On Rachel! On Rocco! On Nigella and Emeril!
Take a walk through the cookbook section of a bookstore this holiday season, and you’ll find plenty of titles with blinding TV brightness.
It feels like just one more piece of evidence that the influence of food TV has gone beyond what’s on the dial; it now abides deep in our culture. That’s great for TV fans, but what about the rest of us?
Happily, there are a few new books that can give food lovers -- the kind who prefer cooking standing up to watching it sitting down -- something to chew on. For those who are fond of sinking into sofas, they also happen to be books you’ll actually want to relax and spend an evening with, getting ideas, drawing inspiration, understanding a new technique or two.
You may not actually wind up cooking very often from this big, beautiful book by superchef Thomas Keller, but you’ll certainly want to have it on your coffee table.
That doesn’t mean it’s not filled with smart ideas and terrific recipes; it’s just that it’s so darn big and heavy, so gorgeous, that the idea of actively working with it in the kitchen is hard to imagine. What if you spilled red wine jus on it?
Inspired by recipes from Bouchon, Keller’s second restaurant in Napa (with a newer branch in Las Vegas), the concept is ostensibly bistro cooking. Yet the book (written with Jeff Cerciello, Susie Heller and Michael Ruhlman) couldn’t feel less bistro. Bistros are casual, comfortable places; this book is formal and studied and grand. So let’s just call it Thomas Keller’s version of bistro.
Take the cover photograph: It shows the corner of a zinc bar, with a diminutive, almost sculpted-looking carafe of red wine, a small glass of red and, in front of that, a perfect, crusty pain epi. Even if the book did include bread recipes, you’d never be able to turn out a loaf like that unless maybe Lionel Poilane was your cousin. A small ceramic disc holds butter with the Bouchon logo somehow etched into it in burgundy red. There’s no sign of life; it’s just a perfect, hermetic bistro dream.
Inside, Deborah Jones’ photographs are worth the price of admission -- they really bring the food to life. A glamour shot of duck confit with Brussels sprouts and mustard sauce looks almost painfully appetizing. A color portrait of baby fennel shares a page with a black-and-white shot of the interior of Bouchon. Glistening glazed carrots and potatoes scattered with chives cry out to be cooked -- or just eaten.
The recipes range from the simple (roast chicken) to the elaborate (rabbit pate) to the ridiculously elaborate (boeuf bourguignon). Frogs’ legs Provencal requires frogs’ legs, which you can order from Gary’s Seafood Specialties somewhere in the 407 area code, along with tomato confit, garlic confit and fish fumet or chicken stock, all of which you have to make before you start the recipe.
Results are mixed. Skirt steak with caramelized shallots and red wine jus (a.k.a. bavette a la Bordelaise) is easy to follow and very bistro; it turns out delicious, accompanied by a watercress-herb salad. The red wine jus seems worth the hour and a half it takes to simmer (requiring a good quantity of veal stock, either homemade or expensive). But does it really require four cups of thinly sliced shallots for four servings? By the time I reached three cups, I ran out of them. That was plenty, though; the four cups felt like restaurant-y overkill.
Boeuf bourguignon takes two days to make and is fairly labor intensive.
“The primary techniques for Bouchon’s beef bourguignon are those of refinement -- " writes Keller, “removing the impurities at every opportunity.”
The beef, therefore (cut from appropriately fatty short ribs), is browned, then suspended on a cheesecloth “nest” over glazed vegetables, submerged in stock and slow-cooked. The result is gorgeous, the vegetables glistening jewel-like in the sauce. And it is refined, but perhaps too refined. The meat is tender and the dish has good flavor, yet it struck me as somehow soulless. The sauce is thin. The red and white pearl onions, cooked in vinegar according to instructions at the back of the book -- and separately, so the colors won’t bleed -- simmer only five to 10 minutes in the sauce, so they’re fairly flavorless. While I’d be perfectly happy with this dish at a restaurant, it’s not at all worth the tremendous effort; I’d be just as happy with a more rustic version that took only two or three hours to make, with flavors that melded together more and a more substantial sauce.
A recipe for cauliflower gratin, on the other hand, rocks. The florets are bound by a puree made from their minced stems, simmered in plenty of cream; the flavor is heightened by a touch of horseradish and a pinch of curry powder. Brilliant.
The signature dessert, chocolate bouchons, is out of this world -- elegantly bittersweet, incredibly moist -- almost like a cross between a brownie and a chocolate souffle. The bouchons are not too complicated to make.
Food lovers will want to have the book around, just to flip through from time to time. Serious cooks will find great ideas to swipe. I contemplated making the butternut squash soup with brown butter, sage and nutmeg creme fraiche. But rather than follow Keller’s instructions, which included homemade vegetable stock, I just made my own. Then I stole his best ideas, swirling in a little brown butter, topping it with creme fraiche and grating a little nutmeg over it. Absolutely heavenly.
The Simpler the Better
At the other end of the spectrum, this slim, square-shaped volume from the late Leslie Revsin, modest in style and scope, is a terrific choice for anyone on your list who seeks good, simple recipes. It’s ideal for someone just learning to cook, working parents or those interested in easy entertaining.
The former chef at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Revsin neatly presents each recipe in three easy steps. She understands flavor, so the dishes are appealing. For Cuban pork chops, you just brown the chops, scatter in thinly sliced garlic, cook them in fresh lime juice, which melds with the pork juices and becomes nicely syrupy, then season with cumin and pepper.
“Waldorf chicken legs,” apparently a favorite staff meal at the hotel, were good enough to become an instant staple chez moi. They’re just rubbed with Worcestershire sauce, sprinkled with flour seasoned with paprika, oregano and garlic powder, and roasted for half an hour. Nothing could be easier.
One recipe is stunning: turnips slowly sauteed in olive oil until golden brown and tender. The flavor is outstanding, the texture amazing. It’s going right into my repertoire. And I’ll stow the book in plain sight of my husband, a cookbook-averse beginning cook who suddenly finds himself in the position of putting dinner on the table most weeknights.
Italian Slow and Savory
Chronicle Books, $40
It’s always an event when San Francisco-based Joyce Goldstein publishes a new book; few authors besides Paula Wolfert understand and translate Mediterranean cooking as well as Goldstein does.
The food on the cover is so appealing -- quail with sage and grapes on polenta, even a plate of uncooked fresh pasta -- you just want to dive into it.
Goldstein offers 19 delicious-looking sauces for pasta and polenta, including an outstanding ragu alla napoletana and an intriguing Tuscan rabbit sauce.
Traditional braises feel just right for the season, from classics like osso buco alla Milanese to lamb stew with bitter greens and sheep’s milk cheese from Apulia. Goldstein always has something interesting to say about the recipes’ origins, providing welcome regional context.
Although the recipes are outstanding, sometimes a little cooking knowledge is necessary to make them work.
Tender and flavorful pork meatballs from Sardinia (bombas alla sarda) won’t retain enough liquid to stay moist unless you cover the pan. (Goldstein says to simmer them uncovered.) Veal braised with mustard cream comes out beautifully soft and delicious, but you’ll probably want to reduce the sauce before blending it. Roast fish with vegetables from Mantua requires a much larger baking dish than the recipe calls for in order to hold all the zucchini, onions, mushrooms and sliced potatoes it includes. The end result, though, is marvelous; paper-thin sliced lemons fairly melt into the sea bass as it roasts with the vegetables in a saffron infusion.
One recipe I tried flopped: Braised radicchio with balsamic vinegar turned out unpleasantly bitter. But another vegetable dish, baked eggplant from Sardinia, is one I’ll make often. A paste of garlic, parsley, basil, tomato and capers gets pressed into deeply scored eggplant flesh; the whole is sprinkled with wonderfully salty, olive oil-rich toasted bread crumbs, then baked till tender. The flavors all melt together gorgeously.
It’s a winner.
Raising the Bar: Better Drinks, Better Entertaining
Cocktail books come and go, but this one’s actually interesting enough to buy. According to the flap copy, author Nick Mautone managed New York’s Gotham Bar and Grill and Gramercy Tavern.
Mautone covers the basics -- what’s a jigger and so forth -- and provides definitive versions of classic cocktails. His Sazerac can’t be beat.
But more notably, the book is filled with really good, smart ideas. Mautone garnishes a classic martini with a fresh bay leaf, and something magical happens between the bay leaf and the gin. His garnishes -- red Hawaiian sea salt, candied grapefruit peel, homemade maraschino cherries -- blow the competition out of the water.
Instead of grenadine, Mautone recommends trying red wine syrup -- made by reducing a medium-bodied wine with sugar -- in many recipes. He uses it in an original concoction called a Park Avenue -- a kind of Champagne cocktail made with sparkling wine, brandy, Grand Marnier and the red wine syrup. Try that on for the holidays.
One original recipe called an apple crisp, with equal amounts of Calvados and fresh lemon juice, along with a little Cointreau, turns out to be puckeringly sour (though it does sport a fetching crab-apple garnish).
But when blood oranges appear on the market, I’ll be the first on my block to try Mautone’s blood orange sparkler: blood orange flesh muddled with sugar, heightened with sweet vermouth and completed with sparkling wine; blood orange slices are the garnish. I can’t wait.