The Golden Door Cookbook
by Michel Stroot

1997. 200 recipes;300 pages.

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"Don't spend hours with calculators and thick books that list every gram and calorie for specific foods. Instead, concentrate on eating sensibly and seasonally..."-Michel Stroot

Marinated Tofu with Basil and Red Onion Glaze

Oatmeal Cookies

-Chicken Breasts with Peanut-Ginger-Honey Sauce

-Moussaka with Tzatziki

-Orange Sunburst Cookies

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The Golden Door Cookbook is probably as close as I'll ever get to the Golden Door Spa, that famed Southern California oasis of wealth and well being.

Author Michel Stroot has been the Golden Door's executive chef since 1974. He understands the secret of successful spa cuisine: to make the diners feel indulged and stimulated while eating, and to make them feel sated and virtuous afterwards. That's definitely how I felt after I ate Stroot's Moussaka with Tzatziki (a yogurt-cucumber sauce). It had the right balance of richness and tang of a traditional moussaka without the usual heaviness. Although too labor intensive by my standards to be a regular week- night dinner, it would make a good company dish.

Speaking of labor intensive, many of these dishes are. It's one thing to be a Golden Door guest enjoying the complex flavors and textures of the dishes when someone else is doing the cooking, serving, and clean up. It's another thing to be a home cook staring down a list of 30 ingredients. Stroot claims that "each touch of spice and sprig of herb adds to the flavor of the food". While I appreciate his conscientious care in re-creating his dishes down to the last pinch of basil, I wish he had pared down recipes for those of us working without kitchen help other than recalcitrant family members. Stroot glibly claims that "nothing could be easier" than the Chicken Breast with Peanut-Ginger-Honey Sauce which calls for 26 ingredients and took me 45 minutes to make! The results were very good, but not much different from other decent chicken-peanut-sauce dishes I've had. And the dish's fat/calorie count, while not porcine, was more than I'd expect coming from a spa kitchen. (Each recipe is accompanied by a breakdown of its nutritional parts.)

Stroot's creativity goes positively baroque when he gets into the fish section. His flavor layering makes his fish dishes the kind of show-stoppers you'd find on the menu of a stylish restaurant: creations such as Monkfish with Saffron Tarragon and Tomatoes over Spelt Pasta or Scallops with Sweet Corn-Curry Sauce and Citrus Couscous with Apricots. But these intricacies seem a little out of date and out of step with the upcoming culinary trend of less-is-more.

I had the most success with the book's cookie recipes. Unlike eating most low-fat cookies which leave me wishing I had forgone virtue and gone ahead and eaten their high-fat counterparts, my cookie cravings were happily satisfied by Stroot's offerings. His Oatmeal Cookies were soft and oat-y, although they tended to fall apart (which made it easier to convince myself that I was just eating edges of cookies rather than entire cookies.) The Orange Sunburst Cookies were substantial and citrus-y. I'd never guess they contained only two grams of fat.

I imagine this book would be most appreciated by someone who has actually been to the Golden Door, someone who has experienced the herbal wraps, the pre-dawn hikes, the iced fruit tea served in the Wisteria Lounge overlooking the soothing Zen-like gardens. Under those circumstances The Golden Door Cookbook would be a nice souvenir to take home, and cooking from it might re-kindle that spa-generated sense of well-being. (It would also help to have a personal chef doing the cooking.)

Using the cachet of the Golden Door to help sell this book presents a problem for the non-initiate. The casual mentions of the low-key luxury and the impeccable service along with the photos of this pristine haven only rubs in the fact that I am not there, but here in my kitchen with the floor that needs re-sanding, the stove that doesn't work quite right and the phone that rings too often. I am reminded of those T-shirts that read: "My parents went to...(name of some enviable vacation spot)...and all I got was this T-shirt".