Easy Entertaining, By Darina Allen, Kyle Books, 304 pp., $35
Darina Allen, the popular cooking teacher and founder of Ireland's Ballymaloe Cookery School, has published a whole shelf of cookbooks with names like "The Festive Food of Ireland" and "Irish Traditional Cooking."
One might be forgiven for thinking her latest volume, "Easy Entertaining," might showcase recipes brimming with Celtic nostalgia. Or that, as the title implies, it would be a streamlined version of the formulaic menus usually found in entertaining books.
Both assumptions would be wrong. Despite its generic title, "Easy Entertaining" is a wide-ranging, multi-ethnic cookbook. It's for the average food lover who isn't planning to go to cooking school, but wouldn't mind having the recipes from one. It's about as Irish as lamb korma or tiramisu (versions of both are in the book). And, to everybody's good fortune, nearly everything "Easy Entertaining" has to offer is flavorful, competent, and delicious. Apart from a few meticulous suggestions in "finger foods" and a lot of gorgeous photography, Allen goes easy on the presentation tips. Recipe after recipe produces rich and complex flavors from a short list of ingredients.
A slow-roasted shoulder of lamb with cumin demonstrates this economy, using only a few ingredients and simple technique. After seven hours in a low oven, the lamb's texture had gone from juicy to meltingly tender, and the scent of the cumin rub had penetrated to the very center of the meat. Another dish, squid with chilies, salt, pepper, and frizzled cilantro was addictive; a sharp twang of lemon made the cilantro roar to life. Although we could not find fresh red chilies for the accompanying sauce, we substituted sriracha and cleaned our plates in 10 minutes flat.
Equally irresistible were the Baja-style fish tacos with chipotle mayonnaise. Strips of fish got royal treatment with a mustard-spiced beer batter that made them swell up like golden pontoons when fried. The mayonnaise -- cool in temperature but warm in spice -- made a seductive counterpoint. All that was lacking was a pounding surf.
The modestly named spiced chicken and red peppers with orzo turned out to be a curry easily made in a food processor but with surprising depth. If I closed my eyes, I tasted cashews and roast tomatoes, though the real ingredients were almonds and red peppers. A bed of plentifully herbed orzo made a satisfying complement, though plain rice would have been less bother and just as good.
Allen's tireless invention, sad to say, seems to falter when it comes to leafy greens. In a book notable for its abundance and creativity, the vegetable section is oddly scant.
But buttered zucchini with marjoram -- as straightforward as it sounds -- made a versatile side. And the one traditionally Irish dish we tried, the blend of cabbage and mashed potatoes called colcannon , came out lighter and fluffier than your usual mash. Steaming instead of boiling the potatoes halfway through was the key.
Allen's sweets were tasty but not foolproof. Frosted lemon rosemary squares had to be deemed a technical failure: The cake rose and then collapsed dramatically, leaving it raw in the middle even after 10 extra minutes in the oven. Still, the cooked edges were delicious served with crème fraîche. Later, I rebaked the soggy center, and it was so fabulous -- chewy, herbal, and sweet -- I almost wished the recipe had failed on purpose.
Dutch apple cake with cinnamon sugar was similarly undercooked after the time specified. I checked my oven, which was indeed running about 20 degrees cooler. Even taking that into account, though, neither should have come out raw in the middle.
By and large, "Easy Entertaining" is delightful to use: The pictures are great, the instructions clear. Readers should be warned that stated prep times and cooking times can be off by as much as half, but it's the thought that counts. The book's a magnificent rebuke to anyone who ever thought the Emerald Isle's culinary exports were restricted to mutton and spuds. For that alone, Allen is an Irish treasure worth celebrating more than once a year.