by Kate Heyhoe
As we shake off the vestiges of winter, some of us see this month as the last time to really enjoy those long-simmering stews, soups and bean dishes that warm the kitchen and scent the air with aromas of garlic, herbs and onions. Over the past few months, the electronic Gourmet Guide has received a number of cookbooks devoted to making long-cooking, home-style dishes, even if the 'home' is from the South of France or the Caribbean. We thought we'd share some with you while there's still time to enjoy them, before the spring produce and fair weather arrive in full.
One of the most visually inspiring is The Best of Clay Pot Cooking, by Dana Jacobi (CollinsPublishersSan Francisco). While some would argue that clay pots are usable all year long, I do believe they are at their best when the house benefits from the oven's heat and the simmering flavors can be captured indoors, to be experienced as a kind of virtual appetizer. Besides offering a run-down of the types of clay pots and their care, the author predominantly features the type of unglazed red clay pot found in leading cookware stores, and which are typically soaked in water before use. Her repertoire of 40 recipes spans the globe, from a Moroccan Chicken Tagine to a Basque fisherman's Marmitako. Her Cotechino with Lentils aptly illustrates what clay pots do best: preserving the natural, pure flavors of foods, which profit from their slow, moist cooking in a thick clay shell.
While clay pots have been used in many cultures for centuries, the slow-cooker or crock-pot is a thoroughly modern invention. It can also produce both similar and distinctly different results from those of the old clay pot. Slow cookers do just that—cooking slowly for as many as 10 hours, and the longer the time, the more the flavors merge and even dilute. The convenience of unattended, one-pot cookery, though, can be quite attractive to those with a hectic lifestyle. The Best Slow Cooker Cookbook Ever, by Natalie Haughton (Harper Collins) tackles its subject head on, beginning with a concise guide to makes and models and a list of helpful hints. Tips like increasing the seasonings, and making sure to garnish what eventually becomes fairly monochromatic foods, are handy suggestions. This is not to say all foods end up looking or tasting like each other, for the warm Spinach Artichoke Dip is a far cry from the Caribbean Chicken Soup with Bananas, while the Beef and Beans South of the Border follows the lines of recipes more traditionally cooked in a crock-pot.
But what about those folks who, like grandma, cook with a deep but heavy, non-electric, non-earthenware, garden-variety metal pot? One that requires no special cooking techniques or adaptations of style—that just sits comfortably on the back-burner seeking but a stir or two every now and then? There is a book for this too: 365 Great Soups & Stews, by Georgia Chan Downard and Jean Galton (Harper Collins). I call this an "inspiration cookbook" in that I may not follow the recipes exactly, but there are enough of them in such wide variety that it can spark a lightning flash of brilliance, using whatever ingredients I happen to have on hand. I always have rice and vegetables, so I might just give a shot at a Toasted Rice Soup with Spinach and Parmesan. The ubiquitous chicken stew takes on multiple personalities, including a personal favorite, Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. And for a quicker and more elegant meal, a Creamy Mussel Soup with Saffron and White Wine.
The newest release on this topic is A Good Day For Soup, by Jeannette Ferrary and Louise Fiszer (Chronicle). I think it no accident that the playful red and white design harkens an association with that most iconic of products, Campbell's Soup. But these soups are hardly ones found in a can. A Persian Wishing Soup pairs lamb balls with cinnamon, rice, dried apricots and fresh mint, while the Spring Vegetable Soup bridges nicely the root vegetables of winter with the peppery watercress of spring. Calling themselves "Soupographers," the authors discovered in the course of their research that people actually reveal themselves through soup and the way they discuss it. They lace their content with anecdotes and quotes pertaining to soup, and through their chapter on Soupcons, they recognize that man does not live by soup alone—supplementing their soups with assorted breads, toasts and tangy 'swirls' like Saffron-Cream and Horseradish-Dill.
Personally, I will eat these earthy soups and stews almost all year long, but now is the right time to take advantage of the comforting warmth they radiate in both your stomach and your kitchen. The winter produce is giving away slowly to spring's fresh tender greens, and before long we'll be dining alfresco and feasting on cold, crunchy salads... I'll welcome those meals when they get here, but not yet, not quite yet. There's still time for one last, loving bowl to warm the cockles of my soul. Mmm-mmm, good!
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