Burnt End Bourguignon | Tara O'Brady

It is arguably an understatement to say that Joe Beef, Surviving the Apocalypse, was highly-anticipated. The second book from Fréderic Morin, David McMillan, and writer Meredith Erickson (The Claridges Cookbook, Olympia Provisions, and more), was the subject of an buzz that electrically hummed to the corners of discussions across the country — both online and in restaurants and, considering the survivalist leanings of the title, surely Canadian Tires as well. After the impact of their first book, nobody knew what to expect.

For the Globe and Mail, I was able to talk to these three, and a sliver of those conversations was published this week. Their thoughts ranged far more expansively than column inches would allow: the wastefulness inherent, almost required in the standards of fine dining; arguing essential life skills; the race factor in many restaurant reviews; the constraints and perspective-changing realities of parenting; the qualities of a good host; not being an asshole in a social-media and food-obsessed culture; Martha Stewart’s badassery; thoughts of retirement, and finding personal utopia.

What is remarkable, is that all those subjects are in the book as well. It is encompassing, and far reaching. It is the start of a conversation and a plotted action towards what lies ahead — for our families, and for our society. It looks in a million directions yet at the same time, it’s an amazingly cohesive thing unto itself.  With details considered with the eye of makers. It is convivial, intimate, and wildly sentimental.

Start at the endpapers. They’re a wallpaper of fleur-de-lis designed by Patrick Theibault (aka Pat the Gardener, the restaurant’s master jack-of-all-trades, depicted in the book making soap). Look closely. The flower is made up of two chef’s knives, back-to-back; a seashell; and twin meat hooks. Against that blooming field are a set paintings. On the left, a canoe painted by McMillan. To its right, from Morin, a Rousseau-esque reclining man on a green couch, with stereo speakers, a houseplant, and with a framed tiger above. The pantry section has a map-like foldout of recipes, even though, as Morin laughed “it fucked with the binding.”

To read more of the conversation, please see The Globe and Mail.

(As part of the article, I also made the Burnt-End Bourguignon from the book, and their All-Dressed Chip compound butter seen above. Cheers.)

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Above, the Caramel Apple Pie. Below, A relish so versatile that I might make it year -round; Cranberry Chutney from Clean Food.

It's just after lunch on a chilly Sunday and I feel like this is the first moment I've had to collect my thoughts in a good, long while. I hope to coast my way through the rest of the afternoon, with time to stare at the leaves that have caught fire outside my window. Last week there were only sparks of colour flickering amongst branches of green. Now the scene is almost fully aflame.

Whenever the world gets the better of me, I find I rely heavier on the recipes of others. Do you do that too? It's the culinary equivalent of handing over the wheel, and when my mind is taken with the business of other things there's that certain feeling of relief in the ability to relinquish responsibility and to say "here, you drive."

On Thanksgiving there was a Caramel Apple Pie with a boozy applejack and almond crust inspired by Andrea. Believe you me, that pastry was a stunner. Then the other day I tried Nikole's Walnut Oats, which were exactly the thing one should make for breakfast on a grey morning, preferably with your woolen socks on and a broad-bowled spoon at the ready. Later this week I'm making Ashley's Chocolate Chip Cookies and I have a feeling they're going to be tremendous*.

Using their recipes feels like there is a friend with me in the kitchen. I like that.

Even if it is my hands that are doing the heavy lifting, their guidance is there - a voice in your ear through words on a page - and it is a comfort. It is almost as good as having someone there to cook for you. Yes, only almost, but not quite. But it is something.

In case of the circumstance that you too might need similar inspiration, I thought I would tell you about a few the new-to-me books and the recipes that have been filling our table and keeping us fed.

Happy reading. And eating.

* Psst. I made the cookies last night, and tremendous does not even begin to describe how good they are. They are deserving of every superlative imaginable.

Earth to Table (by Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann, Random House, 2009)

This book is as much of a treatise on seasonal, local cooking as it is a cookbook alone. And let me tell you, I will solemnly swear my allegiance the succulent perfection of their Braised Short Ribs; they are a lusty, gutsy affair with the braising liquid reduced to lacquer that coats the ribs in thick gloss. The robust combination of wine, port and balsamic vinegar is elevated by the firecracker brightness of Gremolata and the sweet subtlety of Apple and Parsnip Purée.

My adopted Irish roots grew proudly at a taste of Colacannon Potatoes, a shameless combination of potatoes, butter, wine, and bacon folded through with tendrils of Brussels sprout. The Heirloom Beet Salad with Feta and Pumpkin Seeds lives up to the quote from Tom Robbins on the facing page; these roasted beets beets are "the most intense of vegetables, ... deadly serious."

Recipes from Earth to Table

• A selection of recipes, including Roasted Autumn Fruits with Torched Sabayon and Mulled Cider and Cranberry, can be found here.

Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home (by Martha Stewart, Clarkson Potter, 2009)

It takes a lot for me to introduce a completely new, untested recipe to our holiday table. But leave it to Martha to charm her way into a seat at our Thanksgiving spread with her Gratinéed Baked Squash Halves. An acorn squash is cleaved in half and then anointed with sage and garlic infused cream. It's then baked in a shallow water bath, so that the steam turns the thick flesh tender but the dry heat causes the cut edges to curl and brown. Once soft, gruyère is grated over and back into the oven until its all golden and bubbling. Brilliant. It was so delicious that I made some more two days after the festivities for a particularly-sumptuous lunch. (Just so you don't worry about my health I should say that there was a salad of bitter greens as well, but the squash was the main attraction.)

After those days of excess, the Tofu and Scallions in Mushroom Broth was a welcome change. Simple and straightforward, dried shititakes bring character to the broth. Even though The Warm Swiss Chard and Bacon Dip is suggested as a part of a larger menu, it does make a fine, fine addition to a lazy Sunday afternoon of watching movies. An icy beer as its partner isn't a bad thing either. Not that I'd know anything about that.

Recipes from Martha Stewart's Dinners at Home

• A slideshow of menus and recipes from marthastewart.com

• Watercress-Cauliflower Soup

Chicken Paillards with Walnut Sauce

• Gratineed Baked Squash Halves

Clean Food (by Terry Walters, Sterling Epicure, 2009)

This is the book I wanted to cook from when summer began to wane. Full of healthful recipes and an emphasis on whole foods, it offered the substance sought as the cold sets in, but still with a produce-centric perspective that celebrated fall's harvest. The Refried Pinto Beans with Chiles were a quick dinner alongside the Skillet Cornbread and some chopped tomato and avocado. In the beans, the unmistakable tang of lime brought dimension, the classic match to the grassy notes of cumin. As for the cornbread, the texture was light and bouncy, with only a slight sweetness from a modest pour of maple syrup. Leftovers made a merry weekend brunch, with a fried egg perched upon the beans with fresh pico de gallo, and the cornbread toasted with butter alongside.

The Wild Rice, Barley and Arame Salad is what I'll be eating until the winter comes I think, the hearty combination of grains and nuts is somehow soothing and restorative at the same time. Finally, Walters' mother's Cranberry Chutney was the second untried recipe to make its debut on Thanksgiving Day; full of autumnal flavours of maple and ginger and spice, the addition of apple and celery brings a freshness and subtly that allows its easy pairing with the other dishes of a holiday meal.

Recipes from Clean Food

• A selection of recipes are available on Walters' own site.

CRANBERRY CHUTNEY

As a child, I insisted on store-bought cranberry sauce – no chunks, just that smooth roll, complete with indentations from the can. When I finally tasted my mother’s homemade chutney, I was converted. I now make it in huge batches, give it as gifts around the holidays and even freeze it to have throughout the year. It goes great on a turkey sandwich with avocado and honey mustard or with vegetable pot pie. Once you taste it, you’ll understand why I’m addicted. - Terry Walters

I chose to dice all the ingredients so that the chutney cooked into a softly-textured relish. - Tara

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ cup sucanat
  • ½ cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 3 medium apples, cored and chopped
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel

METHOD

Combine cranberries, raisins, sucanat, maple syrup, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and water in Dutch oven. Place over medium heat and cook 15 minutes. Stir in onion, apples and celery and cook 15 minutes more. Remove from heat, fold in lemon peel, and serve.

Chutney can be made in advance and stored in an airtight container in the freezer.

Makes 4 cups

Note: Coincidentally, all three books are organized by season; I have only been cooking from the Fall chapters of each. Author biographies and further information about the books can be found through the links provided. Cover art and recipe reprinted with permission from the respective publishers.

This photo was part of a series shot in January, the last time I baked cupcakes from Martha Stewart.

I have three (main) places I keep cookbooks.

There are those stored in the bookshelves that line our den (also where I keep my magazine back issues). I consider these the reference books, those that I turn to for a specific inspiration or if I am looking for a particular recipe. The top shelves are reserved for my most treasured-tomes, the coffee table styled works from authors I admire; they sit alongside the dog-eared, aged copies of cookbooks from my childhood and before.

The second is our dining room table, much to the chagrin of my dear husband. Our dining room is often the resting place of books in transit, those making their way from the kitchen back up to the den. I would be lying if I told you that books do not sometimes take up an extended residence on that table, or if I denied my errant desire to line that room with bookshelves as well.

The third cookbook habitat is our kitchen itself. Behind the closed doors of a built-in cabinet live those books I use most often. These are the books I feel lost without, the ones that best reflect the way I cook and the way we eat. The selection rotates now and again, with titles being promoted and demoted, but there are certain regulars that never lose their place.

I am not yet sure as to where Martha Stewart's Cupcakes will land up, but I'm aiming to find out. With William's first birthday next week (so big!) and celebrations planned, I will be turning to Ms. Stewart for cupcakery inspiration.

And here's the best part - you, my dear friends, will be able to partake in the fun. Below are links to the recipes from the book which are currently available online, so you can get out your muffin tins, cupcake liners and get to baking. But wait, there's more! Random House Canada has generously provided the booty for a contest to celebrate the book's launch. What's there to win? Hold on to your hats:

Grand prize: A copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakesand a copy of Martha Stewart's Cookies (one to be awarded)

Secondary prize: A copy of Martha Stewart's Cupcakes (two to be awarded)

To enter, simply comment at the end of this post; maybe we can chat about our favourite cookbooks or cupcakes or cupcake memory - you decide. But leave your comment by midnight Wednesday, June 10, 2009 (EST), and please include both your email address if not signed in, and a note of your desire to enter (this way, non entrants can still join the chat). If you do not want to sign in, nor do you want to publish your email, please comment then email me at tara [at] sevenspoons [dot] net, with the name you used to comment.

The winner will be selected by at random, and announced the next day. One note, due to distribution regulations, this contest is only open to residents of Canada. My apologies to international readers (this might be a good time to ask your Canadian friends to do you a favour).

Good luck!

Psst. It got mentioned in the comments, so I'll add a note - here's my review o fMartha Stewart's Cookies from way back.

Recipes from the book:

Red Velvet Cupcakes

Tiramisu Cupcakes

Mrs. Kostyra's Spice Cupcakes

German Chocolate Cupcakes

Snickerdoodle Cupcakes

Black Forest Cupcakes

Triple-Citrus Mini Pound Cakes

Lemon Meringue Cupcakes

Candied Hazelnut Cupcakes

Flourless Chocolate Cupcakes

[Friday May 22, 2009: I feel like the kid who comes to school, all big-eyed and sorry, with the story "the dog ate my homework."

I wish it wasn't so but here I am, empty-handed, with little excuse but to say that this last week has run right over me like a stampede of very-heavy animals. (See? I can't even come up with a worthwhile simile.)

Give me a couple of days and I'll be back. Until then, here's what we've been cooking - recipes from Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shakes. That's his barbecue sauce in the photo.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, May 28, 2009: All better now. Where were we? Ahh, Mr. Flay. Here we go.]

I have been overruled. Vetoed. If our house was an island, I'd surely be the one voted off of it.

Let me explain. I was offered the opportunity to review Bobby Flay's latest book, Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shakes (Clarkson Potter, 2009, written with Stephanie Banyas and Sally Jackson). While I am not familiar with Mr. Flay's food, I accepted immediately with others' interests in mind.

My husband l-o-v-e-s a good burger, especially paired with a mound of crisper than crisp fries - the sort that crackle when tumbled out on a plate. Our three-year-old son Benjamin has inherited this burger-loving gene, and along with it that same sincere love of fries. So I could not, with good Mummy-Wife conscience, turn down the offer. The problem was, as much as I do enjoy the subject matter, I do not know if I am all that keen on this book. These two though, cannot praise it enough.

But, I am getting ahead of myself. Rewind to a few weeks ago.

With the Victoria Day holiday just ahead of us, the long weekend would be the perfect opportunity to peruse the Mr. Flay's offerings. Nothing seemed better to flip through, and cook from, as you laze about around the backyard grill in the late-afternoon sun.

But that is where we ran into trouble. While I am ardent in my desire to eat these burgers, fries and milkshakes, I am not all that inclined to make them. Reading this book was like looking over the menu of a really, really good diner. The photographs by Ben Fink are in-your-face beauty closeups; burgers are lavishly-treated with toppings, you can see the grains of salt on the fries, and shakes look so good you want to lick the page.

My problem was, just like diner food, I want to go out for such meals with someone else behind the grill. I rarely want to cook them at home. As much as a burger piled high with golden onion rings, bacon, melted smoked cheddar and homemade barbecue sauce would be delicious (Flay's Cheyenne Burger), it is the something I would like to be served - preferably with his Blackberry Cheesecake Milkshake alongside. (Smart man, Mr. Flay, as he recently opened Bobby's Burger Place, with recipes from the book on the menu.)

Speaking of the barbecue sauce, after trying Flay's blend of ketchup, molasses, honey, brown sugar and spice, Benjamin christened the sauce "spicy ketchup", and I am inclined to agree with his description. The barbecue sauce is a good condiment, and is Ben's new favourite dip. But as far as an all-purpose grilling sauce goes it lacks the deeply sweet tones, the almost-sticky quality I look for in a barbecue sauce. It was simply too tomato-y for our tastes.

Another issue with this recipe was the instruction to purée the sauce in a food processor. I do not know if it is that Flay uses a vastly-superior appliance, but my Cuisinart was unable to smooth out the mixture to a classic barbecue sauce consistency. After multiple blitzes in the food processor, you could still detect distinct bits of onion and garlic, swimming in the liquid. A quick buzz with the immersion blender did the trick.

The burgers are good; really good, in fact. But as Flay prefers a simple burger recipe allowing the flavour of the beef to stand front and centre, with most variations using a standard patty recipe. After that's established, it really is just about toppings, with everything from the Napa Valley Burger (with Meyer Lemon-Honey Mustard) to the Arthur Avenue Burger (FraDiavolo Ketchup, FontinaFricos) to the Patty Melt Burger (Red Wine Onion Relish, melted Gruyère cheese, scratch-made Pickled Jalepeños). There are chicken, turkey and fish burgers, but these are obviously second string - the beef burgers are the stars.

The Fries chapter includes his "perfect" recipe, a Bistro twist (parsley, garlic), fat Steak Fries, and then versions using alternative starches like plantains and sweet potatoes. The section is rounded out by mention of onion rings, including the truly-addictive Shoestring Onion Rings; whisper-thin, buttermilk-bathed beauties fried to golden deliciousness.

The Condiments and Seasonings chapter was a surprise. It is a thoughtful inclusion, and in my opinion, the hidden gem of the book. The Homemade Dill Pickles or Horseradish Mustard Mayonnaise just two of the of simple recipes that would make any backyard cookout immediately special.

As anyone who knows me would surely suspect, the Milkshake chapter was far and away the highlight of the book for me. These recipes were the stuff of childhood dream, truly decadent desserts masquerading as drinks. The Toasted Marshmallow Milkshake is like drinking the campfire treat, but creamier. The Dark Chocolate Milkshake with "Fluffy" Coconut Cream is a parfait-style showstopper, while the Blueberry-Pomegranate Milkshake is a tangy take on the traditional shake.

Bobby Flay's Burgers, Fries and Shake is a good book, a novelty for summertime reading, and it does offer up some inspiration for creative burgers. This is not everyday food, and in my mind, not once-a-week food. The recipes often verge on more labor-intensive than I prefer for a casual weekend meal, requiring multiple garnishes and some last-minute fuss. And while the milkshakes are delicious, they are a rare indulgence. It is the sort of cookbook I would pull out for if I was cooking for a true burger lover and wanted to treat them to something special. A signature burger for Dad on Father's Day perhaps?

That said, I do appreciate Mr. Flay's attention to detail, with each chapter beginning with a thorough discussion on ingredients, technique and his personal preferences. There is no doubt that Flay is passionate about the subject matter. And while I am just not all that passionate about the book, I am surely in the minority as my husband and eldest would be all-too-happy to tell you. Maybe its because I am the one doing the cooking.

Recipes

Cuban Style Burgers ( Miami burgers in the book)

Arthur Avenue Burger (video)

Bobby's Crunchbuger (video)

Tuna Burger with Pineapple-Mustard Glaze and Green Chile Pickle Relish (not exactly as in the book, but very close)

Basic Vanilla Milkshake (not exactly as in the book, but again very close)

My goodness, it has been five times already. Five times Pim has rallied the food blogging community together, the first time in aid of those effected by the catastrophic tsunami that hit Southeast Asia on Boxing Day 2004. In each of those five times her campaign, Menu for Hope, has grown exponentially - last year we managed to raise over $90,000 for the United Nations World Food Programme. An astounding number of dollars offered in help, to be sure, as well as an astounding testament to the generosity of our online community and the impact we are able to make when we work together.

This year, I am once again proud to be involved through a prize donation. What's this about prizes you might ask? Well, this is how Menu for Hope works - food bloggers, food producers, publishing companies and many more organizations donate prizes to be put up for raffle. Raffle tickets are then sold, at the low, low price of $10 each, for each of those prizes. These virtual tickets are then compiled, and at the end of the campaign a winner is chosen at random, with the results announced at Chez Pim. Easy peasy, no?

Further details on Menu for Hope, and answers to frequently asked questions are available on Pim's site.

I know that this past year has been a difficult one for many, and our global economic crisis has many of us feeling unsure about the future. If you are unable to participate in this year's campaign, it is wholly understandable and I only ask that you might pass the word onto anyone and everyone you believe might be interested. For those of you that feel that they can spare the money to donate, I thank you.

Now, I said something about prizes - must get back to that. In partnership with the fine folks at Whitecap Books, I am happy to be donating two bundles of cookbooks, all from Canadian authors (see below for summaries and cover images).

The first, prize code CA06, is a wonderful set of two cookbooks in celebration of all that Canada has to offer. Taste of Canada by Rose Murray is an epicurean love letter to the country, with thoughtfully-chosen recipes that reflect the scope of our cuisine. It is a beautiful book, with elegant and evocative images and an obvious affection for its subject matter. The second book is great guide to treasures from your local wine shop, The 500 Best-Value Wines in the LCBO 2009 by Rod Phillips.

CA07 is a collection of books from authors who have all participated in the "Seven Questions With..." series from this site, and have all reached some level of celebrity in the Canadian culinary scene. Anna Olson of Canada's Food Network has brought together a fantastic collection of recipes for the home cook, full of family favourites with a modern twist; truth be told, it is a book I have kept in my kitchen since I got it. Dominique and Cindy Duby, true masters of pastry and sugar, let us in on their recipe for the perfect crème brûlée (along with 50 sweet and savoury variations) in their book of the same name. In Marty's World Famous Cookbook, Marty Curtis reveals the secrets of his famous buttertarts, and many of the favourites from his popular cottage country café.

A full list of prizes being donated by Canadian food bloggers is available at our regional host site Hooked on Heat. My thanks to the wonderful Meena for all her hard work.

So, now that I've tempted you with all this fabulous stuff, here is how to contribute:

Donation Instructions

1. Choose a prize or prizes of your choice from our Menu for Hope at Chez Pim.
2. Go to the donation site at First Giving and make a donation.
3. Each $10 you donate will give you one raffle ticket toward a prize of your choice. Please specify which prize you'd like in the 'Personal Message' section in the donation form when confirming your donation. You must write-in how many tickets per prize, and please use the prize code.
For example, a donation of $50 can be 2 tickets for EU01 and 3 tickets for EU02. Please write 2xEU01, 3xEU02.
4. If your company matches your charity donation, please check the box and fill in the information so we could claim the corporate match.
5. Please allow us to see your email address so that we could contact you in case you win. Your email address will not be shared with anyone.

CA06: The flavours of Canada

CA07: Great recipes from famed authors

  • Courtesy of Whitecap Books and seven spoons, a three (3) cookbook prize bundle with the latest books from famous Canadian authors; In the Kitchen with Anna ($29.95 CAD) by Food Network Canada's Anna Olson , Marty's World Famous Cookbook ($29.95 CAD) by Marty Curtis of the popular Bracebridge, Ontario café that bears his name, and Crème Brûlée ($19.95 CAD) by Dominique and Cindy Duby, acclaimed pâtisiers and chocolatiers.
Permission to print cover images also courtesy of Whitecap Books.

A fine balance; salty, sweet, savoury and all-around delicious, Ina Garten's Maple Roasted Butternut Squash from the book Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics.

Martha. Ina. Nigella. Three first names that hardly need last names to be recognized. Three names that are now entities unto themselves; brand names, names that are used as verbs ("I Martha'd up something to decorate the mantle"), as adjectives ("That's such an Ina tablecloth"). Names that have been carefully-cultivated in their marketing to evoke a sense of familiarity and, almost, friendship.

Martha Stewart, Ina Garten and Nigella Lawson have turned cookbooks into cooking shows, cooking shows into housewares lines, specialty food products, magazines and much, much more. I am surely not alone in saying that these women are each a huge influence to me in the kitchen; in the way I cook and, in many ways, the way I look at food.

It seemed as though the holidays had arrived early last month, when all three of these prolific authors published cookbooks - all coming out within a two-week span. As you can imagine, an admitted fan like me was in food heaven.

True to their established brands, the ladies did not disappoint with their offerings. Martha Stewart is once again the teacher with Martha Stewart's Cooking School; Ina Garten is the ever-gracious host, who doesn't stray from her roots, with Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics and Nigella Lawson continues her role as the ebullient gal pal in the seasonal Nigella Christmas.

Here's a peek at each:

Martha Stewart's Cooking School (Clarkson Potter, 2008), lives up to its name; the hefty book not only feels, but also reads, like a textbook. Although publicity material would like you to consider Martha at your side, guiding you through the recipes, the book instead delivers a vaguely school-marmish incarnation of Stewart at the head of the classroom. After a fairly welcoming introduction, it is down to business and the book dives into its curriculum. First off, a summation of the rules of the kitchen, laying out gentle reminders of what one should keep in mind when approaching a recipe, stocking a kitchen, and while cooking. Following that is an in-depth, expansive list of suggested baking and cooking equipment for the well-prepared cook.

Chapters are structured as studies of specific ingredients; highlighting the particular techniques and recipes that best showcase the qualities of that ingredient. For instance, the Egg chapter has the master technique of scrambling, followed by a recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Caviar in Eggshell cups. The "extra credit" for the lesson is a walkthrough on mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.

What makes these chapters wholly appealing to contemporary palates is the range of influences that are covered. So while the Soup chapter might focus its attention on the proper method for making Basic Brown Stock and Glace de Viande, there is also instruction on preparing Dashi. Further along in the book you'll find recipes for Sole à la Meunière alongside Fish Tacos, and Duck Confit a few pages before Lobster Rolls.

Since the book is aimed at both the novice and expert alike, I asked Sean (a capable but infrequent cook) to review Martha Stewart's Cooking School as well.

He felt the book more than a little intimidating. From its size to the textbook-like layout of the pages, it is an impressive tome. The photographs, save for intermittent chapter title page shots of Stewart smiling obligingly, are simply styled with little adornment to the food or setting. The pages are often crammed with details; step-by-step photos, notes on procedure and ingredients, and companion recipes all fight for space in recipe margins.

Despite the jam-packed information, there were a few lapses in accurate instruction. Sean astutely noted the frequent instruction of "season with salt and pepper" might be simple to the accomplished cook, but to the novice, the lack of measurement (even as an estimate) is troublesome. In another instance, a companion recipe omitted the instruction to preheat the oven at the start; this oversight, again something one used to cooking might assume, left Sean's prepared dish waiting for the oven to come to temperature.

Those slight issues aside, while this might not be the sort of cookbook one wants to cuddle up with on the couch for a good read, it is a well thought out, comprehensive course. The information is dense, but the scope and depth of topics covered, and attention to finicky elements of technique and nuances of ingredients, makes this a valuable resource guide for the home cook.

Chapter headings (or in as labelled here, lessons): Introduction • Basics • Stocks and Soups • Eggs • Meat, Fish and Poultry • Vegetables • Pasta • Dried Beans and Grains • Desserts

To summarize: Cooking basics, but not basic cooking.

Recipes: A selection of recipes from the book can be found here.

Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics (Clarkson Potter, 2008) is Ina Garten at her generous, welcoming, best. Ina is, for me, the author I often turn to when looking for a dish that will be a resounding success. French-influenced and unapologetically old-fashioned, her cuisine is elegant yet straightforward; Garten believes in the best ingredients, often prepared simply, to their best effect.

This book continues upon her mantra of "turning the volume up" on dishes, seeking out and amplifying flavour to its maximum potential. Garten discusses the need to season and taste throughout the cooking process, often stressing the importance of a last hit of something - acids, herbs or something as simple as a smattering of coarse salt - as the finishing accent to a dish.

Those familiar with Garten's style will not be surprised to find that she makes good use of butter and cream for fortifying richness, lemon juice and zest for their puckery brightness, and thyme, rosemary, basil and parsley are her essential herbs. Particularly in this book, more often than not, Garten turns to roasting as the best way to bring out the full depth of flavour of an ingredient.

For example, the Roasted Tomatoes with Basil are promised to recreate summer's taste with winter's supermarket plum tomatoes. Soused with a healthy sprinkle of sugar and syrupy balsamic to mimic sun-ripened sweetness, then blitzed in a hot oven for a short 30 minutes to concentrate and caramelize, the tomatoes emerged slumped and slightly shriveled, but still brightly crimson. When eaten alone, I found the tomatoes were good, but lacking in the savoury-sweet complexity of their slower-roasted cousins. However when eaten alongside other dishes (meats as recommended by Garten and tossed through hot pasta with shavings of Pecorino as recommended by me), the tomatoes were surprisingly well balanced, contributing an acidic hit that paired nicely with richer counterparts. While not 100 per cent August splendor, these were a bright bit of sunshine on a December table.

Still on the roasting, the Mustard-Roasted Fish was rich but pleasingly piquant. The sauce, mustard and crème fraîche, is lifted by the salty burst of capers - accentuating the acidity of the Dijon mustard and bringing much-needed counterpoint to what otherwise could be a stodgy dish. Although Ms. Garten might clutch her pearls at the thought, I have also tried this recipe with sour cream in place of the higher fat crème fraîche, to equally-successful results.

Garten's Roasted Potato and Leek soup is a rustic, earthy take on the classic Vichyssoise, has already commanded repeat performances at our dinner table. The Maple Roasted Butternut Squash has a mellow sweetness perfectly complimented by salty pancetta and aromatic sage; I found this combination nothing short of addicting.

It is not all roasting in Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, though. Garten stays close to her standards with perfectly-textured Easy Sticky Buns, buttery Wild Mushroom Risotto stained golden with saffron, and (though she forgoes the title of crisp) a juicy Plum Crunch - a classic Barefoot Contessa dessert. With a chapter devoted to the Cocktail Hour, Garten is in her usual fine form.

The books' styling also follows Garten's preferred style; full-colour, full-page photographs accompany each recipe, helpful hints and tricks are organized at the start of each chapter, and recipe notes are filled with her personal anecdotes.

Ina Garten's recipes simply work; when using her books you are pretty much guaranteed delicious food that is almost-always as easy to make as it is to eat. Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics follows the high-standard of her previous books, and although some recipes may seem well-trodden, Garten serves them up with such aplomb that one would hardly notice - and if you do, you're far too busy eating to care.

Chapter headings: Cocktail Hour • Soup • Lunch • Dinner • Vegetables • Dessert • Breakfast • FAQs • Credits • Sources • Barn Sources and Resources • Menus

To summarize: Basic need not be boring; get ready to roast.

Recipes:

Roasted Tomatoes

Maple Roasted Butternut Squash

Bruschetta with Peppers and Gorgonzola

Parker's Beef Stew

Honey Vanilla Pound Cake

Nigella Christmas (Knopf Canada, 2008) is like having Ms. Lawson over for the holidays, as her latest publication is more a guidebook to eating, drinking and socializing your way through the season than a simple cookbook alone.

Lawson has written the book as such, eschewing traditional chapter subjects like Starters and Mains for sections that reflect event-based needs. From the days leading up to the holidays to the days that follow, Nigella Christmas has the recipe for the occasion. This choice in organization makes for an enjoyable read, as Lawson walks us through her own Christmas reminisces, but for future reference the Index is essential. It would be hard to remember (for example) if the Christmas Rocky Road appeared in the chapter about open houses and entertaining, or if as a suggested food gift (the answer is the former).

Like Martha and Ina in their respective books, Nigella travels through known-territory here; trifles, pavlovas, roasted hams and Christmas puddings, pomegranates and Proseco and Italianate influences - all of these are part of Lawson's established repertoire and have a presence here. And yet, whether it is that the reader is distracted by the fanciful wrapping or not, the book feels a fresh revisit to well-loved traditions. Some are classic (Brussels Sprouts with Chestnuts, Roast Rib of Beef with Port and Stilton Gravy), some are gloriously-kitch (Bacon-wrapped Chipolatas, Fully Loaded Potato Skins), but all are Nigella doing as she does.

Generous in its size, the books' coffee-table-suitable proportions make it seem a gift in and of itself. As always, the book is pages full of her usual literary wit, mellifluous prose and engaging manner. And despite its dimensions, Nigella Christmas is just the sort of cookbook one reads as a work of fiction - it is that charming. The book is gorgeously-styled; each and every image of food sparkles with holiday cheer. A prevailing palette of cranberry reds, golden yellows and deep chocolate is set off by snowy whites and glistening lights. Cheeky photographs of the author, dressed in festive garb and perched in holiday surroundings, appear often. I particularly enjoy the photo of Lawson, resplendent and serene as she reclines on a couch with a set of novelty reindeer antlers upon her head. It is through this tongue-in-cheek fun with her own image that Nigella comes across as inviting rather than narcissistic.

Nigella Christmas is a gift best-suited to those already-fans of Nigella Lawson. It is so firmly entrenched in the Nigella lexicon that those unfamiliar with, or simply not fond of, her often visited pantry staples would most likely find this book far too specific in its scope. This is not an introductory course to Lawson, nor is it a portrayal of a generic holiday - it is an unabashed, celebratory romp in the world of Nigella, as bedecked and bodacious as we have come to expect.

Chapter headings: The More the Merrier • Seasonal Support • Come on Over • The Main Event • Joy to the World • All Wrapped Up • A Christmas Brunch for 6-8 • A Bevy of Hot Drinks • Dr. Lawson Prescribes • Stockists

To summarize:Nigella Christmas is as bright, bold, and bedazzled as the Christmas Tree in Rockafeller Center.

Recipes:

Ginger Glazed Ham

Pumpkin and Goat's Cheese Lasagne

Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake (as labelled in the book)

Gloriously Golden Fruit Cake

All cover images courtesy of their respective publishers.