Take a Very Literal Culinary Tour

The festivities and parties are over, and the weather's growing colder. What better time to curl up in a comfy chair and read the food books you've only had time to glance at — in bookshops or piled on your bedside table — always waiting "for later."

Well, later is now! Below are my choices for the season.

· Matzoh Ball Gumbo by Marcie Cohen Ferris (University of North Carolina Press) — In this must-read book, Ferris talks about her personal experiences growing up Jewish in a Christian environment.

In her hometown of Blytheville, Ark., the diversity within the Jewish and gentile worlds created a distinct culinary style. One the menu at local eateries were catfish, hamburger pizza, tamales and refried beans. In the homes of her gentile friends, the author discovered other foods never served at home: barbecued ribs, sausages, thick gumbos.

Ferris was lucky to be able to draw from Jewish memories that originated in the kitchens of her mother and grandmother, Luba Cohen, who cooked up delicate matzah-meal pancakes, molasses cookies and chicken chow mein.

Ferris notes that the "Jewish response to kashrut in the South ranges from complete avoidance to strict adherence." Moreover, in rural areas where it's difficult to buy kosher food, some observant Jews adjust dietary laws and are "quietly kosher" when they cannot follow the letter of the law.

Fascinating, funny and fact-filled, you won't want to put this book down.

· Whole Grain Breads by Peter Reinhart (Ten Speed Press) — Reinhart, a veteran bread maven, proclaims that "bread is back."

Public interest is so great that the number of whole-grain products has skyrocketed; even Wonder Bread offers a whole-grain loaf. Reinhart has unlocked the secret to good breads that deliver rich flavor and satisfying texture. He describes the innovative technique called delayed fermentation and, through a great deal of experimentation, has adapted this method to meet the challenges of whole-grain baking.

This process actually makes bread-baking easier for those at home. Illustrated with more than 190 full-color photographs, the book contains recipes for Whole-Grain Challah, Potato-Rosemary Bread and Whole-Wheat Cinnamon Buns, to name just a few irresistible items to soothe the soul and satisfy every appetite.

· A Passion for Baking by Marcy Goldman (Oxmoor House) — Goldman maintains that baking represents a "sensory bouquet" of scents, sights, sounds and textures. She shares her delight in the process, inviting the reader to "become part of the conversation that runs through the many recipes in my book."

With her reputation as "the maverick baker," Goldman marries classic baking techniques with more practical, easier methods, so that even the novice is not intimidated. In more than 220 recipes, she shares knowledge gleaned during 20-plus years as a professional pastry chef, master baker and award-winning author.

The chapter titles alone will win you over: "Loaves, Large and Small," "Baby Breads and Buns," "Pizza and Other Flatbreads." Cake and muffin recipes are featured in "The Muffin Shoppe," "The Biscotti Bakery" and "Cake Creations," including grand finales such as Italian-Cream Wedding Cake and Sticky Date Coffee Cake with Hot Toffee Sauce.

They're so temptingly illustrated you'll want to start baking on the double.

· The Big Book of Appetizers by Meredith Deeds and Carla Snyder (Chronicle Books) — Although not a kosher cookbook, it's a worthwhile, inspiring addition to your culinary library. Most of the recipes, with the exception of the meat and chicken dishes, can be prepared in a kosher kitchen. The focus here is "new millennium entertaining" — the trend toward small plates and starters, accompanied by beer and wine.

If you prefer something more exotic to drink, the chapter on libations includes such tempters as Nutty Godiva (which could easily double as a dessert) or the Dirty Martini, which features three stuffed olives that are like hors d'oeuvres all on their own.

There are hundreds of ideas for everything from nuts and spreads to dumplings and wraps, some as simple as combining a few key ingredients to make a "rave review" appetizer. Many of the recipes are equally acceptable at cocktail parties or suppers.

Some — such as Medley of Grilled Peppers With Capers and Pine Nuts, or Terrine of Carrot, Leek and Asparagus — can elevate a brown-bag lunch from the mundane to the scrumptious. Many recipes may be made ahead, then popped into the oven.

· 2500 Recipes from Everyday to Extraordinary by Andrew Schloss with Ken Bookman (Robert Rose Inc.) — This is the long-awaited, updated version of Fifty Ways to Cook Most Everything, which first appeared back in the 1990s.

The book and its contents propel us into a new century, where time, convenience and simplicity are of the highest importance. Using the ever-expanding variety of ingredients now commonplace in every supermarket, the recipes go beyond the ordinary — inspiring the cook to climb out of the dinner rut where meat loaf and pasta may be regular dishes on family menus.

Following the format of their previous book, the authors present recipes that are brief and clear. Basic cooking and baking techniques are explained in a separate chapter so that when they are referred to in a recipe, you'll know exactly what to do.

Turn to the chapter, and the technique is explained in "layman's language." The mystery is then taken out of recipe interpretation. In the chapter, "Basic Preparations Every Cook Should Know," you'll find, for example, how to clarify butter and make simple syrup.

This is not a book purchased because a single recipe catches a reader's eye. It's one you'll refer to year-round for ideas.

· Cooking Jewish: 532 Great Recipes from the Rabinowitz Family by Judy Bart Kancigor (Workman Publishers) — When Kancigor was awaiting the birth of her first grandchild, she suddenly realized: How would the coming generation ever know her family's history, hear the amazing stories — and, more importantly, taste its wonderful food?

So she compiled this book.

And with 532 recipes, 160 anecdotes and more than 500 photographs — all of which span five generations reaching well back into the 19th century — this book is as much a cookbook as an heirloom that Kancigor can both pass on to her family and to a horde of readers. The recipes were gathered from "my large and wacky clan," she notes, adding that "in-laws of in-laws begged to be included." The result is an enticing mix of the traditional and the untraditional.

Cooking Jewish blends the old with the new, the sweet with the savory; here are recipes with stories behind them. How did Aunt Sally's Red, White and Blue Cake get its name — to say nothing of Aunt Shirley's Stupid Chicken?

And befitting the Jewish tradition of a "little nosh," there are no less than four chapters on sweets, including cakes, cookies, pies and half-a-dozen cheesecakes. This book is a terrific read!

Simmered Black-Eyed Peas With Tomatoes

From Matzoh Ball Gumbo by Marcie Cohen Ferris, who notes that this is traditionally served with "pink rice" — meaning that white rice is cooked with a bit of tomato sauce.

2 Tbsps. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 medium tomato, chopped
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1//2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 boxes (10 oz. each) frozen black-eyed peas
11/4 cups water

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat.

Add the onion and garlic, and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 4 minutes.

Add the tomato, thyme, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring often, until the tomato starts to soften, about 2 minutes. Stir in the peas and water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low.

Cover and simmer until the peas are tender, about 30 minutes.

Taste and correct seasonings.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 97; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 14 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 181 mg.

Pumpkin Pocket Cookies

From A Passion for Baking by Marcy Goldman. These are perfect winter cookies.

2 Tbsps. white sugar
11/3 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 large egg
2 tsps. pure vanilla extract
1 cup pumpkin purée
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
11/4 tsps. pumpkin-pie spice
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup raisins, plumped

Icing Ingredients:

3 cups confectioners' sugar
3 Tbsps. cream cheese, softened
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
water, as needed, for icing

Preheat oven to 350°.

Stack two baking sheets. Line top sheet with parchment paper.

In a mixer bowl, cream the sugars and butter until fluffy.

Add the egg, vanilla and the pumpkin purée; blend well.

Fold in flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, pumpkin-pie spice and cinnamon. When almost blended, fold in the raisins.

For each cookie, drop large gobs of dough about 2 to 3 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Bake 15 to 17 minutes, until cookies are firm. Cool well on wire racks before icing.

To Prepare Icing: In a small bowl, whisk together the icing ingredients to make a smooth glaze (start off with 2 teaspoons water; add more gradually as needed). Smear or drizzle over almost totally cooled cookies and let set.

Makes 16 to 24 cookies.

Approximate nutrients per cookie: calories, 193; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 37 g; fat, 8 g; cholesterol, 21 mg; sodium, 60 mg.


Curried Lentil 'Dal'

From The Big Book of Appetizers by Meredith Deeds and Carla Snyder. "Dal" is an Indian dish made with red lentils, available in markets and health-food stores. Serve as a dip with chapatti (Indian flatbread), pita bread or crudités.

3 cups water
2 cups chopped onion, divided
3 cloves garlic, minced, divided
1 cup dried red lentils
3 tsps. curry powder, divided
13/4 tsps. salt, divided
2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
2 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan, combine the water, 1 cup onion, 1/3 of the garlic, lentils, 2 teaspoons curry powder and 1 teaspoon salt.

Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Reduce to low and cover. Simmer until lentils are tender, about 15 minutes.

In a medium skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium heat.

When hot, add the remaining 1 cup onions. Sauté until soft, about 3 minutes.

Add the remaining garlic and curry powder.

Continue to sauté until onions are browned and soft, about 10 minutes. Reserve.

Drain the lentils and transfer to a food processor. Purée until smooth.

Return purée to the saucepan and combine with the browned onions. Simmer for 5 minutes or so to blend flavors.

Transfer dal to a decorative bowl. Add the tomatoes, olive oil, cilantro, chile, and the remaining salt and pepper.

Serve at room temperature.

Makes about 3 cups.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon of "dal": calories, 27; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 2 g; fat, 2 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 86 mg.



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