ENCAPSULATED beet-juice spheres under verjuice ice and lemon thyme froth. Torchon of monkfish liver cooked sous vide in an immersion circulator at 64 degrees Celsius. Jamon iberico consomme.
Ah, fall, the season of college football, PTA meetings -- and high-profile chef cookbooks.
But entertaining as it may be to leaf through hotly anticipated new books by Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria, Grant Achatz of Alinea and the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal, the home cook is likely to leave the cooking of the complex recipes in those volumes to the professionals.
So instead of enrolling in culinary school and purchasing the special equipment and ingredients (liquid nitrogen canisters, toad skin melons) called for by some chef-authors, consider that this fall’s dazzling cookbook lineup has many impressive offerings for the amateur. Six books, some debuts and some by chefs who’ve penned previous cookbooks, are welcome additions to any home cook’s working library.
Nate Appleman of A16, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, and David Tanis, longtime chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, New York chef (at 50 Carmine, Il Buco and others) Sara Jenkins and L.A.'s own “Two Dudes,” Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo of Animal, have all written first cookbooks happily suited to the home cook.
Add new family-focused books by British chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and you have an impressive list of accessible cookbooks to choose from.
Of these six, three -- by Appleman, Oliver and Tanis -- were the most consistent, intelligent and creative.
“A16: Food + Wine” is the best of the bunch. This debut book by chef Nate Appleman and wine director Shelley Lindgren with Kate Leahy strikes a satisfying balance between simple and complex. It reads like a road map to the food and wine served at A16 (which is perhaps fitting, since the restaurant was named for a road in southern Italy), combining recipes and terrific photography by Ed Anderson with primers on wine by Lindgren and tutorials on ingredients from Appleman.
Even the novice cook can make Appleman’s raw zucchini salad with green olives, mint and pecorino. It’s an easy no-cook recipe, but one that combines technique (briefly salting ribbons of thinly sliced raw zucchini to soften them and remove water) and sophisticated flavor combinations, with impressive results.
A recipe for bucatini with tomatoes and bottarga combines purchased pasta and a sauce made with Roma tomatoes that are first salt-roasted -- for six hours -- with a very generous grating of bottarga (pressed, cured fish roe). Taken individually, each ingredient is rich in flavor: The tomatoes are velvety and dense, the pasta is simple, and the bottarga is unusual and complex; the three together are magnificent.
Monday meatballs is another basic dish, meatballs covered by San Marzano canned tomatoes and baked under aluminum foil. But Appleman’s extras -- grinding the meat yourself (use a food processor), and adding ricotta and more than the usual amount of bread crumbs -- elevate the simple to the extraordinary.
More advanced cooks can opt for Appleman’s recipes for from-scratch squid-ink pasta or pizza baked on a charcoal grill. Or try the unusual grilled shrimp with pickled peppers, preserved Meyer lemons and toasted almonds. If you don’t have pickled peppers or preserved Meyers on hand, the chef gives you easy instructions for making them yourself.
Jamie Oliver’s eighth book, “Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life,” is billed as an hommage to his garden. In the preface, the popular British chef (television’s former “Naked Chef”) explains that he’s fallen in love with his “veg.” The book, beautifully photographed by David Loftus, is a folksy, endearing exploration of what he does with that garden windfall.
Oliver tells readers to add a “swig of vinegar” or to “scrunch up” two pounds of strawberries with their hands for a quick jam. But for all the cuteness, Oliver really is charming, and his dishes are fresh, imaginative and well-balanced.
A striking salad combines whole carrots roasted -- along with a halved lemon and orange -- in a spice blend. The juice from the citrus forms the base of a quick vinaigrette. Tossed with handfuls of garden greens and slices of avocado, the salad gets another dimension from a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of toasted seeds. It’s refreshing, deeply flavorful and inventive.
Oliver’s grilled lamb kebabs -- meatballs formed around skewers, then grilled and wrapped in purchased flatbread, salad greens and quick homemade condiments -- are just as much fun, both to prepare and to eat. (Oliver is good at deciding which ingredients are worth the effort to make from scratch, and which aren’t.)
A matter of courses
“APlatter of Figs and Other Recipes” is the first cookbook from Chez Panisse’s David Tanis. Like the restaurant, the book offers simple menus of three or four courses for eight. (At Chez Panisse, a menu composed of a single series of courses is offered each night; diners aren’t given options.)
Tanis’ book, interspersed with a nicely written narrative of the chef’s ideas and back story, is a lovely read. The recipes are nice too, although the book can be frustrating for those cooking for fewer than eight.
The menus are simple and rely heavily on market cycles. Zuppa di fagoli, served with garlic-rubbed toasts, is a well-executed white bean soup, but it’s heightened with the unusual addition of fennel seeds and further torqued by a drizzle of rosemary-infused olive oil.
On the suggested fall menu that includes the soup recipe, the dessert is a deft almond biscotti (Tanis’ simple recipe for this often underrated dessert is a great addition to a cook’s repertoire), but the first and third courses are composed simply of salumi and olives, and pears and cheese. Both are fine ideas, but you want something more from a chef with Tanis’ experience and imagination.
Tanis’ minimalism doesn’t always serve him well in other ways. Some menus are too bare-bones, some dishes a bit flat. A blueberry-blackberry crumble is so berry-heavy it seems more an enormous compote than a structured dessert, and a honey-lavender ice cream is nuanced but far too sweet.
The books by Sara Jenkins, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Dudes, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, are less reliable but often inspiring. “Olives & Oranges: Recipes and Flavor Secrets From Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Beyond,” by Jenkins and Mindy Fox, is a lively cookbook with a Mediterranean spin. It’s Jenkins’ first book, though she’s cooked at a string of New York restaurants (her restaurant, Porchetta, is opening this fall).
Jenkins’ dishes are straightforward, interesting for often-striking flavor combinations. But the recipes can be hit-or-miss. Cantaloupe gazpacho is a blend of melon and cucumber with olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar and a bit of shallot.
Topped with matchsticks of prosciutto and a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper, the soup is easy, unusual and shot with flavor. But although a fattoush, or Middle Eastern salad of toasted pita and chopped vegetables, looked nice on the plate, it tasted flat.
“The RIVER Cottage Family Cookbook,” by Fearnley-Whittingstall and Fizz Carr, is the latest book by the British chef and television personality. It’s a book geared to parents and their kids -- somewhat of a departure for Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has frequently appeared on Gordon Ramsay’s expletive-filled television shows, and whose first book, “Cook on the Wild Side,” discussed preparing road kill.
The book does a great job of hitting its target audience, with short tutorials on subjects such as flour and chocolate, recipes for smoothies and ideas for kid-friendly projects, such as creating an ice-cream maker. Some of the recipes, however, aren’t so spot on.
A basic chocolate mousse is fantastic, and so easy your kids could start their careers as pastry chefs with it. But the honey fudge never set, remaining a sticky goo. A roast chicken turned out undercooked, bland even for kids; and though the accompanying gravy was tasty, there was only a scant tablespoon’s worth.
Shook and Dotolo’s first book, “Two Dudes, One Pan: Maximum Flavor From a Minimalist Kitchen,” is as colorful and slightly scruffy as the chefs themselves. The book is a happy mishmash, with recipes ranging from spicy citrus-glazed duck breasts to basic buttermilk pancakes.
Some recipes are very successful riffs on the traditional: Bacon-wrapped (the Dudes love bacon) meatloaf is shot with herbs, moist and deeply flavorful. But other dishes are disappointing.
Vinny’s spaghetti Bolognese was too heavy, thickened at the end with unnecessary butter and cream, and oddly one-dimensional. Pan-roasted eggplant (the chefs’ secret ingredient when they were on “Iron Chef”) with shallot vinaigrette turned out both underseasoned and undercooked.
Although some of these new user-friendly cookbooks are uneven, the standouts -- Appleman’s and Oliver’s -- are practical yet imaginative, with accessible instructions and helpful tips. They’re also a bargain compared with many of the for-pros books: All six hardcovers come in at below $40 each.
Meanwhile, chefs, wannabe chefs and collectors willing to spend a little more money ($250 for Blumenthal’s “The Big Fat Duck Cookbook”) or who have a handy immersion circulator (needed for Keller’s sous vide book) will have a stack of great cookbooks this fall too.