I've always loved cookbooks. Though I gotta tell you—times have changed. Used to be, cookbooks had some heft to them, some real texture. These days, it’s all diet shit and TVFN on the Amazon top 50. It's all the marketing, the demographics, the tie-ins.
(I know, I know, I sound like I'm a thousand years old and I’m only 35. What can I tell ya?)
There are some exceptions, of course. Like my friend Mitchell Davis’ Kitchen Sense, which is just a great cookbook. And beautiful books like Jeffrey Alford's and Naomi Duguid’s Hot Sour Salty Sweet, which is both gorgeous and delicious. But mostly, I like the old stuff—in music, in cooking styles, in cookbooks. Call me a throwback.
I’ve got shelves full of classic cookbooks. Looking for a first-edition Fredy Giradet? I’ve got it. Alan Davidson’s book on the seafood of Laos? Done. The Illustrated History of Kaiseki? Of course. In Japanese. Guide de la Cuisine des Gibiers? Bought it in Béziers. I’ve even got every region in the (ridiculously pricey) "In Boca" Italian series (well, almost—I'm still saving my pennies for that last one). It's a weakness, a compulsion, the only thing I collect. And I cook from 'em, too.
My first cookbook—well, my first cookbook, if I'm being totally honest, was a dog-eared, beat-up Betty Crocker that I cooked out of when I was a kid (best chocolate pinwheel cakes in south Cleveland, right here!!!). But my first serious cookbook was La Technique by Jacques Pépin. My Grandma gave it to me when I was 10 years old, and it was probably the thing that started me on my way to chefdom. I was fascinated by the recipes for salade de pissenlits (dandelions), andouillettes (small spicy pork sausages), lapin (rabbit) aux pruneaux (prunes), and turinois (a chocolate and chestnut cream terrine).
I loved that book so much, in fact, that when Jacques came to the local ShopRite to promote a different book that he'd written as a benefit for the Cleveland Clinic in the mid '80s, I went and had him sign my copy of La Technique. (I told him the story years later, and of course, he didn't remember me at all. But maybe he should have, since I was 12 years old, and lugging a book he wasn't even promoting. And I was the only person who showed up.)
Anyway, it’s easy to be a critic, but now I'm putting my money where my mouth is: I'm working on my own first book. It's to be called Urban Italian, and it will be out from Bloomsbury right around fall 2008, if I can get my ass in gear and get all the recipes done in time. There won't be any TVFN girls or diet tips, but there will be lots of crazy stories about cooking in Italy—plus about 100 recipes, developed in my very own miniscule NYC kitchen. These are recipes that I came up with during the year I took off between working at Café Boulud and opening A Voce. The recipes were originally conceived for "home cooking," but a lot of them ended up on the menu.
Now I'm re-testing everything for the book—and, staying true to form, I'm doing all the testing back in that tiny kitchen. To get it all done in time, I need to test about fifteen recipes every weekend for the next six weekends. If that sounds like a lot—well, it is. I spend every Saturday morning foraging for ingredients in the New York City summer heat (generally a balmy 92 degrees and humid). By the time I get all the ingredients home, it's already 4 PM, and I’m ready for a coffee and some tube, but instead I crowd myself and all my equipment and supplies into the kitchen and bang out seven or eight recipes with Gwen (my wife, who is cowriting the book—so the computer's in the kitchen, too). The fridge is overcrowded; the air-conditioning is overcranked; it's all steam and heat and flying vegetables and raw meat. By 11 PM, the kitchen is trashed, there's food all over the table (and the counters, and the floor, and … ), and we're freakin' beat, hungry, and very, very thirsty.
So, last weekend, when we finally wrapped things up, we sat down and drank a couple of bottles of Ornellaia. At A Voce, we've developed a great relationship with the Frescobaldis, and we're selling a ton of Le Volte, Masseto and Ornellaia. In fact, to celebrate their 25th anniversary this fall, they're closing down A Voce and having the party with us. I'll also be visiting them this November in Bolgheri.
Anyway, what better time to taste through some Ornellaia vintages than late at night, with a table full of Italian dishes? We'd made gnocchi with lamb Bolognese and mint; penne with sausage and ceci (garbanzo beans); spring peas with sausage and onions; roasted pork with fresh grape sauce and bay leaf; and trippa (tripe) alla Parmigiana. We opened an '01, an '03, and the just-released '04. ( Yeah, I know, there were only two of us. It was a long day.)
So that '01? Definitely the vintage of the moment. The '03 was a little hot and jammy. This was the second time I’ve tasted the '04, and in my humble opinion, it could definitely hit the same level as the '01—but it's a little too early for an amateur like me to make a call like that.
On that totally delicious note, it's time for me to sign off. I've had a good time talking to you all about my life and work; hope you have, too. Make sure you say hello next time you're at A Voce!
Merlin — Zurich, Switzerland — August 10, 2007 7:02am ET
Andrew Carmellini — August 10, 2007 7:48pm ET
Merlin — Zurich, Switzerland — August 11, 2007 2:25pm ET
Russell Quong — Sunnyvale, CA — August 20, 2007 1:12am ET
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