- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What exactly is one person supposed to do with 2,000 Italian recipes? Or 1,400 French dishes? A new generation of comprehensive (some would say behemoth) cookbooks is cramming thousands of recipes into weighty volumes, some nearly 3 inches thick and weighing more than 4 pounds.

Why the heavyweights? Publishers say it’s a matter of survival, crediting the Internet and the tough economy with driving the trend.

“This might be a reaction to the Internet and the encyclopedic selection of recipes that’s at your fingertips,” says Chris Steighner, senior editor at Rizzoli Publications, publisher of “La Cucina,” a 4 1/4-pound, 2,000-recipe ode to regional Italian cooking.

“A lot of it is about quantity now because we’re faced with the Internet,” he says.

During the past four years, about a dozen of these monsters have crashed the landscape of five-ingredient, 30-minute-meal books. “The Silver Spoon,” for example, the category’s 2005 standard-bearer, jams 2,000 Italian recipes into 1,264 pages.

For Francophiles, there is this year’s “I Know How to Cook,” a translation of a popular French cookbook featuring 1,400 recipes over 975 pages. Last year, the 10th-anniversary edition of Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” sported 2,000 recipes.

By comparison, the just-released “Gourmet Today” (from the defunct magazine) seems slender with just 1,000 recipes and pages. Most traditionally sized cookbooks clock in closer to 150 recipes.

“People are demanding them,” says Emilia Terragni, editorial director at Phaidon Press, publisher of “The Silver Spoon,” “I Know How to Cook” and other megavolumes. “We have over 1,000 or over 2,000 recipes, and they’re still selling for $45. That’s a good price.”

Giant cookbooks are nothing new. As far back as 1896, Fannie Farmer offered more than 1,800 recipes for everything from “after-dinner coffee” to capon in aspic. The “Joy of Cooking” has had a kitchen-sink approach since it was first mass published in 1936. Julia Child’s 1961 “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” eventually filled two volumes.

Such cookbooks mostly lost favor during recent decades, supplanted by slimmer and more narrowly focused volumes, many of them driven by celebrity names. Then the Internet changed how people find recipes, and bigger books have tried to bounce back.

Critics say these books lack one crucial element: voice. Most of them are light on accompanying text and personality. Yet a sense of voice gives cookbooks not only readability, but also credibility.

” ‘Mastering the Art’ had such a huge living personality behind it, and I don’t know who the author of ‘The Silver Spoon’ is,” says Lynn Andriani, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly who covers cookbooks. “When you have an author behind a book who has a distinct voice and gets to know their audience and seems committed, it helps a book gain a foothold culturally.”

Many people are less interested in voice, however, than in a reliable resource for one-stop shopping. For that, these books can shine.

“These mammoth cookbooks have that encyclopedic quality that people find reassuring,” says Rebecca Federman, electronic resources coordinator at the New York Public Library. She also writes about the library’s culinary collection. “People use them as reference works, too, by consulting them for basic recipes.

These simple steak patties from Ginette Mathiot’s “I Know How to Cook” (Phaidon), may resemble an all-American burger, but their sublime taste makes clear their French lineage.

Steak provencale

From start to finish, this recipe takes 30 minutes. Makes 6 servings.

14 ounces sirloin steak, chopped

3 1/2 ounces button mushrooms, chopped

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 egg

Salt and ground black pepper, to taste

All-purpose flour, for dredging

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

In a large bowl, mix together the chopped beef, mushrooms and garlic. Add the egg, mix well, then season with salt and pepper. Shape the mixture into 6 patties, then dredge each through flour to coat lightly.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat half of the oil. Add 3 of the patties and brown for 2 minutes per side. Repeat with the remaining oil and patties.

Don’t be intimidated by the thought of making your own pasta. As demonstrated by

this recipe for potato dumplings from the Italian Academy of Cuisine’s “La Cucina: The Regional Cooking of Italy” (Rizzoli), it’s not much harder than playing with clay. If mushrooms aren’t your thing, try these dumplings with any assertive pasta sauce.

Potato dumplings with mushroom sauce

From start to finish, this recipe takes 2 hours. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


3 pounds russet potatoes

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed


2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, minced

2 ounces dried porcini (or other variety) mushrooms, soaked in warm water, drained and chopped

1 tablespoon tomato paste, diluted in 2 tablespoons water

1/4 cup red wine (optional)

1/4 cup broth, plus more as needed

Grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.

Use a fork to lightly pierce each potato several times. Bake until completely soft, about 40 to 60 minutes. Cut each potato in half and scoop out the flesh. Discard the skins.

In a large bowl, combine the potato flesh and just enough flour to form a smooth dough that is not sticky. You may not use all of the flour, depending on how starchy the potatoes are.

Form the dough into thin cylinders, then cut them with a knife into pieces about 1 inch long.

Using your thumb, press each piece of dough against a floured fork, then let it fall onto the work surface. When all the pieces have been made, cover them with a cloth and let them rest.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and mushrooms and saute until the onions are golden. Add the tomato-paste mixture and red wine, if using.

Add the broth, reduce the heat to low, and cook slowly, stirring now and again, adding a little more broth if the mixture dries out.

While the sauce cooks, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the potato dumplings and cook just until they float. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a deep serving dish, alternating them with layers of the sauce. If desired, sprinkle with cheese.

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