Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen, the latest tome from the Food Network show host, periodical Globe and Mail contributor and Iron Chef contestant, is nothing if not eclectic. Rare would be the restaurant to feature grilled tuna steak with white bean arugula salad and anchovy dressing on the same menu as dark chocolate peanut butter cups. But they’re both here, along with 98 other sometimes disparate recipes (pan-roasted lamb chops with fresh tomato mint chutney and a side of apple pie brown rice, anyone?).
These varied dishes do have one thing in common, however. According to Smith, they’re all easy to make — a claim that appears to be confirmed by my own attempts at re-creating them (more on that in a moment...). He may have worked at some of Canada’s premier restaurants, but Smith is no Julia Child. Every recipe here fits comfortably onto a single page, and few of them call for exotic ingredients or laborious preparation. This chef isn’t expecting his readers to master any kind of art.
“Your food doesn’t have to look or taste like mine to succeed,” he writes in the introduction. “When you cook a dish it becomes yours.”
To this end, Smith offers a fair bit of latitude with these recipes. He often forgoes specific instructions on ingredients or utensils in favour of a call to use “your favourite,” although this sometimes presumes a passion for every aspect of cooking that his readers may not share (“your favourite heavy frying pan”?).
It’s good that Smith has set the bar low in terms of appearance since, as he’s surely aware, few will have the time or talent to replicate the beautiful photographs that accompany his recipes. But while it’s impossible to know if these dishes taste like Smith’s, the results on this front are generally pleasing.
Although the combinations in his recipes can seem improbable, the result is often tasty. Cinnamon sour cream, which is exactly what it sounds like, provided the perfect accent to a steaming bowl of sweet potato vegetarian chili. Grated lemon rind, meanwhile, might seem like an odd presence in his Mediterranean beef stew, but its flavour actually blended very well with the olives and capers.
Even when the results are good, though, some of the recipes involve too much work for too little reward. Coconut-crusted chicken with mango-ginger-mint salsa would probably have tasted just as good had it not required the time-consuming crusting, and the polenta in his sausage and pepper polenta with oregano and ricotta adds nothing that pasta couldn’t have supplied just as well.
Not all of the recipes are exotic, of course. Indeed, some of them are so commonplace you wonder why Smith felt it necessary to offer yet another variation. His characteristic flowery prose does its best to jazz up his chewy chocolate chip cookies, describing them as “deeply flavoured and tantalizingly textured,” but in reality they’re nothing special. It seemingly didn’t occur to Smith that, in contrast to frying pans, most people probably already have a favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe.
It’s pretty easy to tell what Smith’s own favourites are. Fish-haters be warned: the book includes no fewer than eight recipes for salmon, including smoked salmon-crusted salmon with cucumber-dill pickle. As he acknowledges, he also loves brown butter (butter melted until it’s “richly fragrant and golden brown”), and it pops up in at least six entries.
Even if you don’t like either of those things, though, the diversity in this book is likely to offer something for everyone. Who knows, Chef Michael Smith’s Kitchen might even become one of “your favourite” cookbooks.