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Powells.com
Saturday, October 22nd, 2005


 

Artisanal Cooking: A Chef Shares His Passion for Handcrafting Great Meals at Home

by Terrance Brennan

A review by Georgie Lewis

The subtitle of Artisanal Cooking is a fairly typical one: A Chef Shares his Passion for Handcrafting Great Meals at Home. And yet I couldn't have said it better, "sharing" being the perfect word to describe the inclusiveness one feels reading Chef Terrance Brennan's recipes.

Brennan introduces the book with his philosophy of artisanal cooking -- incidentally Artisanal is the name of one of his famous New York restaurants (the other being Picholine), and the name of his Premium Cheese Company (www.artisanalcheese.com). To Brennan artisanal is not just "handcrafted" food, but connotes tradition, attention to detail, ingredients with quality and integrity, and pride in the craft. What follows that introduction, written in what I find to be generous, lovely prose, comes close to running the gamut of cooking from chutneys and comfits, hors d'oeuvres, salads and starters, fish and meat, as well as desserts. And most recipes are accompanied by superb photos. I'm a sucker for heavily illustrated cookbooks -- I love to see what I'm hoping to replicate.

Of the addictive little notes at the end of each recipes, broken down into Terms and Techniques, Embellishments, and Variations, I particularly like it when he specifies The Reason. In simple terms Brennan explains why you puree soup hot before chilling it, why to add a splash of lemon to mushrooms, or why you should avoid bringing a sauce containing mustard to a boil. Call me a cooking nerd, but these details really help me understand the process.

Sometimes, for all the lovely pictures, creative ideas, and elaborate recipes, I simply don't share the same palate as an author. An exceptionally good book for technique is Cooking School Secrets for Real World Chefs by Linda Carucci. Luckily for me, Carucci and I share a similar taste, a similar palate, and her recipes are ones I cook -- or use as springboards for my own cooking. It is a fairly simple cookbook for recipes, but one I find essential. She cooks a rack of lamb the way I like to cook a rack of lamb; whereas one of the most popular cooking series -- The Best Recipe series by the editors of Cook's Illustrated -- does not. I've found that when I've followed Cook's lead in the past, often enough they weren't "the best" for me.

While Cook's Illustrated and Carucci are terrific at explaining food science and technique, Brennan's book gives you some insider info of a different kind. Brennan is a cheese connoisseur and he has a really useful chapter on his passion: some of his favorites, wine and cheese pairings, and a great guide to serving a cheese course. His enthusiasm for cheese is contagious (he swears he's never met a cheese he didn't like) and various types of cheeses appear in his recipes -- sometimes as a twist on a classic (Creamed Spinach with mascarpone and Parmigiano-Reggiano) or as an essential ingredient in an entrée (Breast of Chicken with Comté-Scallion Polenta, where the Gruyère-like Comté is slipped inside the chicken to both tenderize and infuse with flavor).

But this is not a cheese-themed cookbook, and it is not a French cookbook (although the French influence is indisputable). It has many gorgeous recipes for vegetarians from Butternut Squash and Prune Gratin to Panisse or Gougères, and yet also half of his recipes are meat-based. I would possibly buy this book for the soup recipes alone. All can be cooked vegetarian, none have cream and yet many are thick and creamy, and the combinations are truly creative. Pumpkin Bisque with Wild Mushrooms features a cranberry compote; while a white gazpacho that is made from grapes and cucumbers is served with a scoop of Red Gazpacho Granité!

One day I hope to eat at one of Brennan's acclaimed restaurants, but until then his wonderful cookbook is going to be a true staple in my kitchen.


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