Christmas Books Special: Food books reviewed

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The Independent Culture

This has been a year of monster cookbooks. Running to 648 pages, The Cook's Book (Dorling Kindersley, £30), edited by Jill Norman, is a culinary leviathan of technique-led recipes. The 18 kitchen-hardened contributors include Paul Gayler on sauces, Shaun Hill on poultry, Charlie Trotter on vegetables and, more esoterically, Ferran Adria on foam. The legendary maestro of El Bulli reveals the secrets behind his signature dish of cappuccino almond foam. You merely need almonds, gelatin, mineral water, a professional whipped-cream dispenser and a supply of nitrous oxide cartridges.

The Cook's Book is a minnow compared to Alain Ducasse's Culinary Encyclopaedia, published by Abrams, a work of stupendous bulk (1,080 pages) with a price to match (£159). Contrary to the title, it is a highly specialised work. Though there is a small, uninformative glossary, almost all the book is devoted to Ducasse's recipes, cuisine of the utmost haute-ness. If you've set your heart on cooking ortolan in its own fat, the French songbird is there on page 527, complete with photograph. More practically, barded thrush breasts is on page 817. Alternatively, you could use this book to press your brisket.

With a mere 512 pages, Tamasin's Kitchen Bible by Tamasin Day-Lewis (Weidenfeld, £25) is a far more practical general volume. Her enthusiastic renditions include imaginative twists, such as pulled and devilled turkey, and a host of standards from bread and butter pudding to tarte Tatin. Surprisingly, Silver Spoon (Phaidon, £25), a monumental collection of more than 2,000 Italian recipes, first published in 1950, also includes "English bread and butter pudding" and tarte Tatin in its 1,263 pages. Despite offering such unexpected combinations as aringhe al pomelmo (kippers with grapefruit), this collection has some strange omissions. Where's the delicious garlic and anchovy dip bagna cauda?

Anyone keen to try out this warm bath of piquancy should essay the recipe in Antonio Carluccio's chatty and intelligent Italia (Quadrille, £25). By simmering the garlic in milk, he renders the dip mild and irresistible, but a modicum of resistance might be required since it also comprises butter, olive oil and double cream. Organised on a regional basis, the book is a colourful and inspiring guide, though the avuncular Carluccio occasionally includes a Ducasse-style impracticality. I'd like to know where the average British cook can lay hands on the "newborn sardines, anchovies or elvers" required for insalata di gianchetti. Similarly, the "simple and delicious" tripa alla Parmigiana will prove a bland disappointment if made with the chewy tripe of Britain. You need Italian veal tripe.

Gigantism has even afflicted the monograph this year. Potato by Lyndsay and Patrick Mikanowski (Grub Street, £25) is a luxurious celebration of the humble tuber: 53 "potato fanatics" contribute recipes, ranging from Heston Blumenthal's "chips with a hint of hay" to Jeffrey Steingarten's gratin dauphinois. Spuds are transformed into dishes resembling roses, car-springs and a stick of dynamite. Of smaller dimensions, though greater practicality, Eggs by Michel Roux (Quadrille, £14.99) ranges from "boiled eggs with special soldiers" (crunchy asparagus) to the meringue. Roux's book is enthusiastic, lucid (six photographs on poaching an egg) and authoritative, though his soft-boiled technique (put egg in pan of cold water, bring to boil, count 60) prompted brouhaha when it produced a runny white for Loyd Grossman earlier this year. Roux insists it works well for eggs at room temperature. Certainly, his scrambled egg is the best I have ever had.

If you're looking for a present for someone who enjoys reading cookbooks, rather than flipping through them, seek out The New English Kitchen by Rose Prince (Fourth Estate, 18.99). Down-to-earth, inquiring and ethical, it is as absorbing as it is practical. Displaying a real devotion to food, Prince demonstrates that paying more for better quality meat can still be economical: "One £56 forerib of beef can produce eight meals, making 38 helpings, excluding the dripping on toast, at an average cost of £1.49 each."

Another strikingly readable cookbook is The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater (Fourth Estate, £25). Slater's legion of fans will need no persuasion to snap up anything by their hero, but his latest offering is an innovation in the formulaic world of cookbooks. Taking seasonal cooking to an extreme, Slater recorded his culinary doings day-by-day for a year. This time last year, Stilton, onion and potato pie was on the menu. You could cook from this book for a year and still be salivating like mad when you open the pages.

Readers of the easy, tempting recipes in The Independent magazine will need no persuading to acquire The Simple Art of Marrying Food and Wine by Malcolm Gluck and Mark Hix (Mitchell Beazley, £20). From slow-baked plum tomatoes (pinot nero) to Sussex pond pudding (sweet Loire), each dish inspires illuminating ruminations, both culinary and vinous. Utilising the rule that most people use most cookbooks for one recipe only, Cook's Books by Carolyn Hart (Simon & Schuster, £8.99) draws together a top dish from 50 cookbooks. Hart's own favourite is a curry sauce by Camellia Panjibi. Filling a gap in the market, Drinks by Vincent Gasnier (Dorling Kindersley, £30) is the only big one-volume guide to alcoholic beverages from chablis to cider. It is impressively comprehensive and knowledgeable. Only a bar-room pedant would point out one or two errors in the cocktail section.

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