"Ad Hoc" is easier to use than "New Classic Family Dinners," partly because of the clearly marked tips called "light bulb moments" that break up the recipes. They might tell you how to get more meat from a lobster or always to season from high above the food for even distribution.
Many of the dishes are meant to "evoke a particular era in American gastronomy, circa 1950 . . . veal piccata, lobster Newburg, spaghetti with clam sauce," says Peel, who sets out to bring them "back to life." Veal piccata might still require some culinary defibrillation, but Mediterranean accents (garlic and tomato) in his bacon-y smothered pork chops make a juicier, zestier gravy, taken a step further than a traditional sauce of onions, chicken stock, flour and milk.
Best heed Keller's advice "to develop relationships with the people you buy ingredients from," especially your butcher. Who knew it was so hard to get three-fourths of a pound of brisket at Huntington Meats in the Original Farmers Market on Fairfax Avenue? I went there for 1 1/2 pounds of sirloin, three-fourths pound of brisket and three-fourths pound of chuck for Keller's hamburgers. It was only after some cajoling that I got my brisket, because Huntington sells only whole briskets.
As for the recipe, it would have been helpful to indicate which part of the sirloin. (Should I have spent extra money for the tip?) And the burgers? They had great meaty flavor, but it's hard to beat the juicy-fatty texture and taste of the "Nancy blend" -- chuck ground with sirloin fat -- named for Silverton (Peel's former wife, of Mozza fame) and also sold at Huntington.
Both Peel and Keller worked with expert recipe testers, Martha Rose Shulman and Susie Heller, respectively. Michael Ruhlman and Amy Vogler also contributed to "Ad Hoc." These are reliable recipes, and glitches are rare.
But is it possible to get very tender (but not falling-apart) short ribs after braising for just 1 1/2 hours, as described in "Ad Hoc"? Not in my oven, as it turns out; it took nearly double that. And Keller's grapefruit cake brushed with more than a cup of grapefruit syrup is a pretty wet cake. The 24 bay leaves (the recipe didn't indicate fresh or dried, so I used fresh) in the brine for the fried chicken resulted in some very intense bay flavor -- but spectacular fried chicken anyway.
In the case of cookbooks from two premier chefs teamed with top recipe testers, what is probably even more important than to-be-expected reliability is whether there is a significant payoff for taking the extra effort, and whether it's worth buying expensive ingredients, applying another technique or making an additional component for a dish.
In many cases, yes, but in others, no. Keller's pasta dough recipe calls for an egg and 14 egg yolks. It is rich and delicious, but I liked Peel's fresh pasta recipe, made with semolina and all-purpose flour and an egg and two yolks. It needs to rest for only an hour (as opposed to the 12 to 24 hours for Keller's dough), so I can even make it on a weeknight for dinner.
On the other hand, bread pudding, normally blobby, is transformed by Keller into an artful plated dessert when it is carefully constructed in distinct layers, cut into rectangles, then browned in clarified butter. It's another two-day affair because it has to chill for several hours before browning. But that means you can prepare it ahead of time for a dinner party and then finish it just before serving. Plus, it is a perfect pairing with a glass of good Sauternes.
And though the Catalan beef stew is stunning and something I'd make again on a winter weekend, Keller's braised chicken thighs with olives, lemon and fennel are just as impressive in flavor and presentation. Imagine a big platter of lemon-scented crispy-skinned chicken (it gets a quick pass under the broiler after braising), crisp-tender fennel, and fat, fruity green olives.
So am I a better cook for turning bread pudding into a plated dessert or making peach purée for a salad?
Yes. Except I still might stick with the one-hour soffritto.