The best and worst cookbooks -- A graded list of books for aspiring chefs

The best and worst cookbooks

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 13th edition
Marion Cunningham, editor (Knopf)
Can a 94-year-old kitchen bible honor its 19th-century roots and still keep abreast of new developments? That seems to be the assignment Marion Cunningham, the current Fannie Farmer Cookbook editor, has set herself. In the 12th edition, published in 1979, Cunningham cleared the shelves of the packaged contrivances that had crept in over the decades, replacing them with fresh ingredients and resurrecting some of Fannie Farmer’s earliest entries. Now, with this revision, she accommodates a few of the contemporary trends she previously slighted: She reduces the amount of animal fat in some recipes, admits ”new ethnic flavors” here and there, and adds chapters on outdoor grilling, microwaving, and vegetarian fare. Cunningham’s heart really isn’t in these new directions — many of her ethnic dishes are of the hyphenated — American variety, and her vegetarian recipes rely heavily on butter, cream, and cheese- but she had to make the gesture to maintain Fannie Farmer’s status as a comprehensive, all-purpose resource. Use it as you would your reliable Aunt Fannie, who may be willing to bend a bit but is best consulted for her tried- and-true recipes. B

The New American Kitchen Michael McLaughlin
(Simon & Schuster)
Unlike Marion Cunningham, McLaughlin takes a relentlessly creative approach to the old, the nouvelle, and the retro in this menu cookbook described by its publishers as ”postmodern.” That’s a fair enough label for a sensibility that stirs sun-dried tomatoes (”the catsup of the eighties”) into an old-fashioned meat loaf; tosses cornmeal fettuccine and quail in a sauce of cream, cheese, Madeira, red pepper strips, and shiitake mushrooms; and still accommodates a ”farm-inspired” meal of glazed smoked ham. But as with postmodern architecture, one person’s harmony is another’s mishmash. Which is just to say that some of us prefer our turkey-and-cheddar sandwiches without hot pepper jelly, our fish (and for that matter our vinegar) without raspberries and sugar. McLaughlin describes his food as casual and entertaining, which is true enough: Except for three menus for holiday dinners, the dishes aren’t elaborate, but they can be showy. Like the Silver Palate Cookbook, which McLaughlin helped write, this solo flight of fancy treats cooking as a performance art. B-

Mrs. Witty’s Home-Style Menu Cookbook
Helen Witty (Workman)
The title is a tip-off to ”Mrs. Witty’s” stance in this collection of well- honed favorites. Where other purveyors of American food might pay homage to James Beard, Helen Witty confesses her debt to Ann Batchelder, food editor at the Ladies’ Home Journal during the foursquare ’40s and ’50s. Witty begins defiantly with Batchelder’s recipe for that hard-times toast topper, creamed chipped beef. But Witty differs from Jane and Michael Stern, those other celebrants of American square meals: Where the Sterns wink at the kitsch in their kitchens, Witty actually prefers such old-time staples as pot roast and pineapple upside-down cake — and she makes a point of finding excellent versions of them. This canny cook borrows a trick or two from fancy French chef Jacques Pepin. But when she adapts his gratin dauphinois she calls the dish scalloped potatoes. B+

Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and a Cookbook of the British Raj
Jennifer Brennan (HarperCollins)
Jennifer Brennan’s comfort foods are of the glamorous sort. Brennan grew up in India, a ”child and grandchild of the British Raj,” and was weaned on a ”fusion” cuisine that combines cold ham and naan bread, chapattis spread with Scotch whiskey marmalade, and a cardamom-flavored basmati pilaf followed by ”tipsy laird” trifle. Her recipes may not reach the sumptuous heights attained in the cookbooks of Madhur Jaffrey or Julie Sahni, but they are surprisingly undemanding, yet still rich in Indian tradition. B+