The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution

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Clarkson Potter

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Perhaps more responsible than anyone for the revolution in the way we eat, cook, and think about food, Alice Waters has “single-handedly chang[ed] the American palate” according to the New York Times. Her simple but inventive dishes focus on a passion for flavor and a reverence for locally produced, seasonal foods.With an essential repertoire of timeless, approachable recipes chosen to enhance and showcase great ingredients, The Art of Simple Food is an indispensable resource for home cooks. Here you will find Alice’s philosophy on everything from stocking your kitchen, to mastering fundamentals and preparing delicious, seasonal inspired meals all year long. Always true to her philosophy that a perfect meal is one that’s balanced in texture, color, and flavor, Waters helps us embrace the seasons’ bounty and make the best choices when selecting ingredients. Fill your market basket with pristine produce, healthful grains, and responsibly raised meat, poultry, and seafood, then embark on a voyage of culinary rediscovery that reminds us that the most gratifying dish is often the least complex.


Alice Waters
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Clarkson Potter
Clarkson Potter
The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution
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More years ago than I care to admit, I became fascinated with Alice Waters because of an anecdote told to me by an acquaintance. 
This woman had eaten at Chez Panisse and had observed Waters eating with friends at another table. "She ate her salad with her fingers" the woman confided  in an appalled tone.  Not getting the response from me that she expected, she paused dramatically and hissed "And then she licked them!"
True or not, the story endeared Waters to me, and one day I too may have the confidence to eat my salad with my fingers. But in the meantime we have Waters's current book to consider.  The Art of Simple Food was, according to the forward, written for both beginning cooks and for experienced cooks wishing to improve their skills.   At first glance Waters would seem to be the right author for the job, since she is less a chef than a food educator.  She is also a publicist skilled enough to make her message stick in people's minds, and this is a good skill for a teacher to have.

However, as a home  instructional manual for either of its intended audiences, this book is somewhat puzzling.    There are some clearly written descriptions of ingredients which would be useful to someone just starting out, and her emphasis on using homemade rather than canned broth is welcome. Then there is a section on equipment, and her list and explanation is decent and adequately thorough. A lesson on knife work follows, and for a beginner some illustrations of the job in progress would surely be useful.  The menu planning section has some good basic advice about balancing menus.   

Then the recipes begin.  Part one consists of initial lessons: "Four Essential Sauces," "Salads," etc.  The recipes are very basic, and the suggested variations are almost equally basic, such as putting a little mustard in your vinaigrette, adding a little chopped shallot to the vinegar, or replacing part of the olive oil with nut oil.  Experienced cooks will be long familiar with these simple variations, while for the neophyte it would be useful to have some brief discussion about why you might use one variation or another.  .   The lesson on bread contains only one very basic recipe for "herb bread or pizza dough" which is unlikely to interest any experienced home baker, while lacking the detailed information about the breadmaking process that would let a beginner know how to troubleshoot a mediocre result---or avoid such a result in the first place. The lesson on "Pasta and polenta" is especially disappointing in this regard  I believe that fresh hand-rolled pasta is at the top of the list of foods that are immeasurably better when made by hand at home and sauced simply, and many of us found this out a few decades ago because Marcella Hazan's succinct directions and clear line drawings convinced us that we could do it.   The three pages of text devoted by Waters to pasta-making could be largely replaced by good illustrations with improved results for the beginner, while an experienced home cook  probably already has his or her own ideas about what makes the process sing. 
Part two is "Recipes For Cooking Every Day", and the recipes seem sound but standard.  I tried several recipes from this book, including basic vinaigrette  and a mustard vinaigrette for a salad containing meat, cream biscuits, roasted sliced cauliflower, creamed spinach, and potato gratin, and they were all very good.  What they were not was any different from many other good basic recipes, and there is none of the commentary on technique and variation that can make even an experienced cook see a familiar dish in a new and fresh way.  Waters' mentor Richard Olney was a master at this, and his effortless riffs were not just loose improvisations but had a tight internal coherence, always based on emphasizing the basic and true flavor of the ingredients.  [Since Waters emphasizes using a minimum of equipment, I did try making a mixed herb pesto by hand in a mortar, and the breakdown of cell walls and release of aromatics is so complete that I would never return to making it in the food processor.  But this is a rather low yield for 404 pages.

Now, what about the subtitle?  Is this a "revolution?" I don't think so.  Waters' emphasis on high quality and organic and humane as well as sustainable production is admirable.  She did a great deal to make high-quality food more available in America, and she is entitled to take a bow for that. It would be nice, however, if there were some acknowledgement that she was not the first person who ever thought of using the best ingredients possible.  Many of our own great-grandmothers were rigorous to the point of tedium about quality and freshness, and both good chefs and good home cooks all over the world have always known that you can't make good food out of dreck.

In short, this is a good basic book with an emphasis on quality and freshness, and may be useful to the beginner who has access to other, more thorough books to fill in the details.  But it didn't make me lick my fingers.

Click here for a recipe from the book for Cream Biscuits


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