Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cookbook Review: The Yankee Chef

By: Michelle Hershman

I liked the look of this cookbook as soon as I opened it. Sure, it was a little bigger and heavier than I usually prefer, but it had a fun layout with tons of recipes, notes, pictures and stories. It’s the kind of cookbook you can read. The assortment of Yankee recipes gives you a feel for the Northeast while the side notes teach you about the history of the region and its food. For instance, I learned that, contrary to today, lobsters were once a poor man’s meal because they were so abundant on the New England coast. They were actually used as fertilizer and indentured servants stipulated in their contracts that they were to be fed lobster no more than once a week by their employers. Most people nowadays would love to get lobster once a month, if not once a week.

As you would expect, author Chef Jim Bailey included quite a few seafood recipes from Maryland Crab Cakes to Lobster Thermidor to Yankee Seafood Bisque. There are poultry and beef recipes that you’ll recognize like Classic Yankee Beef Stew, Yankee Pot Roast and Beer Can Chicken. However, there are also recipes that I never knew originated or were prevalent in the Yankee region such as American Chop Suey and Apple Curry Chicken.

There are so many classic recipes in this cookbook that I couldn’t decide which one to test - so I tested three:   Maryland Crab Cakes, Shrimp Scampi, and Broccoli with Cashews. The scampi recipe actually called for crab meat, but my grocery store was running low so I saved the crab meat for the crab cakes and swapped in shrimp.

Before I began cooking, I thought this book could do no wrong. However, as soon as I started reading the recipes and getting my ingredients ready, some fatal flaws manifested.

First of all, the recipes do not specify the amount that will be made or the prep time.  I had no idea whether the Maryland Crab Cake recipe would make four crab cakes or 16 crab cakes. I halved the recipe because of my lack of crab meat and squeezed out four decent-sized cakes which means the original recipe should make about eight. However, I didn’t realize until halfway through the recipe that I had to chill the crab cakes for an hour before cooking. Sure, I should have read the recipe the whole way through before commencing, but, it would have been nice if Chef Bailey had included a prep time for impatient cooks like myself.

Second, the recipes are really simple. On one hand, that’s a good thing. On another hand, it would be nice to have a bit more instruction. The scampi recipe says to cook the garlic until it browns. It doesn’t give you a timeframe nor does it tell you how brown the garlic should be. Then the recipe instructs you to add the rest of the ingredients but, again, gives no timeframe. Are you supposed to sauté the shrimp for five minutes in the white wine or just splash it in and move on? No clue.

These two oversights are fine if you’re an experienced cook, but, if you’re a beginner you may want more instruction. I consider myself a fairly experienced cook so I soldiered on.

The verdict? The Broccoli with Cashews – a seemingly simple dish – was the surprise winner. Not only did the toasted cashews and lemon rind give the broccoli a bright, nutty flavor, but it was incredibly easy to make. The Maryland Crab Cakes had a good flavor but they didn’t hold together. This may have been my fault because I used jump lump crabmeat instead of regular crab meat, but it also would have helped if the recipe had been more specific. Finally, the scampi… I was unimpressed – the recipe contained too much red pepper and Worcestershire sauce which overtook the light lemony flavor I like in a scampi recipe.

Based on my experiences, I would say that this book is a great jumping off point to the recipes of the Northeast. Some may be hit or miss but they can easily be adapted and improved, especially if you are a more experienced cook who is willing to play around. So, if you’re looking for some Yankee inspiration, give it a try!

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