Better known in England than stateside, Maria Elia dashes between TV, private chef, and restaurant work. Her first book, “Modern Vegetarian” (2009), achieved some recognition for its wide-awake flavors and vibrant presentation. Her new “Full of Flavor” attempts to provide a glimpse of her thought process as a chef. Whimsical graphics convey the change-ups and switcheroos that go through her mind (try roasting with sage instead of rosemary; try an alternative marinade). And although it might be too much to expect readers to go far down this path of invention (“Why’d I buy a cookbook if I have to make up the recipes myself?”), the effect is freeing — especially when something goes wrong.
I open ready-diced butternut for slow-roasted paprika chicken, only to discover it’s no longer fresh, so I blithely substitute baby potatoes and sweet potato. Then I forget to add the butter beans, but the next day I smash them into the leftover sauce, an effect so successful it almost eclipses the chicken.
A new potato flatbread almost goes wrong from an overdose of yeast (measured by weight as suggested; it would have been fine if done by volume), but I fix it on the fly. Even with the arugula and mozzarella, it’s a heavy, bready sort of dish. But the porcini salt is a brilliant discovery, and I sprinkle it on everything for the rest of the week.
A smoked mackerel, asparagus, and noodle salad comes with a just-right, balanced ginger miso dressing, thick enough to cling to everything and give the slippery noodles some body. And in a halibut tagine, a saffroned, citrused, and sweetly spiced tomato sauce (like the miso dressing for the noodles) outshines what it’s designed for.
A sort of porchetta made with pork belly gets a thick slathering of high-impact ingredients: sage, fennel, anchovy, and capers. But it’s just on one side, so there’s no chance for the flavor to travel through all the layers of muscle and fat to the skin side (a wet marinade or braise might have done the job). Blanched, browned, and roasted with rosemary, the accompanying potatoes are divine, but I still prefer my own easy technique (blanching with baking soda, for a better crust later).
Blueberry and coffee muffins are satisfactory — how bad can a blueberry muffin be? — though the coffee taste (from instant) is barely noticeable, and substituting oil for the usual butter gives it a bit of an aftertaste.
Still, a couple of recipes are pretty much perfect as is. Celeriac and butter bean soup has a satiny texture, all the more luscious when swirled with sage brown butter. And a skilletful of lamb meatballs with peas and tomato sauce gets a surprising lift from dried dill and cinnamon — exactly the kind of completely unexpected juxtaposition you hope a chef will teach you. And she uses a bouillon cube in the sauce. Cheat where you can.
Elia’s book promises to get you “to create like a chef,” but I kind of doubt I’d have come up with dill and cinnamon on my own. I learned it here, the way cooks have been learning from recipes since the very first volumes. Her exposure to a vast vocabulary of flavors, plus her own native gifts, are what make these insights possible.
In the end, despite Elia’s earnest urging, maybe her approach doesn’t add up to a crash course in culinary improvisation. But it does make a provocative and interesting book.