Alice Waters' new cookbook, The Art of Simple Food (2007, Clarkson Potter), is plain, indeed simple, and a must-have for any passionate amateur cook. The title isn't flashy and the cover doesn't feature the toothy smile of a celebrity chef. This book catches the eye in another way, with calmness and sophistication. Inside, it is almost more like a textbook than a cookbook, complete with black and white illustrations which look like shaded pencil drawings. It's a welcome change from some of the other cookbooks on my shelf, which are either more like encyclopedias or more like coffee table books, complete with photos of perfectly plated food and are certainly taken by a professional food photographer.
Waters' book opens with a chapter entitled Getting Started- in which she recommends pantry staples and perishable staples. After she lists them, she includes a short paragraph discussing and describing each. In the next section, she lists (on two pages in double columns) some of the dishes you can make with just those ingredients, including everything from red rice pilaf to creme caramel! Next, a short but necessary lesson on equipment and tools, providing readers with a solid knowledge base of essentials and then (bonus!) two pages on cutting techniques.
The recipes that follow are easy to read, well explained and are based on cooking from scratch. My favorite section of her recipes is at the end of each one- she gives several variations for each dish, making this book the ultimate in user-friendly for those of us who are adept at taking a recipe and tweaking it to our liking, but need a little guidance as to what goes well with what! She leaves room for your own creativity, and after reading some of her variations, it's obvious to me that she loves to cook, loves flavors and is encouraging us to go out on a limb and try new things.
The short chapters that follow are broken up by cooking methods or categories of foods, for example Out of the Frying Pan contains recipes for Pan-Fried Pork chops, Sauteed Cauliflower and Fish in Breadcrumbs. Other categories include Slow Cooking (the beef stew from this section is on the stove now, and will be my next blog entry) Sauces, A Little Something (I am making the eggplant caviar from this section soon), Simmering, Tarts (savory and sweet), Fruit Desserts, Pasta, Fish and Shellfish... the list goes on. As you can see, she gives necessary basics for each category and a few example recipes. There are so many recipes in this book I want to make, I see that my partner already dog-eared the recipe for bolognese sauce.
If you are looking for a great gift for a fledgling cook or a little something for yourself, look no further. It might not be the one that jumps out at you from the bookstore shelf, but give it a second look, it will become a treasured reference for years to come...and the eggs.