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Cookbook Review

The New Era of (Good) Healthful Cookbooks, Starting With Hero Food and Salad for Dinner

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Mon, Apr 23, 2012 at 6:00 AM

click to enlarge Chicken and Orange Salad with Beets - RYAN ROBERT MILLER/SALAD FOR DINNER
  • Ryan Robert Miller/Salad For Dinner
  • Chicken and Orange Salad with Beets
Those low-fat, low-carb, low-trend-whatever cookbooks will likely always have a market. But another positive trickle-down effect of the current farmers market and backyard gardening era has been the really great "healthful" cookbooks we've been seeing recently, Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better by New York chef Seamus Mullen and Salad for Dinner by Jeanne Kelley among them (Disclosure: Kelley is an occasional contributor to this blog).

Even "healthful" is an unfortunate word here, as these are simply really great cookbooks that happen to be free of the current trendy candied bacon and short rib meatloaf restaurant excesses. No health book calorie counts, either. Funny, five years ago, publishers would have simply called them great "farmers market-driven" cookbooks, leaving the Hero Food references (Mullen changed his diet after learning he had rheumatoid arthritis) and Salad for Dinner cookbook titles off the table (Kelley is quick to blush and note her publisher chose the title; for her, this was a realistic catalog of what she likes to cook for dinner from her backyard garden).

Good thing it's the recipes we're really after in both books.

click to enlarge AMAZON.COM
  • amazon.com
In Hero Food, Mullen divides the book loosely by season, then by ingredient. There are the expected chapters on grains, fish and meat, but also entire chapters dedicated to parsley (white bean salad with preserved tuna and parsley vinaigrette, octopus and parsley salad), anchovies (homemade potted anchovies, caramelized cauliflower with anchovies) and sweet peas (sugar snap pea salad, chilled sweet pea soup, squid with baby favas, mint and basil).

The occasional "health" recipes make appearances, particularly with those ingredients he calls "wonder herbs" like parsley: Parsley "juice" (1 bunch of parsley, stems included; 1 apple, 2 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoons grated ginger whirled up in a juicer or blender) and a parsley smoothie (parsley, kale leaves, frozen berries, banana, flaxseed). The latter we tried out of parsley-raspberry pairing curiosity before we even saw the book (the recipe was in this month's issue of Bon Appétit). It's a good thing we got a copy of the book, or we would have stopped at that smoothie (it tastes rather "healthy").

We're more interested in Mullen's recipes like carrots and beets roasted on a bed of sea salt, cod with picada (a Spanish paste of Marcona almonds, pine nuts, peppers and spices), and his take on paella. The Spanish element is a common thread throughout the book (his New York restaurants have all featured Spanish cuisine). There's even a recipe for homemade duck sausage. "I am not a nutritionist -- I am a chef," explains Mullen in the Introduction. "And I'm unwilling to let so-called health food take the place of great food." We couldn't agree more.

click to enlarge AMAZON.COM
  • amazon.com
On the book jacket flap, Salad for Dinner dutifully notes the healthful side of eating salads for dinner (cookbook publishers write those book jacket flaps, too). No matter, as this is simply a book you really want to cook from.

There is a fantastic glossary of greens that tells you about those market finds like mizuna (a Japanese mustard green) and what to do with it (eat it raw or in a peppery mix of greens, toss it in a stir fry), followed by a primer on how to build a great salad.

The chapters are dedicated to vegetarian salads (pea and orecchiette salad with fresh mozzarella and mint; wilted Swiss chard salad with caramelized onions, croutons and fried eggs), salads with fish and seafood (grilled baby artichoke/asparagus salad with shrimp and saffron aioli; Singapore-style raw fish salad), and another on poultry (roasted balsamic chicken and green bean salad with goat cheese; duck confit salad with fingerlings and frisee lettuce).

"Salads With Meat" are here, too, for those hearty sorts of salad nights (Argentine grilled steak and vegetables with chimichurri vinaigrette, Korean barbecue beef salad).

The final chapter? "One Sweet Finish," which is exactly that. A final chapter with one recipe only: Dark chocolate cream pie in a cocoa-almond crust. As Kelley explains, "I wanted to include one fantastic sweet in this book because, when you eat salad for lunch or dinner, shouldn't you be rewarded with dessert?"

Yeah, we're planning to have salad (and pie) for dinner, tonight, too.


Follow Squid Ink at @LAWeeklyFood and check out our Facebook page. Find more from the author @eathistory + eathistory.com.

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