Last year, as the economy tanked and discretionary income with it, we turned to cookbooks that reminded us that the big, shiny things in the kitchen were for more than resting to-go menus on; and that there's a reason they call meatloaf and mac 'n' cheese comfort food. I like to think of this as an expansion year: We're cooking at home, now let's refine and enhance a bit. For my money, these four cookbooks do the best job of extending our home-chef horizons. Each takes a comprehensive approach to adding one food, or a technique, or an attitude, to your cooking repertoire, and also includes enough lore and discussion that you can just enjoy reading until you get around to shopping and washing some pots and pans so you, too, can stir up something delicious:
Thirty-Minute Pasta: 100 Quick and Easy Recipes
by Giulano Hazan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)
The author's Italian, and he'll have you incorporating all number of pasta dishes into healthful meals and mini-celebrations (which need not be mutually exclusive) in a flash. Orecchiette with Broccoli for a light lunch, Linguine with Clams and Zucchini for date night, Penne With Mushrooms and Ham to pack for work lunch... Hazan's got me hooked with simple ingredients, quick prep, and dozens of recipes that focus on the abundance of fresh tomatoes available in our area many months of the year. He's a cooking instructor in Verona, and it shows, with simple to follow steps and lots of little variations on everything from fresh tomato sauce to minestrone.
Favorite recipe sampled so far: Tagliatelle With Chickpeas
Mrs. Rowe's Little Book of Southern Pies
by Mollie Cox Bryan (Ten Speed Press)
Think beyond ice cream from the store, cupcakes from the bakery, creme brulee that requires a torch. This nifty little manual proves that simple-but-wholesome desserts are a home project and a gourmet's delight. Mrs. Rowe was a family restaurant owner in Blue Ridge Mountain country of Staunton, Va. with a "have another slice" motto. The book clearly spells out such intricacies as Weepless Meringue and even cookie crusts for the pastry-impaired, then dives into Mrs. Rowe's favorites and some twists. Original Coconut Cream Pie and Never-Fail Lemon Pie are there for sure, but so are think-outside-the-diner offerings like Watermelon Pie, Mudd Pie, and Mrs. Brown's Grape Pie. Save room for dessert!
Favorite recipe sampled so far: Brownie Pie
Don't Panic: More Dinner's in the Freezer
by Susie Martinez, Vanda Howell, and Bonnie Garcia (Revell)
Healthier eating, a more manageable schedule, a happier spouse... I know it's just a cookbook, but this unimpressive-looking trade paperback really made a difference in my house. That's because it doesn't treat freezing meals as a huge enterprise where you're stocking up for months based on a three-day sweatfest. Instead, these are dishes you can cook today, or at least part way, and then thaw and heat and eat at another time: Sausage with Cheese Tortellini Soup, Bombay Chicken Curry, Lake Powell Chile Relleno Bake, and so forth. You don't have a freezerful of 27 containers of chili unless you want to—each recipe also comes with tripling, sextupling, and ninetupling instructions, but it's geared to those who just want to make one casserole of, say, Butternut Squash Lasagna, and have it around to serve six for brunch next Sunday, plus leftovers. All the food is based on common-but-not-boring ingredients, is less expensive than franchise restaurants, and fairly healthful, though the occasional heavy cream does make an appearance. I can honestly say this book has cut the constant replay of the wow-work-was-awful-I'm-starved-did-you-cook? weeknight conversation at my house, and eliminated lots of fast food meals, too.
Favorite recipe tried so far: Poppy Seed Ham and Cheese Melts
The Blackberry Farm Cookbook
by Sam Beall (Clarkson Potter)
This beautiful and sweeping coffee-table book is nothing less than a love song to our very own region's foods and artisans from Sandy Beall, proprietor of the clean-air-and-very-civilized-pampering enterprise that is Blackberry Farm in Walland. The completely unexpected aspect is that Beall clearly intends the reader to do more than look at the photos of gorgeous seasonal scenery of the Smokies and weathered crafters and sheep in the snow. With an encouraging air and step by step instructions, he shows us home cooks how to coddle our guests—and our families—with home versions of his fresh and local-ingredient-based recipes. Organized by season, with wine tips and menus, all these recipes are doable. The more involved dishes like Grilled Chili-Rubbed Rib Roast, Country Ham-Wrapped Sturgeon, or Herbed Spoonbread get equal billing with three-ingredient Whipped Mashed Potatoes, 10-minute kitchen time Bourbon Butterscotch Sauce, or super-simple Stewed Spice Apples. Dream about a weekend at Blackberry Farm while you take in page after page of farmers and artisanal cheesemakers, bakers, and canners—and then head for the kitchen, and start reveling in your own possibilities.
Favorite recipe sampled so far: Black-eyed Pea Hummus