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Kitchen Call: Cookbooks that focus on function, not flash

Linda Bassett

Some years ago, my brother Phil, unmarried at the time, took over production of la vigilia di natale, the Italian Christmas Eve feast of seven (or 12) fishes. He managed to recreate nearly every delicacy — except eel — from my grandmother’s holiday repertoire while famously forgetting a few basics — plates, napkins and flatware. A few years later, along came Jodi, who civilized the occasion with a tablecloth, napkins and utensils.

Around that ever-lengthening table, year after year, new spouses, new babies and new traditions joined the memories our grandparents brought with them from Italy. My kids initiate the rookies with gentle jokes; the vegetarians added “no-face” dishes to the menu, and one year we simplified gift giving with a swap that Gramps dubbed “The Alaskan Trade-Off.” The family patriarch, who always calls things as he sees them, couldn’t come to terms with calling it a “Yankee swap,” and so dubbed it for the wintry 49th state.

Often we can guess who bought a wrapped gift … Gramps favors power tools; one brother buys sports memorabilia while the other often contributes musical gifts; a cousin gives stationary and stamps. I’ve been known to wrap up a cookbook.

How about that segue into a list of cookbooks for holiday giving? The books here are cook-friendly rather than flashy and include newly published books, old favorites still in print, and others by local chefs who do not appear on the Food Network. Check both independent and chain bookstores for cookbook signing events to make the gift even more special.

Two on my current wish list:

“Why Italians Love To Talk About Food” by Elena Kostioukovitch. If you’ve ever sat at the dinner table with someone of Italian ancestry, you may have noticed a distinctly Italian trait: They will reminisce about past meals or plan future ones while thoroughly enjoying the food currently on the table. Italians, men and women alike, treat food in conversation like movies, books or sports.

The newly translated Perché agli italiani piace parlare del cibo explains this through the customs, literature, folklore and traditions surrounding Italy’s most well-loved dishes. She uses regional specialties like the panzanella (Tuscan bread and tomato salad) and arancini (Sicilian street food) to deliciously illustrate differences in taste, language, and attitude among Sicilians, Venetians, Sardinians and Neapolitans.

“The Country Cooking of Ireland” by Colman Andrews. Ireland is exporting a new generation of firebrands — young chefs shaking up “old school” cooking. In this gorgeously photographed book, they highlight the country’s best products from the luscious green countryside, using them in classic recipes, like colcannon and boxty, and stylish innovations like a soufflé made with farmhouse cheddar.

Much used volumes already on my shelves:

“Bistro Cooking at Home” by Gordon Hamersley. Once upon a time, before kids, we would eat often at Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston’s seedy South End. Back then, the chef was a pioneer, serving up soothingly aromatic roasted chicken and hearty braised ribs. He and his wife, Fiona, were always “in the house” — he at the range, she at the door (as they are still today). Their special brand of hospitality shows up in the minutely detailed recipes in this book, perfect for cooking on a snowy weekend. 

“50 Chowders” by Jasper White. Everything you ever wanted to know about making chowder is here. The owner of the Cambridge, Mass., chowder house-on-steroids, Summer Shack, is an expert on New England seafood. Here he packs all he knows about chowder and accompaniments, giving the cook confidence to fly solo.

The newest addition to my sagging shelves:

“Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition” by Barbara Lynch. I couldn’t resist this one. Lynch, a “Southie” native, has not put down her whisk since she her days as a culinary student at Boston Technical High School. Known for the sheer guts and unabridged talent that built a restaurant empire — No. 9 Park, B&G Oysters, The Butcher Shop, Sportello — she exports her expertise in terms accessible to the home cook.

And, a few more books highly recommended by culinary professionals:

"The Pleasures of Cooking for One” by Judith Jones. The book editor credited with “discovering” Julia Child 40 years ago has written a volume of her own favorite recipes. Since the death of husband, Evan, a food author as well, she reconfigured their favorite recipes to fit a party of one before setting them down on paper.

“Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean” by Ana Sortun. Nothing gets away from Oleana chef-owner Sortun: She even married the farmer who grows the produce for her restaurant. Brilliant at organizing spices to transform those vegetables into something ethereal, the chef organized this volume to explain how all these elements work together to enhance every meal.

“Simply Ming: Easy Techniques for East-Meets-West Meals” by Ming Tsai.Everyone loves Ming. If ever a chef was over-exposed, it’s Ming: He gives time and talent with gusto to so many causes and events, and can always find a few minutes to talk with a freshman culinary student. This, his best book, joins East to West using his magical rubs, sauces and dressings with the spaghetti, burgers and chicken wings already in your refrigerator.

If you are looking for a foolproof cookie recipe, try this one adapted from “Christmas From the Heart of the Home” by Susan Branch.

CHOCOLATE DIPPED COCONUT MACAROONS

Makes about 30 cookies

2 2/3 cups flake coconut, firmly packed 

2/3 cups sugar  

1/4 cup unbleached flour

4 egg whites, unbeaten

1 cup sliced almonds

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

8 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

2. Combine coconut, sugar and flour. Stir in egg whites, almonds, and vanilla and almond extract. Form balls from rounded tablespoonfuls; place 2 inches apart on lightly greased cookie sheets. Bake, 20 to 25 minutes until golden. Remove from pans; set aside to cool.

3. Meanwhile, melt chocolate in a double boiler, stirring until nearly melted; remove pan from heat; continue stirring until totally melted.

4. Dip one edge of each cookie into melted chocolate; set on waxed paper while chocolate sets.

CRANBERRY ALMOND BREAD

Makes 1 loaf

I found this breakfast quick bread in my recipe box and can’t remember its origins. I changed up the cranberries for dried cherries and the almonds for walnuts, but here it is as it appears on the dog-eared index card.

2 cups flour

3/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup milk

6 tablespoons melted butter

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1 teaspoon almond extract

1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries

1 cup sliced almonds

1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and lightly flour a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

2. Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Separately, combine milk, butter, egg, orange zest and almond extract. Stir wet ingredient into dry ingredients. Fold in cranberries and almonds.

3. Pour batter into prepared pan. Rap pan on the counter to remove air pockets. Bake, 1 hour, 10 minutes until top is golden. A toothpick piercing the center will be clean.

4. Cool bread in pan, 10 minutes; turn out onto a rack to finish cooling before slicing.

Linda Bassett, author of “From Apple Pie to Pad Thai,” teaches American regional cooking and international cuisine at Massachusetts' North Shore Community College. Reach her by e-mail at KitchenCall@aol.com.