Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cook This Now! Okay, I Will!

New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark launches Cook This Now ($29.99, Hyperion), her 32nd cookbook, with White Bean Stew with Rosemary, Garlic, and Farro. After all, it's January and what's better to take comfort in when the weather is chilly than a hearty savory stew. You see, Cook This Now begins with the new year and takes us through each month with recipes that focus on what's in season and what's fresh and local.

Now, yes, I have several books with seasonal themes, but what I always enjoy about Melissa's recipes is that they tend to be simple and straightforward, yet strikingly innovative. I love that I can flip through the book, identify a recipe that sounds inviting and know that I can probably make it spontaneously because I have many of the ingredients already -- or have easy access to them. And, I love the unusual flavor combinations that turn a simple dish into something memorable.

For instance, last week I bought a beautiful firm head of kale at the Mira Mesa farmers market, contemplating making crispy chips out of it. But while I was turning the pages of Cook This Now I found her recipe for Raw Kale Salad with Anchovy Date Dressing in her October chapter. My kale chips suddenly morphed into salad because of that odd yet compelling marriage of anchovies and dates. It was something I'd never considered and immediately found irresistible. And, with Melissa's blessing, I topped it with a poached egg and fried shallots.

It's simple and takes just minutes to make, yet the flavors are deeply complex--the sweet unctuous dates go up against the salty, oily anchovies and, with the help of olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic, and zest of both lemon and orange, dissolve into a force that easily conquers bitter kale. The result is a delicious salad that sends tastes buds into overtime. And, with very little effort. Honestly, why would anyone buy bottled salad dressing when they could make this in no time at all...

The same can be said for another October dish I made, Cumin Seed Roasted Cauliflower with Salted Yogurt, Mint, and Pomegranate Seeds. This is a visually stunning dish, again made with little effort, but the seasonings -- the cumin roasting in olive oil with the florets, the sprinkling of perky mint from my garden and acidic pomegranate seeds -- turn it into a mouth party.

I also made one of her "bonus" recipes found in the back of the book, Roasted Eggplant with Basil Green Goddess Dressing. I'm a sucker for eggplant, but with Green Goddess Dressing? Made with basil?

I don't know how she came up with this combination of ingredients, but they work. Earthy eggplant loves sharp basil, but with creme fraiche and mayo the basil is mellowed a bit and creates a unique pairing that is perfect as a topping for any Middle Eastern flatbread.

Now, all I've talked about are vegetable dishes (and they seem to be the majority in the book), but there are a number of recipes made with proteins -- Vietnamese Grilled Steak, Shrimp Scampi with Pernod and Fennel Fronds, Spicy Three-Meat Chili (with a Honey Whole Wheat Corn Bread I'm itching to make), and her mom's Garlic and Thyme-Roasted Chicken Parts with Mustard Croutons. And, there are several desserts, including a wild-sounding riff on Mallomars (every New Yorker's favorite cookie) she calls Mallobars.

Melissa is a terrific storyteller, so her intros to each month and to her recipes are invariably charming and make you feel like you have an old friend with you in the kitchen. She also includes a handy section after most recipes that she calls  "What Else?" to offer tips for alternate ingredients or ways to change up the dish.

This is a book to dip into for new ideas to combine ingredients and to create satisfying meals in very little time throughout the year.

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