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Food books rich in words and pictures

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NEW YORK — The kitchen can wait. Books on which to feast your eyes abound, rich in words and, especially, pictures.

Make the most of them. They are delectable to give, to receive (make pointed hints), and to relax with amid the festive hullabaloo.

A few titles among many available are listed here. They include impressive recent entries from some of the best cooks around:

"Savoring Spain and Portugal" (Time-Life Books, $39.95) by Joyce Goldstein, recipe photography by Noel Barnhurst, scenic photography by Steven Rothfeld.

"Savoring Southeast Asia" (Time-Life Books, $39.95) by Joyce Jue, recipe photography by Noel Barnhurst, scenic photographs by various.

These handsome books are new entries in the Williams-Sonoma "Savoring" series, which balances food-writers' texts, detailed recipes and stunning photos.

Two vibrant, very different regions and their cuisines are presented with equal immediacy. Both books make the most of their large format; layouts are varied, bold and unfussy. Nice touches include box inserts of general background information, decorated with painted sketches and handwritten notes.

"Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia" (Artisan, $40) by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, location photographs by the authors, studio photographs by Richard Jung.

The absorbing text holds the reader's interest consistently with its mix of travelogue and social history, food lore, personal comments and anecdotes, plus a solid core of recipes.

The illustrations are a fine complement. Most of the food photographs are run larger than the scenic shots, leaving a reader greedily wishing for equally expansive views of the latter.

The authors live in Toronto when they are not traveling and researching. Their first cookbook, "Flatbreads and Flavors: A Baker's Atlas" (Morrow, 1995) won the James Beard Foundation's cookbook-of-the-year award; a second book was "Seductions of Rice" (Artisan, 1998).

"L'Atelier of Alain Ducasse: The Artistry of a Master Chef and His Proteges" (Wiley, $60), introduction by Jean-Francois Revel, text by Benedict Beauge, photographs by Herve Amiard.

Ducasse is recognized as one of the most gifted of today's French chefs, his restaurants in Paris and Monaco aglow with Michelin stars. He's recently opened a restaurant in New York City.

This book luxuriously documents the style in which he organizes his kitchens and their sumptuous products. "Atelier" has the connotation of artist's workshop or studio, or even school.

"The chef is there to lead the team and not just to sit behind the piano," Ducasse is quoted as saying. Behind-the-scenes detail of a restaurant's work and the training of the teams are described and shown in black-and-white photos in the first part of the book.

The second part is concerned with ingredients, sources, recipes and the steps leading to finished haute-cuisine dishes illustrated in luscious color photos.

"Harvesting Excellence" (Assouline, $50) by Alain Ducasse, photographs by Axel Icard.

The respected French chef got the idea for this book when he was researching American food, preparing to open his first restaurant in the United States.

He discovered items that were new to him, got to know producers in many regions and tells their stories. Interviews and profiles alternate with general background detail, seasoned with generous pinches of local history and local color. Color photographs, too, abound. Jean-Christian Agid and Patricia Gaviria are credited as contributing journalists.

"Alfred Portale's 12 Seasons Cookbook" (Broadway, $45) by Alfred Portale with Andrew Friedman, photographs by Gozen Koshida.

With infectious gusto, Portale invites readers to eat their way through the year with him. Portale is chef at the Gotham Bar and Grill, one of New York City's most successful restaurants; he won the 1992 James Beard Foundation's best chef in New York City award and has written a previous cookbook.

Here, he shares his relish for the special tastes of each changing month. He begins his year with May — "The Big Bang of the Culinary Year"; the August chapter is titled "Seize the Day" and October is "Sweater Weather."

The attractive photographs are mostly of the food prepared with the recipes, but are interlaced with atmospheric vignettes of scenery or ingredients.

"Simple to Spectacular" (Broadway, $45) by Jean Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman.

"How To Take One Basic Recipe to Four Levels of Sophistication" is the subtitle. There you have it.

The authors, renowned New York chef Vongerichten and writer-columnist Bittman, have structured their book with the finesse one would expect from highly respected professionals.

Recipes are arranged in groups; each recipe is given in a basic form followed by more elaborate versions. Recipes provide for all the courses of a meal, from soup to desserts.

"Wildwood: Cooking From the Source in the Pacific Northwest" (Ten Speed Press, $39.95) by Cory Schreiber.

Regional tastes and traditions are evoked in this cookbook-memoir by Schreiber, award-winning chef-owner of Wildwood restaurant in Portland, Ore., and a fifth-generation Oregonian.

He treats readers to a wide-ranging culinary tour, with chapter headings such as "Dan & Louis Oyster Bar: Spanning the Century" and "The Willamette Valley: Summer's Bounty of Berries." Illustrations include both documentary photos and color shots of specific dishes.

"A Tuscan Seduction" (Miami Dog Press, $34.50) by James Lambeth and Miles James.

This is an unashamedly visual entry. The book offers a selection of artfully set-up food photos, interspersed with scenic images of the Tuscan settings that inspired the menus, all in rich, saturated color.

There are recipes, brief romantic quotations, captions and credits — but no wasted words. Winter and summer are themes, but the gold-framed pages give the impression that everything is being viewed in retrospect, indoors, by candlelight.

The book is the work of the architect-chef team who published "Cuisine of the Creative" (Miami Dog Press, 1999). Lambeth, the architect, made the photos; the recipes were worked out by James, chef and co-owner of the James at the Mill restaurant in Fayetteville, Ark.

"At Grandmother's Table" (Fairview Press, $24.95) edited by Ellen Perry Berkeley.

Subtitled "Women Write about Food, Life, and the Enduring Bond between Grandmothers and Granddaughters," this book is at the other extreme from the lavish photo book. It's one to read for its personal charm, for the memoirs contributed by a variety of women that conjure up both recipes and the warmly treasured past.

The illustrations consist of a handful of snapshots, of the family photo-album type, and a few line drawings.

For Christmas cooks:

— "Bon Appetit The Christmas Season" (Conde Nast-Clarkson Potter, $29.95). Planning, parties, menus and, of course, recipes, compiled by the editors of Bon Appetit magazines and handsomely illustrated.

— "The Christmas Cookie Book" (Ballantine, $14) by Judy Knipe and Barbara Marks. Reprint of a 1990 basic favorite.

— "Food for Friends: Homemade Gifts for Every Season" (Ten Speed Press, $19.95 paperback) by Sally Paisley Vargas, with color photos. You'll never again be at a loss for a present.