As we age, our senses start to fade, weakening, more and more, the mortal chains that bind us as we travel through this world alone. Specifically, our taste buds become less acute. Publishers, ever alert for marketing opportunities, target us aging baby boomers in the two books featured in this post, Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors, by Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise, and Maximum Flavor: Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook by Aki Kamozawa and Alexander H. Talbot. Unfortunately, neither book delivers; both left my tastebuds in Limbo.
Readers of this blog have already met one of the authors of Bold, Victoria Wise, who wrote The Armenian Table. The cookbook Bold is a collaboration of the two friends, Susanna Hoffman and Victoria, who have known each other for over forty years, jointly owned a restaurant, and have cowritten other books. I am not sure whether to blame the authors or the publisher for the many failings of the book under consideration. Bold begins with a gratuitously jingoistic paean to American cuisine. Then, throughout the book, are scattered completely irrelevant sidebars, such as one on river chanteys (page 184); smarmy freshman-style condescending recipe introductions (page 323); an ADD recipe format; annoying chapter titles (“Vegetables: the Vital Victual”, “Poultry in Motion”, etc.); and, most damning of all, disappointing recipes. That said, the recipes really weren’t that bad, just not particularly bold.
“Beet, Chickpea, and Almond Dip” (page 9) is a hummus-type preparation made without chickpeas. This dish is made up of cooked chickpeas processed with a cooked beet, almonds, lots of garlic, and olive oil. You do want to use a red, not golden, beet here, since the whole point is the color. There is no sesame, and I could not decide whether the dip was better without it, or needed more of a sesame taste. Our guests liked this dip, which is all I can ask for.
The real winner from this book was “Kale Slaw with Russian Dressing” (page 95). Russian dressing is one of those ingredients that makes almost anything taste good: how can a mixture of such low rent ingredients as mayonnaise, ketchup, and sweet pickles fail? Add a little horseradish, and anything is possible. And if one starts feeling guilty with the mayonnaise and ketchup, it’s possible to start meditating on how very healthy kale is these days. [Go to the recipe.]
I am not that clear on the difference between broccolini and broccoli rabe; these are apparently different vegetables. Broccolini is like miniature broccoli and is a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale; broccoli rabe is a member of the turnip family and looks like broccolini with lots of leaves. Furthermore, broccoli rabe is a type of the vegetable rape, which is the source of canola oil, and which is also a vegetable that pregnant women should try not to crave, lest their husbands steal the vegetables from a witch’s garden and their daughters end up in a towers like Rapunzel. I substituted broccoli rabe for broccolini in “Potato and Broccolini Salad” (page 184) because broccoli rabe was what Whole Foods Market had in their produce section. The potatoes and broccolini (or broccoli rabe) are dressed with a simple oil and vinegar dressing, accented with shallots, capers, mustard, and green peppercorns. This was a good but not stunning potato salad, but how stunning can a potato salad be?
I like to try recipes that are different; weird, even. “Sesame Soup with Kalamata Olives and Basil” (page 55) was indeed like no soup I had ever made before. This is a porridge-like concoction of short grain rice and tahini, with lemon juice, olives, and basil for additional flavor. For the first couple of spoonfuls I did not like this soup much, but then I began to appreciate the taste. I even thought of having a little more after I finished my bowl. (Henry hated this soup; after one taste he wanted nothing more to do with it.) I am not so sure, though, that the leftovers of this soup are going to be consumed.
“Eggplant, Potato, and Walnut Casserole with White Sauce Icing” (page 263) is a vegetarian moussaka. Walnuts are the meat substitute, which I am not sure is that good an idea. I like nuts more than most people, but I like nuts in their proper place; the hard crunchiness of nuts does not belong in a lot of places, a hot casserole being one such place. In addition to the walnut problem, I cooked this casserole too long. I did not like this dish very much, but when I announced this at the table, our guest David Z graciously offered that he had just been planning to ask for the dish to be passed down so that he could have seconds. À chacun son goût, as we say.
I like to rate recipes by the taste to trouble ratio. If one were to rate recipes by a taste to number of words in the title ratio, then “Deconstructed Lasagna with Creamed Spinach, Chanterelles, and Pine Nuts” (page 323) would rate vary low indeed. I will admit that my version differed in some significant ways from Victoria’s and Susanna’s version. I did not use chanterelles, just regular mushrooms. There were no chanterelles in the grocery, and if there were, they would have been way too expensive. I deglutenized this recipe, using rice noodles instead of standard wheat lasagna noodles. Finally, instead of deconstructing, I reconstructed this recipe by layering the ingredients. This wasn’t bad, just not bold. The pine nuts on top were an unnecessary and unpleasant addition.
Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, the authors of Maximum Flavor: Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook certainly have interesting ideas. Indeed, their blog, Ideas in Food, and their first book, Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work, are full of interesting ideas. The blog is really nothing but ideas; no real recipes, which is more empowering to the reader, but which still left me combing the blog pages for nonexistent recipe crutches. The first book has recipes, often using unusual ingredients or techniques. In the second half of this first book, “Ideas for Professionals”, they dive into the world of molecular gastronomy, leaving the unadventurous behind in the dust. The cookbook Maximum Flavor is more user-friendly; there is nothing too far out in this cookbook. However, Aki and Alex have thrown out some of the flavor they prize along with their iota and kappa carrageenans and the Methcel F50. Not Quite Maximum Flavor might be a more apt title for this book.
“Smoked Maple and Miso Glazed Wild Alaskan Salmon” (page 146) is only one word short of Bold‘s lasagna. Salmon (excuse me, I mean wild Alaskan salmon) is marinated in a miso maple glaze, then stuck under the broiler. The recipe is simplicity itself, but like most simple recipes, is dependent on the quality of its ingredients. I used wild Alaskan salmon, however the wild Alaskan salmon at Whole Foods Market had been previously frozen and was somewhat dried out; the dish might have been better with the Icelandic land-based salmon. [Go to the recipe.]
When cookbook authors who delight in obscure ingredients and new techniques get excited by an old standard (“special synergy”, “delicious results”, “we never get to eat as much as we would like”), I pay attention. Aki and Alex love their “Potato Gratin”; they claim their “proportions here are spot-on.” I beg to differ. I think that eggs have no place in a potato gratin; instead of smooth you get curdy. They do not use enough cheese: 10 ounces of cheese for four large russet potatoes sounds like enough, but I could barely taste the cheese. My last complaint is not with the ingredients, but with the cooking time. I left my potato gratin in the oven for almost half again as long as the recommended cooking time, but the potatoes never really cooked all the way. I will stick with the cheesy potatoes from the Sussman brothers (which, interestingly, use less cheese but taste much cheesier than this potato gratin).
I have been, until recently, fascinated by the idea of using sourdough in cakes, which is what Aki and Alex do in their “Sourdough Coffee Cake” (page 34). However, after I tried their recipe, I decided that the sourdough added nothing: no taste, no texture, only the knowledge in my mind that I had done something a little bit nonstandard. In fact, the cake was not even that good; it was, like the salmon, dry and heading towards tastelessness. What was good, though, was the topping, made up of “Gooey Topping”, inspired by St. Louis gooey butter cake, and a pound cake streusel. We decided at our table that the best approach to this coffee cake would be to slice off and discard the bottom half of the cake, and then enjoy the topping, supported by a thin layer of cake.
One thing science-minded cooks like Aki and Alex should get right is ice cream, and so I wanted to make the “Banana Caramel Ice Cream” (page 243). I am not that fond of bananas, but I love caramel, and caramel does seem like an appropriate flavor boost to bananas. The recipe did look a little odd: mainly, there was not that much sugar: only one cup of sugar for 4 cups of milk and cream and a lot of bananas. Also, instead of eggs or xanthan gum, they use tapioca starch, claiming in the recipe introduction that tapioca starch has certain magical properties that should guarantee perfect ice cream (or at least an “incredibly smooth” ice cream with no freezer burn). I was suspicious, but was willing to take my chances. This ice cream was a failure. It was grainy, froze up rock solid, was not sweet enough, and the caramel taste was mildly unpleasant. It did have a good banana taste, though. It is possible that I did something wrong in executing the recipe, but I am an experienced enough cook that when a recipe does not turn out as it should, I am inclined to blame the recipe authors for not providing good instructions, and not myself.
Adapted from Susanna Hoffman and Victoria Wise, Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors
2 bunches kale
2 stalks celery
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup ketchup
¼ cup sweet pickle relish
1 tablespoon prepared horseradish
Rinse the kale and remove the tough stalks. Slice the kale into thin strips. Peel the carrot, celery, and shallot, and cut into small cubes. Toss with the kale. Combine the rest of the ingredients for the dressing, then mix the kale and dressing together.
Maple Miso Salmon
Adapted from Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, Maximum Flavor
¼ cup miso
¼ cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon smoked hot paprika
1½ pounds salmon
Mix together the miso, maple syrup, vinegar, and paprika. Cover the salmon with this glaze and let it marinate for several ours. Then broil the salmon, with the glaze (skin side down) until it flakes. If you are not serving the salmon right away, but instead keeping it warm, it may continue to cook, so do not over-broil.