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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 49.0° F  Overcast
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Cookbook cues: The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook

Do you, like me, have fond memories of your mom's beat-up Betty Crocker cookbook? Perhaps that careworn volume now sits in your own kitchen. My mom still has hers, but sometimes when I'm over I flip through for a bit, enjoying the retro graphics and re-reading the recipes that were the first I ever learned to make.

The good folks at America's Test Kitchen -- sister to the magazine Cooks Illustrated -- must know our nostalgia for the five-ring binder, tabbed compendium of foundational cooking. Their Healthy Family Cookbook (America's Test Kitchen, $35) falls squarely into that category. Handling this book must hit me in some weird combination place of "inner child" and "I'm a real adult now." I love running my hands over the covers and the tabs. It even has that plastic do-hickey that you can pop out and use to hold your place. I have never used one, but I love it all the same.

Nostalgia aside, Healthy Family Cookbook is far more than a Betty knockoff. It's full of all the same great features as America's Test Kitchen's other books and the magazine. Rather than pithy, outdated instructions for housewives, the cookbook shares lots of "hard data" from the Test Kitchen. Inside the front cover is "Vegetable Cookery 101," a basic chart that is simple enough to read and use even when you're in the frenzied middle of cooking a couple of other dishes while building a Lego spaceship and French-braiding someone's hair with your spare hands. This type of information and presentation is essential in a family cookbook, as no one values simplicity in food more than children, and no one schemes to get other people to eat vegetables as much as parents.

I also appreciate the standard Test Kitchen features: step-by-step photographs of recipes; boxes that give useful, scientific information about food (why some chocolate chip cookies come out flat and crispy and others are thick and chewy, for instance); product testing and Test Kitchen favorites; and "makeovers" of traditionally unhealthy dishes.

I chose a recipe from the "Kid Friendly" section to try: the pasta O's with meatballs, a homemade version of the canned classic whose name I dare not speak. You know, the one that's a really good concept but tastes a lot like aluminum? The Healthy Family version calls for a simple pureed tomato soup (start with the basic garlic, onion, celery, and carrot; add stock and canned tomatoes, and you're done) and little meatballs made with ground chicken and pesto. Genius touch, that pesto -- less work and a lovely result. Cook the meatballs and tiny pasta in the soup. The kids and adults I fed it to gobbled it up, and I already have ingredients for another batch prepped in my fridge.

I'm not the sort who religiously sticks to healthy cooking, but I do appreciate having a cookbook that's full of recipes I don't have to question on that count. This book may well become as well-worn and thumbed over as my mom's old Betty Crocker -- though I'll always love you, Betty.

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