Friday, May 1, 2009

Which cookbook did I exploit?

April was "cookbook exploitation month", as explained by Dan from Casual Kitchen. His theory is that we cook 80 per cent of the time from 20 per cent of our cookbook collection, so he nominated April as the month to dig out an old cookbook and exploit it by cooking recipes from it.

After perusing my many cookbooks, and sadly concluding that Dan's 80:20 rule was correct, I chose to exploit The Food I Love by Neil Perry. This was a wedding present from a good friend and I remember excitedly flicking through the pages and planning all the meals I was going to make. But after I marked it up with post-it notes, back it went, unused, on the shelf.

Neil Perry is one of Australia's best-known chefs. He has three restaurants in Sydney, Rockpool Bar & Grill at Crown Casino in Melbourne, appears on the food channel on Foxtel and coordinates the in-flight catering for Qantas. I've been lucky enough to dine several times at Rockpool in Melbourne, including one magical meal in the private dining room. Everything I've eaten at Rockpool has been sublime but it was the side dishes, normally an afterthought to the star of the meal, that blew me away. Velvety creamed corn, sexy broccoli (yes, it can be done), decadent macaroni cheese - each of these dishes was a gem and a highlight in its own right. I thought no more of these dishes until I opened The Food I Love - and there were the recipes for these very dishes! Tres excitement! Of course, my heart nearly stopped at the amount of cream in the macaroni cheese dish, and I need to get a juicer in order to make the creamed corn as velvety as Neil's, but no matter - now I know how to do it!

As I flicked through the book, my list of dishes to try grew longer. There were breakfast recipes, pasta dishes, seafood main courses, plenty of steak and chicken options and a few desserts. I found the dessert chapter disappointing; although the classic dishes featured, such as creme caramel, bread and butter pudding, summer pudding and hot chocolate souffle, were all beautifully executed, there was no sexy new dish that took my fancy or inspired me to rush into the kitchen. However, there was plenty of inspiration in the savoury chapters, so this is only a
minor quibble.

Despite my long list, I made only a handful of dishes from the book and, unfortunately, I don't think I exploited it enough. However, several of the dishes I made were so good that they've entered my "repeat repertoire" and I'll definitely be making them again. The Spanish-style chicken casserole, with a rich tomatoey paprika-scented braise sauce, was full of flavour and a great dish on a cool night. It takes an hour to cook with chicken legs, but the time can be considerably cut down by using chicken breasts.

The gnocchi with braised veal shanks and parmesan was also a winner, although I substituted lamb shanks for the veal. This was ridiculously easy to put together and it was then left to simmer for a few hours on the stove, reducing to a rich, thick braise with meltingly tender lamb shank meat flaked through it. I even made my own gnocchi, as per Neil's recipe, to accompany the lamb braise, and this is another dish I'll be making again.

Barbecued chicken, its smoky flavours beautifully offset by a sauce of velvety pureed zucchini and garlic, will also go into my repertoire. It's amazing how something so easy to cook can look and taste so impressive once plated. I loved learning Neil's cheffy tricks to help impress the family.

Other dishes we enjoyed this month were zucchini and parmesan soup, pea and pumpkin risotto, braised lamb shoulder with gremolata, cauliflower with saffron, pine nuts and raisins (a good match with the Spanish-style chicken casserole) and parsnip puree. Those at the top of the list to try soon include the Moroccan eggplant salad, flathead with beer batter, the many different BBQ beef dishes with different sauces, the Persian-style lamb stew and more of the magical side dishes. It's great to see vegetable accompaniments treated with the same respect and imagination as main courses.

I won't be leaving this cookbook to languish unloved on my bookshelf again but will be referring to it much more often. Now I just need to rescue some more of my cookbooks from the same dusty fate. Thanks to Dan for coming up with such a great concept - look forward to participating again!

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