Times Food Critic
Glossy pages of drool-worthy dishes, meticulous ingredient lists and step-by-step instructions — in time for the holiday season. Two bay area women have just unveiled new cookbooks, but that's about all Jaden Hair and Cathleen Ryan have in common. Their road to cooking expertise took decidedly different routes.
Three years ago, Jaden Hair moved with her husband and two young sons from California to the Tampa Bay area. As a way to keep track of the recipes her mother would recite over the phone, in 2007 she started a blog called Steamy Kitchen, mostly simple Asian recipes she was whipping up for weeknight family dinners. What caught the eye of foodies around the country were the gorgeous "food porn" pictures Hair managed to snap just before her kids dug in. Those photos paired with her irreverent writing style made her a blogging superstar. What followed were writing gigs at Creative Loafing and the Tampa Tribune and eventually The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook (Tuttle Publishing, $27.95). An auspicious trajectory for a self-taught home cook.
Cathleen Ryan, on the other hand, is a professional pastry chef, honing her chops in world-famous kitchens like Le Bec Fin and Inn at Little Washington. She's an avid farm-to-table advocate, currently an instructor at Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy in Tarpon Springs and culinary adviser at Gateway Farms in Clearwater. She has also been the woman behind the sweet temptations at Cafe Ponte in Clearwater and Bailey's in Tampa. For a time, she turned her attentions to the culinary gems along the Brandywine River, which flows through Pennsylvania and Delaware, a focus that resulted in The Brandywine Book of Food (Storm Coast Press, $45).
Both books are dense with color photos, though Ryan's efforts are more in service of painting a portrait of an idyllic setting. With text by Roger Morris and photos by Ella Morris, both residents of Landenberg, Pa., it's a travelogue of sorts, one that touches down in the kitchens of quaint inns and restaurants to get a taste of the local goods.
Ryan's work is to record and interpret local dishes for the home cook. Buttermilk-Battered Soft Shell Crabs With Local Sweet Corn Basil Cream, Freshwater Trout With Smoked Ham or even an unusual Fennel Panna Cotta — it's a range of homey country cooking to cutting-edge sophisticated, and Ryan does an eloquent job of guiding readers with clear instructions and unfussy ingredients. In essence, it's a window into some of the area's most celebrated kitchens, like the fabled Talula's Table in Kennett Square, Pa., a local-product market by day and one of the country's most coveted dinner destinations at night (there's only one table, reservations a year in advance).
Jaden Hair's eye is on a single table, too, but that table is her own. Sliding gracefully from Korean to Chinese to Japanese, she explicates the traditional ingredients and techniques of each in straightforward recipes that often take less than 30 minutes to prepare. She uses lemongrass and coconut milk, miso and tofu, and thanks to increasingly bounteous international grocery aisles, nothing in the book requires a specialty market field trip.
The photography is every bit as appealing as her Steamy Kitchen blog, but publisher Tuttle has chosen a jam-packed approach to text and fonts that takes away from the stylish simplicity of Hair's vision. A little more white space might have made the pad Thai or jewel-green baby bok choy pop off the page. No matter, her recipes, with a focus on healthy eating (lots of soy, meat used more sparingly as an accent), are a lovely road map for the adventurous home cook.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at blogs.tampabay.com/dining.