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Cookbook Review

‘A Good Appetite’ satisfies, cover to cover

New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark shares 150 lovingly curated recipes, most of which are simple to pull off. New York Times food columnist Melissa Clark shares 150 lovingly curated recipes, most of which are simple to pull off. (Matthew Benson)
By T. Susan Chang
Globe Correspondent / March 23, 2011

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Part of the subtitle of Melissa Clark’s “In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite’’ is “. . .the Food You Love.’’ This may be pushing it. After all, one man’s asparagus with bread crumbs is another man’s bete noire. That’s just the way it is with food.

But whatever your tastes, you can be certain that every recipe in this book works as it was meant to. And because of that, someone is bound to love each one. Clark writes the popular New York Times column “A Good Appetite’’ and has authored or coauthored some 29 cookbooks. Now she is showcasing 150 lovingly curated recipes.

She has either a talent or a penchant, or maybe both, for a Middle Eastern spice palate. Her red lentil soup is a lively sort of dal, thanks to generous doses of lemon and mint or cilantro. I was overjoyed to discover the flavor of Turkish manti, the traditional dumplings, without the fiddling and fuss, in her pasta with Turkish-style lamb, eggplant, and yogurt sauce. The eggplant is roasted in tiny dice, intensifying its melting sweetness.

Braised flanken with pomegranate pretty much tells you how good it’s going to be up front. It promises, and delivers, an unctuous braise of cross-cut short ribs with the tart lift of pomegranate molasses. The real stroke of brilliance is a sprinkle of chopped basil and a scattering of pomegranate seeds, which cut through the richness of the beef.

The majority of these recipes are simple to pull off, yet they’re just innovative enough that you’re glad you have a recipe. For instance, you probably already know how good roasted cauliflower is (and if you don’t you should). Clark’s version deploys sliced almonds and Indian spices to good effect, proving that once in a while it’s OK to mess with a good thing.

In roasted shrimp and broccoli all you have to do is toss the ingredients separately in oil and spices, and then shake them onto a baking sheet. Garlicky cashew chicken starts with a heady, messy, smeary, cashew-based marinade (toss it in a plastic bag). You might think it would burn on the grill, yet it doesn’t. Instead, you end up with a crisp texture and monster flavor, especially if you shower it with lime and cilantro after cooking.

No great fan of tofu, Clark contrived an antidote to its blandness and floppiness by calling in the big guns — chorizo and shiitakes. This one really celebrates the mushrooms and pork (use Chinese sausage if you can get it). To be honest, you could just leave out the tofu and it would still be pretty good.

Occasionally, there’s a more complicated effort. Caramelized onion and radicchio quiche is about as involved as it gets in this book, but it’s worth it for two reasons: The recipe for pie crust really works; the custard, which looks dangerously quivery halfway through baking, emerges right on target.

Toward the end of the book, Clark goes on an extended dessert odyssey. I contented myself with the salted maple-walnut thumbprints, reminiscent of buttered sugar-on-snow.

The stories in this volume amuse and instruct in equal measure. One evening, I was broiling sliced zucchini with mint and garlic, finding it difficult to do all at once under my powerful, but small, infrared broiler. Having read that Clark’s ex-mother-in-law had to spend an hour with her tiny grill pan to create this recipe, I felt like it seemed less tedious.

Though many of us dine together with our families, often we cook alone. It’s not uncommon to feel quite on your own when you’re struggling with a wonky stove or crying onion tears. But with frank and friendly books like these, at least you never feel like you have to fly solo for long.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com.

IN THE KITCHEN WITH A GOOD APPETITE: 150 Recipes and Stories About the Food You Love

By Melissa Clark

Hyperion, 464 pp., $27.50