B. A. Nilsson
three venerable volumes of classic cookery highlights the
fundamental differences in eating habits of France, Italy
and the United States
With the recent appearance in English of two famous, stalwart
cookbooks, we can compare how home-based cooks in the three
big food countries plan and prepare their meals. Not surprisingly,
Americans come across as being insecure and in a tremendous
hurry, but far more inclined to assimilate the flavors and
techniques of other cultures.
France, although usually underrepresented on the restaurant
scene, still clings to its status as the culinary mothership.
La Bonne Cuisine (Ten-Speed Press) reminds us why.
This has been the classic home cook’s tome since it first
appeared in 1927; it finally has been lovingly translated
by Chez Panisse co-founder Paul Aratow, remaining true to
the original text by Madame Evelyn Saint-Ange.
By contrast, The Silver Spoon (Il cucchiaio
d’argento, Phaidon) first appeared in Italy in 1950 as
a massive collection of recipes and techniques collected by
the publisher of Domus, an architectural magazine,
and has been updated and expanded through the years. Its debut
in English is marked by some awkward jumps from metric to
American measurements, but one of the important ingredients
for any book intended for the home cook is common sense.
My oldest kitchen companion is The Joy of Cooking
(Scribner), a volume my mother used constantly, her 1951
edition ending in tatters; I replaced it with the 1975 revision,
which I still consult alongside the most recent version, from
1997. Under the guidance of Ethan Becker, grandson of the
book’s original author, it’s become more streamlined and health-conscious,
but the narratives remain vital for the tentative cook.
Missing from the new edition are the recipes for porcupine
and squirrel, which underscores the American transition from
the garden and woods to the supermarket. It’s a heritage,
not surprisingly, still evident in La Bonne Cuisine,
although we’re talking about a snapshot of France taken 80
years ago. A revised edition of the book probably would spend
less time telling you how to pluck chickens and smack fish
to death—but I’m guessing not a whole lot less.
And I would hope the general air of fanaticism would remain,
because it’s a spirit that needs reinforcement if you’re not
sure of yourself in the kitchen. The secret behind all good
cooking is preparation. Enter the kitchen with nothing in
mind, assemble some items from larder and fridge, and your
menu can emerge alongside your prep. You need to know some
techniques, and they’re lovingly, if stridently, detailed
in La Bonne Cuisine’s first 35 pages. And if you’re
not lighting a coal stove and have chosen to use a food processor,
you won’t even need to learn all 35.
Silver Spoon starts you off with cooking terms and a tour
of tools, but then it plunges into the recipes; likewise,
Joy of Cooking essays its thoughts on food as ingredients
in the first chapter (with the dreaded word “lifestyle” added
in 1997), and then gets to the heart of the matter: Entertaining.
How to plan a menu and set the table; a reminder that Americans
tend to worry how we’re perceived by others.
But go first to Joy when you want the basics of the
basics, like stocks and sauces. The French and Italian books
assume throughout that you’ve been cooking for a while. The
Silver Spoon reminds you how the basics are done, then
enhances that knowledge with its 2,000 recipes; La Bonne
Cuisine assumes that whatever you’ve been doing is wrong,
and stands by your side, ready to whack you with a wooden
spoon if you make any more mistakes.
Thanks, I suspect, to Ethan Becker’s Cordon Bleu training,
there’s more chemical analysis of the various processes in
the new Joy, which is always helpful when combining
liquids and solids over heat. With the grounding you get from
those pages, turn to Madame Saint-Ange’s book for a rundown
of all the classic French sauces—which won’t seem so intimidating
Still, if Hollandaise sauce is any indication, you may want
to head first for the Spoon. In 80 concise words, you’re
directed to whisk softened butter pats into a simmering egg
yolk mixture. La Bonne Cuisine devotes two pages—about
1,500 words—to the process, but once you study it, you’ll
know more background info and sauce permutations than you
ever thought possible. The butter, for example, “must be perfect,
of the finest quality. However, some kinds of butter, even
though quite good, leave a bitter aftertaste from the whey
left behind after an incomplete churning.” Take that under
If you’re time- or whisk-constrained, it’s Joy to the
rescue. After a patient few background paragraphs, you get
a traditional recipe—really just a somewhat enlarged version
of Spoon’s—and then an all-American alternative:
Are we really that lazy? All the so-called 30-minute gourmet
books wouldn’t be thriving if we weren’t. Yet there’s an innovative
spirit to American cooking that’s born of this laziness, which
is then renamed efficiency. Look at Joy’s list of condiments,
aburst with chutneys, ketchups, sambals and even an array
of mayonnaise preparations.
In its newly revised version, The Silver Spoon incorporates
French dishes; there’s a Spanish influence that’s not surprising
in a Mediterranean-themed collection. But at heart it’s shamelessly
Italian, with each ingredient lovingly described and given
its due in the accompanying recipes. If you’re back from the
garden or market with an armful of eggplant, you’ll find here
15 different preparations. (I like the eggplant caviar, a
kind of baba ganouj without the grilling.)
The book concludes with menus and recipes submitted by guest
celebrity chefs, including such U.S.-based stars as Mario
Batali and Lidia Bastianich. It shows how much this collection
has influenced restaurants over the years, reminding us that
the great innovations of cooking have originated in home kitchens
through the years.
Because La Bonne Cuisine hasn’t gone through a similar
update, it’s almost a museum piece, but, like a classic painting,
it has lost none of its vibrancy and unlocks many secrets
that are in danger of being forgotten in the food-processor
age. You may not be rushing in from the backyard to make nettle
soup anytime soon, but the recipe is here, one of 1,300. And
the next time I return from my henhouse with fresh eggs, I’ll
keep Madame’s omelette rant in mind:
it not,” she asks, “appropriate to understand what makes a
successful omelette? The terms used to describe this are often
unclear and debatable—such as the French baveuse (‘runny’).
Baveuse, in the exact sense of the word, describes
an omelette in which some parts are extremely cooked, even
hard, while others are runny. In essence, it’s a badly made
As much as I worship at the feet of the cuisines of France
and Italy, I’m amazed at how often I consult my nine-year-old
Joy. With some 2,000 recipes at hand, it almost always
has what I’m looking for. And I use it most often my kitchen’s
Court of Appeals. After checking a recipe in this book or
that, I turn back to the Joy of Cooking for the last
word, for the assurance that I’m on the right track. Which
makes me as much of an American as anyone else living here,
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
Phila Bistro (43
Phila St., Saratoga Springs) is having a “Taste
of New York State” wine dinner tomorrow (Friday)
at 6:30 PM, featuring the wines of Fox Run Winery.
Cost, not surprisingly, is $43 per person (not
including tax or gratuity); 584-2720. Also, the
restaurant will be offering a new bistro menu
as it begins serving lunch Wednesday through Saturday.
. . . Parisi’s Steakhouse (11 N. Broadway,
Schenectady) will feature wines of South Africa
with a six-course meal that boasts roasted alligator
and steak au poivre among its offerings. The event
is at 7 PM on April 3, and five wines will be
paired with the appropriate courses. It’s $55
plus tax and tip, and phone reservations are required.
374-0100. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to
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very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's
at Ogdens. You review described my dining
experience perfectly. This wasn't the case
with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or
Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree
that a restaurant can have an off night
so I'll give the second unit on Central
Avenue a try.
yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back.
Second, I haven't had a chance to visit
Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading
would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant
- it's not that far away. People traveled
from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam.
From his background, I'm sure the chef's
sauce is excellent and that is the most
important aspect of an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on
the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm
looking forward to trying this restaurant
- I look forward to Metroland every Thursday
especially for the restaurant review. And
by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam
location and is opening a new bistro on
Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running
in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake
Bistro. It should be great!
comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants
being as "standardized as McDonald's"
shows either that you have eaten at only
a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or
that you have some prejudices to work out.
That the physical appearances are not what
you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing
on the food. And after all, that is what
the main focus of the reviews should be.
Not the physical appearances, which is what
most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on
Central Avenue, may not look the greatest,
but the food is excellent there. And the
menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian,
chicken, and more..