Monday, 8 April 2013

The Family Meal: Home Cooking With Ferran Adrià by Ferran Adrià

Libraries are wonderful places.  It was at my local library that I stumbled across Ferran Adrià's cookbook 'The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià'.  Although there was no-one else in the stacks, I grabbed it quickly and furtively, hugging it to my chest and adding it to the already considerable number of books I'd chosen that day.

I'm ashamed to say I only opened it when I got home - the lure of Adrià's name was too great.  Whilst I devour books like whales swallow krill, perhaps I should have been more discerning?

After all, at first glance 'The Family Meal' appeared to be your typical large format coffee-table-cum-cookbook affair published by Phaidon.

I own another Phaidon book which I have never cooked from ('Breakfast, Lunch and Tea: The Many Little Meals of Rose Bakery' by Rose Carrarini) and have never had any practical luck with a book of this size and cheffy reputation.  As I write, Tetsuya Wakada's 'Tetsuya' sits languishing on my bookshelf. 
I know I will not make his checkerboard tuna and hamachi with orange oil, or any of the other one hundred and fifty or so recipes that are within.

Thankfully, this book isn't the languishing type.

Before you start cooking from 'The Family Meal' it is helpful to be a fairly relaxed, yet somewhat capable cook.  It is also helpful to approach 'The Family Meal' as inspiration for systems, ideas and meal planning, not just a storehouse of recipes.  Actually, regarding most recipes, anywhere, ever - as long as the principals remain the same, most experienced cooks substitute and alter according to taste, availability and whimsy.  Seriously, nobody is going to break down the door and arrest you if you sneak in an extra garlic clove or three.

Who you'd buy it for:  A young couple or single person setting up their first home/apartment.  It would be nice if they knew how to cook an omelette, or at least had an experienced person to call for help if the flour gets lumpy when making a roux.  Noobs, but not total noobs.

Why you want it:  One of the most accessible, practical and organised cookbooks ever.  There are 31 complete meals comprising of starter, main course and dessert with pictures of every step involved.  Each meal also has a corresponding time chart telling you when to do what, which is a godsend if timekeeping is not a strong point - it's certainly not one of mine.  You can mix and match the meal components.
The book itself is large, and not just for vanity's sake - it's made up mainly of photographs with instructive wording to accompany it.  There are pictures of everything.  If you're a 'visual person' you'll really appreciate this.
Oh, and it's useful if you ever need to cook for 2, 6, 20 or 75 (75?!?!) people.  Very cooking-for-a-crowd friendly and economical, as most recipes do not have a lot of ingredients but still maintain their integrity.

Why you don't want it:  Vegetarian options for main courses are limited.  Some mains are just meat alone with no accompanying vegetable or carbohydrate.  There is a bit of an assumption that you'll have bread at the table when eating - fine if you're European but potentially a little disconcerting for others.  However, if you're an Atkins fan, this book is pretty sweet.  
Also, this is not the book to buy if you want the-best-this or most-depth-of-flavour-that.  It has good basics, but if you want the recipe for the most awesome slow-cooked Mexican pork ever... then go buy a different book (or watch Robert Rodriguez do it here.)

'The Family Meal' has a lot going in its favour.  The tone of the writing is down to earth and extremely practical.  The language is direct and explanatory; the book is based on the staff meal (the 'family meal') that was cooked and eaten every day at elBulli before the beginning of service.  No gels, agar-agar or sous vide here - Adrià states, "The food we like to eat at elBulli is the same as what most people like to eat."  That's why the book contains recipes for tasty yet uncomplicated dishes, such as ossobuco, tomato & basil salad, chocolate cake, fish stew and even cheeseburger.

In fact, Meal 1 consists of Caesar salad as a starter, a cheeseburger with crisps as the main and the super-easy Santiago cake as dessert.  The Boyfriend and I had this for dinner last Wednesday night - we went from sighing mournfully at the open fridge door to chewing food in under 40 minutes, which includes making the dressing and the burger patties from scratch.  A godsend, especially if you get violently hangry* like I do.
I'll admit, Meal 1 has you looking at it suspiciously saying to yourself, "Is this real food? Why are you asking me to buy potato crisps? Ferran, I have great respect for your work, so why feed me like I'm a soccer hooligan?"

Well, I haven't got a scary-famous-Catalan-chef-who-has-changed-the-world-of-gastronomy-as-we-know-it-blah-blah-blah sitting here with me, so I'll surmise the answers.
Yes, it's real food.  You still have to make the dressing for the salad, which involves whizzing together garlic, anchovies, oil, egg yolks and vinegar to form an emulsion.  The process is similar to making aioli or mayonnaise, except in the book it's just one of the stepping stones to making a good salad, as opposed to an complicated affair which has you trotting off to the supermarket to buy a bottle because that sort of stuff is 'too hard'.  It isn't.  Just grab your stick mixer and make the damn dressing already.
Okay, next - the potato crisp thing.  Hmm... potato crisps go nicely with burgers and crisp manufacturers really can do it better.  I mean, no-one makes their own potato crisps.  No-one.
And finally... well, Meal 1 sounds pretty basic (if you're a real foodie wanker then you might even be annoyed) but it's a good start.  Accessibility forms the spiritual backbone of the book, and there's nothing more accessible than a burger/salad combo.

For a slightly more food snob sophisticated approach, we also tried the mussels with paprika and the baked sea bass.  Instead of sea bass I used trout, which is fine as the book acknowledges that substitutions are at times necessary and even suggests them.  Phew.
Again, this meal was easy, efficient to prepare and tasted good.  I did not make the suggested dessert of caramel pudding, as I still had leftover Santiago cake.  Adrià notes that certain desserts are not really feasible to prepare in small quantities, so he tells you how long the leftovers keep for and how to store them.  What an astonishment of sensibility! I like it.

It sounds like an oxymoron but this isn't a cookbook you'd purchase based on recipes alone.  The heart of the book is about organisation, systems and economy.
'The Family Meal' is not just a volume of delicious recipes (though none have disappointed so far) but rather a clever strategic guidebook about how to cook simply and eat well.  In fact, you may even get your money's worth.

*hangry: hungry + angry (= very, very bad, with an extensive blast radius made of terrifying rage)

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