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 Adrià, 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 working library.
Nate Appleman of A16, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, and David Tanis, longtime chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, New York chef (at 50 Carmine, Il Buco and others) Sara Jenkins and L.A.'s own "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 to choose from.
Of these six, three -- by Appleman, Oliver and Tanis -- were the most consistent, intelligent and creative.
"A16: Food + 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 (which is perhaps fitting, since 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. It's an easy no-cook recipe, but one that combines technique (briefly salting ribbons of thinly sliced raw zucchini to soften them and remove water) and sophisticated flavor combinations, with impressive results.
A recipe for bucatini with tomatoes and bottarga combines purchased pasta and a sauce made with Roma tomatoes that are first salt-roasted -- for six hours -- with a very generous grating of bottarga (pressed, cured fish roe). Taken individually, each ingredient is rich in flavor: The tomatoes are velvety and dense, the pasta is simple, and the bottarga is unusual and complex; the three together are magnificent.
Monday meatballs is another basic dish, meatballs covered by San Marzano canned tomatoes and baked under aluminum foil. But Appleman's extras -- grinding the meat yourself (use a food processor), and adding ricotta and more than the usual amount of bread crumbs -- elevate the simple to the extraordinary.
More advanced cooks can opt for Appleman's recipes for from-scratch squid-ink pasta or pizza baked on a charcoal grill. Or try the unusual grilled shrimp with pickled peppers, preserved Meyer lemons and toasted almonds. If you don't have pickled peppers or preserved Meyers on hand, the chef gives you easy instructions for making them yourself.
Jamie Oliver's eighth book, "Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life," is billed as an hommage to his garden. In the preface, the popular British chef (television's former "Naked Chef") explains that he's fallen in love with his "veg." The book, beautifully photographed by David Loftus, is a folksy, endearing exploration of what he does with that garden windfall.
Oliver tells readers to add a "swig of vinegar" or to "scrunch up" two pounds of strawberries with their hands for a quick jam. But for all the cuteness, Oliver really is charming, and his dishes are fresh, imaginative and well-balanced.
A striking salad combines whole carrots roasted -- along with a halved lemon and orange -- in a spice blend. The juice from the citrus forms the base of a quick vinaigrette. Tossed with handfuls of garden greens and slices of avocado, the salad gets another dimension from a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of toasted seeds. It's refreshing, deeply flavorful and inventive.
Oliver's grilled lamb kebabs -- meatballs formed around skewers, then grilled and wrapped in purchased flatbread, salad greens and quick homemade condiments -- are just as much fun, both to prepare and to eat. (Oliver is good at deciding which ingredients are worth the effort to make from scratch, and which aren't.)
A matter of courses
"APLATTER 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 for eight. (At Chez Panisse, a menu composed of a single series of courses is offered each night; diners aren't given options.)
Tanis' book, interspersed with a nicely written narrative of the chef's ideas and back story, is a lovely read. The recipes are nice too, although the book can be frustrating for those cooking for fewer than eight.