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The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution Hardcover – Illustrated, October 2, 2007
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Do we really need more recipes for beef stew, polenta, and ratatouille? If they're the work of famed restaurateur and "food activist" Alice Waters, undoubtedly. In The Art of Simple Food, Waters offers 200-plus recipes for these and other simple but savory dishes, like Spicy Cauliflower Soup, Fava Bean Purée, and Braised Chicken Legs, as well as dessert formulas for the likes of Nectarine and Blueberry Crisp and Tangerine Ice. In addition, readers learn (or become reacquainted with) the Waters mantra: eat locally and sustainably; eat seasonally; shop at farmers markets. These are the rules by which she approaches food and cooking, and hopes we will too. Organized largely by techniques, the book is a kind of primer, designed to free readers from recipe reliance.
Some readers may look askance at advice that they search out sources for locally produced food, for example, given the everyday exigencies of shopping and getting meals on the table. Yet it is precisely the need to "remake" our relationship to food that, Waters contends, determines the ultimate success of all our cooking and dining, not to mention our health and that of the planet. This relatively small book has a large message, and good everyday recipes to back it up. --Arthur Boehm
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The delicious dishes described in the latest cookbook from Chez Panisse founder Waters, such as a four-ingredient Soda Bread and Cauliflower Salad with Olives and Capers, are simple indeed, though the book's structure is complex, if intuitive. After a useful discussion of ingredients and equipment come chapters on techniques, such as making broth and soup. Each of these includes three or four recipes that rely on the technique described, which can lead to repetition (still preferable to a lack of guidance): a chapter on roasting contains two pages of instructions on roasting a chicken (including a hint to salt it a day in advance for juicy results), followed by a recipe for Roast Chicken that is simply an abbreviated version of those two pages. The final third of the book divides many more recipes traditionally into salads, pasta and so forth. Waters taps an almost endless supply of ideas for appealing and fresh yet low-stress dishes: Zucchini Ragout with Bacon and Tomato, Onion Custard Pie, Chocolate Crackle Cookies with almonds and a little brandy. Whether explaining why salting food properly is key or describing the steps to creating the ideal Grilled Cheese Sandwich, she continues to prove herself one of our best modern-day food writers. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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"The Art of Simple Food" is half how-to, with a few recipes illustrating fundamental techniques like braising, roasting, steaming, etc., in the first section. The other half is more of a standard cookbook that offers recipes organized according to appetizers, soups, entrees, etc. It is meant to be read from beginning to end because of the emphasis on building a repertoire of skills.
The good thing about "The Art of Simple Food" is that it calls for produce that is commonly found at most farmer's markets around the country or in supermarkets. As much as I admire Waters, I've not always gotten along with her other cookbooks because there is usually some deal-breaker in a recipe--usually an ingredient I can't get locally, like a Meyer lemon, golden beets or a blood orange, for instance. Though I have access to an abundant farmer's market 5 months out of the year, the selection is prosaic compared to what Waters can find 12 months out of the year in California. I've had better results cooking out of "Simple Food" but some dishes, like the braised Savoy cabbage, come out bland. Waters likes to emphasize the natural flavors, but she has access to more interesting flavors in the selection at her disposal than I do. Another issue is that for all the care in walking the reader through technique, some ingredient details are rather vague. How small is she thinking when she calls for a small head of Savoy cabbage? The smallest I could find was the size of a head and I don't think that's what she had in mind.
It's rather oddly organized. Part I: "Starting from Scratch: Lessons and Foundation Recipes," runs 212 pages, from "How to Get Started" (what utensils and pots and pans you need and how to lay them out) to "Cookies and Cake" (no explanation necessary). Each chapter starts with general advice and then presents some base recipes or exemplary recipes to illustrate the topic just covered. The second part of the book, "At the Table," is more conventionally laid out. It is an abbreviated recipe book, 173 pages long. For three decades, Waters has championed the cause of good cooking in her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. She is a master chef and food preparer and her advice on cooking is usually on the mark.
On the back cover of the book, she lists her fundamental guidelines for cooking and eating:
Eat locally and sustainably
Shop at farmers' markets.
Plant a garden.
Conserve, compost and recycle.
Remember food is precious.
The advice is the best part of this book. The recipes seem almost incidental. This is a good bookprovided you don't expect it to be comprehensive.
This is not a chatty, entertaining book. You have to sit with it and read slowly to imagine how the recipes will turn out. But if you do, you'll probably notice how Alice Waters has given most of these standard recipes a new twist--her take on a classic recipe, or an old favorite recipe. When I did this, that's when I remembered that before Waters became famous for her politics of sustainable, organic food, she caught the world's attention with her great food.
And I mean great food. When I made the Linguine with Clams, that old warhorse, it was the best version of this dish I had ever tasted. And how many cornbread recipes have I made in my life? Waters' version may be the best I've ever tried. A dull sounding recipe, like Baked Sliced Onions, was a revelation. The onions cooked up chewy and sweet, so delicious. And when I made her ridiculously simple recipe for Marinated Beet Salad, I wondered why anyone would want to eat beets any other way. So far I've cooked over 20 recipes from this book, and I've been pleased with all of them.
As with all Chez Panisse recipes, the quality of the ingredients is key. You'll have to invest in excellent meat and produce, plus the accoutrements of high-quality olive oil, fresh herbs and spices, and the like. Because many recipes are so pared down and simple, every ingredient matters--you taste it all.
Before I bought my book on Amazon, I borrowed the book from my public library, xeroxed a couple recipes, and cooked them. I recommend doing this if you can, because this book will not appeal to everyone. Some people will think it's too easy (the recipes are DECEPTIVELY simple.) But I think the book is remarkable. For a home cook, this cookbook is probably Alice Waters' best ever.