It's hard to write a review of a cookbook that you've only had for two days-- you have to actually try the recipes to know if they will work. (I have several beautiful cookbooks by famous chefs that omit important directions, or give wrong quantities of food.) However, I felt strongly enough about this book that I wanted to write an early review.
For those of you who don't know, Alice Waters's restaurant, Chez Panisse, is probably the most important American restaurant in the past forty years. Waters pioneered the use of high quality, local ingredients. The restaurant itself is delightful; they've served some of the best food I've ever eaten. In the Bay area, where I live, farmers and artisans at local markets often proudly claim that their food is served at her restaurant.
Waters begins the book by extolling her philosophy: buy local, high quality ingredients, and cook them simply. (Of course, simple for a professional chef is different than simple for a home chef. I consider 6 ingredients to be pretty complicated, especially if they are all fresh ingredients.) She then proceeds to give very explicit directions on how to cook things: roasts, vegetables, baked goods, reminiscent of the explicit directions given by Julia Child in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One, or by Maida Heatter in Maida Heatter'S Book Of Great Desserts. Finally, she gives lists of recipes for many dishes.
What makes her recipes unique are the variations that she provides for each recipe. Here's one simple example: for a chard frittata, she recommends substituting other greens, such as collards, rapini, or stinging nettles (I have alway wondered what to do with stinging nettles). Or, in a recipe for pancakes, she says to add one cup of whole grain flours, telling you to mix multiple grains including spelt, wheat, corn, or whatever else you feel like adding. (She does note that you need to use a minimum amount of whole wheat flour for the gluten to bind it all together.) I've seen other books that tried to teach you how to vary recipes (for example, Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed), but this one does a very good job of explaining where you should improvise and where you should not. Most importantly, this book gives you a real feeling of why each dish is great, and really captures the soul of each recipe. I've never seen another cookbook that had this much discussion of each recipe.
This is a very good book about food. It's similar to other introductory cookbooks like The New Basics Cookbook, or The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition with 1,000 Recipes, but I think Alice Waters does a much better job explaining how to cook. (For example, I like the two pages she devotes to pan-frying pork chops. That recipe, incidentally, has four ingredients: chops, oil, salt, pepper.) She is not as good a writer as, say, Jeffrey Steingarden (author of The Man Who Ate Everything), but I don't expect her to be. (This is more of a cookbook than a book of essays.) Honestly, I have dozens of books that cover the same set of recipes as this book, but I have no other book that makes me want to cook every recipe. I would recommend this book to anyone who cares seriously about food.
[Update on 8/1/2008. I've now tried a number of recipes from this book, including the short ribs, apricot jam, many of the salads, pork chops, and sauerkraut. Every recipe I've tied has worked, and most of them have been very straightforward. This has become my "desert island" cookbook; it's the first place I turn when I don't know how to make something. I strongly recommend this book to anyone, experienced or not.]