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Get past the attitude and 'About Time' has much to offer

It’s About Time: Great Recipes for Everyday Life, By Michael Schlow Steerforth Press, 232 pp., $35

When it comes to cooking -- and so much else -- we've entered the confessional era. Whether it's Emeril's crowd-pleasing theatrics or the sardonic machismo of Anthony Bourdain, we know more about the private lives and opinions of celebrity chefs than we want to. For those of us who miss the droll, timeless wit of Julia Child, it's impossible to look at today's tell-all cookbooks without feeling as though some threshold of private communion has been crossed.

But candor has suffused the cookbook shelf and is here to stay. Michael Schlow, the chef and co-owner of Radius, Via Matta, and Great Bay, is no exception. His debut cookbook, ''It's About Time," treads heavily on the line between refreshing and ingratiating prose. The dosage of autobiography is high. Fortunately, when it comes to food, Schlow's instincts are surefooted, his compositions thoughtful. Most of his maneuvers adapt freely to ordinary kitchens, even if the recipes could have used some professional editing.

Schlow has a gift for the interplay of textures. His warm shrimp salad balances creamy cannellini, tender-wilted arugula, and briny shrimp. (It's included in the ''30 minutes or less" chapter, but that doesn't count cooking the beans or deveining the shrimp, which would bump the recipe up many more minutes.) Chicken with zucchini and snap peas pulls off a similar marriage of crisp and yielding.

Here, measurements normally presented in cups and tablespoons are sometimes, arbitrarily, indicated in ounces, and the suggested conversions aren't always correct. This sort of vagueness is surprising, considering that at other times Schlow belabors the obvious. Do we really need a 300-word treatise on what ''to taste" means, or to be informed that cold potato salad is more appealing than warm on a midsummer day? For me, this was the final eye-rolling straw: ''2 bunches broccolini, rubber band removed." Many chefs seem to forget home cooks don't have armies of sous-chefs and a diverse assortment of ring molds. Schlow, by contrast, sometimes forgets that home cooks know not to cook the rubber bands.

If you can get past the didactic attitude, being a pupil in Schlow's kitchen has its rewards. Classic roast halibut with asparagus and morels showcases the chef's light touch. ''Secret Agent" raspberry bars come with the sort of coy preface -- ''I can't tell you why these are called secret agent raspberry bars without putting my life in jeopardy; I know it all sounds very cloak and dagger" -- that some of us find positively curdling. But the bars turn out to be chewy, almond-scented, and thoroughly addictive. And broccolini with spicy soy and orange zest has a lively, brilliant presence (though I couldn't help but wonder if it would have been enhanced by a touch of rubber band).

Astute readers may be wondering about the title, ''It's About Time." The concept starts out steadily enough, with a chapter on quickly prepared food (''Time to eat and now") and a chapter on big, slow dishes (''Time to get the family together"). But ''Time to pay a little respect" means Italian food -- quick, slow, and everything in between. It's hard to imagine any ordinary cook turning the kitchen upside down to make Japanese octopus with sweet yellow peppers, pickled shallots, and spicy citrus juice, just because it's ''Time for the greatest hits of Radius"! The time theme has a way of meandering.

If you buy a cookbook to get to know a chef a little better, or for a few new ideas when the weekly repertoire is getting stale, there's good reason to delve into this book. We also buy books because they remind us that, in our best moments, food is a pleasure that awakens all our senses. On this count, ''It's About Time" passes with flying colors. As to the grand question: Is this book timeless? Only time will tell.

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