`the greatest dishes!, around the world in 80 recipes' by Anya von Bremzen picks a clever target number for her best ever dishes, to give us a book which is almost identical in concept to another recent book `The Cook's Canon, 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know' by Raymond Sokolov. There is a sliver of space between the ideas behind the two books in that von Bremzen is claiming her list is `the best' while Sokolov is claiming his list may be the most useful. This small difference in concept has a lot to do with the differences in their list, which has many expected overlaps and some surprising differences.
Sokolov's list contains many preparations that are not dishes. They are very commonly used sauces and relishes used to enhance hundreds of other dishes such as beurre blanc, hollandaise sauce, marmalade, mayonnaise, and vinaigrette. Von Bremzen has recipes for several of these items embedded in her recipes for main dishes, as hollandaise sauce is included in the recipe for Eggs Benedict.
Von Bremzen's list tends to contain many generic dishes for which there may be thousands of variations. A few examples are cheesecake, couscous, fried chicken, chocolate cake, lasagna, potato gratin, sushi, and risotto. In selecting the recipe for dishes with such a great variety in local favorites, she generally picks something close to, but not necessarily exactly on the common American architypical image of these dishes. For fried chicken, she takes exactly the same recipe I would have picked, a brined and buttermilk soaked from Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock's `The Gift of Southern Cooking'. For chocolate cake, on the other hand, I might have picked the recipe from the back of the Hershey's cocoa can. Ms. Von Bremzen picks a less well known but much richer recipe from Rose Pistola which includes espresso, Frangelico, and Hazelnuts. Yum. Similarly, for cheesecake, she doesn't use the very well-known New York City recipe, she uses a chocolate glazed lemon cake based on this model. Comparing her recipe to the hypercareful Alton Brown procedure, I find all the right cautions and wards are in place to prevent cracks while baking it to perfection.
Both books have a well-balanced selection from around the world with only a slight leaning on Von Bremzen's part toward Russian and Askanazy Jewish specialties like blinis and borshch. The stories Von Bremzen and Sokolov tell about borshch are consistent, in that they both tout the Ukrainian version of the dish. Since Von Bremzen covers 21 fewer dishes in 100 more pages, her background stories are longer and her recipes are longer as well. I detected no skimping at all on even the most daunting dishes such as bouillabaisse and cassoulet. Speaking of which, neither dishes are in Sokolov's book, and I simply cannot imagine them being left out of Von Bremzen's book. The difference is that little sliver of light between the concepts of the two books.
Regarding the narrative provided to introduce each recipe, both books are highly entertaining and there is a very high level of agreement between the books on the facts about most dishes, although Von Bremzen tends to give more information. Her ink also tends to be much less caustic than Sokolov. Where Sokolov belittles some statements by culinary essayist John Thorne, Von Bremzen cites his writings as a respected authority. Some of Sokolov's sharpness also tends to lead him into unfortunate mistakes as when he questions the presence of cracker crumbs in a clam chowder recipe. Von Bremzen (quoting Thorne no less) correctly points out that crumbs from ship's biscuit were the original thickener, later replaced by flour as late as 1820.
If you like the idea of either of these books, I recommend you get both. Amazingly, there are only fifteen (15) dishes in common between the two books. And, as most of those 15 dishes have umpteen variations, the chance of duplicating recipes is tiny. Even so standard a dish as Wiener Schnitzel is given with subtle variations, with Von Bremzen citing Mario Lohninger of David Bouley's Viennese restaurant in New York City and Sokolov citing Anna Maria Schwarzenberg for a restaurant in Vienna for the gospel. Both use veal, lemon, eggs, but Von Bremzen uses no milk, adds parsley, and is especially picky about the quality of her breadcrumbs.
While both books are great introductions to important world dishes such as dolma, sancocho, tom yum kung, and imam bayildi, they are also great references for favorites such as apple pie, Caesar salad, eggs Benedict, lasagna, lobster rolls, macaroni and cheese, meatballs, onion soup, potato salad, roast chicken, steak, and hamburgers. Even with these standards, the difference between the two books is instructive. Von Bremzen uses a straight bechamel sauce for her macaroni and cheese with beer, sharp cheese, nutmeg, and mustard to spice up the taste while Sokolov leans closer to a custard sauce and a mild cheese, with all the spice coming from cayenne.
My only quibble with Von Bremzen's book is that out of 80 recipes which must have posed many tough choices between various options, she picks both apple pie and tart Tatin, which by all accounts, may really be considered just a variation on apple pie. She calls it an apple cake, but the crust is made with puff pastry, which is a whole lot more like piecrust than it is like genoise. It is still worth having the recipe for the story of how the author discovered her best recipes and for the recommendation to use Gala apples in the dish.
As both great reads and great reference cookbooks, both books are simply the best. If you simply cannot get both, get Von Bremzen's book, as I think her recipes are just a little more careful, more tasty, and more true to their archetypes.
Anya Von Bremzen's book places its emphasis more on the history of international food than on recipes themselves -- a major reason why the "eighty recipes" of the title comprise over 300 pages of text. For example, the section on "Feijoada" (Brazilian Black Bean and Mixed Meats Casserole), she begins, "Porkier than Alsatian choucroute, beanier than all the cassoulets of Languedoc, the feijoada, with its carnival of trimmings, is a feast of black beans and pig parts, as extravagant as any samba parade." She continues for two pages to describe its history, variations, social and cultural context, as well as its presentation in restaurants. Even before she supplies the recipe, she offers another for the cocktail that traditionally accompanies the dish: caiperinhas, the "national cocktail of Brazil."
With sections on such varied dishes as potato salad, crème brulée, thai red curry, spanakopita, tandoori chicken, blini, and sushi, she explores the context of these dishes with wit and personality. The recipes themselves are easy to follow, though some, by nature of what they are, are more complicated than others. Many contain twists on the traditional. For example, "Perfect Hummus" contains pine nuts, something I've never seen before in a hummus recipe. The rice pudding entry is "Saffron Rice Pudding with Pistachios", made with basmati rice and coconut milk. The simply titled "Steak" chapter's recipe is "Pan-seared Rib-Eye with Argentinean Parsley Sauce." Each chapter contains only one example - but each is a winner.
Because this cookbook doesn't include photographs, home cooks might not feel drawn to unfamiliar recipes unless they are confident about their ability to imagine the particular combination of ingredients. For those who like to read cookbooks as much as they like to cook, Von Bremzen's book is a delight.
on February 14, 2004
I've been an avid reader of Anya Von Bremzen's culinary adventures in Food & Wine magazine and Travel&Leisure(where her roundup of hot new chefs in Spain last December was a mouthwatering scoop, a holiday treat.) So I opened The Greatest Dishes! with high expectations.
Delighted to say I'm delighted! What I love here are Von Bremzen's tangy intros to each dish, sometimes personal (does she travel 24-7??), sometimes historical. And delightful range of delectibles--terrific lasagne; Shangai meatballs; tamales; a New Wave Ligurian chocolate cake! Potato salad (German, naturlicht)! (Some dishes I wouldn't have thought to put on my list, but darn they get a fresh appeal here). I guess if we can't all travel like Von Bremzen does, we can at least eat of what she eats. A wonderful book from one of our incomparably delightful and informed food writers.
(Oh, recommendations in back, if you ever do make it to Marseilles, say(you lucky soul), and hanker for the best bouillabaise in town. Von Bremzen points you where to go.)
Taking the top of the charts from all genres and eras has proven to be a winning formula on many radio stations (with the notable exception of WCBS in New York, but that wasn't so much the format as the fact that it replaced an insanely popular oldies station of long standing). Anya Von Bremzen, with her usual infectious enthusiasm and snappy journalism, does the same thing for an unusually inspired retread of the old "international cookbook" formula. While IMHO the book, which lacks pictures, doesn't take full advantage of being unshackled from Von Bremzen's former publisher Workman's hyperkinetic layouts, it's still got a good shot at containing at least the first two or three dishes you can think of from any major world cuisine. Naturally, due to the author's heritage and travels, Russian and American foods get a little more coverage, but the ground covered is wide indeed, including Vietnamese pho, Jamaican jerk, English roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, Malaysian sate, and much more.
Von Bremzen's writing is what makes this quite a bit more than your typical bargain shelf shovelware cookbook. She comes off as a really nice (and laid-back) culinary gonzo journalist, a bubbly Tony Bourdain with nothing in particular to prove. Interview fragments and whirlwind micro-travelogues dot the introductions of the recipes, bringing the recipes to life in a way that only a talented and well-traveled food journalist can; this style more than makes up for any lack of depth by being fun to read (particularly the pizza article, which... well, read it. You'll see.) and having an eight-page bibliography that gives the reader way too many interesting cookbooks to go looking for.
As a recipe collection, it's sort of... how shall we say... inessential. But if you like Von Bremzen's writing style, or you're just looking for easy inspiration on a slow cooking night, you'll enjoy having this book around. And if you give this as a gift, you'll have the added benefit of not pissing off the entire city of New York.