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Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking

Masterful Combination of Form and Function

By Charlie Palmer with Judith Choate, William Morrow

Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking

Coffee table cookbooks are high risk. They're typically driven by big names and built for looks. It's rare to find one that does a masterful job of combining form and function. They're usually beautiful and aesthetically mouthwatering with a handful of realistic, do-able recipes (if you're lucky). And, they're expensive for both publisher and purchaser. So, congratulations to any of those large-scale books that successfully combine awesome looks with a great cooking experience.

So what, then, inspired us to look back more than three years to "Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking?" We were trying to understand what happened with his most recent effort, one of these so-called coffee table cookbooks entitled "The Art of Aureole" (released at the end of 2003). How could one book ("Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking") written by the same magnificent talent (Palmer and co-author Judith Choate) win us over so completely, while the other ("The Art of Aureole") had us grasping for kind words.

Let's talk about the good things first. "Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking" is something you'll want to keep handy for everyday delicious cooking. Mega-chef/restaurateur Palmer's introduction reveals that family life, including four sons, led him to develop this sensible book filled with updated comfort and bistro-style foods that lend themselves to everyday cooking. Dishes are at once bold, sophisticated, impressive and uncomplicated. Best of all, they taste great, they're easy to prepare and respectful of hectic schedules and fresh ingredients.

The Art of Aureole

By Charlie Palmer with Judith Choate, Ten Speed Press

What is Charlie Palmer's definition of "casual cooking?" How about a collection of flawless soups like Charlie's Famous Corn Chowder, The Best Butternut Squash Soup, and a toothsome, dairy-less Mushroom Soup. You may see no reason to venture further when a loaf of good bread and a bowl of soup is enough. But salads are perfect companions when they're Roasted Wild Mushroom Salad with shavings of ricotta salata, or Composed Salad of Fennel, Oven-Dried Pears, and Maytag Blue Cheese dressed with nothing more than olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Waldorf Salad is often dismissed and underappreciated. Palmer's is memorable.

Sandwiches are all fun: Tomato-Goat Cheese Melts, an exquisite Lobster Club Sandwich, Crispy Oysters and Citrus Mayonnaise on a Bulkie (that's a roll)...Tuna Melts. We didn't find a recipe that didn't sound or taste delicious. Palmer's Vegetables and Sides are big and bright, like Roasted Beets and Garlic, or Carrots in Guinness. They are decadent, like Corn Pudding with Chanterelles and Shaved Parmesan, and they are hearty and rustic, like Cider-Baked Winter Squash and Apples.

You may be completely full by the time you reach the main meals: pastas, poultry, seafoods, and meats; but don't skip them over. Palmer provides plenty of accessible entrées for any night of the week, and for any finicky palate. If you're not suited for Linguine with Eggplant Ragu, try Baked Lemon Chicken, a Perfect Pot Roast, or Lamb Shanks with Tomato, Lentils, and Olives. Stuffed Roasted Pork Loin with Spicy Applesauce is filled with everything you love, like apples, butternut squash and pistachios, and it makes great leftovers.

Fish dishes range from Whole Roasted Salmon with New Potatoes and Leeks, to Sautéed Soft-Shell Crabs with Brown Butter. If you've never attempted pan-roasted lobster, try Palmer's version, served with an aromatic, spiced basmati and quinoa pilaf.

You can guess what's on the dessert list. Lemon Meringue Pie, Fresh Fruit Cobbler, Strawberry Shortcake…Pineapple Upside-down Cake. These are good, solid recipes worth holding onto.

So this is how a chef like Charlie Palmer dines at the home table. And it was kind of him to help us out with our own regular cooking challenges. There's nothing here out of reach or beyond reason—"Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking" is a strong, everyday cookbook that makes home cooking fun again.

Which brings us back to Palmer's coffee table book, "The Art of Aureole": the reason we happily opened "Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking." "The Art of Aureole" contains "50 innovative recipes showcased in glorious double-page photographs and an equally effusive design." That may be true, but there are a few details to consider. The 50 recipes are superimposed on black and white negative backgrounds of food shots. The recipes are printed in white and tilted diagonally across the pages. The effect is so jarring and disorienting that, frankly, the food is no fun. It is hard work to find anything, let alone follow ingredient lists and instructions. The color photos are indeed glorious. It's just that the food itself is strewn about haphazardly, on such a scale that it is rendered ugly.

Such a shame when you realize there are treasures you might be inclined to pursue if the difficult were not rendered impossible in the text. These are not easy recipes to begin with—Shiitake Veloute with Peanut Sabayon, Truffled Chicken for Two with Truffled Gnocchi, Halibut Cheeks with Beluga Lentils and Sorrell Puree, and Five-Spice Langoustines with Roasted Watermelon. These are esoteric compositions that deserve to be taught with a little kindness, and presented with care.

But, as the book states in the introduction, ""The Art of Aureole" focuses on portraits of food from a conceptual viewpoint." If only these portraits deserved time in your kitchen, or space on your coffee table. The beauty is all in "Charlie Palmer's Casual Cooking."

Reviewed by Kevin Schoeler

(Updated: 11/06/08 SB)

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