Chef cookbooks used to be vehicles to display virtuosity. Intended for the coffee table rather than the kitchen, they were oversized tomes filled with spectacular photos of plated food. Recipes would begin with “Step 1: Roast the veal bones for demiglace” — a 36-hour process. And they would end with “Step 16: Deep-fry the carrot frizzles for garnish.” The chef, dressed in impeccable kitchen whites, would pose smiling with the finished dish, his teeth as sparkling as the china.
Today’s chefs aim to present themselves as enthusiastic cooks who want to share their notions about flavor combination and teach their readers cool techniques to apply to their home kitchens. Like us civilians, they putter around on Sundays but have to get quick meals on the table during the week. They try to source the best ingredients, but realize most of us rely on neighborhood supermarkets rather than butchers and fishmongers. They think about their health and that of their kids. They know good cooking forms the bedrock of happy homes.
Three recent cookbooks bear out this trend, all of them written by chefs who serve big-flavored dishes in small, bopping restaurants in downtown Manhattan:
The English chef April Bloomfield made her name at The Spotted Pig in the West Village but has since opened two restaurants in the Ace Hotel: the Breslin and the John Dory Oyster Bar. I often visit the latter when I’m in New York because I love nothing better than a cocktail with her Parker House rolls and char pate. And I admire the dynamic left turns she takes, such as combining fresh and pickled escarole in a salad with anchovy dressing. Her sensitivity to the all-important small detail comes through in nearly every recipe in “A Girl and Her Pig: Recipes and Stories” (Ecco, $29.99), which she wrote with J. J. Goode.
As the title (and the cover photo of Bloomfield with Porky slung over her shoulders) implies, this chef loves every part of the animal. If you want a recipe that calls for “1 brain-in, tongue-in lamb’s head, ” this is your book.
But look at her recipe for mozzarella and speck (smoky cured ham) sandwiches. She uses airy day-old bread and lets the oozing fat of the mozzarella crisp the bread rather than any butter. She also advises you let the speck (or prosciutto) hang off the sides to get crispy. In a recipe for a salad of raw radishes with basil, salt and parmesan, she instructs you to grab handfuls of the salad and “smoosh” the basil and salt against the radishes to release the basil’s aromatic oils. Lots to learn here.
Zakary Pelaccio makes thrillingly weird food at Fatty Crab and his two outposts of Fatty ‘Cue. Kind of Malaysian, kind of Southern, kind of tripped out on fish sauce, shrimp paste and smoke, Pelaccio’s cooking stays with you.
There’s such a rock-and-roll spirit to his cooking (like eating a bombastic stadium anthem followed by jam-band digression) that it makes perfect sense he tells you what to listen to. Each recipe from “Eat With Your Hands” (Ecco, $39.99) comes with a suggested soundtrack (from Hendrix to Lou Reed to John Lee Hooker) and a suggested drink (cocktails, shots of bourbon, a six-pack).
Pelaccio’s cooking can be involved — I’m not sure I want to make pig ear salad at home, or goat braised in goat’s milk. But I’d love to reproduce his sublime crispy pork and watermelon salad with Southeast Asian seasonings, or his smoked ribs basted with a syrup of fish sauce and palm sugar, then served with lime and chilies. He has one of the most intriguing palates out there.
Seamus Mullen’s new book, “Hero Food” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $35), defies categorization unless Spanish-fusion health food has become a breakaway field of interest. But the longer you spend with this intriguing work, the more its thematic impulses integrate.
The Vermont-born Mullen was a breakout star in New York for his interpretation of Spanish food at Boqueria. The high-stress job and high-fat diet caught up with him. While still in his early 30s, he developed rheumatoid arthritis — an auto-immune disorder with painful flare-ups. The more he researched the disease, the more he became convinced that a mindful diet would return him to better health.
So the book follows two threads. We learn about his experiences training in renowned restaurants in Spain and follow him on new travels through that country as he offers insights into Iberian ingredients and techniques. (And it’s all I can do not to rush now to my kitchen to try the Spanish method for deep-frying eggs in olive oil.) But Mullen chapters the book by ingredient (his “heroes”) and writes with authority about the nutrition value of greens, mushrooms, eggs, carrots and thoughtfully sourced meat and fish. The tacit message begins to come through in every page: Eating thoughtfully within a cultural context is essentially the same thing as eating well.
Most of Mullen’s recipes — spicy rapini with almonds, gently roasted trout with summer squash — are made with the home cook in mind.
But in case you want proof that this guy can cook, check out his year-old restaurant, Tertulia, in the West Village. I’ve been there, and it’s terrific.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog