Simple to Spectacular
by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman

2000. 420 pages, 250 recipes


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"We soon came to believe that Simple to Spectacular would not only introduce novices to solid, basic recipes but also demonstrate that four-star recipes are often little more than elaborate versions of those basics."


 Lentil Pancakes with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche


 Pasta with Saffron Oil


  Frisee Salad with Roquefort and Walnuts

Best Scrambled Eggs


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I once heard an interview with a musician who had played with Duke Ellington's band for eighteen years. He said they had played the Duke's signature piece "Mood Indigo" every night "…and every night it was different." The same principle applies to gifted and intuitive cooks. Every time they make a dish they can hardly help themselves from doing some inspired improvising.

Simple to Spectacular takes two virtuoso cooks and has them playing off each other as they do riffs on recipes. Jean-Georges Vongrichten is a classically-trained chef celebre with accolade-garnering restaurants in the picky-eater capital of the world, New York City. Mark Bittman is a self-taught cook, a cookbook writer and author of How to Cook Everything (see a review of it in the Cravings archives.) In writing this book the authors' different perspectives and working styles played well off each other. Bittman writes, "Jean-Georges is always looking to make dishes more worthy of a four-star restaurant, and I to make them simple enough to prepare by a single cook in a minimally equipped kitchen."

When the book was in the planning stages, the authors decided the organizing principle would be a basic recipe followed by four progressively more sophisticated variations of it. For example the poultry chapter starts with a recipe for Roast Chicken with Butter and Thyme, then proceeds to a recipe for Roast Chicken with a Ginger Soy Whiskey Glaze, followed by two other variations of the basic recipe, and finally ending with the culminating recipe: Roast Chicken with Truffles. (Truffles figure into a lot of the culminating recipes.)

I had planned to try a basic recipe and follow it through all four variations. I'm sure that would be an excellent way to get to know the language of a recipe and its main ingredients (sort of like the immersion method of leaning a foreign language). Instead I used the hummingbird method alighting on one recipe here, another there. The authors' choice of basic recipes is unorthodox and intriguing. It goes from unexpected - spaetzle, to unsurprising -scrambled eggs.

Let me do a little digression on the subject of scrambled eggs. Here's a dish that's easy to make badly precisely because it's so easy to make (are you following me here?) My guess is that most of us end up making dry, semi-tough scrambled eggs. I admit I was one of those heavy-handed scramblers until I made the authors' Best Scrambled Eggs. Here's their description of how to tell when your scrambled eggs are done: "When the eggs become creamy, with small curds all over - not unlike loose oatmeal - they are ready." With that one shining sentence of clarity, I finally understood the secret to achieving perfect scrambled eggs. ( If only there were more of that kind fresh metaphor-making in recipe writing!)

Simple to Spectacular has some very simple recipes that also qualify as spectacular. The Pasta with Saffron Oil turns out to be a beautiful sunset-orange and tasted wonderful in its own pristine minimalism. (I'm also thinking it would also be a perfect visual/taste pairing with steamed mussels.) The Pissaladiere made with puff pastry is another simple but spectacular number. The salt-of-the-earth ingredients (onions, anchovies, olives) sit on top of a delicate upper-crust (as it were) puff-pastry pillow. Of course, this recipe is only simple if you use store-bought puff pastry. (The authors give a recipe for puff pastry. I thank them for giving us the ok to use the store-bought kind - as long as it's made with butter, not margarine.)

On the other hand, a few recipes which were supposed to be further toward the "spectacular" end of the spectrum were decidedly less than spectacular. The Butternut Squash Soup with Herbed Cheese Dumplings was one of those. The pairing of the soup with the dumplings was like a couple on a blind date: two perfectly nice people who just didn't have much in common.

Each section begins with a sidebar featuring "Keys to Success" relevant to the basic recipe at hand. These are valuable "voice of experience"tips from seasoned pros. For example, in the section on tempura (see? I told you their choices were often unorthodox) the authors tell us that one key to success is to use ice water, not simply cold water.

Simple to Spectacular is uniquely impressive because it is so strong on concept and so intelligent in execution. With the variations-on-a-theme approach, the reader gets a peek into the recipe-making process works: that it often begins with a basic recipe and spins off into other directions. As Bittman writes, "…mastery of basic recipes and an idea of how to vary them lead to almost limitless options."