Coffee Table Cookbook

I recently bought this cookbook. It’s a gorgeous hardcover with a colorful cover, and many beautiful pictures of delicious-looking food inside. It was an impulse purchase. I’d been shopping for a dress for my wedding (yes, yes, the store at which I purchased the cookbook also sold dresses!), and the book was just so lovely, and the recipes sounded so good (at least to read about) that I just couldn’t resist.

The gimmick for this one is that it’s divided into 4 chapters, one for each season, and the recipes in each chapter feature foods that are at their peak in that season (at least, in the northeastern US; the author is based in New York City). Within each chapter, there’s a 2-page spread highlighting what’s best this time of year, then a section for seasonal cocktails, one for appetizers, one for main courses, one for desserts, and one for breakfast foods (also a couple of sample menus at the end of each chapter).

First off, I love that it includes seasonal cocktails, and most of them sound very tasty. Though the only one I’ve made so far, the rhubarb mule (a Moscow mule with the addition of sweetened rhubarb puree), was WAY sweeter than it needed to be. I made it a second time with extra lime juice, and it was still too sweet. There’s a preponderance of vodka cocktails, as well, which suggests that the recipes are tailored to the palates of those who like the idea of fancy drinks, but don’t actually enjoy the taste of alcohol. But I should try more of his recipes before I judge. Also, the author seems to feel the need to give a shout-out to every brand of premium vodka currently on the market. There are three vodka cocktails in the Spring chapter, and each one suggests a different brand of top-shelf vodka. I mean, really? Do you even need top-shelf vodka when you’re drowning out whatever flavor there is with fruit juice and sugar? Maybe I’m just not a vodka connoisseur, but I made the rhubarb mule with Level vodka one time, and Skyy another, and really couldn’t tell the difference.

The only other recipes I’ve tried so far are “Mammy Louisette’s Ginger-Rhubarb Tart” and “Vermont Double Cream Ice Cream” (vanilla ice-cream with extra egg yolks and creme fraiche). The ice-cream is quite delicious. It seems pretty hard, but this is the first time I’ve made ice-cream at the new apartment, so I don’t know whether that’s the recipe or our freezer. I wasn’t quite as happy with the tart, but I think that might have been my fault. It had a puff pastry crust, and the center never baked through, even though the edges would have scorched had I left it in for longer. I think I wasn’t as careful as I should have been, though, scooping the sweetened and flavored rhubarb into the crust, and I added too much liquid. I also think the crust wasn’t cold enough when it went into the oven. That might be partly the fault of the recipe, though. It says to put the puff pastry in the tart pan, then chill for 30 minutes, then add the fruit, fold over the edges, and bake. My timing was a little off, because Donald needed the oven for French fries at the 30 minute mark. However, there’s no way, after 30 minutes in the freezer, that those rock solid pastry edges are going to fold over. Even after putting it in the fridge for a bit, they were still quite hard. I had to bring it out to room temperature for a while to soften them up enough. However, it might have been a good idea to stick it back in the freezer for a few minutes after I’d added the rhubarb and folded the edges over, because that might have kept the juices from soaking through the center of the tart as much.

I do want to make other recipes in this book. However, it does seem to me that most of them are fancy dinner party food, and not really all that useful for helping me figure out what to do with all my CSA vegetables. Many of the recipes would just take far too long (and this is saying a lot, if you know how much time I typically spend cooking already). I mean, I just don’t have time to make “Aromatic Stuffed Suckling Pig” on a Wednesday night after work.

Which brings me to another issue with this book. I’m an adventurous cook and grocery shopper, and I live in a major urban center in the United States. And a good number of these recipes call for ingredients that I don’t know how to get. Fresh porcini mushrooms? I’ve never seen fresh porcini mushrooms at a store in Boston. Ditto veal sweetbreads. Not to mention suckling pig. Maybe I could order suckling pig from a butcher. But, seasonal or no, these are just not common ingredients. Huckleberries? I don’t think I’ve ever seen fresh huckleberries for sale even at Russo’s. I think you have to live in New York City to make a lot of these recipes.

I probably sound pretty negative about this cookbook, but I should also confess that I spend a lot of time reading it, and trying to convince myself that the recipes wouldn’t be that much work to prepare. They just sound that delicious! Maybe for a dinner party sometime….

The best part, though, is Rachael Ray’s blurb on the back cover, which refers to the recipes as “simple preparations and easy ideas.” Which might tell you all you need to know about Rachael Ray’s so-called 30 Minute Meals.

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