If anyone would like a technical primer on how to construct a good mid-size cookbook, take a look at “Old-School Comfort Food.” Design-wise, this book does everything right. It’s got a nice, medium-size format and an unusually readable typeface. It’s got crisp, literal photographs and well-designed sidebars. Headnotes are helpful and personal, and memoir is used as a judicious seasoning.
Is this because Alex Guarnaschelli is not only executive chef at New York’s Butter and the Darby, and an Iron Chef, but also the daughter of Maria Guarnaschelli, one of the best-known cookbook editors of our age? None of it would matter if the food didn’t hold up.
The recipes here are as well-constructed as the book. You might fault them for not being cutting-edge, or wonder whether you need another cheeseburger or chicken or pasta recipe. Fair enough. If you do undertake them, you will find instructions with an unusual level of care and sensory cues. There’s not a clinker in the lot.
Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook
I wasn’t sure that the beet vinaigrette (made from beet boiling water) and parsley pesto in a farfalle pasta salad would be worth the trouble. But the brilliant pink-dyed bow ties brim with beety flavor, set off by capers and crisp scallions. My only departure was to keep rather than discard the boiled beets, which are too good to waste. A baked potato salad gets a similar belt-and-suspenders approach, this time with a piquant caper-cornichon dressing to go with the pesto. You may have to smash the potatoes with something firmer than the suggested fork, but the results are inarguable.
A shrimp and cucumber salad seems predictable, seasoned with rice vinegar and lime (and is a whole knob of ginger really just supposed to sit there in the dressing, without chopping or cooking?). But silky avocado and bright cilantro add diverting texture and high notes.
Perhaps the most emblematic dish in this book is its most familiar: beef meatballs and sauce with rigatoni. As commonplace as it is, Guarnaschelli takes extra care: spreading ground meat up the sides of the bowl for more even seasoning, cooking a first meatball for sampling, turning off the heat when adding the meat to the oil-filled pan to avoid splattering, checking for tenderness, and more. It’s the accumulation of these mindful moves that makes an ordinary dish less so.
A flattened chicken breast also hinges on a detail, in this case laterally slicing the breast to flatten and even it out while weighting it down during cooking for a crisp golden skin. It was so good I forgot to eat the pickled red onions that went with it, so I had to make it again the next day (this can be a tough job). Blackened salmon gets a simple Cajun-style spice mix. It’s probably the restaurant-style finishing with liberal butter that makes it so hard to resist, but you’ll be too busy devouring it to dwell much on why.
The combination of caraway and coriander seeds adds character to slender carrots braised in beer. Unfortunately, I got distracted at the last minute and burned the reduction, but the unspoiled portion made me wish I’d doubled the recipe. (Lesson? Never walk away from caramelizing. You’ll always regret it.) The bitter edge of grilled radicchio gets tamed with honey and hazelnuts, a smart move, though even a tender cabbage is still, well, a cabbage.
Ripe strawberries make “quickie” strawberry tartlets an obvious choice. Really, they’re just tuiles, dolloped with a little sour cream, some steeped berries, and a bit of the reduced juices. It’s not quick in the sense that you can make it in five minutes, but in the sense that similarly satisfying confections might take you two hours.
Marinated asparagus spears have the sweet sesame-soy rice vinegar dressing that works so well with broccoli and spinach too, along with careful blanching and cooling instructions. In what may have been a fit of overconscientiousness, Guarnaschelli instructs you to heat the oven at the start, but never ends up using it.
These workaday chicken, beef, and pasta dishes tell you what you can and can’t substitute, how long you really need to cool your blanched vegetables, what you’re looking for in a reduction. All of this makes for good value. Enough value, in fact, to render moot its author’s celebrity.