Wednesday, March 21, 2012

CHEF COOKBOOKS: The Agony and the Ecstacy

I’m almost never a fan of cookbooks written by chefs. Too many are invariably glossy and full of color photographs which distract you from the fact that all too often the recipes don’t work. Full of luxury ingredients they often seem out of touch with their readers. It seems to me is the whole point of going out to a restaurant is to eat things you’d never try at home.  Chefs are used to cooking for large numbers of people and it requires a special skill to translate those recipes down to manageable dishes serving four to six. There is clearly an art to writing a recipe that is not always in sync with one’s ability to create a dish.

Let me share some of my chef cookbook experiences.  For a Christmas feast for an Italian family of friends, I prepared an elaborate and preposterously caloric Gatto Napoletano from Mario Batali’s Holiday Food.  This dense and rich potato cake was baked in a springform pan. While it was baking, we all suddenly saw smoke billowing out of the kitchen.  The butter had leaked out of the relatively new springform pan, hit the floor of the oven causing a smoke cloud which set off fire alarms. I knew immediately how to rectify the disaster and chased everyone (including the host) out of the kitchen. I quickly wiped up the bottom of the oven with wet paper towels and wrapped the spring form in a double thickness of aluminum foil to prevent further smoking. Problem solved. Another Mario Batali story. A friend and I purchased his Italian Grill cookbook at the same time. He told me he was going to make the Spit-Roasted Turkey Breast Porchetta-Style, a recipe that I had already decided I had to do. My friend told me the stuffing couldn’t be contained within the boneless turkey breast as the recipe instructed, and it fell apart in his spit. Having experience with Batali’s recipes, I too thought the instructions for tying the stuffed roast were a bit vague, and I ended up tying it horizontally and vertically to contain the stuffing without it falling apart. Last fall, I saw Batali recreate the recipe on his TV show to be cooked in an oven.  I think Batali is a genius chef, but he’s often one of the sloppiest cooks on TV, and he had difficulty assembling this recipe with stuffing falling all over the place in the pan and surrounding counter.  He may have created a delicious recipe, but his technique for its success showed a distinctive lack of caring what the home cook might make of this mess. 

Which brings me to two recent cookbooks published by celebrated chefs.  One I liked a lot. The shortcomings of the other book made me angry.  Let’s start with the book I didn’t like.

THE FAMILY MEAL: Home Cooking with Ferran Adria (Phaidon Press; $29.95; ISBN: 978-0-7148-6253-8) confuses on many levels. It is a collection of staff meals prepared at the legendary and now shuttered elBulli restaurant in Spain.  Ferran Adria, is of course, one of the most celebrated chefs in the world. A reservation at the Michelin 3-star elBulli might take months of stealth planning to secure. Adria’s revolutionary molecular gastronomy captivated diners, chefs, and most of all, an enchanted food press who fell all over themselves extolling the virtue and creativity of his kitchen. He probably deserved it.  Showered with stars and awards, elBulli won the title of World’s Best Restaurant five years running. 

I’m not saying THE FAMILY MEAL is a bad book, merely a sloppy one. The components of each of the three-course menus is within the reach of a good home cook but only in possession of a serious batterie de cuisine.  As I began to read, so many glaring problems surfaced.  For instance:
  • In the front matter of the book, there are photographs of essential and elective kitchen equipment the book recommends. Pots, pans, spatulas, a pepper mill, knives, wood spoons, measuring cups are of course, necessary for the basic kitchen, but how many kitchens also sport a pasta machine, a mandolin, a pressure cooker, and electric fruit and vegetable juicer, a hand-held blender, a kitchen blowtorch and electric juicer, whipped cream and soda siphons, elective as these items are and often necessary to the recipes in this book?
  • In the very first menu, there is no instruction for the size of the pan to bake the Santiago Cake in, a real no-no for American bakers.  The recipe for Chocolate Cake does specify the right pan to use, so a sloppy oversight.
  • The first menu (Caesar Salad, Cheeseburger & Potato Chips, Santiago Cake) begins with photos of each item in a column on one page. Opposite are the names of the three recipes. The next page after that is a double-spread of each recipe’s ingredients arranged mis-en-place-style. To the left is a section on what you will need to buy fresh and what you will need from the pantry and the fridge (presuming you already have them). Then on the right side of this spread are tips for organizing each menu as well as a time line.  Flip the page, and you have tips for the recipes, and a box highlighting the ingredients and their amounts, with columns for serving two, six, twenty and seventy-five persons. This begs the question about the audience for this book:  are we a home cook, a restaurant chef or a caterer?  Frankly this menu with cheese in the salad, cheese for the hamburger is way too heavy-handed on protein when you include the meat and added carbs for croutons in the salad, bread in the burgers, and cake for dessert.
  • Each recipe has an overly generous number of photos of the steps of the recipe. Is it necessary to have two photographs showing how to sprinkle cheese on the salad or two photos scattering croutons? There are two photos each for Pasta Bolognese showing the uncooked pasta tumbling into the pot of boiling water and two photos of pasta being drained. 
  • For a dish of Lamb with Mustard and Mint, necks are used.  I’ve never seen lamb necks in a supermarket, let alone a butcher shop in the U.S.
  • In a recipe for pork loin it is also listed as thin cut pork-loin steaks, a cut not known in the U.S. Thinly cut center cut pork chops is what is called for in this recipe at least in the U.S.
  • In order to make the recipe for Yogurt Foam with Strawberries, you must have a syphon with chargers for whipped cream. Ditto the Caramel Foam.  You’ll need a chinois for the Almond Soup with Ice Cream.
  • I think I would have enjoyed staff meals at elBulli with their generous ingredients, for there are two recipes here for duck breast, one for osso buco, another using veal cheeks, a stew with crab, and another featuring quail. I checked with a chef friend just to make sure I was correct.  He said he had never eaten a staff meal using these higher end ingredients.  “Pasta” is an overwhelming choice in the staff meals I’ve eaten,” he replied dryly. To be fair, there are lots of budget-conscious recipes here.
  • No size or weight is given for eggplant in one recipe, yet another recipe calling for eggplant is specific about its size. 
  • There are 28 photos showing how to make a dish called Noodles with Shiitake & Ginger. Dry shiitake mushrooms can be see floating in water in three of them. Is it really necessary to our understanding of how to assemble this dish with separate photos showing oyster sauce, soy sauce and Shaoxing oil added to a bowl?  Better there should have been more care taken with other details listed above. In general there is an excess of photos here and the quality of them isn't very good either. 
  • Under the heading of personal preference, there are some bizarre combinations here or some I would classify as old school:  a potato salad with sliced frankfurters, Cauliflower with Béchamel, Bread with Chocolate and Oliver Oil, Sweet Potato with Honey and Cream for dessert.  

THE FAMILY MEAL does have some virtues.  It can be instructive to see the steps in making Chocolate Truffles but overkill when illustrating every single step.  I liked recipes for Beans with Clams, Salt Cod and Vegetable Stew, the Potato Chip Omelet, Catalon Turkey, Almond Cookies, and Mexican Style-Slow-Cooked Pork. I also like the fish recipes, but most of them (whiting, fresh sardines, Japanese-style bream) are not easily available in my part of the Pacific Northwest. Do we really need a recipe from a Spanish chef for cheeseburgers, especially using bread in the meat mixture, which is more suited to a meatball or a meat loaf.  But I wonder why Adria with his cutting-edge reputation for creating some of the most exciting and exacting food in the world would want to take a step backward, offering something that is hardly new, and rather ho-hum in its execution. A more careful edit and some restraint in the use of photos might have helped.  WHAT TO COOK AND HOW TO COOK IT by Jane Hornby (also published by Phaidon) should have been the prototype for the kind of cookbook, which artfully combines photos and text to create a cookbook for those wanting a visual course on the subject. THE FAMILY MEAL’s design is also a letdown being neither glossy nor appealing, despite the inclusion of a staggering 1500 color photos.   By trying to be all things to all everyone it ends up pleasing nobody.

Ferran Adria

On the other hand, Anita Lo’s admirable COOKING WITHOUT BORDERS (Stewart, Tabori and Chang; $35.00; ISBN: 978-1-58479-892-7) has been at the top of my stack of cookbooks to review since late November. I’ve read it cover to cover, dipped into its recipes often, but felt myself feeling guilty.  Anita Lo is one of Manhattan’s most admired chefs. She has fused her multi-cultural background and education with spectacular results. The chef-owner of  the Michelin star-rated restaurant Annisa, has combined her love for travel, and the foods she has encountered to create superb meals that have kept her restaurant very busy. Here was another restaurant cookbook—the kind I’ve been ignoring.

Charlotte Druckman is her attentive writer partner here and together they present recipes that are clearly written, alternate between being challenging and simple, and contain their fair share of luxury ingredients. Yet for every time-consuming or high-ticket-ingredient recipe, such as Rillettes, Terrine of Foie Gras with Plum Wine, Ragout of Lobster Steamer Clams and Corn with Chanterelles and Tarragon, Grilled Lamb Tenderloins with Curried Golden Raisins and a Spinach Timbale of Duck with Raisins and Mustard-Seed Caviar, there is Kimchi Gazpacho with Shrimp, Ceviche of Tilefish with Fig, Anchovy, and Pistachio (yowza, this is simplicity itself!), Crisp Silken Tofu with Black Beans and Ginger, Spicy Grilled Eggplant with Yogurt and Lentils, Grilled Shrimp with Tamarind, Roasted Pepper, and Chile, Steamed Fish with Scallions and Ginger, Slow Cooked Salmon with Smoked Paprika and Savoy Cabbage (which requires a simple but fascinating technique for cooking salmon), Sauteed Fillet of Skate with Caramelized Apples and Chicken LiverChicken Wings with Korean Chile, Kohlrabi and Flank Steak Stir-Fry, and My Mother’s BBQ Spareribs.  These recipes amply display Lo’s infinite range as a chef but keep home cooks grounded and delirious over her magical flavor palette.  Every once in a while, Lo offers something I’d rather eat in a restaurant, such as Poppy-Seed Bread-and-Butter Pudding with Meyer Lemon. But she tells you the candied Meyer Lemon Chips are optional, thus becoming a good choice to make at home. 

Anita Lo frankly admits she enjoys chef cookbooks, but she has created a cookbook to be appreciated by both the competitive home chef who lives for a challenge and has the deep pockets for luxury ingredients, as well as the flavor seekers who want to sample something different and delicious and just off their normal culinary path. Women chefs are generally better cookbook writers in my experience and COOKNG WITHOUT BORDERS belongs in the same company as SUNDAY SUPPERS AT LUQUES by Suzanne Goin (Knopf), THE ZUNI CAFÉ COOKBOOK by Judy Rodgers (Norton) and OLIVES & ORANGES by Sara Jenkins and Mindy Fox (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)—exceptional cookbooks by three exceptional chefs.

Try these writers who consistently create wonderful cookbooks for home cooks, including the enormously gifted and visionary Jamie Oliver, the brilliant Deborah Madison, Jacques Pepin--a master and a great teacher, and the sublime and compulsively watchable Lidia Bastianich.   

Sautéed Fillet of Skate with Caramelized Apples and Chicken Liver

My introduction to skate took place when I was a child, during a summer spent on Cape Cod, where, with my older brother and sister, I ran into a fisherman. He was an old salt, his arms deeply tanned and wrinkled from the sun, his beard scraggly and speckled with dried seawater. We asked what he had been catching. “Skate,” he replied. Not familiar with the fish, we inquired further and he told us, “In New England we call skate poor man’s scallops.” He explained that “back in the day,” people on the cape would cut out rounds of the meat as a substitute for scallops because the species shared a common sweetness. What he didn’t tell us is that skate is notoriously difficult to work with when whole. I learned that lesson the hard way and, at the same time, realized the true value of the fish. In the fall of 1999 I had a lot of free time on my hands. Annisa wasn’t open yet and I was just learning the art of angling. My other half at the time, Jen, and I had driven all the way from Manhattan to Shinnecock Canal on Long Island because we heard that striper fishing was particularly good there. After a few hours, and a rough time of it, I landed my skate.
I am by no means squeamish, but this fish broke me. None of my extensive culinary training prepared me for what followed. It was the skate that would not die. It took hours; multiple gashes in the head; a three-and-a-half-hour airless trunk ride from Long Island back home to Manhattan, and a drag-out struggle on the cutting board. We gave up the good fight and decided to let the skate die while we watched TV in the next room. Since that traumatic experience, I have not personally killed another skate, but it’s often on the menu at annisa. It is robust and, yes, sweet-flavored, but to call it “poor man’s scallop” is inaccurate and doesn’t do justice to the distinct character of the fish.

Serves 4

For the sauce:
4 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 onion, finely diced
3 tablespoons brandy
3/4 cup chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste

For the apples:
2½ tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil
1. tablespoons butter
1½ cup finely diced Granny Smith apple
2. tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt

For the chicken livers and skate:
4 tablespoons neutral-flavored vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
6 ounces chicken livers, finely diced
4 (5 ½-ounce) fillets skate
Salt and black pepper to taste
Wondra flour
1 lemon, halved

To serve :
1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

Make the sauce: Heat a saucepan over high heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the butter and swirl. Add the onion and lower the heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Add the brandy, then the stock, and bring to a boil. Cook until reduced by one third, then swirl in the remaining 1 ½ tablespoons butter. Season with the salt and pepper and keep warm.
Make the apples: Heat a saute pan over high heat and add the oil. When just smoking, add the butter and apples and saute for about a minute. Add the sugar and salt and cook until caramelized. Remove to a warm plate.
Make the chicken livers and skate: Heat two large saute pans over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon oil and the butter to one pan and 3 tablespoons oil to the other. On a plate, season the livers and skate with salt and pepper and dust lightly with Wondra. When the oil in the pans is smoking, add the livers to the pan with the butter and the skate, whitest side down, to the other pan. Lower the heat to medium-high and cook until golden brown.
Turn the skate and finish cooking on the other side. Squeeze lemon juice over the fish.
Serve the skate with the sauce, topped with the chicken livers, apples, and chives.

from COOKING WITHOUT BORDERS by Anita Lo with Charlotte Druckman, photo by Lucy Schaeffer, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang (2001)

I regret not being able to link THE FAMILY MEAL to I'm still working out the problems it creates when I review multiple titles and the Amazon link arbitrarily fails to allow me to list both titles.  Don't know why it happens.  My apologies. 

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