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Cookbook review

Stock up with ‘My Perfect Pantry’

In his new cookbook, chef Geoffrey Zakarian makes it easy to prepare tasty meals with everyday ingredients.
In his new cookbook, chef Geoffrey Zakarian makes it easy to prepare tasty meals with everyday ingredients.

Geoffrey Zakarian is one of those chefs who seem to be at the center of everything: former owner at restaurants Town and Country in New York and chef-partner at The Lambs Club and The National, and both a judge and contestant on many Food Network shows. His first cookbook, “Town/Country,” was more accessible than most chef books. His second, “My Perfect Pantry,” is even more so. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d think this was another weeknight dinner blog book with some surprisingly thoughtful flavor exchanges.

The premise of “My Perfect Pantry” is the opposite of many restaurant books, which tend to elevate the inaccessible. This book makes use of what’s on hand, with chapters devoted to one pantry staple after another. From almonds, cocoa, and flour to pasta, tomatoes, and yeast Zakarian marches through in strict alphabetical order. They’re convenient recipes, but often slow ones.

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His “ultimate porridge” relies on steel-cut oats coaxed into a toothy, creamy bowl with milk infused with orange, honey, and ginger. It’s made like risotto, with near-constant stirring, which may tax your attention if it takes 40 minutes (as it did for me) rather than 25.

Roasted black-bean stew with grilled radicchio isn’t so much a roast as a long braise followed by a long uncovered baking. The braise results in depths of hammy flavor and the bake results in crusty, interesting surface textures; a bit of grilled radicchio offers an acerbic, balancing postscript.

Wait overnight for a maple buttermilk marinade to penetrate a pork loin and you’ll have tender meat with a sweet crust (which may fall off in the carving if you’re not careful), perfect for soaking in an Iberian-tasting orange and bay-scented sauce.

A baked creamy rice and mushroom casserole feels like comfort food. There’s a mistake in the recipe, though. Zakarian never mentions where to add the rice, once you’ve cooked it. But the recipe’ is forgiving, and emerges steaming, firm, and rib-sticking. Family chicken fingers raise the ante on your workaday favorite. There’s butter in the cooking oil and Parmesan in the breadcrumbs. You may not think of a half-inch of oil in a pan as deep-frying, but it may as well be, meaning that you get both the irresistible crust and the cleanup afterward.

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Elbow macaroni with pine nuts, lemon, and fennel is like a warm and more sophisticated macaroni salad. It’s dressed with only a red-wine vinaigrette, so it’s a bit on the dry side if you let it sit. But it’s so quick to throw together there’s little need for that. Sides are drenched in flavor and uniformly quick, as in spicy peanut butter slaw. That left such a good impression on me that after making it once, I went ahead and made it again the very next day. If you always have Greek yogurt and peanut butter around, the dressing comes togther in an instant, and the rest is just chop-and-assemble.

Rarely will you find eight ingredients of such texture and variety as you do in a pine nut and pomegranate salad. Toasty nuts, exploding pomegranate seeds, salty Parmesan together are capable of sending even the most jaded diner pinging from one sensation to another.

Zakarian keeps the sweets and snacks simple but effective. Make mild, pleasing pumpkin seed muffins with practically whatever you’ve got in the pantry, so long as you have pumpkin seeds and canned pumpkin. Or even if not — as I discovered after baking mine accidentally with a can of squash.

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Maple brown-sugar rice pudding takes its sweet time, slow to cook and slow to chill, but with a dollop of whipped cream it’s the kind of nursery food that’s hard to stop eating. Dark chocolate pudding, set with egg yolks and smooth with cream, is easier than mousse and just as gratifying.

Zakarian’s decades in the restaurant business haven’t kept him out of touch in the home kitchen. In the meantime, the home kitchen itself has expanded: online retailers and streamlined transportation have made it possible for us to command a chef-worthy array of ingredients to appear (literally) at our doorstep. It’s refreshing to be reminded that even if we can, we don’t have to.

My Perfect Pantry : 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients

By Geoffrey Zakarian and Amy Stevenson

Clarkson Potter, 304 pp., $30


T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.