WHATEVER your taste, somewhere in Canada there's a cookbook writer who's determined to satisfy it. Or so I decided, after salivating through this year's batch of guides to good eating. For a country that only a few short years ago thought its contributions to world cuisine consisted of butter tarts, tourtieres, and back bacon, we've come a long way in a big hurry. Maybe not as far as the food experts at Chatelaine seem to think -- more about that later -- but far enough to be able to look back on our tuna noodle casserole- riddled past with amused affection. Today, the emphasis is on creating a little excitement through new ways with old standbys, quick tricks for busy cooks, and fresh approaches to seasonings.
Though we're still concerned with good health, the new cookbooks seem to have relinquished missionary zeal in favour of the sheer pleasure of sharing ideas. Even Tim Thompson, who wrote If This Is the Microwave Why Am I Getting Cable TV? (Creative Bound, 200 pages, $16.95 cloth) for his fellow HICKs ("HICK" is an acronym for "Househusband In Charge of the Kitchen") soon switches from complaints about "mumbo jumbo" ("the confusing instructions included in every recipe to discourage househusbands from cooking") to cheerful descriptions of his recipes ("I know ... they ... are suitable for househusbands because my wife refused to let me put them in the book until I had cooked them and my family says that if Dad can cook it, anybody can"). And the one book written expressly for allergy sufferers, Allergic People Eat Desserts Too! (Mycel Projects, 206 pages, $17.95 paper), by Eleanor Bentley Milinusic, quietly makes the point that everybody cleans their plates when her sensible treats -- absolutely none of which contains gluten, wheat, corn, barley, oats, rye, eggs, dairy products, preservatives, additives, or colouring -- are served. "Please try the recipes," urges Milinusic, who also includes suggestions for people allergic to soy. "Write to me with your comments and suggestions." Her soft-pedaled style makes a refreshing change from those sanctimonious health-food manuals that used to pummel us about the ears with their organic carrots.
Other first-time writers include Annette Stevens (Cupcakes: All-Occasion Treats, Centax, 102 pages, $9.95 paper), Sonia Engel (Simply Delicious, Centax, 207 pages, $15.95 paper), and Maria Ernst (The Copper Bay Cookbook, Harbour, 160 pages, $12.95 paper). Although at first I felt Canada needs a collection Of Cupcake
recipes about as much as it needs another Brian Mulroney, Stevens managed to convince me that her enthusiasm for those fiddly mini-cakes is justified. She says that children love them, which I can well believe, and that they're a boon to lunchboxes, bake sales, potluck suppers, and festivities in general. Furthermore, cupcakes take about 30 minutes to mix and bake, and can even "live on their own in the freezer in sealed containers so your pans are never tied up." OK, Annette, you know your stuff. Welcome to the "Cupcake Revolution," folks. Try "Festive Cupcakes" -- they're the ones with a cup and a half of Tia Maria inside -- if you're unconvinced.
The dust-jacket of Sonia Engel's Simply Delicious lauds her "shortcut methods" with homestyle cooking. Though I couldn't find much evidence of shortcuts, I did appreciate her no-fooling-around approach to the sacred ground of meat and potatoes. (If you think meat and potatoes are no longer sacred, try serving nouvelle cuisine to your family every night for a month.) Engel's specialties include "Creamy Potato Dill Buns" (which you'd need to diet for a week before trying), "Singapore Sling Slush" for 15, and a killer dessert called "White Chocolate Passion Brownie Torte." I thought I was immune to cookbooks like this but Engel actually made me drive out into the snow to fetch the ingredients for her "Butterscotch Marshmallow Squares"; it was the ingenious touch of banana that did it.
With The Copper Bay Cookbook, though, we're talking genuine gourmet. Maria Ernest had to learn to cook in a hurry when she and her husband decided to build a hunting and fishing lodge at remote Copper Bay, on Moresby Island in the Queen Charlottes. Twenty years later, Maria's cuisine has developed into a blend of European know-how and fresh local ingredients -- salmon, crab, venison, apples, berries, etc. She's had a few adventures, too: when a storm cut off the electricity, she invented a salad from the red cabbage she couldn't cook, and when she made a rescue attempt on some ill- prepared crabmeat by camouflaging it in a quiche, her guests at the time -- who happened to be then US President Jimmy Carter and his wife -- were so impressed, they asked for the recipe. A visit to Copper Bay Lodge itself would be preferable, but reading this book is the next best thing.
Also a first book, but designed as the start of a series, is Marg Ruttan's Traditions of Home: Cookies and Muffins (Centax, 102 pages, $9.95 paper). This one contains several recipes for people who can't eat eggs, plus an intriguing idea: cookies for breakfast! Another specialty cookbook, Canadian Heritage Breadmaking (Lone Pine, 64 pages, $6.95 paper), by Debra Rebryna, seeks to demystify baking with yeast once and for all. Descriptions of ingredients and techniques precede the recipes, which include historical and cultural notes and range from "Moroccan Bread" to "Bannock."
Two groups have produced cookbooks as fund-raisers this Christmas: LEAF, the Women's Legal, Education and Action Fund, which seeks through the courts to strengthen the equality guarantees of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and the Royal Purple of Canada, which joins the Elks Lodges of Canada in supporting the Purple Cross Fund as their national charity. LEAF's book is Just the Best: Favourite Recipes from Canada's Top Food Writers (Macmillan, 194 pages, $17.95 paper). It's up-to-date, date, occasionally daring ("Michelle's Killer Linguine" with its habanero pepper; "Mocha Shortbread" with its "hint of crunch from the fresh coffee grounds"), and just the thing to inspire jaded cooks recuperating from Christmas. Homestyle: Canadian Classics (Centax, 207 pages, $14.95 paper), is a compilation of family-tested recipes from Royal Purple members across the country. This is the place to find directions for the likes of Cheeseburger Pie," never-fail Yorkshire pud, and "Prairie Wheat Salad" with pineapple and whipping cream. The Royal Purple are made of staunch stuff, too. I mean, onion salad for 50? ("24 Spanish onions, sliced...").
The acknowledged pros are also well represented this year. That phenomenally successful Calgary bunch are up to standard again with Aces: More Recipes from the Best of Bridge (Centax, 230 pages, $17 paper). This one includes a complete index for the entire series and a recipe for eight cups of salsa at one fell swoop. Sandra J. Taylor has edited The Harrowsmith Country Life Baking Book (Camden House, 223 pages, $18.95 paper); this one's packed with compulsively cookable goodies such as "Texas Buffalo Chips," "North Woods Muffins," and "Oatmeal Pie." I especially like the contribution from a reader who's an Eagles fan; she makes a loaf of her "Eagles Bread" every week while listening to her favourite music on tape. Also noteworthy is Monda Rosenberg's The New Chatelaine Cookbook (Macmillan, 256 pages, $19.95 paper). Triple-tested recipes, clever ideas, interesting design, and a first-rate index make publication of this new collection seem a national event. I wish Chatelaine wouldn't assume that what's trendy in Toronto goes for the rest of us, though. How many people do you know who deeply dig goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, and salsa with everything? Also big are balsamic vinegar, cumin, coriander, ginger, chilies, and pecans, all of which are interesting but marginally practical in real life. Expecting this book to fill much of a niche outside the boundaries of the Great Canadian Metropolis would be like confidently expecting Canadians to vote "Yes" to the referendum.
Closer to the mark is a glossy and glamorous contribution from the well-known food writers/editors Carol Ferguson and Margaret Fraser. Together they've compiled A Century of Canadian Home Cooking: 1900s Through the '90s (PrenticeHall, 254 pages, $39.95 cloth). An amalgam of recipes, history, and nostalgia, this is a book for the coffee-table as well as the kitchen, with something that will appeal to everyone from social historians to browsers with the munchies.
And finally, a rabble-rousing guide to what may be Canada's most under-understood beverage: beer. The Ontario Beer Guide (Riverwood, 186 pages, $12.95 paper), by Jamie MacKinnon, spends much of its energy analysing the politics of beer in Ontaro, skewering the big two (Molson and Labatt), and rating the available beers. Trouble is, of the six to 10 thousand different beers in the world, Ontarians get to taste but a mere trickle, and free trade is likely to bring only more "Wet Air" from the United States. A "good beer revolution" is the only solution, says MacKinnon, whose advice on tasting and evaluating beer will surprise many readers. "Beer is not a widget," he declares firmly. "It is a remarkable, mysterious, and beguiling beverage." See you on the barricades.