Friday, November 30, 2007

Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook: Explosive Flavors From the Southwestern Kitchen

Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook: Explosive Flavors From the Southwestern Kitchen
Author: Bobby Flay (with Stephanie Banyas and Sally Jackson) (
Publisher: Clarkson Potter Publishing (2007) (

Bobby Flay may not have started out as the household Food Network name he now is, but along with his explosion into the worlds of restaurant ownership and television appearances came an emergence of his fearlessness to serve and promote a “different” type and level of cuisine. The Mesa Grill Cookbook embraces this difference and brings it to the home chef through it’s creative recipes, while the entertaining and informative descriptions, glossaries and foreword bring the impressive Iron Chef to a social equality with the audience.

As with most celebrity cookbooks, Mesa Grill is, at first glance, a glossy self-promotion shelf filler. The portrait of Chef Flay on the dust jacket smiles cockily, as if to dare you to enter his kitchen. Thankfully, once the reader does open the pages the majority of the celebrity slips away to be replaced with a story of almost fairy-tale stature – Flay’s foray into the world of cooking. There is no denial of the massive amount of luck and good fortune that came his way as a starry-eyed student attempting to pay his way through school, and there is thorough mention of his mentors, his benefactors and his family. Each step from dishwasher to famous restaurateur is documented succinctly, but where the love of Flay’s craft becomes obvious is when the writing turns to food. “[T]he cornmeals in a myriad of colors; the dried red chiles that are earthy, smoky, fruity, and spicy…(3)” are just smidgens of the colourful and (if you will excuse the pun) flavourful descriptions in the preface, and the spice carries over the page into the glossary of ingredients.

For those aspiring to integrate more of Flay’s southwestern style of cooking into their own home, the extensive glossary of basics (twelve pages long, a gift in the modern world of any literature) covers ingredients from avocados to tortillas along with every pepper variety under the sun. Also included are basic kitchen techniques such as roasting garlic, as well as more skilful preparations like cold-smoking and blanching methods. Even those going cold into the kitchen will feel a sense of ease with these references at hand, especially since when they are mentioned in the text of the recipes a helpful note of the reference page is provided as well.

The recipe list is extensive as the glossary, from spicy, crunchy bar pretzels (33) to Pumpkin French Toast (268) and even a crème brulee selection (242). Every recipe has “wiggle” room to play in if ingredients are unavailable (a common occurrence in small towns or countries other than the United States), or if a stronger or altered flavour is desired.

An important mention that is unfortunately lacking in this work is that most of the dishes are “layered”, meaning that elements can be added, removed or changed according to individual tastes or time constraints. While most weeknight chefs would never dream of concocting “Black Pepper-Crusted Filets Mignons with Ancho-Red Pepper Sauce and Toasted Goat Cheese” (157), the sauce is a wonderful addition to boiled spaghetti and meatballs, and the steak-crusting method is a wonderful trick any time. Being able to break these gourmet (and restaurant-style) dishes into their respective parts is the key to avoid frustration and doubt in the reader’s kitchen and a sure-fire way to keep this book in use for meals other than special occasions.

There really is something for everyone in this book. Seafood lovers will adore Flay’s take on crab cakes (115), and vegetarians will fall in love with his daughter Sophie’s version of a chopped salad (59). Even Brussels sprouts are given star treatment, with jewels of pomegranate and toasted walnuts (210). Festive picks for the holidays abound as well in Mesa Grill, with the highlight recipe undoubtedly being an Ancho-Maple Glazed Turkey (148). If the spice of the peppers is too much for this year’s table, the same recipe also features a delectable-sounding Cranberry-Mango Relish that may very well leave that canned gloop on the grocery store shelf.

Flay’s imagination translates to the table in such a variety of ways that it would be impossible to fall into a rut of southwest flavour. The colourful photos, thorough and vibrant descriptions and mouth-watering recipes delight and tempt both the eyes and the palate through all 269 glossy pages of the book, bringing both New Mexico and New York to the kitchens of all it’s owners. If nothing else, the Mesa Grill Cookbook gives more than just mere words on paper to it’s readers, lending the powers of inspiration to everyone. The book truly does live up to the subtitle of “explosive flavors”, and with luck more than just the “Southwestern kitchens” will take part in it’s tasting.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Isabel's Cantina

Isabel’s Cantina
Author: Isabel Cruz (
Publisher: Clarkson Potter (2007) (

From the small home beginnings of the kitchen of Isabel Cruz, Isabel’s Cantina is one of the rare books that the reader can judge by it’s cover. The bright and bold colours that adorn the otherwise solid black dust jacket are a testament to the equally striking dishes and flavour combinations that lie within the smooth, illustrated pages. This book is not simply a Latin lover’s cookbook, like the title may suggest. Isabel’s Cantina is a testament to, and memoir of (if you will), the history that surrounds the growth and development of Cruz as a person and indeed a chef. Hiding amongst the mosaic patterns that line the pages are foods of the ocean’s edges – Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican are merged with Japanese and Thai influences to form recipes that are truly unique, and that tempt the adventurous palate with each thorough description.

While most of the recipes in Cantina are (unsurprisingly) Latin in origin (Posole with Pork (p. 100), Ropa Vieja (p. 104) and Arroz con Gandules (p. 119) to name a few), the family stories that accompany each entry break the monotony that other similar cookbooks would suffer from. Even if the flavours of Cuba aren’t what is being sought after on a particular day, the lighter influences of traditional Japanese and Thai cooking create stunning and mouth-watering solutions – Steamed Snapper with Tomatoes and Ginger (p.83), Mahi Mahi with a spicy Jalapeno – Ponzu sauce (p.84) and even a decadent Coconut Tofu Sauce served over fresh fruit (p.170) dot the pages of Cruz’ work for refreshing alternatives. Even vegetarians are well looked after, with delicious soups ranging from the hearty Lentil, Red Pepper, Basil and Chipotle (p.62) to the virtuous-sounding Buddha Bowl (p. 63).

If the names and descriptions of the dishes aren’t enough to cause exclamations of Ole! in the reader’s home kitchen, this delightful news from Cruz certainly will: the majority of meals featured in Cantina are not only comforting and delicious, but they are good for you! This revolution in her cuisine came from a fortuitous change of circumstances: her first restaurant catered to the California beach-body crew, and this along with her own desire to live healthfully led to a creative period of experimentation with delicious results fit for every gourmand at the table. She herself writes in the introduction a statement that I have believed in for years: “…if I was creative, there was no reason for the flavour to suffer just because I cut calories of fat” (p. 11).

From the breakfast meal all the way to the final after-dinner drinks and dessert, Isabel’s Cantina will never fail to leave an impression on your heart or in your mouth. Items from local farmer’s markets as well as the international aisles of the supermarket will become staple items in the kitchen and ingredients in meals the home cook would never believe possible to concoct. Be prepared for a multitude of fresh flavours to make their way into the common household, and for the amazement of how simple it is to create a Pacific getaway of your very own!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Pure Flavor: 125 Fresh All-American Recipes from the Pacific Northwest

Pure Flavor: 125 Fresh All-American Recipes from the Pacific Northwest
Author: Kurt Beecher Dammier (with Laura Holmes Haddad)
Publisher: Clarkson Potter (2007) (

Simply titled, Pure Flavor is exactly that when it comes to it’s contents – recipes with an insistence on the enhancement, rather than the addition to, the best local offerings of the Pacific coastline. The book’s silky, full-colour cover opens with a tantalizing array of pictures, and the photography begs readers to dive into the culinary haven of Seattle’s Pike Place Market before a single word appears on the page. Thankfully, the stories the photos tell are more pleasing to the eye than the introduction, which unfortunately is akin to reading a long-winded advertisement for one of Dammier’s establishments, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, and in fact cheese itself. Though, as an entrepreneur myself, I acknowledge the amount of work and resources involved with starting up and running a small business, it is an unnecessary and out-of-place component in this book, especially considering that this is not a cookbook that specializes in cheese dishes. Since many readers do not, in fact, read the forewords or introductions to the books they choose, this would not impact on their perception of the rest of the book’s contents.

The actual recipe and ingredient sections that follow the introduction are more pleasing to the eye – and taste buds – and will be an informative read for those less schooled in the finer points of the culinary world (i.e. you and me). The dishes are succinctly organized into nine sections: soups and sandwiches, salads, pasta and grains, fish and shellfish, poultry and meat, vegetables and sides, sweets, breakfast, and basics, sauces and spreads. Within each of these sections lie brilliant, rich photography of not only the dishes themselves, which look good enough to lick off the page, but of the areas of the market and farmlands where the ingredients come from. Each elegantly titled (and in some cases complicated-sounding) recipe is prefaced by a short paragraph that highlights the basic idea of the dish, which is a great benefit to the home chef who may otherwise shy away from them. Blessedly precise instructions bring life to otherwise restaurant-grade fare such as Grilled New York Steak with Balsamic-Mushroom Ragout (p. 136-137), and since leftovers are a reality in every kitchen, the reader is also given approximate shelf lives of the prepared goods.

The pride Dammier takes in the origins of his ingredients as well as his fellow culinary artists (such as Gwen Bassetti and Chuck Eggert) is obvious. No less than 19 articles appear on the different (and local) components of his cooking, not including the cheese guides (which are as long-winded as the introduction, unfortunately). Notable emphasis is placed on the fish and shellfish of the region, as well as seasonal fruits and the lifeblood of Seattle itself: coffee. A varied selection of recipes is shown because of the seasonal ingredient shifts, though all have decadent and equally delightful compositions. Though there are undeniably unnecessary inclusions (more Iceberg Wedges [p. 48] or Cobb Salad [p. 54] anyone?) the majority of the recipes are jewels. From a perfect Winter-time Slow-Cooked Orange-Chili Pork Shoulder (p. 130) to a light, Summery Corn, Tomato and Avocado Frittata (p. 212), there is something for every season and craving.

Pure Flavor is a cookbook in the most literal terms: a book for cooks. This is not to say that its contents are to be reserved for the upper echelons of culinary society. In contrast, this book is for the true cooks – the ones that lie dormant within each of us until the right combination of circumstances, like ingredients in a cake, combine to present their gifts to the family dinner table.

(Photos presented are of Red, White and Green Vegetable "Lasagne" [p. 163] and "World's Best" Mac and Cheese [p. 71])

Monday, September 3, 2007

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover

Adventures of an Italian Food Lover
Author: Faith Willinger (
Publisher: Clarkson Potter (2007) (

A smiling red-clad chef with a large bowl of pasta greets you at the cover of this engaging story – turned travel guide, wine list and cookbook. Like all the illustrations, he is in the fashion of a watercolour painting, and with the hand-scrawled title on the dust jacket, the reader gains the sensation that this is a book not just about cooking, but a personal story about the true adoration of food and everything it encases and involves.

Paging through the book is like wandering through the picturesque country sides of Piemonte, Veneto, and all the way through the country to Sicily and the islands at the very southern tip of Italy. An entire third of the book is devoted to the wine and food of Tuscany, where Willinger stresses the true importance of the grapes, olives, and their respective products to Tuscan, and in truth Italian, cuisine. Aside from the Tuscan region, Willinger devotes equal time and space to both Northern and Central Italy and Southern Italy, including Sicily and the smaller assorted islands. Without lifting a finger or turning on a flame, the reader can sense the smells, sounds and sights of the kitchens of these 254 friendly and eager-to-teach contributors to the book. Included in the list of recipe authors is none other than her son (with to-die-for sounding Tuscan Brownies [p. 143]) her aunt Enza (Tiramisu [p. 151]) and even the head of the Italian chocolate creator Amedei [p.152].

As if the charming and honest style of Willinger’s writing, and the equally colourful paintings done by her sister Suzanne, weren’t enough to win me over to Italian Food Lover, her detailed descriptions of the featured vineyards, hotels and restaurants would satisfy even the most clueless of travellers to the country. One could easily use this book as a gastronomic travel guide, as it contains detailed information on each contributor’s locale including addresses, telephone numbers, fax numbers and e-mails and websites if applicable. It is a welcome addition and a distinctive feature that sets this book apart from the other Italian cookbooks on the shelf.

Perhaps the greatest joy in reading each story preceding a recipe is being able to see the pride and care that each artisan, restaurateur and winemaker puts into their product. No ingredient is deemed unworthy of precious and proper handling, either in their cooking or description. Nothing is spared, even in her introduction to the book Willinger states that she cooks with “pasta made from heirloom wheat, salt-packed capers, canned tuna in oil, dried and frozen chili peppers, artisan-made salumi and cured meats”[p.8]. Later in the book readers are treated to visuals of “swordfish with swords, crates of silvery-blue anchovies, shrimp with tiny turquoise eggs, gleaming whole fish curved with rigor mortis [and] tubs of gelatinous gray larval fish called ‘sea foam’”[p.203] from Cantania’s Pescheria fish market.

Recipes flow like the pure extra virgin Per Mio Figlio onto the reader’s tongues, forming images of foods like Ricotta-Stuffed Zucchini Flowers, Pacceri Di Gragano with Fish Ragu and Ginger-Apricot Biscotti. Those who are intimidated by the thought of cooking the usual complicated and multi-stepped Italian food they may have encountered in restaurants will be pleasantly surprised by the clear, thorough writing style of the ingredient lists and preparation instructions. Though this book does tend to cater more to the middle-range home cook with additions like Roasted Veal Shank [p. 56] and Pasta with Mussels and Zucchini Flowers [p. 175], it is equally hospitable to all people who frequent their kitchens enough to value good, home-made food. From a simple, hearty bowl of lentil soup made with fine olive oil (written by winemaker Maurizo Castelli [p.101]) to Spaghetti with Spicy Onion-Tomato Sauce by Hotel Cipriani’s director Natale Rusconi [p.50], budding chefs can begin to experience the best of Italian cuisine at home. Those expert chefs among us (or those looking for an impressive dish for their own feast) will appreciate Cesare Giaccone’s more difficult Zabaione [p. 76], made by “whisking the eggs in a copper pot with a rounded bottom and moving it on and off the heat in a graceful ballet of preparation” and Risotto with Almonds and Broccoli [p. 202], prepared by the oldest sister of the Tasca d’Almerita family. If they apply, available substitutions for ingredients are provided in the text preceding each recipe, and in some cases these are necessary changes those who don’t live in the featured town, Italy or in some cases even Europe have to make for sheer availability’s sake. A full list of the recipes, helpfully divided by region as well as listed in a thorough index, is also at the disposal of the readers, though I do strongly recommend reading this book not purely for the recipes but for the joy of the stories attached alongside.

This book is a culinary memoir, In fact, this chef’s tale is probably more at home on your bedside table (like my copy is) than on your cookbook shelf. Just don’t forget to occasionally let your tastebuds in on the feast that awaits you within the pages of Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. It will quickly recruit you as one of its own, and take you along on it’s Mediterranean journey.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Tuesday, January 16, 2007