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Ladies and gentlemen, start your ovens

Cookbooks for dogs, for novices, and from a @$%@# celebrity
/ Source: msnbc.com

When collecting cookbooks for our quarterly roundups, we always aim for that sweeping generalization of "something for everyone." We probably came closest this time than ever before, as among the new cookbooks we tested was one for dogs. OK, so unless your dog is Lassie, she's probably not going to whip up doggie meatloaf on her own, you're going to have to help out.

The human-centered cookbooks are all over the map. As fall settles around us, soups sound better and better, so we've tested a soup cookbook. The flavors of the Arab world, still unfamiliar to many of us, delight the tongue in May S. Bsisu's "The Arab Table." We also examine books focusing on Asian cuisine and on cooking for novices. And for our final book, we go straight to Hell — or, Hell's Kitchen — reviewing a tome from foul-mouthed celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. Enjoy!    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Focus on an overlooked cuisine
Possibly excepting hummus, food from the Arab world isn’t exactly a staple in American kitchens. That alone makes the clear, instructive tone of May S. Bsisu’s “The Arab Table” (William Morrow, $35) — and the well-defined flavors of its recipes — compelling.

Bsisu, a Jordanian-born cooking instructor who now lives outside Cincinnati, takes a notably pan-Arab approach, covering cuisines from Morocco to the Persian Gulf — largely without politics and with a focus on the Muslim and Christian cultural traditions that govern her selected dishes. Want to know about Ramadan meals? She offers 10 pages of detail, including menus.

Little surprises abound. An oregano salad, flavored with sumac, sounded improbable but resulted in a perfect mix of fresh, evocative tastes. An Iraqi dish of red snapper in pomegranate syrup, though a bit soggy, provided a splendid balance of sweet, tangy and hot.

Tiny details are crucial — like the mastic (pebbles of tree resin) that adds a woody spice note to chicken shawarma — but Bsisu is refreshingly precise with measurements and instructions.  An included glossary and ingredient source list are quite helpful.

One minor road bump: Many recipes require other preparations from the book, presumably because the ingredients can’t exactly be found at the corner store. The shawarma calls for a garlic paste that in turn needs labneh (yogurt cheese), itself an overnight effort.  Preparation times should be checked carefully.

But Bsisu deftly sheds light on a largely overlooked culinary topic. Your guests will be eager for more, and perhaps full bellies are the first step to rapprochement.    —Jon Bonné

@$%#!$ ‘Chef’
Though Americans primarily know British celeb chef Gordon Ramsay via his Fox reality show, the man has written at least five cookbooks in addition to gathering Michelin stars.  The concept of “A Chef for All Seasons” (Ten Speed Press, $28) certainly shapes up nicely; Ramsay and co-author Roz Denny divide the book — newly available in a U.S. printing —  into four sections, one per season, each featuring a brief primer on seasonal ingredients and matching recipes.  The dishes sound delightful; the photos match Anthony Bourdain’s cover-blurb description as “food porn.”

So why, to paraphrase Ramsay’s TV persona, is this $@##@^% book so utterly #&#@^#@-ed up?

Originally printed by a British publisher in 2000, the book is clearly intended for a European audience; brill, whiting and partridge don’t make frequent appearances in U.S. stores. Many recipes call for corn syrup; a careful parsing indicates this may be his don’t-try-this-at-home equivalent for liquid glucose, but it struck me as lazy.

Many recipes require Ramsay’s haute equivalent of special sauce (he calls it “classic vinaigrette”) — a bland dressing with a base of olive and peanut oils. Worse, each had specific, inexcusable flaws, some so obvious that they were exposed by the accompanying photo. 

A dish of poussins (young chickens) said not to trim the accompanying baby bok choy, then later specifically advised to trim it; it also suggested the geometrically improbable feat of serving whole poultry atop whole bok choy. Yet the photo showed neatly trimmed leaves.

A “quick dish” — fricassee of scallops and chanterelles — took nearly two hours thanks to an elaborate “light cream” sauce made with romaine lettuce. The accompanying image clearly displayed cream sauce, yet the ingredient list lacked a single ounce of dairy. Instead, the lettuce’s subtle flavor was drowned by … vinaigrette.

For a chef of Ramsay’s caliber, who unloads time-consuming preparations on his “Hell’s Kitchen” hopefuls and asks much the same of his readers, these gaffes are simply @##@%^ inexcusable.    —J.B.

Back to schoolLinda Carucci, winner of a prestigious Cooking Teacher of the Year award, has put her classroom knowledge between the covers of "Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks" (Chronicle, $23). She opens with general tips on equipment and technique, but those impatient to skip to the recipes will find tips sprinkled throughout those margins too.

Her rock-simple garlicky chicken breasts are now the preferred quick chicken fix in my household. If I remember in the morning to toss frozen breasts into a Ziploc with Carucci's simple marinade together before heading to work, I'm guaranteed tender, flavorful meat that can be served in a multitude of ways when I return home.

Carucci notes that she grew up eating hearty Italian food and just assumed everyone else did the same. Raised myself on an Italian aunt's long-simmered spaghetti sauce, I was skeptical of Carucci's rigatoni with sausage and mushroom ragu recipe, in which the sauce was much quicker. Surprise, surprise, it was a divine delight, and none the worse for its speedy prep time. And I know I'll be making the sweet, melt-in-your-mouth savory corn pudding again.

When I made some recipes, I found myself skipping Carucci's "recipe secrets," the tips listed in the margins. But when I tried a dessert, grilled peach sundaes with caramel sauce, I found each of the offered tips to be useful ones, kind of like getting a recipe from your mom over the phone and having her add in tips learned from a lifetime of cooking.     —G.F.C.

It’s a dog’s lifeUsually, I review cookbooks by trying recipes on a range of friends with picky or adventurous palates.  However, when testing “Cooking the Three Dog Bakery Way” (Broadway, $14), I was unable to find a single tester who did not often enjoy eating dirt.  Even the neighbor dog that only eats the bits, not the kibbles, also deigns to eat grass.

My omnivorous poodle, Buster, adored the doggie meatloaf — not surprising, since the ingredients were not much different from people meatloaf. All the recipes are almost food you would eat yourself, which is part of the Three Dog Bakery philosophy. The Kansas City-based national chain takes the concept of a natural, additive-free diet and applies it to canines.

Fortunately for those of us who barely have time to cook for the humans in our family, that philosophy doesn’t require you to cook for your dog every day — the recipes included are mainly for occasional treats, or times when your dog is ill and needs something gentle.  I half-expected to see a recipe for doggie chicken soup.  But the entrees are great for Buster’s delicate stomach, and the doggie peanut brittle is his new reward for not barking at the mailman.

What I found most useful, though, were the sidenotes on dog health and feeding scattered throughout the book. It’s just the right level of information for people who are dog-crazy, but not dog-insane.  Fair warning, however: If puns make you groan, you will find this book “arf-fully” hard to get through, no matter how much you love your pup.    —Hannah Meehan Spector

Soup’s onDavid Ansel's "The Soup Peddler's Slow and Difficult Soups" (Ten Speed Press, $17) can actually be read like an engaging novel. Ansel is a laid-back hippie-type who delivers his homemade soup around Austin, Texas, pulling it in a trailer attached to his bike (so he's both a soup peddler and a soup pedaler).

Anecdotes between the recipes sketch out a wacky, friendly world that's straight out of "Austin Stories." Ansel is the Soup Man, his clients are the Soupies, his bike is Old Yellow, and he engages in a running feud with warm-weather competitor The Ice-Cream Man. Ansel says the use of "Slow and Difficult" in his book's title is an unsubtle dig at our fast-food culture. Some of his soups are about the opposite of "slow and difficult" as you can get. His chompy-chomp black bean soup is ready in just 10 minutes with hardly any chopping, and it's amazingly tasty. (You purists who want nothing canned in a recipe, however, run away while the rest of us dig in.)

While the black-bean soup and the equally simple gazpacho were tasty treats, Ansel's Hungarian goulash completely flopped for me. The stew beef never tenderized nor tasted anything but bland. And it can be tough for a home cook to dive into many of Ansel's recipes — he warns that his smoked duck and andouille gumbo will take all day. Others require ingredients that may be tough to find — amchur powder for the pumpkin-pear soup; pasilla chiles, chipotle en adobo and textured vegetable protein for the chili; guascas for the ajiaco.

Reading Ansel's book is like dropping into a Texas version of Maupin's "Tales of the City." It's hard to read about life in Ansel's Austin and not want to move there, buy a house on his soup route and become a regular at his friends' monthly Family Dinner. But as far as the soup recipes go, this cook is sticking to the simpler ones.    —G.F.C.

Accents of AsiaThe recipes in “Susanna Foo Fresh Inspiration” (Houghton Mifflin, $30), at first glance, confirmed why my home cooking is only sometimes Asian-inspired instead of remotely approaching authentic.  Her modern approach to Chinese cuisine is tempting, but the long list of ingredients for dishes that required multiple sauces seemed daunting and time consuming. However, the Asian influence in today’s cooking turned out to mean my pantry was already pretty well stocked with such basics as sesame oil, cilantro, and soy sauce,  — the only staple I needed to pick up for most recipes was corn oil. 

Just about every appetizer could replace a light meal for two — which is good, since after preparing crispy tuna spring rolls with fresh herb salad, the accompanying wasabi crème fraiche and honey soy glaze, I was ready to get out of the kitchen.  But the time spent was well worth it. The crunchy fried rolls, with blanched carrots and spinach and still-cold tuna, were both fresh and rich.  A panko-crusted goat cheese salad with tomato and asparagus salad was delicious, the warm and slightly oozing cheese perfect with ripe tomatoes and crisp asparagus — an elegant first course or a light lunch. 

Main dishes were even more exquisite (and simpler to prepare.)  I had always assumed that the lettuce-wrapped chicken served in many restaurants was so bland because it was difficult to flavor chicken quickly — Foo’s chicken soong proved that theory wrong, resulting in a velvety dish so simple yet delicious that it has become a weekly fixture on our menus.  Foo doesn't stick to what we think of as traditional Chinese cooking, either — her crispy pan-fried silken tofu with creamy sun-dried tomato sauce is a surprising revelation, and light sauce could just as easily top some pasta or some sautéed chicken.

It’s rare that a cookbook comes along that shakes up my repertoire as much as this has. I’ll stick to the simpler entrees for busy days, but find myself making time for the fussier recipes- they’re worth it.    —H.M.S.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor; Jon Bonné is MSNBC.com's Lifestyle Editor. Hannah Meehan Spector is a writer in Los Angeles.