Tasty cookbooks for the amateur chef

Encapsulated beet-juice spheres under verjuice ice and lemon-thyme froth. Torchon of monkfish liver cooked sous vide in an immersion circulator at 64 degrees Celsius. Jamon iberico consomme.

Ah, fall, the season of college football, PTA meetings - and high-profile chef cookbooks.

But entertaining as it may be to leaf through hotly anticipated new books by Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz of Alinea, and the Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal, the home cook is likely to leave the cooking of the complex recipes in those volumes to the professionals.

So instead of enrolling in culinary school and purchasing the special equipment and ingredients (liquid nitrogen canisters, toad skin melons) called for by some chef-authors, consider that this fall's dazzling cookbook lineup has many impressive offerings for the amateur. Six books, some debuts and some by chefs who've penned previous cookbooks, are welcome additions to any home cook's library.

Nate Appleman of A16, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, and David Tanis, longtime chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., New York chef (at 50 Carmine, Il Buco) Sara Jenkins and Los Angeles' Two Dudes, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal, have all written first cookbooks happily suited to the home cook.

Add new family focused books by British chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and you have an impressive list of accessible cookbooks. Of these six, three - by Appleman, Oliver and Tanis - were the most consistent, intelligent and creative.

A16: Food (Plus) Wine is the best of the bunch. This debut book by chef Nate Appleman and wine director Shelley Lindgren with Kate Leahy strikes a satisfying balance between simple and complex. It reads like a road map to the food and wine served at A16 (fitting, as the restaurant was named for a road in southern Italy), combining recipes and terrific photography by Ed Anderson with primers on wine by Lindgren and tutorials on ingredients from Appleman.

Even the novice cook can make Appleman's raw zucchini salad with green olives, mint and pecorino - an easy no-cook recipe, that combines technique and sophisticated flavor combinations, with impressive results.

Monday meatballs is a basic dish, covered by canned tomatoes and baked under foil. But the extras - grinding the meat (use a food processor), and adding ricotta and bread crumbs - elevate the simple to the extraordinary.

Jamie Oliver's eighth book, Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life, is billed as an homage to his garden. In the preface, television's former Naked Chef explains that he's fallen in love with his "veg." The book is an exploration of what he does with that garden windfall.

A salad combines whole carrots roasted - with a halved lemon and orange - in a spice blend. The juice from the citrus forms the base of a quick vinaigrette. Tossed with garden greens and avocado, it gets another dimension from a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of toasted seeds.

A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes is the first cookbook from Chez Panisse's David Tanis. Like the restaurant, the book offers simple menus of three or four courses.

Tanis' book, interspersed with a narrative of the chef's back story, is a lovely read. The recipes are simple too, although the book can be frustrating for those cooking for fewer than eight.

Zuppa di fagoli, served with garlic-rubbed toasts, is a well-executed white bean soup heightened with fennel seeds and rosemary olive oil.

The books by Sara Jenkins, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Dudes, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, are less reliable but often inspiring.

Olives & Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets From Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Beyond, by Jenkins and Mindy Fox, has a Mediterranean spin. It's Jenkins' first book, though she's cooked at New York restaurants (her restaurant, Porchetta, opens this fall).

Jenkins' dishes are straightforward, interesting for often-striking flavor combinations. But the recipes can be hit-or-miss. Cantaloupe gazpacho is a blend of melon and cucumber with olive oil, sherry vinegar and shallot. Topped with prosciutto and Aleppo pepper, the soup is easy and shot with flavor. But a fattoush, or Middle Eastern salad of toasted pita and chopped vegetables, looked nice on the plate, but tasted flat.

The River Cottage Family Cookbook, by Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr, is the latest book by the British chef and television personality. It's geared to parents and their kids - somewhat of a departure for Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has frequently appeared on Gordon Ramsay's expletive-filled television shows, and whose first book, Cook on the Wild Side, discussed preparing roadkill.

The book does a great job of hitting its target audience, with short tutorials on subjects such as flour and chocolate, recipes for smoothies, and kid-friendly ideas.

A basic chocolate mousse is so easy your kids could start their careers as pastry chefs with it. But the honey fudge never set, remaining a sticky goo. A roast chicken turned out undercooked, bland even for kids; the accompanying gravy was tasty, but there was only one tablespoon.

Shook and Dotolo's first book, Two Dudes, One Pan: Maximum Flavor From a Minimalist Kitchen, is as colorful and scruffy as the chefs themselves. The book is a happy mishmash, with recipes ranging from spicy citrus-glazed duck breasts to basic buttermilk pancakes.

Some recipes are successful riffs on the traditional: Bacon-wrapped meatloaf is shot with herbs, moist and deeply flavorful. But other dishes are disappointing.

Vinny's spaghetti Bolognese was too heavy, thickened with unnecessary butter and cream. Pan-roasted eggplant with shallot vinaigrette turned out underseasoned and undercooked.

Although some new user-friendly cookbooks are uneven, the standouts - Appleman's and Oliver's - are practical yet imaginative, with accessible instructions. They're also a bargain - compared with many of the for-pros books: All six hardcovers come in at less than $40 each.

Meanwhile, chefs, wannabe chefs, and collectors willing to spend ($250 for Blumenthal's The Big Fat Duck Cookbook) or who have a handy immersion circulator (needed for Keller's sous vide book) will have a stack of great cookbooks this fall, too.


Almond Biscotti

Makes 42 Biscotti

8 tablespoons (1 stick)

   unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

11/2 teaspoons baking

   powder

Pinch of salt

3/4 cup sliced almonds

1. Heat the oven to 325 degrees.

2. In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, then add the almond extract.

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. With the mixer running, slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Add the sliced almonds and mix for a minute more. You will have a soft dough.

4. Put the dough on a floured board and divide it into thirds. Roll into logs about 11/2 inches in diameter. Place the logs on a parchment-lined baking sheet, spaced about three inches apart, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until slightly browned. Remove the logs and let them cool slightly.

5. While the logs are still warm, cut them on the diagonal into slices about one-half-inch thick. Place the slices on two baking sheets and bake for 5 to 10 minutes, or until barely brown. Turn over the biscotti and bake an additional 5 to 10 minutes, until barely brown. Cool on a rack.

- From Los Angeles Times and adapted from A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, by David Tanis

Note: Biscotti will keep for weeks in an airtight container.

Per serving: 38 calories, 1 gram protein, 9 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fat, 16 milligrams cholesterol, 25 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Monday Meatballs

Makes 6 servings

10 ounces boneless ground

   pork shoulder

10 ounces ground beef

   chuck

6 ounces day-old country

   bread

2 ounces pork fat, finely

   chopped

2 ounces prosciutto chilled

   in the freezer for 15

   minutes and then finely

   chopped

1 cup loosely packed, fresh

   flat-leaf parsley leaves,

   coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon kosher salt,

   divided

2 teaspoons dried oregano

11/2 teaspoons fennel seeds

1 teaspoon dried chile flakes

2/3 cup fresh ricotta, drained

   if necessary (if sitting in

   whey, drain overnight in

   cheesecloth)

3 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup whole milk

1 (28-ounce) can San Marza-      no tomatoes with juice

Handful of fresh basil leaves

Block of grana for grating

Best-quality olive oil for       finishing

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat 2 rimmed baking sheets with olive oil. In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pork fat, prosciutto, parsley, 2 teaspoons salt, oregano, fennel seeds and chile flakes and mix with your hands just until the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. The mixture should feel wet and tacky. Pinch off a small piece, flatten it into a disk, and cook it in a small saute pan. Taste and adjust the mixture's seasoning with salt, if needed.

3. Form the mixture into 11/2-inch balls, each weighing about 2 ounces, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.

4. Bake, rotating the sheets once from front to back, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the meatballs are lightly browned. Remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 300 degrees.

5. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining salt, and then pass the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill fitted with the medium plate. Alternatively, put the entire can of tomatoes and salt in a large bowl, don an apron and squeeze the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands.

6. Pack the meatballs into 1 large roasting pan or 2 smaller roasting pans. Pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and braise for 1 to 11/2 hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.

7. Remove the pans from the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce.

8. For each serving, ladle the meatballs with some of the sauce into a warmed bowl. Grate the grana over the top, drizzle with olive oil to finish and serve immediately.

- From Los Angeles Times and adapted from A16: Food and Wine, by Nate Appleman and Shelley Lindgren with Kate Leahy

Note: Grana is an Italian cow's milk cheese similar to but less expensive than Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Per serving: 414 calories, 30 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams fat, 183 milligrams cholesterol, 1,693 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Roast Carrot and Avocado Salad With Orange and Lemon Dressing

Makes 8 servings

1 pound medium carrots,

   assorted colors, with a

   quarter inch of the leafy

   tops

2 teaspoons whole cumin

   seeds

1 to 2 small dried chiles,

   crumbled

Sea salt and freshly ground

   black pepper to taste

2 cloves garlic, peeled

4 sprigs thyme, leaves

   picked

Best-quality olive oil

Red wine vinegar

1 orange, halved

1 lemon, halved

3 ripe avocados

4 (1/2-inch) slices of ciabatta

   or other good quality

   bread

2 handfuls colorful mixed

   salad leaves, such as

   Treviso, arugula or

   radicchio

2 bunches watercress

2/3 cup sour cream, optional

4 tablespoons mixed seeds,

   toasted

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Parboil the carrots in boiling salted water for 10 minutes, until they are nearly cooked, then drain and place them in a roasting pan.

2. Meanwhile, in a mortar and pestle, smash the cumin seeds, chiles, one-fourth teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper. Add the garlic and thyme and smash again until you have a kind of paste. Add 11/2 tablespoons olive oil, or enough to generously cover the paste, and 1 teaspoon of vinegar. Stir together, then pour over the carrots, coating them well.

3. Add the orange and lemon halves, cut-side down, to the pan of carrots. Place in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the carrots are light golden brown

4. While the carrots are roasting, halve and peel the avocados, discarding the pits, then cut them into wedges lengthwise and place in a big bowl.

5. Remove the carrots from the oven and add them to the avocados. Using tongs, carefully squeeze the juice from the roasted orange and lemon into a bowl (you should have about one-half cup juice) and add the same amount of olive oil and 2 tablespoons vinegar, or to taste. Season with one-fourth teaspoon salt and one-eighth teaspoon pepper, or to taste, and pour enough dressing over the carrots and avocados to coat. Mix together, taste and correct the seasoning.

6. Toast, broil or grill the bread, then tear it into little pieces and add to the dressed carrots and avocados. Mix together, toss in the salad leaves and the watercress, add additional dressing to taste, and transfer to a big platter or divide among individual plates. You may not use all of the dressing; we used three-fourths of a cup.

7. Add a dollop of sour cream, if desired, sprinkle with toasted seeds, and drizzle with more olive oil. Serve immediately.

- From Los Angeles Times and adapted from Jamie at Home: Cook

Your Way to the Good Life by Jamie Oliver

Per serving: 333 calories, 5 grams protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 27 grams fat, no cholesterol, 284 milligrams sodium, 8 grams dietary fiber.