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Dishes important to Western cuisine

Raymond Sokolov laid out an ambitious goal for his latest cookbook, The Cook's Canon: 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know (Harper Collins, 2003, $25.95).

Sokolov, editor of The Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts page and former New York Times restaurant critic, says his aim is to educate the palates of a generation of cooks who have grown up ignorant of the world's classic dishes.

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The recipes he chooses are those that helped shape European and American cuisine. In some cases, as with the paella, they stand for entire nations and in other cases, like the cannelloni, they stand for categories of food.

His choices are arranged alphabetically from apple pie to zabaglione. In between, the dishes range the gamut. Macaroni and cheese is squeezed between lasagna al forno and macaroons. While many dishes are French, there are also recipes from China, India and Morocco. One can quibble with Sokolov's choices (there's not a single cookie recipe), but he acknowledges cooks may have different ideas on the 101 most important dishes in Western civilization.

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There are no photographs, but each recipe is accompanied by a colorful introduction, sometimes addressing the history of the food or variations of the dish.

Unfortunately, all of the recipes I tried had problems; a couple were minor, but one was significant.

Sokolov's rice pudding calls for 1/4 cup of raw, long-grain rice, one quart of milk and 3/4 cup of sugar to be baked for 2 1/2 hours. Sokolov explains that while the amount of rice is small, the milk would be absorbed or evaporate. However, after nearly three hours, my pudding was the consistency of soup. I tried the recipe twice, allowing it to remain in the oven the second time until the pudding set. Four hours later, I had a brown mush. A spokeswoman for the book's publisher assured me that the recipe is correct, but cautioned that the rice needs to be fresh.

In the coq au vin recipe, Sokolov's directions will raise concerns among food-safety advocates - he calls for marinating the chicken overnight at room temperature. I decided instead to marinate my chicken in the refrigerator.

The most successful of the recipes I tried was the Moussaka which, Sokolov says, was probably brought to Greece by the Turks. One quibble with this recipe, however: Sokolov does not direct the cook to drain the ground lamb after browning it, leaving a rather greasy filling between the slices of eggplant.

Moussaka

Serves 6 to 8

2 pounds eggplant, unpeeled, but trimmed and cut into rounds about 1/2 inch thick

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salt

3 tablespoons oil, plus more for bake dish

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 1/2 pounds ground lamb

1/2 cup tomato puree

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

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2 teaspoons sugar

pepper

3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

2 cups plain, whole-milk yogurt

3 eggs, lightly beaten

3/4 cup grated cheese (Gruyere, cheddar or kefalotyri)

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grated nutmeg

Put the eggplant slices in a large colander. Toss them in salt and let stand to drain for at least a half-hour.

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet. Brown the onion with the lamb. Stir in the tomato puree, cinnamon, sugar and pepper to taste. Lower the heat, and continue cooking until all the liquid evaporates. Stir in the parsley, and let cool.

Rinse the eggplant slices; pat dry with a paper towel. Grill or broil eggplant slices until they are lightly browned.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a bowl, whisk together all the remaining ingredients and season with salt and pepper. Lightly oil the inside of a 10-inch-by-14-inch ovenproof dish.

Cover the bottom with a layer of half the eggplant slices. Then spread on it a layer of all the lamb mixture. Add the rest of the eggplant in an even layer.

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Pour the yogurt mixture over the top and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes until golden-brown on top.


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