Chefs' favorites and one-dish meals inspire holiday cooking ideas | December 2, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - December 2, 2011

Chefs' favorites and one-dish meals inspire holiday cooking ideas

In tender memoir, local chef Donia Bijan pays tribute to her mother

by Anne Sturmthal Bergman

This year, in light of the recession and the need to have delicious, nutritious and inexpensive meals, I have chosen cookbooks that I hope are user-friendly and creative, using fresh, easy-to-obtain ingredients. I tested the recipes in my home kitchen. I've also recommended books with authors' reflections about food.

"Best of the Best Cookbook Recipes: The Best Recipes from the 25 Best Cookbooks of the Year," Food and Wine Books, 2011, 279 pages, hardback, $32.99: This book is a good compilation of recipes from some of the best-known chefs working today. I liked the variety — Mexican, French, Italian as well as other styles — covering every category of food. I made the Butter Lettuce Salad with Tarragon and Citrus Vinaigrette on page 190. It combines lemon juice, lime juice, mustard and tarragon, giving the lettuce a refreshingly sweet flavor. The Roast Chicken with Basil, Scallions, Lemon Butter and Potatoes (p.88) uses the technique of putting the spices under the skin, which always gives a nice infusion of flavor into the chicken as well as crispy skin. This is a good choice of cookbook for those who want to try something new.

"Off the Menu: Staff Meals from America's Top Restaurants," by Marissa Guggiana, Welcome Books, 2011, 287 pages, hardback, $40: This book, similar to the "Best of the Best" cookbook, is a sample of recipes from some of the best restaurants in the U.S., including Hatfield's (Los Angeles), Commander's Place (New Orleans), Cinque Terre (Portland, Maine) as well as some that are lesser-known. There are brief interviews with each chef with the so-called "Escoffier Questionnaire" — questions about the chef's favorite foods, last meal, where they shop and what kind of chocolate they prefer. This is a well-organized cookbook that is not intimidating. I made Baked Eggplant and Rigatoni with Homemade Ricotta (not as hard as one imagines, and twice as good!) on page 193. For those who love eggplant, this is hard to beat.

"Perfect One Dish Dinners: All you Need for Easy Get-togethers," Pam Anderson, Houghton, Mifflin, 2010, 266 pages, hardback, $32: This is a fairly unadorned cookbook with not too many frills and some terrific recipes. The recipes are simple, use fresh ingredients and herbs, and are very tasty. I made Lamb and Potato Stew with Lemon and Dill (p. 101-102). It is a nice winter stew, which was easy to put together and mercifully allowed for the use of frozen pearl onions, which are difficult and time-consuming to peel when fresh. I also made Pork Stew with Sweet Potatoes and Prunes (p.58), which would be perfect for a cold rainy day. This book is a good choice for those winter nights that cry out for some hearty dishes. I recommend it for its ease of use and nice new twists on some classic recipes. And one-dish meals make for very easy clean up.

"Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone," edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler, Riverhead Books, 2007, 170 pages, paperback, $14: This collection of short stories, by the likes of Laurie Colwin, Marcella Hazan, Anne Patchett, Dan Chaon, M.F.K. Fisher and others, is a compendium of attitudes about eating alone. Some stories present the problem of cooking in tiny New York apartments; some describe not enjoying eating alone. One author eats spaghetti all the time; another describes consuming mostly Trader Joe's food. There are some recipes, but that is not really the point. This book is about the love of food, and the loneliness — or not — of eating alone. The diversity of experience is remarkable. Hazan, who hates to eat alone, inspires herself by cooking something with aroma and flavor that "jogs" her appetite: anchovies. Phoebe Nobles ate asparagus for two months. Jeremy Jackson eats beans. Haruki Murakami declared the year 1971 as the year of spaghetti. This book is amusing, charming, sometimes poignant and always entertaining.

"Maman's Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen," Donia Bijan, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011, 250 pages, hardback, $19.95: This book by the local chef and author is a fitting tribute to her late mother, a Persian woman, displaced from her home, who passed along her love of food and family to her daughter. Bijan became a professionally trained chef who created her own restaurant, L'amie Donia, in Palo Alto, which she closed in 2004, much to the regret of many locals. Food is the currency of love in this beautiful, tender book. I made Pomegranate Granita (p.26-27) using pomegranate juice sold at the Menlo Park Farmer's Market. This granita brings up fantasies of caravansaries and oases with palm trees and is as exotically colored and sweet of taste as imagined. This is a cookbook with a big heart.

I can picture myself, curled up in front of the glowing fireplace, the rain wrapping around my house, with a nice plate of stew and one of the two books about a life with food, basking in the pleasure of cooking and surrounded in my imagination by all the other people eating alone.

Anne Sturmthal Bergman is a freelance writer in Menlo Park.