Cookbook authors, if they are good at what they do, plant their enthusiasms in readers' heads. If the cover is right, the title catchy, the recipes interesting to read through, even Saturday bookstore browsers can find themselves suddenly deep into beets (for which they suddenly have a longing) or dedicating themselves anew to the food of Provence, or vowing to pay more attention to their diets.
Let Betty Rosbottom get ahold of you, for example, and you'll be in real trouble. Her enthusiasm is catching through the pages of her new cookbook, "Betty Rosbottom's Cooking School Cookbook" (Workman Publishing, New York, 1987, $10.95 paper).
This is not a how-to-cook book, but it is a book that both very experienced and less experienced cooks can use. Its range is general, with a special emphasis on desserts. Rosbottom's recipes are imaginative, wide-ranging, and very precisely written.
Part of what makes this a good cookbook, however, is its "look." Form, in the world of cookbooks, has much to do with function. Recipes can be arranged in any one of a number of ways, and it takes a good eye to determine the way that's most attractive and useful to the reader. Workman, responsible also for the wildly popular Silver Palate books, among others, seems especially good at this.
For one thing, the book stays open on the counter without restraints such as pots and pans or a special cookbook holder. Asking that publishers produce cookbooks that will stay open seems like an ungrateful whine -- after all, they've produced all these wonderful recipes for us -- but it can make the difference between use and disuse.
Rosbottom's book is also a repository of tidbits that she calls "a cook's reflections." Printed in red down the margins, these reflections add useful information and also break up the text so that it looks inviting, user-friendly. Rosbottom does not reflect ad nauseum; her offerings -- about how to truss a bird or hard-cook an egg, for example -- are to the point. Shopping tips are also included, along with suggestions for accompaniments to the recipe at hand.
Rosbottom (pronounced ross-bottom) runs a successful cooking school in Columbus, Ohio. This has several advantages for her readers. First, she has years of experience in getting people to understand how a recipe works. She knows before she begins what the questions will be, what techniques will be particularly stupefying, what ingredients the most troublesome. She can separate the need-to-know, the interesting and the superfluous. And this is reflected in her book; the need-to-know is in the recipes, the interesting in the little boxes and addenda at the sides, and the superfluous isn't there.
Like many another cook, Rosbottom woke up to the possibilities of food on a trip to France. You all know the poetic details -- the brioches, the chanterelles, etc. (Wouldn't it be nice if once in a while some author told us she woke up to food in Fargo, North Dakota?) And this French influence, along with a native southern bent, is reflected in her recipes. The dessert tarts act French, the pumpkin cheesecake native American.
Desserts are a specialty of Rosbottom's. It's refreshing to find 75 pages of such richesse in a new cookbook, and no apologies about it either. Rosbottom, who is revealed on the cover of her book and in person to be a healthy, vital and thin woman, makes no apologies for her leanings toward sweet stuff.
This is a friendly cookbook, written for the cook (not all cookbooks are). I think it will become a classic.
Another Workman book, "Eating Well When You Just Can't Eat the Way You Used To" by Jane Weston Wilson (1987, $12.95), is full of wonderful recipes as well. And it's well-organized and good looking. Called the "over-50 cookbook," Wilson's effort is intended to be an energetic guide to eating for those who, well, you read the title.
But here's a puzzle: there seems to be little difference in ingredients, cooking, or number of servings between this book and others of its (high) style. Wilson has written a thoughtful introduction detailing the special concerns of those over 50: families have become one or two people, and often those one or two need to watch their diets -- calories, fat, cholesterol, salt -- more closely than before.
However, most of these recipes are designed for more than two people, many for multiples of that. The recipe mix includes a relatively great number of grain, salad, pasta and vegetable dishes, and these are indeed the items that nutritionists say we should be eating more of. But most modern general cookbooks reflect this.
The point here is only that it would be a shame if those on the underside of 50 passed by this book thinking it's nothing but salt-free Pablum for toothless old geezers. For 17 years Wilson ran a top New York catering firm, The Party Box, and her recipes represent that range of expertise. So take a look, even if you're 30 and can eat anything you damn well please.
Perla Meyers and her publisher, Simon and Schuster, have come up with a gimmick that borders on the super-cute. They have banded together with the Burpee seed company to produce a proposed series of cookbooks, two of which have been published. Each cookbook is locked in cellophaned intimacy with a packet of (Burpee's) vegetable seeds.
The books are called "Burpee's American Harvest Cookbooks" (1988, $8.95 each). The first in the series emphasizes vegetables in the spring garden, the second the early summer garden (although late summer vegetables such as tomatoes, bean and squash are included). The series was originally to have included six volumes covering the entire year, but Simon and Schuster says that when, if ever, the next volume will be published is uncertain. Maybe the editors had difficulty thinking of anything but kale (a perfectly delicious and extremely healthful vegetable) for the winter garden.
In any case, Meyers is an expert and her recipes are several cuts above the average. Each one includes vegetables as a major, though not always main, ingredient. These are not vegetarian cookbooks, and the recipes in them aren't "lite." In fact, Meyers' mother was Viennese and her father Alsatian, and her food reflects that with lots of onions and cream. And there is evidence too of other influences, namely her years growing up in Spain and her work on a previous, very popular book, "Peasant Food."
Sections on individual vegetables include growing and storage tips that are actually quite useful. (Many cookbooks along these general lines seem to throw in the info just for looks.) At a slim 126 pages and about 70 recipes apiece, they are a little expensive, but Meyers' recipes are uncommonly tasty and interesting.
Plus you get that packet of seeds.
Finally, for those who can't ever, no matter what, get enough of the food of Provence, there is at last a reissue of a 1953 volume published in France under the title "La Veritable Cuisine Provencale et Nicoise" by Jean-Noel Escudier. Published in the United States in 1968, it has long been out of print.
Now Perennial Library has published a lovely paperback version as "The Wonderful Food of Provence" (1988, $12.95). The current volume comes with a poetic introduction by Paula Wolfert, a cook and a scholar who doesn't throw around her introductions haphazardly. Therefore her imprimatur means something.
And what Wolfert says, among other things, is that Escudier's recipes "will make you happy." There is something about all that garlic and all that olive oil, those vegetables, that fish, the herbs growing like scrub everywhere you look, the blue sky and old stone walls that make happiness on the actual premises of Provence nearly inescapable. That we could transfer it to our Washington pots and pans is certainly worth $12.95.
DAURADE A LA PROVENCALE (Bass, Bream, Mullet, etc. a' la Provencale) (4 servings)
2-pound bass (or equivalent)
Flour, salt and pepper for coating the fish
1 medium-size onion, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 cup water
Scant 1/2 cut dry white wine
1 small clove garlic
1 fat tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped (or 1/4 cup tomato pure'e)
Bouquet garni (parsley stems, thyme stems and bay leaf tied together in a cheesecloth)
Roll the fish in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Fry in oil over medium heat until cooked through. Remove from pan and keep warm. Meanwhile, lightly brown the minced onion in the oil left in the pan. Stir in flour and continue stirring over low heat until a golden roux is produced. Then add the water, wine, garlic, tomato, and bouquet garni. Cook this gently until the sauce is somewhat reduced. Remove the bouquet garni and mask the fish in the sauce. Serve on hot plates.
From "The Wonderful Food of Provence, by Jean-Noel Escudier (Perennial Library, 1988, $12.95)
FUSILLI AND SCALLOP SALAD (4 servings)
1 pound sea scallops, rinsed
1 cup water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth
2 cups cooked fusilli (4 ounces uncooked)
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheee
1/4 cup capers, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
FOR THE DRESSING:
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
In a medium saucepan over low heat, poach the scallops in the water, lemon juice and wine to cover until the scallops turn white, about 3 to 5 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse immediately under cold water. Cut each scallop into 3 silver-dollar-thin slices.
In a medium-size serving bowl, toss the fusilli gently with the scallops, parmesan, capers, parsley and salt and pepper.
In a small bowl, whisk together the dressing ingredients. Pour over the salad and mix thoroughly.
Serve at once, or refrigerate, covered, until serving time.
From "Eating Well When You Just Can't Eat The Way You Used To," by Jane Weston Wilson (Workman Publishing, 1987, $12.95)
SUGAR SNAP PEA AND CARROT SALAD
Lightly salted water
1 1/2 pounds sugar snap peas, strings removed
4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks ( 1/4-by- 1/4-by-1 1/2 inches)
3/4 cup finely minced scallions
4 tablespoons finely minced fresh dill
4 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley
5 tablespoons white wine vinegar
9 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 ounces walnut pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup thinly sliced radishes
Bring lightly salted water to a boil in a vegetable steamer, add the snap peas, cover and steam for 3 to 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Remove and run under cold water to stop further cooking. Drain on paper towels. Place in a salad bowl and set aside.
Add the carrots to the steamer, cover and steam for 2 minutes. Add to the salad bowl with the peas, cover and chill.
Combine the scallions, dill, parsley, vinegar, olive oil and walnuts in a food processor or blender and pure'e until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste and pour the dressing over the peas and carrots. Cover and chill for at least 2 hours.
Just before serving, toss the salad with the radishes and correct the seasoning. Serve slightly chilled.
From "Burpee's American Harvest Cookbook" (The Spring Garden, 1988, $8.95)
CASSIS WALNUT TART
(Makes one 9-inch tart)
FOR THE PASTRY CRUST:
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, well chilled and cut into small pieces
2 1/2 tablespoons solid vegetable shortening, well chilled and cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons ice water
FOR THE FILLING:
5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
3 large eggs, separated, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup finely ground walnuts
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch cream of tartar
FOR THE GLAZE:
1 cup creme de cassis
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup walnut halves
To prepare the crust: Combine the flour, confectioners' sugar and salt in a bowl. Cut in the butter and shortening with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture resembles oatmeal flakes. Gradually add the egg yolk and ice water, mixing just until the dough holds together. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface. Using the heel of your hand, smear 1/4 cup of dough at a time across the surface to form a 6-inch long strip. Gather the dough together and repeat two more times. Gather the dough into a ball, and flatten it to form a disk. Wrap it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it at least 1 hour or overnight.
The pastry dough can also be made in a food processor: Place the dry ingredients in the bowl, then add the butter and shortening. Process until the mixture resembles oatmeal flakes. With the machine still running, add the egg yolk and water slowly through the feed tube until a ball of dough forms. Wrap the dough and refrigerate as in the hand method.
The dough can be made 1 day in advance, or it can be frozen.
Position a rack in the center of the oven. Roll the dough out on slightly floured surface to form a circle 12 inches in diameter and 1/4 inch thick. Mold the dough into a 9-inch tart pan, and trim the edge so you have 1/2 inch of dough extending over the sides of the pan. Fold the overhang in, and push it against the edge of the shell to reinforce the sides. Pierce the bottom of the crust with a fork. Line the shell with aluminum foil and fill the foil with pie weights or dried beans. Bake 10 minutes at 375 degrees. Remove the foil and weights, and continue baking until the crust is golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Remove the shell from the oven, but leave the oven on.
Prepare the filling: Cream the butter in an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the sugar, egg yolks and vanilla. Combine the walnuts and flour in a small bowl, and add them to the butter mixture. Using a clean, dry beater, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar together in another bowl until stiff but not dry. Gently fold the whites into the walnut mixture.
Spread the filling in the crust. Bake until the filling is brown and slightly puffed, about 20 minutes. Cool the tart on a rack.
Make the glaze: Heat the creme de cassis and sugar in the top of a double boiler placed over simmering water, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Combine the cornstarch, water and lemon juice in a small bowl, stirring until the cornstarch dissolves. Add the cornstarch mixture to the cassis. Cook, stirring, until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 8 minutes. Remove the glaze from the heat and let it cool for 5 minutes. Pour half the glaze over the top of the tart and set it aside to cool until the glaze thickens, about 1 1/2 hours. Reheat the remaining glaze, stirring, until it is of pouring consistency. Pour it over the tart, and let it stand 1 1/2 hours more. (The tart can be prepared one day ahead. Store at room temperature.) Arrange the walnut halves around the top edge of the tart before serving.
From: "Betty Rosbottom's Cooking School Cookbook," (Workman Publishing, New York, 1987, $10/95)