"If I can't finish a dish in two pans, I won't do it," says Michael Symon. He isn't talking about a half-canned Sandra Leetype concoction either; the man is a Food Network Iron Chef, the 2009 James Beard Best Chef in the Midwest, and the owner of five restaurants.
Symon's Live to Cook (Clarkson Potter, $35), his first cookbook, packs a lot into a book that isn't coffee-table or doorstop size. It emphasizes "do at home" restaurant-quality food, but personality, technique and great-looking photos are given equal time.
Symon, a native of Cleveland, is a diehard Midwest loyalist. When he won Food and Wine's Best New Chef award in 1998, he refused to share his killer "slash-and-burn" grouper recipe. Instead, he insisted that the magazine print his favorite pierogi recipe, as it was more emblematic of his own, and Cleveland's, culinary roots. (The grouper recipe is included in the book.)
Symon's love of Midwestern food, seen through the lenses of his Greek, Italian and Eastern European heritage, is entrenched in Live to Cook. Recipes for keftedes (tiny Greek meatballs) sit comfortably next to bacon-wrapped pan-roasted walleye and his grandmother's Sunday ragu.
Live to Cook is heavy on fish and meat recipes, which you might expect from a guy who sports a tattoo of flying pigs and the phrase "Got pork?" Some recipes are a little more involved, such as the crispy pig's ears with pickled vegetables or the corn crepes with barbecued duck confit, but there's plenty of simpler fare, including shrimp with dill vinaigrette and a signature hamburger. Symon favors flavorful, lower-cost cuts of meat and shares advice on how to cook them successfully. However, vegetarians will still find much to enjoy. In a chapter on pastas and risottos, Symon includes a quick-knead pasta dough recipe (which I personally would use to make his delicious-looking sheep's milk ravioli with brown butter and almonds).
The book has a few chapters you don't see in every cookbook. There's one on charcuterie, which, Symon points out, "takes time and thought and therefore encourages a respect for our food." Making your own bacon - now that's hot. There's also a chapter on pickles, not just cucumbers but ramps, chilies and cherries. A section on hot vinaigrettes - a favorite Symon method of saucing - is thought-provoking. As a cook, I appreciate these types of recipes. They can't be eaten as a meal on their own, but they so often make the meal, the way a little homemade pico de gallo elevates canned black beans and tortillas.
Symon shares his thoughts on technique in both small bits and larger sections throughout the book. While some of the palate-building advice in today's cookbooks (Symon's included) is easy enough to comprehend, it takes a lot of practice to master. I prefer it when chefs give tips that are concrete, so I was thankful for Symon's nuts-and-bolts ideas on vinaigrettes (he eschews the traditional 3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar as too bland) and how to use his favorite spices (coriander is the new black).
I've made Symon's chicken and dumplings recipe twice now, both times to great compliments (and never using exactly the right ingredients). It's not a hard recipe to make, and it completely fits the bill of what Symon's offering - food that's economical, satisfying and simple to put together. I've got the crispy gnocchi with morels and spring peas at the top of my list for that moment when fresh morels start popping up. Any day now....