Alfred Portale Simple Pleasures, by Alfred Portale & Andrew Friedman

272 pages; $34.95 ; Full color photographs, Hardcover

Morrow Cookbooks, Harper Collins, NY, NY, 10/26/2004

Reviewed by Chef John J. Vyhnanek

Flipping through the book is really fun because of the fabulous pictures. An up-and-coming chef would be advised to add this book to his or her library. There are great ideas in the pictures for the professional to dissect  and and re-formulate in their mind's eye. And if you're not a professional, this will be a great book to have in your cookbook collection so you too can cook like a pro!
Another beautiful cookbook from Alfred Portale has hit the book stores. Times change and so does the way food in restaurants is prepared and presented. It's 20 years since Gotham opened on East 12th Street in New York's Greenwich Village. I remember well because I ate there the second week it opened. Vertical cuisine was coming into vogue and Alfred Portale was the King of its presentation. I have dined there several other times always enjoying the experience. Alfred's new book, "Simple Treasures", is reflective of his style. I consider his cooking to be on the mark with very good ingredients, careful techniques, delicious flavors and stunning, compact presentations. 

The subtitle of this cookbook is "Home Cooking from the Gotham Bar and Grill's Acclaimed Chef". I wonder if he cooks like this every night? Anyway, a simple pleasure like Alfred's Penne with Sweet Sausage, Fontina, Sage and Dandelion Greens is more than a simple pleasure. This dish is delicious, looks great and is totally satisfying to taste buds and stomach alike. The Watermelon, Cherry Tomato, Red Onion and Cucumber Salad immediately caught my eyes: what a beautiful presentation and very tasty too. This salad isn't new to me though. I learned to make a similar salad but with Middle Eastern roots. It has almost the same ingredients with scallions replacing the red onions, lemon juice replacing the lime juice and with the addition of chopped mint and topped with a spoonful of yogurt.

I was torn about which dessert to test: was it to be the Italian Prune Compote with Ginger and Star Anise, the Apple Frangipane with Dried Cherries, Raisins and Rum or the fabulous looking Chocolate-Grand Mariner Cake?  No, it would be the Coconut Macaroons. Only one change to the recipe:I used a star tip in my pastry bag. The recipe was right on the mark, the cookies were moist, chewy and browned nicely in the oven. I would suggest that the directions could have included a line to suggest turning the pan around in the oven after 8 minutes for equal browning. Certainly these macaroons are one of life's simple pleasures.

Chapter Excerpt---

Pumpkin and Caramelized Onion Soup with Gruyère and Sage
Serves 4 to 6
In this -- my autumnal answer to the classic French onion soup -- the traditional recipe is augmented with roasted pumpkin and an aromatic infusion of sage. But the presentation is as classic as it gets: the soup is poured into individual bowls and topped with cheese, which is melted under the broiler. (Note that you'll need heavy, flameproof ceramic soup bowls for this.)

Seek out, authentic Gruyère for this recipe. As with the classic onion soup, what tops the bowl is almost as important as what's in it. This recipe calls for chicken stock, but if you make or can purchase a good-quality beef or veal stock (the textbook choice), using it here will yield a significantly richer result.

Ingredients

1 medium pumpkin or butternut squash (about 3 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into large dice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced (about 3 cups sliced)
¼ cup thinly sliced celery
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
6 sage leaves, cut into a chiffonade
1 bay leaf
4 ½ cups Chicken Stock (page 31)
12 baguette slices, cut ½ inch thick (2 slices should fit snugly in each soup bowl), lightly toasted
About 8 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated 
Instructions

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Put the pumpkin in an ovenproof sauté pan. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter, toss, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven, stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin pieces are caramelized and beginning to soften, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a soup pot set over medium heat. Add the onions and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Add the celery, garlic, and sage, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the pumpkin, bay leaf, and stock, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste, and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Preheat the broiler.

Put two ovenproof soup bowls on a cookie sheet. Ladle the soup into the bowls, and float 2 slices of toasted bread on top of each serving. Cover the toasts with a generous amount of Gruyère. Broil until browned and bubbly, about 3 minutes. Repeat with the remaining bowls, and serve.

Variations
Muenster and aged Gouda are good substitutes for the Gruyère. A combination of the three cheeses would be pleasantly unique. Kabocha and Hubbard squashes are suitable replacements for the pumpkin.

Pappardelle with Braised Lamb Shank and Fontina
Serves 6 as an appetizer or 4 as a main course
In Italian households, a popular way of using leftover braised meats is to chop or shred the meat, return it to its own sauce, and toss it with fresh pasta. This recipe goes right to the pasta stage, using the intensely vinous braising liquid as a sauce. Don't be too casual with your choice of Fontina cheeses: Though produced in many countries, including the United States, the best is Fontina d'Aosta, which comes from the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Its fresh flavor makes a big impact on the overall success of this dish. The pappardelle, probably most often seen with rabbit on restaurant menus, is the perfect choice for lamb shanks and other braised-meat sauces.

If you can find it, replace the Parmigiano-Reggiano with an aged Pepato, a Sicilian pecorino punctuated with whole black peppercorns. When the cheese is shaved, the flavor of the pepper is unleashed as well, adding a whole new meaning to the term "freshly grated black pepper."

Ingredients

2 tablespoons canola oil
2 lamb shanks (1 ½ pounds each)
Coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup diced onion
2 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
¼ cup diced celery
¼ cup diced carrot
2 ½ cups robust Italian red wine
1 cup canned tomato puree
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 thyme sprig
1 rosemary sprig
1 bay leaf
1 quart Chicken Stock (page 31), or more as needed
1 pound fresh pappardelle pasta
8 ounces Fontina cheese, coarsely grated
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
½ cup basil chiffonade 
Instructions

Preheat the oven to 300°F.

Pour the oil into a heavy-bottomed ovenproof pot that is just large enough to hold the lamb shanks, and set the pot over medium-high heat. Season the lamb shanks with salt and pepper, add them to the pot, and cook, turning often, until nicely browned all over, approximately 10 minutes. Remove the shanks from the pot and set them aside.

Add the onions, garlic, celery, and carrots to the pot and sauté until softened but not browned, approximately 5 minutes. Add the wine, raise the heat to high, bring it to a boil, and continue to boil until reduced to ¼ cup, approximately 12 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree, tomato paste, thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf, and cook for 6 more minutes. Add the 1 quart stock and bring it to a simmer.

Return the shanks to the pot. If the liquid doesn't completely cover them, add some more stock. When the liquid returns to a simmer, cover the pot with foil or a tight-fitting lid, place it in the oven, and braise the shanks for 2½ hours. Check periodically to be sure the liquid is just barely simmering. If it's bubbling aggressively, lower the temperature by 25 degrees. After the 2½ hours, the meat should pull away from the bone with just the tug of a fork; if it offers any resistance, continue to cook for 15 more minutes. When the shanks are done, remove the pot from the oven, remove the foil, and remove the shanks from the pot, setting them on a cutting board. Set the pot aside to let the liquid cool for about 15 minutes. When the shanks are cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones, and chop or shred it.

Use tongs to remove and discard the bay leaf, thyme, and rosemary from the braising liquid; discard them. Skim off any fat that has risen to the surface. Then place the pot over high heat, bring the liquid to a boil, and let it boil, skimming off any impurities that rise to the surface, until reduced to 2 cups, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for 2 to 3 minutes.

Drain the pasta and transfer it to a large warmed bowl. Add the reserved meat, the sauce, and the cheese, parsley, and basil. Toss, season with salt and pepper, then divide among individual plates or bowls and serve at once.

Variations
This dish would also be delicious made with veal shanks (2 inches thick and cooked for 2 hours), or duck or rabbit legs (cooked for 1 to 1 ½ hours).