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Ferran Adrià for the rest of us?

Library run–big display–white coffee table book with silverware on the cover–The Family Meal: Home Cooking with……Ferran Adrià?

I had to pick it up. I had to.

It’s not that I don’t believe the inventor of gelatinized “pearls” of just about any liquid from vinegar to champagne and mushroom soup can cook food that might actually satisfy in under 300 minicourses. Somebody’s got to make dinner, after all. Man cannot live on foams with three flavors, one of them sea urchin, alone.

The immediate impression was “wow!”—loads of clear, bright overhead step-by-step photos that actually replace standard written instructions. A few captions in balloons over the corners of the photos, but it all looks simple, doable, and good-tasting. You start to get a sense of elation, along the lines of, “Hey! This is real food—from El Bulli! I can handle it!” Short ingredient lists back up at the top—very pared down. And all recipes scaled—only a restaurant chef could manage this with ease—for four different levels of cooking—dinner for two, intimate dinner party for 6-8, something bigger for 20 or so, and banquet for 75. This could be pretty handy, you think.

But then I started to look through a little more carefully and wonder. You could, I suppose, prepare things the way he shows in the pictures—but the pans are sometimes an odd choice for home cooking. Big baking sheet set over the burners for browning garlic in oil—an awful lot of garlic simmering away there, actually. It looks right in the baking sheet, because that’s what he’s used to and you’re only seeing one corner of the pan in the photo. And I can see that setup in a restaurant quantity, but on my small stove? At the dinner-for-two-or-three level?

The sauces are good, basic—too basic, or just classic?—and you can make them in big enough batches to keep in the fridge or divvy up for the freezer so you don’t have to start from scratch each time. That’s pretty good cooking technique and commonsense. But then you peer down at the photos and see Adrià boiling his garlic cloves—twice, in changes of water—and also his basil leaves before grinding them for the pesto. Is this necessary or even advisable? Is he cooking for the English or something?

And nowhere does it warn you ahead, but suddenly in the middle of sautéing some meat, you’re to dip cubed eggplants in a deep fat fryer for a few minutes until golden, then tip them out into the frying pan with the meat. If I hadn’t been reading my way through the very short captions, the pictures, which only show the eggplant added to the main pan, already lightly browned, wouldn’t have clued me in to the deep fat frying step at all. And is that really something I would have at the ready—in the middle of the recipe? At home? Surely there’s a more efficient way of cooking this dish that doesn’t involve starting up a vat of boiling oil right in the middle of the recipe—say, brown the eggplant in the frying pan first with just a little oil, stick it on a plate while you brown the meat, add the sauce, add the eggplant back in? Is that too hard? Not fancy enough?

All of the recipes are organized into menus of three items–two meat or fish, or a “protein” and a starch, and one dessert. Occasional but not very prominent vegetables, cooked very simply most of the time, and not meant to be remarkable.

A sampling of the main dishes—some Spanish-style classics, like fried or grilled fish with chimichurri, pesto, romesco, sofrito, salsa verde, etc.. Turkey, chicken, duck, lamb, and pork shoulder dishes, either pan-cooked or roasted. Sausage and mushrooms with garlic and sherry. Beans with clams. A couple of rice dishes, including squid with squid ink-blackened risotto—which is Italian. Polenta with cheese—also Italian.

Many of the other dishes in this book also aren’t Spanish: penne with Bolognese sauce, farfalle with pesto. Cheeseburgers—made of meatloaf mix. Noodles with teriyaki and shellfish. These, perhaps with the exception of the cheeseburgers, which I scorn because I hate meatloaf (and it is very, very standard meatloaf here), look okay. But do we need a recipe for these? Boil pasta, make or buy sauce, ladle it on. Not much to it.

Some oddly pedestrian choices in the vegetable department too, especially for an American readership–Caesar’s salad, Waldorf salad, tomatoes with shredded basil. Guacamole, if you can call that a vegetable. And boiled potatoes and green beans. Potato chips, as an ingredient in an omelet. And…canned corn. Why that appeals to Europeans I have no clue–I’ve seen it on fancy restaurant antipasto tables in Sicily, along with potato salad that included canned peas-and-diced-carrots, the nightmarish stuff of ’70s school cafeteria leftovers.

It would be different if Adrià were doing something tricky or unexpected with these classics of dull home cooking, but he isn’t. The ingredient lists are generally very, very safe and standard on flavorings. And while I think it’s a big, big plus that there’s no vanilla in the savory dishes or 40-item ingredient lists or bacon crumbles in the dessert custard, at this point I was fearfully turning the pages, just waiting for the tuna noodle casserole.

Desserts include a couple of different heavy-style macaroons–coconut, almond. Egg custards in a couple of guises, including standard rice pudding. These, actually, are standard Spanish postres, and Adrià doesn’t twist them at all. He adds chocolate mousse and truffles, and chocolate cookies—fairly standard French and American recipes—decent, but also nothing signature about them. Most people don’t do baked apples anymore–no reason they shouldn’t except for time and originality factor–honey, butter, cinnamon, oven. Still no twist. He throws in a few restauranty touches–caramel fluff shpritzed out of the aerosol can and drizzled with chocolate sauce. Pears cooked in butter caramel. Melon stick-blended into a dessert soup, some pineapple and banana slices drizzled with molasses and lime juice, with a bit of the lime rind grated over them. They’re—okay. Not earth-shattering. Pleasant, homey—bland.They don’t even look that fabulous in the photos.

What am I to make of this as a collection of food? It’s not a great or particularly varied diet on its own, and I wouldn’t want to eat any of these “menus” straight with no added vegetables to lighten them up a bit. And although he includes fruit desserts as well as prepared ones, plain unmessed-with fruit would be the better choice most of the time, unless you’re cooking for a party. If you are cooking for a party, I have to say I’d get better, fancier dessert recipes that look and taste the part from another cookbook dedicated to desserts, because like a lot of head chefs who specialize in main dishes, his desserts are not his strongest suit, and most of these aren’t really his. If I were served most of these at a bash and told that they came from a cookbook by Ferran Adrià, I’d be very disappointed indeed.

What am I to think about the preparations? Most of the recipes call for home equipment your mother or grandmother had. Of course, my shtetl-born grandmother had a Cuisinart before Cuisinarts were cool–and my mother couldn’t figure out how to operate it. I like to think I’ve found the congenial balance point between those two approaches to cooking. Other than an entirely optional aerosol cannister, the only kitchen equipment that looks even vaguely new wave is the stick immersion blender for blending sauces and soups–and I’ve used one of those long ago in the lab before they were available to the home chef. I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say Waring can handle just about anything. It’s a genuinely handy tool.

Also on the plus side is Adrià’s scaling for his ingredient lists. It’s a pretty nice feature. You might double-check his scaleup of salt for the banquet portions–often far more than a multiple of the 2- or 8-serving items, but generally you’d trust him to know how to scale for a restaurant or catered event, since he’s done so much in those quantities.

I like the idea of basic sauces like sofrito and picado as easily stored, easily scaled-up stocks that you can make a habit of adding a spoonful or a cup of to many dishes during cooking. I’m pretty sure that would enhance a lot of home cooks’ everyday meals.

But I’m not confident that Adrià’s really thought out the mechanics of how people cook at home. The numerous deep-fat-frying and blanching steps hidden in the recipes here might be fine for a professional kitchen, where it’s normal to keep a blanching pot and a vat of oil going for a quick dip with the basket (it’s not just for french fries anymore!) It’s too unwieldy and expensive to do at home very often. Similarly–the long-roasting recipes are traditional and they work, of course–but is it surprising that I don’t suddenly yearn to do that now that I’ve read the book, just because of the pretty photos or because it’s Ferran Adrià’s method? Which oddly enough, is just like most grandma methods and not particularly difficult or innovative. He uses tinfoil just like everybody else.

In the end, though, I can’t help feeling more than a little disappointed at the choice of dishes. All the familiar non-Spanish recipes have very straightforward recipes here—they could have come out of The Joy of Cooking or The Silver Palate Cookbook, only the Silver Palate, at least, would have presented more enthusiastic, party-worthy and attractive versions. All of the Spanish recipes are very, very basic except, perhaps, for the blanching and deep-frying, which strike me as unnecessary. And one odd twist that shouldn’t have been twisted: the omelet with potato chips soaked in the egg first like matzoh brie and then fried into it–no thanks. There’s really something going the wrong way with that, especially when tortilla de patatas, made with fresh real potatoes, is a Spanish classic and pretty good.

And since I think there’s a Silver Spoon tome that’s the Spanish home cooking equivalent of Joy, I wonder why Adrià and his team thought it necessary or advisable to put out something so well-trodden with his name on it. I not only feel—I know—Adrià’s team worked harder and more carefully on selecting dishes and methods for the restaurant than they did on this book of “home cooking”. I’d say it was a sign of disrespect for home cooking or perhaps home cooks, but I’m not really sure what’s going on in their minds now that they’re trying to do home-style food instead of gellan-induced fantasias. I only know I expect more originality from Adrià, whatever the style of cooking.

El Bulli was famous for its experimental food, and some of its earlier generation of dishes, which you can see posted in a year-by-year photo archive with captions on the El Bulli web site, were made with simple-enough real-food ingredients and methods. A lot of them started out as classic tapas dishes and evolved. Not absolutely everything from the early days is over-the-top inspirational by today’s standards, but a lot of it looks wonderful and more genuinely appetizing than the later dishes with all the foams and pearls and so on.

Not every interesting flavor combination the team came up with is too weird to be worth trying at home, perhaps with less elaborate prep and without the commercial processed-food ingredients that they used in the restaurant for their trompe l’oeil theatrics. If I had my way, Adrià would have found a way to  include more of those flavor combinations and more of that spirit in this book.

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