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Cookbook Review

Kitchen Simple by James Peterson (Simple Is Still A Relative Term)

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Wed, Aug 17, 2011 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge ktichen_simple.jpg
Let's get this off our chest right away: James Peterson has long been one of our favorite cookbook authors for his incredibly focused, well researched and written (and recipe tested) books on straightforward subjects: Sauces, Cooking, Baking, Meat. His latest book, Kitchen Simple, feels somewhat less directed.

The press release acknowledges this predicament: "Many of the recipes in Kitchen Simple will be familiar and seem almost ridiculously easy." The publisher goes on to say that the point is to remind home cooks -- notably, they did not indicate novice cooks -- of the "infinite possibilities of simple recipes."

A valuable reminder. But somewhere along the way, the book loses that intended audience (us).

Or perhaps it simply crosses the cooking experience line a bit too much in promising to appeal to home cooks looking for handy recipe reminders -- say, how to balance those pork chops you've made dozens of times with tangy mustard to offset the richness, as Peterson instructs in the sautéed pork chops with mustard and cornichon sauce recipe on p. 16 -- and yet also including hand-holding recipes for the beginning home cook. Such as basic oven-roasted potatoes and buttered green beans. Together, they are disparate dinner souls. Just as we spot an interesting classic recipe that we'd like to revisit (the classic Tuscan ricotta ravioli with sage in broth that Peterson makes quick and easy with wonton wrappers), we flip past the recipe instructions for making buttered frozen peas and lose interest.

It is a teeter-tottering that works quite well in Peterson's previous books on more focused subjects like Baking. There, starting with basic butter cookies and moving into financiers makes sense, as baking has that inherent recipe-building quality. Unlike getting dinner on the table, baking isn't something most home cooks have time to do every night, so "beginning" is a broader term. In Kitchen Simple, the recipes read more like a face-off between the beginners in one corner, and the more experienced home cooks in the other.

Add to the mix that much as we love Peterson, today's cookbook world is dominated by some pretty impressive in-house, photo-driven cookbooks. And so Peterson's formulaic studio photos that worked just fine in previous books here feel better suited in that beginner's instructional light (demo-ing how to place raspberries on a fruit tart in concentric circles) rather than with the photos of more elegant dishes like a wine glass layered with oranges, pureed raspberry, and whipped cream. Matt Armendariz to the staid photo rescue.

In sum: While we don't agree with the front jacket flap sales pitch that this cookbook "elevates routine, weekday fare into exciting culinary creations," this is a great -- excellent, even -- book for the truly beginning home cook. One that he or she can use to first master steamed vegetables (p.102), and later advance into the art of combining contrasting flavors in one dish, as demonstrated in Peterson's wilted radicchio (bitter) salad with bacon (smokey) and oranges (sweet/fruity). You won't find a better teacher.

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