I know, I know…

I left without saying goodbye. I hope you didn’t feel abandoned. But when business calls it calls, and heck, my destination was sweet home Chicago. Can you blame me? OK, so you can. Next time I promise to provide warning.

Being back in the big city, I of course managed to work a little pleasure into the trip. First stop, the Vienna Beef processing plant where the company commissary is open to the public. A fresher hot dog you shall never have. From there it was on to various errands, including a trip to my favorite book store where I treated myself to a cookbook. I do this every fall, as I like having a cooking agenda in mind as we get toward winter.

This year’s indulgence is Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard, and brothers and sisters, I can already tell it’s going to be a fun winter. If you’re not familiar with Michel Richard, he is the owner and executive chef of the Washington D.C. restaurants Citronelle and Central. Born and raised in France, he was trained as a pastry chef, which is what makes his full-menu cookbook so darned entertaining. The techniques it contains are all about surprise in presentation: phony hard boiled eggs made of fresh mozzarella and thickened yellow tomato purée, spaghetti carbonara that swaps blanched onions for pasta, risotto with potatoes instead of rice. Not all his recipes contain such trompe l’oeil shenanigans, but nearly every one has a technique in it you’ve probably never thought of. Thus it’s an invaluable resource for pastry types who tend to like to play with their food, even when they’re preparing a main course.

It’s a pity it didn’t win the James Beard cookbook of the year award this year. That distinction went to the Lee Bros.’ Southern Cookbook, which I also own, but sort of wish I didn’t. Maybe I just have a chip on my shoulder about the James Beard Awards. A very good friend of mine who was nominated failed to win one this year (albeit in the very un-sexy media category, where you don’t even get to attend the dinner with all the author and chef nominees). Then again, it could just be the way I approach cookbooks. I like it when they teach me something, not just turn me on to foods and/or flavors I may not be familiar with. Thus the Lee Bros. seem like a triumph of style over substance to me. I suppose I should just be happy that Michel Richard won the James Beard outstanding chef award this year and shut up about it. Still, something about it burns me…

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