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Summer heats up with cool cookbooks

Many of us can't imagine turning on a hot oven in summer. We've reviewed a crop of new cookbooks that include non-hot options.

Cook? In summer? Many of us can't imagine turning on a hot oven when the temperatures hover close to 100. That's why we've reviewed a crop of new cookbooks that include non-hot options.

"The Ultimate Frozen Dessert Book" helps cooks produce sherbet, gelato, and a freezer-full of other frozen delights. "Good Day For a Picnic" offers up recipes that can be packed into a picnic hamper for an outdoor jaunt, though not all of them pleased our critic. "The New American Steakhouse Cookbook" encourages that most favored of summer cooking techniques, grilling. And for those who have no problem pairing summer's heat with hot cuisine, "The Spicy Food Lover's Bible" will have tongues tingling.

Stay cool, and stay fed.

Ice, ice, baby
Frozen desserts are tough to beat when the weather gets hot. But billing your cookbook as "The Ultimate Frozen Dessert Book" (Morrow, $17), as Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough do, creates quite an expectation. Don't look for ice creams or sorbets in the book, those were covered in an earlier book by the duo. But if you seek recipes for gelati, granitas, sherbets and even the rarer semifreddo, this is the book to store right next to your ice-cream maker.

An ice-cream maker is required for almost all of the recipes, except the granitas, which can be mixed, cooked or blended and then simply frozen in your freezer. Stock up on whole milk, eggs, and unflavored gelatin if you're planning to work your way through much of the book — with those, a few staples, and a variety of fruit and chocolate, you should be set for ingredients.

My family especially liked the pineapple sherbet, a tart and sweet treat that was simple to make. I also savored the grapefruit version, but my husband couldn't reconcile the sharpness of the fruit with the sweet creamy texture of the sherbet. Rice-pudding gelato, not as common here in the U.S. as in Italy, proved to be a delightful and different treat — as the book says, much like eating frozen rice pudding. The book also follows each recipe with a variety of ways to customize it, to your tastes, whether by adding fruit, cookies, coffee, or rum.

A section near the end of the book offers recipes for frozen cakes and pies, often using the gelati or sherbets made using earlier recipes. Many require a springform pan, and since mine has seen better days, I tried one of the few that didn't require one: a frozen pineapple and coconut pie. Unfortunately, it flopped: Despite careful folding-in of both homemade meringue and whipped cream, the pie fell as flat as a beach towel. Still, in summer's heat, these recipes are as soothing as a dab of Solarcaine.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Picks for a picnicJeremy Jackson, the man behind my favorite cookbook title (“Desserts That Have Killed Men Better Than Me”), expands his repertoire with “Good Day for a Picnic: Simple Food That Travels Well” (William Morrow, $23). I both love this book and long for what it lacks.

For me, cookbooks are all about sensory pleasure. I want gorgeous photos, an easy-to-read, organized format and a manageable size. While Jackson comes through on the latter points, the scarcity of photographs — and none are recipe-related — disappoints.

Still, his personable tone is a perfect accompaniment to a laid-back picnic. And then there’s the food. In a world full of fried chicken and potato salad, he aims to give cooks something a little different. “Very European,” noted my husband, browsing through the volume.

Want easy? Make roasted grapes and pine-nut butter, amazing on crackers. Or try poached salmon with tomato-basil vinaigrette. It proved that even I — who regularly ruins fish — can turn out a perfectly-cooked fillet. Think twice about the Cornish beef pasties; while flavorful, they’re dry. As a consolation, try the potatoes with olive oil and fleur de sel (sea salt from Brittany). Or indulge in moist strawberry cupcakes.

Whether these recipes work well as picnic food is open to question. Some recipes are overly fussy or impractical beyond your backyard (spicy chai ice cream, spring rolls, the wonderful salade Niçoise). Too much bother to maintain proper temperatures or to pack, as suggested, in multiple containers. In addition, several recipes provide little direction in preparation steps where novices might stray. Are you a beginning cook? Try a different book.

Jackson’s approach can be a refreshing stretch for those who want to taste something new, or who envy the ability to cook without measuring. The casual recipes offer a flexible margin for error. I’ve tagged more than two dozen of the 120 recipes to try, and plan to eat my way through all of them, whether outside or not.    —Joan Wolfe

Meat and potatoes
Years ago, at a wonderful steakhouse, I ordered the fish and regret it to this day. So it was with some trepidation that I approached “The New American Steakhouse Cookbook” (Broadway, $27.50) — trepidation because the book, by David Walzog, executive chef of Michael Jordan’s The Steakhouse NYC and others, bears the subtitle “It’s Not Just Meat and Potatoes Anymore.”

The steakhouse standards — strip steak, rib chop, etc. — get simple but foolproof treatment here.  But the other foods Walzog suggests for the grill, from lemon-pepper marinated chicken to a chile burger may convince you to fire up the grill for more than just steak.  The chicken was the moistest, most flavorful chicken I’ve ever had, and the accompanying grilled asparagus was incredible.  The burger had just enough spice to make it something truly delectable.

Fans of steakhouse standards won't be disappointed either.  Walzog’s grilling instructions are straightforward, and he is the first cookbook author to acknowledge the downside of indoor grilling on cast iron — yes, you can get a pretty good steak, but be prepared to set off the smoke detector.  His sauces and side dishes are incomparable — black-truffle creamed spinach, which he promises to be “the best [you’ve] ever tasted” is exactly that. The black truffle and the nuttiness of the Parmesan cut through the richness of what was enough butter and cream to make Julia Child think twice.  And a horseradish sauce was so tasty I caught a dinner guest drinking the leftovers from the sauce bowl as we cleared the table. 

Walzog also includes a straightforward guide to wine and beer with wines broken down by price and by category, as well as some killer classic cocktails and more modern takes, like the Flirtini and the Urbanite.

My waistline wishes this book weren’t so accessible — I didn’t need to know homemade potato chips were so good or so easy to make.  But for steakhouse-quality cuisine at home, this book is a must-have.    —Hannah Meehan Spector

Some like it hotMy primary concern with “The Spicy Food Lover’s Bible” (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $30) was that authors Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach had tried to stuff too much into a single volume.

DeWitt and Gerlach, longtime spice experts who co-founded Chile Pepper magazine, certainly haven’t left much out: Ample sections are devoted to chiles, peppercorns, curries, horseradish and so on. But an all-encompassing attention to detail works in their favor. The book proves a valuable resource, even providing growing instructions for chile peppers and devoting an entire chapter to the spice trade. A comprehensive index makes for easy reference. The only thing missing is a complete table of the many types of chile peppers mentioned.

Recipes cover a dizzying range of cuisines. Not up for filet mignon with Dijon mustard sauce? Turn the page for Malaysian curried coconut beef.

With the exception of a San Antonio-style “Chili Queen” chili that had depth but not enough heat, the flavors were sharp and compelling. A hearty Slavic horseradish soup tempered the root’s pungent nature so that a mellow heat seemed to radiate from the bowl. The heady Yemenite hot sauce called zhug, which blends serrano chiles with caraway seeds, parsley and more, proved a valuable condiment. Strawberries with tequila and black pepper sounded odd but turned out to be downright addictive.

Some recipes need a bit of work around the edges. A chili recipe can’t simply reference “the chiles” when it calls for three types; cooks are asked to sauté Polish sausage for the soup, but never told what to do with it. Seeing as DeWitt has authored over 30 cookbooks, a next edition could benefit from better recipe editing.

But if you can take the heat, get in the kitchen. You’ll find plenty inside these 424 pages to keep your brow sweaty and your stomach full.    —Jon Bonné

Hungry manDave Lieberman hosted a cable-access cooking show as a Yale undergraduate, and his new book, “Young & Hungry,” (Hyperion, $23), makes him seem like a cross between Nigella Lawson and a frat boy. Aiming squarely at the newly graduated set, he is apt to describe a salad as “cute as hell” or note that “you’ll look so hot” preparing his penne. Lieberman, who now hosts Food Network's "Good Deal with Dave Lieberman," presents casual fare simple enough for those faced with their very first kitchen but tasty enough for everyone.  In a big plus for the beginner cook, the book’s simple organization makes meal planning seem easy without dictating set menus.

“Young & Hungry” offers meal ideas for almost any situation — when I was invited to a potluck in my new neighborhood but had not yet unpacked any of my kitchen, the smoked salmon with avocado and wasabi-cream cheese open-faced sandwiches were the perfect answer.

Whether for a potluck or a cocktail party, the section titled “Cooking for a Crowd” offers crowd pleasers that are easily scaled for smaller groups. Seared chicken littles with plum-peanut dipping sauce would appeal to all ages, and I caught my beet-averse husband sneaking seconds of beet salad with watercress, goat cheese, and shallot-thyme dressing.

“The BBQ” was my favorite section — Lieberman’s grilling suggestions are designed to get great flavor and tender meat on even a balcony hibachi. Baby-back ribs were succulent in under two hours and went well with a creamy dill potato salad, which was rich but not gloppy.

Some of Lieberman’s recipes are too simplistic — who needs two pages on how to lay out a spread of bagels and cream cheese?  Some recipes could have used double-checking. (The salmon sandwiches only required half as much salmon as called for; the chicken littles were sautéed in an alarming amount of oil.)  Nonetheless, they’re all appealing and liable to encourage just about anyone to get into the kitchen.    —H.M.S.

Coffeetable cookbook
At first glance, “Vineyard Harvest” (Broadway, $35), a collaboration between Martha’s Vineyard chef Tina Miller and photographer Alison Shaw, looks more like a coffeetable book than a cookbook. The stunning photos don't just show the recipes, but everything from children on the beach to farmers and fishermen in action.

The recipes, however, are straight from the restaurant — the kind of food that’s only easy if you have a team of prep cooks and dishwashers.  Though Miller says she prefers “simple, uncomplicated food,” she’s got a chef’s definition of simple.  As easy and tempting as peak-of-summer grilled swordfish sounds, using up five pots and pans to make a corn-butter broth is more effort than most home cooks are willing to exert for grilled fish. 

Seared yellowfin tuna with sesame Chilmark asparagus and miso broth is easier to make, even if your asparagus is local.  And littleneck clams baked with fresh summer herbs are incredibly simple once you get the clams shucked (something Miller assumes everyone knows how to do — I had to make an embarrassing return trip to the fish counter). But these dishes are the exceptions — Miller offers up not one but highly involved two seared-tuna appetizers, and more options for lobster than I can count.  Probably on Martha’s Vineyard they need ideas like lobster sushi and lobster pot pie, but the rest of us may not want to waste lobster meat in a fritter.

The best parts of the book are the descriptions of all the farmers and fisheries on the Vineyard — between those and the pictures, you’re almost there.     —H.M.S.

French accentWith her recipe-enhanced memoir “On Rue Tatin,” Susan Hermann Loomis stepped ahead in the ranks of Yanks channeling la vie Francaise. “Tatin” has become a cottage industry, including Loomis’ cooking school in Normandy. Now she offers a follow-up cookbook, “Cooking at Home on Rue Tatin” (William Morrow, $25), to share more recipes she’s collected while living in her adopted land.

What’s immediately charming about “Cooking at Home” is Loomis’ clear, simple advice for properly serving a French meal. She lays out helpful dinner-party strategies, endorsing oft-discarded practices like a pre-meal aperitif for guests served in the kitchen.  The book is packed with such tips, which hint at her commitment to well-honed cooking skills, not ego.  Each recipe comes with a small box of astuces (tips), such as a reminder to use organic or wax-free fruit when zesting a lemon.

Loomis draws on a range of French regional traditions, with recipes that focus on clear, unfussy flavors and acknowledge the influence of France’s immigrant cultures. They are generally good, sometimes great.  Curried fish à la meunière provides a subtle, brilliant twist to a well-worn classic; the curry makes the dish vivacious.  Lemon verbena madeleines are similarly inventive.

Details are occasionally muddled, though. A brined roasted chicken was tender and aromatic — as it should have been, after two days preparation — but suffered from far too much salt. That recipe also sent us on a wild poultry chase for “bird’s-eye peppers.” (It's a generic term that describes several types of blazing-hot chiles.) What promised to be a savory recipe for white beans with air-cured ham resulted in underflavored mush.

Loomis’ subtle updates of the traditional French repertoire are refreshing. Experienced cooks who aren’t afraid to tweak a recipe will appreciate them the most.    —J.B.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com’s Books and Television Editor. Jon Bonné is MSNBC.com’s Lifestyle Editor, and regularly covers food and wine. Joan Wolfe is a MSNBC.com custom-publishing producer. Hannah Meehan Spector is a writer in Los Angeles.