`Easy Entertaining' by premier Irish cooking teacher and writer, Darina Allen is a book I gleefully anticipate reading. Therefore, it's a problem when I find that the book is not perfect. That is not to say it is not a very good book, as Ms. Allen has so much talent, it's hard to imagine this team's not producing a worthy book.
The important consideration in determining whether you want to buy this book is the size of your cookbook library, especially in the number and quality of Irish cookbooks. The value of this book drops if you already own Allen's `Irish Traditional Cooking' and two or three good books on entertaining such as Pam Anderson's `Perfect Recipes for Having People Over' and Carole Peck's `the buffet book'. Similar titles are Nigella Lawson's `Feast' and the new `Paula Deen Celebrates'. As I will discuss below, Allen adds to what these books offer for small (4 to 8 people) groups, but if you have a sizable cookbook library, you may regret the overlap.
I can usually detect an outstanding book in the first two or three pages, and yet the virtues of this book were slow in revealing themselves, but not before I detected a few annoying lapses. The first type was a gross editing error, where a page ends in mid-sentence, with a new heading beginning the next page. The second type was an error in content that instructs us to heat a pan until smoking, yet nothing was put into the pan. The third editing error was when a liquid appetizer was identified as a canapé. `Canapé' is the French word for crostini, meaning bread under some small savory topping (see `Larousse Gastronomique'). Not a fatal error, but annoying for people who like to be careful with their words.
A pet peeve I find here is the fact that none of the excellent photographs have captions. The recipes and the relevant pictures generally appear on adjoining pages, but sometimes, you have to look hard to see to which recipe the pic relates, when there is one picture and three recipes appearing together. Another pet peeve is when every darn egg-needing recipe calls for `organic eggs from cage free hens' and all chicken meat is from organically raised animals. Now I'm in favor of organic stuff as much as the next tree-hugger, but wouldn't it have been less snooty to put a simple statement at the beginning of the book that we prefer `cage free organic eggs' than to beat it over our heads with every recipe. I also find that the estimated prep and cooking times given for each recipe are only good for either a professional or an experienced amateur who has prepared the recipe at least two or three times. My last rant is that while there are not many recipes in this book which take a very long time (such as Sauerbraten) or a lot of special skills (such as handmade pasta), the recipes are not, on average especially easy or fast. I would describe it as entertaining for the modestly talented amateur cook. I would warn beginners that while the recipes are straightforward, the book does not double as a manual for beginners. For a first cookbook, see Allen's excellent `ballymaloe cooking school cookbook'.
After all that, I have to say that there is still a whole lot to like and to value in this book. For starters, this oversized and lavishly illustrated book lists for only $35. Very nice for a big book from an award-winning author and teacher. Also, this edition has been thoroughly Americanized. There is no trace of those nettlesome metric measurements, even though you should learn to use them, you are spared here. The book's nominal strong point is its advice on organizing yourself to serve food you cook in order to entertain a small group of people. Unlike the books from Ms. Deen and Ms. Lawson, the type of occasion rather than the specific event such as Halloween or a Birthday organizes this volume. I will give it special credit for having a section on entertaining for children. It's a subject that simply does not find its way into grown-up books quite as often as it should. I also give it special credit, if only for it's armchair reading value, for adding a chapter on cooking with foraged provisions. I also like the wine selection chapter by Allen colleague, Tom Doorley. The most valuable parts of the book for experienced cooks who don't know how to entertain are the introductions on getting organized, being considerate of guest's special needs, and selecting dishes for the event.
I still had mixed feelings after seeing all these good points, until I started reading the recipes for some of the classic dishes and some of my old favorites. It seems that Ms. Allen has managed to give us a bit of a new perspective on many classics. One of the first I noticed was with her recipe for crepes. Like everyone else, from Julia Child on down, she recommends letting the batter rest for an hour before starting to cook the crepes, but the twist is that she suggests adding the melted butter just before cooking. Now that is a brilliant solution to the problem of your butter's hardening in the batter if you mix it in earlier. A second case was her excellent approach to slow roasting a lamb shoulder. But the very best thing about this book is those recipes where one master recipe is given, and many, sometimes as many as a dozen, different variations are given. This means you can become adept at one recipe and reuse that skill over and over again without repeating yourself.
Last but not least, I like the book, and others will really like the book because it takes recipes from around the world. While there are more Irish recipes than usual, this is definitely NOT an `easy IRISH entertaining' book.