Mrs. Santa's Book Bag
The Smitten Kitchen CookbookBy Deb Perelman (Knopf, 336 pp., $35)
Deb Perelman is a home cook after my own heart, negotiating a tricky balance between an abiding love for magical configurations of butter-sugar-flour and the acknowledgment that some creatively prepared proteins and veggies have to work their way onto the menu every now and again. That is what's so appealing about this cookbook (and the blog, SmittenKitchen.com, that birthed it): Perelman, who works in a microscopic New York City kitchen, takes the known (cheese crackers, broccoli, lemon bars) and spins it into culinary gold through creative and unexpected presentations of otherwise mundane ingredients. For example, everyone and her sister-in-law has swapped spaghetti squash for pasta on at least one occasion, but how many among us have served up spaghetti squash and black bean tacos? Or what about elevating the timeless salty-sweet dessert to elegant heights with buttered popcorn cookies (which are already earmarked for top billing on my Oscar party menu)? The recipes are buttressed by glossy images of the dishes in question; in fact, the cookbook could almost double as a coffeetable book, but it is better served taking up permanent residence in your kitchen, where it will earn the stains and splatters of heavy use borne by any cookbook worth its salt.
My only complaint is the occasional bit of imprecise language in the method portion of some recipes. For example, "moderate heat" is subjective, whereas "medium-high" or "moderately high" would be more helpfully prescriptive when crispy latkes are at stake. I'm willing to cautiously write that off as a heavier than necessary editorial hand (you can cross-check them against the language on the blog), because the recipes here are too luscious to be ignored, and Perelman has garnered enough goodwill and credibility to give her the benefit of the doubt.