The pleasant hours of our life are all connected, by a more or less intangible link, with some memory of the table.
— Charles Monselet
Ina Garten's latest cookbook, "Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics," was endlessly promoted before the holidays. There were stacks of them in every bookstore — often on deep discount. I got my copy for 40 percent off the marked price. All of that suggests that the book is a hard sell or not worth the price in some way.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I bought Ina's "Family Style" cookbook a couple of years ago and have used it again and again. I've made half a dozen or so recipes from it — a few of them multiple times. It's become a book I turn to and trust.
And "Back to Basics" is even better. Garten has been cooking a long time; but more importantly she's been writing about it for an equally long time. Her columns in House Beautiful not only honed Garten's style, but also gave me a chance to try a few of the recipes from the new book before I put my money down.
Once I had it in hand, I made a concerted effort to immediately try Garten's recipes: eight in the first month I owned the book. They ranged from very good to outstanding. Simple but not simplistic, straightforward and worth making again. And not a lot of quirky or expensive ingredients that I had to search out. Though I did find that I could easily cut the amount of cheese, butter and rich ingredients — sometimes almost in half — without a significant loss of flavor.
After the first bite of Garten's "mustard roasted fish," my husband and I looked at each other and said in unison, "Christmas dinner." And thus it became the entree for our annual get-together with friends on Christmas day. Both of them are excellent cooks and they were as delighted with the dish as we were.
One other noteworthy consideration is that Garten's books are all published by Clarkson Potter, who has wisely made them all the same size and format. This means Garten's titles line up in a beautiful group that can be instantly located on my shelves of cookbooks. It may be a marketing ploy, but it works in terms of aesthetics and organization for me as well.
"Back to Basics" is a keeper and a good deal even at full price.
Ina Garten aka The Barefoot Contessa writes a monthly food column in House Beautiful magazine.That's where I originally tried the recipe for "roasted butternut squash salad with warm cider vinaigrette" before I bought her latest cookbook.
If you are the kind of person who reads the fine print — all those dedications and acknowledgements — then you may have noticed that Garton dedicates this latest book to "Anna Pump who taught me that simple food has the most style."
And Anna quotes Ina on the cover of her most recent book, "Summer on a Plate." Among other things, Ina says "I love her cookbooks." I so agree. Pump was born in northern Germany near the Danish border and those two cultures infuse many of her recipes as well as her stories and comments scattered throughout her books.
My personal favorite among Pump's cookbooks, "Loaves and Fishes," is going for about $43 to $150 on amazon.com for USED copies. Mine is too well used to bring in that kind of money — but who's going to part with a cookbook so valuable for its intended purpose: providing recipes for great food.
My copy automatically falls open at Pump's most used recipe: "Swordfish Steaks in Lime-Soy Marinade." I use it on skinless, boneless chicken breasts to create a dish virtually identical to the entree served at our wedding dinner. I use it so often I finally just made a list of the ingredients on an index card and stuck it inside a kitchen cupboard door to save time.
That is my test of a good cookbook: that it contains a recipe that you use so often it becomes your own signature dish. As far as I'm concerned, I only need one of those to consider a cookbook worth the price. With Anna and Ina, I now have dozens of dishes that have entered my repertoire making their books veritable bibles at my house. And like a bible, they bring me comfort as well as nourishment whenever I open them.
"Back to Basics," Ina Garten's most recent cookbook, has fabulous photos by Quentin Bacon. "The Loaves and Fishes Cookbook" is Anna Pump's first. It was written in 1985 with Gen LeRoy and charmingly illustrated by Philippe Weisbecker.