Sunday, January 27, 2008

Kick ass, Barefoot Contessa!

Cookbooks have ceased to be strictly utilitarian tomes. Now they're glossy, entertaining reads: Imagine Webster's dictionary shacking up with a graphic designer, or the Moulin Rouge. Back in the day, a typical bookshelf had a checkered Better Homes & Gardens binder or Betty Crocker Cookbook and a few others. The more serious cooks might have Julia Child's 2-volume Master the Art of French Cooking (1400 pages of small-font instructions). 

A few months ago, I read this article, comparing recently released cookbooks in Great Britain with those in the States. The article suggested that the tone of the British cookbooks is more friendly and light-hearted (I know, the British -- weird, right)? I cook because I enjoy it - taking on a new unfamiliar recipe is exactly the right amount of adventure and challenge I want to have at the end of an otherwise routine day. I absolutely want to be assured that the cookbook author is having fun as well. It's all about companionship in the kitchen.

That's why, although I've yet to make a recipe out of it, I've already spent a few hours enjoying my lovely new cookbook: Veganomicon: The Ultimate Vegan Cookbook. Check out their comments on zucchini:

"Oy gevalt! I've got ferkakte zucchini up to mayn kepele!" How many times have you uttered these words, amazed at your newfound grasp of Yiddish? Roasting to the rescue, once again. Get ready for succulent summer squash that will rock your tuchus.

The authors are obviously having a blast; the recipe instructions are straight forward, and the authors list "variations" and "complements" for almost everything. "The best way to reheat this sauce" acknowledges that leftovers happen.

Contrast that with another cookbook I'm reading, Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food. I know Alice has a passion for organic local produce (as evidenced by her life's work), but her book reads like a textbook. Her instructions for proper roasting of my zucchini leaves me feeling a little apprehensive, and, if I screw up, I'll have an ulcer and protégée's guilt for not julienne-ing exactly as Alice instructed. I'll be reading the whole thing, but it's strictly information gathering - no joy of cooking here.

Which is why, when I wanted to try out french cooking for the first time, I bought Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten, a.k.a The Barefoot Contessa. Barefoot has ridiculously large photographs of a vase of flowers, or a plate of breadsticks. It has the literary equivalent of the fluffy photos in small narratives throughout the book about why the Contessa loves Paris. I've loved reading it and cooking its greatly simplified recipes because it's manageable and romantic. Which is more than I can say for Julia Child's (God bless her) 11-page recipe on how to make phyllo dough correctly. Sure it's about the content, but these days sex sells. And after a long day, nothing in the kitchen is sexier than an easy supper.

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