I dislike cookbooks without pictures. Perhaps this is indicative of a lack of imagination on my part, but if a cookbook lacks illustration I'm likely to just pass it over entirely. A perfect example of this is Bake Until Bubbly, an enticingly-titled casserole coookbook from last year that seemed right up my alley: an encyclopedia of one-dish comfort food retooled for the 'oughties with an elegant package and not a Frito topping in sight. The cover featured a baked something-or-other in a posh Emile Henri dish with a blanket of brown-speckled cheese on top. But inside? No pictures. Feh!
I carve out an exception for Joy Of Cooking, my oldest and most-battered cookbook. That one does feature useful diagrams (its schematic on how to remove the wishbone from a chicken was a particular boon), but its recipes are by an large picture-free. However, just about everything in Joy is so standard-issue that an explanatory image is unnecessary. I know, within a certain margin of error, what meatloaf, or guacamole, and banana bread are meant to look like. It's the new stuff, the exotica, about which I need a visual hint. I encounter the same obstacle while ordering food at Asian restaurants. The menu descriptions tend to be workmanlike lists of ingredients, many of them almost indistinguishable from one another: basil, garlic, ginger, onions, etcetera. Obviously, the dishes are very different, but without knowing the proportions of the flavors, amount, color and consistency of sauce, I'm at a loss, and order with the precision of throwing a dart at a dartboard. Pictures would help. Is this dish going to be brown, or green, or some shade of red or orange?
Because I attack the preparation of a recipe the way a model enthusiast assembles an airplane kit, I'm always thrilled when something I make looks exactly like the photo. I recently found myself in possession of a number of long, bright-red peppers and no idea as to how they might be prepared. In one of those pleasing instances of serendipity, I found a simple recipe for a mezze involving the grilling of said peppers on a day lovely enough to fire up my grill. The book was called Vefa's Kitchen, a gorgeous compendium of Greek recipes almost entirely unuseful to a person whose food budget rarely accomodates the splurge of lamb or seafood. The peppers came out just precisely the way they were supposed to, and what's more, the bowl I served them in, a much-used wedding gift from our friend Zoe, echoed the graphics on the cover of the cookbook. Happiness. Here's the recipe:
1. Roast some long, sweet pointy Italian red peppers - you can throw in a spicy green one or two if you like. I grilled them until the outsides were charred, but you can do this over a gas stove by spearing them with a long fork and turning them over in the open flame of a burner (remove the thingamabob that holds your pots off the burner first) until they are evenly blotched with black. Immediately, put them in a container with a lid, a bowl covered with cling wrap, or a paper bag closed with a rubber band. This steams the skins. Once they're cool enough to handle, scrape off the skin of the peppers with a knife. They will be red and flaccid.
2. Dress the peppers with a dressing made of a 2-to-1 ratio of olive oil and red wine vinegar, seasoned to your taste with pinches of salt, pepper, and/or oregano. Use as much or as little as you please. These are supposed to be better the next day, but I couldn't resist eating them right away. Serve them on a lovely plate or dish.