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Season's Eatings

Rake in the flavors of fall with comfort-food cookbooks

By Ruth Tobias

So long, peaches and berries. See you later, heirloom tomatoes and corn. Goodbye, watermelon. We'll miss you all--but you can bet we'll be finding some measure of comfort in more filling fare. That goes doubly for avid cooks who are keen to exchange the outdoor grill for the kitchen, preparing the likes of casseroles, cobblers and stews for a rain-boot-stomping, steam-exhaling crowd. As it happens, a slew of new cookbooks devoted to just such a scenario is here to welcome them back inside. The following are especially good fun.

'Autumn from the Heart of the Home,' by Susan Branch (Little, Brown and Company; $25.95) Boasting a homemade-scrapbook design--all gingham and cursive script and snippets of wisdom--this supersweet little cookbook also contains just enough quirks to keep it from getting sticky. Cynics and urbanites should skip the prefatory chapter on handicrafts (with instructions for making your own place settings, gift baskets and so on) and get straight to the recipes. They're more sophisticated than you might expect under the circumstances, striking a balance between thoughtful takes on historical or regional specialties and sure-fire dinner-party material.

Think steamers, Indian shuck (corn) bread with maple butter, scallop chowder and eggnog cappuccino; imagine butternut soup served in shot glasses and new potatoes stuffed with fontina. And there's no one so jaded that he or she can't be charmed by the idea of a trinket-filled fortune cake or real hot chocolate with marshmallows made from scratch. Indeed, a taste of mellowness is exactly what autumn at its best provides.

'You're Cookin' It Country: My Favorite Recipes and Memories,' by Loretta Lynn (Rutledge Hill Press; $24.99) If Branch straddles the picket fence of nostalgia, Loretta Lynn (yes, that Loretta Lynn), not surprisingly, hurdles way over the top to wallow in boisterous, mostly endearing kitsch. In the preface, Lynn reminisces about the poor old, good old days when "we ate anything and everything we could find in Butcher Holler, Kentucky" (including possum), something she goes on to prove with recipes that (a) sound ridiculous, (b) are ridiculous, (c) are ridiculously easy and (d) are the utmost in guilty pleasure (possum excepted).

Laden with ingredients like Crisco, Velveeta, Saltines and Cool Whip, these dishes are bound to blast away the impending winter blues with a barrage of carbs and fat grams. For instance, after breakfasting on enormous "cat-head" biscuits smothered in chocolate gravy, you could opt for a lunch of vegetable soup and tossed salad, the primary ingredients are ground beef and bacon, respectively. Dinner might be chicken and dumplings, or chicken-fried steak and gravy, or maybe fried country ham and red-eye gravy, paired with any of several "country-fried" sides (including corn, creamed corn and corn fritters).

For dessert you've got your "gooey cake," made with nothing but the best: German-chocolate-cake mix from a box, sweetened condensed milk from a can, caramel topping from a jar, whipped topping from a tub and crushed Heath Bars. Of course, if you need a little something to tide you over between meals, you could always fry up some pickles or bologna sandwiches--that's right, fry them. Lynn also peppers the book with family photos and goofy anecdotes with titles like "Loretta Learns to Can." Rarely has the sheepish phrase "you gotta love it" been so apt.

'Retro Baking: 100 Classic Contest Winners Updated for Today,' by Maureen Fischer (Collectors Press; $16.95) Rounding out the retro recipes is this funky, cartoon-colored collection based on the winners of those amateur contests sponsored by women's magazines, small-town newspapers and companies like Pillsbury and Quaker Oats that have been a hallmark of culinary Americana for decades. Decked out in wink-wink period graphics and space-age fonts, the recipes indeed hark back to a time when novelty products--powdered mixes, canned fillings and so on--were just beginning to replace cooking from scratch; here, fortunately, the latter are restored.

Even so, Fischer's text is, if not kiddie-level, certainly user-friendly, true to the breezy ease of the originals. Thus--just like the beaming, creamy-skinned, white-apron-and-black-pump-clad housewives in the pictures--you too can present family and friends with an old-fashioned Sunday supper, complete with oven-fresh dinner rolls, biscuit-topped beef casserole and cranberry cobbler for dessert. Or whip up after-school snacks like sugar cookies and spice cake. Or prepare for the holidays with an assortment of cakes and pies: four-layer caramel and devil's food, lemon and coconut.

You get the pretty picture. There's nothing here too technically taxing (if you can sift, knead, beat and fold, you're pretty much set) or too fancy for unfussy taste buds, just basic baked goods done right, with a hint of 21st-century sass.

'Gratins: Savory and Sweet Recipes from Oven to Table,' by Tina Salter (Ten Speed Press; $18.95) As long as you've got the oven on, we suggest you check out this charming homage to the one-pot dish known as a gratin. As the author notes in the introduction, for all their homey dishevelment, gratins--or "baked dishes with a rich creamy interior and a crisp, golden topping"--possess a rather elegant bearing, such that "in France . . . the aristocracy is often referred to as le gratin, much as we would talk about the 'upper crust.'"

Salter's inventive, sophisticated recipes uphold that reputation. Imagine starting a dinner à deux with a sexy surprise like gratinéed figs with prosciutto and chèvre, or posing at a pal's potluck with a Parmesan-topped polenta-portobello bake. Envision wowing the in-laws come Thanksgiving with a striking mélange of green apples, Yukon golds and sweet potatoes, or giving the boss' beetle-brows a boost when you serve sesame-seed-crusted salmon steaks, set off by a jade-green herb sauce, at your annual dinner party.

In other words, imagine being fabulous; gratins, granting far more leeway and forgiveness than their carefully constructed culinary counterparts, let you be just that--at least until dinner's over. (Luckily, you can extend your gastronomic glory through dessert with, say, a peach melba, glowing beneath a crust of almonds and amaretti.)

'The Taste of the Season: Inspired Recipes for Fall and Winter,' by Diane Rossen Worthington (Chronicle Books; $24.95) The most broadly conceived of the group, Worthington's book will hold you day in and day out--from breakfast to dessert, in sickness (hello, chicken soup with matzah balls) and in health, whether the cook in you is feeling ambitious or shiftless, and whether the diner in you harbors a yen for Italian or a hankering for Asian.

For instance, since saying "cinnamon-streusel sour-cream coffee cake" takes nearly as long as making one, the dish may indeed become, as Worthington assures, "your standby for last-minute brunches" (assuming you have the sort of friends who drop by unexpectedly on a weekend morning expecting a home-cooked meal, in which case you've got a bigger problem than just choosing the appropriate dish). By contrast, crispy roast duck with lavender-honey sauce requires a certain amount of time and effort--and a dash of seasoned confidence--but the results are worthy of a black-tie gala.

Meanwhile, if your tastes span the globe, you'll be pleased to find Worthington's versions of everything from Creole gumbo to the Indonesian fried-rice staple known as nasi goreng, from Tuscan ribollita (the classic bread and cabbage stew on which eggplant puts an intriguing spin) to good old red, white and blue (not literally) chocolate-peanut-butter brownies. The Taste of the Season is a meaty compendium of cold-weather cuisine; what's more, since it has a companion volume in The Taste of Summer, fans need not fret over finding a worthy complement when the temperatures once again soar. After all--hard as it is to believe now, on the cusp of autumn--they will.



Second Helpings

Themed recipe collections offer additional inspiration for fall menus

Still hungry? Here are a few other choice guides to hearty eats. All are available at www.jessicasbiscuit.com (or Amazon.com, if you must).

Steaks, Chops, Roasts and Ribs, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated (America's Test Kitchen; $35) Ever the tireless investigators, Christopher Kimball and company take their cleavers and tenderizers to the gristly subject of meat, prefacing the assiduously tested recipes with a comprehensive guide to the various cuts and their preferred cooking methods.

Grilled Cheese: 50 Recipes to Make You Melt, by Marlena Spieler (Chronicle Books; $16.95) Mouthwatering photos complement highly imaginative recipes from the San Francisco Chronicle's adventurous gourmet--think veal scaloppine and pesto-zucchini heroes or Jack quesadillas on pumpkin tortillas.

Crazy for Casseroles: 275 All-American Hot-Dish Classics, by James Villas Taking a regional approach, this 2003 cookbook presents distinctly New England, Northwestern, Deep Southern and other versions of everybody's favorite anything-goes concoction.

50 Chowders: One-Pot Meals--Clam, Corn and Beyond, by Jasper White Published in 2000, 50 Chowders features White shucking away while adding a touch of the unexpected--abalone here, pheasant there.

--R.T.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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