Summer is the cruelest season for cookbooks. Caught between the spring fling and the holiday onslaught, it’s easy for a good book to get ignored.
But for all the talk about how the cookbook market is shrinking — and despite the fact that sales figures tend to support that argument — I’m always surprised at just how many really good books still find their way onto my desk, no matter what time of year.
And by great books, I don’t mean big glossy coffee-table jobs, or even big books by celebrity chefs. There is still room for a wonderful little book that captures a specific subject, for a re-appreciation of a too-often-overlooked author, or for a writer with a quirky, individual voice.
Here are three books published this summer that I found especially appealing:
Okra can be a challenge even for good cooks. Thank goodness there’s a great cook like Virginia Willis to help those of us who love to eat it but have been challenged by cooking it. An Atlantan and therefore someone fully familiar with the slimy pod, Willis has written a new cookbook, “Okra,” part of the University of North Carolina Press’ splendid “Savor the South” series, that finally gives the vegetable its due.
The book starts with a long essay, an “ode to okra” as Willis puts it. A breakdown of heirloom varieties, Southern history and a nice little botany lesson follow. And, yes, there are tips on how to keep okra from being overly mucilaginous. To simplify: Choose small pods. Wash and dry very thoroughly. Don’t cut it up unless it’s absolutely necessary, and then wipe your knife between cuts to reduce the slime factor. Cook it with an acid, such as tomato or wine. Above all, don’t overcook it.
The recipes run the gamut from Southern standards such as black-eyed peas and okra to inventions such as “Southern sushi” (okra and cream cheese wrapped in country ham). I particularly liked the quick-pickled okra that, Willis points out, is perfect for replacing green olives in “Southern-style martinis.”
Marcella Hazan is quite rightly regarded as the queen mother of Italian cooking in the United States. In Britain, that title probably goes to Anna Del Conte, a writer who is far too little-known here. Like Hazan, Del Conte’s food exemplifies the kind of simple, sophisticated technique that informs so much of great Italian cooking.
Her new book (at least new in the U.S.) is called “Italian Kitchen,” and it’s a compendium of recipes from four smaller books that were published in Britain back in the early ‘90s. You won’t find many elaborate constructions or flashy fusion ingredients in her recipes. What you will find are simple ingredients treated with respect.
Take her recipe for baked zucchini, for example, one that has already made its way into my regular rotation. On the surface, it’s dead simple: You rub zucchini with mint and garlic and bake it until it browns. The trick here — if you can call it a trick — is that she salts the zucchini before roasting, which pulls moisture and partly “cooks” the squash, giving it a firm, silky texture. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.
‘My Paris Kitchen’
Bookshelves are full of romantic odes to French cooking — or at least French cooking as it once existed. But too often what’s missing is the messy texture of real life, where cuisines don’t exist in time capsules but are constantly changing, just as the contemporary cultures around them are.
You get that up-to-the-minute feeling from David Lebovitz’s “My Paris Kitchen,” which is full of recipes that feel like they came straight from a dinner party thrown by that super-chic friend who lives in a great apartment in the Third.
Lebovitz has a blog that’s popular enough to be called cult-like. A former cook and pastry chef at Chez Panisse, he’s been in Paris long enough to understand how people really live. In that way, this book reminds me of the late Michael Roberts’ great “Parisian Home Cooking.” So you get traditional French recipes such as brandade and aioli, but there are also recipes that reflect modern Paris — the Middle Eastern egg dish shakshuka and his spin on Parisian Texas barbecue, caramel pork ribs.
SPICY QUICK-PICKLED OKRA
Time: 15 minutes, plus cooling and chilling times.
Makes: 4 pints
4 small dried chile peppers, such as chiles de arbol or bird’s eye
2 tsp. brown mustard seeds
1 tsp. whole black peppercorns
8 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
2 lbs. medium okra, stem ends trimmed
4 cups distilled white vinegar
2 cups water
2 Tbsp. pickling salt
Place 1 chile, one-half teaspoon mustard seeds, one-fourth teaspoon peppercorns and 2 garlic cloves in each of 4 sterilized pint jars. Divide the okra evenly among the jars, place the pods vertically with the stems alternating up and down.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, bring the vinegar, water and salt to a boil. Carefully pour the boiling mixture over the okra in the jars, leaving one-fourth inch of headroom between the liquid and the top of the jar. Seal the lids, and cool to room temperature. Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 weeks.
Each of 16 (1/2 cup) servings: calories 25; protein 1 g; carbohydrates 5 g; fiber 2 g; fat 0; cholesterol 0; sugar 1 g; sodium 110 mg
Note: Adapted from Virginia Willis’ “Okra.”
BAKED ZUCCHINI WITH MINT AND GARLIC STUFFING
Time: 1 hour.
1 lb. zucchini
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup dried breadcrumbs
6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise. Make some diagonal incisions on the cut side. Sprinkle the cut side lightly with salt and place the zucchini halves on a wooden board, cut-side down. This will allow some of the liquid to drain away.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the chopped parsley and mint in a bowl and add the garlic and breadcrumbs. Add half the oil gradually, while beating with a fork. Season with a good grinding of pepper and with very little salt.
Oil a shallow baking or lasagna dish large enough to hold all the zucchini halves in a single layer.
Wipe the zucchini halves with paper towels and lay them in the dish, cut-side up. Spoon a little of the herb mixture over each half. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the oil over the halves and cover the dish with foil. Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the foil and continue baking until the zucchini is tender and the top is crisp, 10 to 20 minutes longer.
Drizzle with the remaining olive oil while the zucchini is still hot. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Each serving: calories 229; protein 3 g; carbohydrates 9 g; fiber 2 g; fat 21 g; saturated fat 3 g; cholesterol 0; sugar 3 g; sodium 61 mg
Note: Adapted from Anna Del Conte’s “Italian Kitchen.”
SALTED BUTTER CARAMEL-CHOCOLATE MOUSSE
Time: 30 minutes, plus cooling and chilling times.
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp. corn syrup
3 Tbsp. salted butter, cubed
3/4 cup heavy cream
6 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
4 large eggs, separated
Rounded 1/4 tsp. flaky sea salt, preferably fleur de sel
Combine the sugar, water and corn syrup in a wide saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, and cook until the sugar begins to darken to a rich caramel color.
When the caramel is a deep amber color and starts to smoke, wait a moment for it to smell just slightly burnt, then remove it from the heat and quickly whisk in the butter, stirring until melted. Gradually whisk in the cream and stir until the little bits of caramel are completely melted. (A few can be stubborn, so be patient. You can strain the mixture if they simply refuse to budge.)
Once smooth, add the chocolate, stirring gently until it’s melted and smooth. Scrape the mixture into a large bowl and set it aside to cool to room temperature. Once it’s no longer warm, whisk in the egg yolks.
In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff. Fold one-third of the whipped whites into the chocolate mixture, sprinkling in the flaky salt. Fold in the remaining beaten egg whites just until no streaks of white remain.
Divide the mousse into serving glasses, or transfer it to decorative serving bowl and chill for at least 8 hours. Although it might be tempting to serve this with whipped cream, I prefer it pure, straight up with just a spoon.
Each serving: calories411; protein 7 g; carbohydrates 33 g; fiber 2 g; fat 32 g; saturated fat 18 g; cholesterol 180 mg; sugar 28 g; sodium 218 mg
Note: Adapted from David Lebovitz’s “My Paris Kitchen.” This recipe calls for raw egg. Although many recipes call for raw eggs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that diners — especially children, seniors, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems — avoid eating them.
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