The Zen of Cookbooks 


I risk sounding both anti-holiday and un-American by saying it, but this year simple and global are going to be my themes for the holidays. So I've been looking at cookbooks for inspirations and was taken by a little book called Three Bowl Cookbook: The Secrets of Enlightened Cooking From the Zen Mountain by David Scott and Tom Pappas (Charles E. Tuttle Co., $22.95). The book dismisses our preoccupation with eating, and it places the value of food and cooking upon a very high pedestal.

"A meal reflects the nature and heart of the cook," Buddhist masters say. And by approaching cooking as za-zen (or as a meditation), the authors portray an unvarnished approach to food that can flavor even the most intricate dishes. The three bowls refer to traditional meals in monasteries. A large bowl is for rice or noodles; and two smaller bowls are for meat or beans, and vegetables and dessert. Yes, monks have dessert, if recipes for broiled figs with Gorgonzola or pears with fennel are any indication. The vegetarian recipes are anything but macrobiotically boring and are a lesson in thoughtful eating: Foods complement each other; tastes enhance the experience; and like the Chinese saying goes, "When you drink water, remember its source."

Just as scientists follow mitochondrial DNA back to our original clan mothers, recipes in a handful of other books can be traced back to their sources in several mother countries. The Ugandan peanut soup in Global Vegetarian Cooking: Quick & Easy Recipes From Around the World (Interlink Publishing Group, $17.95) goes through very few changes to become Georgia peanut soup in Splendid Soups: Recipes and Master Techniques for Making the World's Best Soups (John Wiley & Sons, $45). The Southern recipe of cheddar and apple coffee cake in Christmas With Southern Living 2001 (Oxmoor House, $29.95) reverberates in a decidedly Polish babka from The Bread Bible: Beth Hensperger's 300 Favorite Recipes (Chronicle Books, $32.50).

Depending on where you are, food can mean many different things. In China, bread is eaten as a sweet. In Bali, dragonflies are served boiled in coconut milk with ginger. But everyone has soup. From the simple Vietnamese noodle bowl on the cover of James Peterson's Splendid Soups to a multidish Chinese congee, the world of soups goes far beyond condensed glop in a can. The value of soup is not only the variety, but also the seemingly universal feeling of comfort that comes along with every bowl. The range of recipes in this book is wide enough to satisfy anyone's tastes: tomatillo-and-sorrel soup, South American ceviche served in a chopped-tomato broth, stuffed-cabbage soup spiked with juniper berries, cold cherry soup and hot peach soup -- even a matzo-ball soup that would make Jewish moms proud.

If there is soup, there must be bread, and Hensperger's 528-page brick of a book called The Bread Bible should be sold as a companion to Splendid Soups. It's not the large coffee-table extravaganza usually considered a gift book, but more reminiscent of an old-fashioned cooking primer. Step-by-step instructions for tortillas and flatbreads (harder than you think) and the aforementioned babka (easier than it looks) sit alongside dense seven-grain honey bread and angelic lemon bread with nasturtium butter. There isn't another discipline in the kitchen that compares to manipulating flour and yeast and tasting the warm result. Watching dough rise is literally creating life.

We sophisticated urbanites tend to (or prefer to) forget that Orlando is still in the South, but it might be chic to embrace the simplicity of our Southern-ness: grits, the new polenta! Martha Phelps Stamps takes a reverence for food learned at the Culinary Institute of America and applies it to black-eyed peas, chicken-fried steak and corn fritters in The New Southern Basics: Traditional Southern Food for Today (Cumberland House, $14.95).

In fact, the whole "Fritters and Little Fried Things" chapter could satisfy the bored vegetarian in any family without violating too many Zen principles. Dishes we've heard about but never gotten a true definition of, like Brunswick stew and succotash, appear on the pages; and a good ol' down-home holiday dinner can be whipped up just by opening pages at random.

The globalness of food is apparent when you compare Stamps' succotash recipe with the sweetcorn-and-bean casserole from Belize that graces Troth Wells' Global Vegetarian Cooking. From Morocco to Sri Lanka to Antigua, Wells not only tells the stories behind the recipes but also devotes the front of the book to information on and an international view of genetically modified foods, shedding a larger world-light on the debate. The recipes are both familiar (falafel and miso soup) and exotic (chirmol relish or potatoes with peanut butter), but any one can spark an international interest in good, simple food.

Of course, the combination of big holidays and Southern cooking doesn't usually equal "simple." But even a decked and gilded book like Christmas with Southern Living 2001 has pure recipes like acorn- squash soup and fennel-and-citrus salad, nestled between pages of napkin-folding techniques and how to use gingerbread as tree decorations. Even with the Martha-esque table settings, Southern Living holds true to its name with gifts of black-eyed-pea-and- sausage soup, cornbread dressing and macaroni and cheese. And it makes a pretty present.

Basic foods are usually the ones we return to for comfort, and the simplest good cooking can prove that another Zen saying is true: "Food appears before us; eating occurs; hunger is satisfied."


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