It was five years ago that Time-Life first talked Richard Olney about serving as technical and creative adviser to a new series of cooking books called The Good Cook.
Whether or not he and the working crew started testing recipes immediately I'm not sure, but the results are certainly well worth the time, effort, and expertise that have gone into this excellent series.
The collection of 15 or more cooking books, each on a particular subject, is just about the best example of cooking lessons by book to date with its color photos of cooking in process -- something that has been done many times in other books but somehow not done quite as well.
From "Soups" you will learn how to simmer and garnish broths, how to make pureed soups from vegetables, poultry, and seafoods. "Pasta" includes recipes for green, spinach pasta and red, beef pasta; wonderful combinations of macaroni , spaghetti, and shells with broccoli and snow peas, clams, and leftovers.
"Pork" begins with guides to cuts, boning, brining, stocks, stuffing and sausages; broiling and roasting; poaching; braising and stewing; and mixed methods with useful tips for casseroles.
As with the other Time-Life cooking series, "Foods of the World" they are available by monthly subscription or in bookstores where they appear two months after release to the subscribers.
Working in London, with a full staff of Time-Life writers, photographers, researchers, and others experts, Olney is basically responsible for the planning and supervision and final selection of recipes submitted by other consultants.
The United States editions of "The Good Cook" are revised slightly to bring the books "into accord" with American useage, ingredients, and measurements. when I talked with Olney in the London kitchen-offices, he was working on the 20 th volume for this series. Although they aim to work regular hours, Olney is apt to be in the kitchens all day and on some occasions until 10 p.m. or midnight -- and usually the staff will work along with him if they're working on something that takes a long time to finish.
Each volume of the ambitious series covers a specific category of food. Among those already published of the 15 or more that are planned, are "Poultry," "Fish," "Soups," "Salads," "Pork," "Beef and Veal," and "Classic Desserts."
The first 80 pages or so of each book are instructive and educational -- the cooking school directions, step-by-step photos in color demonstrating every technique needed to prepare the food that is the subject -- excellent succinct text explaining the principles behind the techniques.
The second half of each volume is made up of an anthology of more than 200 recipes. Selected under Olney's supervision they come from a wide range of what must be fascinating cookbooks -- ancient and modern, Oriental and Western, from past greats Escoffier and Curnonsky, from modern cooks like James Beard, Jacques Pepin, Nika Hazelton.
Olney is creating the basic series for the European readership and it is then adjusted or reedited for the American public. Therefore the recipes are done in metric and are offered to subscribers in England, The Netherlands, France, and Germany mainly, also Spain, Ireland, Japan, and Italy.
He has chosen all the anthology -- each book has 450 recipes per volume. He does the styling, and all studio cooking for photography.
He is working in a sense of five or six books at once which means three months of shooting, overlapping three volumes at one time, plus reading copy.
When I talked with him in London he was currently working on the volume about "Variety Meats" which will be called that in the US but will be "Offal" in the European volumes. He's enjoying this volume, working with ears, feet, lung, heart, sheep's heads.
"Ears and feet are easy to find in the markets," he said, "and they're inexpensive and don't suffer from freezing. The English are as bad as the Americans for freezing things, he said. He got pig's ears, heads, trotters very cheaply, for 5 pence each, he said.
The French approach to cooking is so different. American and English buy cookbooks to cook from and the French buy them to read as glamour cookbooks, as beautiful books. He wants the series to be acceptable to the professionals and at the same time not to be intimidating to home cooks.
Working as the purist he is, Olney lets nothing interfere with the food -- no confusing background; you see only the ffod and hands. He uses a specially designed table for taking pictures, a white curved surface -- grill beneath -- a big slab of marble for pastry, also various wooden boards to fit the table.
He uses all white dishes -- very simple silver, old and classic. "I think it's essential to work with anonymous good taste, he said. He usually cooks with copper and uses large black skillets. For a rustic dish he uses plain earthenware.
All knives are classical -- nothing eccentric or quaint to attract attention away from the food.
Olney grows his herbs in his home in France. He picks thyme in april, oregano in July.Marjoram and savory are dried in bundles -- although he says he doesn't use too many herbs.
An American artist who has lived and worked in France for 30 years or so, enjoying and assimilating the lore and techniques of the cooking and foods of Provence, Mr. Olney is author of The French Menu Cookbook (1970) and the award- winning, Simple French Food (1974, Atheneum).
Olney, who is highly regarded in France, as an authority on food and wine, agreed to leave his Provencal home, somewhat of a retreat, and commute on a monthly basis to London to work with photographers and staff in the Time-Life Kitchens.
The combination of Olney's sensitivity and knowledge and the resources of Time-Life have proved to be an agreeable collaboration, with the result a series of cookbooks that are exceptionally complete and instructive.
Not only are they tremendously popular in several countries but they have also won the approval of the French as well.
Here is the recipe for creamed spinach that is pictured in the accompanying photographs. The eggs are placed in depressions in the bed of spinach, and partly submerged by the cream, which also provides a sauce for the cooked eggs. A puree of peas, mushrooms or tomatoes would also make a good base for the eggs. Here, several eggs are baked together in one large dish; you could equally well bake the eggs on a vegetable base in individual serving dishes. Creamed Spinach 2 to 2 1/2 pounds spinach, stemmed 1 ounce butter 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper Grated nutmeg
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, plunge in spinach and parboil for 2 minutes. Drain spinach in colander, running cold water over it to stop the cooking. With your hands, squeeze out excess moisture. Chop spinach. Over medium heat, melt butter and stir in chopped spinach. Stir until any excess moisture has evaporated. Reduce heat. Stir in cream. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a little nutmeg.
Placed creamed spinach in a buttered gratin dish. With the back of a spoon, form 4 shallow, evenly spaced pockets in the spinach. Break 4 eggs into each depression. When all eggs are in place, spoon a tablespoon of heavy cream over each of the tops. Set the dish in a moderate oven, preheated to 350 degrees F.
After about 8 minutes, check eggs to see if whites have set. If not, cook a few minutes more. Serve immediately onto a warmed plate, placing each egg on its own bed of spinach. Season to taste.