If The Salad Glistens…

My first introduction to Jonathan Waxman occurred on the second season of Top Chef Masters. He has the title “King of American Cuisine.” On the show, he was given the second title of “Obi Wan.” He appears to be humble, pretends nothing, and it’s obvious he’s comfortable in his own skin. As I did a little googling I learned that he’s mentored some of America’s culinary best, opened several successful restaurants, and published the cookbook, A Great American Cook.

jonathan_waxman One of the reasons I read cookbooks cover-to-cover is to get to know the chef by understanding their culinary point of view and their favorite ingredients. From each cookbook, I want to be inspired by the recipes and learn something new from the author/chef. I’m not usually impressed by the foreword in a cookbook, but this one, by Chef Bobby Flay, was like a window into the life of Jonathan Waxman. Chef Flay has a great deal of respect and admiration for Chef Waxman and I loved what he added to the cookbook.

I must admit I have a bit of a culinary crush on Jonathan Waxman. As a result of his cookbook, I’ve gained a deeper respect for simple ingredients and their combination. In the foreword, Chef Bobby Flay says of Chef Waxman, “He taught me how to dress a salad, respecting each tender green that landed on the plate. Jonathan used to say that the leaves should look like they had just fallen from the clouds, light and individual.”

greatamericancook_300dpi200x250pxlOn page 72, in the “Salad” section, you’ll find this note before recipe for Garden Salad:

There is inspiration in compliments. It used to bother me when people at dinner parties asked me to dress their salads. Why in the world would anybody want another cook messing up the works? Finally, when one friend told me his dressings always tasted greasy and flat, I started to analyze what made mine different. What was that inexplicable detail that could make all the difference? First, have good ingredients (that seems obvious), and second, always add the vinegar first. “That can’t be all there is to it,” my friend said. He was right – there is a more difficult matter: how much dressing to use.

I love this cookbook and learned quite a lot about food and flavor combinations…and Jonathan Waxman. For the most part, the ingredients in the recipes are simple and easy to find. I started to list the recipes I liked and then realized I pretty much liked them all. In the cookbook you’ll find chapters on starters, soups, salads, sandwiches and pizza, pasta, poultry, meat and game, fish, shellfish, vegetables, and desserts. And, edicts on selected ingredients and techniques.

First try the Guacamole and Fresh Chips on page 19. It’ll rock your world!

Culinary Book Review: The Flavor Bible

My love for cookbooks started back at Bryanston High School (South Africa), with Cooking Is Fun ( Keating, S.M. & Fookes, B.G., Wynberg, Cape: Rustica, 1976)., a 108 page recipe book which ignited a passion and sent me on an exciting culinary adventure. I’m quite sure I read that little theflavorbiblecookbook 100 times in one semester. When I say “read,” I mean cover-to-cover.  I didn’t do so well in the sewing part of the home economics class; however, in the cooking class, I impressed the instructor and surprised myself.  My friend, a gorgeous red-headed boy who eventually captured my heart, sat outside the classroom and waited for class to finish in order to partake of my culinary creations. I clearly remember the day he bit in to that lovingly, prepared steak and kidney pie with perfect flaky pastry, closed his eyes, groaned deep in his throat, and swayed ever so slightly. That little book held a secret I needed to understand. So here I am, more than 30 years later, still reading cookbooks cover-to-cover.

While having lunch at my friend Mackenzie’s house, she handed me a copy of The Flavor Bible (Page, Karen & Dornenburg, Andrew. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2008), a gift from her oh-so-clever husband. I flipped through the pages and noticed I was holding my breath. It was as if I’d found a secret map to carry on my culinary adventures. I waited a few weeks before purchasing my own copy because I’ve discovered that delayed gratification makes me appreciate things more. Needless to say, I love this book. It’s not a cookbook, and you won’t find recipes in the ordinary sense; however, you will find thousands of flavor combinations and an exciting, culinary resource.

There are three delicious chapters:

  1. FLAVOR = Taste + Mouthfeel + Aroma + “The Factor”: Learning to recognize the language of food
  2. GREAT COOKING = Maximizing Flavor + Pleasure by tapping Body + Heart + Mind + Spirit: Communicating via the language of food

2008_09_food_DornenburgPageHeadshotBy far, my favorite chapter is Flavor Matchmaking – chapter three. The book is 380 pages and 339 of those are in chapter three. I’ve haven’t had this much fun with reference material since the first time my Dad let me use his set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I loved those big, brown books. The giant-sized map book was my favorite. Alas, I digress. The charts in chapter three are listed in alphabetical order and include both ingredients and the flavors of a particular country or region. Below each ingredient, the authors “distilled and summarized key aspects of an ingredient’s essence” by: season, taste, weight, volume, and primary function. They also recommend cooking techniques and some useful tips.

Thank you, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, for a thorough and generous treasure chest. I really, really love this book and I’d like every cook to own one. However, I’m pretty sure many folks won’t recognize its beauty. Buy one for yourself and for that person in your life who appreciates flavor. You won’t regret it. And, thank you, Mackenzie. I owe you one.

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