Friday, May 09, 2008
Book Review: Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook
The beginning of the book has a "manual" for how to select, store, and handle various types of fish and seafood. I would have liked to see a bit more - for example, not just filleting a whole fish, but also gutting and cleaning it. However, even in the section on fin fish, there was a tip I had never heard for telling if a fish is done. Insert the tip of a knife into the thickest part of a fillet. Then put the tip against the inside of your wrist. If it feels hot, then it's done. And there's plenty of other useful information, like an explanation of the difference among different types of crab meat and crabs.
The recipes look fabulous: crab cakes with ravigote sauce, chilled smoked scallops with tomato-and-onion marmalade (making your own stove top smoker is in a tips appendix), oyster and artichoke bisque, baked catfish with sweet potato scales and andouille sauce, shrimp and spinach cannelloni with champagne butter sauce. This is upscale fish cookery.
Oddly enough, my eyebrows frowned when I came upon the dessert, side dish, and drinks sections. Heaven knows I love dessert, and there are some terrific recipes in here, and I've also been known to tuck into side dishes and even take the occasional drink (including a rum-based milk punch during a "Breakfast at Brennan's" at the famous restaurant owned by some of his kin). But there are so many general and even restaurant cookbooks, I found myself wishing that they had just concentrated on the fish alone, expanding those sections even more (not that they are skimpy by any means). But that's just me; my wife happily bookmarked through the rest of the pages as well.
It's a hefty $45, but you get a hefty amount of hardback for the money. It could make a great gift, whether for someone else or yourself.
Book Review: Cake Art
However, it's not a paralyzing shortcoming, as you can get some of that from browsing online retailers, stores, and catalogs. Where the book really shines is in the techniques and instructions. For example, on page 31 there is a photo with three spoons of meringue, one stiff, one medium, and one soft-peaked. There are formulas for both hard and soft ganaches (Books often don't explicitly set the two side-by-side, and there's a big difference in the resulting texture and use.) as well as modeling chocolate. You can learn to make ribbons and coverings of fondant. Pipe a flower from buttercream (with a tip on how to reconstitute the mixture if it separates) or mold it from molding chocolate, marzipan, or fondant. In short, there is a lot to learn.
And that might be the big problem for many would-be cake decorators. Some of these techniques require practice, and a lot of it. If you go directly to the projects and try to work your way backward into the techniques, the results are going to be disappointing. If you want to undertake a given project (which, smartly, tell you how far in advance - weeks in some cases - to start different parts), then read through, write down the techniques that are necessary, and practice well in advance. You don't really think that pastry chefs start on this level of work their first day of class, do you? However, if you are willing to spend some time, this book should be well worth your while.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Review: The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan
Friday, September 14, 2007
Cookbook Review and Opinion: Rathways to Plate: Destinations and Dishes from Delaware North
The company was wise enough to have a chef test each of the recipes, because scaling down what works in a commercial kitchen can be a disaster. Many of the dishes are intriguing and off the beaten track, like the Pine Nut Pie with Port Wine Sauce from the Wawona Hotel, Avocado Faux Gras from Asilomar State Beach & Conference Grounds, and The Balsams's Maple-Cured Salmon Gravlax. Other recipes are a bit more predictable, but still interesting, such as Rib Eye Steaks with Spiced Coffee Rub from Delaware North's restaurant at the Grand Canyon, or Frozen Key Lime Pie via the Kennedy Space Center. Over all, an interesting book, though, self-published with a list price of $50, expensive. But profits go to a charitable foundation of the company, so it's hard to begrudge them some money.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Cookbook Review: Modern Indian Cooking
The introduction says that this is "an attempt to recreate classic Indian dishes by using simplistic techniques along with a delicious juxtaposition of non-Indian ingredients." Many of the recipes struck me more as an attempt at a type of fusion cuisine, only driven by the spices of the southern, and not eastern, part of Asia. But this sort of combination is tricky - you can get a new take on classics, in which case you need to be grounded enough there, or you can try for something in between two cooking cultures, but that requires maintaining a balance and offering adroit flavor blends that offer complementary hints of each.
I find Modern Indian Cooking to stumble about this ground, so that you will see in the same soup and salad section a take on carrot and ginger soup (not all that startlingly new, even with mustard seeds and curry powder) and a curry corn chowder with roasted poblanos (and if you drop the curry powder, is similar to a corn chowder recipe I saw in Fonda San Miguel).
That's not to say that the recipes look bad. On the contrary, I'm looking forward to trying a number of them. But it's the overarching concept that I find weak. I think it would have been better to pick one ground: either simplifying Indian for western cooks, or sticking to modern approaches to Indian cooking. That said, it does offer many ideas for starting to incorporate Indian spices into western dishes, which could open new ways of practicing cooking for many. The list price is $29.95.
Friday, July 20, 2007
Cookbook Review: Cucina Del Sole
But the lack of pictures makes more room for the writing, which is engaging, and I'm delighted to find someone whose penchant for rambling sentences exceeds even mine. The recipes are marvelous and often surprising. For example, I had done a lot of research into pizza last year as I finished the Complete Idiot's Guide to Pizza and Panini, but I had never seen an approach that called for a biga - a starter slurry of flour, water, and yeast that is variously called a poolish, levain, or sponge, depending on where in the world you are. (And certainly I hadn't seen the tip of adding a teaspoon of white vinegar to adjust the pH of the dough and make it easier to work.) There's a recipe for making semolina-based pasta, rather than the ubiquitous northern Italian approach of eggs and regular flour. There are terrific seafood recipes (no surprise in southern Italy) and meat dishes with variations that are usual in English texts, like Sicilian Braised Rabbit in a Sweet-and-Sour Sauce. The delights continue through vegetables (Marsala Carrots - what a natural pairing) and desserts (Olive Oil Cake with Walnuts). List price is $29.95, and it will be worth every penny - and a lot cheaper than flying to Italy to collect the recipes and know-how yourself.
Thursday, July 05, 2007
Book Review: The Spice and Herb Bible, Second Edition
Of course there are sections on growing and using spices, and I found interesting the section on the spices and herbs that specific cuisines use. An approach I hadn't seen before is using relational weights - for example, in Indonesian cooking if you used cloves, turmeric, and coriander seed, they would likely be in a ration of 1 to 5 to 8. My first impression was that there were supposed to be proportions of spice blends, but that didn't make sense when you had, say, 15 different ingredients and you know that the cuisine in question doesn't use all of them every time. And there are recipes for specific spice blends at the end of the book. No, this chapter was to give you a feel for how the given cuisine uses and combines spices - very good to know.
What really grabbed me, though, were the entries for individual spices and herbs. Each includes the following: origin and history, processing, buying and storage, use, other names for the item, names in other languages, suggested quantities for a given type of dish, and what other spices and herbs that work well with it.
You do need to keep in mind that the book is from Australia, because some terminology might throw you. For example, there was a recipe for a savory biscuit. I was thinking the flaky type you bake, and then I suddenly remembered that in Australia and the UK, biscuit can mean a cookie or cracker. You will also find a few spices that aren't readily found in this part of the world. That said, at $24.95, this is a bargain.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Cookbook Review: The Culinary Institute of America Vegetables
Let's ignore the very last claim, as restaurant schools from Johnson & Wales to those in Zurich, France, and Germany might disagree. Physically this is a well-illustrated and designed book. Recipes are laid out with the steps on one page, ingredients running vertically next to the steps, and a full color picture facing. That's critical, because students in a culinary school get to see the food when the instructors show them how to make it. But if you've never laid eyes on a dish, it's difficult to tell whether your results are correct or not.
The one place where the visuals are lacking is in basic preparation and cooking techniques as well as information on storage and individual vegetable types. But economic realities come into play. The volume is already just over 290 pages long at a suggest price of $40; any more, and it would quickly hit the $70 and higher price of culinary text books, putting it out of the price range of all but the most ardent home cooks.
Recipe organization is in a standard set of categories: soups, appetizers, salads, entrées, side dishes, and sauces and relishes. What is unusual for a book covering vegetables is that it’s not vegetarian; there are some recipes that include meat. I was actually happy to see that. Too often vegetables are treated as accompaniments to meats, poultry, and fish, and not as integral parts of the recipe concepts. Those who eschew eating that which moved about at one time won’t like those parts of the book, but for most people, I think it’s a sound approach. I also saw enough unusual dishes – such as Thai Fresh Pea Soup and Hoisin-Caramelized Root Vegetables – that this collection is unlikely to be a duplicate of the standard “exotic” recipes that you find turning up in one book after another. I look forward to the next volume they do in this fashion.
Monday, May 07, 2007
Cookbook Review: Fonda San Miguel: Thirty years of Food and Art
Fonda San Miguel is a well-regarded restaurant in Austin offering Mexican cuisine. Author credits are co-founders Tom Gilliland (runs the front of the house) and Miguel Ravago (the chef) as well as “text by” Virginia B. Wood, whom is an Austin writer. The foreword is by noted Mexican cuisine expert Diana Kennedy, who apparently is a friend of the founders and whose work has inspired some of the dishes.
From first glance, the book is visually sumptuous: all color photography of the recipes and art in the restaurant with attractive design, hardbound. And here comes the first of my few quibbles: even though the publisher, Shearer Publishing, may have bought the rights to the photography, or even done it in-house, it should have given full credit to the people responsible for the actual photographic and food styling work. [UPDATE: I heard from the publisher who notes that there are full credits on page 239 toward the end of the book. My apologies for having missed it.] There also should have been better photo editing; I noticed a few out-of-focus images, one of which seemed planned and appropriate although the others looked like mistakes.
The recipes, though – marvelous. I tried four for a family dinner: guacamole, Sopa de Elote (a smooth corn soup served with roasted chiles and cheese), Adoba Sauce (pork marinade made with ancho chiles, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, and black peppercorns), and Comote Y Piña (baked sweet potato puree with pineapple). The results were uniformly excellent. Unlike many cookbook recipes, I found that I could use each of these without modification or even adjusting amounts, which is pretty rare. I do wish that when a recipe referred to a preparation or technique elsewhere in the book that there was a page number associated, but, again, I did say quibbles.
The book originally came out in 2005, which does have me wondering why the PR firm that sent the copy is promoting it now, but it’s nice to see that someone is taking an active interest in promotion this excellent volume.