Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Twenty years of adventure

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the marriage of James David Richardson and yours truly. And we plan to celebrate it at Citronelle in DC. I've wanted to go there since reviewing Michel Richard's "Happy in the Kitchen" in 2007 for The Sacramento Bee. Below is my review; tomorrow I'll post a recipe from it. And look for my review of our meal at Citronelle in a few days.

Review: "Happy in the Kitchen"

By Lori Korleski Richardson

A home cook could pick up "Happy in the Kitchen" (Artisan, $45, 331 pages) by Michel Richard and be led to believe that this is one chef-written cookbook that is actually meant to be used. In the kitchen. Happily.

Few exotic ingredients are required for any of the recipes, and none of the recipes list more than a dozen ingredients for any of the dishes. The food looks like food, not some architect's vision created with food - just fresh food, done well.

And I'm sure that's the joy of eating at Richard's restaurants, Citrus and Citronelle in Los Angeles, and his two establishments in Washington, D.C. His ways with food have impressed such major chefs as Thomas Keller (who wrote the introduction of this book), Charlie Trotter, Jacques Pépin and Joël Robuchon. Richard's dishes make the ordinary seem extraordinary, with plenty of color and light vibrant sprinkles, salsas and sauces. Unfortunately, the lowdown on this elevation of common ingredients is technique. And for the amateur cook, that involves a whole 'nother T: time.

Yes, if you love to cook, you may knowingly nod when Richard declares that "I think someday lemon confit could be as common as ketchup; there are so many things it can enhance." But ketchup is readily available. Preserved lemons or lemon confit aren't on every supermarket's shelves. Not to worry. Richard has provided the recipe to make your own. But this is where some of the "time" comes into play: The lemons won't be ready for a month.

The dish that uses the confit, chicken with preserved lemon and honeydew melon, also demands a lot of the cook's day. Cutting and prepping the whole chickens took about 45 minutes. Reading and rereading the directions took another 15 minutes, with the conclusion that a step was left out or miscommunicated; following the directions did not get me a drumstick that looked anything like Deborah Jones' lovely photograph. "Happy in the Kitchen" was written with Susie Heller and Peter Kaminsky, who have brought out books by many chefs; but at this point, they may be more attuned to the demands of a professional kitchen than one most of us have to cook in. The chicken dish was delicious, nonetheless, and the honeydew melon practically danced across the plate, imparting a sweet tang of early summer that lifted the rich and lemony sauce to a place not far from heaven.

None of this is to say "Happy in the Kitchen" doesn't have lots to teach the student of succulent secrets. Richard shreds, slices and chops vegetables in ways that add a dimension to dishes that would otherwise look very homey, and delight the eye as well as tasting pretty darn good. The vegetable "waters" impart a wheelbarrow full of flavor with almost no calories, and is a wonderful way to use produce on the brink of being tossed out. He shows us how to make sausagelike rolls without using a grinder or casings. And if you want a dish that will knock the socks off of your guests at an Easter brunch, look no further than his "reconstructed lemon egg," a dessert that is served in topped eggshells, but is actually a variant of lemon meringue pie.

One dish, his "low carb-o-nara," was quite simple to make and quite delicious as well. It uses onions, steamed to a sweet blandness, in place of the traditional spaghetti. If you can't find applewood-smoked bacon, a good thick hickory-smoked bacon works well, and if you don't have a meat slicer, Richard says you can slice the onion "pasta" by hand or use a Benriner. I opted for slightly shorter "pasta" and put the onion halves in the food processor and sliced them with a 2 mm blade, a little more spaghetti-like than the 1/8-inch slices the recipe called for.

Richard was absolutely right that no one would ever guess that it wasn't pasta in this dish. Even my guests that watched me prepare the recipe couldn't believe it as they emptied their bowls and mopped up the sauce with little slices of an Acme baguette. (Thank goodness Taylor's Market and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op now carry these so that you no longer have to drive to Berkeley for a little taste of Paris.)

Despite the problems with this cookbook, it has a lot of pluck and a lot of charm. It's good-looking enough to sit on a coffee table, but it has its practical side as well. Richard lays out all the equipment (under the heading "My Toy Box") that you'll need to make these recipes right at the beginning of the book, and there are many step-by-step photos to get you to try the techniques. The index is good, and "Happy in the Kitchen" has more than 150 recipes.

Yet I'm not sure I'd buy this as a gift for even my most dedicated foodie friends. It's just way too much work for most people who have a life outside the kitchen. It's a good reminder why we love to eat out, and pay dearly for that privilege.

Am I happy to have spent time learning what makes Michel Richard's food so good? Yes. Happy to see these dishes appear on my table? Yes, indeed. But "Happy in the Kitchen"? Not this cook.

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