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Book Review: The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best: 25th Anniversary Celebration of America’s Outstanding Chefs by Kit Wohl

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The beautifully done The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best gives a new meaning to cookbooks. In the foreword, Martha Stewart starts off with “Looking at the pictures and studying the recipes in this beautifully conceived, wonderfully photographed book, one gets an immediate sense of the scope, importance, and influence imposed on the American culinary taste by the many outstanding chefs who are featured.” I certainly agree with her. Each chapter is a tribute to a specific chef and includes recipes.

For the purpose of the review, we are asked to test three recipes. For my first test I chose Patrick O’Connell’s “Carpaccio of Herb-Crusted Baby Lamb with Caesar Salad Ice Cream.” When I first looked at the picture adjoining the recipe I admired how wonderful it looked. When I looked at the recipe the first thing that came to my mind was “it’s complicated.” But, in reality when I put my mind to it, it was not only fun, it also had an end result to die for.

The basil Pesto asked for parsley which isn’t usually added to the traditional recipe but added a nice flavor. The Croutons grapeseed oil infused and the Caesar dressing used red wine vinegar and of course anchovy. The lamb loin was crusted with a combination of oregano, thyme, basil and tarragon – 1/2 cup of each. After it was seared and cooled, I rolled it in plastic wrap and froze it for several hours – long enough to slice into super-thin slices. Now for the Caesar Salad Ice Cream – yes, I know, it doesn’t sound that appetizing but I have to tell you, it was wonderful! The ice cream contained the usual ingredients but I added Parmigiano-Reggiano, anchovy fillets, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and Dijon mustard. This mixture was frozen in an ice cream maker. When plated, this combination not only looked wonderful but the dish itself was scrumptious. Although everything tasted great, the ice cream was what topped it all.

For my second test I made Alfred Portale’s “Beet Salad with Mango, Feta, Orange, and Mint.” Using roasted red and golden beets and combining them with cubes of feta, orange segments, mango and a lot of coarsely chopped mint made a delightful and colorful combination. Topping this with a vinaigrette of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh orange juice made a delightful salad. Although it is probably intended to use used as part of a course, we used it as a lunch dish by adding crusty rolls and making a meal of it. The flavors melded very nicely and this is one recipe that was easy to make, and will be made again.

The third recipe I tested was Rick Bayless’ “Green Herb Ceviche with Cucumber.” I’ve never made ceviche before but love to order it in a restaurant. The homemade seasoning was combined with lime juice and added to the cubed sashimi-grade ahi tuna, Alaskan halibut and small pickling cucumbers. Refrigeration is only 1/2 hour. At that time I added cubed avocado and dished into martini glasses. Served with high quality tortilla chips the appetizer was a great hit at a dinner party. Some would have had seconds if I had any left-overs. Need I say more? This was the best ceviche I’ve had! (By the way, the fresh herbs make the ceviche very green.

As I perused the rest of The James Beard Foundation’s Best of the Best I noted other recipes I will be making. Granted, some of them look complicated but I am sure well worth spending the extra time when you have special guests coming for a dinner party. As I looked at the ingredients, I did not see anything that couldn’t be purchased locally, especially if the stores have specialty items. As Martha Stewart said, this book is “beautifully conceived” and would make a stunning gift to the chef within or any culinary enthusiast. Mine found its place on the kitchen island.

(Reviewed by Irene Watson for Reader Views)

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