Omnivorous: Mmmm, Books | Food & Drink Column | Chicago Reader

Omnivorous: Mmmm, Books 

Recipes you can make, recipes you probably can't, food history, and an Achewood adventure for good measure

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Nearly every food book issued this season lives in the long shadow of Grant Achatz's Alinea. But here are several fine volumes you might want to have a look at between skinning juniper berries and straining fennel stalk gelee.

A DAY AT EL BULLI: AN INSIGHT INTO THE IDEAS, METHODS, AND CREATIVITY OF FERRAN ADRIA

Ferran Adria, Juli Soler, and Albert Adria

Phaidon, $49.95

Along with other mammoth tomes by virtuosic toques like Achatz, Heston Blumenthal, and Thomas Keller, this 527-page volume by Spain's padrino of techno-emotional cuisine seems part of a collective attempt to demystify the culinary movement of the moment. The handful of recipes included aren't meant to be duplicated with much success by the average home cook, but along with the many photos and manifestos they do illustrate the technical, organizational, and creative genius required to operate the most original restaurant on the planet. If you're among the millions every year who try and fail to get reservations at El Bulli, this could be as close as you get.

This cookbook by Jose Garces, who's behind the local Catalan-inspired Mercat a la Planxa as well as Basque and Andalusian tapas joints in Philly, is fun to look at but you probably won't use it much. The recipes require effort and patience—although Alinea makes them look like child's play—and there's a relative dearth of food porn to spur the ambitious home cook into action. Mercat regulars won't find many of their favorite dishes here, either. But because the chef's pan-Latin influences meld together so fluidly and compellingly, this is a worthwhile document of how to innovate and still respect tradition.

HOME COOKING WITH CHARLIE TROTTER

Charlie Trotter

Ten Speed Press, $25

Fourteen years after the publication of Charlie Trotter's, the first book by the city's granddaddy of fine dining (and the Alinea of its day), comes this reissue of Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home—an anti-Alinea specifically designed not to call attention to the reader's mere mortality. Now as in 2000, it's his most accessible how-to since 1997's Gourmet Cooking for Dummies. The demographic for this book may not have the knife skills, or the mandoline, necessary to execute the potato pave or vegetable lasagna, but there's a range of classy recipes—braised leek soup with oyster mushrooms, duck breast-spinach salad with ginger-soy vinaigrette, cardamom beef stew, poached peaches with champagne granite—easily mastered for everyday eating.

HAMBURGER: A GLOBAL HISTORY

Andrew F. Smith

PIZZA: A GLOBAL HISTORY

Carol Helstosky

PANCAKE: A GLOBAL HISTORY

Ken Albala

Reaktion Books, $15.95 each

These handy little hardbacks are the first installments in the Edible series of food histories by noted scholars. They're convenient and fun (if occasionally flawed) references for those undoubtedly numerous occasions where you'll need to know the difference between White Castle, White Tower, White Mama, and White Tavern or when you must decide whether Japanese okonomiyaki is a pizza or a pancake. For pleasure reading, they can be a little heavy on corporate history, but I truly enjoyed Ken Albala's ode to the pancake, in which he puts forth a worldview that allows for variations as diverse as the Hungarian palacsinta, the Indian dosa, and the Danish ebelskiver. Each volume includes a handful of recipes.

AU PIED DE COCHON: THE ALBUM

Martin Picard

Douglas & McIntyre, $40

Montreal's Martin Picard won international notoriety by commanding his crew of scruffy kitchen pirates to "kill" Anthony Bourdain with foie gras on an episode of No Reservations. But this notorious cookbook by a notorious chef is much more than your typical vanity souvenir of a notorious restaurant. First published last year in a limited and expensive Canadian hardback run, it celebrates intelligent excess with humor and honesty. The cartoons of deliriously happy pigs in various states of dismemberment won't please vegetarians, but the accompanying text proves Picard not only thinks carefully about how he supplies his restaurant but makes the very most of what he gets. All of Au Pied de Cochon's most infamous dishes are included, from duck in a can to foie gras-stuffed pig feet to the towering seafood platters rigorously sourced from Quebecois waters.

FAT: AN APPRECIATION OF A MISUNDERSTOOD INGREDIENT, WITH RECIPES

Jennifer McLagan

Ten Speed Press, $32.50

As she did in 2005's Bones, Toronto chef Jennifer McLagan takes a much maligned fundamental of the human diet and redeems it with a scholarly and celebratory inquiry. It starts with a simple premise: fat is not just good for you, it's essential, something our ancestors knew long before the ascendancy of man-made trans fats. Featuring butter and pork, poultry, beef, and lamb fat recipes, it signals that the tide is turning (a phrase McLagan herself uses several times) against fat phobia.

THE ESSENTIAL COCKTAIL: THE ART OF MIXING PERFECT DRINKS

Dale DeGroff

Clarkson Potter, $35

More than any other barkeep, Dale DeGroff is probably most responsible for the cocktail renaissance we're currently enjoying, having ignited the revolution in the 80s at New York's Rainbow Room. Here "King Cocktail" covers all the classics, from martinis to sours, highballs to tropicals, but he's no conservative reactionary, including many of his own appealing variations (can I interest you in a yuzu gimlet?). And, like any good bartender, he's natural raconteur, with a story for every drink.

THE GREAT OUTDOOR FIGHT

Chris Onstad

Dark Horse Books, $14.95

OK, its not quite a food book, but Onstad, the creator of the Achewood universe, is arguably the finest (only?) food cartoonist of our day—his characters are as casually food literate as any obsessive gourmand. The story follows G-string-sporting feline Ray Smuckles to an annual underground battle royale, where he destroys all comers and wins a Safeway roast turkey and a fifth of Christian Brothers Brandy. A page in the back titled "Hearty Food for Your Strong-Hearted Man" includes recipes for " 'Dinosaur' Potato Chuds!" (spud-enveloped chicken drumsticks), tomatoes stuffed with anchovy and picnic ham, and "Punched-Up" prime rib.v

Care to comment? Find this roundup at chicagoreader.com. And for more on food and drink, see our blog the Food Chain.

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