The New California Cook
by Diane Rossen Worthington
Published by Chronicle Books
392 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Monica Stark
Arguably, the style of cooking we've come to think of as distinctly Californian began in the 1970s, got a real head of steam in the 80s and settled into stride in the 1990s. Inarguably, it had less to do with California the place and more to do with the fact that the Californian climate offered chefs the opportunity to work with interesting fresh ingredients year round.
As time has gone on, this availability factor is something that has become more true for many North Americans. One doesn't have to wait for a two week window in order to prepare dishes with asparagus -- or pomegranates, or Napa cabbage, or.... Increasingly, even big box supermarkets carry a wide variety of fresh -- and often even organic -- produce as well as packaged ingredients from a wide variety of cultures with which to prepare dishes with many international influences.
In her introduction to The New California Cook, award-winning food writer and Cordon Bleu chef sums this up quite neatly:
You don't have to live n California to be a California cook -- what you do need is a California spirit. That means having a sense of adventure about food, an appreciation of the freshest seasonal ingredients, and a desire to reinterpret familiar dishes with unexpected twists.
Worthington does all of these things in The New California Cook, a new and updated edition of a book that was well received on its first publication in 1994.
"In this edition," writes Worthington, "I've adapted some of the old recipes and added new ones." The resulting book is perfectly of the moment, with tired 1980s reflective recipes replaced with new ones more in keeping with our lighter lifestyles here in the new century.
The publisher claims that the over 200 recipes in The New California Cook are timeless, which is not a sentiment I can get behind. Though we tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about it, food -- like clothing and home styles -- is trend and time influenced. And while some of our family recipes are certainly timeless to us, on a cultural level and in the wider world, this is not as true. (If this were true, the cookbook segment of the book market would not be as healthy as it is: nor would as many new offerings show up every season.)
On the other hand, Worthington has done a great job of putting together a book with a classic feel, yet brimming with recipes that feel absolutely contemporary. The author's Garden Risotto, for instance, is a fresh take on a classic that can sometimes seem too rich and heavy in this era. The addition of carrots, snap peas and red bell pepper adds lightness as well as color.
And I adore Worthington's spin on the classic mac and cheese. Here it's called Three-Cheese Macaroni with Caramelized Leeks, Prosciutto, and Peas and it makes for an elegant light main course that even children can be tricked into enjoying. (And, as Worthington points out, with the proscuitto left out, it's suitable for non-meat eaters.)
Another classic revisited, though this one not for vegetarians: Grilled Steak and Potato Salad. In Worthington's words: "The favorite American combination of steak and potatoes is reinterpreted here as a hearty salad." And certainly one that will make a meal memorable.
Most dishes have less of a domestic influence, however. Entrees like Lamb Stew with Dates and Zinfandel; Grilled Steaks with Olivada and Port Wine Sauce; Glazed Orange-Hoisin Chicken and others all bring flavors from around the world within easy reach.
And it is easy: Worthington has seen to that. With few exceptions, the ingredients called for here are available in most supermarkets. More importantly, her instructions are clear and concise with minimal steps for each recipe, though not at the cost of clarity.
Worthington, who lives in Southern California, is the author of 17 cookbooks, including The Cuisine of California, Seriously Simple, American Bistro and many others. | May 2006
Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.