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Book Reviews

The Solo Chef

by Betty-Jane Wylie

More Heartsmart Cooking

by Bonnie Stern

Skinny Feasts

by Dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Adventures in Asian Tapas and Wild Sushi

by Trevor Hooper

Of the making of cookbooks there is no end. Because of the changing rhythms of our working lives, the ever-growing concern about unhealthy diets and the constant desire to keep up with edible trends, the market for new recipes is constant and ever-renewing. Some cookbooks promise a quick and tasty solution to time-challenged lives. Others offer an easy distraction from the banality of ordinary eating with their strange fusions of exotic ingredients and momentary glimpses of unattainable lifestyles. Still others more directly confront whatever worries are currently besetting Canada’s aging population – cancer, obesity, heart attacks, strokes, to name a few of the food-lover’s fears – and then offer the latest preventatives in chewable form.

It should be clear that most books trying to answer such fluctuating needs and desires come with a built-in obsolescence. Who reaches automatically for the Cajun recipes that were such show-stoppers a few years back? Who now measures out the morning rice bran so diligently or talks up the Scarsdale Diet at dinner parties with quite the same gusto?

And even if heart disease, say, never goes out of fashion, the methods of dealing with it are ever-evolving. How long ago was it that a healthy diet was one that ostentatiously abstained from alcohol? Now red wine is seen as a positive good even among medical practitioners, and those of us who never bought the dire warnings of the proudly puritanical feel even more confirmed in our skepticism.

And undaunted the books come, promoting yet another set of fresh ideas, timely remedies, creative solutions, and new agendas. Bonnie Stern’s More Heartsmart Cooking is her second collaboration with the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, capitalizing on the success of Simply Heartsmart Cooking, which has sold almost 150,000 copies. The appeal of Stern’s books is immediately obvious: they offer an officially approved defence against potentially fatal diseases, and they do so in a way that banishes almost all thought of doctors and operations, dowdy diets and grim hospital food.

More Heartsmart Cooking, as one would expect from the Toronto-based cooking-school operator, writer, and broadcaster, is a wide-ranging anthology of all that is current. There’s osso bucco for those who like Milanese comfort food; Thai chicken and noodle stir-fry for those who want to eat both quickly and Southeast Asian; lentil and mushroom burgers for vegetarians who take their pulses to a modish beat; pizza with black bean salsa for trendoids who admire Italian Tex-Mex; mashed root vegetables for cocooning homebodies rediscovering rutabagas; and – take a deep breath here – teriyaki swordfish burgers with sweet pickled ginger salsa for relentlessly modern types who just hate being forced into narrow categories.

These are the kind of dishes, a fusion of flavours from all over the map, that you now find on the menus of every stylish chef from Victoria to St. John’s. As her lengthy list of acknowledgments shows, Stern is an expert at bringing together the latest ideas from the recipe marketplace. Though More Heartsmart Cooking was assisted by Heart and Stroke Foundation nutritionists and sponsored in part by Becel margarine, a hipper tone is set by the telegenic personalities whose help Stern acknowledges: Giuliano Bugialli, Madhur Jaffrey, Lydie Marshall, Caprial Spence, Jacques Pepin, Nina Simonds, Linda and Paul Molitor (who pass on a recipe for chicken burritos with cooked tomato salsa).

Working with the inevitably unwieldy structure of a charitable foundation, Stern somehow manages to reach a mass market with such fare. Part of the reason for her success is that she is able to lead more timid cooks into realms where they would dare not go on their own – risotto with rapini, steamed fish with spinach and black bean sauce, quinoa and crab salad with cilantro lime dressing. But along with the dishes that banish all thoughts of invalid food – unless you start reading the detailed nutritional analysis appended to each recipe – are more homely touches: chopped tuna salad, chicken meatloaf, sweet and sour cabbage casserole. This is called having it both ways, but that, after all, is how many of us eat.

Stern keeps her recipes relatively short and simple, though her list of ingredients (such as Israeli couscous, chipotle pepper, brown basmati rice) may be a stretch for those who aren’t quite so au fait. Investors in garlic futures should take heart from her aggressive approach to flavouring. It is the rare dish that has fewer than two cloves, and many have more, including polenta with roasted ratatouille that boasts 12. Garlic, need it be said, is now deemed good for your heart, but this is overkill.

Strong flavours are also characteristic of Dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s Skinny Feasts: hot chili flakes seem to be her favourite form of seasoning. Where a previous generation of cookbook writers used butter, cream, and well-marbled meat to convey a sense of richness and luxury, the current wave of health-conscious authors depends more on the spice rack for special effects. But like all the insecure eaters out there who pay lip service to the medical warnings while still hankering for more deadly fare, Hobsbawn-Smith is of two minds about cooking. Skinny Feasts is subtitled Deceptively Rich Cooking the Low-Fat Way, and the Calgary author makes a case for using whipping cream, sausage, and bacon in her food. That her endorsement is almost apologetic (“Food is meant to be enjoyed – enjoyed responsibly, but enjoyed above all”) tells you something about the beleaguered state of hedonistic feasting these days.

But once she gets over her worry about offending readers used to more austere, medically approved recipes, Hobsbawn-Smith proves to be an informative and quirky (if wordy) guide to an eclectic West Coast style of cooking. She has assimilated more scientific knowledge about the workings of the kitchen than most writers, and uses this to advantage in discussing techniques. She is also, in the best grow-your-own tradition, a bit of a produce freak. In a recipe for heirloom bean soup, she rhymes off such varieties as appaloosa, flageolet, rattlesnake, and tongue of fire, and then wisely notes: “Sometimes the name is more interesting than the bean itself; many of those provocative names yield another potful of brown beans with no colour after they are cooked.”

The recipes in Skinny Feasts range all over the map, from the nouvelle-pauvre of wilted African greens and dirty rice to the over-the-top luxury of champagne risotto and the cutesiness of “new wave chicken in zin vin.” The format of the book is a little odd, if in keeping with Hobsbawn-Smith’s attitude toward the priority of intense flavourings: the first 40 pages are devoted to compotes, vegetable marmalades, salsas, chutneys, pastes, dressings, and conserves. Preserve us!

The cooking on the Canadian side of the Pacific Rim is often at its best and most distinctive when it hearkens to Asia. Trevor Hooper, chef at the Vancouver restaurant Raku, has turned a fascination with Japanese snack food into his life work, and a look at Adventures in Asian Tapas and Wild Sushi shows how much room for exploration there is: chrysanthemum greens with sesame dressing and something called grilled mochi with nori (ground-rice cake with dried seaweed) sit comfortably alongside such North American flavours as grilled quail with cherry salsa and B.C. Indian candy roll (really smoked salmon buckwheat crepes).

Hooper separates his recipes into East and West, but his painstaking esthetic in both cases is Japanese. Snack food this may be, but it is not the kind of instant cooking the faux-cooks of today demand. Indeed, it may be too time consuming and demanding for the five-minute chef; if so, all the better, for there are not many Canadian cookbooks bold enough to challenge readers with food that isn’t effortless and all-pleasing.

Betty-Jane Wylie is defiantly trying to reach the five-minute chef, but her mission is more single-minded. In The Solo Chef, the writer who has made a specialty of advising older Canadian women on their changing lives turns her thoughts to single cooks. Her target audience is largely older women, who she believes are the singles most likely to want to cook for themselves after divorce or in widowhood. Given this demographic base, and a stated intention to recognize the realities of singlehood by keeping cooking time short, Wylie does not overreach with her recipes. While Solo Chef offers the requisite number of dishes both nostalgically traditional (canned corned beef hash, turkey chow mein with soup cubes, and cream of celery soup) and encouragingly modern (pasta with coriander pesto, vegetable frittata), this is more a book of culinary advice written in a gabby conversational style. Wylie’s unending perkiness and breezy footnoted asides may be just the thing for those who find living alone a forced confinement. Others more content in their solitariness may decide that, like horseradish or fermented black beans, a little goes a long way.