Pros: Beautiful production value; scrumptious recipes; flawlessly kitchen tested; wonderful menus
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 1/14/2005
Review copy courtesy of Workman Publishing
We love to cook for special occasions, so I was eager for a look at “Celebrate! 43 Celebrations–350 Recipes” by Sheila Lukins, one of the authors of the “Silver Palate Cookbook,” which I also enjoyed. We usually prefer to come up with our own menus, but we love having special recipes around with which to celebrate birthdays and other holidays. Having played with this cookbook, however, I can safely say I’d be more than happy to use a number of these menus wholesale!
This cookbook covers a nifty range of special occasions–much better than that in any other cookbook I’ve seen! First you have some of the traditional holidays: New Year’s, Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter Sunday, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas.
Then you have a few less-often-seen occasions, including, wonder of wonders, more than one non-Christian menu (“Sheila’s Seder” and “Chanukah, Festival of Lights”), both Father’s and Mother’s days, a Midsummer Night’s Feast, Halloween, Labor Day, Super Bowl, Academy Awards, Christmas Eve, and more.
As if that wasn’t enough, there are celebration menus that have nothing to do with holidays at all. Like the “congratulations on a new job” menu, the “Saturday night with friends” menu, the “Springtime bridal shower” menu, a menu for a big family reunion, a birthday bash, a housewarming, a cozy dinner for two, and more. 43 in all, as the title says.
I think I’d sort of describe the cooking style in this book as classic with a twist. I’ll try to explain what I mean. For example, many of the soups are leek-based, a sort of classic style that I don’t see quite as often any more. And many of the dishes are traditional in one way or another, or have been around a long time. Ms. Lukins brings her own wonderful touch to these dishes, however, and sometimes turns them in unusual directions. She adds fennel and yogurt to the Waldorf salad. She makes her Easter Bonnet Ham with a ginger and garlic glaze. Her fried soft-shell crabs use panko instead of bread crumbs. Her slaw includes orange zest and mint. She never gets too outrageous, but she’s also never boring. I think she walks the perfect middle ground to ensure that this cookbook will appeal to as many people as possible, which is a tough thing to do!
But let’s look at a couple of menus so you have some idea of what to expect.
St. Patrick’s Day Feast: Potato leek soup, lemon-mustard broiled flounder, corned beef and cabbage with horseradish cream and Cumberland sauce, a bouquet of root vegetables (roasted), Irish soda bread rolls, pistachio ice-cream sundae with silky chocolate sauce, little oatmeal cookies, and Irish coffee. She includes a few words on presentation, such as noting that while green is appropriate for the color scheme there’s no need to go wild, and that simply using a tablecloth with green accents would do. She gives suggestions for music, drinks, and a few extras (for example, she lists Irish coffee mugs or glasses and an ice cream maker here).
Sheila’s Seder: Apple walnut haroseth, salmon croquettes with remoulade sauce, holiday chopped liver, chicken soup with Marci’s fluffy matzoh balls, rosy pot roast, Sheila’s tzimmes, fresh asparagus with shallots and herbs, flourless chocolate cake with fresh blackberry sauce, and morning-after matzoh brei. Sheila includes some notes on traditional settings, and includes the usual music and wine suggestions.
The recipes in here range from simple to complex. Given how elegant and impressive the menus look, however, the recipes are by-and-large surprisingly easy and simple. It’s clear Ms. Lukins understands that when you’re cooking for a bunch of people, it helps if things are as simple as possible.
Recipes are laid out clearly and easy to read. Steps are short and numbered so you won’t lose your place. Notes are often included as to whether or not recipes or parts of recipes can be reheated or frozen or otherwise made in advance.
What’s most impressive to me, however, is how uniformly delicious and painless these recipes are. Every single one we’ve made has come out absolutely perfectly, without a hitch or confusion. Every single one has been completely delicious. The haroseth was fantastic, with its subtle blend of honey and a little bit of spicing. The Irish soda bread rolls beautifully contrasted the tang of buttermilk with the sweetness of raisins. The barbecue sauce is, quite literally, the best I’ve had, and the sesame noodles have a surprisingly complex and delightful flavor–the kind where with every bite you taste something new. The raspberry sauce, which we made to go with a cheesecake from another cookbook, was heavenly.
Aesthetics and Production Value
As if all of that weren’t enough, this is a gorgeous cookbook. The pages are reasonably thick and semi-glossy. Color photos abound–not with every recipe, but with quite a few. The layout is attractive and colorful, which goes well with the celebration theme.
Most of the ingredients are easy to find. There are of course some specialty items as this is a book of special occasion recipes, but Ms. Lukins includes a list of sources in the back. There’s also an extremely extensive index.
This is an outstanding cookbook, and I can’t wait for an excuse to make more out of it. We’re already planning which special occasion we’ll take advantage of next!