Jun 4, 2007
What is it about new summer cookbooks? Maybe it's the way they come out in such feverish, lush abundance — like mushrooms after a rain — at a time when the world and all its folly are slowly grinding to a halt.
Summer cookbooks tend to fall into four categories: outside dining, fresh seafood, exotic dishes from warm-weather climates such as Mexico or South Asia, and icy treats. Taken together, they paint a picture of the good life, snatched from between the jaws of the workweek and the winter.
To me, the pleasures of summer eating have everything to do with what's going on outside. What's more romantic than an icy cocktail during the humid hour before the thunderstorm? What's more refreshing than the evening breeze off the water at sunset, fanning the flames on the grill?
This year's crop of cookbooks brims with sizzling charcoal, clinking ice, and the briny snap of the sea. All you need to do is add company.
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The Backyard Bartender by Nicole Aloni, hardcover, 112 pages
Half the fun of summer dining is what you get to drink before you eat and while you're cooking. A new cocktail is like sparkling conversation — it's surprising, it's refreshing, it leaves you with a tiny buzz. My new favorite is the Pomegranate Smack
— a sweet, tart, and irreverent twist on a martini (the smack comes from lemon juice). I'm also intrigued by the Tamarindo — I don't see where you can go wrong with orange, mango, tamarind and ginger. Or the Lawn Mower
, minted and meloned within an inch of decency. The Backyard Bartender
also takes the trouble to offer a selection of non-alcoholic drinks, as well as crowd-pleasers like sangrias and punches.
The New York Times Country Weekend Cookbook edited by Linda Amster, hardcover, 288 pages
All-star compendiums of recipes from food celebrities are no guarantee of quality, but this one delivers the goods. It's well conceptualized, organized by the various moods of weekend leisure: "quick suppers after a long trip," or "lunches at the beach, near the lake, or on a cool and shady back porch." You can start your retreat with a cool quencher — say, a watermelon martini. There's a cornucopia of warm and cold salads, such as the chicken salad with grapes and toasted nuts. Grilled fowl — such as Mark Bittman's Grilled Chicken with Mediterranean Flavors
— joins meats such as Grilled Steak with Herb Salad
, plus cool soups and portable food. Ingredients are kept pretty simple, so you can be fairly sure of finding them wherever you're rusticating. I tried the relatively exotic Middle-Eastern-Style Lamb Burgers with Dried Fig and Mint Relish, and can report that they're delicious even if you're not off on a country weekend. Finish with easy free-form tarts, or peach ice cream — and don't be shy about licking your fingers.
Fire Up the Weber...
Lobel's Prime Time Grilling by Stanley, Leon, Evan, Mark and David Lobel, hardcover, 290 pages
The Lobel family's grill book is just the kind I like: a smart selection of recipes that focus on maximizing your options with the most accessible cuts. Do you need seven recipes for grilled pork chops
and 17 recipes for burgers? Sure you do! Prime Time Grilling
makes it easy to just dive in and crank up the flame, but there's also a modestly sized reference section in the back for those rainy days when all you want to do is sit around learning the difference between a picnic shoulder and a blade chop. The recipes themselves are constructed for maximum flavor impact — Sweet Heat Country Ribs, for example, use ripe papaya both to flavor and tenderize the pork with its natural enzymes. Fired-Up Chipotle Chicken uses lemons and chiles for a long marinade and multiple basting to make even the most characterless bird memorable. Grilled Sirloin Steak with Green Chile Sauce
gets a creamy counterpart.
...Or Go to Grill School
Mastering the Grill by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim, paperback, 416 pages
Technique, technique, technique. Every year without fail, someone takes the trouble to write a grill book that tells you everything you need to know about grilling equipment, grilling techniques, cuts of meat for grilling, and so forth. This year's example, Mastering the Grill
, is a well-illustrated, comprehensive tome with enough charts to put an encyclopedia to shame. (Though the tiny print is more reminiscent of a telephone directory.) But it's good to know that there's a source you can go to for instructions on how to grill almost anything you can find in a supermarket --animal (Herb Cheese-Stuffed Garlic Burgers
), vegetable, and probably mineral too. You can go vegetarian with Smoke-Roasted Bell Peppers
Stuffed with Garden Vegetables and summer squash vinaigrette, or you can gnaw at the bones of limey, coconutty, Spicy Thai Chicken Thighs.
A Handbook for the Beach House
The Summer Shack Cookbook by Jasper White, hardcover, 512 pages
The moment I saw the Summer Shack Cookbook, I knew we were going to be friends. Jasper White is a man whose love for fish simply obliterates everything else. This isn't so much a cookbook as a how-to: how to grill a fish, how to shuck an oyster, how to disassemble a crab, how to clean a squid. For the most part, these are simple ways of eating seafood, like steamers
or lobsters served with drawn butter, grilled red snapper, Boston Baked Scrod
. Less familiar formulations are good too, though. I had the broiled butterfish with mirin glaze, and ended up licking the platter for sauce (I made mine with black cod, which has a melting but densely flaky texture that sponges up sauce like a dream). If you're vacationing anywhere where you can get your toes wet, take this book along. You'll know what to do when you trip over a razor clam (Eat it! Raw!).
Fins and Finery
The Young Man and the Sea by David Pasternack & Ed Levine, hardcover, 272 pages
Equally inspiring, if somewhat more refined, is the début cookbook from Esca's David Pasternack, another deep-dyed ichthymaniac. These are slightly dressier recipes that may send you scampering to the nearest gourmet store for juniper berries and arból chiles. There's nothing pretentious about these full-flavored dishes, though. Try the Trout Almost Amandine with Pistachios
(careful not to burn them!) or the Fried Soft-Shell Crabs with Ramps
. Serve them with a summery Corn Salad with Walnuts & Goat Cheese. Then sit under the stars and dream about what's for dinner tomorrow.
Hacking the Cottage Spice Rack
5 Spices, 50 Dishes by Ruta Kahate, paperback, 132 pages
Everybody needs to learn how to cook subtropical food when its 90 degrees out. 5 Spices, 50 Dishes
is one of this season's cute little surprises. The theme is how astonishingly much you can do with just cumin, coriander, cayenne, turmeric and mustard seeds. Now, if you're one of those noble souls who worship at the shrine of authenticity, this book is probably not for you. There are no hours of pounding recalcitrant, bumpy, tough, or fibrous ingredients into a paste, as in proper indigenous cuisine. Instead, you'll find a series of disarmingly simple recipes, color-coded by spice on the edge of the page. I particularly liked Chickpea Curry — that's chickpeas from a can — with an entire bunch of fresh dill leaves (Kahate is using the dill as a vegetable, she explains.) Take that eggplant you've been wondering what to do with and make Spicy Eggplant with Tomatoes. Or, if you're craving carbs after your all-seafood summer diet, there's always Black-Eyed Pea Salad with Ginger and Red Onion
and Crusty Russet Potatoes with Coriander
From Farm to Table
Vegetable Harvest by Patricia Wells, hardcover, 336 pages
I admit it, I'm a sucker for vegetable books. Maybe this has to do with having small children — you have to be a master of tireless invention to find ways of making the greens interesting enough to try, yet again. Patricia Wells' book was like finding an arsenal of secret weapons — simple recipes with brightly contrasting ingredients and sharply defined flavors. Asparagus braised with bay leaves and rosemary
has become my favorite way to make the season's fresh asparagus. If you have someone on hand to do your fava-shelling, don't miss the penne with fava beans, basil purée & parmesan. There's enough depth in this book that you can pretty much just wing it, for once, at the farmer's market and trust you'll be able to make something wonderful when you get home. Just make sure you have enough lemons and mint around, 'cause Wells is crazy about those.
In Conclusion: Just Chill
The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz, hardcover, 246 pages
It's the foolproof summer dessert — forget about sweating over your pies and cookies. Everybody screams for ice cream, and once you get used to making your own, you'll never again plunk down $4.00 for something so simple. Now, good ice cream books don't come out as often as you might think (the last one was Emily Luchetti's A Passion for Ice Cream
, which offered elegant, composed desserts using ice cream). The Perfect Scoop
goes for straight-ahead recipes: freeze 'em and eat 'em. For pure nostalgic bliss, you just can't beat Malted Milk Ice Cream, with a pint of — yes! — Whoppers folded into the custard. For something a little more wicked, you could go for a Mojito Granita, or Fresh Fig Ice Cream. If you feel more frou-frou, consider whipping up some Marshmallow Sauce
for topping, or chocolate-coated Tartufi
. Clear your jaded palate with Nectarine Sorbet
or Melon Granita
. Because nothing goes better with ice cream than... more ice cream.
Recommended Reading:Click here for a printable list
of our summer 2007 book roundups.
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