Back To Basics: 2011's Simple, Summery Cookbooks

Jun 4, 2011
Originally published on July 14, 2011 7:38 pm

Not too long ago, certain attention-getting molecular gastronomy cookbooks just dared you to go buy xanthan gum and a sous-vide machine. But now the summer cookbooks have arrived, and they evince a plainspoken, blushing charm that puts that prior fuss and fanfare to shame.

Single subjects and simple preparations dominate the summer list this year. Whether they focused on whole grains, summer produce or seasonal ingredients, authors found ways to craft memorable recipes revolving around just a few well-chosen flavor elements. And while I saw contenders from all the usual warm-weather cuisines (especially Italy and Mexico), the standouts this year were in American regional fare. There are, it goes without saying, enticing Southern books — but also coastal ones, and, in what may be a first, a book that splendidly and unironically praises the culinary traditions of the American Midwest.

As spring closed its breezy doors, I missed, for a moment, the high-spirited summer staples that so stood out in years past — the grill books with their macho flame decor, the funny little cocktail or ice cream books. But not for long, for while this summer's books may be basic and uncluttered, they are anything but austere.

Amber Waves, But Also So Much More

Heartland: The Cookbook, by Judith Fertig, hardcover, 304 pages, Andrews McMeel, list price: $35

There are two views of the Midwest which Heartland sets out to defy: 1) that nothing grows there anymore except vast tracts of soy and wheat; and 2) that the food is traditional, bland and purged of ethnic flavor. The Midwest, Fertig counters, is the home of a burgeoning small-farm movement, a culinary heritage enriched by decades of immigration, and a host of artisanal producers: La Quercia's smoked meats, Maytag blue cheese, Minnesota wild rice. The photographs are expansive, the recipes farmhouse-earthy — but also just a trifle chic, like a Farm Girl Cosmo made with rhubarb syrup.

A Rainbow Of Flavors, All Of Them Southern

Sara Foster's Southern Kitchen, by Sara Foster, hardcover, 416 pages, Random House, list price: $35.00

It's no surprise that in a summer full of American regional standout cookbooks, there are two Southern books worth rushing out for. Sara Foster has a thriving Piedmont enterprise (gourmet stores in Durham and Chapel Hill), but her cooking is more pan-Southern than not. She'll cook Cajun, Tidewater, Low Country — any idiom, but always looking for the deep layers of flavor that give food tourists the feeling that Southern cooks really care. Yes, you have to work a little sometimes, but it's always for a reason. I mean, you don't have to make the buttermilk biscuits for pork tenderloin with roasted tomato-thyme gravy , but how else are you going to make sure you get every last drop of that goodness off your plate?

Let Me Tell Y'all A Story

A Southerly Course: Recipes and Stories from Close to Home, by Martha Hall Foose, hardcover, 256 pages, Clarkson Potter, list price: $32.50

A Southerly Course has glorious photography and quirky, unexpected recipes (a souffle with day lilies and apricots! Cold soybean salad with cucumbers and sesame seeds!) but for me, it's all about the stories. As in her previous book, Screen Doors and Sweet Teas, Foose has an anecdote for every occasion — profiles of local characters, stories from her footloose childhood, and completely random observations. Every time I read a Martha Hall Foose book I try to pin down its elusive charm, but I just end up sitting there mesmerized until some mouthwatering suggestion about asparagus drives me to the kitchen.

The Catch And The Harvest, Down East-Style

Maine Classics: More than 150 Delicious Recipes From Down East, by Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier, hardcover, 320 pages, Running Press, list price: $30

Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier might come across as upscale chefs, but the Maine restaurateurs have turned out an elegant, close-to-the-source cookbook that anyone can enjoy provided they can get the pristine ingredients Maine is celebrated for. "Mark & Clark," as they're affectionately known, systematically trawl the foodways chapter by chapter: from Shore (shellfish galore!) to Sea (lobster, but also familiar Atlantic finfish, as in Bacon-wrapped cod with Hominy Cake). They stroll through Forest, Garden and Farm — even Bakery (blueberries, maple, rhubarb). The pair work in a fervently eat-local idiom, which makes one suspect that in the end, the best way to enjoy these dishes (as easy as they are to cook in a home kitchen) may be to simply travel Down East oneself.

The Cold And Flavorful Pacific

Good Fish: Sustainable Seafood Recipes from the Pacific Coast, by Becky Selengut, paperback, 288 pages, Sasquatch Books, list price: $29.95

It seems unfair to include an East Coast book without also including a West Coast one, and fortunately this year there's a doozy -- Good Fish from regional publisher Sasquatch Books. Although not everyone will be able to get Arctic char and sablefish, there are whole sections featuring shrimp, squid, salmon and others sustainable sea creatures with Atlantic counterparts. The recipes take each species through its paces with flair and variety (mussels with Guinness cream! with pancetta and vermouth! with cider and thyme glaze!), and the prose is unfailingly disarming. If I lived on the West Coast, I would cook my way through this book front to back, and then flip it over and start all over again. As a New Englander, I'll have to satisfy myself with about half.

On And Off The Bone

Good Meat: The Complete Guide to Sourcing and Cooking Sustainable Meat, by Deborah Krasner, hardcover, 400 pages, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, list price: $40

As welcome as the spates and floods of vegetable books have been these last few years, it's arguable that your average omnivore needs a basic meat book even more. I mean, you can always eat a carrot raw. But you just can't do that with 5 pounds of pork shoulder. Good Meat features not only tasty no-brainers, like flank steak with maple and soy glaze, but also easy ways to address lesser-known quantities like oxtail, pork livers and rabbit hearts. Scattered throughout are the usual reassuring primal-cut diagrams showing you where to find the brisket and the round. And this book also has a conscience, arguing for sustainably and humanely raised meat and offering tips on where to find it.

Every Day Maybe, But Hardly Everyday

Super Natural Every Day: Well-Loved Recipes from My Natural Foods Kitchen, by Heidi Swanson, paperback, 256 pages, 10 Speed Press, list price: $23

Swanson's followup book to her 2007 sleeper hit Super Natural Cooking has the same crossover appeal. Each recipe hinges on a few carefully chosen flavors, like toasted almonds or coconut flakes or dill or curry paste. And vegetarian standbys like seitan and tempeh turn up in surprising new ways — a boon to those who have been grown tired of the same old stir-fries over many meatless years. Swanson's not so much of a purist that she'll forgo a prepared ingredient like frozen ravioli (magnificently showcased in ravioli salad with black olives and pepitas), making this book an unexpected winner in the weeknight-warrior category.

A K.I.S.S. For The Cook

Radically Simple: Brilliant Flavors with Breathtaking Ease: 325 Inspiring Recipes by Award-Winning Chef Rozanne Gold, by Rozanne Gold, hardcover, 352 pages, Rodale Books, list price: $35

Rozanne Gold's spare and luminous cookbook came out at the end of last year, but somehow slipped my winter radar. Regardless, it makes a thoroughly delectable summer cookbook, from the nasturtium-bedecked salad on the cover to the silken, radiant beet soup on the back. Gold likes her supermarket staples: boneless chicken breast, ground-up nuts, plain old box pasta (as in ziti "in bianco") yet her simple, meticulous techniques elevate them to dress-up-for-dinner status. Her instructions are few, but unusually to the point — use your fingers when Gold tells you to, keep the tuna very rare, and all will be well.

Vegetables, With A Side Of Vegetables

Fresh & Fast Vegetarian: Recipes That Make a Meal, by Marie Simmons, paperback, 256 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $17.95

Every year there's one — the understated vegetarian cookbook that just dares you to pass it by in favor of splashier titles. That would be a mistake in the case of Fresh and Fast Vegetarian, by Marie Simmons. Simmons first came to my attention nearly a decade ago with a book about rice which somehow made that well-worn staple worth exploring again. In this book she roasts vegetables, blisters tomatoes, toasts spices and pumps up the umami (as in shredded Tuscan kale salad with tamari and sesame) — doing whatever it takes to amplify the natural charms of our vegetable friends. I especially like the chapter "Vegetable Sides that Make a Meal" — because if you're going to take the trouble (even if it's not very much trouble at all) to dress up the green beans, really, why bother to make anything else?

Not Just For Kids

Milk & Cookies: 89 Heirloom Recipes from New York's Milk & Cookies Bakery, by Tina Casaceli, hardcover, 176 pages, Chronicle, list price: $24.95

In one sense, Milk & Cookies is not a summer book, because who wants to bake in the summer? But in another sense, it's the perfect summer dessert book: steaming pies and cobblers are too hot to handle, and ice cream is hard to transport and has a short shelf life in hot weather. Cookies, however, march along happily to picnics or to the beach. This book takes the basics — vanilla, chocolate, oatmeal, peanut butter and sugar cookies — and spins variation after variation, giving you license to nibble a white chocolate-macadamia nut cookie while happily ignoring the Mister Softee truck and its soul-rattling jangle.

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S: Welcome back.

SUSAN CHANG: Hi, Jacki. Good to be back.

: So I like to envision you with this pile of tempting cookbooks at your elbow. What looks good?

CHANG: There's a wonderful book that looks exclusively at recipes based in Maine. And that's kind of interesting to me because a lot of the time when we think of Maine, we think snowbound or win...

: Lobster chowder.

CHANG: Right, right. And we also think of snowbound winters and bleak lighthouses. But Maine has a barefoot summer place as well. It's a place where you can gather berries, it's a place where you can gather mushrooms. And I went to Portland a couple of years ago and I basically just ate my way from one end of town to the other.

: You know, speaking of Maine, it makes me think of a situation we all find ourselves in at some point in the summer. You're at the farmer's market and you are confronted with piles and piles of blueberries. And you could just eat them by the handful or you could prepare them.

CHANG: Absolutely. Every year there's a book that you want to take the farmer's market with you, if you want to take a cookbook at all. This year, there's a book called "Fresh and Fast Vegetarian." This book has some really interesting flavor combinations for fresh produce, like broccoli with tamari walnuts and curried corn with mint. There's a lot of things that you just haven't seen before which might freshen up your repertoire or give you the inspiration to improvise.

: What about the beach? A lot of people like to go to the shore and there seem to be cookbooks really sort of suited for that.

CHANG: If you are going to a beach house, I have one special tip, which is in addition to whichever these cookbooks you take with you, bring a good knife. There's never a good knife at a beach house.

: Yes, or something to shell the fish with, the shrimp with.

CHANG: Exactly, yes.

: What if you don't feel like cooking? You know, we've had some very, very hot days in the D.C. area recently and I thought to myself it's too hot even to grill.

CHANG: Oh yes, absolutely. Every year this happens. But what you can do - why would you buy a cookbook when it's this hot out? There's a very good reason. And that's because there is always some food-crazed sucker out there who will cook - somebody like me. So, you know, you go buy them a cookbook, a beautiful cookbook, like "Supernatural Everyday," which is one of my best picks.

: Oh, I like that title.

CHANG: And, you know, you hand it to them. It's seductive, it's got pretty pictures, and before you know it they're slaving away at the stove and you're waiting for them to give you something to eat.

: Susie, I just want to say I love that title, "Supernatural Everyday." Is that a cookbook that you can just page through and enjoy?

CHANG: You absolutely can. I think what's so great about this book is that it's natural foods but you can find most of the ingredients in any supermarket. And it is some of the most unpenitential health food you will ever eat. I like to call this whole food for sinners. You know, she uses very strong flavors like citrus zest and butter within reason. It's a decadent cookbook that's actually good for you.

: Well, I have to confess I've been kind of, you know, stopping by the deli the last few nights. You're making me think, OK, time to dive back in there.

CHANG: Yes, yes.

: Any tips for summer cooking?

CHANG: I think the most important thing you can do when you're cooking in the summer, if you're going to cook in the summer, is cook in the morning when it's still cool and you still have energy and you're not pouring sweat and frustrated and, you know, rushing towards dinner. You can boil pasta for pasta salad in the morning, you can marinate things, you can prep things. All of that stuff can happen in the morning and just leave yourself, you know, maybe 20, 30 minutes of preparation in the afternoon if you're going to cook.

: Susie Chang writes for NPR's Kitchen Window blog. She joined us from WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts. It's a great pleasure.

CHANG: It's been a pleasure speaking with you, Jacki.


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