New cookbooks vying to be go-to resource


How long to hard-boil an egg? What’s the rice-broth ratio for pilaf again?

It’s often the everyday stuff that sends home cooks scurrying for explainers. For the complicated dishes – the curries with 15 spices and pastries with 23 achingly involved steps – there invariably are piles of recipes from dog-eared magazines.

That’s why no home should be without an all-purpose cookbook for the basics, serving as much as a reference work as a cookbook.

In many homes that book has been one of the many editions of “Joy of Cooking.” It’s the sort of cookbook that can tell you how long to grill chicken, how to poach an egg or bake bread, and how to tell when the pasta is done.

But recently, some food writers have tried to reinvent this category, offering home cooks fresh takes on the basic cookbook.

Among the standouts, Aliza Green’s hefty “Starting with Ingredients” (Running Press, 2006, $39.95). This is the sort of intuitive, common-sense approach to food that makes you wonder why all cookbooks aren’t organized this way.

Green considers the way most people cook – they start by opening the refrigerator to see what ingredients are on hand – and structures her book around that. One-hundred chapters organized by ingredient (from almonds to zucchini) cover more than 500 recipes.

Each chapter opens with the essentials – how to select, store and prep the ingredients, along with a bit of history and common uses.

The apple chapter, for example, includes brief descriptions of common varieties and how each is best used. The butter chapter (with recipes for sticky buns and spaetzle with brown butter) includes sidebars on how to make Indian ghee and French-style clarified butter.

Green’s recipes cover serious cultural ground, high and low. The oatmeal chapter includes oatmeal meatloaf, while the section on onions features Senegalese chicken yassa (marinated chicken that is broiled and simmered with onions and lemon juice).

Even better is Sally Schneider’s “The Improvisational Cook” (Harper Collins, 2006, $34.95), which is built around the notion that by understanding a few basic recipes and techniques, anyone can improvise countless other dishes.

Schneider gets how most people cook. And she masterfully walks readers through the basics of improvisational cooking, from understanding how to pair flavors to mastering simple formulas (such as soups) into which endless ingredient combinations can be plugged.

The recipes are simple, and each is accompanied by an “understanding” section, which explains the flavors at play, how they complement one another, how the recipe relates to others, and key techniques that can be borrowed for use in other dishes.

Schneider follows each recipe with suggested variations (macaroni and cheese becomes saffron pasta gratin or the base of a frittata). Of course the real goal is to get home cooks comfortable enough with the process to devise their own variations.

Schneider’s is the sort of book from which everyone should learn to cook.

Restaurateur and chef Charlie Palmer takes a more Cooking 101 approach to his recent all-purpose book, “Charlie Palmer’s Practical Guide to the New American Kitchen” (Melcher Media, 2006, $35). That’s a steep price for a slim 208 pages.

That’s apparently the cost of ensuring a book won’t stain when dinner splatters it. Billed as “Splatterproof, Sauceproof, Waterproof,” the book’s cover and pages have a funky plastic coating. Interesting, but aren’t splatters part of the charm of family cookbooks?

Palmer dedicates the first 50 pages to explaining the equipment, ingredients and techniques essential to home cooking. Many books cover similar territory, but Palmer’s actually is informative (some people will find his ingredients skew artisanal).

Where Green lets the ingredients guide her chapters, Palmer gives way to mood and occasion. Chapter Five, titled “Cathartic Cooking,” includes braised pork belly and veal schnitzel. Chapter Seven, “Home Dates,” includes soy-glazed duck breast.

The recipes are strong on appeal (fig and ginger bread pudding, shrimp frittata with potatoes and piquillo peppers, and prosciutto-crusted chicken), but contain few basics. Not a problem for adventurous eaters. Vegetarians need not apply.

Taking a more traditional approach, Mitchell Davis covers broad culinary territory with more than 600 recipes in his “Kitchen Sense” (Clarkson Potter, 2006, $35). No funky plastic coatings on the pages. No unorthodox chapter headings.

Also no illustrations. Just 516 pages of dense text. Food is visual. There is no excuse for this.

Aside from that, these are good recipes that guide readers through the common (hard-boiled eggs take 12 to 15 minutes, depending on size) and not-so-common (a root vegetable puree baked with cheese).

Davis, who is vice president and director of communications for the James Beard Foundation, includes helpful notes with nearly every recipe, covering what can be prepped ahead of time and what to do with leftovers.

For an even more back-to-basics approach (including a mostly forgettable design), there is “The Good Home Cookbook” (Collectors Press, 2006, $29.95), with some 1,000 recipes the publisher says “formed the foundation of American cuisine as we know it today.”

Whether homesteader scrapple and cheese blintzes live up to such heady billing, the book delivers on the all-purpose premise. The recipes won’t wow at a dinner party, but they will cover many of the standards (such as sweet potato casserole with marshmallows).

To further cement the recipes’ all-American street cred, editor Richard Perry recruited hundreds of families from around the country to test every recipe multiple times. So when the book says the rice-broth ratio for pilaf is 1-to-2, it’s probably safe to believe it.