Seasons by the Sea: Happiness, From Book to Plate

The second five of my 10 favorite cookbooks
Laura Donnelly’s brother painted the watercolor for the frontispiece of Patricia Wells’s “Bistro Cookbook.” When it faded over time, he repainted it for her.

    Last week I offered up the first five of my 10 favorite cookbooks, now for the second.
    I had meant to include a “Silver Palate” cookbook but which one? They are all good, and were revolutionary for their time, but I simply couldn’t choose. I am also partial to my little collection of historical cookbooks: Thomas Jefferson’s “Congressional Wives” and “The First Ladies Cookbook,” but none stood out in particular. So I have narrowed my list down to two marvelous French cookbooks, another dessert cookbook, one “Barefoot Contessa,” and one purely for the kitsch factor.
    “The Taste of France” by Robert Freson is one of the most beautiful coffee table-type cookbooks ever. Mr. Freson is best known for his photography and every picture in the book was taken in natural light. The pictures are not glossy, shiny, colorful close-ups of glistening roast chickens and artfully arranged vegetable towers or perfectly symmetrical sci-fi desserts. They are realistic and messy, often portraying the before and after of ingredients. This can be disconcerting when it’s a furry bunny next to a terrine of lapin, but this is France, after all. The book is divided by regions and their cuisines such as Normandy and Brittany, Provence, Perigord, Alsace, etc. The veal scallops with cream and mushroom sauce is one of my favorite recipes, served with sauteed apples and sugar snap peas. Another favorite, so simple and delicious in the summertime, is the salade Tourangelle, no more than a selection of cooked artichoke hearts, asparagus, and green beans served with raw celery and mushrooms. Each vegetable gets its own separate vinaigrette, a sprinkling of herbs such as chervil, and the whole is served with toast and fresh walnuts.
    Ina Garten, a k a the Barefoot Contessa, has written eight books, thus far. I have most of them and have favorite recipes in each. But if I had to choose one, it would be the first, “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook.” This book has the only brownie recipe you will ever need, called Outrageous Brownies. There is a curried couscous full of vegetables and my favorite, the pan-fried onion dip. One of the reasons she is so successful with her cookbooks and TV show is that she wants to share recipes that the average home cook anywhere can find the ingredients for. They are simple and foolproof.
    “The Presley Family Cookbook,” a spiral-bound, cheapo production, is more like a regional church or ladies society cookbook. It was compiled by Elvis’s uncle Vester Presley and the longtime cook at Graceland, Nancy Rooks. There are personal anecdotes scattered throughout the book such as after the Twelve-Flavor Ice Cream Dessert, which is one scoop each vanilla, black walnut, banana split, butter pecan, strawberry, chocolate chip, black cherry, lemon, and peach ice cream, and pineapple, lime, and orange sherbet with one pint of fresh strawberries. Ms. Rooks’s notation: “Some days this is all Elvis would have during the day.” After the recipe for Red Eagle Meatball and Spaghetti Dinner (which contains 1/4 cup bacon fat and butter-flavored salt) she added, “This is the last meal Elvis ate.” There are some classic Southern recipes, such as for crowder peas (cook three and a half hours), black-eyed peas (cook three and a half hours), pork ears, feet, and tails (cook two and a half hours), hush puppies (“These are good for children after school”), and fried squirrel (boil, dry, fry.) I think the editors were half asleep when working on this book because some of the black and white photographs are repeated throughout the book. It is definitely more kitsch than kitchen, but I love it.
    I have a lot of cookbooks by professional chefs and/or from well-known restaurants. Quite often the recipes are flawed because the chef is used to producing in great volume and when the recipe is reduced and simplified for the home cook, it simply doesn’t work. This is not the case with Claudia Fleming’s “The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern.” Every single recipe I have tried comes out perfectly. Ms. Fleming, who owns and is the pastry chef of North Fork Table, along with her husband, Gerry Hayden, the chef, has divided her book into sections such as berries, stone fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs and flowers, and sweet essences. She is best known for her composed desserts, such as chocolate souffle tart with extra bittersweet chocolate sorbet, milk chocolate malted ice cream, and a chocolate malted. Besides each recipe being accessible and well explained, there are serving suggestions for each dessert so you can keep it simple or be a showoff. This book has the best pecan Sandie cookie recipe ever.
    My last and absolute favorite cookbook of all time is Patricia Wells’s “Bistro Cookbook.” It is my favorite for several reasons. One, bistro-style cooking is my favorite. It is simple, rustic, and seasonal. Secondly, my brother John, an excellent artist, painted a lovely watercolor in the front of the book. When this painting faded away from various cooking stains, he painted it over again. Ms. Wells tells a story about each recipe and the bistro it came from. There are wine suggestions, menus, and various entertaining quotes. Here is the kind of menu that sends me to the store for ingredients: salad of fresh spinach and sauteed chicken livers, Chez Rose’s chicken fricasee with mushrooms, Madame Laracine’s potato gratin, and golden cream and apple tart. Like most of my cookbooks, this one is dog-eared, spattered, and full of my own notes such as this for two chocolate cake recipes in a row: “Great! Would be good served with strawberries or raspberries!” Next page: “Even better!” Madame Cartet’s gratin dauphinois is so easy and delicious. The pear clafoutis with vanilla sugar is simple and inexpensive to make. This book only came out in paperback and it has just a few black and white photos and some sketches. It is simple and classic, just like the recipes within.
    I confess that I love it so much, that when I see a copy at a friend’s house, I pull it off the bookshelf and start to dog-ear and scribble in it.
    Maybe my top 10 list will inspire you to get some of these books, or at the very least, try some of the recipes I have chosen from them. As someone who has cooked professionally for many years, these books probably mean more to me than they would to the average cook. It all boils down to a favorite quote from Grimod de la Reyniere: “Life is so brief that we should not glance either too far backwards or forwards . . . therefore study how to fix our happiness in our glass and in our plate.”

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