When cookbooks go wrong
Accordingly, I tend to be forgiving of minor mistakes in published cookbooks, although I'll generally mention it in a review if I spot more than one or two.
The cookbook at hand, though, poses a real problem to the friendly but candid cookbook reviewer. Joyce Goldstein's 2004 Italian Slow and Savory is a book that I really want to like.
The author, who was owner and chef of San Francisco's gone-but-not-forgotten Square One, is highly respected in the restaurant business, and mutual friends in the business tell me that they admire her.
But after cooking through several recipes in this oversize volume (a 10-by-10-inch hardcover, it weighs in at almost four pounds), I'm ... conflicted. The stories that surround the recipes are heart-warming and make me want to fly to Italy right now. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, and the lush color photography makes the pages look almost good enough to eat, like that trendy place in Chicago with the edible paper menu, but enough said about that.
But when I picked a few tasty-looking dishes to try, I noticed something funny. The amounts and proportions of ingredients often seemed odd, and when I followed them specifically (checking my math carefully when I reduced the amounts to serve two), I got strange results. A "cop-style" risotto with chicken (Risotto alla sbirriglia, Page 105) looked like enough to feed an army, and even with reduced proportions, the chopped-veggie base threatened to dominate the other ingredients. A pork-chop dish with potatoes and fennel (Costarelle in porchetta con patate e finocchio, Page 226) suffered a similar disproportion, resulting in savory pork chops perched on an alarming mound of chopped fennel fronds, onions, celery, carrots and garlic, all good things but better as supporting players than a chorus that drowns out the soloists.
Giving it one more try, I started in to a clove-scented Roman beef pot roast recipe (Garofolato di manzo alla romana, Page 167) only to discover that it not only replicated the excess-of-battuto problem but also called for enough tomato paste to make a dish more New Jersey Sicilian than Roman, plus a full quart of liquid, enough to inundate a smallish beef roast in a Noah's Flood of soup.
So why talk about this cookbook at all? Simple enough: If you're sufficiently comfortable with your cooking skills to read the recipes for concepts, analyze the ingredients and procedures and anticipate problems that might require altering, then a lot of the dishes are very, very good. The roast beef roast in particular was spectacular, resulting in tender, long-scented meat in a rich, dark and thick sauce that was good on the beef and just as good over pasta as a leftover, with subtly haunting flavors that seemed to get better still after a day or two in the fridge.
Results like this can make up for serious flaws in a cookbook, but with the stern caveat that I can only recommend it if you're quite comfortable with analyzing recipes, challenging what you see in print, and risking changes that you think will improve the outcome.
All that being said, here's a link to Amazon.com, where you can read other (mostly positive) reviews and, if you wish, buy the book for $26.40, a 34 percent discount from the $40 list price, with the usual small commission to WineLoversPage.com:
Now, here's that roast beef recipe, as modified:
INGREDIENTS: (serves 6, or 2 with abundant leftovers)
2 ounces (60g) pancetta
1. First, prepare all the ingredients. Chop the pancetta into small dice, and chop the onion, the peeled carrot and one of the celery stalks, reserving the other two. Mince the garlic, and measure out the other ingredients.
2. Coat a large dutch oven or deep iron skillet with just enough olive oil to cover the bottom, and brown the beef on all sides over medium-high heat. Remove the browned roast to a plate and keep it warm.
3. Add the diced pancetta to the skillet and cook it in the pan drippings, scraping up browned bits, until the pancetta starts turning crisp and brown and has rendered some of its fat. Put in the chopped onion, carrot and celery and cook over medium-high heat until they soften and start to brown. You can add a little more olive oil if needed, but chances are it won't be necessary. After the veggies start to brown, add the garlic, ground cloves and thyme and stir briefly. Stir in the tomato paste, then add the red wine and cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the wine reduces a little.
4. Put the beef back in the skillet, and add the beef stock. (Goldstein also offers the option of adding a half-dozen two-inch strips of orange zest at this point, but I declined, feeling that the orange flavor would be too much of a good thing.) Stir once or twice, cover tightly, and simmer over very low heat, turning the beef occasionally, until the meat is very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. You can add a little beef broth or water if needed, but I found this unnecessary; in fact, I removed the cover and turned up the heat a little at the end of cooking to reduce the liquid to a more sauce-like consistency.
5. I did accept another Goldstein option, cutting the remaining two stalks of celery into 1-inch lengths and "blanching" them with a 5-minute bath in simmering water before adding them to the sauce for the last half-hour of cooking.
6. Goldstein advises holding salt and pepper until the end, seasoning to taste at serving time, and I followed this advice, although I don't see any reason not to salt and pepper the beef - in reasonable amounts - at the browning stage, then adjusting seasoning at the end.
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Thursday, March 10, 2005
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