This is a review of three cookbooks, three cookbooks that could not be more different from each other. One is a wonderful tribute to local restaurants, their chefs, and the farmers and fishermen who inspire and provide for them. One is a charming and original book about cooking with flowers. And one is possibly the stupidest publication ever, call it quackery in a crockpot.
“The Hamptons and Long Island Homegrown Cookbook” (Voyageur Press, $30) is by Leeann Lavin with beautiful photographs by Lindsey Morris and Jennifer Calais Smith. And yes, you must have the name Hamptons in any local book if it is to sell, according to publishers. The only problem with a book like this is it is practically obsolete as soon as it is published. Restaurants come and go out here, faster than the seasons, it seems.
The format of the book is wonderful. There are in-depth profiles of the chefs on one page, with a profile of their favorite farmer or fisherman or cheesemaker on the other. These are then followed by numerous recipes from the restaurants. I loved reading about the inspirations and backgrounds of such chefs as Kevin Penner, Jason Weiner, and Gretchen Menser. However, there are so many misspellings, booboos, and various and sundry other mistakes in the book, that I sure do hope the recipes are accurate.
First let’s correct name spellings. It’s Jackson Pollock, not Pollack. Jimmy Buffett, Eric Fischl, David Loewenberg. It’s tuna tartare, not tartar, piccata not picatta, skagen not sgaken. A few facts: Michael Rozzi never became the chef at East Hampton Grill when Hillstone Group took over Della Femina, nor does East Hampton Grill still have “walls lined with graphic art portraits featuring some of the restaurant’s more storied customers and clients” as it did when Jerry Della Femina was at the helm. The only caricatures left are of Jerry and his wife, Judy, and they, alas, have been relegated to the restroom entrances. I don’t think Bryan Futterman taught cooking classes at La Fondita, “a family style Italian salumeria,” according to the book. I’m pretty sure La Fondita is a cute little Mexican takeout joint on the highway serving refreshing horchatas and dainty fish tacos on homemade tortillas. The Grill on Pantigo was long empty before the book’s publication. James Carpenter, formerly of the Living Room, is described as “circumspect.” I have worked with this gentleman and he is sooo not circumspect. Oh, and it’s not “The Living Room at the Maidstone Inn,” it’s c/o the Maidstone, formerly the Maidstone Arms. Am I being nitpicky? Maybe, but I think the book could have used an editor and fact checker.
That said, other highlights of the book are the inclusion of North and South Shore restaurants, some I had never heard of. The North Fork and Shelter Island get some attention with North Fork Table and Vine Street Cafe, among others. The book promises “local, seasonable, sustainable, farm fresh,” and it delivers with tempting recipes like Cuvée oysters, pan-seared local scallops with summer succotash, frisee salad and crispy fried beets, warm berry cobbler with lemon verbena ice cream.
You can try a simply grilled Montauk swordfish from Vine Street Cafe or drive yourself mad attempting the short-lived Southfork Kitchen’s Korean-style P.E.I. mussels, a recipe that could drive Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller combined crazy.
“Cooking With Flowers” (Quirk Books, $24.95) by Miche Bacher with photographs by Miana Jun is a jewel of a book. I knew you could toss some nasturtium petals on a salad or use organic edible orchids to garnish a cake, but tulips, hollyhocks, dandelions, and sunflowers? There are so many ways to use the flowers of our gardens, it is mind-boggling.
Prudently, the book begins with a reminder that you absolutely must use organic and/or homegrown flowers with no chemicals. Also, if you have allergies to certain plants, chances are you shouldn’t be using them in your cooking. Then the book proceeds to enchant you with the lore and nicknames and flavors and medicinal properties of each. Who knew that dandelions were also known as swine snout, puffball, Irish daisy, and wet-the-bed flower? That orchids taste of cucumber and endive? That steamed sunflower buds taste quite like steamed artichokes?
“Cooking With Flowers” goes through the alphabet of edible flowers, educating you with the background, seasonality, culinary uses, and what you need to do to prepare each for cooking. Some are incredibly labor intensive, such as those using the tiny blooms of dianthus; 50 to 70 flowers are needed to yield one cup of petals. Others are as simple as coating zucchini flowers in tempura batter and frying.
The recipes are wide-ranging, from lilac sorbet to tulip martinis to nasturtium pizza. The kooky popcorn chive blossom cupcakes and coconut lilac tapioca are at the top of my must-try-next list. The food styling and photography are also just so pretty and original. The back of the book is filled with basic recipes such as for drying or candying flowers, simple syrups, jams, jellies, ice cubes, vodkas, vinegars, and more. The tone is helpful, fun, and generous. “Cooking With Flowers” combines all the ingredients of a good cookbook: engaging narrative, inspiring recipes, and beautiful photography. Miche Bacher exhorts us in the last words of her book “work hard, but take time to eat your roses.”
“It’s All Good” (Grand Central Life & Style, $32) by Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Turshen is mostly all bad. Or mostly unnecessary. I had heard a lot of Gwyneth-bashing before I delved into this book and felt it was quite unfair. Is it jealousy? She’s pretty and talented, and I loved her first cookbook, “My Father’s Daughter.” That book was warm and loving and had fun, healthy recipes — the brown rice with kale and scallions is one of my favorites. But the critics are right. This is a silly, bordering on irresponsible, book. On the plus side, if you like looking at Gwyneth, there are 36 photographs of her! Makeup free, sunshiny fresh, looking like images from a luxurious Brunello Cucinelli catalog, all taupes and grays and cashmere and East End light, although there are a few of her looking really Daisy Duke-ish in denim cutoff short shorts.
The book came about cuz she got a headache and thought she was going to die. This was a panic attack. She went to gobs and gobs of doctors and learned that she had a gazillion health problems, including blood parasites and vitamin deficiencies. Does this mean we should disregard her previous healthy lifestyle advice? No, we should just disregard the navel gazing. The doctor she bonded most with practices what he calls psychospiritual nutrition and uses techniques from Ayurveda, Tibetan medicine, anthroposophical medicine, acupuncture, and energy healing. Anthroposophy is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. In a nutshell, through a prescribed method of self-discipline, cognitional experience of the spiritual world can be achieved.
On page 278 Gwyneth shares a recipe for a hard-boiled egg. Gwynnie! May I call you Gwynnie? No? Then may I call you Nurse Ratched, because I feel like McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and you are torturing me with this beyond-ascetic tome. The first recipe begins with “I’m allergic to oats.” She is also forbidden by her doctor to indulge in coffee, alcohol, dairy, sugar, shellfish, gluten, and soy. This is an “elimination diet” which the book gleefully proclaims Gwyneth goes on “when she needs to lose weight . . . and now you can too!” Whee! I’d rather eat a tapeworm.
This book also has a recipe for roast chicken. Chicken. A recipe for sliced avocado on a piece of toast. These aren’t recipes; they’re sentences.
The one piece of advice that I find particularly disturbing is the recommendation to use xylitol in place of sugar: “Xylitol is a natural sweetener made from fruit and vegetable fibers. We know it sounds super-medical and scientific, but it’s actually an INCREDIBLY HEALTHY [caps mine] alternative to sugar, is remarkably good for your teeth, and works really well in baking.” Nurse Ratched, are you shilling for Dupont Labs? A piece of gum with xylitol has double the amount needed to kill a rat. It is poisonous to dogs. Xylitol is derived from xylan, extracted from corn, sugar cane, or birch. It is a molecular cousin to sugar and is created using a multi-step chemical reaction with sulfuric acid, calcium oxide, phosphoric acid, and active charcoal. The end result is a bleached, powdery blend of sugary alcohols that tastes sweet but is not absorbed by the body. It will cause diarrhea, which Gwyneth’s doctor does mention. On page 279 the recipe for orange marmalade calls for three oranges and one full cup of xylitol. Nuff said.