Splendid Table cookbook on trial

This looks much better than it does on radio: Roasted butternut squash and greens over bow-tie pasta

This looks much better than it does on radio: Roasted butternut squash and greens over bow-tie pasta

Every time I open the cookbook cupboard at my house, a pile of weighty hardbound tomes, saddle-stitched softcovers, magazine pages, newspaper clippings, email printouts, and hand-scrawled notes threatens to landslide. I have about as much need for another recipe as I do a box of Foie Gras Helper. But when I found out that Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of public radio's The Splendid Table, had written a new cookbook, How to Eat Supper, with her producer, Sally Swift, I wondered if these hometown stars might convince me to carve out some space in the cupboard.

The Splendid Table has been on the air for more than a decade, long enough for Kasper's cheery schoolmarm shtick to become as recognizable to public radio listeners as Garrison Keillor's wheeze. Each week, Kasper functions as a food lover's Oprah, interviewing all sorts of experts and authors who recommend Spanish cheeses, discuss Thomas Jefferson's passion for wine, or explain the humble origins of the tater tot. Though the show is produced in St. Paul, a city few consider a culinary capital, it has gained a large national following. Its broad appeal is based largely on its equally broad approach to food, presenting historical and political context alongside ideas on what to make for dinner. The show helped to democratize the gourmet hobbyist, and probably helped get the word "foodie" into the dictionary.

The role of the first American cookbook, which in 1796 instructed readers to bake their johnnycakes over a fire, was to help women fulfill their duty to be "good wives and useful members of society." Today's most popular manuals, by contrast, emphasize quick, simple recipes for busy people who want to avoid processed foods fraught with extra pounds. Even the promotional materials for Kasper and Swift's book acknowledge the glut: "Just when you thought the last thing you needed was another book on weeknight cooking...."

As cookbooks have evolved, they've developed two audiences: those who buy them for the "cook" and those who buy them for the "book," meaning that plenty of people are completely content to read recipes and pore over photographs without feeling the need to sharpen a knife or light a burner. How to Eat Supper's scrapbook-like format offers plenty of notes and anecdotes to please those who treat cookbooks as literature. The tidbits, tips, and recommendations in the margins read like asides to a conversation, mimicking the radio show's hodgepodge of interviews, trivia questions, and listener call-ins. Compared to Kasper's previous two cookbooks, on regional Italian cooking, this one is a clearer brand extension of the radio show. (The design, too, is as buoyant as Kasper's radio personality: a brash color palette, a smorgasbord of fonts, and bright, appealing photos.) Advice is as practical as a list of ways to use stale bread and as fantastical as what wine to pair with Twinkies. For every straightforward guide to salad greens and tomato varieties, there's a wacky factoid, such as how a chicken's earlobes reveal the color of its eggs, or results of a British Cheese Board study about how cheese affects sleep (apparently Stilton eaters dreamed about cuddly toys, while cheddar eaters had visions of celebrities).

The recipes themselves come from a variety of sources: both general inspiration from, say, Brussels pub food or Mediterranean cooking, to specific formulas from Swift's mother or reprints from other cookbook authors. There are global flavor influences—California, Italy, Asia—but the unifying factor seems to be simple preparations using fresh, high-quality, organic-when-possible ingredients.

The book is narrated in Kasper's frank, folksy tone: "It was June 1988 and I hadn't seen a salad in eight days," one chapter begins. And it offers much of the insider information that the radio show's groupies certainly crave, from Swift's admission that she's afraid to smash garlic with the side of a chef's knife to Kasper's bad-girl suggestion for buying grape tomatoes: "If you can, sneak a taste of one before committing to the entire container." A few items give the authors an ever-so-slightly bawdy edge: Kasper proclaims one dish as "good hangover food," and Swift confesses that she protects her vegetable garden from deer and rabbits by pouring her own urine around its perimeter.

When translating The Splendid Table from broadcast to print, though, many phrases that sound cute when spoken can come off as cornball on the page. For example, Kasper's description of a cauliflower dish that "reheats like a trouper," or her comment that ethnic markets are "a new recreational opportunity," or her remark that preheating the oven to 450 "opens you to culinary serendipity." When I got to the sentence, "We feel special—don't you?" I knew it was time to stop reading and start cooking.

For three days I grocery shopped, cooked, served, and ate supper the Kasper way. Besides the fact that it's a helluva lot more work to evaluate three meals when you have to prepare them yourself, here's what I found:

How to Eat Supper's recipes for the simple, rustic comfort foods turned out the best. The pasta with pistachio pesto was blue-ribbon-worthy, but the 21st-century mac 'n' cheese was truly best in show, with its decadent mix of sharp cheddar, cream cheese, Gruyere, and crumbles of buttery saltine crackers. A frittata of Swiss chard, Parmesan, and Monterey Jack was a snap to prepare, and it had just enough diced Granny Smith apple and fresh-grated nutmeg to make it interesting. Several dishes were successful simply for starting with good ingredients and doing very little to them, such as wok-sautéed peas, wine-braised carrots, and slices of country bread spread with fresh cheese, thin-sliced scallions, and radishes.

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.