The Figs Table
by Todd English and Sally Sampson

1998. 235 pages, 100 + recipes.

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On what Todd English considers "must-have pizza equipment": "A strong mind and a strong will. You have to be hardheaded and brave. Your tendency will always to be to put more on top than you should. You must be able to hold back with toppings but not with the olive oil."

Portobello, Porcini, and Button Mushroom Puree
Roasted Carrot and Feta Salad

-Fig and Prosciutto Pizza


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It was a case of instant attraction. When I first came across The Figs Table in the cookbook section of Cody's, I knew I wouldn't be leaving the store without it. Some cookbooks are like that: they throw your immediate-gratification impulses into high gear. The Figs Table by Todd English and Sally Sampson makes a great first impression. Its layouts shine with clarity and quiet artfulness; its velvety smooth pages are the cashmere of the paper world; the food photos are so lush that even a simple glass jar filled with chick peas looks seductive; its ergonomic design assures you that the book will lie flat on the kitchen counter no matter what page you open to (a nice change from all those cookbooks you have to arm wrestle to get them to stay open to the right page).

As I scanned the recipes, they practically elbowed each other out of the way, vying for my attention. I fantasized about the Roasted Carrot and Feta Salad until I came across the Sweet Potato Polenta which consumed my thoughts until I became fixated on the White Chocolate Challah Bread Pudding. What's served up in Figs Table is based on what Todd English has created for his stylish Boston eatery called Figs.

My cooking relationship with Figs Table got off to a promising start. I first made the Portobello, Porcini, and Button Mushroom Puree, whose mushroom character was thrilling in its Heathcliff-ian intensity. Next I made the Roasted Carrot and Feta Salad, a bright combo of feta-tang and carrot-y sweetness. I had a feeling that Figs Table would have a permanent place on my cookbook shelf.

Alas, things begin to go sour. I felt let down by the White Bean Soup; even though it had a combination of high-flavor ingredients it tasted curiously bland. On the other hand, the Roasted Pear Quarters with Frisee, Prosciutto, and Balsamic Glaze had too many flavors going on (though it tasted pretty good). When I was ready to try the pizza recipe (Figs is famous for its pizza) I felt shunned because I lacked the right kitchen equipment: one of those big serious mixers with a paddle attachment. Those of us home cooks who lack this kind of mixer are blithely told to call our local pizzeria and "see if they'll sell you some of their dough".

I began to have other problems with the book. For all the care and creativity and money that was put into the book's artful photos and glossy paper, the publishers and authors seemed to have run out of money or interest when it came to providing the eagle-eyed editing that is a must in a cookbook. In the Cranberry Biscotti recipe we are instructed to put cold butter and sugar in a large bowl and "blend until light". I think it is scientifically impossible to render cold butter and sugar to a "light" texture. Furthermore, we aren't even told what tool to use for this impossible task- a spoon? an electric beater? a cement mixer? I have never seen a biscotti recipe calling for cold butter. I ended up making the recipe with my own corrections, using room-temperature butter beaten by hand with the sugar. The results were delicious. Still, I was annoyed that I had to correct the book's mistakes.

Ultimately, my experience with The Figs Table reminded me of that classic dating scenario: you fall for a wildly handsome guy only to discover after a few dates that his personality is less compelling than his looks. Of course, one's taste in cookbooks is about as subjective as one's taste in a mate. I'm sure there are those who will find long-term fulfillment with The Figs Table. As for me, I'm ready to move on.