"The Fearless Chef: Innovative Recipes from the Edge of American Cuisine," Andy Husbands and Joe Yonan

Pros: Really nifty ideas; good food; interesting information
Cons: Flavors unbalanced sometimes; far too… exciting
Rating: 2 out of 5

First posted 4/20/2005
Review book courtesy of Adams Media

My husband and I love to cook, but we’ve had little spare time lately. When we have managed to cook, it’s been mostly simple stuff. This weekend we took a four-day weekend to celebrate our anniversary, and we decided to cook up a true feast on Monday. This seemed the perfect opportunity to test out Andy Husbands and Joe Yonan’s “The Fearless Chef: Innovative Recipes from the Edge of American Cuisine.” Reading through the recipes, they look like exactly our kind of food.

Unfortunately, in part this cookbook ended up serving as the perfect example of why you can’t judge a cookbook’s value through reading it alone–you really have to make some of the recipes.

A day of cooking

I’ll take the day in chronological order–I know, this is a bit different from my normal cookbook reviews. We were making a bean recipe from the cookbook; it’s fairly simple in and of itself, but it requires a barbecue sauce from the cookbook, which requires a spice rub from the cookbook. This is a good time to point out that many of these recipes look more complicated than they are. You might see a long list of ingredients and freeze up if you prefer simple recipes, but many of the ingredients are simple seasonings that just get stirred together. This is a gourmet cookbook for people who don’t want to go completely nuts in the kitchen.

First we made the spice rub, then the barbecue sauce, which simmers for a couple of hours and tastes quite delicious. Then we mixed together the bean recipe and tossed it in the oven for its two hours. I should mention that beer goes into both the barbecue sauce and the beans.

Next we made a Southeast Asian salad dressing (I’ve had some wonderful sauces in my time that included fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar) and a soy glaze described as “similar to hoisin but more complex.” The latter gave us an excuse to finally buy some raspberry vinegar, since it called for “any fruit vinegar” as one of the ingredients.

The dressing went over a salad that called for Napa cabbage, ripe mango, chopped roasted peanuts, and bell pepper. The combination of flavors is right up our alley, but the salad, while enjoyable, just wasn’t as good as I expected. The flavor of the dressing gets a bit lost.

The beans came out of the oven. I could tell that most of the flavors were good–the bacon was delicious, the textures were wonderful, and so on. Sadly, however, the beer flavor completely overwhelmed the dish and made it difficult for me to eat. (Adding extra barbecue sauce to your bowl does help, however.)

We put the soy glaze over udon noodles, and it’s one part of the meal that was absolutely perfect. It’s hands-down the best noodle sauce I’ve ever had, sweet, complex, and very flavorful.

Excitement

So far the meal has been good, ranging from okay to fantastic, but the “excitement” I promised hasn’t really materialized. So I’ll skip ahead to dessert.

I have a great love of Bananas Foster, so we decided to make the Jamaican Rum-Baked Bananas, which are described as “a tropical answer to Bananas Foster.” They include a bit of curry, and instead of flaming the alcohol you simply bake the dish in the oven, which sounded easier.

When we mixed things together I found myself triple-checking (literally) the amount of alcohol to go in; 1 cup of dark rum sounded like an awful lot. In fact, I even just checked it again because I still find it hard to believe the recipe called for that much. But hey, we were testing the cookbook, so I figured we should use the recipe as written.

We put everything together and into the oven. We basted it halfway through as stated. Then, at the end, I watched out for the cats and my husband opened up the oven to see if dessert was done.

I heard a whooshing sound and the slam of the oven door. Then I smelled burnt hair. I whipped around, and when my husband turned to face me all I could say was, “umm, you should look in a mirror.” His eyebrows had been trimmed, his eyelashes (despite his glasses) were a rather interesting ragged length, and the front row of his hair above his forehead was shriveled and now brown instead of black. A gout of flame had apparently shot straight out of the oven when he opened it up.

Nothing like that has ever happened to us before.

Dessert was still edible, believe it or not, but once again, just like the beans, the taste of alcohol was so overwhelming that I almost couldn’t taste anything else. And that’s despite the fact that a lot of it probably cooked off in that unexpected conflagration.

We’ve carefully used the oven since then (fire extinguisher nearby!) without incident; as far as we can tell it was entirely the dish we were making–there was nothing wrong with the oven.

The cookbook is well-written. The authors have a personable style. They include handy information about why things are done a certain way (or not). The recipes are laid out well. There aren’t really any photos. The recipes look delicious, but while some of them are every bit as wonderful as they look, others come out tasting unbalanced. And my note on the rum-baked bananas recipe now reads, “Do not make–dangerous. Will set your husband on fire!” That’s enough to make me pretty leery about trying anything else in this cookbook that has alcohol in it, that’s for sure.

It’s a little tough to know how to rate this cookbook. Do I give it a marginal recommendation and a three out of five because some of the good recipes are truly wonderful? Or do I hands-down condemn it because any recipe that nearly starts a kitchen fire trumps any good that might come out of a cookbook?

I guess for now I’ll go for a rating of two. No matter how much I love the soy glaze, it’s hard to get past that fireball.

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