Cooking for Life 

Two new cookbooks celebrate cooking on the home front and on the lam

There's no shortage of glossy new cookbooks in today's food-obsessed culture. But few of the many published are as compulsively readable as these two disparate new titles -- one sublime and one bordering on the patently absurd.

Appetite: So what do you want to eat today?
By Nigel Slater
(Clarkson N. Potter/ Publishers: New York) $35/hardcover

On the sublime end of the scale is Brit Nigel Slater's Appetite, an homage to cooking by instinct and a call to throw out strict measures and rules. Possibly the most beautiful, if not most useful, cookbook of the year, it's an American reprint of the version published in the U.K. in 2000, selling over 100,000 copies there. Illustrated with seductive full-page, full-color still-life photographs by Jonathan Lovekin, Appetite belongs on any dedicated foodie's bookshelf, and more importantly, would make a great first volume in the cookbook library of a kitchen neophyte (think: wedding, graduation or Christmas present).

Slater, a food columnist for the Observer in London and the author of several previously best-selling cookbooks, operates on the principle that we know what we like and should cook accordingly. Cooking, he argues, should be guided by active tasting, smell and touch rather than by exacting recipes that tend to take away all the fun. He's the reading cook's version of hyperactive Food Channel "naked chef" Jamie Oliver, minus the lisp, frenetic hand gestures and endless "sort of's."

A long, preparatory section precedes Appetite's basic recipes, guiding would-be instinctive cooks on how to find the best ingredients, how to stock the kitchen with basics, and the bare fundamentals of technique. With typical distaste for the overly fussy school of gourmet cooking now in vogue, under the category "Cooking in Boiling Water," Slater blurts: "You don't need me to tell you how to boil water." Period.

Chapters follow on soup, pasta and noodles, rice, vegetables, fish, meat, fruit, pastry, dessert and cake. Each basic recipe, most utilizing a short list of high quality, main ingredients, is followed by a page of suggested variations. In essence, for every page that contains a basic recipe, the reader gets 10 to 15 recipes.

Here's an example I tried at home:

Slater -- who contends that whether the diet gurus like it or not, pasta has become the basic food group of most people who appreciate food and like to cook -- offers a simple recipe for "a creamy, calming pasta dish," calling for a whole head of garlic, olive oil ("a few glugs to drizzle over the garlic") a few sprigs of thyme, a handful of shell or tube-shaped pasta and heavy cream.

The measurements are vague, but it's easy to figure out how much to cook per person served. The instructions are to roast the head of garlic in a hot oven until it's soft enough to make a buttery paste, boil the pasta, mix together the garlic paste, a few thyme leaves, the cream and a bit of salt and pepper in a saucepan, drain the pasta then tip it into the sauce and mix it all together. The result is sweet, creamy and filling.

On the next page, variations include the same dish with the addition of pancetta or fried sausage, sauted mushrooms, cooked asparagus, lemon zest and black pepper, or ricotta and "fleshy" herbs. I tried a variation adding a spoonful of grainy mustard, fresh-grated Parmesan, and, by instinct, a handful of frozen baby peas. The result was even better than the original dish.

There are many far more complicated recipes in the book, including some beautiful curries and Asian noodle bowls. And Slater's seductive prose might tempt you, as they did me, to try some ingredients you've never considered cooking before. After reading Appetite, I found myself at King Soopers' meat freezer actually reaching for packages of, ugh, oxtails. Using Slater's recipe for "dark, sticky meat for a winter's day," I turned them into an intensely flavored meat dish that, with mashed potatoes and a little extra sauce, will likely turn into a winter standard at my house.

The Wiseguy Cookbook
By Henry Hill and Priscilla Davis
(New American Library: New York) $17/paperback

And now to the compulsively readable but patently absurd -- Mob tough guy Henry Hill, subject of Nick Pileggi's book Wiseguy and Martin Scorsese's film GoodFellas, offers his take on the basics of Sicilian cooking by way of Brooklyn and Mama's kitchen, and a hilarious chronicle of life and cooking on the run under the Federal Witness Protection Program. I kid you not.

Remember the scene in The Godfather where Clemenza tries to teach Michael to cook meat sauce while, in the background, the rest of the Corleone "family" are hunched over the table in undershirts, slurping pasta? You add your tomatoes, stir a little bit, then you throw in your sausages. Then -- Pop! The uncorking of a jug of wine -- you a little in. Clemenza pats Mikey on the cheeks and takes a sip of the sauce. Steam pours from the top of the pot.

This book is just like that scene. These guys are killers. Hill's a killer. They've got loaded guns strapped to their chests. They love to eat and their mamas have taught them how. Capisce?

Interspersed with some very decent recipes for down-home Sicilian/Italian dishes are anecdotes that stop you cold. Hill reminisces about the time he spent in the Army as a cook, and how he quickly figured out how to sell surplus meat on the weekends, skimming a sizable profit off the top. In the chapter "Busted: Cooking in Prison," he lovingly describes his time in the federal penitentiary at Lewisburg, Penn., where he and other wiseguys cooked in their cells, smuggling in food via their wives and children, paying off guards and arranging for the visiting priest to get laid in exchange for whiskey smuggled in his briefcase.

The guy is shameless. When the Feds finally bust him for drug dealing and for participating in the biggest airplane heist in history, what does he do? "The day I got caught," he fondly remembers, "I made a major meal ..."

The heading for those recipes reads: The Last Supper. Hey, maybe you can try it on a Sunday night while watching The Sopranos. I think the publishers are onto something here.


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