- - Wednesday, November 18, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MY KITCHEN YEAR

By Ruth Reichl

Random House, $35, 327 pages

THE DIAMOND CAPER

By Peter Mayle

Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 224 pages

When Conde Nast unexpectedly closed Gourmet magazine, a popular favorite with home cooks for 69 years, its 10-year editor, Ruth Reichl, like the rest of the staff, was stunned. She was devastated, feeling responsible for the closure as it happened under her tenure, and unsure as to where she could turn next. The future looked bleak: A new job for a sixty-something food writer, editor and cook is not easy to find.

So she did, as she says, “what I always do when I’m confused, lonely, or frightened. I disappeared into the kitchen.” She spent a year cooking, eating, reminiscing. It “started in a time of trouble, but it taught me a great deal … I rediscovered simple pleasures, and as I began to appreciate the world around me, I learned that the secret to life is finding joy in ordinary things.” The result of that year of cooking is a delightful memoir-cookbook combination, “My Kitchen Year.”

The book is divided into four sections, each reflecting one of the year’s seasons. There are 136 recipes, all relatively simple yet delicious. Some are Miss Reichl’s creations; others are her versions of dishes from famous restaurants; others, like Elizabeth David’s simple recipe for summer tomatoes (“David peeled tomatoes, salted them, and poured cream over the top”) are borrowed and tweaked.

Several recipes reflect Asian inspirations, such as a delicious “easy Vietnamese caramelized pork” or “Korean rice sticks with shrimp and vegetables.” Others are American classics with personal touches, such as fried chicken or the “diva” of grilled cheese sandwiches. And others are seasonal: roasted strawberries or butternut squash soup.

Along with the recipes, Miss Reichl reflects on her feelings throughout that year. She speaks of the world around her, of the landscape, the people she meets, of her family. At times, she is in her country house with her husband and son, enjoying glowing fires and comfort food to warm the cold winter. At other times, she is in New York, wandering through the city’s abundance of markets looking for new and interesting ingredients and spices. To her, “the shopping is as much a part of cooking as the peeling and the chopping.” She reminisces with colleagues from the defunct Gourmet, or invites old friends to tea as the excuse for baking a scrumptious chocolate cake. Slowly, her spirits revive.

The photographs by Mikkel Vang are splendid, whether of prepared dishes or raw ingredients, forests, sunsets, utensils or Miss Reichl’s hands at work. Landscapes are with Miss Reichl’s notes; food photos reflect the recipes.

In a “Note on the Recipes,” Miss Reichl explains that “Recipe writing is a direct reflection of culture, which means that it changes along with the times.” To her, “recipes are conversations, not lectures, they are the beginning, not an end.”

The recipes are written in a “relaxed tone,” making them available for both the experienced and the novice cook. “[T]he best recipe for a good evening is a dish so fragrant that it makes the tongue-tied start to talk. The formula is simple: When you cook for people, they feel cared for.” “My Kitchen Year” is a book to enjoy and savor.

Food and wine — lots of it — are an integral part of Peter Mayle’s new novel, set, as is his wont, in France’s Provence region, in and around Marseille. His new detective novel, “The Diamond Caper,” leaves his readers eager for a glass of the ubiquitous rose and a taste of one of Marseille’s port restaurants’ fish soups.

The plot follows Mr. Mayle’s familiar scenario and includes the usual suspects among his cast of characters: American detective Sam Levitt, his longtime girlfriend and insurance representative Elena Morales, their French friends, the local police chiefs, and a handful of the privileged international set, along with the local population. This time, Sam and Elena have purchased a run-down house with a gorgeous view and are having it rebuilt and decorated by a talented decorator from Paris.

Elena’s employer is the insurer for jewels stolen in what appear to be several perfect robberies. She has come to Marseille to try to find a clue. She is tired of her career chasing insurance frauds and is thinking more and more of spending time in the South of France. Sam has joined her, intrigued by the thefts. Happenstance suggests a solution and the case is solved. Will Sam and Elena live happily ever after in their newly renovated house?

We’ll have to wait for the next Peter Mayle book.

“The Diamond Caper” is a romp through the holiday life of the rich but not famous in a beautiful setting. Food and wine are delicious, sunsets gorgeous and everyone has a good time. So will the reader of this slight, but entertaining, caper.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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