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SIMPLE TASTES <br> MOST HOME COOKS WANT AN UNCOMPLICATED MENU, AND TWO INFLUENTIAL COOKS ARE MORE THAN WILLING TO OBLIGE

Simplicity is in.

At least that seems to be the case with the new crop of holiday cookbooks. In past years we've had all manner of complicated books authored by chefs, with recipes so involved they took up three or four pages.

Not only that, the ingredients were next to impossible to find.

This year is different. Many of the heavy culinary hitters seem to be going for more basic ideas.

Harriet Bell, vice president and editorial director of cookbooks for William Morrow puts it this way: "The new books appeal to home cooks who can actually do these recipes," she says. "After all, I can't find things like monkfish livers in my local Stop and Shop. And chefs are creative people who actually do cook at home, so why shouldn't they tell us how to do it?"

As an example she cites a recipe in a recent cookbook by Michael LoMonaco called "Nightly Specials." It's a recipe for lamb shanks with Damson plums. A simple procedure with plums adding an interesting twist to it. "And, of course, the plums are in season," she says.

Another chef with a new book out this year is Alfred Portale. Amherst boy makes good -- and how! Portale owns and cooks at the Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan, a 20-year-old restaurant that still makes Zagat's Top 5 list, an amazing record in what is probably the most fickle restaurant city in the world.

He's been an enormously influential chef, too. Portale's vertical presentations have set the style in the big-time restaurant world for many years. But he's never forgotten his roots and presented a sold-out cooking series at the Albright Knox Gallery a few years ago.

What's the name of Portale's newest book? "Simple Pleasures" (Morrow, $34.95).

"Anyone can make (these recipes) regardless of culinary skill, budget or available time," he says in the introduction.

In a recent telephone interview, Portale repeated that statement. He also noted that while "simple" has long been a trend in home cooking because people have such busy schedules, "what you are seeing now is professional chefs responding to the trend. I cook a lot at home so I understand that."

Another well-known culinary star, Marcella Hazan, is a teacher. She has brought out a new cookbook that concentrates on simple food. Of course, since her expertise is Italian cuisine, she's always been a fan of this kind of cooking.

But in her new "Marcella Says: Italian Cooking Wisdom from the Legendary Teacher's Master Classes with 120 of her Irresistible New Recipes" (HarperCollins, $29.95) she's even more definite.

"I don't cook concepts," she says in the introduction. "I cook for flavor.

"I went to a restaurant the other night," she said in a phone interview this week, "and I ordered scallops. I told them to bring them to me broiled or fried. But then they came with about one pound of tomato sauce on them and steamed vegetables.

"We have a saying in Italy: What you keep out is just as important as what you leave in."

One person's simplicity, however, is an other's complication.

Portale's standards are pretty high. "I know that people want to get the cooking done and so do I," he says. "But I want to be satisfied, too." He points out that the recipes in his book call for supermarket ingredients.

"But still the recipes need to be clever and interesting," he says. "I developed 90 percent of the recipes in the book myself. Some of them we do for friends and fam ily; some of them I tweaked a little and we put them on the Gotham menu."

Take Portale's recipe for Shaved Fennel, Green Apple and Pecorino Romano Salad.

It's a truly simple mixture of the raw vegetable, cheese and apples drizzled with good olive oil and lemon zest.

"Only a few ingredients," says Portale, "but it's beautiful."

Another simple recipe is what he refers to as "my wife's genius holiday dessert. Eggnog Panna Cotta uses the commercial dairy drink and gelatin to make panna cotta (custard) served with brandied cherry sauce.

Hazan is equally exacting. "Simple food is a lot different from easy food," she cautioned when we spoke.

"If you think about vegetable soup, it can be very easy, just putting the vegetables into boiling water. But it can be bland, too.

"But, if you brown the vegetables first and put them in the water one at time, you have something totally different," she said.

Hazan's latest book is probably the most accessible of all her books, most likely because she now lives in a condominium near Sarasota, Fla.

And her food supply there is a lot different from the one she knew in Venice or even in Manhattan where she still teaches occasionally.

"We have excellent theater, first rate music, a tender climate, white beaches, mesmerizing sunsets and a crescent moon recumbent over the Gulf but, gastronomically speaking, it is not the most notable spot on the map," she writes.

Most of her shopping is confined to the local grocery store where there is not a great deal of variety. That's true of meat -- "it looks like the animal has only a few parts," she says -- as well as vegetables.

"In fact, there are so many recipes for Swiss chard in the book that my editor asked if it was on sale," she says. "But on many occasions the chard turned out to be the ingredient that had held the most promise for me. I could use it in soups and salads," she explains. "

Simple recipes in Hazan's latest book include Braised Veal Cutlet with Milk and Capers that has only six ingredients. An other goodie is Portobello Mushrooms and Yellow Bell Peppers Sauteed in Olive Oil. That one has six ingredients, too.

From Alfred Portale:

Eggnog Panna Cotta with Caramel Sauce and Brandied Cherries

2 envelopes (2 1/4 teaspoons each) powdered gelatin

1 quart of your favorite store bought eggnog

Caramel Sauce and Brandied Cherries (recipe follows)

6 to 8 mint sprigs

Pour 2 tablespoons water into a bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over it and let it soften and bloom, 3 minutes. Fill a large wide bowl halfway with ice water and set aside.

Pour the eggnog into a saucepan set over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the gelatin mixture. Set the bottom of the pan in the ice water and stir until slightly cooled. Divide the eggnog mixture among six 6-ounce ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.

To serve, dip each ramekin in warm water for 2 seconds to loosen the panna cotta from the mold/ Invert the ramekin over the center of a dessert plate. (It may be necessary to shake gently to release the custards.) Spoon some sauce and cherries over and around each panna cotta and garnish with mint sprigs. Makes 6 servings.

Shaved Fennel, Green Apple and Pecorino Romano Salad

2 medium fennel bulbs

2 Granny Smith Apples, unpeeled, halved cored and thinly sliced

About 1 1/2 ounces pecorino Romano shaved with a vegetable peeler ( 1/2 -cup of shavings)

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil plus more for serving

2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

Coarse salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Chop off the fronds where they meet the body of one fennel bulb. Halve the fennel, then thinly slice, using a mandoline or a fey sharp thin-bladed chef's knife. Repeat with other bulb. You should have two cups of slices. Set them aside. Chop one tablespoon of the fronds, set it aside separately. Discard the remaining fronds.

Put the fennel and apple slices in a bowl. Add the pecorino Romano, lemon zest and quarter cup olive oil and parsley. Toss gently. Taste and season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the salad on a large chilled serving plate. Drizzle more olive oil generously over the top and scatter with the chopped fennel fronds just before serving. Makes 4 servings.

Caramel Sauce and Brandied Cherries

2/3 cup dried sour cherries

2/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup apple juice

1/2 cup brandy or Cognac

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Put the dried cherries and 2 tablespoons of sugar in a small saucepan. Add the apple juice and brandy and set over medium heat. Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook gently until the cherries are softened, about 15 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and set aside.

Put the remaining 2/3 -cup sugar and 1 tablespoon water in a small, heavy bottomed saucepan. Set over medium high heat and bring the water to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. While the sugar is cooking, drain the cherries and measure the liquid. There should be half a cup. If there is less, add more brandy or apple juice. If there is more, discard the excess.

Dip a small brush in water and brush down any sugar crystals that have formed on the side of the saucepan. Keep stirring the sugar syrup until the mixture caramelizes to a rich golden brown, approximately 4 minutes.

When the sugar reaches the desired color, remove the pan from the heat and carefully add the cherry liquid to stop the cooking. (Expect it to sputter and boil a bit.) Return the pan to medium-low heat and stir. Add the cherries and the lemon juice. The sauce will thicken as it cools to room temperature. Its consistency can be adjusted by adding a splash of brandy or apple juice. Refrigerate if not using in the next several hours. It will keep for up to a week. Serve over Panna Cotta (on Page C1).

From Marcella Hazan:

Braised Veal Chops with Milk and Capers

2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed if packed in vinegar

1 cup whole milk

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 veal rib chops, each at least 1 1/2 inches thick

Fine sea salt

Black pepper ground fresh from the mill

A warm serving platter

Put all the capers and one-third cup milk in a food processor and blend thoroughly to a runny creamy consistency.

Put the butter and the oil in a 12-inch saute pan and turn on the heat to high. When the fat is very hot, slip in the chops. Brown deeply on both sides.

Sprinkle the chops lightly with salt, pour the caper mixture over them, turning them over a couple of times and put the lid on the pan. As soon as the liquid begins to simmer, turn the heat down to very low.

Braise the chops for about 1 1/2 hours, turning them from time to time, until the meat feels tender when poked with a fork. Keep an eye on the milk in the pan and when it cooks off add another one-third cup. It will cook off again at which time you must add all the remaining milk.

When the meat is tender, take the pan off the heat, lift out the chops and place them on a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to detach the meat from the bone and cut it into angled slices half an inch thick or less. Put the pan back on the burner, turn the heat on to medium, put in the sliced meat and turn the slices in the warming sauce for about a minute. Transfer the meat and all the sauce to the warm platter and serve at once. Makes 4 servings.

Portobello Mushrooms and Yellow Bell Peppers Sauteed in Olive Oil

3 meaty yellow bell peppers

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 large or 5 small garlic cloves, peeled and sliced very thin

Fine sea salt

1 pound portobello mushrooms, sliced about 1/4 -inch thick

Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill

Cut each pepper lengthwise along the creases, remove the stem, seeds and pithy core, then peel them with a vegetable peeler. Cut the peppers into narrow strips about 2 inches long.

Pour the oil into a 12-inch saute pan or skillet, drop in the sliced garlic and turn the heat on to medium high. Cook the garlic for just a little while, stirring once or twice and when the aroma begins to rise and it becomes colored a pale, pale gold, add the peppers. Sprinkle with salt and turn the peppers over to coat them well. Cook for 5 or 6 minutes to brown the peppers, stirring from time to time.

Add the sliced mushrooms, sprinkle them with salt and generous grindings of pepper, turn them over once or twice, put a lid on the pan, and turn the heat down to the lowest setting possible. As the mushrooms begin to cook down, you will find that they release liquid. Continue to cook, turning the mushrooms over occasionally, until all the vegetal liquid in the pan has completely evaporated and the mushrooms are very soft. At that point -- a half hour or more, depending on the mushrooms themselves -- uncover the pan, turn the heat up to high and cook for 1 minute more, turning the mushrooms over frequently. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com

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