Now is the season of longing for clear surfaces, clean slates, just a little lettuce and dry toast for dinner, an end to the excess that builds into exhausting proportions toward the end of every year.
When the subject is cookbooks, this end-of-the-year excess is palpable. You can see it in the stores -- monstrous piles of the cookbook equivalent of bells and whistles, stacked up and running over. And every book has its Lorelei-like song to sing -- about muffins, about no-salt, about salads, about chocolate, about the cuisine of obscure regions of obscure countries, about sushi, about everything you'll need to know to cook like a restaurant (pick your restaurant), about how to cook bacon just as they used to do in the White House. This excess builds steadily throughout the year with one little bleep of extra excess in the spring, and a giant crescendo of excess in the late fall when the publishing industry cranks it up for Christmas.
So maybe it's the right time to go on a cookbook diet and talk about a few books -- cult classics, you might call them -- that have no bells and whistles because they date back to the pre-excess age.
In the pre-excess age -- say 20 years ago -- Julia Child and "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" were presenting shocking new ideas and boeuf bourguignon was an acceptable, even fashionable, thing to serve at dinner. Now, of course, homey foods such as this boeuf bourgignonne are having a "revival," explained by the food semioticians as evidence of a longing to get back to the family, to the roots of civilization, to the basics. (I don't know about your roots but in mine there was a tendency toward boiled chicken and a total ancestral innocence of boeuf bourgignonne, but never mind that.)
Meanwhile, as boeuf bourgignonne has climbed the hill of chic, fallen off, then climbed back up again, there are a few books that just keep marching on, in print because they are so steadily valuable. These are the books you see listed in other authors' bibliographies, the ones you hear mentioned when expert cooks talk about the cookbooks that opened their eyes. They're not new and you might not be able to call them classics either -- they don't sell zillions of copies like Mastering the Art or Silver Palate or even Marcella Hazan. But they are still valuable, and maybe more valuable now than ever.
Three of these five cult classics are about French cuisine, which, when Americans finally got interested in the territory beyond our shores, was the one we turned to first. And much of what has seemed new in American cuisine over the last 10 or 15 years is derived from these three author/cooks. A fourth is concerned with pasta and you'll recognize much original work in it as well. The fifth is a baking book, the first to expand its horizons to include the best from Europe as well as from our country. In alphabetical order:
"The Art of Fine Baking" by Paula Peck, Simon and Schuster, 1961, $7.95: Paula Peck's work was a groundbreaker on a par with Julia Child's, although it didn't burst onto the American consciousness with the same dramatic thunderclap. Difficult though it is to remember, 1961 was actually pre-croissant in America. No frozen croissants, no croissant bars, no roast-beef-on-a-croissant. To read a recipe for such an exotic item and to believe that it could actually be produced at home -- home, after all, was the only place we were going to get it -- was to enthusiastic cooks a great gift.
Peck seemed so exotic because she had traveled and brought back with her new ways of doing things. The result is that classical buttercream, cakes that use no chemical leavening agents, stollen and petits fours share this book with pound cake, butter cookies and other American classics.
While this must have seemed like a very ambitious book in 1961, it now seems merely authoritative. The recipes are more familiar now but the two and a half decades have not nullified any of them.
Peck's theme-and-variations structure lends itself to cooks who like instruction rather than one-shot recipes, which might explain why her book has been so durable. There are only a few basic bread recipes in "The Art of Fine Baking"; the remainder of the book is devoted to cakes, strudel, tarts, coffeecakes, hors d'oeuvres and cookies. After more than 25 years in print, "The Art of Fine Baking" not only holds its own against the arrivistes but surpasses most of them as a basic baking text.
"Cuisine Nicoise" by Jacques Medecin, Penguin, 1983, $7.50: "Cuisine Nicoise" has a slightly shorter life history -- it was first published in France in 1972 -- but one that is no less illustrious. Written by a former mayor of Nice, France, the book is one of the ancestors of what is often thought of as the new American cuisine. Olive oil, fish, vegetables, grilled meat and masses of garlic are the foundations of Nicoise cuisine, and Mayor Medecin, who comes from a long line of mayors of Nice, can certainly claim them as his own. This is not an "as-told-to" book; the mayor, like any other self-respecting Nicois, knows how to cook and does the work himself.
The Penguin edition of the mayor's book is translated by an Englishman and published in England so the measurements, though they are given in both ounces and kilograms, are mostly by weight. And the translations are into English, not American, so that there may be some confusion about various ingredients -- fish species, for example. But if you're interested in the ancestral version of what's appearing on the menus of many good American restaurants, the mayor of Nice has something to say to you.
"The New Complete Book of Pasta" by Maria Luisa Scott and Jack Denton Scott, William Morrow, 1968, republished in 1985, $24.95: Pasta is another foodstuff that appears to have been invented in the last five to 10 years. But listen to this: pasta goes back at least as far as 1968! Maria Luisa Scott and Jack Denton Scott introduced their book in that year and with it said nearly all there is to say about pasta and the sauces that go on it.
While most of us were still thinking of pasta -- if we thought of it at all -- as spaghetti with tomato-soup sauce, Scott and Scott were putting it with chicken livers, anchovies, vegetables and all manner of other tidbits. What a surprise it must have been to the Scotts when, somewhere along about 1981, pasta was declared not only healthful (complex carbohydrates) but fashionably healthful as well.
In the new edition of their book, the Scotts point out that much has happened to pasta since 1968, some of it good and some of it not so good. They make their argument that they introduced Americans to new ways of thinking about this category of food, including the health aspects, and they're probably right. Now that good factory-made pasta is available in America in nearly the wondrous variety you'd find on Italian shelves, it might be time to revisit the Scotts and profit from their experience.
"Simple French Food" by Richard Olney, Atheneum, 1974, $10.95: Richard Olney could probably lay claim to grandfather status to the stars. He's listed in nearly every acknowledgment and every bibliography of books written by Alice Waters and her legatees, and his original attitudes toward food inform many a wonderful modern restaurant.
Olney is one of those restless souls who decided a change of country might be a good idea. So he left Iowa and moved to the South of France where herbs, tiny vegetables and fresh fish are more or less at the doorstep. There in the sunshine Olney receives students and other visitors and imparts to them his uniquely earthy, even poetic, attitudes toward food.
Olney refuses to compromise and he also refuses to suffer fools. His paragraphs about the potato, written almost 15 years ago, before things really got desperate in the spud universe, constitute a masterpiece of agonized literature. "Where have all the good potatoes gone?" may not be a question on the lips of all America, but it's not a bad question.
As a result of Olney's intense feeling about his subject his prose is sometimes a little scary, but the man knows and loves good food. And there's not a cook alive who can't learn something from him.
"When French Women Cook" by Madeleine Kamman, Atheneum, 1982, first published in 1976, $9.95: And then we come to la me`re Madeleine Kamman, whose "When French Women Cook" finally, in 1976, gave credit where credit is due -- to the women of France who collectively raised the male chefs who got all the notoriety. This is home cooking -- the kind of stuff that was based on the wild mushrooms that grew outside the door, not those purchased for $20 a pound from the specialty store. Ironically, what was cuisine de mise`re in post-war France is for us in late-'80s America cuisine de Sutton Place Gourmet.
"When French Women Cook" is based on what Kamman, who now lives mostly in America, learned in the kitchens of eight friends and relatives over the span of 40 years. The eight women were in kitchens in different regions of France, and the recipes reflect regional differences. So you'll find the cream and butter of Normandy, the goose liver and truffles of Perigord, the noodles and cabbage of Alsace and the peppers and fish of Provence.
There are some who think that Kamman is the most gifted and imaginative of the French food translators. The way she puts ingredients together, even when she's flying by the seat of her pants, is often astonishing. Although she is said to be difficult personally, in this one book there is a lifetime of ideas.
MARBLED ALMOND CAKE (Makes two 9-by-5-by-4-inch cakes)
3/4 cup butter
1 2/3 cups sugar
1/2 cup almond paste
5 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 egg whites
3 cups sifted flour
3 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted
Cream butter and 1/4 cup sugar. Add almond paste, a little at a time, creaming it in well, until mixture looks light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, 1 at a time, beating well each time. Add vanilla.
Add salt to egg whites and beat until egg whites hold soft peaks. Then add remaining sugar, a tablespoon at a time, beating constantly, for at least 5 minutes, or until egg whites are very firm.
Stir 1/4 of the stiffy beaten egg whites into creamed almond-paste mixture. Pour mixture back over remaining egg whites. Fold together, sprinkling in flour as you fold.
Add melted chocolate. Marble chocolate roughly in batter by drawing through it with a rubber spatula.
Pour into two floured and greased 9-by-5-by-3-inch pans. Bake 1 hour and 15 minutes at 350 degrees, or until cakes are golden brown and pull away from sides of pans.
From "The Art of Fine Baking," by Paula Peck (Simon and Schuster, 1961, $7.95) SPAGHETTINI CON TONNO ED ACCIUGHE (4 to 6 servings)
2 tablespoons butter
7 ounce-can white tuna in olive oil
Liberal amount of milled black pepper
2-ounce can anchovies, drained
1 teaspoon capers
1 pound spaghettini
Melt the butter in a saucepan and stir in the tuna with its oil, breaking it up into small pieces. Mill in pepper liberally, add anchovies and capers, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Cook spaghettini al dente, omitting salt from cooking water. Drain well and toss right in the saucepan with the tuna and anchovies, coating the strands of pasta well; toss gently with wooden forks.
From "The New Complete Book of Pasta, by Maria Luisa Scott and Jack Denton Scott (William Morrow, 1968, republished in 1985, $24.95) LA DOBA A LA NISSARDA La Daube a` la Nic oise Nic ois Beef Stew (6 servings)
1 1/2 ounces dried ce`pe mushrooms (weight before soaking)
2 3/4 pounds stewing beef
Salt and pepper to taste
3 ounces lard
2 onions, peeled and quartered
4 carrots, peeled and sliced
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1 stalk celery, chopped
Bouquet garni (1 sprig parsley, 2 sprigs thyme, 1 bay leaf, celery stalk)
6 large tomatoes
7 ounces red wine
3 tablespoons grappa or cognac
Cayenne pepper (optional)
Soak the dried mushrooms in warm water. Cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Season with salt and pepper.
Put 1 1/2 ounces lard in a saute' pan and brown the onions, carrots, whole cloves of garlic, celery, and bouquet garni.
Put 1 1/2 ounces of lard in another pan and brown the pieces of meat over a high heat. This will prevent the meat from disintegrating during cooking.
Once the pieces of meat are nicely browned, put them into a casserole and cook them over a moderate heat for 10 minutes or so.
Peel, seed, and chop the tomatoes, and add them to the meat along with the contents of the saute' pan, wine, grappa and enough boiling water to cover the meat.
Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer very gently for 3 hours.
Add the soaked and drained ce`pes. Correct seasoning and give it extra kick, if you so desire, with a pinch of cayenne pepper. Simmer gently for another hour.
Just before serving, degrease with a bulb baster, leaving one or two specks of fat floating on the gravy.
From: "Cuisine Nicoise," by Jacques Medecin (Penguin, 1983, $7.50) PROVENCAL SQUASH GRATIN Tian de Courge (4 servings)
2 pounds pumpkin or other firm, red-fleshed squash, well peeled of its hard rind, seeds and stringy flesh removed
7 or 8 cloves garlic, crushed, peeled, and finely chopped
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons flour
1/3 cup olive oil
Slice the squash into thicknesses of 1/3 inch and cut each slice into 1/3-inch strips. Cut firmly held bundles crosswise into tiny dice and toss them in a mixing bowl together with the garlic and the parsley, seasoning several times while tossing so that the cubes will be regularly seasoned and coated with the persillade. Sprinkle over the flour and toss the contents of the bowl repeatedly until each tiny cube is evenly coated with flour (adding a bit more if necessary -- excess flour will fall to the bottom of the bowl and may be discarded later).
Generously rub the bottom and sides of a fairly deep earthenware gratin dish with olive oil, fill with the cubed squash mixture, pressing gently and evenly the surface, dribble olive oil in a crisscross pattern over the entire surface, and cook in a gentle oven (325 to 350 degrees) for from 2 hours to 2 1/2 hours or until the surface forms a deep, rich brown crust -- falling just short of being blackened. Beneath the crust the squash should have melted to a near pure'e, the cubes retaining perfectly their form but ready to collapse at the touch of a fork or a tongue.
From: "Simple French Food," by Richard Olney (Atheneum, 1974, $10.95) FENOUIL AUX PETITS POIS (Fennel and Baby Peas) (6 servings)
2 tablespoons butter, unsalted
3 leaves of boston lettuce, cut into chiffonade
1 large onion, sliced thin
1/2 pound shelled baby peas (If using frozen peas in butter sauce, rinse the sauce away before using.)
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 fennel bulbs, cut into 1/3-inch strips
Melt the butter in a 1 1/2-quart pot. Mix the lettuce, onion, and peas together and add. Add salt and pepper and the pinch of sugar. Cover and cook until the peas are tender and discolored. They must be almost overcooked.
Heat the olive oil in a frying pan. Saute' the fennel, adding a pinch of salt and pepper until the fennel mellows and starts losing its juices. At this point, mix fennel and peas. Keep covered for another five minutes to blend the flavors. Correct the seasoning and serve.
From: "When French Women Cook," by Madeleine Kamman (Atheneum, 1982, first published in 1976, $9.95)