…and in with the new

Posted on January 5, 2012

Our fabulous town library recently invested in several new cookbooks, and I was lucky enough to be in browsing shortly after they were shelved.  I scooped up what I could without being too greedy, and I’ve been curled up on the couch with them off and on throughout this post-holiday lull.

Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine, a 6-volume set dedicated to the history and practice of the modern cooking techniques sometimes grouped together under the heading molecular gastronomy, is mind-blowing in its detail and scope.

Also called culinary physics and referred to as the art and science of cooking, modernist cooking employs tools and ingredients more often found in a lab than in a home kitchen: carbon dioxide, liquid nitrogen, natural gums, protein binders, centrifuges and immersion baths (known as sous vides), all of which chefs use to manipulate taste, aroma, texture and even structure of natural ingredients.  Myhrvold the one-time patent officer at Microsoft is completely at home with the scientific aspect of the trend, while Myhrvold the classically trained chef and barbecue master knows all things culinary.  What started out as a small book to help explain the concept of cooking by sous vide method ended up as a nearly 2,500 page, multi-volume tome on a much broader subject.

The set of books was released in March of 2011, not long after leading modernist chef Ferran Adria announced the closing of his famed restaurant, El Bulli (for most, the art and science of gastronomy mecca) to form an education center in its place, and in the midst of a series of public lectures about science and cooking held at Harvard University that hosted such leaders in the movement as Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufresne, Adria, and even Myhrvold himself.  No matter what you might think of bringing such hardcore science into the kitchen or the likelihood that you might find yourself cooking this way at home, modernist cuisine is firmly established.  Not a cookbook as much as it is an encyclopedia, the set at $625 is pricey.  But it’s also beautiful and thorough, thus far the definitive writing on the subject, pleasing both cook and food historian alike.

Ferran Adria himself released a cookbook in 2011, but not the one many might have expected from him.  Rather than publish some of the recipes that helped put El Bulli on the culinary map, Adria pulled together a collection of recipes served behind the scenes at the restaurant, at what is often called the family meal – the food shared by the restaurant staff before a shift.

Unlike some of the tenets behind modernist cuisine, the concept of The Family Meal is very familiar to a home cook, and you might easily use selections from  the book in your own family meals.  One recipe calls for a foamed yogurt requiring a soda siphon’s CO2 cartridge, but otherwise no gels, gums, or special equipment are necessary.  The menus are stunningly casual; in fact a potato salad recipe calls for the addition of sausage of the frankfurter variety.  When is the last time you have seen a hot dog in any ingredient list contained in a famous chef’s cookbook?

If you are curious about what Ferran Adria eats when he isn’t being Ferran Adria modernist cuisine guru, then this book of three-course homestyle dinners will interest you.  The layout is shopper and home cook friendly: ingredient lists are compiled for you and foods are grouped in photos according to the recipe they belong to.  There are a lot of how-to photos at every step of the cooking process as well, so you can’t really make a mistake in technique as you work through a recipe.  This isn’t perhaps a book for a cook who welcomes challenges or is hoping to get a glimpse into the secrets of El Bulli’s master.  Think of it instead as the chef’s personal comfort food cookbook and you won’t be disappointed, but I recommend borrowing it from the library before purchasing.

Not too far behind Modernist Cuisine in page count is the 1, 450-page single volume cookbook called The Silver Spoon.  Resembling my old red Merriam Webster’s Dictionary in shape and heft and even page tabbing, the cookbook is translated into English from the original Il cucchiaio d’argento – think The Joy of Cooking or the Fannie Farmer for Italian home cooks.

Not many world cuisines are as region specific as Italian cooking.  The Silver Spoon, while not a compendium of regions and their recipes, manages to include a good cross section of dishes from all over the country.  At the same time it gives the reader and cook a broad overview of the types of dishes found across Italy, the book also conveys the unifying esthetic among all these regions: the Italian cook’s respect for and proper treatment of ingredients and dining in general.

Chapters are arranged by course, dishes within each course are grouped by like ingredients, the sections are color-coded so you can see with a glance at the outer edges of the pages where you need to look for pasta, meat, fish, etc.  The egg, pasta, and vegetable chapters are standouts.  If you are vegetarian or leaning that way, you could probably make a different meatless dish every night of the year using these three chapters alone.  Not only will you learn how to use lettuce in preparations other than salad, there are multiple recipes for lesser known vegetables such as salsify, cardoons, and samphire.

I have a few issues with the book, as gorgeous and well thought out as it is.  This new edition with its completely new section of Italian-American chef recipes, has a number of errors in its indexing.  I have heard anecdotally that some of the translated measurements are not that accurate, which will be a problem for those cooks attempting the baked goods.

But after a good test run with the library’s copy, I bought my own copy anyway.  I can live with both the index problems and not using it for baking.  The breadth of the vegetable recipes won me over; I can’t wait to try the gratin of Belgian endive as I learn to cook more like an Italian.

I had all of the ingredients necessary to make one of the book’s nine cauliflower recipes, so I tried the preparation last night.  Super simple but full of flavor, the dish – served at room temperature or cold – makes a good replacement for a green salad at the dinner table at this time of year when lettuce greens taste tired but cauliflower’s cabbagey robustness is still at peak.  I ate the dish, Cauliflower with Red Pepper, as a side dish, but it could easily be tossed with a long pasta like fettuccine, adding capers and even toasted bread crumbs, for a hearty and satisfying main course.

  • 1 large head cauliflower, or two small heads of two different colors of cauliflower (such as white and green)
  • juice of 1 lemon strained
  • finely grated rind of 1 lemon
  • 6 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 red pepper from a jar of peppers in brine, drained and finely chopped
  • pinch of chili powder (I used chipotle)
  • pinch of dried oregano
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • salt & pepper to taste

Break the cauliflower into florets that are about bite size, maybe just slightly larger.

Place these in a steamer basket set over boiling salted water, and steam for about 5 minutes or until crisp-tender.  A fork inserted to test should meet a bit of resistance, but not too much.

As the cauliflower is steaming, prep the ingredients to make the dressing.

Place the lemon juice, rind, olive oil, red pepper, chili powder, oregano and chopped garlic clove into the bowl of a food processor fitted with metal blade.  Pulse two or three times just to blend.  The peppers should remain in a small dice, and not get pureed, but the oil and lemon juice will emulsify.  Alternately you may simply whisk the ingredients together well in a bowl.  Salt and pepper the dressing to taste.

Remove the steamed cauliflower in its basket from the steam bath.  Drain.  Place the warm vegetable in a serving dish and dress immediately with the dressing.

Allow this to sit and absorb for one hour in a cool place.  My house was cool enough to finish this step on the counter yesterday; on a warmer day, the refrigerator is a good alternative.

After 1 hour, the cauliflower will have absorbed a lot of flavor.  Give cauliflower and dressing a thorough toss together and serve.

©2012  Jane A. Ward