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Book Reviews

Home for Dinner: Fresh Tastes, Quick Techniques, Easy Cooking

by Lucy Waverman

Simply Bishop’s: Easy Seasonal Recipes

by John Bishop & Dennis Green

The world, it seems, is chockablock with people terrified to cook. One wonders how they subsist, unable to boil a yam or sear a steak properly, but then a glance in the grocer’s freezer informs that a veritable smorgasbord of prefab chow exists ready to microwave.

Yet many of these same terrified people harbour secret dreams of culinary glory, of mounted sauces and mounting soufflés, of towering white hats and brow-singeing flambés. One imagines their wary advances on kitchens, where they will flail for hours with whisk and waffle iron, subjecting the charred, crumbling results of their awful experiments on indulgent family and friends. It is an oppressive scenario.

Thankfully there are cookbooks from professionals, like Globe and Mail food columnist Lucy Waverman and Vancouver restaurateur John Bishop, designed to simplify the process and take the bite out of cooking.

Like cookbook authors Bonnie Stern and Anne Lindsay, Lucy Waverman has been providing culinary advice to homemakers for years. If there were such a thing as a home economist mafia, Waverman would likely be a “made” member (though, to be fair, she is a Cordon Bleu chef).

Most everyone knows this type of cookbook. They’re square. They usually hold one or two colour-photo inserts. They boast quick, easy recipes, often with “lite” preparations, perfect for busy homemakers. Pick any one and you will find it contains the very latest recipes for spaghetti, meatloaf and dessert bars.

Waverman’s newest effort, Home for Dinner , fits right in and offers no great surprises. However, what’s slightly different is the variety of dishes. While old standards do appear (linguine with tomato sauce, Scottish meatloaf, broken cookie bars), these are accompanied in equal numbers by more “exotic” recipes, such as oyster gratin, arugula and pomegranate salad, and grilled bananas. Many homemakers will likely welcome the expanded repertoire.

They will also welcome the simplicity with which Waverman’s recipes are presented. Laid out one per page, the recipes rarely contain more than six steps, and each step is boldly introduced by its salient verb in pastel-blue ink: Preheat, Combine, Brush, Toss, Purée. This is particularly helpful in defusing preparations that people presume are difficult, like roast duck, mushroom risotto, and monkfish cassoulet. Anyone ready to graduate from “comfort food” to something a bit more interesting will find Home for Dinner an asset.

If one turns to Waverman & Co. dog-tired after work and ready for something easy but tasty, one turns to John Bishop on the weekend, refreshed and ready to show off – but just a bit. Simply Bishop’s is, at heart, food for entertaining. Co-authored with Dennis Green, chef at Bishop’s self-named restaurant, this is restaurant food conceived with great skill but presented in a very accessible manner.

The book is divided into traditional menu sections, such as soups, salads, entrées, and desserts, with the recipes in each grouped seasonally. Spring gives us cream of asparagus soup and sake-and-ginger steamed clams. Summer yields ahi tuna salad and pesto-crusted halibut. Autumn has braised lamb shanks and caramelized pear tarts. In Winter Bishop suggests steamed smoked black cod and Belgian chocolate soufflé. No meatloaf here, though few would tackle such dishes after a full day at the office.

Nonetheless, while perhaps not for the novice, these recipes would be a snap for most avid home cooks. Bishop grants his readers a degree of sophistication that Waverman withholds. He also lends his expertise by including lots of coaching on matters such as entertaining, cooking technique, kitchen attitude, and grocery shopping. All of this, presented in elegantly understated layouts, adds up to a fairly gracious, though occasionally twee, package designed for people ready to recreate, with minimum fuss, the sort of stuff they eat in high-end restaurants.

One quibble: the colour photographs in Simply Bishop’s, though greater in number and spread throughout the book, are disappointingly flat compared to the luminous shots in Waverman’s book.

In truth, cooking, most of the time, is not so difficult. While there are certainly preparations that require expertise, and cooks who are more adept than others, what many non-professionals lack is the confidence gained from a small amount of guidance. Dr. Johnson said books should enable us “better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.” In fairly predictable, though no less entertaining and informative ways, Home for Dinner and Simply Bishop’s each do both.