Thank goodness for Alice Waters, Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur and visionary, cook, and indefatigable advocate. She's the one who picks up the pan and keeps banging on it when the rest of us have given up in sheer exhaustion. Her tireless support for local and organic foods inspires some and exasperates others, but over the years her outreach efforts have encouraged others to join her.
"The Art of Simple Food" is the cookbook many have been waiting years for her to write. I have all of her Chez Panisse books, but I'm lucky if I crack one open once a year. When I do, their scrupulous standards and tales of pristine ingredients I can't get - cardoons? green almonds? lamb's tongues? ha! - embarrass and depress me. In "The Art of Simple Food," Waters has done nothing less than write the basic cookbook you need to get started on a lifetime of good eating from your own kitchen.
Part of the book's brilliance is in its structure: It's really two books in one. The first half goes through the usual categories - soup, salad, pasta, meat dishes. But Waters presents only three or four very basic recipes for each. They're easy, scrupulously tested, and dependable. You could go a year without ever opening the second half of the book, which is a treasure-house of mostly straightforward recipes that build on the basic ones.
Many dishes start with a classic sofrito of onions, carrots, and celery. Thyme is ubiquitous, though I suspect that in a more congenial world Waters would be prescribing lovage and hyssop. It was amazing to witness the transforming effect of that humble sofrito of aromatics. A gratin of cranberry beans springs to scented life under its crisp bread crumb topping. Braised savoy cabbage has a slow, winey sweetness that complements its melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. And Waters's minestrone is a culmination of vegetable goodness, each ingredient added in careful sequence - prep everything beforehand - to preserve a maximum of flavor and tenderness.
Sometimes Waters goes off in a tomato direction. Red rice pilaf was an immensely satisfying side with a pico-de-gallo attitude, though it wasn't really red. It was a beautiful complement for the deep, warm flavors of chicken legs in a garlicky tomato-onion braise. Waters takes the trouble to control browning and moisture, so you still have an appetizing chicken skin at the end.
Another spicy braise of pork shoulder has a rich, smoky flavor in spite of my using boneless pork when the recipe called for bone-in. Tiny cubes of melting roasted butternut squash are almost worth the half-hour it takes to transform a squash into 1/4-inch dice.
Fragrant almonds, roasted with herbs, make an addictive nibble before meals. And ginger snaps are great eaten warm, cold, or, in our shameless household, raw.
Details make the difference. Waters never skips steps if doing so might sacrifice flavor. She's the one who will always saute the vegetables and brown the meat and go for the four-hour chicken stock. At the same time she doesn't overload you with terms, using the universal "cook" rather than "saute" or "sear," leaving it up to you to judge what heat to use for best results. Given the variables in every kitchen, this makes perfect sense, and adds up to a subtly revolutionary adjustment in cookbook writing. But after all, this is Alice Water we're talking about. "Revolution" is her middle name.
The Art of Simple Food:
Notes, Lessons & Recipes
from a Delicious Revolution
By Alice Waters Clarkson Potter, 416 pp., $35