By Annette Gallagher Weisman
EdibleAspen– Winter 2010

Let food be your guide on these culinary adventures

You might think for me, having grown up in Dublin, Ireland, corn beef and cabbage was standard fare. Not a chance. My mother, Kay, was a creative cook, the only constant being a roast on Sundays. But weekdays, “what’s for dinner?” was a valid question. Aside from Irish food, she’d cook her version of world cuisine, the tantalizing aroma of dishes such as shrimp Creole or chicken cacciatore wafting from the kitchen. Kay also liked festive drinks. After a holiday abroad, the Gallaghers enjoyed a spate of international cocktails, my siblings and I mere curious voyeurs as our parents happily imbibed Cuba libres and margaritas as if they were still “en vacances.”

During these cold winter months, it seems a good idea to bring a little warmth into our lives by cooking dishes, as my mother did, from intriguing locales around the world.

“Spain A Culinary Road Trip,” by Mario Batali with Gwyneth Paltrow (Ecco Books, $34.95) — a companion to the 2008 PBS TV series — might sound like an excuse for a celebrity cookbook. It isn’t. This is the real thing, a gastronomic tour of Spain showcasing, along with regional food, riveting tales about Spain’s culture, history and people.

Paltrow and Batali are unlikely pals: she, the blithe, blond, beautiful actress, often dressed in black and so slim she looks like she lives on tofu and water, while he, the famous, rotund restaurateur and chef, sports gaudy comfort attire replete with signature orange clogs. We soon discover that Spanish-speaking Paltrow eats “like a long-haul truck driver,” while Batali is a discerning, witty companion. Also along for the ride is another famous author/chef, Mark Bittman, and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols. With hundreds of candid photos and more than 70 recipes, “Spain” makes the reader feel both appreciative and envious of the foursome’s food-obsessed adventure.

Years ago, when I lived in London, Indian restaurants were the place to find a tasty, inexpensive meal. At least once a week, I’d dine at my local “Taj Mahal.” But I’ve never thought of Indian food as particularly fast or healthy. “Everyday Indian: 100 Fast, Fresh and Healthy Recipes,” by Bal Arneson (Whitecap Books, $29.95), refutes that idea with easy-to-make, nutritious meals. Arneson, a proponent of environmental sustainability, uses the freshest ingredients, with just a few exotics that the home cook might not find familiar. This soft-covered book is modest in size, but the attractive photographs and clean layout make it visually appealing. More than an ethnic choice, “Everyday Indian” is an inspirational lifestyle gift for you and your family.

Speaking of gifts, an extraordinary book just out is “Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town,” text and photographs by Douglas Gayeton (Welcome Books, $50). Big and beautiful, this photographic journey could grace any coffee table. Slow Food began in Italy as a protest against the “fast food” way of life. The godfather of the movement, Carlo Petrini, says in the preface, “Through this unusual portrait of a Tuscan community, we come to understand that living slowly, once learned, can be done anywhere.” Even more special than the text are Gayeton’s photographs — each a composite of several shots taken over a period of time — showing us what it’s like to live, work and eat in the small town of Pistoia. Many of these sepia-toned photographs have his original notes written on them. Yes, on them. Gayeton often writes above the local butcher, farmer, etc., listing their names with colorful comments. A visual memoir as well as a written story, this book is simply a work of art.

In 2006, Ethiopian-born and Scandinavian-raised New York chef/restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson took us back to his roots with his stunningly photographed “The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa.” His latest book, “New American Table” (John Wiley & Sons, $40), is about an immigrant’s journey (his) throughout the United States. Over 300 superb recipes, photographs and anecdotes about the people Samuelsson meets on his odyssey show how American cuisine is an amalgam of many cultures. Rather than by ethnicities, the book is divided into sections such as breakfast and brunch. Jazz up your routine by having, say, breakfast burritos, followed by tempura crab salad for lunch and maybe Balkan-style meatballs for dinner. Becoming adept at making the accompanying sauces, condiments and dips will add a world of flavor to home cuisine.

Most people learn about food alongside their mothers — observing, cooking, laughing. That’s the wonder of it all: slow food and a joyful, communal experience. My festive mother loved drinking champagne, savoring each sip more for what she called “a sense of occasion” than the actual taste. Here’s a toast to her memory and to all of you who will celebrate, at home or abroad, your own special occasions this year and beyond.