Taste Pure and Simple
by Michel Nischan with Mary Goodbody
photography by Minh + Wass
Published by Chronicle Books
175 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
Michel Nischan came to chefhood, as did many of his peers, with the idea that layers of fat were necessary for concocting superior meals and, especially, sauces. In the early 1990s, in the kitchen of his restaurant Miche Mache in Connecticut, "... I made a confit of baby goat with a combination of bacon and goose fat infused with roasted garlic. cardamom, and fresh bay leaves. I poached lobsters in oil flavored with vanilla and Meyer lemon. I was having a great time going slightly crazy with fat."
Then a new reality kicked in, one that was at odds with his training and his foodie beliefs. His son was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes. "The doctors made it clear that the relationship between Chris's diet and his overall health was crucial for both his daily well-being and his life expectancy."
Many of his restaurant's customers had become his friends, Nischan was surprised by the outpouring of sympathy his patrons gave him: an outpouring they combined with tales of their own health woes. "Who knew? Many of our regulars had diabetes, heart disease, liver and blood disorders."
Nischan says his eyes were opened: discovering that so many people were concerned with eating more healthily, he determined "to offer dishes on the menu that would be healthy and delicious." This led, in a not entirely direct line, to Nischan being brought aboard as the first executive chef at the ultra chic, ultra healthy Heartbeat at the W Hotel in New York.
Along the way, I discarded my belief that fat was vital for flavor. Some writers and chefs insist that the flavor is in the fat, but if you taste a tablespoon of melted butter or chicken fat, you won't get a mouthful of flavor. You will get a mouthful of fat. Fat conducts flavor but it does not provide it. Without question, there is no replacement for cream and butter if you want resplendent creaminess, but there are other ways to make a good sauce.
Finding those other ways became something of a passion. Nischan experimented with vegetables with a natural starch content and discovered that some lent themselves more than others to natural sauciness. His classic techniques also needed rethinking. This led to what to me seems to be his greatest innovations: rich, flavorful sauces that are low in fat or even fat free. Sauces, Nischan felt, were important because "other than their all-important flavor, they provide dimension, color, interest, comfort, and moisture."
All of this background is to explain the motivation and success of Nischan's first cookbook, Taste Pure and Simple. The name is so right that it's almost forgettable: that is, you don't notice until you look inside. And then you know: this is it. This is what all of that futzing around with fresh ingredients and simple tastes has been leading to. Nischan takes everything he knows about classic haute cuisine plus everything anyone ever said about simple and more healthful cooking and, finally, delivers actually simple recipes that fairly glow under Nischan's creativity and inspiration.
The proof, of course, is in Taste Pure and Simple's recipes. The food is unadorned, never overworked, yet not underdone. The flavors are international in nature, but for the sake of flavor, not to be able to call it fusion. And so Nischan brings us a White Bean Dip that he developed because they wanted to be able to serve something luscious and fat free at Heartbeat. "I remembered dunking chunks of crusty country bread in a wonderful white bean soup. I modified the recipe so it became more of a dip than a soup, with an intensified garlicky flavor tamed by the fresh rosemary."
During the holidays, those wanting a strong alternative to the classic fat-laden Thanksgiving and Christmas turkey dinner will be pleased to discover Nischan's recipe for Roast Turkey with Sweet Potato Gravy and Heirloom Squash Dressing. Nischan's Sweet Potato and Root Vegetable Gratin is a revelation: no milk, cream or cheese here. Just root vegetables and a little bit of olive oil. Amazing! Nor has dessert been overlooked: the section is short but incredibly effective with, to my mind, the Sweet Potato Brûlée and an amazing Almond Polenta Cake with Orange Cream stealing the show.
Michel Nischan has, it seems, rethought everything and come out light years ahead. What the chef himself says of the restaurant Heartbeat seems to apply to Taste Pure and Simple, as well: "We had reached the promised land of a new cuisine. Everyone felt it, from our staff to our customers, and it was a very good feeling." Honestly: it tastes pretty good, too. | December 2003
Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.