These are not the hasty weeknight pastas and stir-fries of your kitchen and mine. In his new book, “Home: Recipes to Cook With Family and Friends,” with Aki Kamozawa (Little, Brown, $35), local chef-restaurateur Bryan Voltaggio concentrates on weekend brunches, Sunday suppers and holiday meals. That might explain why, unlike most of my own home meals, many of his demand hours of prep — or at least some planning.
Voltaggio is best known for his appearances on “Top Chef” and “Top Chef Masters” and for his restaurants Volt, Lunchbox, Family Meal, Range and Aggio. His first book, “Volt Ink.,” written with his California-based brother, Michael, in 2011, capitalized on their 2009 “Top Chef” rivalry (Michael won). With “Home,” Voltaggio goes where many chefs have gone of late: to comfort foods of the family kitchen.
The problem is, most families I know take comfort in dishes that come together more easily than these.
The first example: A “quick” breakfast sausage with sausage gravy was not actually that quick; the two-hour rest in the refrigerator would take anyone in my family far beyond the breakfast window. But the mix, which includes bacon, fennel, mushrooms and bourbon, is well in accord with my own views. (Everything’s better with bourbon.) The gravy starts with a roux in the same pan, and it was a pretty gritty pan by the time I finished. Still, there were no leftovers.
Voltaggio’s take on a homely classic, spaghetti and meatballs, was particularly good, with an upscale veal-pork-beef-brioche interior. A sifted-flour crust held up just enough to the slow-simmered tomato sauce. At 3
Voltaggio’s variation on meatloaf calls in panko bread crumbs, a great deal of minced cooked bacon and a very special ketchup (Sir Kensington’s, more tomato-y and less sweet than your standard supermarket ketchup), all set off by a syrupy molasses-and-vinegar glaze. But the loaf took 30 minutes longer than its stated cooking time of an hour, and even with my appetite sharpened by the wait, it did not supplant my favorite (Amy Thielen’s shiitake-amplified meatloaf from “The New Midwestern Table”).
Other entrees were heartbreakers. A puttanesca with potatoes rather than pasta seemed like such a good idea, with its three botanically related principal ingredients (potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes). I thought the fish sauce, olive and lemon would make for a sort of southern Italian fusion umami fest, but the result was overwhelming and heavy. I put up a good front for the kids’ sake and called it Nightshade Stew. But after lunching on the leftovers for a couple days, I gave up and put the remainder in the compost.
A good 20 hours went into pork shoulder and pumpkin sauerkraut: a dry rub overnight, followed by five hours in the oven. In theory, those five hours would lead to a cider-steamed interior (despite the meat’s not being covered at any point in the process) and a rich outer crust. But the pork was still fairly dense; the sauce, liquidy. Nobody fought over the leftovers, though no one complained, either.
Different technical problems arose in the vegetable recipes: A broccoli rabe side dish calls for three bunches — a colossal amount. Even my 14-inch cast-iron skillet could not accommodate that much; you’d need something the size of a 10-person paella pan. I dealt with it by reducing the quantity so I could get some reasonable caramelization on the greens. The assertive flavors — anchovy, garlic, lemon zest — stood up well to the rabe’s faint bitterness.
More frustration ensued as I tried to make the chimichurri sauce for roasted carrots. The carrot greens, even once blanched, were too fibrous for my blender to make its way through them. (I’d even given them a coarse chop, anticipating such a problem.) “Puree till smooth,” read the instructions, but I was left with a pulpy, stringy mass. I fared no better with the food processor. Does the chef have a Vitamix? I wondered. Still, the flavor was phenomenal, and we ate every bit of the minute quantity of sauce I was able to strain out.
Is it worth your time to prepare four separate elements for a side dish? Voltaggio’s Brussels sprouts ask you to pickle golden raisins, infuse Spanish smoked paprika in oil, toast sunflower seeds in that oil, and finally skillet-cook the sprouts. None of the steps takes long, and the sum of the parts is undeniably spectacular. But I might not do it unless someone else was cooking the rest of dinner that night.
Desserts were great-tasting yet not user-friendly. Some easy-looking cornmeal thumbprint cookies were a complete technical failure, seeping and still uncooked after their 11 minutes at 300 degrees. I thought perhaps I’d made them too large, but I got 30 instead of the 24 the recipe had told me to expect. I whacked up the heat to 375 and gave them another 10 minutes, and then we gobbled them down even though they looked like absolute hell.
Lemon cookies were another poser: The easy-looking mixer dough didn’t come together on low speed at all; it was just a pile of crumbs. So I pushed it up to high for a minute or two till the dough pulled away from the side of the bowl, as instructed. Then it was into the refrigerator for the prescribed two hours, after which time the dough was rock hard. My small cookie scoop couldn’t portion it, so I used a bench scraper to split it into 18 pieces and rolled the wedges into balls. After 8 minutes at 300 degrees, they still struck me as a little uncooked-tasting, but we ate them — and argued over seconds.
In fact, the whole story of “Home” is one of knockout flavors realized through instructions that are, well, not foolproof. In some cases you can use your judgment: Grab a bigger pan, cook a little longer, buy a high-powered blender. In some cases, such as with the baking recipes, the solution might not be as obvious. As cooks, we’re all problem-solvers to one degree or another. The question is: Just how much time do we want to spend being MacGyver?
Chang, who lives in New England, regularly writes about food and reviews cookbooks for the Boston Globe, NPR and the cookbook-indexing Web site Eat Your Books. She is the author of “A Spoonful of Promises: Stories & Recipes From a Well-Tempered Table” (Lyons Press, 2011). She blogs at Cookbooks for Dinner.