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Sauce in Translation
By B. A. Nilsson

Revisiting 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.

The 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 to prepare.

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 advisement.

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’sand then an all-American alternative: blender Hollandaise.

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:

“Is 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 omelette.”

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, I guess.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

43 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 Metroland (food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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What you're saying...

I 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.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, 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 the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I 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!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your 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..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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