Pros: Good instructional material.
Cons: Pedestrian recipes that often are poorly conceived.
Written by Brook Elliott
A couple of months back we began our review of the complete Culinary Institute of America’s “At Home” series.
If you’re not familiar with the At-Home series, they’re a group of books designed to bring the CIA’s proven instructional approach to the home cook. The first books were, by intent, aimed at the raw novice. Then each book contains progressively more advanced techniques. The presumption being, of course, that you’ve already learned the basics with earlier works, or that you’re a more experienced cook looking to expand your skills.
“We wanted to take our professional textbooks to the home cook,” says Nathalie Fischer, CIA’s Director of Publishing. “These aren’t recipe books, per se, but techniques books that take the home cook to a new level.”
There currently are five titles in the series: Cooking At Home; Baking At Home; Hors d’Oeuvre at Home; Chocolates And Confections at Home; and the recently published, Artisan Breads at Home. Nine more titles are in the planning stages, with publication dates ranging from the beginning of next year through 2013. The first seven of these will deal with more tightly drawn topics, such as Healthy Cooking At Home. The final two will be revisions of the first two, under new titles, and are slated to become the flagship titles.
As we discovered with our review of the first two titles, Cooking At Home (http://www.cheftalk.com/products/cooking-at-home-with-the-culinary-institute-of-america/reviews#3722), and Baking At Home (http://www.cheftalk.com/products/baking-at-home-with-the-culinary-institute-of-america/reviews#3748), there were significant problems with the early works, the primary one being that there was no way, at the time, to test recipes using home-kitchen equipment. According to Fischer, that was rectified when she became Director of Publishing, and all recipes in the later books are tested that way
I was really looking forward to Hors d’Oeuvre at Home, for several reasons. First off, there was a three year gap until it was published, specifically to rectify some of the problems with the first two. Hors d’Oeuvre, not published until 2007, is the first of them to utilize home-kitchen equipment. So it should be much more user friendly than the first two.
More to the point, as many of you know, I’m a small-plate freak. Whether you call them hors d’oeuvre, canapés, tapas, mezze, amuse busch, or just plain appetizers, I love creating them. Unlike many cooks, the fussiness often associated with small-tastes doesn’t bother me at all, and I’d rather cater a small-tastes party than a regular sit-down dinner any day of the week.
What I wound up with, however, was some very mixed feelings. On one hand, Hors d’Oeuvre at Home does accomplish its goal of bringing basic small-bites techniques to the home cook. But, on the other hand, it does it in a rather pedestrian way, with few, if any, surprises in the recipe choices.
I can understand why this may have happened. When the At-Home series was planned, shortly after the turn of the century, at-home cooks were first coming into their own. After two generations of people who used “microwaving” and “cooking” as synonyms, Americans were discovering cuisine in a big way. The whole “foodie” thing, in fact, was coming on strong. Home cooks were looking to learn new techniques and expand their culinary knowledge and skills. So the idea was sound.
With cookbooks, however, as with most things, timing is crucial. A book that would have made a great contribution in 2002 was, by 2007, practically out of date. Indeed, Martha Stewart’s Hors D’Oeuvres Handbook, long considered the bible of the subject, had been around since 1999, and was about to be replaced by a revised and updated version. What’s more, the Stewart book went into much greater how-to depth than does the CIA entry.
Meanwhile, reflecting the small-plates dining trend, an incredible library of books about hors d’oeuvre, by any name, had been published, ranging from the traditions of JoAnne Weir’s From Tapas to Mezze, to the restaurant stylings found in Cindy Pawlcyn’s Big Small Plates, to the romantic sophistication of Govind Armstrong’s Small Bites Big Nights. Even Meredith Deeds and Carla Snyder’s The Big Book of Appetizers predates the CIA edition by a year.
So, the question becomes not whether Hors d’Oeuvre at Home achieves its goal, but, rather, whether that goal was worth pursuing so late in the game?
We’ll come back to that question. First, let’s look at the book itself.
As with the rest of the series, Hors d’Oeuvre at Home is both aesthetically pleasing and user friendly. After some introductory material---which includes the only time I’ve actually seen a cookbook define the difference between hors d’oeuvres and appetizers---there are seven chapters, each of which focuses on a particular style of presentation. These are Hors d’Oeuvre in Bite- Size Containers; Fillings, Dips, and Toppings; Filled or Stuffed, Layered, and Rolled; Skewered and Dipped; Bowls and Platters; Cheese Service; and Bite-Size Desserts.
Each chapter starts with it’s own introductory material dealing specifically with that type, and the recipes are preceded with historical background, where appropriate, and suggestions for alternate ingredients.
Although not every recipe is illustrated, the book, overall, is rich with four-color photos, and the text is clean and easy on the eye.
So, true to form, the instructional material is first rate. Also true to form: the recipes leave much to be desired. As mentioned, they are pedestrian at best, and add little to an experienced party-host’s repertoire.
Of course, an argument can be made that this book isn’t aimed at the experienced hors d’oeuvre maker, but at a home cook first experimenting with small tastes. And, given the quality of the instructional material that’s true. The recipes aren’t presented so much in a, “make this” manner, as one that says, “here’s a way of making a particular hors d’ oeuvre. Once you learn it, variations on the theme come easy.”
That being so, one would expect the recipes, even if common and unexciting, would be the best examples of their type. Sadly, this isn’t the case.
Take, for instance, the recipe for Chicken Sate’ with Peanut Sauce; the same basic Asian hors d’oeuvre found in almost every book. For the new small-bites cook, chicken breast meat would be a better choice than the recommended thighs. And the sauce is way too thick, more like peanut butter than sauce.
Perhaps the worst example is the recipe for Petite Cod Cakes with Black Olive Butter Sauce---a version of Brandade Fritters using fresh fish rather than the traditional salt cod.. For starters, it requires a mold that most home cooks would not possess. I used a section of PVC tubing to form the “cakes” into the recommended one-inch wide by two-inch high cylinders. These cylinders are then sautéed on the ends, only, and finished in the oven.
Note those dimensions. We’re looking at something that is non-stabile to begin with. And that would be true even if the mixture had a stiff texture, which it doesn’t. It’s much too soft for the suggested treatment.
I did find, however, that shaping the mixture into small patties, and browning both sides, worked fine. The sauce, in this instance, could be a little thicker. And I fail to see the reason for mounting a sauce with softened butter.
Each of the recipes I tried was slightly off. For instance, the Fried Won Tons with Mustard Sauce serves as a great instructional base for filling and folding won tons. But beyond that, it’s not the most flavorsome filling I’ve tried. And the sauce was overly mustardy---totally masking whatever flavor the won tons did have---and, in my opinion, an inappropriate choice in the first place.
So, returning to the basic question, Hors d’Oeuvre at Home, even as a techniques manual rather than a cookbook, contributed little to the literature of the subject other than bulk when it was published three years ago. And, if anything, it’s even less valuable now.
Petite Cod Cakes with Black Olive Butter Sauce
1 lb potatoes, steamed or boiled and pureed (nothing added)
1 lb cod fillet, poached
2 tbls olive oil plus extra for sautéing
1 tsp minced garlic
½ tsp salt
Pinch of cayenne
2/3 cup Black Olive Butter Sauce (recipe follows
1 tomato, peeled, seeded and cut into matchstick-size strips
¼ cup Nicoise olive slivers
¼ cup basil chiffonade
Combine the cod cake ingredients in a bowl, making sure to dry both the cot and the potatoes thoroughly before they are combined. Shape into thirty one-inch diameter cylinders that are about two inches tall.
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan and sauté the cakes, browning only on the tops and bottoms. Finish cooking the cakes on a sheet pan in a preheated 400F oven for about five minutes.
To serve, toss the tomatoes, olives, and basil together in a bowl and sprinkle a bit on top of each cake. Serve the butter sauce on the side.
Black Olive Butter Sauce
¼ cup red wine
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
1 tbls minced shallots
2 tbls chopped Nicoise olives
2 tbls heavy cream
10 tbls (1 ¼ sticks) butter, soft
2 tsp soy sauce
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
Combine the wine, thyme, bay leaf, shallots, and olives in a small saucepan and simmer until reduced to a syrupy consistency.
Add the cream and reduce to coating consistency. Finish by whisking or swirling in the butter.
Season the sauce with the soy sauce, salt, and pepper; strain through a sieve.