Cooking high and low on the hog

H-E-B and Central Market produce cookbooks tailored to their clientele

If you enjoy reading cookbooks, there is a certain aesthetic pleasure in thumbing through one that is filled with well-styled color photos of gorgeous food - pictures that not only whip up the salivary glands, but also conjure a certain version of the good life. We don't want to eat Martha Stewart's canapés, we want to be Martha Stewart's canapés: They are edible, yes, but more importantly they symbolize the very height of social grace and attractiveness, a perfection almost impossible to duplicate in the average kitchen.

There is another variety of cookbook, the instructional version that offers good food that can be made easily and, in some cases, economically. These useful tomes are not necessarily homely, but they may strive for cheery inspiration over glowing intimidation. Often, they are the cookbooks one returns to for a favorite recipe.

Into this latter group of hardworking cookbooks fall the new Central Market Cooks and, with just a little more giddy twang and down-home goodness, its H-E-B counterpart, Made in Texas: H-E-B's 100th Anniversary Cookbook.

Central Market Cooks looks like a grocery-store cookbook, and that's what it is, even if we might expect something a little less humble from Central Market. The only odd element are the photos, which alternate between bright and clean, cluttered and formal, and yellowish, circa-1970s Crock-Pot. It doesn't feel cohesive, but it's not terrible; the food looks tasty and the plates appear achievable.

The recipes and tone of Central Market Cooks express a relaxed sense of humor and a deep appreciation for the good ingredient. Sprinkled throughout the recipes are brief anecdotes about the creation of Central Market and tidbits of useful information, such as how to buy Brussels sprouts (on the stalk), and why asparagus no longer has a season (because Central Market purchases it from different markets throughout the year).

I made the Pork and Apple Chili, which featured pork loin smothered in cajun spices and Granny Smith apples, cooked with the chili to amplify their sweet-tart flavor and lend a tender, potato-like presence to the final product. The chili was just a little spicy the first night, but it warmed up by the second, and made a delicious, hearty meal by itself. As a light companion, I served the Field Greens with Tangy Blood Orange and Pear Vinaigrette. Both blood oranges and pears are in season at the moment and, because they are neither too sweet nor too juicy, they taste great in a salad. The vinaigrette was delicious, and its tang cut through the heat and heaviness of the chili nicely.

Created in celebration of H-E-B's anniversary, Made in Texas includes not only recipes from H-E-B shoppers in South, West, and East Texas, but also brief introductions to each region in text and photos. From a family making tamales in South Texas to a woman selling fresh shrimp off the docks in Corpus Christi to a harvester cutting oats near Stonewall, the photos capture a lively vision of Texans and how they interweave food and family. Each of the recipes includes an author photo, which is fun, but it would have been kind of the book's designers to clean up the photos a little, or at least take the glare off the contributors' bifocals.

   Made in Texas: H-E-B's 100th Anniversary Cookbook
H-E-B Grocery Co., Inc.
$19.95, 240 pages
ISBN: 097244951

   Central Market Cooks
H-E-B Grocery Co., Inc., 2004
192 pages, $19.95
ISBN 0975437607

Available at your local H-E-B or Central Market.

From Made in Texas I made a meal of Dad's Famous "Pink Fish" (from David Stellato of Austin) served over basmati rice, and Mandarin Orange Spinach Salad (courtesy of Kora Cummings, Temple). The pink fish was salmon, cooked in ginger, soy sauce, and teriyaki sauce with mushrooms. It made a flaky, tender fish that, while a little on the salty side, was very tasty. I was astonished by the six tablespoons of sugar in the spinach salad dressing but, in the end, enjoyed its tangy sweetness. And canned mandarin oranges are always good.

The recipes in both books were easy to follow. One note on Made in Texas: If you are worried about aesthetics, beware of the chopping instructions. I noticed that the spinach salad photo did not match the instructions - fine dices and chops had been exchanged for fine slices and the spinach had been left whole - but I went with the recipe, of course, and ended up with an ugly, but delicious, salad.

In general, the recipes in Made in Texas called for ingredients most folks have in the pantry, and were more likely to include canned or frozen goods, which proves that economy and flavor are not enemies. That said, for those turned on by chioga beets and chipotle chiles in adobo, all of the ingredients called for in Central Markets Cooks are readily available at the eponymous grocery store - for a price - which is wonderful if you've ever found yourself baffled by a Saveur recipe too precious for the average grocery.

By Susan Pagani

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