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Culinary magazines: a passion

Wren Wertin
Special to the DailyCooking magazines offer different interpretations on food
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Grams is the Plum Jam Queen, putting up batch after batch of sweet perfection. When she has the family in for breakfast, it’s an elaborate, sunny affair. Gramps made it through three months in the intensive care unit with one thought on his mind: As soon as he was able, he’d drive to Bakersfield for a Basque feast with all the trimmings. Pop Pop was able to recite with precision any meal he’d ever eaten, and what he thought of it. And I will forever associate Grandma Tibby with an endless parade of angel food cake.In addition to being master of every grill he comes into contact with, Dad can pair the most difficult of flavors with the right wine. (He also makes the best reservations of anyone I know.) Even my in-laws plan our visits around where and what we’re eating. But for Lori and me, it all began on the kitchen counter with Mom, stirring bubbling pots and throwing pinches of this and that into the mix.For her, lazy mornings always held the promise of a pot of coffee and a large selection of illustrated cookbooks and food magazines. By late afternoon, we’d all be in the kitchen, peeling mangos or sauteing mushrooms for whichever menu she’d decided on.As a college student, I would try and share magazine subscriptions with mom. In plain language, that meant taking that month’s issue when she was finished with it. But in my family, you never finish with a cooking magazine; you add to your library. Which is why, over the past few years, I’ve developed an intimate understanding of several of the cooking magazines currently on the market.Cooking LightCooking Light is hands down my favorite cooking magazine. It’s written for real people with real budgets, and keeps its focus on practical cooking.Instead of simply giving a list of mouth-watering recipes, they put food into a variety of contexts: health benefits, quick preparations, techniques, seasonal goods.There are several regular features they run every month. Cooking Class explores one particular ingredient in depth and offers facts, guidelines and a range of preparations. Earlier this year they gave a run down of the different cuts and grades of beef and what types of techniques showcase their attributes. The October segment focused on poultry: chicken, turkey, duck and quail.Inspired Vegetarian usually explores the possibilities for one particular vegetable, such as eggplant or soybeans. One of my favorite departments is Lighten Up, wherein the Cooking Light test kitchen transforms a reader’s favorite high-fat dish into a healthy option. With a nod to necessity, Superfast gives 20-minute dinner options.In addition to the regular features, there are special ones, too. Being a Southern kid with Italian roots, the showdown between polenta and grits in the October issue was a fun read.On the down side, Cooking Light has become more of a lifestyle magazine than it used to be. Though cooking is still the obvious focus, their coverage of beauty products, traveling information and exercise regimens has expanded, as have their advertisers. I find myself skipping through the first third of the magazine to get to the food. It’s not necessarily bad information – the exercises are practical – I just don’t want it in my food magazine.I also don’t like many of the baked goods they come up with; cakes taste too floury. But I’ve never made a Cooking Light soup I didn’t like, and their fish recipes are especially inspired.Food & WineFood & Wine always inspires me to have dinner parties. Everybody is having such a good time on the pages, eating, drinking and making merry. Editor in Chief Dana Cowin seems to feel the magical pull of food; her editorials are as good as any of the features.The layout is user-friendly. Right off the bat they list their recipes by genre (appetizer, pasta, etc.) with a color-coded system depicting fast, healthy and make-ahead recipes. In touch with the rushed lifestyles of its readers, Food & Wine has a large monthly feature made entirely of quick recipes.The News & Notes section is packed with bite-sized pieces of food trivia and information. For example, last August staffers analyzed hamburgers from a variety of fast food joints. As a whole, the magazine responds to food trends, be they ingredients or celebrity chefs.The wine-centered articles are informative, and the monthly wine adventure by wine editor Lettie Teague is written for both the wine enthusiast and vino novice. Food & Wine is also interested in the way things look: new wineglass shapes, place mats and kitchen tools from a variety of price brackets will usually make their way to the pages.As for the actual food, they have a nice balance between the decadent and the simple. They’re good at diving into a culture and offering a smattering of traditional – though usually unknown – dishes in gourmet style.SaveurIf there’s a cooking-magazine-as-novel out there, it’s Saveur. A glossy piece of work larger than most, I rarely cook out of it. But I find it romantic and riveting, packed with stories that won’t leave my head.In May of 1998, I read an article on pastis, a French-made anise-flavored spirit. Drinking it at a sidewalk cafe in Provence, the author people watches and vows to never work again. The ritual of the drink is of utmost importance: a tall, narrow glass, a bucket of ice, a pitcher of water and a carafe of pastis are all required. The ice is dropped in the glass, the pastis is poured over it, turning from clear to milky white, and water is added to taste. The drink is to be nursed, not rushed.The idea of these little rituals have always excited me. It’s why I can stand to read Hemingway; it’s why I like Saveur.Fine CookingFine Cooking is all about technique. If they’re writing a story on chicken, you’ll learn several ways to roast, grill and saute it. Food is not a mystery here, it’s a science. Most of their articles have an if/then section within the body of the article. “How you grill depends on the thickness of the chops,” or “Char tomatoes whole when looks don’t matter.”Q&A finds a variety of authorities in the field to respond to reader questions. Everything from how to freeze a cheesecake to why different brands of chicken are different colors is discussed.The magazine honors people dedicated to quality rather than quantity. The back page isn’t sold to advertising, but features a photo spread and short article on people involved in artisan foods, from chocolate makers to lettuce growers.Bon AppetitI’m letting my subscription to Bon Appetit run out this year, though I’ll miss parts of it. I simply can’t afford to visit the places they recommend, and their style of entertaining is different than mine. But I won’t be getting rid of my back issues.I initially got Bon Appetit for two departments: R.S.V.P. and Bon Vivant. In R.S.V.P. readers write in begging for the recipes of various dishes they ate in restaurants. Miraculously, Bon Appetit attains the recipes from the chefs themselves. Bon Vivant is several pages of food-related items, from specialty foods to dinnerware. They usually pick out some pretty neat stuff to highlight. Occasional features, such as this month’s article on Irma Rombauer, author of the first “Joy of Cooking,” are good.As for the recipes, they’re easy to use, though they tend to be a bit heavier than I’d like. It’s one of the larger cooking magazines out there; I get lost in the advertising.Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.


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