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Getting back in the kitchen

LEAVING so soon November? But you've only just arrived. Tomorrow (tomorrow!) December drops anchor, and though I love it, the month has an unsettling habit of showing up early. Or at least it seems that way.

LEAVING so soon November? But you've only just arrived.

Tomorrow (tomorrow!) December drops anchor, and though I love it, the month has an unsettling habit of showing up early. Or at least it seems that way.

Take note, premature merrymakers, now is the time to string up those lights, to check off those lists, hit the party circuit and get in the kitchen.

That last item on the agenda might not seem a natural "to-do" for the Christmas season, but there's a move afoot - among Food Network chefs anyway - to make it so. In fact, both Michael Smith and Anna Olson would like it if you spent more time in your kitchen year-round, and they have each created a cookbook that will tempt you to actually do it.

These books aren't glossy, museum-quality tributes to the chefs who wrote the recipes, nor are they packed with dishes you can bang together in 20 minutes using five ingredients.

(Not that I'm criticizing those, by the way. I couldn't get by without them.)

Both of these books are about the process as much as the result, about taking time in the kitchen to make food that is thoughtful, made with good ingredients, and delicious. It's important because, as Smith pointed out in a recent interview, we're in danger of losing our cooking traditions.

"Many of us have lost a generation of cooks," says Smith. "We're about to lose another one."

Both he and Olson have the recipes to help prevent that from happening.

? Chef Michael Smith's Kitchen: 100 of My Favourite Easy Recipes, by Michael Smith. Published by Penguin Canada, $32.

Before he was a TV star and cookbook author, Smith was a chef's chef - an honors graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, with stints in a Michelin three-star restaurant in London, some of Manhattan's finest kitchens, South America, the Caribbean and throughout North America.

"I was definitely a restaurant chef, making food for strangers, driven by a quest for flavour and creativity."

He was manning the burners at The Inn at Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island when he published his first cookbook, Open Kitchen: A Chef's Day at The Inn At Bay Fortune, in 1998.

"It follows the prototypical day of a restaurant chef . . .

It's restaurant food. It's wildly pretentious, very creative. I still stand by it," he says.

It was when his son was born nine years ago that his perspective on food and cooking began to change.

"Becoming a dad changed everything. I realized the way I cook food for him is going to dramatically impact his health and his life. I had to reinvent who I am as a chef, and I began to discover how broken our food system is."

In the years since, Smith has made it his mission to show people how easy it is to cook and eat real, wholesome, tasty food.

"People are unfamiliar with cooking, so they say they 'don't know how to cook,'" he explained. "But not cooking is not the same thing as not knowing how to cook. Then they make ruinous decisions, like buying Kraft Dinner."

In Chef Michael Smith's Kitchen, he aims to give his readers the inspiration and empowerment to make their own food. Mouth-watering photos, clear instructions, kitchen tips and guidance will help them feel confident about what they're doing, regardless of whether they follow his recipes to the letter.

In a crowded cookbook market, his stands out for doing exactly what he hopes it will. It does inspire, it does draw you into the kitchen. In just the few weeks I've had it, mine is already dripped-on and dog-eared.

"I want to give them the feeling that 'I can actually do this.' Failure is not lurking around the corner if you're out of carrots or if you use cinnamon instead of nutmeg. It's not a quest for perfection - that word has no place in our home kitchens. It leads to despair.

"Instead, it's about how cooking unfolds, what it takes to make it happen."

? Back to Baking: 200 Timeless Recipes to Bake, Share, and Enjoy, by Anna Olson. Published by Whitecap Books, $40.

Olson champions a similar philosophy to Smith's while talking about her just-released book, Back to Baking.

As well as a nod to her own pastry chef roots, the title signals a return to the kitchen for consumers who rely too much on store-bought products.

"In this day and age, we're always in a hurry. We turn to processed foods and processed baked goods. They're made to be shelf-stable, to last on your counter for weeks, so they're full of hydrogenated fat and super-refined sugars.

"When you bake it yourself, you control what you're putting into it."

It's a topic she's passionate about, so the timing was good to put out this impressive compendium of recipes. It had been in the works for a decade, ever since she was co-authoring her first book, the Inn on the Twenty Cookbook. North Vancouver's Whitecap Books released that book as well, and former publisher Robert McCullough spent a day baking with her in the kitchen of the Ontario inn.

"He was the one who said 'One day you have got to put out a complete A to Z Canadian baking book.'"

But it isn't a compilation or collection of previously released recipes. They're all original and it's taken more than two years to create, taste-test, recipe test, revise and write all 200 of them. There are no breads or savoury baked goods; instead it focuses on the sweeter side of baking.

It's a book meant for everyone, says Olson. Like Smith's, it includes far more than instructions; there are clear descriptions, photos, the "whys" of each recipe, which is especially important in baking, when the science is so important to success. Once a reader understands the reason behind a technique or step, they can put it into play when advancing on to their own creations. Again, it's all about building confidence.

"This is not a textbook, but in essence, you could start with the simpler recipes, like the cookies and bars and work your way up to those that take more work, like the Viennese Sacher Torte or the Dobos Torte; those are quite an exercise."

There are even wedding cakes, for home bakers intent on making their own. And Olson has also included sections on baking for those with allergies and dietary restrictions: dairy-free, eggfree, gluten-free, low-fat and low-sugar. As she points out, baking is not usually something done in isolation, "You do it for other people. You want to make something that everyone can enjoy."

Baking does take time, says Olson, so make time for it. Especially during a busy holiday season.

"Enjoy that process, not just the end result. Christmas is a great time to give yourself time in the kitchen and bake with your family and friends.

It's so much fun."

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