I wish I could give Chef McEwan full marks for his Italian flavored cookbook. He is a top Chef doing important work. His place is at the top of my list next time I am in Toronto. His fine introduction sets out his working assumptions in an unfussy manner. But his publisher, Viking Canada (and they really ought know better), set him adrift in his boat. What truly loses that star is that he had a ghost, Jacob Richler, who is swimming in the wrong waters, whatever his talent. Chef needed an editor in the cooking field, worthy of his work. More as we go, if you care to stick a while.
Straight away, Chef McEwan dives into il brodo, his basic Italian stock, which is nothing like the French style. Rather than single emphasis on any single meat, he combines meats as do the Chinese, along with classic Italian (back to the middle ages). Another difference is he adds tomatoes, and salts the whole pot up front. He prefers Kosher salt to the typical industrial table salt, and troubles you not with any exotic sea salts. He is right in doing so. Kosher is clean and never harsh. It is never a finishing salt. He pays attention to little things, like chopping the chicken bones.
In his introduction, he explains his care for detail in the simple dishes he uses here. He thinks that simple dishes with few ingredients go wrongly more often than many of the more elaborate recipes. He is largely right. An omelette is hard to find in any state of what it can be.
His ideas and practices are excellent. His recipes are not. Right here in his brodo, he indicates that the minimum time is 2 hours and twenty minutes. Yet he fails to say either what his normal time for ideal simmering is, or any way other than what tasting you should already do as second nature. Yet he fails to mention even this basic monitoring. None of this is his fault. But it is likely to hamper some of us trying to follow without his thirty years of experience. We know he is giving us winning material, just not in a fully vetted fashion.
His roasted garlic dressing is simple and easy. It is also winning. He teaches you a couple of dressings as basics you will employ over and over. This one goes on his skirt steak salad. Another powerful dressing is his gorgonzola. Yet he uses only half, mixed with Danish blue. Why? He never says. I have never seen a mixture of two blues. At least not in salad dressing.
But you forget all that as soon as you see his Italianized Waldorf salad, ever enshrined for me in Fawlty Towers, using this dressing instead of mayonnaise. We may br fresh out of Waldorfs, but this riff plays loudly and well.
His Giardiniera is another hit you will want to prepare at your leisure as a sparkly bright bite. So why does he use three vinegars? And why these three? Champagne, well yes, very good. But mixed with aged wine vinegar? And the two with cidre vinegar? What happens if you used regular wine vinegar instead? By aged, I take it he means aged red. I never see any of these used in combination. I will go and see for myself, but that is hardly the point. And champagne vinegar is not all that easy to come by.
One of his show stoppers must be the Ravioli di Spinaci and egg yolk with butter and truffle. Yet he assumes you know he means white truffle, which is never cooked, but shaved at the finish, or steeped in oil. Not a word, only a photograph. Can you spot the truffle shaver? This is all what editors are for.
Guanciale is beginning to appear here, outside the big coastal cities. He uses it in more than one recipe. But no discussion, or substitution. And his use of it with veal cheeks seems all the more unattainable. At least he says pancetta be used as a substitute in his formidable Bucatini all'Amatriciana. And yes, you should be able to find this thick variant of spaghetti.
Okay, one more editorial fiasco (Italian for the wreckage of broken flasks). His impressive trout with clams and sausage is an unlikely combination that is a standout winner. But his recipe tells you how to make it with trout fillet, whilst the full page picture shows a whole BIG trout on a platter. Sure, as an afterthought he mentions that you can use a whole trout. But that is a different recipe, not a foot note.
Porchetta, or the simpler and more available pork shoulder, prepared with Pear Mostarda is a spectacular way to serve a cheap cut of pork. The oregano pesto is another trick you will use over and over with the star Pear sauce you will learn.
So, you may find five stars of success here, but he deserved, as does the book buying public deserve, the best a publisher can offer to make a complete product. The book itself is made well, with a hard cover, easily cleaned of kitchen mess; its stitched binding lies open flat on the counter. Thank you for your patience.