... beginning with this indispensable handful by local chefs
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Not that there's anything wrong with pornography, but does everything have to be pornography now? Was a law passed in the dead of night, like a Congressional pay raise? In pondering undue pornography, I don't mean to indict certain of our favorite Web sites (exemption granted!) or gay newspaper ads for auto repair in which a cute shirtless mechanic smiles insinuatingly while holding a big wrench silly but harmless, and one turns the page to the cosmetic dentistry ad with the shirtless boy holding a big toothbrush. I do mean, at the moment, cookbooks, which over the past 10 or 15 years have gone from being rather austere and text-heavy tomes full of learning and encouragement to lurid encyclopedias of full-color photographs whose subjects are sprawled and splayed in poses worthy of Hustler or Drummer.
Are these objets d'titillation meant to be used or ogled? On my shelves sit a battered battery of old-timers, including The Fanny Farmer Cookbook (1979), The New York Times Cookbook (1961), and The New Joy of Cooking (1997) the last a revised classic published barely more than a decade ago. All are rich in fine recipes, and I know this because many of their pages are stained and spattered: evidence that I use them often. The pages open automatically to recipes I've consulted before and will doubtless consult again.
None of these worthy volumes have much by way of illustration beyond the occasional charcoal sketch. This has never been an issue. It's possible that a voluptuous photograph of a lemon tart will fill you with a desire to make said tart by using the recipe on the preceding page, but it's also possible that the photo will fill you with frustration and embarrassment when your own tart turns out to be not quite so photogenic as the one in the book. You might even decline to make the tart again. It's important to believe that when you make a recipe and the result is acceptable, you've done it the way the recipe writer meant you to.
There is a lovely photograph of a lemon tart in Gerald Hirigoyen's Bistro (Sunset Books, 1995), one of the dozen or so cookbooks by local chefs I use all the time despite the overwhelmingly sensual photography that fills them. My lemon tarts never look quite as fancy as the one in Hirigoyen's book, mainly because I skip the step that involves candying very thin slices of lemon and baking them into the center of the tart as decoration. But my lemon-tart-for-dummies version tastes good and is easier and less messy to make and guests never decline leftover pieces to take home for breakfast. Hirigoyen, incidentally, who grew up in French Basque country, is the founder of Fringale (which he's no longer involved with) and Pipérade, which began its life in the mid-1990s as Pastis.
Of the many esteemed local chefs who publish cookbooks, I esteem none higher than Joyce Goldstein, whose recipes use straightforward techniques, don't rely too heavily on odd ingredients, and always work. For the home cook, her only peer is the late Pierre Franey, who wrote the "60-Minute Gourmet" column for the New York Times for years and turned those many columns into a pair of sublime cookbooks, The Sixty Minute Gourmet and Cuisine Rapide (both Times Books; 2000, 1989). My copies of Franey have the hors de combat look of soldiers' boots after a long tour at the front. And while they probably wouldn't command much in the used-book market, their condition does tell the discerning eye that they're probably well worth having.
Due to an administrative error, I never acquired a copy of Goldstein's first and probably best-known cookbook, The Mediterranean Kitchen (1989), which she published while running her famous and wonderful Barbary Coast restaurant, Square One. I rely, instead, on her Back to Square One (Morrow, 1992) and have made her versions of Mexican cauliflower soup and spicy Indian lentils from that book so often that I no longer need to consult the recipes. The soup recipe, in particular, is quintessential Goldstein: a brief list of easy-to-get ingredients, a few steps briskly described, and a beguiling result that's more than the sum of its parts.
If you just can't face cauliflower and you have stale bread in the house onions too try Goldstein's recipe for Italian onion soup with bread and sage, from Kitchen Conversations (Morrow, 1996). This simple soup resembles its more famous French cousin onions caramelized in butter, sage, melted cheese on top and is yet another example of Italian cleverness about not wasting food, in this case stale bread. (Hint: the soup is mighty fine when made strictly according to the recipe, but it's a little richer if you use beef stock instead of plain water.)
My copy of the original Greens cookbook, The Greens Cookbook (Bantam, 1987), is more than 20 years old now and has spatters even on the frontispiece. Inexplicable. The book's author is Deborah Madison, who will be recalled by those with elephant memories as the restaurant's first chef when it opened in 1979. The book was my first vegetarian cookbook, and it still has a favorite-blanket aura in that respect. But the recipe I still use over and over is the one for bread focaccia, to be precise. The would-be baker of bread in this cold city is beset by terrors and frustrations, mainly having to do with the lack of the fabled "warm, draft-free place" bread dough must be placed in if it's to rise properly. But Greens' focaccia is hardiness itself: it rises even in gray winter, it's soft, it takes dimpling beautifully, it bakes quickly, pops right out of the pan when done, and everybody loves it no matter what you put on top.
Cindy Pawlcyn has launched some of the Bay Area's most beloved and durable restaurants (including Fog City Diner and Mustards Grill), but lately she's been revealing herself to be an excellent recipe writer for the home cook. My copy of her Big Small Plates (Ten Speed, 2006) has a big spatter on the gougères page and another on the papas bravas page. Gougères are tasty little cheese puffs and are, with some champagne, a wonderful treat to serve guests before dinner, at least if you serve them warm, but their glory is of the brief, summer-in-Antarctica variety, and they cool all too quickly to forgettability. The papas bravas (paprika-scented Spanish-style potatoes), though less finger-friendly, are a little more forgiving; they cool along a gentler arc and are still perfectly fine even when approaching room temperature.
For meat cookery, I rely on Bruce Aidell's The Complete Meat Cookbook (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). It manages to be both authoritative and friendly, it's full of wonderful recipes that aren't complicated (including bulletproof versions of the venerable Tuscan pork roast called arista and charcoal-grilled Florentine beef). Even in years gone by, when I cooked a lot more meat than I do now, I never felt the need to seek out guidance elsewhere. It's as canonical as a cookbook can be.
Cookbook canons tend to be narrow, in part because of personal taste and because shelf space is limited, but occasionally a new entrant does join the elect. One such recent addition, for me, is The Spanish Table Cookbook (The Spanish Table, 2005) by Steve Winston, who not coincidentally is one of the owners of The Spanish Table in Berkeley, a rich resource not only for seekers after pimentón and piquillo peppers but paella pans and cazuelas. The book itself, with its simple black-and-white sketches, is a refreshing throwback to pre-porn days. It is also full of wisdom and tips about Iberian cooking, which, having never found a popular Anglophone exponent as French cuisine did in Julia Child, remains faintly exotic in this country. Naturally the book gives several good paella recipes, including one with prawns, chickpeas, and ñora peppers, as well as several interpretations of the pasta brought to Iberia by the Arabs and known to the Spanish as fideo. The paella-like dish made with this pasta (if you can find it, and you can find it at The Spanish Table) is called fideuá.
No discussion of cookbooks would be complete without mention of at least one volume consecrated to dessert. For me that volume is Emily Luchetti's Four Star Desserts (HarperCollins, 1996), the title referring to her long run as pastry chef at Stars. (She's had a comparable run at Farallon.) My copy: gravely spattered. Many are the times I've made the bitter-orange crèmes caramels (though often not with bitter orange but some other interesting citrus), not to mention the banana tarte tatin and Key lime pie. Although the book features a fair amount of vivid photography, the recipes I like the most and use most often do not include photographs. For a more sweeping compendium of Luchetti recipes, there's Classic Stars Desserts (Chronicle Books, 2007), a kind of greatest-hits album that includes the secrets of Stareos, the famous Stars cookies. A discreet aside here to you inveterate porndogs: Stareos and other cookies can be eaten with one hand. *