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Archive for Wednesday, December 10, 1997

S MY LIST

December 10, 1997

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One of the holiday traditions at my house is that each of us gets to make a wish list to guide Santa on his shopping excursion. As you might expect, my list always includes a few kitchen tools and cookbooks.

At the top of my list is "The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook" ($18.95 in paper). Editors Michael Bauer and Fran Irwin have compiled a collection of 350 recipes, many provided by noted Bay Area chefs, from the newspaper's food pages.

If Santa comes through, this cookbook will be a resource when I'm looking for a different spin on Italian dishes and seafood, and new interpretations of good, basic food. Recipes that have aroused my curiosity include Roasted Polenta with Balsamic Sauce and Orzo with Smoked Salmon and Capers.

Shoppers will find a number of other new cookbooks released in time for the holidays, including revised editions of "Joy of Cooking" and "The New York Times Cookbook." In both cases, the publishers promise wholesale updating and plenty of new recipes.

By the same token, "Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook" is now in its 11th edition, although still wearing the same red and white cover.

This business of updating the cookbook classic is a trend that turned serious last year following the success of the latest edition of the "Fanny Farmer Cookbook." It's true that as the composition of basic ingredients changes and society alters its perceptions of food, cookbooks can become dated.

However, I'd suggest that gift buyers reserve purchases of the new editions of the classics for cooks who don't already own the earlier versions or those who simply collect cookbooks.

For most of us, the old standards still have a lot of miles left on them. The original "Joy" is one of my bibles and it almost seems fickle and disloyal to talk about replacing it. So devoted am I to this particular cookbook that I have two copies -- one in hardback, which sits on the shelf, and another in paper, whose broken spine and other scars (butter stains, pages glued together by cake batter) bear witness to years of culinary success and failure.

What I'd prefer to see Santa leave under the tree is one of the new specialty cookbooks. In addition to the Chronicle cookbook, I have my eye on "La Buena Mesa: Latin American Cooking Across the U.S.A." by Himilce Novas and Rosemary Silva ($27.97).

Although it wouldn't fit my cooking niche, I'd propose that any Santa who's shopping for an outdoorsperson check out John Manikowski's "Wild Fish & Game Cookbook" ($35). I'd be curious to know whether this cookbook has as much practical appeal for the hook-and-bullet chef as its hype suggests.

Meanwhile, the world of culinary consumerism is full of gadgetry to distract holiday shoppers this season. Unfortunately, much of it isn't very interesting or useful. Most of us have at least one drawer or cupboard crammed full of kitchen equipment that at one vulnerable moment looked like a good idea. Electric woks and hot dog cookers are definitely in this category.

The plain truth is that your gift recipient would probably be much happier with one quality piece of kitchen equipment -- say, a German-made steel knife by Schaaf or Wusthof -- than a fondue pot.

That's right, the joke's on us. We should have known as soon as bell-bottom slacks returned that fondue pots weren't far behind. You'll be taking a stand in favor of practical utility if you ignore the resurrection of this hors d'oeuvres fad, which will only turn barely used fondue pots into someone's basement clutter.

My response is much different to the re-emphasis of clay cookers, which are being marketed in a big way this holiday season. The bad news about clay cookers is that they are oh-so-very fragile and you're bound to break yours sooner rather than later.

The good news is that the meat, poultry and vegetables you cook in terra cotta will have a depth of flavor and a moistness you can't achieve anywhere else.

It's the short life span of the clay cooker that caused cooks to lose interest about 15 years ago, but I'm ready for another fling. (Incidentally, when you crack one half, the remaining half converts easily into an attractive planter.)

Cooks with gray at the temples will remember the Romertopf clay roasters. However, the clay cooker thing isn't limited to the oblong cooker.

Santa also can choose the chicken brick, a rounder interpretation of the same principle, and ethnic bakers, such as the tangine, used in Moroccan and North African cooking, and the tandoori pot used in India's Punjabi cuisine.

A clay cooker, paired with an appropriate cookbook, would make a fine gift. I sure wouldn't mind finding it under my Christmas tree.

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