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!