Cooking with an Iron Chef
Reviewed in the United States on 18 April 2013
Over the years, I have enjoyed watching chef Alex Guarnaschelli on Food Network. Alex’s Day Off was one of my favorites. I also enjoy her work as a judge on Chopped. Her work—along with that of Anne Burrell, Bobby Flay, and Michael Symon—on The Big Waste was eye-opening and life-changing for me. Of course I was pleased when she became the newest Iron Chef America. And I mean really, a restaurant called Butter? Gotta love it.
I also follow her on Twitter. It was there I learned about her first cookbook, Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook. I immediately preordered it, and it arrived last week. When you’ve been eagerly awaiting something, sadly, when it arrives, you can be disappointed. I’ve not been disappointed with Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook.
First, a word about the title. Many of these are not exactly things I immediately think of when it comes to comfort food or how I learned to cook. But then my mother isn’t a cookbook editor. (I mean really. I’ve been in publishing for more than 20 years. How do I get one of those gigs?) I’d venture to guess the same may be true for many of you. So you’re expecting the same-old, same-old, you probably won’t find it here. And that’s a good thing.
The book is beautifully designed. The photos are gorgeous, as you’d expect from a Clarkson Potter book. The seemingly handwritten notes and hand-drawn pictures are interesting and informative, and the “Old-School Tips” are very helpful.
If you’re one of those who read a cookbook like a novel, and even if you aren’t, Alex’s brief history of her childhood and career are interesting and help put everything in context. Don’t skip that section. Seriously.
Her recipes are well written and easy to follow. You’ll find recipes for dishes like mussels, duck hearts, and roasted whole salmon. But there are also recipes for various ways to cook chicken, roast turkey that will put it on your menu throughout the year (along with guides to making a great Thanksgiving dinner), and apple crisp. In other words, the recipes in Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook span a wide range of tastes. And while some of the dishes may look complicated, Alex takes you through each step, so you can make and serve the dish with confidence.
I have a love/hate relationship with Brussels sprouts. I love them, but I hate to cook them. Why? Because I tend to burn them. I tried Alex’s roasted Brussels sprouts, and they were perfect! Those tiny little cabbages are back in my repertoire. The photo of her “Little Spare Ribs” was so appetizing, I had to make them. Though the recipe calls for spare ribs, I used country style ribs, because—all together now—it’s what I had on hand. Oh my, those were some mighty tasty ribs. I’ll be making them again.
You know how much I love making my own easily purchased items, so I was thrilled to see a section on doing just things. There are recipes for mustard, marinades, and barbecue sauce, among other things. Her recipes for ricotta and butter are different from mine (I use whey for ricotta and homemade cultured buttermilk for butter), but they still sound good.
And while you may think this is a love letter to Alex and her cookbook, I do have a couple of criticisms. First, the book doesn’t lie flat. This is a common problem, and I really wish publishers would accept the idea these books are actually used, and being able to open the book and have it lie flat is a big deal. At least to me. Yes, it would likely cost more, but . . .
Also, in her recipe for ricotta, she tells the cook to, “Simmer gently until the milk solids rise to the surface and form what looks like a raft, 30 to 35 minutes.” I know what she means, but to someone who is unfamiliar with making cheese, it may not be clear. It would be helpful to include the temperature or show a photo of curds separating from the whey.
These criticisms should not discourage you from getting Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook. I know most of us have limited cookbook-buying budgets, but this one deserves a look.
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