Friday, February 27, 2009

Cookbook Review: Il Viaggio di Vetri

I recently received Marc Vetri's newly published cookbook, titled Il Viaggio di Vetri, as a gift. Having been lucky enough to eat at Vetri's eponymous restaurant in Philadelphia several times, I was eager to try my hand at preparing his elevated versions of Italian cuisine at home.

The first thing I noticed as I thumbed through the fine, glossy pages (289 pages, including index) was that nearly all of the recipes looked like something I would want to attempt making. I often find that most cookbooks seems to contain roughly 50% of recipes that hold little appeal. Not so with Vetri's book - I found it hard to decide what to try making first.

The book is divided into the following sections: cold & hot appetizers, pasta & risotto, fish & shellfish, meat, poultry & game (as well as organ meats), vegetable sides, and desserts. Like many other serious cookbooks, this one also has a back section with basic/foundational recipes (stocks, sauces, etc.). There are two additional sections at the beginning of the cookbook that chronicle Vetri's experiences living and working in Italy (his "journey" to becoming the amazing chef he is today - hence the name of the cookbook).

Thus far, I have tried making four recipes from the book. This might not sound like a wide sample, but much like Thomas Keller cookbooks, Vetri's recipes are time-consuming and often require multi-day preparations. Few of the recipes can be whipped up in short order. All demand the highest quality ingredients and attention to detail.

My first attempts were favorites from when I had eaten at the restaurant - the Sweet Onion Crepe with White Truffle Fondue and the Spinach Gnocchi with Shaved Ricotta Salata & Brown Butter.

What I learned making the first recipe was that Vetri's cookbook lacks the exacting instructions of my other favorite tome (Keller's Bouchon Cookbook). There were several errors in the recipe description that - if you are lacking in substantial cooking experience - might cause disaster. First, in the instructions for preparing the crepes, Vetri directs the home cook to heat their crepe pan on low heat. This does not provide sufficient heat to properly cook and brown the crepe without drying it. High heat is required. Second, his instructions for preparing the onion confit resulted in dry and stringy onion shreds rather than a jam-like consistency. I had to puree them in order to salvage the dish. I will follow Keller's instructions for hte onion confit in the future. These small crises averted, however, the dish came out wonderfully. The White Truffle Fondue was truly awesome.

The gnocchi recipe was smoother sailing - probably the most fantastic dish I've created at home. I've always been terrified of making gnocchi and producing sad little rock-hard lumps. No worries on that front with Vetri's recipes. The gnocchi were more like mini souffles of spinach than anything else. They came out fluffy and flavorful (and a gorgeous bright green color). The incredibly simple sauce of nutty brown butter poured over the gnocchi (which were topped with melty, salty cheese) was perfect. Just be prepared for some major prep-work (2 lbs of baby spinach must be individually de-stemmed and pureed the day ahead!).

The other two recipes I've tried from the cookbook were new to me - a Lavender Gelato with Chocolate Shell & Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Rustic Rabbit with Sage & Pancetta.

The Lavender Gelato was a clever, fabulous dessert (you prepare a vanilla gelato with lavender flowers, scoop it in a clear glass, place a prepared chocolate lid over the top and then pour hot olive oil onto the lid - it melts the chocolate and makes a sauce for the gelato!). There were a few issues with this recipe, though. First, the amount of lavender called for seemed excessive and would probably result in too strong of a lavender flavor (I reduced it by half). Second, after making the chocolate lids, Vetri calls for their refrigeration. What he doesn't say, however, is that they must be allowed to re-warm to room temperature before being served; otherwise the olive oil will not melt through them.

The rabbit braise was very good - though incredibly rich (you essentially braise the rabbit - which you must painstakingly carve up into pieces beforehand - in butter, olive, oil, and herbs). It is served atop a simple (but tiring to prepare - all that stirring!) polenta (again, Vetri's instructions suggested cooking over too low of a heat; following them, it took me 3 hours to produce a creamy polenta).

Though I include some criticisms of his attention to detail in the recipe instructions, I found this cookbook incredibly inspiring and the dishes in to be original, interesting, impressive, and delicious. I look forward to cooking from it more often. I think, in the final analysis, I would say that Il Viaggio di Vetri is an excellent source of ideas and recipes for an already experienced home cook. To cook successfully from this book you need to be able to evaluate the instructions and feel comfortable deviating from them as needed.

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