by Sybil PrattNovember, 2002
Food in the glorious French tradition
When James Peterson writes a cookbook he's written seven, and three have won the coveted James Beard Award he does it with unique thoroughness, dedication and unsurpassed expertise. Now, he's done it again, this time focusing his fine-tuned fervor for food on the fine-tuned cuisine of France. Glorious French Food: A Fresh Approach to the French Classics is glorious and grand more than 700 pages and fresh enough to inspire even the most jaded cooks to find renewed culinary joy in these Gallic classics. It's a treasury of time-honored techniques and more than 500 recipes. Peterson divides the book into 50 chapters, covering the gastronomic gamut from salads to desserts. He includes such delights as Soupe au Pistou, Country-Style Pork Pate, Sole Meuniere, Cassoulet and Ratatouille, among others, mixing the rustic and the ultra-refined and seasoning all with wonderfully readable personal and historical notes that capture the very essence of French cooking. Each chapter features a recipe that serves as a point of reference for those that follow (classic Duck a L'Orange leads to Orange-Glazed Sauteed Duck Breasts, Duck Stew and Duck with Olives or Baby Peas). Once you understand the logic of a dish and the techniques needed to prepare it, Peterson encourages you to invent variations or adjust a recipe to your specific needs. He wants his recipes to be guidelines, not dictates; he teaches you how to cook in the glorious French tradition and how to use that tradition as a springboard for glorious innovations.
Nonna in the kitchen
Just last month, I mentioned the seemingly endless influx of Italian cookbooks and, on cue, more have arrived. Make it Italian: The Taste and Technique of Italian Home Cookingby Nancy Verde Barr stands out as a winner in approach and content (and a fine fit with James Peterson's cooking credo). Nancy studied with some of the all-time greats and worked as executive chef to Julia Child. But, just as important here, she had a Nonna (Italian for grandmother) who had learned to cook by watching her own grandmother and who was there for Nancy to watch and to learn from. Nancy's aim is to be your Nonna in your kitchen, to pass on her inherited awareness of Italian taste and her perfected knowledge of Italian techniques so that you can cook like a son or daughter of Italy. There are no rigid rules; good Italian cooks don't rely on recipes or strict ingredient lists it's really a matter of theme and variation. So, each chapter has "Primary Recipes," or themes, that precisely detail the techniques you'll need for the dishes and variations that follow. For example, the primary recipe for sublimely simple Penne with Marinara is the base for Puttanesca and Amatriciana sauces, Ragu alla Bolognese, Linguine with Tuna and Peas and more. The technique for Roasted Green Beans with a zingy lemon-anchovy finish can be used to make Roasted Mushrooms and Roasted Potatoes with Garlic and Rosemary. And this wonderful pattern appears repeatedly for soup, pizzas, meat and poultry, seafood, vegetables, frittatas, salads and desserts. There's solid information on choosing ingredients, stocking an Italian pantry and creating dishes on your own. You'll understand the culinary mindset of an Italian home cook and have a real sense of how to Make It Italian.