`Rocco's 5 Minute Flavor' by famous culinary `personality', Rocco DiSpirito is the type of book I typically avoid reviewing, except for the fact that it answers the question I asked myself just a week or so ago. It tells us what former NY restaurateur / Food Network star / Reality Show martyr Rocco is doing nowadays. While the quick cooking theme is pretty much owned by the current queen of the Food Network, Rachael Ray, it has been appropriated by just about every major chef / author with good name recognition. But Rocco is promising us, to borrow a phrase from Emeril, `to kick it up a notch' by reducing the window to it's bare minimum of five minute cooking with five key ingredients or less for $5 per serving or less.
My overall impression of the book is that there are many, many gotchas with this book's premise and many weaknesses, but the skills of a very talented chef to this task does have its rewards which make the book worth reading and studying. I'll start with the many caveats and end with my overall impression of why the book still works.
My overriding impression is that the book is a perfect illustration of Marold's Two Laws of Fast Cooking which state that `Fast Cooking requires a firm grasp of good cooking techniques, above and beyond what the written recipe tells you.' and `Fast cooking requires more expensive or more highly processed ingredients than slow cooking.'.
As I read each recipe, I sense that each and every one requires some special culinary knowledge without which you may be fumbling with the prep long after your perceived `quick result' time expires.
The very first recipe assumes you can peel and chop garlic, grate Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and chop basil promptly, before leaf blackening sets in. The second recipe assumes you know how to grate zest from a lemon and find tough ends of asparagus. Another early recipe calls for 2½ cucumbers, 1½ being peeled and diced, with one left unpeeled, followed by food processing all the cukes, with no explanation for the difference in treatment. Now this is not a bad thing. In fact, I welcome a cookbook that assumes you know what you are doing around the kitchen. The problem is that if you do not, you may not get satisfactory results. There are a few points at which the assumption of Kitchen Kompetance (sic) can lead to trouble, as when Rocco instructs us to heat up a non-stick pan, do a few other things, then add butter to the pan. Every cooking guru from Alton Brown to Sara Moulton makes a point of NOT leaving a Teflon coated pan on the heat with no oil or other contents to keep the coating down to a reasonable 350 degrees Fahrenheit, so it doesn't get so hot as to give off toxic gases. This concern is especially worrisome as one of Rocco's linchpins to fast cooking is to get pots very, very hot. Put his advice together with ignorance of Teflon's Achilles heel and you could be getting into troubled waters.
A second concern may be that the headliner `5 minutes' means only the time it takes to actually `cook' the dish and not including the prep time and certainly not including the shopping time or what Tony Bourdain calls the pre-prep time for cleaning produce, filleting meat, and whatever. It certainly does not include the time it takes to read and understand the recipe. It you take three of Rocco's recipes and add in the prep time, I am willing to bet you will come very close to what Rachael Ray does in 30 minutes, including almost all prep time. Another little shorthand is that the `five ingredients' condition leaves out a pretty large number of pantry items and that many of those five ingredients may be pretty highly processed products. A last little caveat is that the $5 is per serving for a single dish. That means that four servings of four dishes may run to $80. This is not much, but not to be sneezed at either!
A third concern is that Rocco uses a lot of supermarket preparations and commercially packaged products. Looking through his pantry list, I spot close to 20% of his items may be available in his New York, but may not be available outside the New York metropolitan area under the same name. There are other product recommendations such as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and Jell-O Gelatin snacks where my first reaction is that I don't appreciate a highly trained chef's suggesting I eat junk food.
There are some other oddities that annoy me, such as chapters labeled `Sandwiches' and `Panini' when `panini' is simply Italian for `sandwich'. Another is the assortment of rather drab black and white photographs, several of what appears to be dirty dishes, produce, or kitchen counter. While many have something of an artsy feel to them, they are not exactly up to the standards of Man Ray or Annie Lebowitz. A third annoyance is that while the title and introduction to this book makes sly reference to the author's James Beard award winning first book, `Flavor', there is really nothing about the recipes which make any reference at all to the good things done in that book.
The irony of all this is that in spite of all those annoyances and gotchas, I am very likely to refer to this book more often than many others when I need to make something quick, but where I don't want to fall back on all my familiar recipes or a can of Campbell's soup.
My favorite things about the book is that like Rachael, this is `all at once' cooking rather than part of the `cook ahead on the weekend' school and, like Jamie Oliver, it embodies cooking as part of a `joie-de-vivre' where preparing food becomes a celebration rather than a chore.