Cookbook Review---

The Best Recipes in the World Cover  The Best Recipes in the World: Mark Bittman
757 Pages, Hardcover with Some Sketches
2005 by Broadway Books. $29.95 US

Reviewed for Good Cooking by Jeanne LaPlante, December 2005

So how do you review a cookbook that has 757 pages and over 1,000 recipes? Mark Bittman's cookbook titled "The Best Recipes in the World" claims to be one of the most comprehensive international cookbooks out there. No wonder it's such a daunting task to try to capture the essence of this cookbook with only a few weeks and a small sampling of recipes.

Despite its size, the cookbook did not initially impress me. The closest this book comes to pictures are small free-hand drawings of techniques that are neither necessary for the experienced cook nor helpful for the inexperienced cook. I thought the most scientific method of choosing a recipe to test would be to blindly flip through the book and point. However, I came across recipes such as Broiled Smelts that made me realize I had better not leave this to chance. I settled on a Chicken and Lentil Tagine from Morocco which didn't require purchasing anything more exotic than turmeric. This is an easy one-dish meal that includes bone-in chicken, onions, tomatoes, lentils and most importantly cinnamon sticks, which gave the dish a flavor and aroma that was very different from what you might expect from chicken. Once you've browned the chicken and added the rest of the ingredients, you pretty much just let it simmer for an hour and it's dinnertime! If I had to make any suggestions to improve this recipe I would substitute 1 quart of chicken stock for the 1 quart of water that ultimately is the base of the stew. This would add a depth of flavor that was somewhat lacking in this otherwise tasty dish. I might also use drained canned tomatoes if grainy, winter tomatoes are all that you can find. The bone-in chicken is a must. The whole chicken legs were so tender the meat came easily off the bone. I also tried a boneless chicken breast that was good but not nearly as moist.

I tried two other recipes from different parts of the world, Goi Cuon, or Vietnamese Spring Rolls, and a Scandinavian Braided Coffee Cake with Cardamom. The Spring Rolls were a little labor intensive due to the delicate rice paper which often tore before rolling. However, accompanied with the book's peanut dipping sauce, they tasted just as I had hoped. The Braided Coffee Cake did not fare as well. I am a self-proclaimed connoisseur of cardamom bread, having eaten a version of this bread for the last 30 years. The bread was simple enough to put together, using a food processor to get the dough formed, a little kneading and two risings before baking. The end product smelled delicious but lacked enough sweetness and the pungent cardamom flavor that gives it its name.

In the end I would say I am a fan of this cookbook. It has a comprehensive index that sorts recipes by ingredient as well as by country of origin. Each recipe has a color-coded mark that lets you know if you can make the dish ahead, what temperature to serve it at and if the dish will take 30 minutes or less. The three dishes I chose turned out well and brought no complaints from my fiance. I think that "The Best Recipes in the World" is a great way to experience different cultures through food and broaden your cooking horizons.

Chicken and Lentil Tagine 

A tagine is the name of both a stew and the pot it's served in. A North African specialty, it differs from other stews primarily in its sweet spicing. This one, featuring chicken, is bright yellow and alluring. Serve it with rice, warmed pitas, or crusty bread.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 chicken, 3 to 4 pounds, cut into serving pieces, or 2 1/2 to 3 pounds chicken parts, trimmed of excess fat
2 garlic cloves, sliced 
2 onions, sliced
2 tomatoes, cored and chopped 
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
'Salt and black pepper to taste
1 large bunch fresh cilantro or parsley sprigs, tied together with kitchen string
2 cinnamon sticks
1 cup dried lentils, picked over

1. Put the oil in a deep skillet or flameproof casserole, preferably nonstick, with a lid. Place over medium-high heat and wait a minute or so, until the oil is hot. Add the chicken, skin side down, and brown it well, rotating and turning the pieces as necessary, 10 to 15 minutes.

2. Stir in the garlic, onions, tomatoes, turmeric, and some salt and pepper. Pour in 1 quart water, along with the cilantro bundle and cinnamon sticks. Cover, turn the heat to low, and simmer for about l 20 minutes.

3. Add the lentils, cover, and simmer until they're soft, about 25 minutes more. Discard the cilantro bundle and cinnamon sticks, season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve. (You can prepare the dish up to this point and let sit for a few hours or cover and refrigerate for up to a day before reheating and serving; you may have to add a little water to thin the sauce a bit.)

Chicken and Chickpea Tagine. In step 3, substitute 1 cup cooked (page 431) or nearly cooked chickpeas for the lentils

Goi Cuon 
Rice Paper Spring Rolls 

I learned how to make "summer rolls" in a tiny village in the Mekong Delta. I was not only the only non Vietnamese at the table; I was also the only male. My pathetic technique was laughable to my co-workers, but I quickly got the hang of it. So will you.

Rice paper wrappers, sold in Asian markets, keep forever. Their flexibility is truly amazing, and the simple variation will give you an idea of the different directions in which you can go. This is just a basic outline; these rolls can be filled with infinite variations of vegetables, meat, and even fruit, so don't worry if you don't have one or two of the ingredients here. You can cover these with a moist towel or plastic wrap and keep them for about an hour, no longer, before serving.

8 rice paper sheets, 10 or 12 inches in diameter
1/2 pound cooked pork or chicken, cut into thin strips 12 medium shrimp, cooked, peeled, and split in half lengthwise
One 4-ounce bundle dried rice vermicelli, soaked in hot water until softened (about 10 minutes) and drained
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped 
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped 
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves (preferably Thai), roughly chopped
2 scallions, trimmed, cut into 2-inch pieces, and sliced lengthwise
2 carrots, grated or shredded
4 red-leaf lettuce leaves, thinly sliced crosswise 
1/2 cup chopped roasted peanuts
Peanut Sauce (page 586), Nam Prik (page 586), or lime wedges

1. Set up a workstation: lay out a damp kitchen paper towel on the counter and a large bowl of h water (110-120F, which is about what it measure from most taps). Dip a sheet of the rice paper the hot water, turning once, until soft, about I seconds. Lay it flat on the towel.

2. On the bottom third of the rice paper, spread eighth of each of the remaining ingredients, except the sauce, in a line. Fold in the bottom edge an both sides and then roll tightly into a cylinder. The rice paper will adhere to itself. Repeat this process with the remaining ingredients.

3. Serve with either of the dipping sauces or the lime wedges.