The 'Splendid Table' duo is back with another splendid cookbook


One of the very best things I ever ate was an appetizer made by Lynne Rossetto Kasper. She cracked open a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano and drizzled it with a syrup-thick balsamic vinegar. That's it. Creamy and sharp, sweet and salty, the shards of cheese and vinegar startled my senses awake. It was exactly what I wanted at that moment. It was perfect.

The spanking-new cookbook that she and Sally Swift have written, The Splendid Table's How to Eat Weekends: New Recipes, Stories & Opinions (Clarkson Potter, $35), is like that deceptively simple dish.

Its 110-plus recipes have interesting and complex flavors. The authors enrich the recipes with a common-sense understanding of how people want to cook and eat. They have a modest goal to reacquaint us with the pleasures of cooking. Swift and Kasper give us a set of recipes that cause one to pause the busyness of life for a few hours of cooking and many hours of lingering at table.

"What sets this book apart," Kasper says, "is that we emphasize taking pleasure in the doing and not just the end product. Cooking totally engages you; it cuts you off from the pressures of life. This is not about "it's got to be right and it's got to be perfect."

Open to the end papers and you find A.J. Liebling's direction to wanna-be food writers: "The primary requisite for writing about food is a good appetite." These girls must have had a mighty hunger because the book is chockablock with excellent recipes, culinary know-how, and charm. The recipes work because of the level of detail regarding ingredients, techniques, and instruction. The know-how comes from their years of experience in cooking and from listening to people talk about food on their popular American Public Radio show The Splendid Table, of which Kasper is host and Swift producer. The charm is about their energy and obvious pleasure in working together. (This podcast captures the fun.)

The book is organized in the regular way, by both type of dish (such as soups, casseroles, and vegetarian) and main ingredient (poultry, fish, and lamb, for example). Do not be deceived. Within each section is a world of flavors and foods. Take casseroles. Not a can of mushroom soup to be found. The entries bring the flavors of the American supper, Renaissance Ferrara, ancient Greece, and the oceans and kitchens of Vietnam to the weekend meal.

Renaissance Lasagne from the court kitchens of Bologna is the dish that brought the two together. Kasper, whose previous book, The Splendid Table, won both the James Beard Cookbook of the Year and the Julia Child Book of the Year awards, included the recipe. The food tasted sublime, but to include a lasagne that has no tomato, that is light, elegant, and, well, different, in a book meant for American kitchens? The lasagne dish prompted Swift to call with a proposal for a radio show about all things food. (Here's a link to the recipe, by the way.)

Don't be put off by the recipes' length. While this is no "a feast in three ingredients" book, the recipes are clearly written, and the times for prep and cooking are specific and replete with small adjustments for the real-life batterie-de-cuisine of our kitchens. For instance, the authors instruct on how to buy pancetta: "Look for a piece with equal amounts of fat to lean, and try to buy the pancetta in one big piece, which makes it easier to mince; freezing before chopping helps as well." And why mince instead of a rough chop? "Mincing the meats by hand makes for better browning and gives a silkier texture to the sauce."

One dish grows to an entire meal with suggestions for salads and side dishes from other sections of the book. For the lasagne they choose "An Unusual Italian Salad," with a 350-year-old heritage but a taste like today.

Finally, the cook is given "Italian Grammar Lesson 101: Lasagne is spelled with an e, not an a." You just know this has been a private pet peeve (that simple point commands a single page all to itself). Like two good friends sitting in the kitchen with you, sipping wine and chatting about the food, they couldn't hold back another moment.

But start the book at the beginning, before the recipes. The section "Menus, Backstories and Game Plans" is a compendium of menus, Mexican, Vietnamese, Italian, Indian, and Chinese, along with a trifecta of winter feasts. Sort of a primer for the cooks--both Swift and Kasper strongly recommend bringing the people hanging around the house on the weekend into the kitchen with you--this section is a guide to "Pulling It Off," with instructions for what to do two days and one day out and the day of. Adding to the experience is a description of how the meal is eaten, including time of day, serving style, and typical accompaniments.

One intriguing feature is the list of pantry and kitchen items for each menu. The shopping lists provide easy-to-obtain ingredients, but if you want to shop at an ethnic market, a set of tips adds to the fun. Another section, "Building the Library," lists the essential books for each cuisine. Modestly but erroneously, Kasper omits her own award-winner from the Italian bookstand.

"A Chinese Celebration" is particularly interesting. Chinese food is too often thought of as carryout only, certainly not available for home cooking. The depth of flavor and mix of texture in Chinese cooking is brought to life with these recipes and techniques.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper is a firm believer that cookbooks make for good bedtime reading, and she and Swift have produced a page-turner. Scattered like tiny jewels among the recipes are yarns about a bottle of vinegar and a billionaire, chatty "Cook to Cook" tips, and witty observations by notable eaters. They promise opinions in their title, and they fulfill. Buy a colander big enough to rinse a baby in. Bacon is worthy of falling off the vegetarian wagon. The secret to cooking? Read the recipe.

Wine pairings by Michael Franz accompany each recipe. Franz is the editor of Wine Review Online and a wine writer, educator, and consultant. He is also chair of the political science department at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. Pictures are lush and mouth-watering, as Clarkson Potter's always are, but the real standout is the graphic design by Wayne Wolf of Blue Cup Creative. His mastery of fonts and typography adds to the fun.

The book is widely available. To purchase an autographed copy for under someone's Christmas tree, Kasper will be signing books on Saturday, December 17, at Alexis Bailly Vineyard (18200 Kirby Ave., Hastings; 651.437.1413).

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