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The joy of cookbooks

From jazzed-up basics to a reincarnated classic

by Sally Sampson

As the author of four cookbooks and the reviewer of countless others, I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at, thinking about, reading, and cooking out of these volumes. If the shelf life of most cookbooks is roughly equal to that of a gallon of milk, the 1997 batch is full of exceptions to the rule. Chatty, charming, informative, and personal, these are destined to become classics; even if you don't buy them to give them away, put them on your own wish list. They are as delightful to read as they are to cook from.

I wish that I had written Cook Something: Simple Recipes and Sound Advice to Bring Good Food into Your Fabulous Lifestyle (Macmillan, $19.95 paper). Author Mitchell Davis, the director of publications at the James Beard House, obviously had a blast assembling this compendium of basic information and classic recipes covering every nationality, course, and time period. The dishes that he guides readers through include pancakes, cream puffs, lemon-parmesan dip, leg of lamb, guacamole, chicken soup, chicken paprikash, falafel burgers, and Meat Loaf to Be Proud Of (now, that's a feat). This is a great book to give a twentysomething beginner or someone who is experienced but needs some interesting new recipes.

Marcella Hazan has been called the godmother of Italian cooking in America, and her newest book, Cucina Marcella (HarperCollins, $35), inspires. Although the most obvious audience is the experienced cook, there are enough basic dishes here for the intrigued novice. Hazan wrote Cucina Marcella to explain what, how, and why she cooks. Trained as a biologist, she had stayed out of the kitchen until she got married; she cooked and still cooks to please her husband, and although that may no longer be PC, the culinary result is quite wonderful. It's the perfect volume to use as a learning guide, the way housewives in the '50s and '60s used Julia Child's books. After reading it, one wants to invite her over -- or get right to work on the recipes, including risotto with red cabbage and pancetta, Simplest Leek and Chickpea Soup, Fish in Crazy Water, mussel and basil sauce for pasta, and radicchio and finocchio (fennel) sautéed in olive oil. Try one recipe a week, whether to please yourself or someone else.

Vegetarian Planet(Harvard Common Press, $29.95), by local chef and author Didi Emmons, may be a vegetarian's dream come true, but it is also a great book for anyone who wants something interesting to serve next to (or instead of) a big hunk o' protein. The range of recipes is huge, including soups, sandwiches, burgers, stews, risottos, and pizzas so inventive and delicious that even the most hard-core carnivore will not notice the lack of meat. Although Emmons is an accomplished and inventive chef, her recipes are never time-consuming, inaccessible, or overly exotic.

For the first time in 22 years, The Joy of Cooking has been revised -- which makes The All New All-Purpose Joy of Cooking (Simon & Schuster, $30) a great gift for anyone who has the old edition, and a must for anyone who doesn't. I literally can't imagine a cooking life without the original Joy, and now that the new one is out, I can't imagine not owning it, either. The original Joy was written by a housewife whose innate culinary prowess was, to put it kindly, lacking. But she knew how to do something with almost every basic ingredient, which made her book an invaluable reference resource. The new Joy is that and more: it contains 2500 recipes -- some old, some new -- and draws on the talents of many well-known and revered chefs and food writers, including such local figures as Chris Schlesinger, Jody Adams, John Willoughby, and Nina Simonds. One caveat: it is a utilitarian and not particularly pretty book, so try giving it along with cookie cutters and spices, or wrap it with extraordinarily beautiful and festive paper.

Sally Sampson's cookbook collection is 1000 strong and still growing.

Sally Sampson doesn't recommend her own cookbook on this page, but we can't resist. The Olives Table (Simon & Schuster, $32), which Sampson cowrote with Olives chef Todd English (photographs by Carl Tremblay), gives the home cook insight into the kitchen artistry that has made English one of the country's premier chefs. The book makes the most complex meal easy (or at least comprehensible), and English provides entertaining (and enlightening) anecdotes along the way. Best of all, the recipes really work. This is passionate food.

Fear of Food


Like sex, gastronomy is messy work. Fresh root vegetables make it into our kitchens still filmed with sticky, black soil. Cheese comes from rotted milk; wine, from rotted grapes; beer, whiskey and bread, from rotted grain. Properly grown fruits and vegetables are fertilized with aged excrement; meat, even that of the happiest, most free-roaming, hormone-free chickens and pigs, is the end result of a process most of us would rather not think about. Many times more bacteria reside on a single, small radish than do people on the island of Manhattan.

This is something Americans prefer not to think about. Our health laws, the most stringent in the world, sacrifice on the altar of sanitation many of the marketplace pleasures taken for granted by the rest of the planet: unpasteurized cheeses, hung game and wildly fragrant hams; farmyard chickens and wild-caught trout; broiled songbirds and properly air-dried Beijing ducks; real street food.

Americans, by and large, appreciate the government's role in keeping our food supply safe: in regulating pesticide residue, forcing restaurants to comply with basic standards and shutting down meat-processing plants tainted with E. coli H157.

But even if the government mandated the use of autoclaves and hermetically sealed space suits in restaurant kitchens, the food we eat would be far from aseptic: More important, we'd be missing out on the joy. Too many of us are afraid of our food.

Producers of television news shows have learned that nothing draws viewers like food-safety stories, preferably food-safety stories targeting the misbehavior of nose-picking, minimum-wage salad-bar attendants that their viewers can feel superior to. And two weeks ago, the Channel 2 Special Assignment team, the band of crack reporters who also brought us hard-hitting reports on psychic crime fighters and the guys who swipe quarters from your ashtray at the car wash, aired a three-part report on health-code violations in county restaurants that stirred up about three times more local attention than this year's mayoral race.

The station cobbled together numerical ratings from a slightly outdated database of inspectors' reports - at least a dozen restaurants on the list have been closed for more than a year - and identified a "Failing 500" and a "Finest 500" (later updated to 2,000 and 885, respectively), and posted the results on the Web. Undercover cameramen, posing as restaurant employees, filmed sinister, low-angle, Hitchcockian footage of (perfectly legal) whole ducks hanging from hooks in a Chinese barbecue restaurant, of a chef smoking at his station and of some misguided soul extracting bones from a raw chicken with his teeth. There was particularly vile footage of rat droppings in a delicatessen and of meat thawing in a sink. One shot, of a swarthy prep cook wiping his nose, was repeated so often over the course of the week that a casual onlooker could be forgiven for mistaking it for a new KCBS logo. Channel 2 wanted to turn the city's collective stomach, and it did so admirably.

I have earned, I think, the dubious distinction of having eaten in more of Channel 2’s “Failing 500” restaurants than anybody else over the last 10 years, more than 200 places in every conceivable price range and ethnic group, in all areas of the county. I am fairly squeamish about restaurant hygiene, and I probably leave more restaurants after a bite or two in an average month — always paying — than most people will in their entire lives. I cannot abide the smell of stale oil or the sight of insects. I have a keen eye for flyspecks. I have learned to spot the sour smells, surly attitudes and stickiness that generally signal a restaurant’s decline. I check out, on average, four or five restaurants for every one that makes it into this column, and I won’t write about a sticky place even when I really like it, even if I think it has the best carne adobada in town.

But I noticed a few things that were funny about Channel 2’s lists. The first was that, although mild food poisoning is as much of an occupational hazard in my line of work as sniffly colds are for kindergarten teachers, I have never gotten the least bit ill from eating at any of the restaurants on the “failing” list, although I was laid up for days after meals at two separate restaurants on the “Finest 500.” Hygiene, I guess, is in the gastrointestinal tract of the beholder.

And even the horror stories seemed relatively mild — if you have worked in food service for even a couple of days, you know that no restaurant, no matter how exalted, is exempt from occasional unwanted visits from visitors both six-legged and quadruped.

But more important, 60 percent of the “failing” restaurants are Asian — another huge chunk is Latino — including a fair percentage of the best authentic Asian restaurants in the county, which I think may have more to say about the health department than it does about the general standard of cooking. Asian cooks tend to air-dry poultry, commingle raw foods, and home-pickle vegetables and meats. Some of them may chop meats and vegetables with the same cleaver, which would be intolerable if the foods were to be eaten raw, but Chinese chefs tend to cook even iceberg lettuce. And though Asian kitchens sometimes look a mess, the ingredients tend to be fresher, and the cooking temperatures far higher, than at other restaurants.

Plus, as anybody who has ever read the monthly list of restaurant closures knows, restaurants with serious code violations are closed and not allowed to reopen until the problems are corrected. I have never met a restaurateur who does not take the health department very, very seriously.

A lot of people are drawing exactly the wrong conclusion from the Channel 2 reports, that the lack of cleanliness is about the basically un-American values of immigrants.

“Some of [the restaurant workers] come from countries where a puppy on a stick is a dellicasy [sic],” says one typical posting to the Channel 2 message board on the Net.

Still, the city may actually end up a slightly better place after this report, if food handlers actually do become required to pass some sort of minor certification course, and restaurants are required, as they are in some counties, to post a letter grade from the health department on the wall — though anything that costs money is likely to be opposed by the powerful restaurant lobby, the same people who mobilize every few years to oppose hikes in the minimum wage.

I don’t like dirty food. And it’s strange that I feel compelled to say this — who, after all, would profess a love for dirty food? But it is hard to imagine going through life dining at only CBS’s “Finest 885,” which consist largely of airport lounges, fast-food joints and stalls in mall food courts, porno lounges and senior centers, Taco Bells and a fair number of religious institutions . . . but only one restaurant, Remi, that most people would count among the finest in Los Angeles. Hygiene is important. But it takes second place to soul.

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