Chefs present delicious lessons

BOOKMARK

Season's cookbooks deliver inspired recipes and great ideas

December 20, 2006|By Amy Scattergood | Amy Scattergood,Los Angeles Times

Preserved lemons in a half-hour. A new, smarter way to peel and seed a tomato. An inexpensive, easy-to-make chicken-liver mousse with a flavor reminiscent of foie gras - complete with a beautiful aspic. A foolproof method for making spectacular rack of lamb so tender you can cut it with a fork.

A cook's holiday wish list?

Perhaps. Yet in this cookbook-publishing season such wishes are coming true.

The ideas in this fall's best books are so smart and well-explained you'd think they come from seasoned cookbook writers, those indefatigable stalwarts of food publishing who test and retest, always with the home cook in mind, and publish the volumes we actually open and cook from and stain and shelf at eye level.

No, this time around, the great ideas are from the chefs.

Chef cookbooks are big this year, with new tomes out from Michael Mina, Daniel Boulud, Marcus Samuelsson, Michel Richard, Francois Payard, Jamie Oliver and more. Most of them offer what we all expect in a chef's cookbook - eye candy. As a group, they're beautiful objects, gorgeously photographed, books you want to have out on your coffee table. It's a good crop.

But three books stand out. Original, intelligent and well-executed, they won't stay on that coffee table for long.

Samuelsson's The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa represents a personal culinary odyssey. Raised in Sweden by adoptive parents, Samuelsson returned for his second book to the country of his birth, Ethiopia, and in the process toured the entire continent, a journey we see through Gediyon Kifle's sweeping photographs of Africa's food, landscape and people. It was a risky conceit for a French-trained chef known for his gravlax, not his doro watt. But the result is a compelling blend of traditional recipes and a kind of personal fusion food.

Like gravlax, Samuelsson's yellowtail is cured in a sugar-and-salt mixture to which he adds a hefty dose of the spice blend ras al hanout, pairing it with preserved citrus peel, to brilliant effect: The fish has a rich, silky interior with a subtle flavor that plays off the dense spice of a lightly seared crust. Normally, preserved citrus takes weeks to cure, but Samuelsson gets a similar effect by triple-blanching the peels, then simmering them - for just five minutes - in juice, salt, honey, ginger and spices.

Other dishes are just as inspired: grilled skewers of duck breast, red onions, peppers and pears; shrimp marinated in piri piri, a fiery sauce from Mozambique, then sauteed and wrapped in lettuce leaves.

Michael Mina: The Cookbook seems, at first glance, to be much more in line with what you'd expect of a chef book. The recipes in this debut book are elaborate and inventive, organized around the "trio" concept Mina employs in his restaurants, including Stonehill Tavern, which he opened in February in the St. Regis Resort Monarch Beach at Dana Point, Calif.

The idea is a clever one: Take a central dish, a fish or meat usually (or with desserts, a cake or a sorbet) and create a matrix of components that can be paired with it. Each trio can be served together, like a mini-tasting menu, or you can make only one, or mix and match.

Some are far too complicated for most home cooks; more than half require expensive, difficult-to-find ingredients such as Kobe beef, truffles and fresh abalone.

But when this book is on target, it rocks. Mina's olive oil-poached lamb trio is sublime, not just in the lamb's buttery texture and the flavors that complement it, but also in the simple brilliance of the technique.

The racks are slowly poached in 135- to 140-degree oil. Amazingly, you can poach it anywhere from an hour to a few - as long as the oil doesn't rise above 140 degrees. When you're ready to serve, just sear it, plate it with the accompaniments and bring it to the table.

The standout book of the season, though, is Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen. The book is just that - a happy, exuberant cookbook as remarkable for its great ideas as its joie de vivre. Deborah Jones' photographs, stunning as the dishes themselves, highlight Richard's techniques.

Richard's book, his second after a long hiatus, offers one revelation after another. Thin strips of cuttlefish become a fascinating take on fettuccine, the opaque "noodles" paired with a sauce of crab meat and corn. In another take on some of the same ingredients, crab cakes are encased in fresh corn bound with pureed shrimp.

Richard's "chicken faux gras" is a deceptively simple chicken-liver mousse - just raw chicken livers pureed with onions and garlic cooked in butter and cream, then strained into ramekins and poached, and finally topped with a cucumber-and-parsley gelee. Spread on a baguette, the stuff tastes remarkably like foie gras, buttery and smoothly subtle.

Amy Scattergood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Duck skewers

Serves 4

1/2 cup peanuts (unsalted)

1/2 cup green masala (see following recipe)

juice of 2 limes

1 teaspoon kosher salt

4 boneless duck breasts

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