Spicy Reading : Puck’s Latest: The Wolf at Your Kitchen Door : ADVENTURES IN THE KITCHEN, <i> By Wolfgang Puck (Random House: $30, 265 pp.)</i>
Before charging into Wolfgang Puck’s larky new collection, it’s smart to remember that kitchens are probably the least understood, least visible link between star-worshipping diners and gastronomic adventure. I’m not out to knock adventures in contemporary restaurant dining, but the truth is that when chefs turn their cooking into formulas for a home kitchen, they are likelier than not to resemble Don Quixote’s adventures as seen from the viewpoint of the horse. It takes a lot of disciplined thinking to bring restaurant food into realistic focus for most of us. “Adventures in the Kitchen” sometimes achieves that focus--and sometimes blurs it.
A certain international-mudpie spirit seems to be part of the Puckish charm. One of his modes is sturdy, unpretentious tradition given a bit of a spin--gefilte fish turned into a version of stuffed cabbage; potatoes and parsnips sharing the stage in an oven-baked version of potato pancakes; simple leg of lamb paired with robust stewed black beans (instead of the expected haricots verts ); gazpacho Mexicanized with tomatillos, jalapenos and avocado.
Sometimes the cross-cultural jolt may be stronger, as in a meat loaf wrapped in eggplant slices like some version of moussaka and served over a vegetable puree with one of Puck’s many rich butter-emulsion sauces. Or raw tuna presented as a composed salad with a distinctly Eurasian vinaigrette (olive oil, lime juice, soy sauce, fresh ginger, shallots).
Food like this makes sense for a pretty broad spectrum--for cooks who don’t mind searching out ingredients and taking trouble. It’s hard to say just where the likable inventions get to be too much--many people surely will draw the line differently from me. But I think an awful lot of lilies get gilded in a way that’s more attractive in a restaurant meal than a home-cooked one.
Take the “Christmas Apple Pie,” which is about anything but apples. Puck suggests a mere two indifferent choices in the apple department (“pippin or Granny Smith”) and drowns out their flavor with brandy, Calvados, two teaspoons of citrus zest, three kinds of dried fruit and a lot of butter in which those hard green apples must be sauteed “to become tender.” It’s cooking with that extra dash of pizazz that makes you say “Wow!” in one context, but looks like affectation in another.
Subtle flavorings tend not to be the order of the day, as seen in a much-used brown chicken (or other poultry) stock with an amazing one cup of tomato paste in what ends up as 6 cups of stock. It should also be noted that the jacket blurb’s claim about this being “lighter, more healthful” fare is--well, a jacket-blurb claim.
Still, pros would generally outweigh cons if the only factor were the mix of recipe ideas and ingredients. Even people like me who aren’t fond of hotsy-totsy bravura and high-decibel seasonings can find plenty of lusty, uncontrived stuff such as super-rich butterscotch pudding, leek-potato-spinach soup and fresh tuna given the steak- au-poivre treatment. Although some will be more enthusiastic than others about lengthier and more complex challenges, there certainly is a stimulating range of possibilities to choose from.
But it’s a big job making gorgeous restaurant dishes into cookbook recipes, and many glitches seem to have occurred in translating dishes from the four Puck restaurants into practical home instruction. For such tasks chefs--who trust to instinct and handfuls more than measuring cups--ordinarily require a degree of editorial first aid unrecognized by the book-buying public. If it had been provided as necessary, we wouldn’t have such absurdities as two cups of white beans (measured before soaking) and five cups of liquid cooked in a six-cup saucepan; four to five pounds of cooked corned beef in hash for six people; and a spice paste formula calling for “1 tablespoon cumin” without saying whether it should be whole or ground.
Details often aren’t there when people will want them--can you substitute ordinary granulated gelatin for the leaf gelatin in a duck liver pate? What should Jewish cooks who don’t want to use leavened bread in a Passover meal do about the “6 slices brioche or egg bread” in the gefilte fish? Someone might well have tried to straighten out terminology like “stems of 2 green onions” (white or green part? both?), “loin of tuna,” “2 pounds whitefish fillets, such as pike, caro, or whitefish,” and the garbled distinction between “wheat flour” and “semolina flour.” (Semolina is wheat flour.)
And someone should have questioned the good sense of cooking the aforementioned duck liver pate to an internal temperature of only 100 degrees. Or using uncooked egg yolks in sauces without explaining that some degree of risk has to be weighed here. Or advising people to caramelize the sugar topping of a lime-lemon tart with a propane blowtorch.
Other kinds of annoyances keep cropping up. Lousy proofreading and copy editing, for one thing. We shouldn’t have “picatta” for “piccata,” “chiles” and “chilies” on the same page, and “pate sucree” rendered as “pate sucre.”
The pretty-looking double-column page format turns out to be less than functional. Not only does the eye tend to get lost in endless columns of ingredients, but ingredients and the directions they’re supposed to go with keep ending up on opposite sides of page breaks, necessitating unwanted page turning at bad moments.
Often you wonder whether the right hand knew what the left hand was doing. The color photograph of red snapper fillets covered with overlapping “scales” of sliced potatoes shows a presentation--the fillets reassembled with heads and tails to look like whole fish--not mentioned in the recipe, while the accompanying line drawing agrees with neither; the chive and onion garnish in the photograph of pancakes with smoked fish has nothing to do with the dill garnish in the recipe. None of these lapses is a monstrosity, but altogether they suggest a lack of systematic, coordinated direction in the journey from manuscript to finished book.
It seems to me that many chefs’ cookbooks, despite fascinating recipes, end up somehow being less than the sum of their parts. The fact is that as restaurant cooking becomes more and more prized as a form of live theater showcasing signature touches and “creative” razzle-dazzle, trying to make it into neat, foolproof formulas for home cooks becomes more and more beside the point. It’s like trying to patent Robin Williams’s changes of expression: You lose half the reason for valuing the commodity you’re trying to sell. But publishers never stop making the attempt--which means that there are a lot of glamorous, stimulating, lucrative, but half-realized books floating around out there.