Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Peeling Things Back

Cookbooks teach you all kinds of things, but nothing more than how to read cookbooks. It's a real mistake, for instance, to take them at face value, or even title value. Of late I've learned this lesson with Mark Peel (the chef at the wonderful Campanile and Tar Pit) and his Classic Family Dinners. With a title like that, you'd assume he assumed you had, like, a family, and you wanted to feed them. And, one might even go so far as to surmise he'd think you had to do other things for them, like spend time with them not in the kitchen (as you're busy straining, with cheesecloth, your bechamel), or save for their college education. But, despite the recipes in the book usually delivering, it's not clear Peel had those ideas in mind.

Take his macaroni cheese. It does end up delicious, the day after you start making (or the day you take off to make it). But one reason it does is it contains a good $40 worth of dried and fresh mushrooms. Sure, you get to eat it for a couple of days, too, as it make a lot, but for a vegetarian meal, that's a hefty price tag. (And, to tell the truth, it seems more a mushroom-noodle casserole by the end, which isn't a bad thing, just a bit of a dodge.)

Then the above lovely dish is his (well, even better, my) linguine with clams. Even buying clams on sale, this calls for 48 littlenecks, and 4 dozen is about 8 pounds of shell-heavy bivalve. Which is a painful cash register ca-ching of about $40. That pain was mollified once I started eating the dish, as it is quite possibly the best linguine and clams I've ever had. You end up making just enough juice and then give the pasta a quick pan braise in that after cooking it, so all the clam-brothy goodness gets sucked right into the semolina. One of my weaknesses as a both a chef and eater is I prefer a hefty saucing (LA Times critic Irene Virbila, ever on the alert for too much sauce, would probably find me horribly gauche), but this recipe cures me of that problem. Just get the darn sauce to hide inside the food!

So, should you buy this book? Depends upon how much time and money you have. And, I have to admit, not all the dishes are intensive/expensive. He's got a pan-fried trout that's already become a go-to staple in our kitchen.

But I'm still looking for that perfect mac 'n' cheese recipe.


  1. I am so back and forth on cookbooks. Mrs Smitty and I finally bit the bullet and got rid of, last night, half of our cookbooks. The ones, you know, where you insist they're great, but don't remember the last thing you cooked from them? Those.

    We have also instituted, now that the weather way up here in Michigan has turned frigid (we average 0 - 8 degrees at night, and today is damn near a heat wave as our high reached all the way up to 27!! I didn't even button my coat at lunch and I left my gloves on my desk!), Soup Sunday. Every Sunday, we try and make a challenging but delicious soup. Or sometimes...just a soup. I was proud of our Crawfish Bisque, and it came from our all-time fave cookbook.

    This linguine is something I must try. Granted, clams are sometimes a bit hard to come by up here. But we apparently are quite threatened by Zebra Mussels. Wonder if they'll work instead...

  2. I, too, do not follow all the directions written in my cookbook. I just use it for reference.

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  3. There are times that you should follow what your cookbook said especially for difficult dishes that need careful preparation.

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