Nov 22 - 28, 2007 
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Pure Function

The Useable Cookbook blows prissy tomes out of the water

By Marisa Demarco

Finding the right cookbook is like finding the right shoe. There's the look of the thing, then there's the function of it. Sure, those wingtips are as stylish as all get out, but they pinch at the toes, and you certainly wouldn't want to run any marathons in them. In the grueling race that is cooking for your family, you need a cushioned shoe and a functional guide, one that can hold up to the task of finding something to feed their young faces day in and day out. I'm a sneaker fanatic, myself.

Earlier this year, I reviewed a beautiful tome called The Basics, a cookbook that was almost an art project. We're talking gorgeous photography, unique recipes done up in a format that was closer to flash fiction than instructional how-to. The pages were lined with gold leaf, and a red ribbon served as a placeholder, Bible style. It was utterly impractical, a prissy example of form over function. And it won a prize from the Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards.

Where, oh where, I wondered, was the book for me? A thing of brutal functionality, the ugly, sturdy running shoe of cooking guides?

Turns out it already exists, and it arrived on my desk in all its binder-bound, laminated glory. It ain't pretty, with its spare, black and white cover and lack of food photography. It ain't grand, with its pot roast and meatloaf recipes. But it's what I needed.

The pages of The Useable Cookbook: Main Dishes are encased in clear plastic slipcovers, perfect for sponging off the batter and juices a messy cook might splash on them. Each recipe can be removed from the binding, which is reminiscent of a Trapper Keeper. The book, part of a four-part series, opens wide and lays perfectly flat on your countertop. No need to weigh down the front cover with a jar of something, nor prop up the back with a sack of flour.

Ingredients are listed on one side of the horizontally aligned pages. Since the pages are removable, you might pull out the recipe you intend to use that evening and carry it to the grocery store. Nothing exotic is called for, though the recipes do have a knack for combining ingredients in surprising, yet not too unusual, ways. For instance, baked Italian chicken breasts call for the usual garlic, pepper and oregano. Throw in some sliced ham, fresh basil and provolone cheese and you've got a dish that pops.

Starting the whole book off is a guide to equivalents, cups to gallons, ounces to pounds, etc. Each set of instructions begins with a brief line on cooking time and temperature, such as "cook on stovetop; wok; 10 minutes." Directions are simple—but not overly so—and they're concise.

Still, there's nothing very surprising about the recipes, which are mostly meant for families of four. If you're already skilled in the kitchen or seeking more adventure in what you eat, it doesn't have much to offer you. But if you're just getting started, this book is worth your time—especially since there's room to catalog other recipes you might collect. It's like this thing materialized from my “wouldn’t life be grand if ...” wish list.

The Useable Cookbook: Main Dishes (Hagg Press), edited by Ruth Haag, $22

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