Whether it's to save time, money, the environment or your body, there's a whole batch of books this season that seek to improve a cook's life.
In the time-saving department, the best of the bunch is "Great Food Without Fuss" by Frances McCullough and Barbara Witt (Henry Holt & Co., $25). McCullough, a cookbook editor, and Witt, the former owner of Washington's The Big Cheese restaurant, have compiled 200 of their favorite but simple recipes by other great cooks from James Beard and Julia Child to Alice Waters and Paula Wolfert. The innovative dishes save time but not at the price of flavor; leftovers, in fact, may be hard to come by with these recipes. Too bad though, that McCullough and Witt didn't spend more time writing about the cooks whose recipes they have selected; although the authors credit the cook at the beginning of each recipe, there is no explanation of who they are.
In these value-conscious times, "Cuisine Economique" by Jacques Pepin (William Morrow & Co., $22) is a nice find, full of "recipes that turn penny-pinching into a delicious experience." Salmon may be expensive, but it's not so dear if you use only 1 1/2 pounds to serve six or more with his flavorful Salmon and Green Beans Pojarski. Similarly, the Braised Pork Roast with Sweet Potatoes uses the inexpensive pork shoulder butt to create a mellow and tender fall stew.
There are several other new books that were supposedly written to save time, such as "Cooking Smart" by Sharon Tyler Herbst (HarperCollins, $25). According to the cover, the book has "recipes, tips and techniques for really using the time-saving, work-saving gadgets in your kitchen." The recipes are innovative and delicious -- but unfortunately many call for so many steps, gadgets and ingredients that cooks could end up spending hours in the kitchen and still have to clean up all those gadgets.
This year, there's a relatively sparse selection of low-fat books, of which the most prominent is Steven Raichlen's "High-Flavor Low-Fat Cooking" (Camden House, $18.95). A hodgepodge of recipes from stir-fries to brisket, banana cream pie to biscotti, the book offers the health-conscious a lot of variety. But many of the recipes were disappointing, given the title of the book; they certainly lacked oomph in flavor.
Beyond improving a cook's life, there are two books that want to improve the planet as well: Lorna J. Sass' "Recipes From an Ecological Kitchen" (William Morrow & Co., $25) and John Robbins' "May All Be Fed" (William Morrow & Co., $23). Both authors are on personal missions to convince consumers to give up meat-based diets for strict vegetarian regimes that feature no eggs or milk. "What is good for our health is also good for the health of our planet," says Sass, who credits Robbins' first book "Diet for a New America" (Stillpoint Publishing, 1987) with launching her crusade.
Robbins' latest book may win even more converts with his lengthy diatribes against modern day advertising and age-old diets of meat, chicken, fish, milk and eggs. But from a culinary point of view, Sass' is the better book since her goal is to create food that is both environmentally friendly and tastes good, too. Sometimes, her recipes succeed, such as the lentil-based Nosmo King's Moroccan Chili or the egg-free Orange Marmalade Muffins. But other times, her creations are exactly what she tries to avoid: dishes that are time-consuming to prepare, heavy enough to sink an ocean liner and tasteless enough to leave considerable waste on the plate.
CAPE SCALLOPS SAUTEED WITH GARLIC AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES
This recipe, from Jasper White of Boston's Jasper's restaurant, calls for sweet cape scallops, although bay and sea scallops work well too. If using the big scallops, add a minute or two to the cooking time.
1 1/2 pounds cape scallops
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
1 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and julienned
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley.
Pick through scallops, removing straps and any particles of shell. Place the scallops in a colander to drain so they are as dry as possible. Prepare, measure and have all the other ingredients ready to go.
Heat a saute pan until smoking hot. (Use two pans if necessary to prevent overcrowding). Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Add the oil and then the scallops to the pan, leaving a little space for the garlic. As soon as the scallops hit the pan, add the garlic. Do not move the pan or stir the scallops.
After 30 seconds, add the sun-dried tomatoes and toss. Cook for 30 seconds more. Add the lemon juice, butter and parsley. Remove from heat and toss or stir until butter melts. Check seasoning and serve immediately.
Per serving: 396 calories, 31 gm protein, 18 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 6 gm saturated fat, 72 mg cholesterol, 299 mg sodium
From "Great Food Without Fuss" by Frances McCullough and Barbara Witt (Henry Holt & Co., $25)