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Book Reviews

James Barber, the Urban Peasant: Cooking for Two

by James Barber

Plenty: A Collection of Sarah McLachlan’s Favourite Recipes

by Sarah McLachlan with Jaime Laurita

What’s for Dinner? Cooks Low Fat

by Ken Kostick

The Greengrocer’s Kitchen: Vegetables and Herbs

by Pete Luckett

There are two kinds of celebrity cookbooks: those by chefs famous for their culinary skills, and those by stars of stage or screen who claim they like to unwind in the kitchen. Among the luminaries that fall into the former category are Julia Child, Paul Prud’homme and Emeril Lagasse; within Canada, Bonnie Stern and Elizabeth Baird are widely recognized and emulated. Cookbooks by celebrities in the latter category require an act of faith on the part of the buyer: we’re meant to feel that because we like this person’s movies or music we’ll appreciate their culinary savoir-faire, too.

With a couple of exceptions, the recipes in Plenty: A Collection of Sarah McLachlan’s Favourite Recipes are not handed down by McLachlan’s family; nor are they meals that the singer likes to prepare for family and friends. Rather, these are recipes that she enjoys having a personal chef cook for her while on tour.

The book tries to be two things at once: first it’s a cookbook, divided into straightforward chapters about appetizers, entrées, and desserts. But it’s also a scrapbook filled with photos of life on the road with McLachlan, her husband, and her dog, with mildly introspective quotes from the singer about the importance of home. Plenty is lovely to look at. Printed on fine-quality paper stock, it features top-notch colour and black-and-white photography – the former for the food, the latter for moody shots of McLachlan performing onstage or tucking into dinner.

And what dinners they are! The mostly Mediterranean- and Asian-inspired food, designed by McLachlan’s chef, Jaime Laurita, is of the late-1980s super-structure variety: the higher it towers over the plate, the better. The Tiger Prawns with Soba Noodles rises about a foot off the table. My advice: don’t try this at home. What is even more curious is the rarity of the ingredients. Israeli couscous, purple rice, orange flower water, and mirin (Japanese rice wine) aren’t easy to come by in many places; I live in Toronto and I have yet to find a reliable source for Israeli couscous. Is there a grocery-purveying genie on the tour bus?

McLachlan writes in the foreword that she brought Laurita on board because of the enormous challenge of eating healthful meals while on the road. If nutrition was one of the concerns, it would have been useful to have included some analysis next to the recipes. While I have nothing against whipping cream, coconut milk, sour cream, or cheese, health-conscious readers might have some doubts.

James Barber, widely recognized as television’s Urban Peasant, is famous too, and this fact no doubt helps sales of his books. But the source of Barber’s fame is the combination of his cooking and easygoing persona. Cooking for Two, his latest collection of recipes, isn’t a common sense guide for empty nesters who find themselves dining à deux for the first time in decades. It is a recipe for romance. Barber dons the mantle of pop psychologist, telling his readers that cooking together is like dancing, and that it can do wonders for a relationship. Maybe so. The yarns he spins meander along but always have a pithy point to make.

Barber is the kind of chef that even a novice can love. He sticks to readily available ingredients, his instructions are clear, and his recipes take a half-hour or so to prepare. The book itself has exactly eight pages of colour photographs, but it atones for this scarcity by printing each recipe over a light grey photo of the dish in question. (At least I think it’s the dish – the photos are so faint I can’t always tell.)

The Urban Peasant’s style isn’t for everybody: vegetarians will find slim pickings, given entire chapters on lamb, pork and beef, and chicken; there are some fine veggie side dishes, though not many vegetarian mains. But his lessons and vignettes about cooking as a partnership do hit their mark.

By contrast, The Greengrocer’s Kitchen: Vegetables and Herbs by Pete Luckett, gives vegetarians and veggie lovers something to smack their chops over. The British-born Luckett has been dispensing advice to Canadians via television for more than a decade. As it turns out, the man best known for saying “Toodleeedooo!” churns out charm-laden prose. This book is a primer on vegetables, from artichokes to zucchini and everything in between. Arranged alphabetically, it advises on each vegetable’s characteristics, how to select and store them, and how to prepare them. The more exotic edibles are represented here, as well as familiar staples. You may know everything there is to know about onions, but the recipes for French onion or udon noodle and scallion soups may enchant anyway. This may seem like a book for beginners – and it is a good starting point – but longtime cooks can also stand a lesson or two. (I know my way around bok choy and lemongrass, but had not the foggiest clue what to do with fiddleheads.) There’s little in the way of glossy photography, but that’s a small complaint given the wealth of information in this well-written book.

Another addition to the pantheon of celebrity cooks is Ken Kostick, co-host of the Life Network’s What’s for Dinner? His latest book is What’s for Dinner? Cooks Low Fat and it is published in co-operation with the YMCA. Kostick’s schtick is simple: he changed his life by eating healthfully, and so can you. His recipes are indeed as fast and easy to prepare as he claims. This is not gourmet grub for special occasions; the recipes for starters, like grilled chicken salad with pear and blue cheese, and mains, like the butternut squash stew with maple syrup and cinnamon, are meant to be used every day. Kostick includes nutritional analysis of calories and fat for each dish, and has suggested substitutions for most of the recipes in the book. There are also YMCA exercise tips throughout the book.

The one ingredient missing from Kostick’s book is, ironically, the celebrity factor: there is a short intro about how Kostick decided to lose weight, and tips about how to make one’s own lifestyle healthier, but the rest of the book is just recipe after recipe, with occasional fan letters from people who love the show. Given that the personalities of Kostick and his co-host really drive the program, some spice would be welcome.