Nowadays, no matter what our ancestry, our kids want to eat chicken satay as they do in the cafe down the street, our spouses want to serve a pesto as good as the one sampled on vacation in Liguria and we’d all love to master not only a perfect roast chicken but also a mean tarte Tatin.
But encyclopedic cookbooks are updated infrequently and sometimes suggest kitschy or bland versions of ethnic dishes. Meanwhile, chefs’ cookbooks too often pair great ideas with frighteningly complex techniques. We’re ready for an updated but streamlined standard repertoire of recipes, and Anya von Bremzen takes a stab at just that in “The Greatest Dishes!: Around the World in 80 Recipes” (HarperCollins, $25.95).
Her goal is to create a new American home cook’s canon, one that reflects today’s taste for authenticity but is made up of classic dishes that “keep a grip on our taste buds through changing fashions and fleeting fads.”
In alphabetical order from apple pie to Wiener schnitzel, Von Bremzen offers 80 recipes and their “biographies.” The food-history passages and on-the-trail-of anecdotes make for lively reading, but Von Bremzen’s real contribution is in the way she redefines the dishes she writes about. Through careful hands-on testing, she discovers -- or rediscovers -- for herself the heart and soul of many dishes. She offers a real reason to try each of the resulting recipes.
Von Bremzen identifies “brash marine essence,” for example, as a defining characteristic of bouillabaisse Marseillaise, but instead of insisting on authentic ingredients (scorpionfish, conger eel), she concentrates on helping the reader sort out the “two-act drama” of broth and poached fish that makes bouillabaisse fun to serve when entertaining.
Or take fried chicken. By passing along a recipe from Scott Peacock of Watershed restaurant in Decatur, Ga., she reminds us why the stuff used to be on so many Sunday dinner tables. Soaked overnight in buttermilk, fried crisp with a touch of bacon in the pan, this version of a once-beloved dish sweeps away the shortcuts and compromises of a couple of generations and resurrects a flavor combination that deserves the classic status Von Bremzen bestows on it.
Sometimes she creates a recipe combining the best of several versions of one dish. In at least one case -- chocolate-glazed lemon cheesecake -- it’s an inspired decision.
A food and travel writer who grew up in Moscow under communism and lives now in Queens, N.Y., Von Bremzen is the author of three previous cookbooks (on Russian, Asian fusion and Latin cuisines). She travels widely, sampling dishes in their place of origin and then gathering or developing recipes. For this book, she “first made a list of dishes whose greatness would not be contested: cassoulet, paella, bouillabaisse, hamburgers, potato salad, apple pie, tandoori chicken ... " and then tried to make or find the perfect recipe for each.
Her list is decidedly personal, eschewing chile con carne and including sancocho, a Latino meat-and-tuber one-pot dish. Any greatest-hits list is debatable, of course, and the decision to include some surprises enhances the book. Part of the fun is the persuasiveness with which the author presents each selection, quoting authorities from Julia Child and Diana Kennedy (on the origins of Caesar salad) to the “Forme of Curry,” a 14th century recipe collection.
Some recipes are, if not hard to prepare, dauntingly time consuming. For cassoulet (which, she explains, is “built around traditional southwestern French techniques of preserving pork, duck and goose for the winter”), Von Bremzen suggests a game plan that starts two days before the dish will be served.
There are a few misfires (a just-sits-there hamburger recipe), no breads (though polenta and arepas, Colombian corn cakes, make the cut) and precious few desserts.
Most of the recipes, however, are appealing and practical enough for everyday cooking and seem destined to become the kind of favorites that home cooks will turn to again and again: Chinese “lion’s-head” meatballs flavored with soy and ginger, a pad Thai that’s delightfully spicy, a pan-seared rib eye steak with Argentine chimichurri sauce, a straightforward matzo ball soup, carnitas made with Coca-Cola and lime juice.
Some dishes, like the Russian winter borscht with beef and pork, reflect the author’s roots; others are drawn from her travels. And anyone who’s tried to duplicate elusive flavors that are so thrilling when encountered on the road will be grateful to Von Bremzen for -- in these 80 examples at least -- bringing them all back home.