Some mothers cook, some mothers don't, and some mothers don't cook but hate to have that pointed out to them. For the armchair dreamer and garlic-chopping, homemade-stock-making cook alike, here are a few suggestions to help you weed through the latest crop of cookbooks just in time for Mother's Day gift-giving.
"Super Natural Cooking" by Heidi Swanson (Celestial Arts)
If I hadn't already been on my way to whole-grain evangelism before, Heidi Swanson's new book would have made me a complete convert. Unusual ingredients abound and are fully explained (sources are provided as well) in sections with titles such as "Know Your Super Foods," "Explore a Wide Range of Grains" and, my favorite, "Cook by Color."
Nonetheless, it isn't simply a new way of grouping recipes that makes this particular cookbook worth reaching for. Swanson's lush photography and keen eye for the beauty in the ordinary translates into her reimagination of vegetable preparation as well. Green beans are shredded into 1/8-inch diagonal pieces before being spiked with chives and citrus, and broccoli heads are sliced vertically before going on the grill.
Health never makes taste take a back seat in this book, but the judicious use of the silky richness of butter and the occasional splash of cream effectively ramps up the flavor factor in all of her dishes.
"Jamie's Italy" by Jamie Oliver (Hyperion)
Jamie Oliver offers a stripped-down, Italian-inspired cuisine that relies heavily on the quality of ingredients. His food's always been good, but Jamie's grown up from that cute boy with the ready grin to a more professional, harder, sometimes cranky television personality -- which, while still charming, is less given to the nonsense of his earlier years.
His earlier books could meander a bit (especially "Jamie's Dinners"), but his latest shows a refreshingly mature focus, with clearer instructions, sensible categorization and easy-to-make food popping with flavor.
"Vegetable Harvest" by Patricia Wells (William Morrow)
After writing seven other cookbooks, Patricia Wells may have moved the vegetables to the center of the plate, but for all of us carnivores out there, she didn't move the meat off the table. Such dishes as chicken breasts with mint, capers, and white wine or pork sausage with potatoes and red wine vinaigrette play just as prominent a role in this cookbook as more straightforward vegetarian fare like warm goat cheese and artichoke cannelloni.
Wells instead wants to revel in the glories of the vegetable world and change the way we think when we contemplate a meal. Health and portion size go hand in hand, but this is no diet book, not by any means; food you love to eat remains her primary goal.
"A Twist of the Wrist" by Nancy Silverton with Carolynn Carre¤o (Knopf)
Despite our best intentions, occasionally we just don't have time to pit and chop the pound of olives needed for the black-olive tapenade garnish on the pan-seared wild coho salmon over mixed micro-greens we planned for dinner. Nancy Silverton feels our pain and gives us permission to reach instead for the jarred version in her latest cookbook.
Sometimes, though, her version of a shortcut, like canned tomatoes or Hellmann's mayonnaise, seems laughably obvious, while others are unduly esoteric, like fennel pollen or canned salsify, despite her pledge to avoid specialty items. Nonetheless, her simple, straightforward recipes, many contributed by famous chef friends such as Charlie Trotter and Suzanne Goin, are true time-savers that deliver great, unfussy food in less than 30 minutes.
"Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant Cookbook" by Mollie Cox Bryan (Ten Speed Press)
Mollie Cox Bryan has written a cookbook that reads practically like a novel about the famous diner in Staunton and its compelling owner, Mildred Rowe.
Old-fashioned recipes such as Virginia country ham with redeye gravy and butterscotch pie temptingly press the button of culinary nostalgia, while Mildred's original meatloaf recipe is more of a closely held secret finally revealed to all of the customers who wondered just what made it so addictively good all these years.
Gourmet magazine loves Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant, and so does Travel and Leisure, and once you get to know this dynamic, no-nonsense single mother and make some of Mollie Cox Bryan's inspired re-creations of her recipes, you'll find yourself reaching for it every time you have a hankering for a Virginia classic.
"The Ultimate Cookbook" by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough
These are the guys who've written the ultimate cookbook series on peanut butter, chocolate cookies, muffins, potatoes and a litany of other ingredients over a lifetime of catering and experimenting with festive comfort foods.
Here, in a 700-page, non-illustrated tome, they've compiled 900 recipes that cover every category and offer culinary shorthand for beginners and more seasoned cooks. Recipes rarely use more than 10 ingredients; techniques are clearly explained; and there are plenty of variations (deviled eggs eight ways, 10 stuffed pastas) to keep things interesting.
New brides and grooms should love this modern classic, and Mom might develop new favorites for her repertoire.
B.P. Fox is a restaurant critic for Style Weekly.