A surprising number of good cookbooks are nonprofit productions, put together by benefit committees and often privately printed. Traveling around the country, I keep my eye out for the pick of the crop, particularly for regional collections that represent local traditions in a way that larger, more ambitious publications cannot match.
The good ones are very good indeed, with time-honored dishes and lively little background notes to put them in context. Others are less careful compilations of whatever recipes happen to be at hand, often betrayed by the liberal use of cans and additives. Recipe ingredients tend to be out of order and bear no relation to the region they are supposed to represent. Why should the California Junior League cookbook I recently opened include beef Wellington?
This menu draws on three of my favorite benefit books, veterans of several print runs and long exposure to critical cooks. All are currently in print.
"San Francisco a la Carte" is a relatively lavish hardcover production that won a Tastemaker Award. Assembled by the local Junior League, the 500 recipes cover a generous range, with typical Californian salads and sourdough breads spiced with ethnic Chinese, Greek, Mexican and Italian contributions. This layered vegetable salad is typical of the book's practical approach.
I was first introduced to "River Road Recipes" 20 years ago by a colleague at Gourmet magazine and, given the sorry state of my own copy, I'm delighted to have a new one from the 61st print run (surely a record?). Compiled by the Junior League of Baton Rouge, La., "River Road Recipes" fully deserves its success. These classic recipes for dishes like crawfish e'touffe'e and the seafood gumbo that I've picked as main courses will long outlast the current fad for Cajun cuisine. Looking at the recipe, I was surprised by the long cooking time for the shrimps and crab, but when I tried it, it came out just right, with the okra half dissolved to form the characteristic slightly gluey thickening of genuine gumbo.
Dessert comes from Minnesota, with its German and Scandinavian traditions. Rhubarb bundt cake is a combination of two recipes from the "Minnesota Heritage Cookbook," edited by Sue Zelickson for the American Cancer Society. "Hand-me-down recipes" they are described, and many are grandmotherly bread and cookie recipes to warm the tables of this chilly state.
The recipe for cornbread is an odd man out, but I could not neglect this little treasure. "Printer's Pie," hand set on private presses and assembled by Mark Carroll in Bethesda, consists of a couple of dozen recipes. Dishes range from lutefisk to fudge, but the charm lies in lovingly chosen paper, esoteric typefaces, and colored inks that change from page to page. "Type used here is a very tired Kennerley mono," comments the contributor of sweet gherkin pickles. "Recipe is as used but surely not as old." TIMETABLE
Up to 1 week ahead: Bake cake and store in airtight container.
Up to 3 days ahead: Make base for gumbo and refrigerate.
Up to 1 day ahead: Make salad and keep in refrigerator. Boil rice and spread in buttered dish with buttered foil on top for reheating. Brew iced tea and chill; chill beer.
35 minutes before serving: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Set the table.
20 minutes before serving: Reheat gumbo and add shrimp. Make cornbread and bake in oven.
Just before serving: Add crab meat to gumbo and keep warm. Remove cornbread, lower oven heat to 350 degrees and put rice to reheat.
After serving salad: Add oysters to gumbo, simmer 5 minutes and serve with cornbread. LAYERED VEGETABLE SALAD (10 servings)
A good picnic salad, as it keeps well.
FOR COTTAGE CHEESE TOPPING:
2 cups cottage cheese
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon grated onion
FOR THE SALAD:
1 head boston lettuce
16-ounce can sliced beets, drained
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
1 medium bermuda onion, thinly sliced and crisped in cold water
2 large tomatoes, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
For topping: In a bowl mix cheese with mayonnaise, salt, pepper and onion. Taste for seasoning.
Choose a clear glass straight-sided salad bowl. Chop lettuce and line bottom of bowl. Coat with 3 tablespoons topping. Add a layer of beets, then cucumber slices and drained onion rings. Top with tomatoes and cover with remaining topping. Sprinkle with chives.
Cover salad tightly and chill at least 4 and up to 24 hours. agcrdt3 From "San Francisco a la Carte" (Doubleday, $19.95), available in bookstores. SEAFOOD GUMBO (10 servings)
"Variations may be made by adding different seafood, sausages, or poultry," says the original recipe. The seafood might be crayfish, added with the shrimp; the sausages would be spicy pork sausages, to be fried with the onions and garlic; and the poultry should be cooked chicken, chopped and added with the oysters.
2/3 cup oil
1/2 cup flour
1 large onion, chopped
2 to 3 garlic cloves, chopped
16-ounce can tomatoes
1 1/2 pounds fresh or frozen okra
2 quarts hot water
2 tablespoons salt
3/4 teaspoon red pepper
1 large bay leaf
Pinch dried thyme
1 teaspoon allspice berries
Few grains dried chili pepper
2 pounds raw shrimp, peeled
1 pound claw crab meat, picked
1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 1/2 cups rice, boiled, for serving
For dark roux: Heat 1/2 cup oil in a heavy pan, stir in flour and cook, stirring, over medium heat until flour browns thoroughly, 3 to 5 minutes. Note: Do not allow flour to burn or it will be bitter.
Add onion and garlic and cook slowly until onion is soft but not brown. Add tomatoes and juice and cook over low heat until oil begins to separate out, stirring often, about 30 minutes.
In a separate skillet fry okra in remaining oil over medium heat, stirring constantly until okra is no longer stringy. Add okra to tomato mixture and simmer 10 minutes. Add water, salt and pepper and simmer, partly covered, 45 minutes. Add bay leaf, thyme, allspice and chili pepper and simmer 20 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Gumbo can be prepared to this point up to 3 days ahead and refrigerated.
To finish: Bring gumbo to a boil. Add shrimp, simmer 15 minutes and add crab meat. Simmer 15 minutes more. Finally, add oysters and simmer 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper or spice as needed.
Take from heat and stir in scallions and parsley. Serve in a flat soup bowl, spooned over rice.
agcrdt3 From "River Road Recipes I and II," $11.50 each, available from the Junior League of Baton Rouge Inc., 4950-E Government St., Baton Rouge, La. 70806. UNCLE JAKE'S CORNBREAD (Makes two 10-inch rounds)
"For unknown reasons," remarks printer Jake Warner, "this simple recipe produces an endless variety of tastes and textures of cornbread, all good." A cook would add that cornbread varies enormously with the type and grind of meal. These two cakes are unusually thin and crisp.
2 cups stone-ground cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups milk
4 tablespoons oil
Grease two 10-inch skillets and put in 400-degree oven to heat.
Mix cornmeal, baking powder and salt in a bowl and make a well in the center. Add eggs, milk and oil and stir. Gradually draw in cornmeal to make a smooth batter.
Remove hot skillets from oven and grease lightly a second time. Pour cornmeal into skillets and bake until center is firm, 10 to 15 minutes. Brown breads under broiler and serve while still warm.
From "Printer's Pie," $10, available from Mark Carroll, 6302 Friendship Court, Bethesda, Md. 20817. RHUBARB BUNDT CAKE (10 servings)
Serve this cake with vanilla ice cream or sour cream.
3 cups flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
4 tablespoons orange juice
1 cup oil
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 cup chopped almonds or walnuts
FOR THE FILLING:
10 ounces rhubarb, trimmed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon sugar
Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt.
Beat sugar with orange juice, oil, vanilla and eggs until thickened and light, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in flour in 3 batches, adding nuts with last batch.
For filling: Cut rhubarb in pieces, then chop in a food processor or finely chop by hand. Mix rhubarb with cinnamon and sugar.
Spoon a third of batter in a greased 12-cup bundt pan and sprinkle with half the filling. Add more batter, sprinkle with remaining filling and cover with remaining batter. Bake cake in a 350-degree oven until a skewer inserted in center comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. Transfer cake to a rack to cool.
Cake can be stored in an airtight container up to a week, or it can be frozen. Warm it in a 300-degree oven and sprinkle with confectioners' sugar just before serving.
From "Minnesota Heritage Cookbook," $9, available from American Cancer Society, 3316 W. 66th St., Minneapolis, Minn. 55435.