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Wonderful food from a wonderful chef
on January 3, 2005
As she likes to point out, nothing Joanne Weir cooks is terribly difficult or complicated. The ingredients she calls for are not hard to find if one lives in a place of reasonable size. In a small town of 3,000 surrounded by farmland, the local supermarket may not carry certain items, but in larger locales frozen phyllo dough, a nice grade of olive oil, fresh herbs and nice cheeses should be available nowadays. The same should be true of a nice bottle of wine. Certainly, those who live in a city environment won't have any difficulty. What's amazing is how incredibly delectable Joanne Weir's recipes are given their relative simplicity.
"Weir Cooking in the City" is the companion volume to the television series of the same name, which can be seen on many PBS affiliates across the country. Ms. Weir's first position after graduating from cooking school was a five-year stint at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and her experience in that restaurant can be seen in her recipes. She stresses the use of fresh, pure ingredients and the results are excellent.
This sort of food could be served at any number of good restaurants and people would pay a handsome sum to have it. But Joanne Weir says that she thinks of herself as a teacher first and a chef second and what she has done here is to make superb food available to the home cook. It's probably not the sort of fare appropriate nightly for a family of six, but it's wonderful for a dinner party or an intimate meal for two. In fact, that's just how she sells her product -- food for relaxed entertaining. Nowadays, that's what I'm after.
I have tried and can highly recommend from this book several recipes. By all means, try the triple-ginger pineapple cake. It's to die for and very easy to make if you know how to separate eggs, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold them into cake batter. You'll need fresh pineapple, crystallized (candied) ginger, fresh gingerroot and ground bottled ginger - and what full-sized supermarket in the United States doesn't have those? The rest of the ingredients are completely mundane - ordinary flour, brown sugar, butter, baking powder, salt, milk and eggs.
The roast Cornish game hens with toast bread crumb salsa are outstanding. Toasted bread crumb salsa, as it turns out, is a sort of condiment made with bread crumbs, herbs, olive oil, lemon and some other ingredients that is absolutely delicious on poultry or even a steak - and it's easy to make. Most supermarkets nowadays have plastic packets of fresh herbs in the produce department and the rest of the ingredients are no harder to find than the game hens themselves (which can be frozen ones).
Equally amazing is a delicious soup made with bottled clam juice instead of stock, fresh fennel, celery, potatoes, fresh oysters and a cup of champagne (use a $15 champagne for this and serve the rest to drink). She's creative - one quarter of the soup gets puréed and added back to the soup with some cream to thicken it, before the oysters are added. Thus, the soup still has diced vegetables for wonderful texture, but a creamy, thick consistency. The oysters go in right at the end so that they are only lightly cooked. It's amazingly good and not difficult at all. I admit, fresh oysters might be hard to find in the middle of the country . . . .
Joanne Weir's recipes take their inspiration from the countries that ring the Mediterranean Sea. Hence, you'll find lots of fresh herbs and garlic used in her dishes. Ms. Weir is especially keen on "small plates," those foods served in Mediterranean countries as appetizers, things served to start a meal. Plenty of those are included in this book in addition to main courses, soups, salads, and desserts.
All in all, I think Joanne Weir is a wonderful author of cookbooks, bringing the most delicious food imaginable into the homes of those of us who have moderately decent cooking skills, and "Weir Cooking in the City" is a great entry into her series of books. If you're lucky enough that your local PBS affiliate shows the analogous TV program, so much the better, because you can see her prepare all the recipes and, more, you can find out how much she loves to cook and share her gift for cooking with others.