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Portale's '12 Seasons Cookbook' provides year-round inspiration
'Alfred Portale's 12 Seasons Cookbook,' by Alfred Portale with Andrew Friedman/ Broadway Books
(CNN) -- This book runs in the opposite direction from everything you see in today's grocery stores.
It's not uncommon in the dead of winter to see fresh peaches -- imported from Chile -- in the produce section in many U.S. groceries. It's the same for asparagus from Mexico and green beans from Guatemala.
Americans have gotten used to the idea of having everything, all the time. But as anyone knows who has eaten a white peach, picked green and shipped from Chile, the taste is just not the same as when a peach is picked ripe from the tree in Georgia.
This desire to provide all type of foods all the time, as laudable a goal as that may be, often has unintended side effects. The types of lettuces, for example, that we end up with may not be the best tasting but the ones that ship best.
The reason those little salads served fresh in the spring in Paris restaurants taste the way they do is that the varieties of lettuces were chosen for the way they taste.
That brings us to Alfred Portale, the chef-owner of Gotham Bar and Grill in New York. His idea, an obvious one, is that foods taste best when gathered or prepared in season. It's not unusual, he notes, for restaurant chefs to change their menus every three months as the seasons change. But for Portale, that's not often enough.
Taste, he argues, the enjoyment of food, is influenced by more than just what's available at the market. The weather and way we feel about individual months also affect how we live and how we enjoy food.
He contrasts December and January, both cold weather months that are completely different in terms of how people view them.
Celebrations and new beginnings
For Portale, December is a time of celebration. So his menu features rich and unusual dishes that we don't normally eat every day. That means appetizers such as Foie Gras with Sour Cherry Chutney, Salmon Rilette, and Diver Scallops and Sevruga Caviar Tartare. Main courses include Linguine with White Truffles finished off with a Chestnut Tiramisu.
A December recipe -- Fennel and Garlic-Crusted Pork Roast with Warm Quince and Apple Compote -- is an excellent example of Portale's approach. The recipe is simple and straightforward, with the execution easy.
A paste is made by adding coarsely chopped fennel, onion and garlic to a food processor, along with thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, and fennel seed.
A four-pound pork rib roast is scored and the paste applied. The roast marinates for at least one hour and up to 8 hours.
It's brought to room temperature and roasted in a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for just over an hour or until the internal temperature is 150 degrees. Then the roast is allowed to rest for up to 20 minutes.
Your kitchen will fill with a pungent aroma as the roast cooks. The result -- juicy slices of roast with a crispy herbal crust.
Portale makes up a Quince and Apple Compote, basically a chunky applesauce, to serve along side.
But January, he says, is a new beginning, completely different in tone than the excesses of December.
Lighter fare for the New Year
"Gastronomically speaking, January is also a time of reckoning and readjustment. Many of us emerge on January 1 to the realization that the festivities and feasts of the preceding weeks have taken their toll. The same voice seems to whisper to many of us on New Year's Day, urging some restraint and suggesting we rearrange our dietary priorities," he says.
As a result, the menu lightens with pureed soups that rely on the pureed vegetables rather than cream for their thickness and flavor.
A good example is Cauliflower Vichyssoise, where cauliflower is simmered with leeks and onion in chicken stock, then pureed. The flavor is boosted by a handful of florets that are removed before the soup is pureed, sauteed in butter until brown and then added to the bowls before service.
While books such as Thomas Keller's "French Laundry Cookbook" offer absolutely no substitutions, Portale is up front in saying that some of these Gotham Bar and Grill recipes have been simplified for the home kitchen. If you want to make them more sophisticated, he tells you what to add back in and how.
For example, in the case of the cauliflower soup, large sea scallops can be sauteed, placed on the browned florets. The soup is added and the scallops topped with a dollop of caviar.
In this way, the home chef has the option of serving a tasty, hearty and lean soup for a cold day. Or, for a main course, the scallops can be added, and if money is no object, the caviar can transform the dish into something elegant.
Other offerings include Sole Chablis, a dish that could hardly be simpler to prepare. Slices of sole fillet are overlapped to create 6-inch circles in a baking dish and dotted with butter. Chablis is poured in. Foil goes over the dish, and the fish bakes for three to four minutes or until the fish is opaque.
The fillets are kept warm. The Chablis butter sauce is boiled down to concentrate the flavors then spiked with olive oil, lemon juice and chives. The fish circles or "petals" are plated and the sauce poured over.
March and August are special months for Portale. He believes March is the "last chance for winter" with its roasts, slowly braised meats with rich sauces and simmering stews.
His March menu features a fricassee, chicken simmered with root vegetables in red wine. Other offerings include slow cooked lamb shoulder and a rack of roasted venison.
August is the month to say goodbye to summer. Portale entitles his offerings "Seize the Day." There are two bruschettas based on grilled bread and tomatoes.
A spectacular offering is Duck with Roasted Peaches and Baby Turnips. This isn't a quick and easy recipe, but the steps -- making the sauce, roasting the peaches, poaching the turnips, and roasting the duck breasts and thighs -- aren't complicated. The result is a platter of medium-rare duck slices with crispy skin topped by caramelized peaches and tender baby turnips, all in a duck sauce with a subtle but distinctive touch of caraway.
Portale is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and has done turns in French kitchens, which gives his recipes delicacy and flair. But in many of these dishes, his Italian heritage and the reliance of Italian chefs on fresh ingredients simply prepared come to the fore.
"If a chef rather than an astronomer had devised the calendar, the year would begin not in January but in May, when the vegetables that appear are a cook's dream come true," he says.
In one of several essays on ingredients, Portale waxes eloquent about asparagus -- discussing the various sizes, colors, why peeling the spears is important and ways those spears can be used in recipes (there are four recipes, not counting variations).
Bouquet of techniques
One of the book's best recipes is Grilled Soft-Shell Crabs with Asparagus, New Potatoes and a Lemon-Caper Vinaigrette.
This recipe is a bouquet of techniques. The new potatoes take on a richer flavor by adding olive oil to the water the potatoes were simmered in. "The oil," says Portale, "will infuse the cooking water with flavor and permeate the potatoes."
Cooking the soft-shell crabs involves two techniques that defy the conventional. The crabs are not dipped in any breading. They don't need it, says Portale. And, they are cooked with a different grilling method -- high but indirect heat obtained by building a charcoal fire on one side of the grill and cooking the crabs on the opposite side.
The crabs are turned once and when they are bronzed, says Portale, they're done.
The large asparagus spears are peeled and simply simmered in water, and the whole dish -- potatoes, crabs, and asparagus -- is brought together by a tangy lemon-caper vinaigrette laced with plum tomatoes and minced chives.
The "12 Seasons Cookbook" is actually a number of cookbooks in one. It can be the inspiration for the home chef who wants to learn more about technique and about building layers of flavor. It can be a guide to better preparing standards such as a grilled beef tenderloin. And it can simply act as a guide or a reference for cooks who aren't sure what's at the market, or what to do with the ingredients they find there.
Interspersed throughout the recipes are little essays where Portale expands on various ingredients and techniques. These are light, short, and easy. In one essay, Portale discusses what a ramp (a wild leek) is, how it's sold and how to use it. In another he offers suggestions for quick and easy pan sauces.
There are wine pairings for each recipe, suggested menus, tips on preserving fresh ingredients, recipes for basic stocks, and mail order sources.
The book is beautifully rendered; the text from Portale and Andrew Friedman is accompanied by dozens of tantalizing food portraits from Japanese photographer Gozen Koshida.
'French Laundry Cookbook' takes top honors
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