Book Report: Cookbooks by Darina Allen and John Torode
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
A 12-week course at Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork, Ireland, costs more than $13,000. What a treat if you can swing it, but those who plunk down $40 for her beautiful new book will be treated to much of what's covered.
Deserved praise has been heaped upon Allen, who founded the school 27 years ago, and on her many cookbooks. The 60-year-old grew up in an environment where butter was churned, fat was rendered from geese and ciders were put up. "Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways Are the Best -- Over 700 Recipes Show You Why" (Kyle, $40) reconnects with that past, not for nostalgia's sake but for more practical reasons. "The path of life doesn't always run smoothly," Allen writes, "and so many confident young people who were riding the crest of a wave are suddenly forced to face the reality that they are virtually helpless in a changed situation. With oil supplies diminishing and energy prices rising, we are likely to need these skills even more in the future."
Whether or not circumstances will force a widespread return to living off the land, Allen says foods that are in season are what our bodies need at that particular time of year. So in comprehensive fashion she dispatches how-to's that cover winter to fall. Even if you never planned to butter an egg (not what you'd imagine), cure pork, hang game, skin a flatfish, keep chickens or forage for wild nuts, greens, fruit and flowers, her descriptions and patient instruction will keep you entertained.
The dishes Allen makes at Ballymaloe might produce more smashing results because she works with ingredients from her 100-acre organic farm. Still, the book might inspire cooks elsewhere to use the freshest, most sustainable foodstuffs they can find. At the very least, she urges us to reconsider our disposable society: Scrape the mold from a piece of cheese or the surface of a pot of jam. We can eat what's underneath and survive.
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Speaking of survival, here's John Torode's take, from "Chicken & Other Fowl" (Firefly, 2010; $24.95): "I've always believed that if you can roast a chicken you will survive. It's a simple skill that will give you freedom."
The London restaurateur, born in Australia, isn't the first chef to make such a statement. But it's how well he follows through in this, his latest effort after "Beef and Other Bovine Matters" (Taunton, 2009), that is worth the investment in a single-subject cookbook.
"Chicken" has the same clean design and graphic treatment as "Beef," which makes this collection of 150 recipes just as easy to flip through. He covers turkey, goose, quail and birds less popular in the United States than in Britain: guinea fowl, squab and partridge, plus several sets of "go-withs" such as stuffings, including a pork-with-pear recipe I'll be sure to revisit in the fall.
Torode describes this as "not a restaurant cookbook," presumably because the recipes are not demanding. But I found his portions on the generous (restaurant-like) side. His creamy curry pasta with chicken meatballs is killer good and provides a nice answer to a weeknight poser: What, chicken again? Yet the number of meatballs can be cut in half and still satisfy.
His relaxed approach suggests we cook a recipe three or four times, kind of like breaking in a pair of shoes. Tips from even a first pass through the book yield sound strategies. He soaks chicken pieces in salted water before using them to make stock; it helps produce a clear, golden broth. He prefers to grill chicken breasts and saute duck breasts with the skin on, because the meat benefits from the self-basting fat and flavor. He treats fried chicken to the classic French treatment of frites, twice-frying for extra crispness.
And, in addition to his best recipe for roast chicken, the author offers non-daunting ways to make confit, terrine, pâté and pastrami. Finally, he lists organic poultry and game dealers by country; Legacy Manor in Boonsboro, Md. (just northwest of Frederick) is the closest to Washington.