Lovin' in the Oven

When one has accumulated 300 or so cookbooks, one can become a bit blasé at the arrival of several more. Thus it was that I almost overlooked Molly Stevens's indispensable All About Braising (Norton, $35). "Ho hum," I said, and began, as I always do, leafing through at random to see if anything caught my eye. Several hours later, I had lingered over every page and resolved to make everything in the book.

Two weeks and nine dishes later, I can say without reservation that this is my favorite cookbook of 2004. Braising is not only simple; it appears to bring out the best in every ingre-dient. The recipe titled "The Best Braised Cabbage Ever" lives up to its name—a cabbage-loving friend says he could make a meal of it alone. The duck ragout may be the only way I'll ever cook duck again, so lush and dark and gamy does the meat emerge from its long, long cooking; the chicken braised with pears and rosemary is a standout; your guests won't know the pear is there unless you tell them, but what a lovely texture and aroma it gives the dish! Lemony chicken with green olives and prunes, scallops in Vietnamese caramel sauce, Moroccan chicken and cauliflower with capers and bread crumbs—dust off the crockpot! For cooks old and young, experienced and new, this is an essential cookbook.

A word of advice: Before you first look through Pure Chocolate: Divine Desserts and Sweets (Broadway Books, $35) shut your doors, close your windows. . . . Other-wise your moans of undiluted pleasure may be misinterpreted. This isn't just a cookbook, it's a seduction. Fran Bigelow, justly revered as the creator of Fran's Chocolates and perhaps best known for Fran's Goldbars, takes you on a dizzying tour of chocolate: cookies, candy, tortes, tarts, cakes, cheesecakes, chilled desserts, and sauces. The photos alone will leave you whimpering. The recipes redefine rapturous indulgence. Triple-chocolate pyramid with milk chocolate hazelnut filling; chocolate apricot pecan torte; Belgian chocolate cheesecake; and a swoon-inducing chilled almond cream torte of white chocolate, almonds, butter, and cream, which I remember lusting after years ago and which Fran no longer makes. I'd go on, but I think I left a window open.

I've heard people rave for years about the food of Provence, but I never really got it until I read Patricia Wells' The Provence Cookbook (HarperCollins, $29.99). Ah, so that's what the fuss has been about. There is something magical about this cooking. It's not just that Wells uses impeccably fresh, high-quality ingredients and that the food is delicious. There is something of the sun and sensibility of Provence itself in this food. These people seem to revere food—the process of growing it, preparing it, and sharing it. Lentils with capers, walnuts, walnut oil, and mint (who knew lentils could taste so good?); six-minute salmon braised in viognier; ragout of new potatoes, artichokes, garlic, parsley, and mint; baked arugula omelet— all so simple and all so very, very good

Ina Garten is the host of The Barefoot Contessa, an immensely popular cooking show. Being a food network junkie, I watched it regularly until an unbelievably annoying rhythm master took over the soundtrack. Now you can cook with Ina without the porn-disco background music. Barefoot in Paris: Easy French Food You Can Make at Home (Clarkson Potter, $35) is a solid, user-friendly introduction to French cooking. All the basics are here—celery root remoulade, lemon chicken with croutons, chocolate mousse—all beautifully laid out with first-rate photographs. Nice. Just don't let your mind drift while you're cooking to what going barefoot on a dog-haunted Parisian street would actually be like. . . . 

Just in time for more holiday excess, here comes the Northwest Best Places Dessert Cookbook (Sasquatch Books, $22.95). Editor Cynthia Nims has collected a slew of recipes of particular interest to Seattle cooks because most of these delicacies originate in parts north, south, and east, in fine restaurants the unadventurous urbanite may never visit. And Nims and her associates have tested every recipe for practicality in the home kitchen.

Seattle Weekly has already written extensively about Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook (Bloomsbury, $34.95), and that's fine with me. Bourdain may be the best bistro cook on earth (he certainly seems to think he is), but his noisy, profane writing style rubs me so hard the wrong way that I can't do justice to either the recipes or the useful preptips he dispenses with a generous hand.If you don't mind being addressed as "num-nuts" by a cookbook author, be sure to check out Roger Downey's appreciation of Bourdain's cooking-with-guys approach ("But Can He Cook?") in the Nov. 10 issue of Seattle Weekly.


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