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Cookbook roundup

Dinner for one, clay pots for all: read on

(Ed Anderson)
By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / December 23, 2009

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This year’s cookbooks are for people who love to cook. If you truly enjoy your kitchen, rejoice. We’re not talking about disassembling a whole pig or growing your own sugar crystals. If your idea of a nice meal is roasting a chicken or you’ve been meaning to try your hand at bread, you’ll be happy with what’s on bookstore shelves.

You might not have thought that the British chef Jamie Oliver could make his food any more accessible, but Jamie’s Food Revolution (Hyperion, $35) does just that. These are weeknight recipes meant to blast away any resistance from reluctant first-time cooks. Even the simplest recipes have colorful process photos. With soups, fresh-looking veg, and dozens of easy ways to get protein on the table, Oliver once again makes it clear that anybody (and he means anybody) can cook.

Judith Jones may be best known for shepherding Julia Child’s masterpiece into print, but Jones’s own new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One (Knopf, $27.95), may appeal to those women who used to cook from Julia and now find little joy in the kitchen. This volume celebrates single-size dinners, miniature indulgences, and smart leftovers.

Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread took the baking world by storm a couple of years ago. His loaf seemed like the antithesis of bread as we knew it. It had practically no yeast, required zero kneading, and called for baking in a pot. Lahey has taken his recipe, added variations, flatbreads, panini, even uses for stale bread in My Bread (Norton, $29.95). If Lahey’s rustic, dead-easy formula can’t make a baker out of you, nothing will.

The most important part of Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio (Scribner, $27) is on pages ix and x of the book. That’s where you’ll find: “Pasta dough = 3 parts flour : 2 parts egg,’’ “Sausage = 3 parts meat : 1 part fat’’ and many more formulas. The remainder of the book teaches you the rationale behind the ratios. You’ll find a charming Bebop-a-Rebop Rhubarb Pie (after the “Prairie Home Companion’’ dessert) and a basic spicy sausage. Once you’ve absorbed the ratios, the idea is that you’re free of cookbooks. An impossible dream, but I’m glad somebody’s trying.

Rose’s Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Wiley, $39.95) is not for the casual baker. It’s full of beautiful confections, and though there are times listed on each, don’t be misled; these tell you how long the cakes bake. To make them, you need an afternoon. There are butter cakes, sponge cakes, baby cakes, flourless cakes, and pulsing through the book like its decadent heart, many chocolate cakes. Ingredients come in a grid that offers both volume and weight, which can be hard to read. Buy for someone with pastry chef envy.

My New Orleans (Andrew McMeel, $45) by chef and ex-Marine John Besh captures the Crescent City’s food culture so passionately it’s hard to resist. Personal narratives and gorgeous pictures celebrate New Orleans as a native knows it, pre- and post-Katrina. If you live in New England, you can’t make recipes using crawfish and redfish. When you do get a chance to simmer a gumbo, reach for Besh.

Maybe it’s peanut envy, but Southern books are looking especially good to this frost-bound reviewer. The Hot and Hot Fish Club Cookbook (Running Press, $35) from the Birmingham, Ala., restaurant of the same name is organized by Alabama seasons, so we won’t be putting up green tomato chutney in April. With its unexpected mix of down-home and dress-up, fish fries and fingerlings, this is a persuasive argument for eating close to the source (even if we do it months later than they do).

As easy as it is to make pasta, we often end up regularly preparing only a couple of sauces and shapes. You’ll amplify your repertoire with Silver Spoon Pasta (Phaidon, $39.95), the little sister of “Silver Spoon.’’ Recipes are sparely written, so you’d best know what you’re doing. But they’re logically organized (long, short, cut, and filled), and there are a lot. Enough to have a different pasta every night all year.

On Monday nights at chef Mark Peel’s Campanile in LA, you can get the big, hearty meals you eat at home: roast chicken, lasagna, pot roast. The differences between New Classic Family Dinners (Wiley, $34.95) and your recipes are small but critical. Peel might use two kinds of cheese or fresh herbs, run a dish under the broiler to finish it, or simmer bacon in water to render its fat. This is easy, crowd-pleasing food, just a little more soigné.

“Most food tastes better cooked in clay.’’ With that pronouncement, author Paula Wolfert has forced me to double my kitchen equipment budget. Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking (Wiley, $34.95) is devoted to stews, soups, braises, and grains cooked in casuelas, Romertopfs, Chinese sandpots, and clay casseroles from Western Europe, North Africa, and South America. With its Old World palette of citrus, nuts, olives, strong herbs, and warming spices, this is appealing food, no matter which pot you cook it in.