Casual Pleasures
We're all in love with "casual" cooking these days, in restaurants and at home: the simple, tasty stuff that doesn't take much fuss either to make or eat, and at the same time emphasizes local ingredients in season. The idea of informal food is cross-cultural, but the practice of it varies considerably.

Joyce Goldstein's new Taverna (Sunset Books, $19.95) explores a Mediterranean restaurant culture of beguiling plainness -- the little cafes known as tavernas in Greece, tabernas in Spain, tascas in Portugal, and lokantas in Turkey. For a master chef, Goldstein has always had a knack for simple recipes, and the world of taverna cooking is one in which she's entirely at home.

Her instructions for garlic shrimp, for instance, call for only cooking oil, minced garlic, chili flakes, shrimp, lemon juice, dry sherry, and paprika; and the cooking itself is just two steps -- sauteing the garlic and chili flakes briefly, then adding everything else and turning up the heat for three minutes. It's the kind of unintimidating dish people can actually make at home.

Recipe after recipe in Taverna requires no more than a half-dozen ingredients, most of them widely available. Only occasionally is there an unwieldy monster, such as the lamb pizza, with its dough sponge and spiced meat (10 ingredients for the latter alone). That's something to have in a real taverna.

Joyce Jue's Far East Cafe (Sunset Books, $19.95) offers what are, by contrast, considerably more involved recipes. Jue grew up in Chinatown and writes about Asian food for the Chron, and her attachment to the sidewalk food stands of Asian cities is passionate. But the Sichuan sesame dressing for her grilled eggplant and spinach salad includes 10 ingredients. And mu shu duck (a snazzy variation on that old favorite, mu shu pork) gathers together 15 ingredients, among them dried lily buds and dried wood-ear mushrooms -- findable items, certainly, but not the sorts of things the everyday cook is likely to have at hand.

The obscure beauty of Far East Cafe is its unwillingness to take shortcuts with recipes that glory in a certain amount of mystery. There is something ancient and impenetrable in the Asian cuisines, a vague magic that the eater appreciates without altogether understanding. Perhaps that spell is part of the pleasure.

Far East Cafe might not set off a revolution in the home cooking of Asian dishes, but it's bound to enhance your appreciation next time you have some siu mai from a street cart in Hong Kong, or at a dim sum in Chinatown. Meantime, check out the recipe for roasted leg of lamb with yogurt in Taverna. You can do it!

By Paul Reidinger

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