Can the best get better? Yes, indeed. This year's top picks from cookbooks, magazines foody and otherwise newspapers, the Internet, food packaging, radio shows and more, compiled by that ever-vigilant team of eagle-eyed epicures Fran McCullough and Molly Stevens in The Best American Recipes 2003-2004, are even more appealing than those that came before. Somehow, Fran and Molly sift through thousands of recipes to come up with their annual favorites and an overview of "the year in food." Retro (read: comfort food) is in, as are pumpkins, kumquats, bacon and bourbon. There's new interest in frugal food (think savory uses for stale bread) and the "exotic" cuisine of the year is British (think Jamie, Nigella and Delia). The authors have an uncanny knack for finding doable recipes that really catch your cooking fancy. Nothing is over-the-top, you can make these dishes without praying for a sous-chef, and you won't need to mortgage the house to buy truffles and caviar. That said, I can assure you that nothing is boring either: Salsa-Baked Goat Cheese is a low-work wow of an appetizer; pasta topped with citrus zest, cream and a nip of cognac is incredibly easy and incredibly elegant; succulent Baked Chicken with Prunes is on the table in 45 minutes; and Sticky Toffee Pudding with Toffee Sauce is lusciousness itself. I'm so glad this annual event has become perennial.
Getting get-togethers togetherLeslie Revsin began her career as "kitchen man" at the Waldorf-Astoria, rose to become its first woman chef and went on to join the ranks of American master chefs. Though no longer working as a professional chef, the kitchen is still her hub and the hub of her house where she now cooks for the friends who come to share her warm hospitality and fabulous home-cooked meals. Leslie loves to cook, but now she wants it "simple and pure, with a sophistication that doesn't bonk you over the head." So, how does a former chef approach the problem of serving divine dinners, while still staying part of the party? She cooks ahead, plans with care and shows you how do the same in her inviting new book, Come for Dinner (Wiley, $29.95, 320 pages, ISBN 0471420107). Leslie offers a host of marvelous, manageable menus soup suppers, an antipasto extravaganza, meat, chicken and seafood specials, hearty cool weather meals, delectable desserts and more and each one comes with add-on ideas that turn what is already a fine meal into a bigger feast. Over 150 recipes arranged by courses, each one accompanied by the "do-ahead options," back up the menu ideas and make it possible for you to enjoy your guests while they enjoy a memorable meal.
One-pot wondersTom Valenti, a working chef and chef/owner of two top-rated New York restaurants, also loves to cook and entertain at home, but he hates to do the dishes. That deep-seated dish-doing dread led him to develop the 125 recipes that appear in his new book, Tom Valenti's Soups, Stews, and One-Pot Meals (Scribner, $30, 288 pages, ISBN 0743243757), written with Andrew Friedman. When he's working, Tom has prep cooks and dishwashers galore; at home, he's like most of us, sailing solo in his kitchen without a support group. As a result, his favorites are dishes where everything cooks together in a single vessel, where there's a steady building of flavors. Tom is a realist; he knows that you and I cook in what he calls the Real World, a place where stock comes out of a can and shock-and-awe plating techniques are not part of the deal. I have to admit that finding "store-bought" broth in the ingredient lists for some recipes removed the pang of culinary guilt I always feel when substituting for the homemade stock that never seems to find its way into my freezer. Tom's style is relaxed and easy, with added advice for using leftovers creatively and for alternative ingredients. You'll savor his Butternut Squash Soup with Minced Bacon, Tubetti with White Wine and Clams, Mushroom-Braised Short Ribs, Sausage and Cabbage Stew, classic Coq au Vin and other fabulous recipes. This chef isn't showing off, he's sharing what he savors most.