Gold nuggets

“Kitchen Essays”
Agnes Jekyll (Persephone Books)

Anyone who suspects most food writing is done by software these days will feel vindicated by this reprint of very pithy pieces from The Times of London, originally run off the presses in 1922. Agnes Jekyll, “an artist-housekeeper” who lived from 1860 to 1937, clearly had no access to FoodPerfect6, and the 35 short essays in this collection almost sing with originality.

My copy, a Christmas gift, has yellow Postits on every third page. A few flag recipes that sound either surprisingly contemporary, like polenta au gratin, or profoundly lyrical, like the sole a la Dorothea served with a “suspicion” of tomato sauce and “a certainty” of mushrooms.

But many more are marked just for Jekyll’s trenchant observations:

“Marriage feasts resemble the institution they celebrate, of which Montaigne observed that those within its confines want to get out, whilst those without endeavour to get in.”

“…Apples are proverbially so health-giving that no doctors can be expected to do anything but eat them themselves and discourage that practice in others….”

“God made the first Christmas, and man has ever since been busy spoiling it.”

This is one of the best reads outside Elizabeth David.

Beyond ratatouille

“Roger Verge’s Vegetables in the French Style”

Until a great farmers’ market cookbook finally turns up in bookstores, I’m going to keep greasing up the pages of this eight-year-old coffee table book. Verge may no longer be perceived as one of the world’s great French chefs, but his glossy book is proof that he will always be a vegetable visionary. Everything I have cooked with his guidance has been a knockout.

This is not a book to be grabbed when you just get home from the Greenmarket with six bags of corn and zucchini. The selection of vegetables is limited to those available in France, and nearly all the recipes involve several steps and often a hefty investment of time. But from the simplest — spinach sauteed with eggs and topped with garlicky croutons — to the most hours-consuming — eggplant-zucchini-tomato tian with two cheeses — they deliver huge payoffs. Sometimes the food is even prettier on the table than it looks in the gorgeous photos by Bernard Touillon.


“The Top One Hundred Pasta Sauces”
Diane Seed (Ten Speed Press)

Pasta is the anti-jazz: Improvisation destroys it. If you want something as good as you could get in Italy, you have to follow a recipe. Religiously.

Diane Seed’s recipes may not always be what the Pope would order, but they are by far the most accessible I have found collected between two cardboard covers. They range all over the map of Italy with a good mix of pantry staples (tuna, walnuts, chickpeas) and super-fresh ingredients (basil, asparagus, arugula), with a minimum of posturing. Giuliano Bugialli admittedly dictates a superior bucatini all’amatriciana, but Seed’s is quicker and almost as satisfying. Hers is the book to open for an easy meal, not a production.

“Sauces” is no walk in Tuscany. It has no index, which is frustrating, and measurements are given in metric first, U.S. equivalent second, which can be off-putting. But all the sauces are grouped by main ingredient, and few involve more than a handful of steps to perfection. Just do what she says, nothing more or less.