catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 2 :: 2005.01.28 — 2005.02.10


A casual cookbook

I don?t have cable television, which is probably a good thing. If I did, I can pretty much guarantee I?d be addicted to the Food Channel. Every time I visit my great aunt, who does have cable, we spend hours exclaiming over the chefs and their dishes and all the glorious ways ingredients can be combined while we inexplicably grow steadily more ravenous. It?s a fine way to get inspired to eat.

Luckily for me, Michael Chiarello is a chef who had a show on public television a few years ago, so I was able to catch him once in a while on Saturday mornings. More than most chefs, he has a philosophy I love. As he cooks and explains and pairs his recipes with wine from California?s Napa Valley, he talks about the people he?ll be eating with, family and friends he doesn?t want to dazzle or entertain. Rather, foremost in his mind is his desire to welcome them with sights and smells and flavors that will make them feel as if they?ve finally come home.

On one show, Chiarello made Grilled Mozzarella and Tomato Panini as an appetizer?lovely, heart-warming grilled sandwiches?which he cut into smallish triangles and stacked on a vertical serving platter with multiple levels of different-sized shelves. One or two of the sandwiches tumbled off the tray and onto the counter, and he slapped them back together and re-stacked them, completely unconcerned with their final appearance. While he was using an unusual tray that was attractive, his goal was to entice his guests into grabbing a sandwich without feeling shy about it. How many times have you been invited to a dinner party where everyone stood around, eyeing the tray of perfectly appointed appetizers and felt too reserved to dig in? I would much rather be in Chiarello?s kitchen, where the food is designed to be eaten?immediately and messily.

Most of the time, when I rifle through cookbooks, even if the food looks delicious, I feel intimidated by the chefs? complicated techniques and high-maintenance recipes. Michael Chiarello, however, has a cookbook called Casual Cooking: Wine Country Recipes for Family and Friends

that I love and use regularly. Chiarello devotes part of this cookbook to what he calls staples for the pantry: basic ingredients to have on hand so meals can be made readily and easily, but with more nutrition than a frozen pizza. For instance, he has a recipe for Roasted Garlic Thyme Butter that is to die for. Once you?ve made this flavored butter, you shape it into a log, enclose it in foil and twist the ends so it looks like a giant Tootsie Roll. He writes,

You?ll never run out of ideas for this seasoned butter, which you can keep in the freezer and slice as you need. I love it on mashed potatoes and tucked into baked potatoes, or as a finishing butter for risotto, swirled in at the end. You can also toss it with fresh pasta and Parmesan on one of those evenings when you don?t feel like cooking, or let a nugget of it melt on a grilled New York steak. Imagine how good a burger would be if the toasted bun were spread with this butter.

Imagine? I?m drooling already with the possibilities. Although my log of Roasted Garlic Thyme Butter looks slightly more smushed and crinkled in its foil wrap than his does, it?s every bit as delicious and versatile as he says. And I have a feeling if he saw my version, he wouldn?t bother giving me tips on how to get it to look more like his. I think he?d simply be pleased that I made it and that I use it when friends have gathered around our table. His cookbook is full of such recipes and ideas. For anyone who enjoys cooking and needs a little inspiration, Michael Chiarello?s Casual Cooking is a pleasure to have.

You can find the cookbook as well as recipes and essays on Chiarello?s website. Chiarello now has two television shows: Napastyle with Michael Chiarello on the Fine Living Network and Easy Entertaining with Michael Chiarello on the Food Network. If you watch either show, don?t tell me, because remember, I don?t have cable and envy is a sin.

Marsena Konkle is a novelist who sometimes spends as much time puttering in the kitchen as she does writing. Her husband doesn?t complain, even when the puttering has proved so disastrous that he takes the skillet out of her hands and gently suggests a trip to Taco Bell. Her first novel, What Life Comes To, will be published in Spring 2006. She is also managing editor of Ransom Fellowship?s publications.

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