It’s Not Fat, It’s Big-Boned

It’s a banner year for big cookbooks: Later this month, Scribner will release a 75th-anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking; the CIA has tuned up its basic training manual, The Professional Chef; and Bon Appétit has just published its eponymous cookbook, in honor of its 50th year (perhaps in part because Condé Nast sibling/rival Gourmet published its own 1,000-plus-recipe cookbook two years ago). These over-600-page books are intended to be encyclopedic in nature, and as any Wikipedia user knows, encyclopedias are almost always defined by their blind spots. That’s good for publishers: No matter how definitive a cookbook claims to be, there is always room for another.

Big cookbooks purport to teach the building blocks of cooking and tend to fall into two categories. The homemaking audience gets basic how-tos—books like The Joy of Cooking or The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, or even Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The Professional Chef—in many ways the descendant of Escoffier’s canonical Guide Culinaire its guidance to the more experienced home chef.

We’ve been learning the fundamentals for a long time now, but they need to be repackaged from time to time, making room for new tools (microwaves, silpats, maybe even kryovack machines), new flavors (or old ones from other places, like nuoc cham or garam masala), or even just new personalities (Bittman’s personal, slightly gruff authority). Big cooking volumes typically present a basic recipe that elaborates on a technique and then offers more filigreed variations on the theme. For the novice, it is a chance to learn methods for the first time; for the more experienced cook, these recipes serve as reminders of basic formulas and provide the groundwork for improvisation.

Leaving the basics behind

Bon Appétit’s world, as conjured up in its cookbook, is far more insouciant than that of the tried-and-tested formulas (to my surprise, I’m a contributor to The Bon Appétit Cookbook; one of the recipes I wrote for them a few years ago was included in the volume). The Bon Appétit Cookbook shows an impatience with the theme-and-variations approach, has only a handful of illustrated techniques, and dispenses with many basics: There is brown sugar ice cream but no vanilla ice cream; there is goat-cheese-arugula ravioli with tomato-pancetta butter but no recipe for pasta dough (the ravioli are made from wonton wrappers). Bon Appétit recipes come into this world fully embellished, gracing basic Franco-Italo-American techniques with twists that are either creative or unnecessary, depending on your perspective.

It is not a cookbook for purists, who might be undone by Cumberland sauce made with cranberries; cornbread made with blue corn and spread with black olive butter; egg salad sandwiches with bacon and olives; and cheesecake in 14 varieties, from Dutch chocolate mint to crab and wild mushroom. In this way, the book catches snippets of every popular food trend that has crossed the country in the past 25 years (and though it is a 50th-anniversary cookbook, it’s really focused on the past three decades, the time in which Bon Appétit has been based in Los Angeles). Even when classic flavors are featured, formulas are tweaked to make them less labor intensive—béarnaise sauce for steak is recast in The Bon Appétit Cookbook as a compound butter flavored with tarragon and shallots.

Bon Appétit recipes come into this world fully embellished, gracing basic Franco-Italo-American techniques with twists that are either creative or unnecessary.

The Bon Appétit Cookbook occupies a niche similar to the one filled by The New Basics Cookbook, the big-volume book published by the Silver Palate team Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins in 1989. They also dipped into the cosmopolitan flavors and restaurant trends, while keeping the techniques, and the gestalt, resoundingly cheery American. (This is a difference between the Bon Appétit and Gourmet cookbooks; the latter presents relatively pristine recipes for foreign standards, listing them by their original names, like palak paneer, pan bagnat, and pho). I’m usually drawn to books with a more rigorous approach than Bon Appétit’s global pastiche, but there is a certain appeal to this mode of thinking about food, unencumbered as it is with cultural context. With a Bon Appétit recipe, a cook can seem creative without actually having to tinker around with recipes.

Dessert dilettantism

Dessert is a particularly welcome place for such dilettantism, and it is something at which Bon Appétit excels. In its own way, Bon Appétit has contributed to the preservation of the big, homey cake. While cakes at restaurants have been deconstructed and divided into so many individual portions (molten lava cakes still chief among them), home cooks still demand birthday cakes, Christmas cakes, and Passover cakes, so Bon Appétit the magazine is laden with them: Over the years, it has collected recipes from wonderful bakers like Dorie Greenspan, Cindy Mushet, David Lebovitz, and Emily Luchetti. Whimsy is a virtue in baking, and though I am not so very interested in the 14 varieties of cheesecake, I am perfectly fine with chocolate layer cakes sprinkled with peppermint candies or gingerbread layer cake slathered with cream cheese frosting.

Because The Bon Appétit Cookbook dispenses with a lot of basic information, it’s not particularly helpful to beginning cooks. Oddly enough, this is also a problem for advanced cooks, who might want to improvise from more stripped-down formulas. But that leaves the great middle—people who like to cook and want to work some new flavors into their lineup, but aren’t too rigorous about, for example, making their own coconut milk or cooking odd bits like sweetbreads and kidneys. With its multiple contributors and hybridized recipes, The Bon Appétit Cookbook may read in some ways like a Junior League cookbook writ large (with uncharacteristically well-tested recipes). But disregard the sillier combos, like kiwi and Asian pear salsa served with lamb chops, and it’s a nice collection for the restless but not so very rigorous home cook.

Deconstructing a recipe

Here’s my annotated blow-by-blow breakdown of a typical recipe from The Bon Appétit Cookbook:

Pepita-Crusted Lamb with Pomegranate Cream

[This seems like a very typically Bon Appétit recipe—notice the two exotic elements: pepitas and pomegranate. Typically one sees pomegranate paired with walnuts in a nod to the Persian tradition (and, by diffusion, the cooking of the eastern Mediterranean). Pepitas read more Mexican, and the dry-roasted rack of lamb, of course, is a pretty European treatment.]

6 servings

1/2 cup unsalted shelled pumpkin seeds (pepitas) toasted
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
3/4 cup fresh white breadcrumbs made from crustless French bread
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons whole milk
1 large egg
2 2 1/4- to 2 1/3-pound racks of lamb, well trimmed

4 cups unsweetened bottled pomegranate juice
1/2 cup sour cream

2 tablespoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 400°F. Finely grind pumpkin seeds and flour in processor [be careful not to over-process into a paste!]; transfer to large bowl. Mix in breadcrumbs, cilantro, and salt. Beat milk and egg in medium bowl to blend. [Note that despite the funky ingredients list, the technique is quite classic, using egg as a glue for the crust, and even working fresh breadcrumbs into the coating for cling.] Sprinkle lamb with pepper. [They forgot the pepper in the ingredients list.] Brush rounded side of lamb with egg mixture; press breadcrumb mixture over egg mixture on lamb to coat.

Boil pomegranate juice in heavy medium saucepan until syrupy and reduced to 3/4 cup, about 25 minutes. [When I first saw this instruction, I wondered why go through this step rather than use pomegranate molasses, which is essentially boiled-down pomegranate juice, but pomegranate molasses varies a good bit from brand to brand, and using fresh juice keeps a fresh-fruit aspect to the sauce. Besides, people like to feel like they’re cooking—you wouldn’t want to just pour molasses from the bottle and mix it with sour cream for a sauce; conceptually, that would make the sauce a dip.] Transfer syrup to small bowl; cool. Whisk in sour cream. Season pomegranate cream to taste with salt.

Meanwhile, heat oil in heavy large skillet over high heat [high heat only if you’ve got a well-tuned gas range—my mercurial electric range would scorch on high]. Add lamb and cook until brown, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer lamb to rimmed baking sheet. Bake until thermometer inserted into center of meat registers 130°F to 135°F for medium-rare, about 20 minutes. [Stop at 120°F for rarer chops—the only way to go, as far as I’m concerned. Let the meat rest here for about 5 minutes, and the temperature will climb to about 125°F. No matter what temperature you choose, let the meat rest to preserve juiciness.] Cut lamb between bones into individual chops. Divide among 6 plates. Spoon pomegranate cream over.

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As a recipe, this is fairly straightforward, using the restaurant technique of searing the meat on the stovetop before delivering it to the oven for a cook in the dry heat. You’ll want to be careful of the seeds and the breadcrumbs in the crust—they want very badly to singe. Don’t be afraid to lower the heat a touch on the stovetop. As for taste? I had a particularly assertive piece of lamb, so the gentle flavor of the pepitas was a little lost in the crust. Their flavor is more distinct in a traditional Mexican pipian (in this cookbook, try the Chicken in Green Pumpkin Seed Sauce); on the other hand, the crust was pleasantly crisp and worked nicely with the lamb. Lamb and pomegranate are natural partners, as evidenced by centuries of Persian-inspired cooking, but this sauce reads as pretty American: gooey, rich, sweet, and tart all at once, almost like a sour-sweet caramel. Used sparingly, it’s a fun counterpart to the lamb, but no one would want a big spoonful of the stuff.