Scenes from an Italian's kitchen Every child possesses sacred totems, items that in the unforeseen future will trigger warm memories and influence the direction of one's life. For me, as a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1970s, the talismans were baseball cards and my grandmother's fried meatballs. The tightly packed, crisped concoctions would already be simmering in a pot of spicy marinara sauce by the time my family arrived on Sunday afternoon for supper. The meatballs would eventually accompany a simple rigatoni dish, sprinkled with Parmesan and made creamy with a glob of Ricotta, but first came the entertainment. My grandfather, either to amuse my brother and me or more likely because the aroma had aroused his hunger beyond the boiling point of patience, coyly awaited a moment when my grandmother would leave the meatballs unattended. Then he'd maneuver his way into the tiny kitchen, grab the nearest fork, and spear himself a sample. Instinctively, Grandma knew when the fox was in the henhouse, and she'd return just in time to slap his hand and yelp, "Fraaaank!" Frank didn't care, though—he'd already savored the intense, smoky flavor, as was evident by the sated grin, the freakishly relaxed look in his eyes. It was then that I learned cooking could be funny; it'd take nearly two decades before I came to think of it as fun. Initial forays into the kitchen brought anxiety, whether trying something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich or more complicated, like a hamburger. A boy can memorize the runs batted in totals for his ball-playing heroes by studying the statistics on the back of a card, but as a young man, he'll find it fiercely difficult to remember the proportion of water to rice and how long to boil it. The young women of my generation, too, seem to have a difficult go of it: They weren't raised to cook for their husbands or even for themselves. Now we've all become too busy, too consumed by work, too concerned about what little leisure time's left over. It's easier just to go out, we tell ourselves, maybe even cheaper. Of course, that's bullshit. Let me tell you 'bout the cookbooks I read To cook at home is to dance on the precipice between joy and failure. All you need to stay on that ledge is a solid knowledge of one dish or recipe—like scales to a pianist or sketching to a painter—to inspire confidence. For me, a phone call to my mother secured my dearly departed grandma's sauce recipe: tomatoes and tomato paste, garlic, onion, chili flakes, red wine, basil, oregano, bay leaf, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar. That sauce has become a foundation for every dish I've cooked since, if not physically, then metaphorically. The other key element is a reliable, lively, and easy-to-follow cookbook. Anything from The Joy of Cooking to Silver Palate to a Good Housekeeping thrift-store special will suffice as a primer, and you'll soon yearn for more challenging recipes. Unfortunately, many of today's cookbooks skip straight to the level of head chef at a four-star restaurant. In the era of the Food Network—which most Seattleites don't have access to, thanks to predominant cable carrier AT&T's narrow-minded channel programming—we're expected to possess an inherent knowledge about blanching, nonreactive saucepans, and the like. At the other extreme are the beginner's guides, which too often play into the fears of a budding chef with patronizing advice and substandard recipes included for facility's sake. Fortunately, then, there are two new cookbooks that span a range of cooking expertise, from novice to intermediate to Julia Child: Jamie Oliver's best-selling The Naked Chef (Hyperion, $34.95), and Simple to Spectacular (Broadway Books, $45) by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman. Oliver is a celebrity of rock-star proportions at home in England, and, thanks to the Food Network's importing his BBC show, he's becoming a sensation in the United States, as well—except, of course, in Seattle. The Naked Chef's cover depicts the twentysomething chef, fully clothed, posing casually in a kitchen, a sly grin on his face and a head of disheveled hair. The gimmick here is not that he's saut驮g in the buff but that he's stripping down recipes; complex ends are arrived at through manageable means. Oliver instructs on how to stock your pantry and counsels on growing herbs, then runs the gamut, with recipes for soups, salads, pasta, seafood, meats, vegetables, bread, sauces, and desserts. As an Englishman, he's bound to include dishes that'd sooner appeal to cooks in Manchester than Michigan, like ham hock with pease pudding, but mostly his multicultural bent yields an array of tantalizing choices. Hey, good lookin', what you got cookin'? To test The Naked Chef's acumen, I turned to the pasta section, skipping over instruction on how to roll and stretch dough. A few years back, cookbooks told us to forget about buying a pasta maker and even called into question the validity of buying fresh pasta. Now Oliver and his peers suggest that the trend is toward the DIY method, which is reasonable enough given the widening availability and affordability of the hand-crank and electronic machines; a reliable one can be had for about 40 bucks. But, hey, these are busy times, and I'm content with picking up a bag at a decent grocery store. I opted to try Oliver's pappardelle with mixed wild mushrooms, though I substituted store-bought bow-tie farfalle. The recipe calls for 14 ounces of mushrooms—I found fresh shiitakes, chanterelles, and oysters at Fred Meyer—as well as (3 tablespoons) olive oil, (one clove, finely chopped) garlic, (two pounded) dried red chilies, lemon (juice), Parmesan, (2 ounces) unsalted butter, and fresh parsley. As instructed, I cleaned, sliced, and tore the 'shrooms and added them to a thoroughly heated frying pan. After frying and tossing, I sprinkled in the chili, garlic, and a pinch of salt—"It is very important to season mushrooms lightly," Oliver says helpfully, "as a little really brings out the flavor"—and continued to fry for five minutes. After a few tosses, I turned the heat off and squeezed in the lemon juice. I cooked the pasta, strained it, and added it to the mushrooms along with the cheese, parsley, and butter. That's it, from preparation to serving (for four) in well under an hour. And it beats the hell out of macaroni and cheese. The Naked Chef's forays into roasting legs of lamb with rosemary and making pan-seared scallops with crispy bacon and sage look more daunting, but a glance at the skimpy ingredient lists quickly soothes the nerves. It's a neat trick, and it can have you cooking restaurant-quality dishes with remarkably little angst. Happiness is a warm halibut Simple to Spectacular accomplishes the same feat, a surprise given that coauthor Vongerichten has served as chef at several four-star joints, is a James Beard Award-winner, and is the restaurateur behind Manhattan's noted Jo Jo, the Mercer Kitchen, and Jean Georges. He and accomplished cookbook author Bittman (the author of The New York Times column "The Minimalist" and the comprehensive How to Cook Everything) can't match the convivial tone of a young gun like Oliver, but they've developed an ingenious ploy to ease cooks into successively difficult levels of cooking. There are five levels, to be exact, beginning with basic three- to five-ingredient dishes and working up to more complicated fare. It's a clever variation on the cookbook formula forwarded by the likes of Rozanne Gold in her 1-2-3 series, whose recipes require only three ingredients (which I find less a convenience than a limitation). Vongerichten and Bittman also don't talk down to you, although this can be a double-edged sword. At first, their sections stupefy: Text in different- ly shaded backgrounds—gray, mustard, white—and fonts explain the nuances of the forthcoming recipes. In the halibut chapter, an introduction celebrates the versatility of the fish, while a "keys to success" inlay advises on the use of cooking wines, the benefits of real butter, and the need for cooking halibut steaks on the bone (they keep their shape better). That's all before you get to the ingredient list, which is separated from the recipe by a hyperbolic pull quote and advice on side dishes. Still, after you take this all in, the act of cooking is nearly mellifluous. I strode boldly past the Proven硬 halibut, past the halibut with white wine and shallots, and into the upper-level, tasty-sounding halibut with mustard-nut crust. It involved toasting chopped nuts (the recipe called for hazelnuts, but I spaced at the grocery store and had to employ some leftover pine nuts from my fridge) and making a sort of batter with grainy mustard and butter, as well as seasoning the fish and coating it in the mustard-nut crust. After an hour of chilling, the fish were ready for fresh thyme, placed on and around the steaks, and a cup of dry white wine. I brought it to a boil on the stove, slipped it in the oven for 10 minutes and under the broiler for another 90 seconds, and that was that. I heeded the authors' advice and accompanied this "star" dish simply, with steamed fresh green beans and garlic. Everybody's got a hungry heart Cookbooks, recipe Web sites, food magazines, cooking shows, cooking stores, cooking classes, and specialty grocery stores surround us now, blanketing our culture with the art of cuisine. We're in danger of becoming overwhelmed, of saying "screw it" night after night and giving in to the urge to eat out or take out, in turn diminishing the pleasure of dining in a restaurant through repetition. Those who seek out cookbooks like The Naked Chef and Simple to Spectacular and fill a bookshelf with them will create for themselves a storeroom full of culinary ideas, as purposeful and satisfying as a walk through the park. Some other new cookbooks fall under the category of filler. They're all right to keep on hand, to scan the index in hopes of locating a more fanciful mashed potato recipe or a refresher course on b飨amel sauce, or to answer a specific question. Alfred Portale's 12 Seasons Cookbook (Broadway Books, $45) is a big, colorful, dynamic guide to cooking with an eye toward what's freshest on a month-to-month basis. A chef at New York's famed Gotham Grill, Portale crams his slick 400-plus pages with information and offers tips on "flavor building" and wine matching at nearly every turn. The concept and execution are commendable, but the scope and complexity are impractical for all but the most experienced—and least pressed for time—kitchen maestros. Good ol' Julia Child, the original celebrity chef, is still kicking, and she's offered up a slim handbook, Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques and Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, $19.95), that reprises the basics behind everything from making an omelet to baking a cake. It's a helpful, if slapdash, book with recipes stacked on two-column pages and vintage photos of Child working her magic on PBS in her younger days. Though certainly less essential than her classics, The Art of French Cooking and From Julia Child's Kitchen, this new volume reminds us that when cooking seems overwhelming, we can always turn to Julia. I wasn't so much overwhelmed as I was nauseated when opening another recent publication to discover a recipe for hedgehog and buttermilk soup. The thought of dirty whiskers poking through a golden broth—yuck! A glimpse at the book's cover clued me in, however; hedgehogs are one of the many fungus varieties included in Amy Farges' The Mushroom Lover's Mushroom Cookbook and Primer (Workman, $16.95 paperback, $26.95 hardcover), a stellar guide to knowing and cooking with mushrooms. It's useful on two fronts: The recipes show off the mushroom's versatility as a main ingredient or as a healthy alternative (I'm a portobello burger convert, so I'm biased) and it provides comprehensive information about seasonal variations, with lots of visual clues, as well. Like my grandfather, I'd take a fried meatball drenched in tangy marinara over a curry-glazed mushroom brochette any day, but it's incredibly satisfying to know that I could easily cook either of these delicacies myself.