Donna Hay: Off the Shelf: Cooking From the Pantry
Technique. It's Always About Technique.
The more cookbooks I examine methodically for the website, the more I'm beginning to realize that the main problem with most books is the description of How. How to prep the ingredients, how to assemble them, how to brown or broil or sauté -- the problem is very often a faulty description of How. This book is no different. The ideas are fantastic and the food is often excellent, but as I was cooking from Off the Shelf, I realized that I was doing a mental exercise about "next time." "Next time I'll make sure to slice the parsnips smaller so they cook faster." "Next time I'll add some garlic to this to make it zestier." "Next time I'll melt the chocolate with hot cream so that it doesn't seize." That's a lot of "Next times" -- shouldn't the recipes work this time? The very first time?
Unfortunately, in Off the Shelf the answer to that question, very often, is no. I had issues with the technique in very nearly every recipe that I tested. Most of these were not egregious; for example, I thought that a couple of small changes to Honey and Mustard Baked Pork would greatly improve the end results. Similarly, Balsamic and Tomato Roast Chicken only required a couple of small changes. But as I continued to cook from this book, I noticed that there were a lot of these changes that seemed necessary, and that a lot of the recipes would be really good if: If there were some garlic in it (Spinach and Ricotta Baked Pasta), if it were spicier (Harissa and Yogurt Baked Chicken), if it were prepared in a bowl instead of a food processor (Food Processor Cookies). That's a lot of adjustments to be making to what are essentially very simple recipes. What's the deal?
I can't actually say what the deal is, of course, but if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that oversimplification is a pitfall that a lot of experienced chefs fall into. For a food professional who works in a kitchen every day, it seems to be easy to become blasé about writing instructions. I don't think that Donna Hay is trying to confuse her readers; it's just that she's very confident and has become casual about how to get stuff done in the kitchen. And that comes through in the recipes, in a sort of breeziness that can lead to frustration on the part of the cook at home. I also have to wonder if the recipes were developed in a professional kitchen, as opposed to a home kitchen. The differences in equipment may explain some of the discrepancies I saw in the photos of the food. I believe that there's no way to achieve the deeply browned and charbroiled appearance of the Harissa and Yogurt Baked Chicken in a standard oven. But it's possible that this recipe was created in a restaurant or other professional kitchen with a high-powered oven that puts out a whole lot more BTUs than your Kenmore at home. That could maybe explain why my chicken and the book's chicken look so different from each other. Or maybe the food stylist just cheated. Hard to say.
It's not all bad; there are several things about this book that are excellent, and that I'd love to see more of in every cookbook. There is a photo of every single recipe. That alone makes me love the book, even with all of its problems. There's just no substitute for a picture of what the finished dish should look like, and even though the photos in Off the Shelf are sometimes rather different from what my own finished recipes ended up looking like, I still really appreciate having the picture to refer to.
Another good thing: Off the Shelf has a page of "Short Order" ideas at the end of each chapter, with quick and easy recipes for extremely simple dishes, such as penne with cherry tomatoes, or spiced tofu, or pear galettes on frozen puff pastry. Jacques Pépin has a similar list of ideas in his outstanding Fast Food My Way, and it's a wonderful resource in both books. On nights when you just can't come up with ideas for something to cook, but you don't want to settle for a can of soup or a plain old sandwich, these quick recipe ideas are a godsend. I cooked a couple of Donna Hay's "Short Order" recipes (Simple Zucchini Pasta and Garlic Roast Asparagus) and they were excellent. Some of the problems I had with other recipes in the book might be due to Donna Hay using the same quick instructions for all of her recipes, even the ones that need a bit more explication.
There are some very good recipes that work well without any "next time" mutterings: Green Curry Chicken with Sweet Potato and Pasta with Pumpkin and Sage Brown Butter were both very good, and needed no tweaking. Too many other recipes did, however. It's becoming a common refrain from me: I want cookbooks that don't have issues with How, or Next Time, or If.