Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen: Earnest Summation

Last fall, I spent a few weeks cooking from Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen. Can you remember back that far? I can't, but I'm updating my cookbook reviews, which I haven't done for almost a year and which has been bugging me for almost a year. Not that anyone cares anymore, but for the internal integrity of the blog, I have to do this.

A recap: Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen is a handsome, earth-toned book full of enticing pictures of rustic food as prepared by a famous Seattle chef, the owner of How to Cook a Wolf and Tavolata, among other restaurants. Charlotte Freeman, who writes the Cookbookslut column at Bookslut, hated Stowell's book with a white hot fury. Its cheffy pretensions -- reminders about using only best quality ingredients, the "tone of haughty hyper-reverence" -- made her want to "stick hot needles" in her eyes.

I don't disagree with any of Freeman's points, which are all valid criticisms, but this book didn't make me want to stick hot needles in my eyes. (In fact, I can think of nothing that would.) To the contrary, I enjoyed Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen. Probably because I spent very little time reading the headnotes, which are indeed irritating, as I was so completely smitten with the recipes, which I found fascinating and exotic. Opening the book again this morning, I saw at least a dozen unusual, seductive dishes that I'd like to cook in the appropriate season: espresso granita with grappa cream, pear-star anise ice cream, soft-shell crab bruschetta with spring garlic aioli, canneloni with braised pork cheeks and sweet cicely.

That is, if I knew where to buy pork cheeks or sweet cicely without making a dozen phone calls and a trip to Berkeley.

Which is why, last fall, I cooked only 13 recipes from this book. (By comparison, I  made 57 recipes from the Moro cookbook; 36 out of Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc At Home; 52 out of Claudia Rodin's Arabesque.) A lot of Stowell's dishes, maybe even a majority, call for obscure ingredients I could not readily find: ramps, rabbit loin, lobster mushrooms, Thumbelina carrots, Cacio Faenum cheese, snails, live sea urchin, lamb's tongues, nettles. Et cetera. Sometimes I'm up for a scavenger hunt. In October 2010, apparently, I wasn't.

The recipe tally:

Worth the price of the book -- 0
Great -- 6 (roasted figs with chocolate espresso ganache, endive lemon salad)
Good -- 6
So-so -- 1
Flat out bad -- 0

While I don't think it's a shelf essential, Ethan Stowell's New Italian Kitchen still shines for me. I plan to throw away cookbooks that don't review well on the blog, and Mixt Salads is long gone. This book stays.

Done! On to Dorie Greenspan.


  1. His restaurants are spectacular, no matter the pretentiousness of his books....

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