The first time I was called "old school" was a year and a half ago when I reopened Annisa after an electrical fire closed the restaurant. A prominent blogger tweeted it while eating in our new dining room, and while I think the overall tone was positive, I was still taken aback. Did I garnish with puff pastry or use beurre blanc? Wasn't I using xanthan gum, sodium chloride, and calcium lactate, not to mention my immersion circulator? (Of course, the tweet was forwarded to me via text; social media scares old folk like me.) But Annisa is 11 years old, and at the end of the day it's all relative. And I'd like to think that I was chosen to judge this stage of the Piglet because I can bridge that gap between old and new. In many respects, this leg of the cookbook competition between Ideas in Food by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, and Neue Cuisine by Kurt Gutenbrunner is about new school vs. old school, respectively. (Sorry Kurt—in this comparison your neue is alt just like mine.)
First of all, these two cookbooks couldn't be more different. Neue Cuisine is a coffee table-ready tome replete with gorgeous pictures of food plus art and design from the Neue Galerie New York. It follows classic (read: old school) cookbook form with complete recipes broken down into cocktails and starters, soups and salads, main dishes, side dishes, and desserts. Each recipe has helpful tips on cooking method, suggestions for accompaniments or variations, and suggestions for parts of the recipe you can make ahead. In addition to all that, you get the engaging, romantic story of Kurt's childhood in rural Austria growing and raising food with his family, subsequent years working his way up through European Kitchens, and finally landing in New York and building his own restaurant empire. There is also a meaty and informative piece by Janis Staggs, the associate curator of the Neue Galerie, on the history of Vienna circa 1900 focusing on the arts, which brings it all together by describing the importance of the coffee house and cabaret in that world.
By contrast, Ideas in Food is a pictureless book focusing on technique and the science of food. Food geeks rejoice — this is our book! It is broken down into two parts: ideas for everyone and ideas for professionals, and the recipes are mostly basic, smart ideas that can and should be built upon to form a complete dish. It covers the newer techniques that fall in the category of molecular cuisine in a comprehensive yet accessible way (even to those of us more advanced in our years — I found it fascinating) and more traditional methods such as smoking, pickling, and making vinegar and cheese. This book is a little over half the price of Neue Cuisine, and about a 24th of the cost of the latest molecular gastronomy manual (what a bargain!).
These books are both fantastic. How to choose?
I must say that at first I was worried I wasn't the right person to test the recipes in Ideas in Food. While I have that immersion circulator, my kitchen is tiny and I don't have a vacuum sealer or a combi-oven that you can set to an exact temperature and humidity — just good old basic equipment. But the people at the Piglet reassured me that the book was written for the home cook, and when I received the book I was relieved to see that the recipes were within my grasp. The ideas were indeed novel, at least to me. Who knew (…but of course!) that meat glue, or transglutaminase, could be used to make a kind of gnudi, a wrapperless ravioli from various cheeses that would normally fall apart in boiling water? Yes, the chemical will bind the proteins! Maybe I was born a decade (or so) too early! But even at this stage, I wondered if this book would be compelling to the home cook — for me, this book was a revelation, but I actually have meat glue in my freezer and a dehydrator and liquid glucose in my pantry (which are called for in the "Ideas for Everyone" section). Did I miss something in my aging process? Nevertheless, with a new found sense of purpose I dove into testing the recipes.
The first recipe I tested was Kamozawa and Talbot's No-Knead Pizza Dough and it couldn't be easier. Basically, all you do is stir everything together, let it sit, then fold the edges in on itself, flip it, and let it sit again. That's it. I tested this against Nate Appleman's pizza dough from his book and former restaurant A16, whose pizza I adored and which is the real Neapolitan deal, calling for 00 flour, a highly refined and powdery flour which purportedly produces some of the best pizza. As explained in the introduction to the No-Knead Yeast Breads chapter of Ideas in Food, the dough has more water and less yeast than traditional doughs — the longer fermentation here is responsible for developing the glutens which are more commonly formed by kneading. Both recipes produced excellent crusts — crispy on the outside and chewy inside with those lovely bubbles that would get slightly charred if you had a wood burning oven. The No-Knead Dough was somewhat lighter in texture, which I liked for some toppings such as the more delicate zucchini and three cheese that we put together, while I liked Nate's heftier dough for the red sauce and soppressata. The No-Knead was indeed wetter, which made it somewhat more difficult to use as it stuck to the pizza peel in places where I hadn't spread ample cornmeal, much more than what was required for Nate's. But once you got used to it this is a winning recipe, and a breeze to make.
Next I tried a recipe I was a bit skeptical about, the Pickled Chorizo. This recipe is also very easy: just slice an air dried chorizo and soak in three different vinegars and some soy sauce. Reading it, I couldn't understand how the chorizo was going to work with the soy sauce and and rice, sherry, and balsamic vinegars. I suspected this might be an example of "fusion confusion." After a two-day soak, the soy sauce became just a supporting role, and the chorizo was delicious in the same way a good Italian sub made with vinaigrette and hard salumi can be. The resulting vinegar mixture, however, didn't deliver on its promise of being a "wonderful ingredient on its own, in salads and sauces…" I just didn't see it. Maybe I'm too old.
Lastly for this book, I tested the Potato Chip Pasta lauded on the inside back cover flap. How fun, I thought. Then I realized it called for potato flakes, or instant mashed potatoes, which I would have to purchase at the Gristedes around the corner from my restaurant. In my world (which is perhaps the old world), it is shameful to use such things. I actually staked out the place, scanning the various brands for a pure potato version a day before buying. The next day, I ran in and grabbed the chosen box, furtively finding my way to the checkout counter with it semi-hidden beneath my arm. Luckily there was only one person ahead of me on line, and I waited until the last minute to place it on the conveyor belt in full view. Safe! I thought. Then I heard a voice behind me: "You're not allowed to use instant mashed potatoes!" In this city of over 19 million people, there's a reason why they call Greenwich Village a village. I was caught. A customer, of course. I sheepishly explained why I was purchasing such contraband, which must have sounded like a whole lot of...well...chorizo vinegar, and slunk out of there.
That night I made the recipe. In the book, the authors wisely give you measurement both in weight and in standard cups and spoons. With the pizza dough I had used the weight measure, but since this was a recipe written for the home cook I thought I'd try the cup measurements this time. Weight is always more accurate than volume, a fact that you're taught in cooking school from day one. I toasted 1.5 cups of the illicit potato buds in a 350-degree oven then used them, along with all-purpose flour and eggs, to make a pasta dough. The dough turned out very wet but still turned out a pasta with a nice al dente bite, if difficult to roll out without sticking to the pasta machine. You couldn't really cut it with a knife as it would stick and then stretch, or hang it to dry as it would rip and fall to the floor. Even as I put it together, it seemed like a ton of eggs to not enough flour, toasted potato or otherwise. To the remaining two thirds, I added what was probably another cup of flour to get the pasta consistency I was used to. Now granted I'm no Italian mamma, but I have made pasta dough professionally and in school, so I know what it should be. Perhaps I made a mistake? I'd bet the weight measures work better. The end result with both the added flour and without was toothsome and delicious, and my whole staff was intrigued and pleased. But to me, the flavor was cloying 15 minutes later when it was still present on my palate. It reminded me of a cross between Pringles and potato sticks, which don't get me wrong, I love on some level. But it's a flavor on steroids, which isn't natural and has no place in fine dining. I was seduced, but not won over.
Still, Ideas in Food is an exciting book I would refer to again and again for technique and basic ideas I could build on, which is all the authors set out to do in the first place.
On to Kurt's book. Disclaimer: Kurt is a neighbor and we both worked at Bouley back in the day. And while it may sound like he's older than I, having grown up tending pigs and rabbits and starting out as a dishwasher, we're probably the same age (although I grew up in the much less romantic suburbs of Detroit). In anycase, Kurt and I, at least from my point of view, speak the same culinary language.
The first recipe I tested was his Halibut with Cucumber-Dill Sauce and Chanterelles. With just 11 ingredients, you too can make a complex and nuanced fine dining entree. But if you're not a food professional, you might be thrown by the three types of oils required. I actually tested this at home in my 450-square-foot apartment when I was stranded there by hurricane Irene. I substituted soy oil (aka vegetable oil) for both the canola and the sunflower oils, and brought the halibut, chanterelles, and dill from Annisa. The result was really inspired: light yet meaty and satisfying from the choice of fish and mushrooms, and beautifully sophisticated and balanced. The recipe yields way too much sauce for the four portions it states — 3.25 cups for four entrees — but then again it calls for pureeing several parts of this recipe and you need a certain volume of liquid to allow the blades in any blender do their trick. In the end I ate very well, and I think the sophisticated readers of FOOD52 will know to hold back on some of the sauce.
Next I had my bartender test the Carlotta Cocktail. I figured it was only fair to test an easy recipe against another — the Ideas in Food recipes, while food geek- or professional chef-focused, had few ingredients and steps. And more importantly, I wanted a drink. I loved this, as did my bartender. A mitteleuropean margarita, with elderflower and grapefruit juice. Perfectly balanced and with just a simple twist, entirely new — not quite the Vienna Secession, the revolutionary Austrian artists association headed by Gustav Klimt, but oh so delicious!
Finally, I had my meticulous pastry production assistant prepare Kurt's Bavarian-Style Pretzels. He mixed the base, let it rise for an hour, then laid it on a half sheet tray lined with parchment paper overnight. At this point I took over. The recipe calls for cutting the risen dough into fifths, lengthwise. I did so, but found the dough too wet to successfully separate. Out of necessity, I used ample flour where the recipe called for a light dusting, and made twice the amount of pretzels that the recipe called for because I couldn't keep the dough from breaking when making the yard long lengths it specified. The end result wasn't really a well formed pretzel. As this was the second time I found the flour mixture too wet, I had to ask myself: is my restaurant basement where I made both recipes too humid? Is my flour too fluffy? Two separate books, two recipes. Two chefs executing, with the same problem each time at the end. Coincidence that both flour recipes had problems, or was the execution flawed? Science dictates that I should retest all of the overly damp doughs in another locale, and/or with other hopefully exacting chefs until we understand the problem's genesis. But I've run out of time — I have a deadline and I have to decide.
So: a hybrid of a turn of the century Viennese art book and a contemporary Austrian cookbook by the great Kurt Gutenbrunner? Or serious, useful information and compelling ideas from Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot? This is an apples or oranges decision, and I think both of these books have so much to offer. If professional geeks like me were the targeted audience, I might choose Ideas in Food. But this is for the home cook, and while Ideas in Food is brilliant and will appeal to food professionals and the most serious of food nerds like my brother who read Harold McGee's book cover to cover (and felt the need to test me on certain subjects), I would think most home cooks won't find a recipe for making onion or rhubarb chips with liquid glucose useful. The recipes in Neue Cuisine are more timeless. Deliciousness trumps all. And yes — everything is relative. Take it from an experienced old chef like me.