Splendid Table cookbook on trial

We put Lynne Rossetto Kasper's latest to the test

When I started cooking meat, things took a turn for the worse. Though adequately warned, I couldn't stop the tomato-cheddar-packed turkey burgers from falling apart in the pan, and they didn't taste nearly as flavorful as promised. Lettuce roll-ups stuffed with an almond-chutney chicken salad tasted terrific, but their instructions, calling for overly generous amounts of chicken and lemon juice, seemed a little off. I realize that long prep times for recipes cause people to skip them, but the suggested 15 minutes was far too optimistic for slicing and dicing five types of vegetables and two bunches of herbs, washing and drying a head of lettuce, and picking the chicken meat off the carcass. When I boiled the yogurt-based sauce for the chicken curry with gentle spices, as directed, it curdled up like cottage cheese. The result was grayish slurry that looked nothing like the creamy orange stew in the photograph.

Then I came to the "secret steak," written in a promisingly large, all-caps font and described as "a cut of chuck that equals porterhouse and rib eye in flavor at less than half the price." Of course, I had to try it. Following Kasper's instructions, I went to the meat case at the co-op, selected a package labeled "chuck roast," and, with some difficulty, identified the piece I was supposed to cook. After a quick pan-sear and finish in the oven, the steak wasn't bad, for a piece of chuck. But "not bad" isn't the same as "good." When I relayed my experience to a few local butchers, they believed Kasper was referring to the chuck eye steak, but recommended buying ones a butcher had cut—the first few steaks off the chuck, right next to the rib eye—rather than buying the chuck roast and cutting a steak yourself.

The dessert recipes I tried proved thankfully more precise. The moist, spicy, ginger cake; the lush, sour cream panna cotta; and the bittersweet fudge cakes were as easy to make as they were impressive, and definitely worth repeating. Yet overall, they felt like the hit songs on an inconsistent album.

But that's probably okay. The people who will buy How to Eat Supper already know how to put food on the table. They aren't so much listening to The Splendid Table for cooking instruction as they are seeking a friendly guide to help them navigate the increasingly complex world of food. Like the radio show, the cookbook's strength lies not so much in its ability to instruct but in its role as culinary clearinghouse, compiling the thoughts of some of the most interesting people in the world of food. We should realize that we're asking a lot of Kasper and Swift to cull the best from this abundance of information—food books, food magazines, food research, food blogs, food television shows—the lovable monster they helped create.

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