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Cookbook Review

Celebrated-spa recipes can be a thing of beauty

By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / May 19, 2010

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Spa cookbooks break your heart. Without exception, they’re gorgeous, photo-filled invitations to a sense-awakening way of life where the landscape is breathtaking, the food is exquisite (if miniature), and you walk away thinner and happier (if also poorer). In real life, recipes tend to yield up fussy dishes in minute portions that disappear fast.

“Golden Door Cooks at Home,’’ from the Southern California spa of the same name, offers portion sizes that are close to normal, requiring a little upward adjustment to feed a ravenous family of five. And chef Dean Rucker has an adept way of using naturally flavorful ingredients to camouflage the omission of fatty ones. Practically speaking, though, the recipes offer what can only be described as mixed results.

It would be hard to imagine a better crunchy salad than celery root and Fuji apple slaw with cider dressing, with its crisp matchsticks of celeriac and apple draped in a tart, slightly mustardy cider vinegar. Creamy cauliflower soup with caramelized cauliflower, however, is yet another grainy attempt to make cream soup without cream, and it disappoints in the same way that countless other well-meaning versions do. The roasted cauliflower garnish, though, has an irresistible caramelized finish, thanks to a touch of sugar. It was so good that next time I plan to just skip the soup part and roast the whole cauliflower.

Corn and scallion pancakes with oven-roasted chipotle salsa is more typical of a spa food recipe (two little pancakes per person). You have to roast the vegetables for the pureed salsa, and that, plus the garnishes, might push this dish beyond the realm of the practical for weeknight cooks. Or you could double the dish and call it dinner, as we did.

Whole-wheat and flax fettuccine with asparagus and porcini-shiitake cream was half disaster and half triumph. Ground-up flaxseed and whole-wheat flour turned into a brownish-gray, clay-like lump of dough that promptly broke into shreds in the pasta roller. But porcini “cream,’’ made from handfuls of dried porcini and shiitakes, is fatless and luxurious, a perfect match for the asparagus and the commercial pasta that sat in for the failed dough.

Entrees can be multistep and fussy, but they’re also complete meals in themselves. For us, the best of the lot was pan-roasted halibut with crab mashed potatoes, spinach, and gazpacho vinaigrette. Despite the total absence of butter or cream, the mashed potatoes have a rich amped-up flavor from seasoned crabmeat. Garnishes and vinaigrette based on a cucumber-tomato axis give simple sauteed white fish a huge lift in both texture and taste.

The photograph of Parmesan chicken schnitzel features a lovely golden crust which eluded me when I tried to make it with the prescribed egg white, buttermilk, and whole-wheat breadcrumbs. The few crumbs that stuck tended to burn in the pan, but the chicken came together so nicely with the creamy mustard sauce (evaporated milk and low-fat sour cream rather than cream, needless to say) that I soon forgot my objections. And the warm potato and garden bean salad is just as good, though be sure not to let it sit, since the cider vinegar turns the beans brown.

Your typical spa dessert might be some kind of artfully arranged constellation of berries or sliced fruit, rather than the usual sugar-carb-fat trinity. The Golden Door’s almond pear dots, by contrast, have an actual sweetener (maple syrup) and actual oil (canola), and pear-butter centers. It’s more like eating cookie-shaped granola than an actual cookie, but since my 3-year-old got instantly hooked on the pear butter, I’m calling it a net plus.

Some of the Golden Door techniques look like keepers to me, including spraying the pan with olive oil rather than measuring it out by the tablespoon. But I’m still waiting for the spa cookbook that will sweep me off my feet and make it onto the most-used cookbook shelf. For now, I’ll just finish up the last of these almond pear dots and keep my fingers crossed.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at tsusanchang@gmail.com.

GOLDEN DOOR COOKS AT HOME: Favorite Recipes From the Celebrated Spa

By Dean Rucker with Marah Stets

Clarkson Potter, 288 pp., $40