'Tis the Season - for Cookbooks

Autumn means crackling leaves as well as cookbooks, which are showing up in droves at my doorstep. There are simply too many titles to mention in one article, so while the season is hot, I'll dish up a few at a time in an ongoing cookbook alert. Here's a taste of today's featured titles.

If you've been the slightest bit curious about oysters or want to expand your bi-valved horizons, A Geography of Oysters" by Rowan Jacobsen has your name all over it.

Jacobsen, a staff writer for the quarterly food mag Art of Eating, shares his love of the oyster, which began at the age of 12, an experience he describes passionately from get-go and one that set the stage for his equally impassioned guide to eating oysters in North America. In many respects, Jacobsen's book is a travel book, chockful of maps and lists of oyster bars and festivals in the U.S. and Canada. One third of the book is devoted to the "Oyster Appellations of North America" which covers eight regions, including the Chesapeake, with historical and environmental context, oysterman profiles and the oysters you "should eat" when in...

Those who've always wanted to better navigate restaurant raw bars will be served well by his "a dozen oysters you should know" section, plus what to drink when you're slurping. Written in an accessible style by a hard-core ostreaphile, "A Geography of Oysters" is a fun read, inviting you to join Jacobsen on his quest for an oyster-rich life. Yes, please!

New York Times cooking columnist and prolific cookbook author Mark Bittman has released yet another tome, this time with a meatless focus. In keeping with his trademarked "How to Cook Everything," his encyclopedic-style volume that has been a huge success since its release in the late 1990s, "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian" is equally weighty (about five pounds I'm thinking) just shy of 1,0000 pages, with 2,000 recipes .

For veteran vegetarians, this book may seem like a rehash of other big meatless titles, such as "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone" by Deborah Madison or "the Passionate Vegetarian" by Crescent Dragonwagon. His recipes will not feel like something new and different, but the strength in this book are in his lists and charts. There are lots of lists throughout the book, along the lines of "25 fast and easy ways to spin tomato sauce," "39 dishes that can be stir-fried with Asian noodles" and "10 things to serve with baked goat cheese," which are useful for stressed-out weeknight cooks and for those who need inspiration for the same old meal repertoire. The key to eating meatless, as many vegetarians and vegans know, is to keep things diverse and interesting. Bittman also employs charts, a useful tool for learning about basics of "everyday legumes," frying vegetables or vegetable gratins.

His section on vegetables bears some similarity to "The Organic Cook's Bible" by Jeff Cox, an alphabet of vegetables, if you will, with a brief intro and one or two accompanying recipes. Useful info, but again, been there, done that.

While paging through the book, I stopped short in the "Ingredients" chapter at the beginning book, under the subhead "What About Organic?" Here, Bittman seems to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. At first, he states his preference for local over organic: "I think buying local is more important and has more impact than supporting organic."

In spite of his preference, Bittman, in the very next paragraph, acknowledges that in practice, he doesn't really shop locally much at all: "I don't have the time or energy to seek out local produce on a regular basis; I do most of my shopping in a supermarket, just like almost every one else in this country."

By the next paragraph, Bittman swings back in the other direction singing the praises of local food: "My quick advice, for what it's worth is: Buy local when you can."

This is at best, confusing advice, and a difficult pill to swallow, particularly at the beginning of a book about cooking with plants.

What say you? How often do you make it to the farmers' markets? Is it part of your regular routine, or like the author, do you have neither the time nor the energy? And what if you're a vegetarian or a vegan - does this make a difference to you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Join me today at noon for What's Cooking.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 16, 2007; 11:02 AM ET Cook's Library
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Comments

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I am a vegetarian, and have been for 12 years. Whenever possible, I buy as locally as I can, but generally because I think local food tastes better than food shipped from all over the country/world. However, many grocery stores don't give me this option, save for Whole Foods, which is too expensive to shop at on a regular basis.

Having lived in Texas before DC, I do miss the "local" fruits and veggies from the southern tip of Texas and Mexico -- they were so fresh and tasty, and available sooner and later than things up here.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 16, 2007 12:10 PM

I do try to hit our farmer's market every week; however, now that it is finished for the year, I'll be back to the supermarket. There, I try to be as discerning as possible, buying local items over organic.

Posted by: erin | October 16, 2007 12:31 PM

I love to shop farmers markets. However, with a toddler in the household, I cannot usually make it to farmers markets because of the hours. I also have limited time on the weekends to shop, so I go for the convenience of the supermarket and make one less stop. That isn't to say that I don't value local produce; the only sweet corn I bought this year was local Maryland corn sold at Whole Foods (I refuse to buy Florida or out-of-state sweet corn). I look forward to the day when we don't have to worry about nap times, and I can return the the farmers market.

Posted by: phoebesnow | October 16, 2007 1:35 PM

If Bittman had had a good editor (that he paid attention to), that confusing/undercutting back-&-forth about buying locally would have been corrected, but I've found that the more famous the writer, the less the publisher wants to "offend" them by letting an editor do his/her job.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 16, 2007 1:50 PM

Our fruits and vegetables and even some beef have been coming from weekly farmer's market trips. I either go to one close to work on lunch hour or the family makes a early Sunday morning trip. We also have milk, cheese and eggs delivered weekly from a local creamery. I was inspired by my summer reading of Animal, Vegetable and Miracle and Omnivore's Dilemna.

Next year we will join a CSA and we may overbuy and put stuff up. I am a little depressed at the idea of going back to the supermarket, but will keep going to the farmer's market until Thanksgiving.

We didn't go to the supermarket much at all this summer other than the milk delivery and the farmer's market a few trips to the big box bulk food store covered most of our needs. Thank goodness for storage space and a deep freezer.

Posted by: late to the party | October 16, 2007 2:01 PM

I'm in DC and make a stop at the Dupont Circle Farmer's Market a part of my weekly schedule.

I'm practically in heaven with all of the fresh local produce, dairy, meat, and even yarn they sell there year-round.

I just started eating eggs and dairy again after 13 years of being vegetarian or vegan. Having access to local eggs and dairy was a big part of the decision. The farmers can actually vouch firsthand (and sometimes even have photos!) for how the animals are treated.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 16, 2007 2:49 PM

Kim,

For the person who wanted help with gnocchi, Lidia Bastianich has an episode of LIDIA'S FAMILY TABLE that feature gnocchi. If your local PBS station isn't currently running this, they can probably help you find the series on videotape. Her recipe (with instructions for making the gnocchi) can be found on epicurious.com or you can get her cookbook from www.lidiasitaly.com.
Last, I found a DVD of her various pasta sessions from LIDIA'S FAMILY TABLE on amazon at
http://www.amazon.com/Lidias-Family-Table-Favorite-Collection/dp/B000OFOLPG

Second, for the poster trying to find cakes without sugar, you can try some of the recipes at www.lowcarbcookworx.com. I know that you asked for recipes that substitute fruit purees for sugar, but these at least eliminate the sugar. They often use sugar substitutes like Splenda or Thick-N-Thin.

Posted by: Comment about today's WHAT'S COOKING chat | October 16, 2007 3:06 PM

The DuPont Circle Farmers market is open all winter on Sunday mornings. So we can still get local food there. We can successfully grow lettuce, spinach, cabbage, and other greens outside most of the winter here. For the local farms that have green houses they can do even better with some fruited vegetables.

Posted by: Becky | October 16, 2007 3:52 PM

Inspired by Kim's gnocchi adventure, I gave it a try using Lidia's instructions from one of her cookbooks (I had seen her make them). Basically, she emphasized adding as little flour as needed to turn the potatoes and eggs into dough. So I did, and it worked. They were very light. However, I froze some and when I tried to cook them - frozen into boiling water - they dissolved!

Although the first, non-frozen batch worked quite well, I couldn't help but think that gee, this sure is an elaborate treatment of mashed potatoes.

Posted by: Fran | October 16, 2007 4:01 PM

I used to like supermarkets, but no more!! I shop the Brookland farmers market weekly and for almost everything else, I go to Yes! Organic Market - and try to buy local produce if I can. The irony is that Yes! used to be a Safeway back when Safeway's were small neighborhood stores. Now supermarkets just seem big, cold, and unsustainable to me.

Posted by: Brooklander, DC | October 16, 2007 4:08 PM

Mark Bittman's back and forth on shopping locally may have sounded contradictory, but maybe he was trying to keep to the middle road and not lay a guilt trip on those people who don't have farmer's markets near them or simply don't have the time or energy to make a trip to a local market. I agree that food tastes better when its bought from local producers, but I get to the Union Square (NYC) farmer's market once in a blue moon, and most of my food shopping is done in a supermarket.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 16, 2007 4:52 PM

We have our own small garden plus subscribe to the CSA. Usually this works out perfectly but this year we have had a bumper crop of tomatoes that has kept me busy canning and (new for me) dehydrating tomatoes. My first time making sun-dried tomato pesto has been a huge success. Yum!

Our CSA here runs from May to December. During that time, we basically only go to the grocery store for milk, yogurt, bread, and bananas. We are looking into cold frames so that we can have greens throughout the winter. We find this arrangement to be more delicious and simple than grocery store visits.

Posted by: Neighbor | October 16, 2007 8:29 PM

Kim,

In your perusal of cookbooks, if you come across a beginner's one for cooking Indian Food, could you post it up on the blog? I want to have a day of cooking Indian food this Saturday but I've never tried so I'd appreciate any guidance as to what cookbooks you find to be best for a beginner to that cuisine. Thanks for your help!

Posted by: Former DCer | October 17, 2007 9:50 AM

i am an hour and a half from the nearest Whole Foods and have to depend on a small local grocery store chain or Wal-Mart. I would love to be able to buy local produce, but most of the farmers in my area grow soybeans and cotton, so I'm kind of stuck. i think bittman realizes how hard it is for those of us in less urban areas to find the foods those of you in cities can. how upside down and backwards is that?

Posted by: lesPS | October 17, 2007 3:39 PM

Unlike Bittman, I do little of my shopping in a regular supermarket, and tend to shop here and there - on the other hand, I'm on my own, and don't mind making several shopping stops per week to get what I want, where I want it. So I usually get local stuff at the farmer's market (Takoma), and other places when I see it.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Yes! had organic applies... imported from New Zealand! (I know, at this time of year?) They also had some local apples, but they were conventionally grown. The NZ apples cost maybe three times as much and didn't look very good at all. Still, they were organic...

The Takoma/Silver Spring co-op, by the way, has wonderful, locally grown "integrated pest management" apples, and the staff there told me they use very little in the way of pesticides. They were the best apples I've had this year.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 19, 2007 9:26 AM

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