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John Ash

Cooking One on One

by John Ash
(Clarkson Potter, March 2004)

John Ash: Cooking One on One

For many reasons, we were lucky to catch John Ash during his recent swing through town. One, because he put together the dinner menu and we feasted on six courses that included radicchio soup with apple wood-smoked cheddar and rack of lamb with sun dried cherry sauce and parsnip chips. The cheese course was an impressive assortment of California's best, including Triple Crème Brie from Petaluma, Bandage Cheddar from Modesto, Northern Gold from Orland, and Gouda from Winchester. Another reason was that Bonterra Vineyards paired each course with great organic wines, including a spectacular Muscat conclusion with the cheeses.

Dinner was superb and the wines were delightful, but with Ash in attendance, new cookbook in hand, the evening was perfect. It’s always interesting to hear the latest from this influential chef—he’s been culinary director at Fetzer since 1990 and now at Bonterra, which practices both biodynamic and organic farming; it’s a natural match to his “taking care of mother earth” philosophy. His calendar is filled with teaching, training and consulting, television, radio, and an ongoing role with his eponymous restaurant, John Ash & Company, located in Santa Rosa. It’s a dizzying list and a lot of work but someone’s got to do it—and we’re glad it’s John Ash.

The title of his new cookbook is a mouthful, but aptly named—John Ash: cooking one on one: private lessons in simple, contemporary food from a master teacher. And that’s what it’s all about. The tome follows his award-winning, definitive wine country cooking book, From the Earth to the Table (1995), and American Game Cooking, first published in 1991. We’re glad to have John Ash, epicure, oenophile, and teacher back for another lesson.

John Ash: cooking one on one instructs in a most pleasant form—self-contained lessons that yield delicious, successful results and culinary accomplishment for anyone who takes this book for a spin. Ash says, “it is not a kitchen primer and it’s not ‘the only cookbook you’ll ever need.’ It is my highly personal take on the very contemporary food that you already love, approached in the most unintimidating way possible.” It is also about fresh ingredients and foods that are deep in both flavor and character—a John Ash trademark.

Ash provides three types of lessons, themed around flavor makers (such as salsas and marinades), techniques and variations on main ingredients. So, you’ll learn first how to make a simple salsa fresca, then variations like smoked salsa; and finally, how to extend the sauce into a dish like Grilled Marinated Shrimp with Salsa Fresca. Sure, Cucumber and Mint Salsa sounds fabulous, but it’s divine when paired with Grilled Lamb Chops.

The same approach goes for vinaigrettes (Roasted Eggplant Salad with Charred Tomato Vinaigrette), pestos (Mussels baked with Asian Pesto--based on basil, mint, cilantro and cashews), marinades and sauces. The possibilities are endless when the foundation is strong and the pairings, wise. A corn puree, nothing too complicated, takes on new meaning when expanded into Seared Scallops with Corn Cream—a rich and sensuous dish.

Technique Lessons begin with stocks, progressing to soups, then on to oven-drying, which includes useful charts for drying fruits and vegetables as well as recipes for dishes like Oven-Dried Cauliflower, Corn and Red Pepper Risotto, and Oven-Dried Pineapple and Plums with Rosemary Syrup and Cardamom Ice Cream. We get compelling reasons to learn Pot-Roasting and Grilling, along with the tools and incentives to spend time perfecting our soufflés (everyone should have a solid chocolate soufflé in their repertoire).

Main Ingredient Lessons cover chicken, dried beans, seafoods and even soy foods. Ash’s Sauté of Chicken Breast with Vinegar is a flawless take on a bistro favorite; Salmon Steamed with Black Beans is a hit; and his Tofu and Noodle Salad with Peanut Sauce is another reason we’ll eat meatless more often. Desserts, as promised, are simple and sophisticated…Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Raspberry Sauce is luscious and, again, Ash’s Individual Molten Chocolate Truffle Cakes are another must-have in your repertoire.

John Ash: cooking one on one contains more than just lessons and recipes. It is infused with the author’s passion for food and wine, respect for sources and quality, and reverence for the earth itself. You’ll want to read every introduction, every headnote and every recipe note. Otherwise you might overlook some new tidbit of learning—did you know that the color of miso is directly related to its flavor intensity? White miso is milder and sweeter whereas darker varieties are more robust. The pages devoted to wine provide useful information for both cooking and pairing.

Sure, even Ash himself has said this is not the definitive kitchen manual. But this is definitely a book to keep around the kitchen. The food is classy, interesting and delicious; the instruction is expert and, from cover-to-cover, John Ash: cooking one on one is a friendly book that your guests will thank you for using.

Reviewed by Kevin Schoeler

(Updated:11/11/08 SB)

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