Excellent Reference for Highly Seasonable Subject. Buy It.
Reviewed in the United States on 3 January 2005
`Chez Panisse Fruit' by Alice Waters and her staff is the companion volume to a similarly formatted and illustrated `Chez Panisse Vegetables'. While I gave the latter volume only four stars, I can give this very similar volume five stars simply because, to my knowledge, there are not many good cookbooks around for fruits alone. And, this is a very valuable type of book to have on hand.
I am constantly reminded of the central insight of Tom Colicchio's book `How to Think Like a Chef' where he points out that chefs do not create recipes then go looking for ingredients. The creative process is exactly the opposite. They look to see what they have on hand and create something based on this. Tony Bourdain reminds us about this in his book, `Kitchen Confidential', when he warns us about the specials of the day, as they are probably built out of ingredients which are becoming a bit long in the tooth to hold much longer in the walk-in refrigerator. This principle becomes writ large with every chef / author crowing about their using fresh, seasonal ingredients. They mention this far less often, but I'm sure they also create recipes and menus based on what is cheap as much as on what is fresh. Since seasonal generally coincides with less expensive, they can tout seasonal and hide their economical self-interest at work. This principle of using what you have also makes me skeptical of really how difficult the old `Iron Chef' premise is for first class chefs, as they really do this kind of thing every day of their working lives, if they are still working in the kitchen. This competition is stressful, but it is simply taking what they every day do to it's extreme.
But I ramble. The whole point of this digression was that cookbooks organized by raw ingredient are a really great resource for the cook who likes to work economically. What can be better in the Fall when apples and pears come into season than to have a book with a nice selection of interesting things to do with apples and pears. The book is divided into thirty-eight chapters, with each giving recipes on a major fruit available in the United States, with the number of recipes corresponding roughly to the popularity of the fruit. Some few chapters cover a family of fruits, as when the Bananas chapter includes a recipe for plantains.
While the larger number of recipes are for desserts, provided I suspect primarily by Ms. Waters' partner, Lindsey Shere and her pastry staff at Chez Panisse, there are also several hot savory recipes and salad recipes using fruit. Two very common uses of fruit with meat, for example, are apples in poulet a la Normandie (Normandy apples with chicken) and grilled duck breast with pickled peaches.
Like the `Vegetables' volume, this book is as comfortable in the armchair as it is in the kitchen. It has the same stylish design and the same delightfully Art Nouveau colored woodcut prints of the principal fruits. The introductions to each ingredient, aside from a terse statement about the fruit's seasonality, are `free form' essays about those things that are most interesting about the fruit. This is entirely fair, as lemons are a far, far more important ingredient to all types of cooking than rhubarb. As Ms. Waters explains, even though rhubarb is a vegetable, at Chez Panisse (and lots of other places as well), it is used in the same manner as sour fruits and it bridges the gap in the seasons between the winter and summer tree fruits.
Unlike the vegetable book, this volume ends with a chapter of general procedures useable with many different fruit recipes. These recipes include galette and sweet pie doughs, biscuits, puff pastry, sabayon, frangipane, sponge cake, and pastry cream. While these recipes are great to have on hand in a book of pie ingredients, you may prefer to go to a book from a pastry specialist such as Rose Levy Beranbaum, Nick Malgieri, or Wayne Harley Brachman for expert advice on crusts. I take Miss Alice's claim that her pate sucree recipe will never get tough and will not shrink when baked. I will not even test this statement, as I am quite happy with the piecrust I am used to. I doubt the claims for this recipe in that it is almost identical to the one I use, which does get tough and does shrink unless I take special care in handling it.
If I were editing this book and had but one suggestion by which it could be improved, I would make the selection of recipes across fruits just a bit more uniform. For example, there is a recipe for blackberry jelly, but no recipe for orange marmalade. On the other hand, almost all the classics are here, such as applesauce, Moroccan preserved lemons, and pears poached in wine. What would be the value of a book on fruits if you could not go to it for the standards?
I would buy both volumes simply because they look very nice on my shelf. The fact that they come with the Chez Panisse imprimatur doesn't hurt. And, rest assured that not only are the recipes in this book worth having, they are very accessible though an excellent table of contents and a description of the procedure which is easy to read, easy to follow, and informative. Like all of Ms. Waters' cookbooks I have reviewed, they may not be the best for the total novice. There is lots of advanced advice, but a fair amount of knowing your way around the kitchen is assumed.
Like playwright Jean Anouith who bought a green bound book on Joan of Arc to fit an empty space on his bookshelf, he ended up reading the book and writing a famous play `The Lark' on Joan of Arc. This is the kind of book from which good things can spring.
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