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Austin Chronicle Cookbook Reviews

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent

by Jessica B. Harris,
Simon & Schuster, $25 hard

Most ethnic cookbooks deserve critical consideration when they arrive on the scene. They supply historical facts and cultural notes which complete our knowledge of another people's food, otherwise garnered from tastes in ethnic restaurants or on travels afar. Like the best of these books, Jessica Harris' The Africa Cookbook is more than a comprehensive look at cuisine; it is a tribute to African cooks, and a small study of Africa itself as well. Harris' book -- one of six she has written on African and African-American cooking -- explores the interconnections of Africa's food, its people, and the land, and, in so doing, dissolves Western misconceptions about each. She reminds us that African food is not just about peanuts and porridge, and that Africans are not bare-breasted maidens and cannibal cooks. Her main objective, it seems, is to dispel the notion that Africa suffers from culinary oppression. She doesn't necessarily intend to glorify African cuisine, but to appreciate its unnoted abundance. "Cornucopia," implying plentifulness and diversity, is how she describes the continent's food.

The term "continent" is important here. Somehow the rest of the world finds it easy to forget that Africa is a land mass of different countries with more than 1,000 languages, each voicing its signature dish or unique seasoning style. Harris' sweeping survey of African food accounts for differences between cooks and countries, documenting the influences of both local ritual and Western forces. A meal combining South African Meat Pie with Algerian Pickled Sardines and Egyptian String Bean and Onion Salad is not only in its way "continental," but surely "international" cuisine.

Like many books of its kind, The Africa Cookbook is at once a thorough academic work and an intimate travelogue. Harris' research for this book is astoundingly broad and responsible; her bibliography cites over 115 sources (itself worth the price of the book). Her credentials are impressive and explain her especially perceptive food writing; they include a teaching career in English at Queens College and a passport full of African visas. And she writes in an intimate, precise style accomplished by few food critics: "The lamb was achingly tender," she writes of a meal in Cape Town, "and the string beans and mange tout that accompanied it were steamed to verdant perfection." Her prose is even more powerful when it's personal. She reminisces as much about African cooks as about their food, eager, it seems, to secure her own bonds to the people in a place she calls "home." "Friendship cemented," she writes of a meal shared with a Madagascar woman, "we said a good lapsed-Presbyterian grace and proceeded to eat a meal that crossed continents and oceans and yet held the tastes of home for both of us."

So what exactly are these tastes? Overall, African food can include colorful variations of standard dishes, like sweet and savory fritters or okra stews. It employs common ingredients, like calabeza (pumpkin), okra, carrots, avocado, peanuts, red palm oil, and bananas. One-pot meals, such as tajines and soups, are prevalent, as are recipes that yield large quantities and leave leftovers. Condiments are as much a staple as starches, everything from preserved lemons in Morocco to sambal-and-lime pickles in South Africa. Select dishes include Chicken Yassa from Senegal, Lamb Tajine with Prunes from Morocco, Curried Corn from Kenya, and Mashed Eggplant à la Zeinab from Sudan. I triedeach of these dishes, with general success. Thelamb tajine satisfies an expectant Mediterraneanpalate, combining, as the best of the area's food does, sweet fruit and sultry spices. This and the Chicken Yassa, a traditional dish of poultry stewed to steep aromatic heights with carrots, onions, and hot pepper, are both served with rice, a tactic, I'm convinced, to extend the number of servings each dish provides -- they'd be eaten too quickly otherwise. The other two recipes I tried erred in terms of either taste or technique. The Sudanese eggplant appetizer combined the flavors and textures of crudely spiced peanut butter and delicately sautéed eggplant into a discordant, gloppy mess. With coriander and lemon, this recipe reads better than it tastes. And the curried corn recipe instructs one to cook the corn until it absorbs all the hot coconutmilk, something the suggested addition of fresh, watery tomatoes deters. Still, the flavors of curry and coconut hung on strong even in this dilution, and I'd welcome this side dish as a simple substitute for a more ambitious vegetable curry.

The occasional recipe glitch aside, Harris' Africa Cookbook is, on the whole, good food scholarship, where the best of cooking, anthropology, and memoir come together in an instructive, tasteful way. -- Ronna Welsh

The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook

by Christopher Kimball
Little Brown & Co., $27.95 hard

The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook is a recipe collection shaped by the spirit of a special place, and, even more, by an ideological commitment to simple living. It is about fresh, straightforwardfamily fare, not extravagant showpieces for dinner parties. It is unpretentious, not to be "praised or judged or regarded as a delicate art form." It is, as Christopher Kimball sees it, pure Vermont.

Those who know Kimball through Cook's Illustrated magazine have come to expect and (for many) adore the small town gospel that fills this editor's lead page, and this book is a testament to the same native spirit. Here, as elsewhere, Kimball muses on hard work and the rewards of a steady-paced, modest, and generous life. Although he returns to his favorite theme-- family -- repeatedly, he always touches me with his strong, honest reminiscences. I never tire of stories about trips to the frozen pond or the gas attendant's odd habits. The fact is, Kimball avoids unnecessary lapses into sentimentality. His talent as a storyteller comes from an honest, insightful look at his life, which inspires readers to examine more closely their own lives.

But this book is exclusive property of neither the sensitive soul nor the country cook. In other words, city slickers won't require specific farmhand experience to work its recipes. They will, however, need to open themselves up to the kind of cooking that doesn't know microwaves or flavored olive oils. Food "in the spirit of farmhouse cooking" need not seek the spotlight, the way, for instance, extravagant desserts do. Still, Kimball doesn't disparage gourmet eating. He just reminds us of some forgotten options for dining; he's revisiting, not revising, simple food. Any nostalgia this cookbook evokes in readers reflects their personal loss of instinct for basic cooking. Few cookbooks today tout steamed broccoli or roasted russet potatoes. The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook does, rewarding us with recipes that curtail any resistance to food that's simply good. Sure, Kimball occasionally tips his hat to a trend (like his Tapioca with Rose Water, Pistachios, and Cardamom), but only as an afterthought (a "variation") and always to great reward. Mostly, he offers recipes deemed unworthy of print by other cookbooks; the country breakfast receives more editorial space than soups, and they're discussed with typical Cook's thoroughness.

Those of us who follow Cook's Illustrated understand that Kimball is a unique voice on the food writing scene. He is a concise, didactic writer with a dogged interest in culinary perfection -- a passion for the "best" lemon squares or the "perfect" pot roast. We may tire of his relentless dissections, but mostly we're tickled by his penchant for methodical analysis and are grateful for his quest for objective discovery. Kimball's Yellow Farmhouse, like his magazine, is a timely resource, not a tome for the ages, as so many cookbooks aspire to be. His evaluation of cookware, for instance, invokes brand names and advertised prices that will no doubt date the book in a few years. Still, the equipment ratings and suppliers lists make this an indispensable buying guide -- registering brides, look no further.

Indeed, Yellow Farmhouse is as conscientious a cookbook as they come. Kimball's recipes are clear to follow and characteristically thorough. His introduction to the American Apple Pie alone runs two and a half pages. And his recipes aim for precise replication, a goal that gets only lip service much of the time. His research notes, which anticipate readers' possible concerns or objections, even render me partially defenseless as a critic. I can't say, for instance, "He should have tried an all-butter pie crust," when Kimball explains that he did (and that it was not flaky enough). A review, then, comes down to talk of taste, not method, in the end.

As for my own tastes, I'll go by the book. Kimball's New England Clam Chowder rivals some I have had on my Connecticut shoreline travels. His sautéed greens with beans and anchovies renews my respect for winter greens,until now left to garnish platters. His pan-seared pork chops officially ended my brief flirtation with a kosher diet -- they are delicious with only salt and pepper and careful attention to heat. Finally, the apple pie, its sugary pastry blanket draped seamlessly over a mass of apples, is simply one of the most gorgeous desserts I've ever made -- so much for modesty; it just couldn't help itself.

In the end, the question the reader needs to ask of The Yellow Farmhouse Cookbook is not "Do the recipes work?" but "Do I like what they have to offer?" In addition to delicious food, it offers a case for simple sustenance that makes this book not just complete, but compelling.

-- Ronna Welsh

How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food

by Mark Bittman
MacMillan USA, $25 hard

Okay, let's get this out of the way for the literal "book by the cover" crowd: Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, a 944-page behemoth of a cookbook, doesn't exactly deliver the goods promised in its all-encompassing title. For example, the author completely ignores the cornerstone of Mexican morning-after cuisine -- menudo. In addition, the big book is strangely silent on the preparation of squirrel, cactus, and baby goat. (But c'mon, cut him some slack; he lives in Connecticut, fer chrissake.)

These gripes notwithstanding, the hefty volume does an exceptional job of presenting the fundamentals of home cooking. Geared to the beginning cook, How to Cook Everything (HTCE) tackles, in near-encyclopedic form, a wide range of techniques and ingredients and put them in the realistic context of the cramped apartment kitchen. Mr. Bittman, like Sister Mary Ignatius before him, attempts to explain it all for you and does a pretty damn good job.

Bittman, who is also a New York Times cooking columnist, bemoans the rise of convenience and gourmet food industries and the resulting near-extinction of "good, everyday cooking." As a nation, we don't cook from scratch anymore, instead opting for takeout or synthetic microwavemeals. Rather than call for a pizza, Bittman argues, give your dialing finger a rest and get into the habit of cooking simple, hearty foods. At the core of How to Cook Everything is a simple, active food philosophy which he presents at the start of the book: "Anyone can cook and most everyone should." Then he proceeds to back up this viewpoint with a flurry of food information and (count 'em) fifteen hundred recipes.

An alternate (and equally appropriate) title for the hefty tome could have been Uncle Marko's Big Book of Basics. Just about every technique, appliance, or ingredient you can think of has a subheading dedicated to it titled "The Basics of [That Thing You Were Thinking Of]." (Excluding cactus, squirrel, and menudo, which we mentioned previously.) In the book's 21 chapters, the author discusses the ins and outs of contemporary American cookery, from simple standbys (omelettes, stir-fries, quick pasta sauces) to more esoteric and ambitious projects (stuffing a crowned pork roast or grinding your own curry powder). The mid-level recipes that we tested -- Pan-sautéed Pork Chops with Onions and Peppers; Pasta with Butter, Sage, and Parmesean; and Braised Fennel with Vinegar -- went deliciously and without a hitch.

The biggest drawback to the book is its text-heavy format. Make no mistake, HTCE is definitely a reader's book. Novices who learn best from step-by-step photos may be disappointed by the book's scarcity of illustration. More complex techniques (carving a roasted chicken, shucking oysters) get charcoal drawings for clarity and that's about it. From the publisher's perspective, it's obviously an economic issue (How else could you sell a thousand-page book for 25 bucks?), but it's one that customers should consider if they learn best as culinary voyeurs.

For beginners, Bittman writes as a helpful mentor, always encouraging his students to experiment and follow their taste buds once theyfeel comfortable with a dish. For cooks with more experience under their aprons, he provides valuable information on everything from making a cassoulet to cleaning squid. Regardless of one's place on the experiential spectrum, the book would make a fine reference work.

But no menudo? Maybe there's hope for the next edition ....

-- Pableaux Johnson

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