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New cookbooks will warm up winter

Many home cooks find themselves cooking more in winter than in any other time.

In addition to food-laden holidays, the colder weather just seems to lend itself better to cooking. Even in Phoenix, cooks don't mind turning the oven on. Stews, soups and roast meat recipes suddenly seem appetizing again, and the home table becomes a welcoming and cozy place.

Winter cookbooks are as varied as the cooks who will use them. Does a cup of steaming sweetness sound tempting? "Hot Chocolate" has more than 60 recipes for the winter drink. Meat-eaters can delve into the little-known world of "Bones," while veggies will find delightful "Simple Suppers" in the latest book from the Moosewood Collective.

And the stars do indeed come out in winter. We review the latest books from Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse, Sara Moulton, Michael Chiarello and "Queer Eye's" food guru Ted Allen. Happy cooking!

Dem ‘Bones’Out of the gate, Jennifer McLagan gets credit for devoting an entire book to a topic that inspires fear in most modern cooks.  Her “Bones: Recipes, History, & Lore” ($35, Morrow), a near-seamless blend of cultural discourse and how-to, extols the virtues of meat, fish and fowl cooked with their skeletons at least partially still intact.

Morrow

The irony, as the Australian-born, Toronto-based cook notes in her book’s introduction? Chefs revere bones for adding depth of flavor, and marrow for its thickening abilities, yet most modern shoppers only buy sterile, immaculately deboned portions. Fortunately, McLagan’s skill with recipes matches her enthusiasm — thanks to a precise eye for precision and the use of novel (if outmoded) techniques such as parchment to help seal liquid in a braising pan.

Lamb shanks in pomegranate sauce were succulent and tender, falling off the bone — freshly pressed pomegranate juice a bright counterpoint to the lamb’s rich taste. Veal breast — a cut almost unknown outside butchers’ circles — was deep and earthy, enhanced by dried prosciutto, though the fatty cut needed far more rendering than the three hours recommended. Wasabi-coated lamb chops were embarrassingly easy to prepare, as were heady roasted marrow bones with parsley salad, based on a famous recipe from Fergus Henderson at London’s St. John restaurant.

Sadly, such dishes often invite revulsion — even though, as McLagan points out, bones remain essential to classic dishes around the world, from Vietnamese pho (beef soup) to whole Alsatian pheasant or even a Southern classic like smoked ham hocks. She’s determined to correct the record — armed with trivia (want to know how the game of jacks originated?), anatomical diagrams and an array of recipes broad enough to satisfy every level of curiosity.  Fish-head curry might freak some cooks out, but beer-glazed beef ribs are hard to resist.    —Jon Bonné

One book to lead them allMark Bittman clearly doesn’t think small. His latest book, “The Best Recipes in the World” ($30, Broadway) aims no lower than his earlier effort, “How to Cook Everything.”

Whether “Best Recipes” lives up to its name — and whether all the recipes work — is impossible to know; with more than 1,000 recipes jammed into 757 pages, Bittman hasn’t overlooked much.  Not every one may be the  best, but good luck finding a cuisine that’s been omitted.  Chicken cacciatora takes its place alongside Malaysian curries and Mexican pollo con salsa verde.

Fortunately, Bittman retains his inimitable talent for paring recipes down to their essential elements. His straightforward instructions allow for flexibility and variation; at times they’re almost frustratingly flawless. Some cooks might complain about authenticity, but “Best Recipes” offers what Craig Claiborne’s “New York Times International Cookbook” did a generation ago: An enormously versatile one-stop pan-ethnic shop.

A random sampling of dishes underscored Bittman’s skill at making the difficult seem manageable.  Though a touch too sweet, North African braised lamb with honey and almonds leveraged spices like cumin and caraway for delicious depth and spice. Indian lentil dal was spot on. A quick cucumber seaweed soup — made with Bittman’s from-scratch recipe for dashi broth — needed a bit more soy sauce but proved a refreshing alternative to miso soup.

Cookbook readers increasingly have to choose between one-note Rachael Ray simplicity and glossy but utterly useless coffee-table tomes. “Best Recipes” skips the food smut and the sass; its encyclopedic approach and easy-to-follow tone justify it as a valuable addition to even the casual cook’s kitchen — though you may not buy another cookbook for a while afterwards.     —J.B.

Queer eye for the cooking guyI  approached Ted Allen’s cookbook, "The Food You Want to Eat" (Clarkson Potter, $27.50), with reluctance. It seemed that every recipe the "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" food guru featured could be found in at least one cookbook I already owned. Unnecessary duplication, right?

Wrong. Allen’s juicy, flavorful meatloaf bests every meatloaf I’ve ever made. His spicy Cajun “pigs” in puff pastry (andouille sausage), dipped in chutney-Dijon sauce, take the prize for fast and fabulous. The warm blue-cheese stuffed dates with prosciutto make classy party fare. Even the roast turkey breast, tossed into brine before work and slipped into the oven after, embodies straightforward simplicity that just happens to taste great.

It’s a great basics book. A go-to, playful cookbook with consistent, exceptional results. That's not to say the book has no faults. An almond butter cake domed and then collapsed, most likely victim to the required food-processor preparation. And in the introduction, Allen includes six of his 100 recipes, for the foods he “most dearly loves to cook and eat … categories be damned.” He might have considered that many people skip introductions altogether, or that categories help users find recipes. Or that a recipe for warm caramel brownie sundaes, tagging along in this collection, could have served a better purpose rounding out the few dessert recipes in the oddly-combined “Desserts and Breakfast” chapter. These points aside, I’d recommend Allen’s book to anyone looking for a reliable standby.   —Joan Wolfe

Hot, hot, hotPitch that old, dusty canister of Nestle's Quik: After flipping through Michael Turlock's "Hot Chocolate" ($10, Ten Speed Press), you'll never want to make standard cocoa drinks again. These are after-dinner dessert drinks to be sipped and savored, not guzzled. You'll want to stock your kitchen with whole milk and a variety of best-quality chocolates before you start in, and be prepared to dirty more than one pot in the process.

Ten Speed Press

These aren't kid drinks, either: They're too rich for most young ones, and one chapter features liquor-spiked drinks. We delighted in the creamy, dark peanut butter hot chocolate, which showcased its nutty addition almost as an aftertaste. Malted hot chocolate sounded better than the result, with  1 1/2 tablespoons of malted-milk powder not quite enough to add that classic malted taste.

But the showstopper drink is not even served hot. The much-vaunted Frrrozen Hot Chocolate from New York's had my husband exclaiming "This is punk rock hot chocolate!" The restaurant's original recipe calls for 12 different cocoas; thankfully, the book's version cuts it down to just two. I'm sometimes wary of cookbooks themed around a single dish or drink, but with the 60 recipes offered here, winter nights are looking a lot less bleak.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Herbs, the freshmakers
If fresh herbs are essential to creating flavor, why are they so often misused and misunderstood? No one can set the record straight better than Jerry Traunfeld. As executive chef of The Herbfarm in Woodinville, Wash., Traunfeld oversees not only one of the nation’s most revered kitchens but also a lovingly tended herb garden. His previous effort, "The Herbfarm Cookbook," emulated the restaurant's high-end style, but still contained many straightforward, easy dishes that harnessed a sprig of tarragon or a handful of lovage to incredible effect.

In his second solo cookbook, “The Herbal Kitchen: Cooking with Fragrance and Flavor” ($35, Morrow), Traunfeld focuses on quick home meals. It’s a departure from his previous effort, “The Herbfarm Cookbook,” which replicated the restaurant’s haute cuisine, but the commitment to clear, balanced flavors is equally strong.

Spicy, moist verbena meatballs perfectly balance jalapeño-based heat with the herb’s aromatic lemony notes. Shiso leaves prove the perfect foil for a crab-avocado cocktail. Sage is deftly employed to offset the meaty, satisfying texture of oven-braised wild mushrooms, and added to gin and grapefruit juice for a bit of vegetal complexity.

“Herbal Kitchen” devotes full pages to explaining specific herbs and their uses; it carefully details how to pick and chop them. Traunfeld covered much of this material last time around, but the quick-take versions here are just are helpful.

Despite Traunfeld having won his share of kudos (including a James Beard award in 2000) he’s kept a lower profile than many of his contemporaries. But his ability to harness herbs’ essential flavors is impressive indeed, and this latest effort masterfully displays it. “Herbal Kitchen” is that rare chance to see how a talented chef cooks when he has no one to impress but himself.    —J.B.

Vegging out

The Moosewood Collective, otherwise known as the folks behind Ithaca, N.Y.'s famed Moosewood restaurant, has published its latest cookbook, and its title is a topic dear to many harried cooks' hearts:

(Clarkson Potter, $32.50). That's a promise many cookbooks make, but Moosewood delivers. All the dishes I tried were nothing if not quick, and most were tasty as well.

I delighted over the vegan Thai butternut squash soup, which relies on frozen squash for its ease and coconut milk and Thai curry paste for its spark. Rarebit risotto was less Welsh or Italian than Wisconsinite, what with a whole bottle of beer and 4 cups of sharp Cheddar, but the result was cheesy, melty comfort food. I was less thrilled with the pineapple fried rice; not even the seasoned tofu gave the dish much of a bite.

While Moosewood is known for vegetarian dishes, the book does have a chapter featuring a dozen or so fish dishes. But with dinners this quick and easy, you won't miss the meat.    —G.F.C.

Baking with Martha
She's out of prison, and back in the kitchen. "Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook" (Clarkson Potter, $40) offers 400 pages of recipes for everything from classic apple pie to mocha-pistachio wedding cake.

Clarkson Potter

Like everything Stewart touches, the book is beautifully photographed, allowing bakers to envision a life in which they have time to decorate pastel-toned petits fours or bake a stunning nectarine tart.

It's difficult to judge such an all-encompassing book by virtue of a few recipes, but those I tried were a mixed bag. English muffins were light and tasty, though I eschewed Martha-suggested optional touches, such as sprinkling the muffins with anise or unhulled sesame seeds. A simple cinnamon-raisin bread baked up high and proud, even if its cinnamon-swirl didn't resemble the perfect photo in the book.  Cookies were more problematic. Luscious-looking cheesecake thumbprints lacked sweetness, and were so dry that the dough cracked apart from the required thumbprinting. (Even Martha must have struggled with this, her photo showed numerous cracked cookies.) Grapefruit sandwich cookies seemed like a fun twist away from regular citrus-accented baked goods, but even this grapefruit-lover found them too odd to really enjoy.

It's never clear if the book is meant for novice or experienced bakers. Experienced bakers won't need the photo guides distinguishing a Bundt pan from a popover pan, and novices are unlikely to tackle the nine-layer Dobos torte. And some of the recipes just seem to be overhung with Martha-esque touches aimed at drawing out the recipe and making it more difficult. The book will certainly be a hit with Stewart's many fans, but it's unlikely to be one that I consult often.    —G.F.C.

Wanna know a ‘Secret’?Someone finally wrote a cookbook for the food snob who's pressed for time. That book is  “Sara’s Secrets For Weeknight Meals” (Broadway, $30), by former Gourmet editor Sara Moulton. I barely could stop cooking from it to write this review.

Chicken is the harried cook’s standby, and Moulton doesn't skimp on poultry options. A family can switch from savory balsamic chicken to sweet fried lemon chicken, meltingly tender soy-braised chicken and spicy white chicken chili without once asking, “Chicken again?” 

Moulton’s got more to offer than just poultry, though. Fun chapter titles include "Breakfast for Dinner" and "Soup for Supper"; other chapters offer only recipes that can be thrown together with staples you likely have in the pantry. There’s not an appetite or a schedule that can’t be answered here.

It’s not all fancy, either — her interpretation of a fast-food breakfast sandwich has become my official guilty pleasure quick meal. Her simple, cream-spiked biscuits come out tender and flaky, the perfect base for soft scrambled eggs and cheese.  Nacho pie couldn’t be less sophisticated, but I don’t know anyone snobbish enough to turn down a gooey mess of melted cheese and beans with sautéed vegetables. 

This is truly an everyday cookbook for everyone — chock full of food that is easy, accessible, and most of all irresistible. Sara's “Secret” is out.   —Hannah Meehan Spector

Cookbook, or blind date?The tempting "At Home with Michael Chiarello" (Chronicle Books, $40) promises a lot. It’s glossy, organized and jam-packed with recipes. Chiarello’s photo, handsome and smiling, graces the cover next to the words EASY ENTERTAINING, promising recipes to "dazzle your guests without dizzying you.”  I weighed the merits of crispy risotto balls with warm mozzarella centers and decided to take the book home.

At this point, my cook-cookbook relationship began to resemble dating at its best and worst. The chocolate panini stunned me, with the hint of cinnamon and tang of crème fraiche. Wonderful. Easy. For a second get-together, I paged to potato cakes with quick Bolognese sauce. Unfortunately, Chiarello's definition of “quick” isn't the same as everyone's: The dish took 3 hours to make. The super-quick minestrone later in the week, while super, clocked in at 1-1/2 hours. I began to have reservations.

The rum-soaked chocolate mousse cannoli, both boozy and chewy, didn’t deliver. Yet the pumpkin risotto wowed. With mixed feelings, I got out the measuring cups one more time and baked the olive oil cake. Cointreau, aniseeds, fresh rosemary and an orange marmalade glaze promised simple sophistication. The cake embodied everything about Chiarello’s book that inspired me.

It flopped. The instructions told me to reduce fresh orange juice, then left it out of the remaining steps. They called for 10-inch cake pans, uncommon in most households. They suggested buying best-quality marmalade but failed to note that a lighter-tasting olive oil might work best. “Wow, olive oil,” remarked one polite taster. At 1 1/2 cups of oil, the flavor overwhelmed, leaving me with disappointment and a thinner wallet. I called it quits.

An encore taste of the chocolate panini lured me back. I flipped through the recipes again, lingering on a photo of roasted tomatoes and garlic. The attraction, the inspiration, was still there. Maybe if I just gave the recipes the time and consideration they demand? Dating, indeed.     —J.W.

Emeril disappointsIt's bittersweet to reflect on the great restaurants of New Orleans these days, and “Emeril’s Delmonico” (HarperCollins, $30), gives the reader ample opportunity to wander down memory lane. The historic Delmonico's opened in the Crescent City in 1895; Food Network standby Emeril Lagasse remodeled and reopened it in 1997, maintaining many of the original dishes.

Morrow

I only wish Lagasse had written a cookbook that allowed the home cook to recreate and understand some of those legendary offerings, especially chicken a la king and eggs Benedict, which reportedly were invented at the Manhattan Delmonico’s.  But Lagasse’s interpretation of chicken a la king was surprisingly bland, and he skips eggs Benedict for his version of eggs Pontchartrain, which includes bacon and tasso sausage in the sauce as well as fried oysters. And some of us thought eggs Benedict was complicated enough.

The book's simplest dessert recipe, for a warm chocolate praline tart, calls for making both pralines and a pie crust by hand (after all that, I skipped the two separate sauces). The result was a gummy, barely chocolate mess.  Although "warm" is in the dish's title, directions require you to cool it completely.  It was equally unappetizing warm and cool.

None of the recipes worked perfectly as written, and some were downright weird. It's hard to believe that Delmonico’s eggplant casserole, for instance, was really something customers “couldn’t get enough of.”  The eggplant is boiled and then baked with other vegetables, leaving it mushy and flavorless. Cooks will do best with this book if they interpret Lagasse's recipes a little less literally. It made no sense to mix a small amount of sauce for shrimp remoulade in a stand mixer when a whisk was easier. But once I made a second batch, with less sugar, I had a punchy, tangy sauce that I could enjoy every day.

Restaurant lovers surely are awaiting the day Delmonico’s reopens. (No date is currently set, though spokesmen hope for early 2006.) Let's hope that the cooks there also take some liberties with these flawed recipes.    —H.M.S.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor. Jon Bonne is MSNBC.com's Lifestyles Editor. Joan Wolfe is a custom-publishing producer at MSNBC.com. Hannah Meehan Spector is a writer in Los Angeles.

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