Reading about eating is like watching the Food Network. Your eyes glaze and drool forms at the corners of your mouth. The Iron Chef is pouring lobster-brain stew into a small stone bowl and garnishing that with battered and deep-fried vegetable stalks. Or something like that. You walk, arms stretched out, reaching for the fridge, only to open it and discover a Cool Whip container and some deli mustard. Not exactly the ingredients to create a delicacy worthy of Emeril’s “Bam!”
Still, just a little bit of planning and a good cookbook can create a truly exceptional gastronomic delight. Three new cookbooks out just in time for the holidays aim at such pleasure in their own little niches — Asian-inspired cuisine, vegan dining and celebrity obsession, i.e Cooking With Rosie. This latest book, though, is about the eating habits of spiritual leaders throughout ancient history, as opposed to the remember-your-spirit and forget-my-old-waistline leader of daytime TV.
The first book, Hot Sour Salty Sweet (Artisan, 368 pp., $40) is a “culinary journey through Southeast Asia.” The authors, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, have joined their photojournalism and travel-writing skills with a love of food, placing recipes within a context from which they emerged in an almost diary format. Alford and Duguid rationalize this with the aphorism “food and life reflect forever in each other.” And this is obvious in the food images — seductive blackened corners of Thai dried red chilies folded over lightly browned chunks of potatoes and chopped scallions in the “quick and tasty Yunnanese potatoes.” Larger-than-life coffee-table book photographs of translucent pasta streams are given an almost wildlife quality, like a sea creature with multiple arms. Drooling yet?
Another book, The Accidental Vegan (The Crossing Press, 144 pp., $14.95), should occupy the shelves of food lovers who flinch at the thought of having to politely pass on one more turkey dinner this season. And it gives tips to meat-eaters wanting to satisfy the palates of “finicky” family members or friends at holiday gatherings. There was such a demand for vegan dishes from author Devra Gartenstein’s catering customers that she has collected quite a catalog of recipes. She crafts meat-free and meat-byproduct-free delights such as moo shu veggie rolls and mushroom polenta casserole with the belief that “… poets choose to work in haiku and composers confine themselves to the sonata form because constrictions force artists to be nimble and innovative.”
Who was it that decided gluttony was a sin? Probably not the papal poppas featured in Buon Appetito, Your Holiness: The Secrets of the Papal Table (Arcade Publishing, 392 pp., $25.95), an account of the storied kitchens of various popes from St. Peter to the present. We learn from authors Mariangela Rinaldi and Mariangela Vicini about Martin IV, who loved the taste of eels from Lake Bolsena so much it killed him. He died of indigestion in 1285. There’s a recipe for what many say was his favorite dish — eels drowned in Vernaccia wine, then roasted.
Hopefully, these books will help add some spice to holiday meals or gift giving. As for me, I’m off to the vending machine for an oats ’n’ honey granola bar and some iced tea.