern poor -- into areas where the stuff was always made fresh at home. Mama now needs to earn a paycheck in Italy, too. All that said, Roden's is a remarkable book -- a veritable encyclopedia of information about the dishes (and wines) of 18 Italian regions from Alto Adige in the north to Sicily in the south.
Not only that, but nearly all the 300 recipes are blissfully easy to prepare. A cooking teacher, Roden can get to the heart of a recipe, strip it down to the things that make it work, and telegraph the cooking instructions without a wasted syllable.
Here are her instructions for Peppers with Anchovies and Capers, a dish that requires 4 bell peppers, 6 finely chopped anchovies, a clove of crushed garlic, a heaping tablespoon of finely chopped capers, a few sprigs of finely chopped oregano and 4 tablespoons of olive oil: "Roast the peppers in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until they are soft, then put them into a plastic bag, close it tight and leave for 10 minutes for the skins to loosen. Peel the peppers, remove the seeds and cut each into 4 pieces or into strips. Toss well with the rest of the ingredients." Waste not, want not -- the phrase applies to prose as well as food. Give this book to anyone who is as starry-eyed about Italy as Roden or who is planning a trip there -- they will praise you forever more.
The Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., run by 18 men and women who rotate the various restaurant jobs, has been producing vegetarian meals since 1973. In Sundays at the Moosewood Restaurant (Fireside/Simon and Schuster, $16.95 paperback), the Moosewood Collective has produced the best vegetarian cookbook I know -- filled with alluring recipes from the corners of the earth, compiled from the special Sunday menus served at the restaurant over the years. There are dishes from Africa, Armenia, the Caribbean, China, Eastern Europe, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Middle East, Provence and Southeast Asia, as well as from the American South, New England and the Jewish tradition.
The very names of the recipes make the mouth water: Capetown Fruit and Vegetable Curry, Banana Chutney, Turkish Spinach and Lentil Soup, Cheese Pasties, Sorbet Caribe, Lime Tart, Sweet-and-Sour Tamarind Sauce, Mushrooms Roasted with Pine Nuts, Almond Crescents, Moroccan Stew, Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto, Double Pear Crisp. And, omnivore that I am, I'm happy that 20 fish recipes are allowed to sneak in.
One of the reference volumes listed in the Moosewood gang's extensive bibliography is Julie Sahni's superb 1985 volume, Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking. Sahni is back this year with another terrific book, Moghul Microwave: Cooking Indian Food the Modern Way (Morrow, $27.95.) No sooner did this book come into my hands than I rushed out to buy some chicken breasts to make her Yogurt Chicken. From preparation to serving, the dish took no more than 20 minutes and it was delicious, with its mixed flavors of chopped walnuts, mint, coriander and hot minced chilies.
On my list, among many Sahni creations, for future meals: Cream of Eggplant Soup with Coriander, Warm Mustard Shrimps on Endive, Cornish Game Hen in Apricot Glaze, Spinach Dumplings with Yogurt Sauce, Green Beans in Peppered Mustard Dressing and Almond Rice Pudding. And with all the time I save by cooking in the microwave, I am going to read The Bhagavad-Gita.
Last but not least, I come to Harold McGee's The Curious Cook (North Point, $19.95). If you don't know this man's name, you should. Not only is he our leading popular writer on food chemistry -- his 1984 volume, On Food and Cooking, is a masterpiece -- but he is simply one of our best writers, period. He can take the most abstruse subject and make it soar. Mind you, there is some heavy liftng here as McGee takes on topics such as the chemistry of cooking, the color of vegetables, the structure of sauces and mayonnaise and the process of ripening; but a modest investment of attention will pay great dividends. Most impressive are McGee's superlative essays on the relation between food on the one hand and heart disease and cancer on the other. I've never read bettter discussions of these complex subjects. This is the perfect book for the scientist in your life, or just somebody smart. Charles Monaghan is the food editor of the Record, the northern New Jersey daily newspaper.