In the first place, it's impossible to cover a topic that totally in a book. There are always things, sometimes important things, left out. In the second place, by the time a book actually appears in print, the state of the art has advanced.
For these and other reasons, no book can actually be complete. But The Complete Meat Cookbook comes close. Certainly, in its encyclopedic 604 pages, it comes nearer the mark than any other "complete" book that comes to mind. Subtitled "A juicy and authoritative guide to selecting, seasoning, and cooking today's beef, pork, lamb, and veal," it's all of that and more.
The key word there is "today's." Many cookbooks do not take into account that today's meats are not the same ones your grandmother used. Animals have been bred to be leaner. While most of us recognize this with pork, we sometimes forget that it applies to all meat animals.
Aidells and Kelly are fully aware of this. In fact, that's the very purpose of their tome.. "The new meat demands a new approach," they say in their introduction, "and that's our mission in this book: to show you how to prepare today's cuts so that they're tender, juicy, and full of flavor."
With one exception, they've achieved that mission. That's in the photography. To be sure, I like Beatriz Da Costa's photos. Rather than being massaged by a team of stylists, as so often happens with food photography, her pix show us the dishes as they'd actually appear. What you see is what you get if you try one of those recipes.
The downside with the photos is twofold. First, there aren't near enough of them. There are only 16 color plates, and I'd like to have seen more of them in a book of this magnitude. Second: the photos are clumped up front, in two groups of eight, separated by a handful of text pages. There is no particular reason for the separation, nor for the up-front placement. I'd have been happier seeing the color plates next to the recipes they portray.
Mary DePalma's illustrations more than make up for the lack of photos, however, and the book would not have suffered by dropping the few color plates altogether.
I called this book encyclopedic, and didn't use that word lightly. Between the introductory material---which covers everything from the history of humans as meat eaters to how to buy meat to methods of cooking meat---to the recipes themselves, Aidells and Kelly really cover just about everything you need to know about meat---including a multi-page doneness chart that gives you the actual (as opposed to USDA recommended) temperatures to achieve each stage of doneness.
After the introductory material, the book is divided into four sections, each dealing with one meat protein: beef, pork, lamb, and veal. Each section is arranged the same way. Introductory material talks about the history and use of that protein, how to choose it overall (including anatomical drawings of where the cuts come from), nutritional values, and things like grading and aging.
Each chapter is, in turn, subdivided into cuts, and the same information is covered on a more specific level and in greater detail. For instance, in the beef chapter we find a sub-chapter on steak, and we learn how to choose a great steak, the larger cuts that various steaks come from, and a discussion of each type of steak. This is followed by recipes for, in this case, steaks. They then go into the next sub-chapter, and do the same thing for other cuts.
Interspersed throughout are sidebars covering all sorts of topics, ranging from when to season, to the types of sauces suitable for the meat being discussed, to restaurant recommendations, to personal anecdotes. I was particularly taken, in that regard, with Dennis Kelly's recollection of climbing to the Acropolis from the backside, and how it led to a life-long friendship with one of the best Greek cooks anyone has ever met.
Recipes also follow a format. Each of them is preceded by what the authors call a "flavor step." These are as simple as salt & pepper, to as complex as wet rubs and marinades, each designed to add intense tastes to meat.
Another nice touch is their use of "master recipes" wherever possible. These are used when there is a basic cooking method that remains unchanged by flavoring agents. So, instead of running them as separate recipes, they provide the master recipe, then a series of variations. For instance, they have a master recipe for marinated flank steak, followed by two variations, and a list of other marinades that would also work.
Even more extensive are the recipes for burgers. You've heard of "inside-out" burgers, where the cheese goes in the middle instead of on top? Calling that approach "stuffed burgers," Aidells and Kelly provide a master version and five variations. That's on top of a half dozen versions of the classic hamburger, which has it's own master recipe.
Beyond the history, and the how-to info, and the personal remembrances, this is, at base, a cookbook. And it's the recipes that count.
Normally, when reviewing a cookbook for Cheftalk, we prepare at least two of the dishes. In this case I felt that wouldn't do. To justify any conclusions, I felt, at least one recipe from each of the proteins should be made. And, because beef plays such a role in the American diet, I thought two recipes should be made from that section alone.
Let me state up-front that I went five-for-five. These guys know their meat, and the best ways of preparing it. I started with Braised Lamb Chops in a Piquant Sausage and Anchovy Sauce, followed by Pork Saltimbocca, Osso Buco, and Flank Steak with North African Marinade. In each case, the flavoring agents contributed to the dish, without covering the natural taste of the meat. I expected with the braised lamb in particular that the fennel-sage rub, combined with the sauce, would be overpowering. But such was not the case. The pork saltimbocca was an interesting and tasty variation of the classic veal dish. And the flank steak was tender and juicy, with a hint of Moroccan flavor. The Osso Buco was as good as any I've ever had.
And then came the real test: Gordon's Grilled Rib Eye Steak with Chile-Tomato Vinaigrette.
I'm one of those people who believe beef has a unique taste, which comes forth best in a thick rib eye steak. Other than a little salt and pepper, it doesn't need anything else to make it shine. Most recipes using intense flavors merely cover-up and mask that special beef taste. Especially when using things like southwestern rubs and highly acidic saucing.
Not so with this recipe. Not only do the two flavor agents contribute their own personalities, they actually highlight the beef flavor. If anything, the steak is beefier. And you'll never again catch me soap boxing about salt and pepper being all you need.
If you think I'm impressed with The Complete Meat Cookbook you're right. Sure, it may not actually be complete. But it's as close to being the only meat cookbook you'll ever need as is possible to get.