February 1, 2009

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters

I've never reviewed a cookbook on this blog before, mostly because, as much as I like reading cookbooks, I've never come across one like The Art of Simple Food. It is a lovely, gentle book, made charming by the Alice Waters' obvious love of food and the process of cooking.

Waters walks the reader through 200 pages of basic techniques and foundation recipes, but far from being overwhelming or disheartening, Waters is gentle and empowering - so much so that I felt comfortable enough to successfully try a recipe for a basic souffle, something that I've heard, on more than one occasion, no novice cook should attempt. 

Following the foundation recipes, are more recipes - variations on the foundations that Waters has guided you through in her clear, warm prose. The idea is that once you understand the principals at work behind a dish, you are utterly free to play with variations from there, and idea that I really appreciate.

The other thing I liked about The Art of Simple Food, aside from Waters' voice and down to earth style, is that this is no glossy cookbook meant to be leafed through on coffee tables but never used. This is a functional book. There are no fancy photos of high fashion food. Rather, The Art of Simple Food features lovely, Art-Nouveau inspired, pencil illustrations by the artist Patricia Curtan, giving an overall effect of understated warmth that highlights the ingredients as well as the finished dish. The spot light is on the food itself, not untouchable masterpieces conceived by a distant chef. In fact, despite her fame, nothing about Waters is distant - she is fully accessible and completely encouraging in an understated, un-patronizing way.

And, I suppose that's where the success of this book lies. It is a beautiful, homey, aesthetically pleasing, functional cookbook with recipes and prose suitable for novice cooks, as well as more experienced amateur chefs. Even foodies who don't cook would find pleasure in the joy Waters obviously takes in presenting menus and techniques based on what's in season and the contents of a well-stocked pantry. Utterly lovely reading. It will take me ages to cook my way through The Art of Simple Food, and I'm very much looking forward to the process.

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