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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review - Everyday Exotic: The Cookbook

"TV chef" has become a loaded term these days, covering everything from latter-day Julia Childs who have made the transition from classically trained chef to media star, to pretty faces whose cooking skills don't extend much past knowing how to open a can of condensed cream of mushroom soup.
Roger Mooking, host of Everyday Exotic on the Cooking Channel, seems closer to the culinary end of that spectrum. He's got some serious credentials, with formal training at the George Brown Culinary Management Program, work experience at the Epic Dining Room in Toronto's Royal York Hotel, and he's the executive chef and co-owner of Nyood Restaurant in downtown Toronto.
The premise of Everyday Exotic is that each episode will show you how to "give everyday weekday meals a fantastic exotic twist with one new ingredient" that's a bit unusual but still easily found at any well-stocked supermarket. So in general, we're not talking here about stuff you have to look up on Google, but they may not be ingredients that the average home cook would typically have on hand - think fresh ginger, pine nuts, lemongrass, celeriac (well OK, I did have to look that one up), and so on.
Mooking's new cookbook, straightforwardly named Everyday Exotic:  The Cookbook, brings together a year's worth of recipes from his show. It starts with a brief explanation of his concept of the "obedient ingredient" - ingredients that most of us may have little experience with, but which are easily mastered in the kitchen to serve our culinary needs. From there, the book moves on thematically, with chapters on "comfort classics," the gamut of meat-based entrees, pasta, one-pot meals, desserts, drinks, and more.
In general, the titles of the dishes tend toward the verbose variety that you see on a lot of higher-end restaurant menus, with "Salt Cod Fritters with Creamy Mustard Sauce & Orange Chili Sauce & Pineapple Chutney served with Shredded Zucchini Salad" being one of the more longwinded examples. Each recipe is illustrated with at least one full-color photograph, and preceded by a brief introduction by Mooking, with cooking tips and advice about using the more exotic ingredients. The index is thorough and easy to use.
I always check to see if there are any pizza recipes, and I found one here, for "buffalo mozzarella and tomato pizza." Essentially, it's a Margherita pizza, topped with canned tomatoes, fresh mozzarella di bufala, and fresh basil. I guess the cheese, made from buffalo milk, qualifies as the exotic ingredient here, but there's no reason you couldn't substitute ordinary fresh mozzarella, or even the low-moisture variety. Mooking's recipe is pretty good - I'll give him points for advising the reader to let the dough rise overnight in the refrigerator if possible and for suggesting the use of a pizza stone. Personally, though, I'd crank my oven up to the max (550 F, for most people), instead of the 450 that he calls for. 
With free recipes so easily available on the internet, cookbooks are becoming rarer in American homes, but I think they still deserve a place in most people's kitchens. What's changed, from my perspective, is that we can be more discriminating these days. Everybody still should own at least one good, basic cookbook, but beyond that, a cookbook should fill some niche. 
Everyday Exotic falls into the latter category. This isn't the book to turn to if you want to know how long it takes to hard-boil an egg, or the correct ratio of water to rice. And while Mooking's instructions are clearly written and easy to follow, this book is generally aimed at readers who have a certain comfort level working in the kitchen, especially if you're going to put together one of his meals, which means preparing several dishes more or less simultaneously. 
But if you've been cooking for a while and find yourself getting bored with the same old stuff, Everyday Exotic is a useful resource, especially if you do much entertaining. It's chock full of recipes for dishes that will wow your guests, yet that aren't necessarily any more difficult to prepare that more traditional fare. After all, what sounds more impressive to you - "lemongrass baked snapper served with ginger butter potatoes and crispy garlic broccoli," or "fish and potatoes"? Even if that's not a major consideration, this is still a good source of ideas for literally spicing up your dinners without a lot of extra effort beyond picking up a few extra items when you're grocery shopping.
Everyday Exotic:  The Cookbook. Paperback. 192 pages. Whitecap Books Ltd. (November 21, 2011)

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