When Tom Valenti wrote his second book, 'Soups, Stews, and One Pot Meals', he must have been concentrating on simple dishes to atone for the relatively complicated recipes he put in this, his first book. As always, 'simple' and 'complicated' are loaded words in culinary procedures. What appears complicated to some because it involves cooking several different components of a dish separately may be simple to others because each of the individual steps are simple and the end result leaves the flavors of the ingredients intact, or pleasantly accentuated by the cooking procedure and seasonings.
Valenti's invitation to HIS kitchen is significant in that he is very fond of a few techniques which are uncommon among is colleagues in other restaurant kitchens. His most interesting twist is in the routine use of sugar as a seasoning along with salt and pepper. He is also exceptionally fond of using acids like citrus and white wine vinegars and bacon, especially smoked and double smoked bacon. It seems odd that a chef with Italian leanings and background is not dedicated to using pancetta; however, he finds it is a bit too salty to his taste. The author also shows an extraordinary respect for other common ingredients such as water. One comment on the author's use of salt and pasta cooking water is to correct his adjusting the amount of salt to the amount of pasta. The proper technique should be to set the amount of salt by the amount of water. It is the concentration of salt in the water that is important, because that is the physical property that determines how much salt reaches the pasta.
While it is not Valenti's object in this book to simplify recipes, he does make a special point of showing the cook the places at which it is appropriate to parts of dishes ahead of service. This doubles the value of the book. The primary value of cookbooks by talented professional chefs is to provide recipes with a lot of pizzazz for entertaining. Valenti adds the restaurant tricks which allow the prep chefs to do the kind of advance work which makes the line chef able to put together the dish quickly at the time of service. The author even succeeds in describing how to bring a risotto to an almost complete state, and hold it 'in stasis' until it can be finished for service.
Otherwise, Valenti does not skimp on the details. He provides a larger than average selection of stock and broth recipes, which impress me because they include a mushroom stock. Ever since I tasted the water left from rehydrating dried mushrooms almost forty years ago, I wondered why mushroom broth was not a more important ingredient in cooking.
Valenti's selection of dishes is an entertaining mix of old standards such as Panzanella salad and a Cuban sandwich with inventive original (or at least unusual) dishes. There are also some dishes that give a very useful twist on favorite combinations. Broccoli Rabe and sausage is a classic Italian combination (See Lydia Bastianich's Italian cookbook). Valenti adds variety to the dish by adding orecchiette, making it a full veg / starch / protein dish. He also adds interest by incorporating a recipe for homemade sausage to make the dish even more interesting. I may be inclined to find his method for creating loose sausage meat just a bit too simple, but as the author points out, the homemade sausage will make a huge impression on your guests. Speaking of sandwiches, this is one of the very few cookbooks which presents a good selection of recipes for sandwiches. And, these are not your typical deli style fare. Some recipes such as the classic Poorboy are fairly simple, but others are pretty involved. Most recipes use both fish and vegetables in unusual ways as in the grilled vegetable sandwich and the sautéed spinach sandwich.
Aside from the chapter on sandwiches, the chapters are typical of almost every other Italian-centered cookbook, with chapters on Salads; Soups; Pasta and Risotto; Fish and Shellfish; Poultry and Game; Meats; Accompaniments; Vinaigrettes and Mayonnaises; and Desserts. The fish chapter is one of the largest, since fish and fishing is one of his passions. Valenti is true to his word at the beginning of the book as bacon appears in many recipes, even many fish recipes. Most of the desserts are fruit based and typical of an Italian sensibility.
One of the more distinctive characteristics of this book is the clarity in which the author presents recipes that may be just a bit on the complicated side for inexperienced cooks. Every recipe has an informative headnote that may explain the origin of the recipe or something of its attraction. All ingredients are neatly presented in a nicely shaded box with clear prep directions. The main attraction is the fact that the procedure is broken down into simple sentences, each beginning with the most important operative word in the technique. It is crystal clear that each step is to Warm or Add or Transfer or Lay or Repeat or Remove or do something Carefully of Gently. Valenti has done exactly what I do when I transcribe recipes by breaking everything down into simple steps.
Most dishes, especially main course dishes, are accompanied by a no nonsense wine recommendation.
Highly recommended for dedicated amateurs. The author does not compromise on technique. Valenti makes it as easy as possible for you to follow his lead to spectacular dishes.