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Alfred Portale's 12 Seasons Cookbook

By Alfred Portale with Andrew Friedman (Broadway)

Alfred Portale's 12 Seasons Cookbook

Leave it to Alfred Portale to come up with the Big Bang theory of the culinary world. After all, the man has always been an achiever. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America, the country's best cooking school. Soon, he co-owned and cooked at Gotham Bar and Grill—consistently named one of New York's top restaurants, and won the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Chef, New York, as well as the coveted IACP Julia Child Award for his first cookbook, Alfred Portale's Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook.

Portale's theory is that May is the Big Bang of the culinary year. "If a chef rather than an astronomer had devised the calendar, the year would begin not in January, but in May, when the vegetables that appear are a cook's dream come true," writes Portale, as he kicks off his own 12-season cookbook with May. "May is the time of life beginning anew, of optimism and promise, and this spirit is revealed in the fragile shade of green that infuses the entire landscape-a pale, expectant hue that announces tender young buds and shoots as they sprout into being. Not coincidentally, this color also defines many of the foods of May, such as pea shoots, fava beans and asparagus—many of which rank among my favorites of any month."

Add to this list ingredients like ramps (sweet, wild leeks) and fiddleheads (the shoots of ostrich ferns), which appear oh-so-briefly each May, and you've got the building blocks for Portale's theory and new book. He believes that each month is a season unto itself and, therefore, deserves its own scrutiny and recipes. Needless to say, this brings the freshness that is the hallmark of the cooking of all top chefs to even higher and more focused levels.

What this deliciously translates into are recipes like Bosc pear carpaccio with microgreens, pecorino Romano and balsamic vinegar in January; goat cheese salad with beets, braised fennel and a citrus vinaigrette in April; and duck with roasted peaches and baby turnips in August.

Portale's recipes sound gourmet—and they are. However, like most of the world's best chefs and best cuisines, their style is simple, deriving exceptional flavor from the perfect blend of their ultra-fresh ingredients rather than from sophisticated cooking techniques. The aforementioned peaches, for instance, which add an exceptional sweetness and balance the fatty quality of the duck, are simply peeled and pitted, then sprinkled with sugar and roasted for release of their juices and an exquisite caramelization.

What's also exquisite is Portale's infectious enthusiasm and the virtual poetry that flows from him as a result. His book is about much more than just eating fiddlehead ferns in May. It's about getting spiritually in tune with the "monthly seasons," too. In his "January: A Fresh Start" chapter, he writes: "Gastronomically speaking, January is a time of reckoning and readjustment...For gourmands, this is an annual turning point. This unabashed feeding frenzy that defines December looms in one's memory as a nirvana of sorts, but the need to rein it in is indisputable come the New Year. The obvious problem is that it's challenging to eat healthfully without giving in to the bland." That's not a problem in this book, which—when taken in whole with Gozen Koshida's stunning color photography of the seasons and the recipes—becomes a perennial masterpiece rather than a seasonal advice guide.

Lemon Risotto with Spot Prawns
Mango Sorbet

(Updated: 10/30/08 SB)

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