Four cookbooks help keep the tastes of summer close

As we amble toward fall, we find memories of summer vacation fading much more quickly than we'd like.

Coming home from that perfect trip every summer, we often rave as much about a special meal as we do the fabulous scenery, shopping or concierge we loved. The flavor of the destination lingers in our memory so much that we long to re-create the taste in hope of reconnecting with that place.

That's why certain cookbooks stay on our shelves for a lifetime. If the photos and recipes can take us back to that treasured moment, we'll never get rid of them. These are often the best keepsakes from a vacation.

Four books in the culinary marketplace transport us to summer holidays, each bursting with images and food preparation that provide an escape even when we're staying home. Here are destinations to put on your wish list.

The Hamptons: Food, Family, and History

Anyone who has summered on Long Island -- or envied those who do -- will dig into this chronicle of America's most luxurious beach environs, The Hamptons: Food, Family, and History, by Ricky Lauren (Wiley, $40). The author, a photographer-artist and wife of fashion designer Ralph Lauren, details the food and settings her family has enjoyed for more than 40 years at their homes in Southampton, Amagansett, East Hampton and Montauk in a hefty 255-page tome.

She shares more than 130 seasonal recipes that she and her husband, daughter and two sons created over the years, photographing the food herself and offering pretty watercolors, family snapshots and essays about one of the nation's most famously stylish families. Impressive in presentation but surprisingly approachable for the reader, Lauren's book shows you how to make everything from rum-laced brownies, seafood paella and summer vegetable soup to a beautiful tomato-mozzarella tart.

Tupelo Honey Cafe

The best trips to the Appalachian Mountains typically include time spent surrounded by exquisite vistas and irresistible food in Asheville, N.C. At the center of charming downtown Asheville, the Tupelo Honey Cafe began building its stellar reputation for "new Southern" cooking as soon as its doors opened in 2000.

The dishes for which the restaurant has become rightfully famous are detailed in Tupelo Honey Cafe: Spirited Recipes From Asheville's New South Kitchen, by Elizabeth Sims and Brian Sonoskus (Andrews McMeel, $29.99), a 240-page book spelling comfort in contemporary fashion. Cafe executive chef Sonoskus doubles as a farmer, bringing the freshest of his bounty to the table and the pages, which are ably written by his pal Sims, whose work you have seen in Southern Living and National Geographic Traveler.

The cheesy grits cakes, sweet potato bisque and buttermilk pork chops will make your mouth water, as will this Southern-fried chicken BLT.

Bluestem: The Cookbook

Wise are the adventurers who have discovered that, in addition to killer barbecue, Kansas City has become a bona fide cuisine capital. It's true -- the Midwestern cowtown (not unlike Fort Worth) has cultivated a wealth of exceptional dining venues, governed by chefs who work closely with local farmers and producers to create inspired menus.

Named a Best New Chef in 2005 by Food & Wine Magazine and a multiple-nominee for Best Chef: Midwest by the James Beard Foundation, Colby Garrelts teamed with wife and pastry chef Megan Garrelts, and local food writer and photographer Bonjwing Lee to create Bluestem: The Cookbook (Andrews McMeel, $45). The team offers the recipes, such as strawberry sherbet, that have made Bluestem Restaurant a Kansas City landmark. The Garreltses have fun with fancy food, as you will see in Colby's catfish sticks with Corn Nuts, a vast improvement on the childhood staple.

Canal House Cooking

If you've loved thumbing through the pages of Saveur magazine and fantasized about an extended holiday in a Tuscan villa, Canal House Cooking, Volume No. 7: La Dolce Vita by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton (Andrews McMeel, $19.95) will make you swoon. The authors are alumni from various magazines and have crafted a series of "Canal House Cooking" books that celebrate fine cooking.

The duo pays homage in the latest book to the extraordinary Italian dishes that both enjoyed while renting an old farmhouse in Tuscany. You can't help but be romanced by the markets, cafes and centuries-old kitchens they share, along with their renditions of gnocchi verde (spinach dumplings).

Gnocchi verde

For the gnocchi:

2 pounds fresh spinach, cooked, squeezed dry and finely minced

1 1/2 cups fresh whole-milk ricotta (recipe follows), or fresh versions from Central Market or Whole Foods Market

1 tablespoon melted butter

3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for serving

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon nutmeg

Salt and pepper

6 tablespoons flour

For the sage butter:

8 to 12 tablespoons butter

8 to 10 sage leaves

1. For the gnocchi verde, mix together the spinach, ricotta, butter, Parmigiano and eggs with a rubber spatula in a large bowl. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.

2. Sift the flour through a sieve into the spinach mixture. With a spatula, mix it just enough to incorporate the flour. Over-mixing the dough will make the gnocchi heavy and tough. The dough will be soft and a little sticky. Refrigerate in a covered container for a few hours or, better still, overnight.

3. For the sage butter, about 20 minutes before serving, melt the butter in a small pan with the sage leaves over medium heat. Turn off heat, cover, and keep warm.

4. To form and cook the gnocchi, fill a wide pan with water to a depth of about 3 inches. Season with salt, and bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat. Adjust the heat to keep the water barely simmering. Have ready the chilled gnocchi dough, two teaspoons and 1 cup cold water. Dip the spoons in the water, then scoop up some dough with one spoon. Use the other spoon to shape the dough into quenelles (oval-shaped dumplings). Hold the spoon in the simmering water for a second and the dough will slide off to the bottom of the pan. Cook 6 to 10 gnocchi at a time. When they float to the surface, cook them for about 3 minutes.

5. Divide the gnocchi among flat soup bowls and spoon the warm sage butter on top. Season with salt and pepper and a shower of Parmigiano.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 4: 590 calories, 46 grams fat, 21 grams carbohydrates, 28 grams protein, 234 milligrams cholesterol, 835 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber, 68 percent of calories from fat.

Southern-fried chicken BLT

2 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 cups buttermilk

4 slices bacon

2 cups canola oil

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

3/4 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 artisan hoagie rolls

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

One recipe Dijonnaise (recipe follows)

Romaine lettuce

1 red ripe tomato, sliced

1. Place the chicken in a small nonreactive bowl and cover with the buttermilk. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate to marinate overnight or for at least 1 hour.

2. In a cast-iron skillet, cook the bacon until crisp, transferring to paper towels when done. Add the canola oil to the bacon drippings in the skillet and increase the heat to medium or 350 degrees, until the oil begins to bubble.

3. In a second bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, salt and pepper, mixing thoroughly. With kitchen tongs, remove the chicken breasts from the buttermilk and dredge in the dry ingredients until the chicken is coated.

4. Carefully place the chicken, using tongs, into the hot oil and brown for about 5 minutes per side, or until the breast is golden brown and crispy.

5. Remove the chicken from the hot oil and drain on paper towels. Slice the rolls in half, lightly butter each side and place butter-side-down in a saute pan or skillet over medium heat until grilled.

6. Build your sandwich like this: On the bottom roll, put 1 teaspoon Dijonnaise, then layer lettuce. Place 1 teaspoon Dijonnaise on top of the lettuce and alternate Dijonnaise with the remaining ingredients in this order: tomato, chicken and bacon. Cover with the top half of the hoagie roll. Layering the Dijonnaise will help keep this mondo sandwich together.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 1,236 calories, 82 grams fat, 70 grams carbohydrates, 55 grams protein, 126 milligrams cholesterol, 1,690 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 59 percent of calories from fat.

Fresh whole-milk ricotta

1. Make a double boiler out of two large pots, with enough water in the bottom pot to come at least halfway up the sides of the top pot.

2. Pour 1 gallon whole milk into the top pot and heat over medium-high heat until the temperature reaches 190 degrees on a candy thermometer, about 15 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon salt, 1 cup plain yogurt and 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice, and stir with a wooden spoon for about 30 seconds to mix everything together.

3. Reduce the heat to low or turn it off. For the next 25 minutes, maintain the milk's temperature by lifting the pot out of the water if the milk gets too hot, or by returning it as the temperature drops. Don't stir the milk as the ricotta curds are forming.

4. After about 25 minutes, use a skimmer to carefully lift all the ricotta curds out of the whey and transfer them to a fine-mesh strainer (no need to use cheesecloth) set over a bowl. Allow the ricotta to drain for about 1 hour, then pour off any of the drained whey from the bowl and gently dump the ricotta from the sieve into the bowl.

5. Transfer to a covered container and use within 4 days.

Nutritional analysis per 1/2-cup serving: 428 calories, 23 grams fat, 33 grams carbohydrates, 23 grams protein, 94 milligrams cholesterol, 1,404 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 48 percent of calories from fat.


2 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 teaspoon stone-ground mustard

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1/8 teaspoon sea salt

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place all the ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until thoroughly combined.

Nutritional analysis per serving, based on 2: 103 calories, 12 grams fat, trace carbohydrates, trace protein, 5 milligrams cholesterol, 258 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 97 percent of calories from fat.

Catfish sticks with Corn Nuts

3 cups Corn Nuts

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 pounds freshwater catfish fillets

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Tartar sauce (recipe, right)

4 ounces radishes, trimmed and thinly sliced

1. Toast the Corn Nuts in a dry saute pan over medium-high heat, 3 to 5 minutes. Shake the pan to prevent them from burning.

2. Remove the Corn Nuts from the pan and let them cool completely. Pulverize the Corn Nuts in a food processor until they are coarsely ground. Set aside 2 tablespoons to use as garnish. Put the rest in a shallow dish.

3. Put the flour in another shallow dish. Pour the milk into another shallow dish.

4. Line a large plate or baking sheet with paper towels.

5. Pat the fish dry. Slice the fillets lengthwise into 1-inch-wide strips. Season them with salt and pepper.

6. Dredge the fish strips in the flour to coat. Knock off the excess flour. Dip the fish strips in the milk, and then roll them in the ground Corn Nuts to coat.

7. Transfer the crusted fish strips to the lined plate or baking sheet.

8. Heat the vegetable oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Carefully add the fish strips to the pan and fry, undisturbed, until the Corn Nut crust turns dark golden on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Flip the strips over and fry on the second side until the crust darkens and the fish is cooked through, about 1 minute more.

9. To serve, smear a spoonful of tartar sauce across the center of each of four plates. Divide the fish strips among the plates and garnish with the radish slices and reserved ground Corn Nuts. Serve immediately.

Nutritional analysis per serving: 576 calories, 26 grams fat, 47 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams protein, 115 milligrams cholesterol, 327 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber, 41 percent of calories from fat.

Tartar sauce

1/2 cup creme fraiche

1/2 cup mayonnaise, home-made or store-bought

2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

10 cornichons, drained and minced

2 tablespoons drained capers, minced

1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon

Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Whisk the creme fraiche and mayonnaise together until smooth. Stir in the eggs, cornichons, capers, vinegar, lemon juice and mustard. Add the parsley and tarragon and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Note: This sauce tastes better when made a day ahead to allow the flavors to blend. If you do make it ahead, leave the parsley and tarragon out of the sauce until just before serving.

Nutritional analysis per 2-tablespoon serving: 93 calories, 9 grams fat, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 36 milligrams cholesterol, 160 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 87 percent of calories from fat.