For those finally entering the kitchen
International recipes will break your habit of reaching for the take-out menu
By SCOTT BRASSART
Once upon a time, when I was living in Boston, I hosted a dinner party. It was a disaster. The salad was boring, the chicken burnt, the vegetables steamed into limp, flavorless oblivion. The food was so bad that my friends voted unanimously to throw it in the garbage and order pizza. The only thing on my original menu that we actually consumed was a store-bought cheesecake.
OK, Im not a particularly good cook. Mostly I subsist on grilled cheese sandwiches, take-out Chinese and the kindness of strangers. Its possible this makes me the perfect choice to review a cookbook. Even if not, youre stuck with me. The cookbook in question is chef Robert Meyers-Lussiers This is Delicious! What Is It?
The openly gay Meyers-Lussier, who began cooking seriously in 1989 after viewing the film Babettes Feast, has subtitled his collection of recipes An Eclectic Collection of International Comfort Foods. And the book lives up to its subtitle; the recipes are indeed eclectic and international. There is sunomono (cucumber salad) from Japan, cream of gouda soup from Holland, Cuban red beans and rice, numerous pastas and risottos from Italy, traditional chicken enchiladas from Mexico, neu sauerbraten from Germany, tea cakes from Russia, and much more. Fans of Southeast Asian cuisine will be especially pleased with the number of Thai and Vietnamese dishes. My personal favorite cuisine, Greek, is also well represented.
The author has divided the book into eight sections: hors doeuvres, appetizers, salads, soups, breads, side dishes, main dishes and desserts. A short statement from the author telling where, why, or for whom he first prepared the dish precedes many of the volumes 250-plus recipes.
The ultimate measure of a cookbook, of course is not how eclectic or international the fare is, but how the recipes turn out. By this measure, for instance, Martha Stewarts cookbook is virtually useless. Sure, the book is lovely to look at, but the ultimate result is culinary fare that probably resembles what shes currently eating in the federal pokey. My mother in Indiana once made Marthas macaroni and cheese recipe, which cost more than $40 in ingredients, and it was so bad we tossed it into the backyard for the birds and raccoons. And even they seemed wary. A few days later Mom tried again, this time some sort of Norwegian cookie. She was not more successful.
For the sake of providing a complete critical review of This Is Delicious!, I decided to once again host a dinner party. (Several people in Boston undoubtedly shuddered simultaneously without knowing why.) This also turned out to be a convenient way of thanking the friends who recently helped move me into my new condoa third-floor walk-up, thank you very much, now full of big, awkward, heavy furniture I cant live without. So dinner needed to be something at least a little better than Dominos and wine in a box.
In preparation, I perused my recently arrived reviewers copy of Meyers-Lussiers book in search of dishes that had simple instructions and ingredients lists that didnt send me scrambling for a gastronomical dictionary. Happily, nearly every recipe in the book qualified, so I was able to select a menu based on what sounded tastiest.
For the warm-up, I prepared tzatziki, the wonderful Greek sauce most commonly found on gyros. Cucumber and yogurt- based, this was incredibly easy to make, and was a hit when served, as suggested, with crusty French bread.
I abhor traditional green salads, so for this course I selected Meyers-Lussiers fruit spinach salad with raspberry jam dressingcantaloupe, strawberries, and spinach leaves drizzled with a simple vinaigrette. Delicious. The author suggests 20 minutes preparation time for this dish, but it took me a little longer. But, as mentioned earlier, Im something of a neophyte in the kitchen. Experienced cooks will certainly work more quickly.
For the main entrée I selected Portuguese swordfish, accompanied by coconut milk and ginger rice. I also grilled some red and yellow peppers. The fish was easy to prepare, baked in 30 minutes, and was enjoyed by all, though in truth I prefer my swordfish steaks grilled with a bit of pepper and lemon.
The rice, on the other hand, was absolutely incredible, and couldnt have been simpler. Though this is clearly a Southeast Asian inspired dish, it could (and should) be served with practically anything.
For dessert, I chose another of my Greek favorites, honey and cheese pie, which is really more of a thin cheesecake than pie. I suspect I over-baked it slightly, but that didnt stop any of my three guests or me from indulging in second servings. The illustration in the book displays a wedge topped with cherries, but I served mine plain and recommend others do so as well.
For the first time in my life, I hosted a dinner party where I didnt worry about the guests gossiping later about what a bad cook I am. That result alone merits a thumbs up for This Is Delicious! What Is It? Perhaps it doesnt make for the most stylish cookbook on the shelf, and it could certainly use some higher-quality illustrations, but the recipes are tasty, fun and simple enough for even a culinary troglodyte like myself.