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`In the Heat of the Kitchen' by London chef Gordon Ramsay, the host of a Fox TV culinary show, `Hell's Kitchen', which I have not had the pleasure of seeing. Ramsay is the partner and executive chef for three restaurants in and around London and his writing is entirely different than his two countrymen, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson. Both Oliver and Ramsay are professionals down to the tips of their asbestos-conditioned fingers, but where Oliver revels in simple dishes a la River Café and the Mediterranean cuisines, Ramsay is very much a French influenced chef.
Before I get too far afield, I must say I think this is an excellent book on cooking, even if some of the recipes may be just a bit impractical for the casual amateur cook.
To explain, cookbooks can be divided into at least seven different categories and the criteria for judging a book depends on the category into which it falls. There are:
Textbooks such as the CIA's `New Professional Chef' and Jacques Pepin's `Complete Techniques'
Great Collections such as the `Joy of Cooking' and `James Beard's American Cookery'
National or Regional Cuisine Collections such as Julia Child's `Mastering the Art of French Cooking'
Restaurant `haute cuisine' such as Joel Robuchon's `Simply French' and Thomas Keller's books.
Entertaining cookbooks such as Martha Stewart's classic `Entertaining' and Gourmet magazine books
Special Subjects such as Alice Waters' `Chez Panisse Fruits' or Rachael Ray's '30 Minute Meal' books
Moneymaking Cookbooks promoting a person or an organization. Local fundraising cookbooks and non-chef (Patti LaBelle, Al Roker, etc) books fall into this category.
Celebrity Chef / Restaurant cookbooks from people such as Emeril Lagasse, Tyler Florence, Jamie Oliver, Rocco DiSpirito, and dozens of others.
The last category generally provides value by including the virtues of at least one or more of the other major categories added the cachet obtained by being able to say you are cooking a recipe from Babbo or Café Boulud or Lespanisse or Sara Moulton or Ina Garten.
Ramsay's book is certainly a member of this last category with a strong grounding in the `haute cuisine' category. Ramsay makes no pretensions that his dishes are easy to make. His primary influence is clearly French and Spanish, primarily Catalan (Barcelona) techniques plus the rich range of American ingredients. His book is the perfect example of the kind you would want in a library by your best armchair, where you want to read it carefully for ideas in creating your own recipes. The first thing which comes to mind as I read the book is Bob Kinkead's statement that he owns about 1200 cookbooks, but he has never followed the recipe in any of them, step for step. Rather, he reads and `digests' their ideas that become ideas he puts into his own recipes.
The first thing I like about Ramsay's book is that it has chapters based on ingredients. I have seen several books recently with all sorts of whiz-bang chapter titles that mean practically nothing when you pull the book off your shelves and glance at the table of contents. Some of these books are good, but their organization is not to their credit.
Ramsay's chapters are:
Shellfish, with an emphasis on American blue crabs plus oysters, clams, langoustines, and scallops.
Fish, with red mullet, cod salmon, tuna and a few unusual species such as skate and monkfish.
Poultry and Game Birds, where he addresses the perennial question of how to deal with different cooking times for white and dark meat. I recommend you give his solution a try when roasting chicken.
Meat, with a very nice selection of recipes for braised pork, filet mignon, stuffed roast lamb, tomatoes stuffed with chili, veal and foie gras, and a new perspective on sauteeing calves liver.
Pasta and Rice, with an emphasis on risottos, stuffed pastas, and spatzle (German pasta / dumplings)
Vegetables, with several recipes for soups and salads. First time I've seen a fondue of lettuce!
Eggs, one of my very favorite subjects, which Ramsay does to a tee. Perfect omelet and fried egg recipes. Since all recipes are organized by primary ingredient, many of the dessert recipes fall in this egg chapter and the following chapter on fruits.
Fruit with sorbets, sherbets, gelatins, walnut cake, great pain perdu (French toast) with peaches and berry kebabs.
Flour, with breads, pastries, and cakes. I invariably give good scores to general cookbooks that have a good chapter on interesting bread baking. While his nibs Jamie Oliver does the easy Italian stuffed breads, Ramsay goes for things a bit more complicated but more interesting with a great sun-dried tomato fougasse (French for focaccia) plus a very nice recipe for a vanilla flavored pate sucree. Unlike the flaky style of pastry Americans use for pies where the butter must stay cold and the dough must be handled with kid gloves, this dough is less delicate and fussy.
The last chapter on stocks, sauces, and dressings has all the usual stuff, including a very nicely simple recipe for chicken stock. I really respect those who simmer their stock for half a day or overnight, but I personally prefer this simpler three-hour recipe.
Ramsay has a reputation for being very demanding in the kitchen, and his recipes benefit from his eye for detail. Many recipes are easily within the amateur's abilities and while there are a few which need more expensive and rare ingredients, you can trust that Ramsay is giving you some of the very best techniques for dealing with them, as he is for his egg and flour recipes.
This is an excellent book for cookbook readers and people who like to perfect simple dishes and try their hand at dishes that are both classic and just a bit unusual.
Very highly recommended.