Jamie's America, Easy Twists on Great American Classics, and More by Jamie Oliver
For those who do not like long reviews, this is a great book for the experienced home cook who has good sources for unusual ingredients, and is willing to try new variations on old standards and local specialties. Not a book for impatient or inexperienced cook. Every recipe is shown in a full-page picture, done by an expert photographer and food stylist. Wine suggestions are given for most dishes. Supplementary text is engaging and informative. If you like Jamie Oliver cookbooks, go to the top and order now.
I have been a fan of Jamie Oliver since his first cookbook and Naked Chef days, when his 12 part BBC series was run by the Food Network. Out of my 500 or so cookbooks, I do more dishes from Jamie than from any other author. So, with that grain of salt in mind, here goes my eighth review of a Jamie Oliver cookbook.
There is a sense in which every review I do of an Oliver book has roughly the same observations. First and foremost, Oliver has a joie de vivre, a bubbling over of passion about good cooking which is hard to find in any other author's printed works. (I suspect this may be something of a Brit thing. Some of the few other places I find it is in books by Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater). Second, Oliver's technique is a joyous mix of the meticulous and the impromptu. He has no thoughtful sidebars on technique. Like all good books on learning Chess, all the praxis is in the recipes themselves.
It is hard to pick a recipe at random and not find an interesting new technique or memorable twist on a conventional method. For example, I have made the simple Waldorf salad dozens of times, from my mother's instructions. Jamie uses virtually all the same ingredients, but comes up with three variations which, when I made his version, immeasurably improved the old standard. The first was to peel the strings off the celery stalks. Somehow, when others suggest this, it seems fussy. Jamie makes it seem like fun. Second, Finely chopped upper stems of parsley are added to the dressing. Third, the dressing is yogurt, mustard, vinegar, and olive oil rather than mayonnaise. Fourth, the apple is to be sliced into matchsticks (lovely matchsticks, mind you). The anomaly in this recipe is between the first step, where grapes are mixed with salad greens and next to last step, where the grapes and walnuts are to be piled on top of the leaves. It seems silly to try to do both. (Copy editing may have been a casualty of an accelerated publication schedule for the book). I can still make my Waldorf salad without a recipe and use some or all of Jamie's suggestions. This is the virtue of Oliver's offering his own variations on classic American dishes. (Just as one can open with either a classical Sicilian defense, the Najdorf variation, or the Dragon variation of the Sicilian).
Even though Oliver said he would have liked to visit all the regions of the United States, time limited him to just six, New York City, Louisiana, Arizona, Los Angeles, Georgia, and the Wildwest. But within those regions, Jamie picked several dishes which are not commonly associated with that area, as when he does barbecued beef ribs from Adam Perry Lang's NYC restaurant. Even though it is on the page following the Waldorf salad, it is worlds away in both cultural patina, difficulty, and time to execute. Even if you are really efficient, I suspect it would take you eight hours to complete the recipe (the time in the oven alone comes to about 7 hours). Just like the salad recipe, there are tips here which I have seen nowhere else.
The recipes from Louisiana continue to demonstrate that the best thing to do with Jamie's books is to read them cover to cover. But now and then, differences in culture (we are dealing with a Brit, talking Cajun, to a Yank here. Something is bound to get lost in translation) seem to drop a detail, as when Jamie suggests squashing cooked garlic with beans and veggies with a potato masher. My German background says a potato masher is a great wooden cylinder with a handle. My mother used a zigzag shaped wire gadget. I use something which looks like a garlic press on steroids. Which is it? On the one hand, it is anything which works, but novices in the kitchen may not have the range of options at their fingertips that the experienced cook, let alone the expert cook, may have. This is why I may be reluctant to suggest one of Oliver's books (except for his Cook With Jamie) to a beginner. Oliver is famous, from the very beginning, of using inexact, seat of the pants descriptions of amounts, such as `a splash of olive oil'. I do this all the time, and if it were done on TV, the viewer could see what he means, but I would not trust an inexperienced teenager with that instruction. This inexactness is both dangerous and liberating, as when the ingredients list asks for good-quality sausages. Does he mean Italian, sweet, hot, chorizo, boudain blanc, boudain noir, smoked, fresh, blood, beef, or pork. Another warning is that by presenting truly local recipes, some ingredients may require special requests to your butcher, such as pork skin for cracklings. In PA Dutch country, where pigs stomach is a standard item, it should not be too hard to find. But that may not be true of all parts of the country.
Another reason to read this book straight through is that the `filler text' and head notes strike me as unusually informative. Oliver's explanation of the difference between Cajun and Creole cuisines is better than any I have seen so far. In the narrative page on Gumbo, he describes how slaves being brought over from Africa smuggled okra seeds in their hair, ears, and navel.
The cuisine from Arizona was neither Mexican imports nor Chris Bianco's famous pizza in Phoenix. It was the cuisine of the Navajo Indians on the reservation. The good news here is that it means he offers several recipes for lamb, the primary red meat of the Navajos. I was especially delighted to see juniper berries and sumac berries used to season lamb. I often use them to season pork, but always wondered what else they fit. (This is also another reason to read the recipes all the way through. Even my very large Wegmans did not have juniper or sumac, and I had to order them on the Internet to make this dish. Some ingredients are highly seasonal, such as the edible pansies, marigolds or violas).
Oliver's take on Los Angles is a good example of the delight in seeing this American city through the eyes of this world traveler (living in a house which is older than our country), who says `There's no city on earth like Los Angeles'. At this stop, he does look at the Mexican influence on American cooking, plus the distinctly `California style' of presentation. One of the most unusual dishes I tried from this section is the Californian Antipasti. One problem with some antipasti selections is that everything starts tasting like vinegar and olive oil. This recipe prepared five different dressings, and varied the acid in each dressing between lemon, orange, lime, and wine vinegar. A caution with this recipe is that it will not work well with `thick' asparagus. When I looked at the picture, I thought the asparagus was those long skinny mung beans.
Speaking of the pictures, I rarely feel pictures are necessary in a cookbook, except to demonstrate technique. Oliver's use is the one big exception, since he provides a full page picture of every dish, on the page facing the text of the recipe. And, while I suspect most of the pictures were taken by a food stylist photographer, they demonstrate that you can take Jamie out of the posh London restaurant, but you can't take his passion for restaurant styled food out of him. All the dishes look like they were priced at $10 a plate, or more.
One of the drawbacks of this kind of book is that two recipes which are quite similar, as with the Waldorf salad and the Georgia Southern Pecan and Apple Salad fall 220 pages from one another. Fortunately, the two recipes appear together in the index under `Apples'. The same is true of the two ribs recipes
Jamie's `Wild West' venue was Cody Wyoming, a state which is bigger than England, and `Dead Man's Camp' in Montana. I was surprised to find several different salads in this section, including one which answered the question of how to turn broccoli into an attractive salad. I discovered that it worked, largely through that miracle ingredient, bacon, plus blanching the florets to take a bit of the crunch out, and by cutting them into small pieces.
To make the posh food stylings feel at home, Jamie had his wine expert, David Gleave, suggest wines to go along with most dishes. Most of these you could find in London, but they may be scarce in Wyoming or on the Navajo reservation. But, it's an added value for us city folk.
The surprising bottom line is that this is probably a great book for selecting dishes for entertaining at sit-down dinners, where you plan two or more weeks in advance. It is the kind of book which truly `turns you on' to cooking well.