Strong on flavor, light on labor
CONCORD, N.H. – Peter Berley became inspired to write his latest cookbook, an ode to fast and flavorful, after realizing how much trouble his teenage daughter would have preparing recipes from his first.
She had asked for his help in assembling menus from his book.
But the more he worked at it, the more he realized how daunting a task it would be for her to take those recipes from concept to kitchen.
“We started looking at them together and I realized ‘My God, this will take her, like, four hours,”‘ he said in a recent telephone interview from his Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., home. “They’re really nice menus, but how practical is that?”
Berley’s first cookbook, “The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen” (Regan Books, 2000), offered an eclectic yet satisfying collection of recipes that were strong on flavor, but sometimes also on labor.
“I’m a chef so I can whip things out really fast, but for the average person it can be overwhelming to put a meal together, especially if it’s not meat-based,” he said.
His next cookbook, he decided, would take the same approach to flavor, minus the work.
He wanted recipes easy enough for home cooks to make during the week, but elegant enough for entertaining.
He also liked the idea of organizing the book seasonally, and within each season clustering the recipes into menus.
“If I’m going to do menus they’ve got to be quick,” he said. “And they’ve got to be something the average person can execute. And yet I didn’t want them to be dumbed down. I didn’t want a three-ingredient book.”
The result was “Fresh Food Fast” (Regan Books, 2004, $34.95). It’s hardly dumb, but it is intuitive.
Each menu contains two or three straightforward recipes, such as a warm white-bean salad with sun-dried tomatoes and smoked mozzarella, and Provencal garlic and herb broth for winter.
The menus also include shopping lists (divided into fresh produce, dairy and pantry staples), equipment needed and so-called “game plans” – step-by-step guides to making the entire menu at once.
That last piece is the beauty of the book. It covers the part of cooking the average person most struggles with – orchestrating multiple recipes for the greatest efficiency and to ensure everything is ready at the same time.
“It became a great project because I had to find out what steps are unnecessary in cooking and which steps are necessary, and what techniques could be used to speed things up without sacrificing flavor or color or texture,” Berley said.
Experienced cooks can produce most menus in about 30 minutes; everyone can prepare them in under an hour, he said.
So what essential tips for streamlining kitchen work did he learn along the way? The first is obvious, yet still relatively unappreciated: Be organized. Clutter slows you down, so does having to search for tools or ingredients.
Second, preheating isn’t just for ovens. Berley urges cooks to preheat anything that requires heat.
“I will put a skillet on high heat while I chop onions,” he said. “Throw in your vegetables, which immediately brings down the temperature, then you throw in your oil.”
Finally, cluster your tasks. Making multiple recipes that all call for chopped onions? Figure out ahead of time the total amount needed and chop them all at once.
For Berley, it all comes back to his original goal: “Day-to-day reality cooking. Under an hour. With really cool food.”
For a refreshing summer soup, try Berley’s chilled avocado soup with lime and jalapeno, a soothing dish that is creamy, cool and hot all at once.
To save even more time on this recipe, use frozen avocado halves, which are sold peeled and pitted by the bag at most grocers. Using frozen avocados also eliminates the need for ice, as called for in the recipe.
Chilled Avocado Soup With Lime and Jalapeno
(Preparation 15 minutes)
3 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted
1 garlic clove, chopped
1Ú2 small jalapeño pepper, with seeds, chopped
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt or kosher salt, plus additional to taste
21Ú2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large (8 inches) flour tortilla, cut into 2-by- 1Ú4-inch strips
Sour cream, for garnish
Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
Squeeze the juice from 21Ú2 of the limes. Cut the remaining half lime into 4 wedges for the garnish.
In a blender combine 3 cups of ice water (a mixture of ice and water) with the lime juice, avocados, garlic, jalapeño and salt. Blend until smooth. Chill the soup until ready to serve.
Heat the oil in a large skillet or saute pan over a medium flame. Add the tortilla strips and fry until they are crunchy and golden brown, about 2 minutes. Drain the strips on paper towels and sprinkle them with salt.
Spoon the soup into bowls. Place a dollop of sour cream in the center of each bowl, then top with tortilla strips. Garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve with lime wedges on the side.
Makes 4 servings.
(Recipe from Peter Berley’s “Fresh Food Fast,” Regan Books, 2004, $34.95.)