`The Café Cook Book' authors Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers are two English chefs who seem to carry a lot of weight in the community of writers on Italian Cuisine. They are one of the first employers of Jamie Oliver and were, I suspect, a strong influence on his style and choice of cuisine. In fact, Oliver is credited as a River Café chef in the Acknowledgments. Gray and Roger owe nothing to Oliver's current celebrity. Their reputation is firmly based on doing good Italian food before Jamie came to the limelight.
This is their second book, which I am reviewing after having reviewed their third, `Italian Easy' and I am doubly unhappy with myself that I have left Gray and Rogers unread for so long. Among celebrity restaurant cookbooks, these are distinctive in that they are all about the recipes. There are the usual lists of American suppliers and the usual glossary of ingredients which does nothing more than tell us how these ingredients are used at the River Café. There are few headnotes, no sidebars, very few tips on technique, and no endearing stories introducing the chapters. That is not to say there is nothing endearing about the book. The few personal comments by the authors, the photographs of the authors at work, and the overall design of the book conveys the strong sense that these are two people you would really like to know.
While I have not read the authors' first book, `Italian Country Cook Book', I sense all three books share a strong common philosophy which gives us exquisitely simple recipes based on classic Italian recipes and ingredients. This simplicity can be deceiving. There are virtually no tips on technique and few steps recommending you taste and season. Much of this is probably due to the natural saltiness of Italian ingredients such as the hard cheeses, anchovies, capers, cured hams, and salt cod. All this means is that a genuinely inexperienced chef may miss some very simple steps which an experienced home cook takes for granted, such as techniques for garlic in heated oil and pealing tomatoes.
The centerpiece of this book is recipes based on a large wood-fuelled oven installed at the River Café as part of a major renovation and expansion. Be assured that the way the `wood-roasted' recipes are written, they are entirely doable in your gas or electric oven at home.
Drinks chapter's primary feature is that most of the drink recipes use prosecco plus fresh fruit.
Second chapter on salads, frittatas, and other starters opens with the simple style that characterizes the whole book. The headnotes supply nothing except recommendations on which varieties of vegetable to use in each dish. There are some simple but unusual techniques in some of the recipes. One, for example, uses boiled lemon wedges in a salad with artichokes. Another novelty is a venison carpaccio salad. A great surprise for an Italian-themed dinner party. The frittatas are made with the simplest method of a quick turn in the oven after stovetop curdling of the eggs.
The chapter on pasta includes a basic fresh pasta recipe plus recipes for pasta verde, ravioli, and several recipes with fresh tagliatelle. Like new book, there are also several recipes for spaghetti, all exquisitely simple. The chapter also includes three recipes for wet polenta combined with porcini, truffles, and cavolo nero.
The risottos chapter has a good mix of recipes which are so simple, one wonders what all the fuss is about. The chapter on soups contains the usual mix of bean soups and some special treats with an arugula and potato soup, a salt cod soup which looks deliciously like Manhattan clam chowder and a wild fennel soup. The stock recipes are so simple, it makes you embarrassed not to make your own.
The wood-roasted vegetables chapter opens the way to caramelized beets, carrots, artichokes, asparagus, zucchini, eggplant, Swiss Chard, and lots of potatoes. Yum.
The `Vegetables in Padellla' chapter changes venues and presents the all the usual suspects in a wine braise.
The most interesting recipes among the fish and shellfish offerings are the wood-roasted methods that you can do in the bottom of your Hotpoint at home. The most unusual recipe may be the layered sardine sandwich. No bread makes an appearance in the ingredient list.
The chapter on meats, including pork, chicken, duck, and game opens with two spectacular recipes for doing a whole suckling pig and a slow roasted shoulder of pork. These are just the things for urban pig meat lovers who don't want to mess with barbecue. The other really unusual recipe is a combination of leftover pork and tuna.
The chapter on breads opens with a potato sourdough starter, something you may not see outside of a book on artisinal baking. Two recipes for sourdough bread follow this. The chapter has a recipe for pizza dough plus five (5) pizza recipes. There are some shortcuts I do not see in more detailed recipes. I pizza novice may want to go to Peter Reinhart's `American Pie' book on pizza to get an in depth look at pizza before tackling recipes at this level.
Chapter on sixteen (16) sauces has a lot more variety than you may see in more traditional Italian books.
Chapter on desserts has everything that is great about Italian baking, great simplicity and great taste, especially if you are familiar only with French and American pastry. It is truly amazing how simple some of the recipes for tortes and tarts and cakes can be.
The main blemish I find in this book is the loose way in which the authors do the translations of Italian names for dishes. Some are absent, some leave terms untranslated, and some translations even seem wrong.
Very highly recommended for great taste and great simplicity. Rogers and Gray are interpreting Italian cuisine in a dramatically simple and straightforward manner accessible to all amateur cooks.