This month's cookbook club keeps it simple


First aired on In Town and Out (2/6/12)

This month, The In Town and Out cookbook club set out to tackle The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, only to discover that the book wasn't so simple at all.

Host Michael Bhardwaj was joined by cookbook club members Arjo and Romika Muhkerjee. They were drawn to Waters' declaration that food should be "local, organic, seasonal and simple." The Muhkerjees have a garden in their backyard and shop at their local farmers' market whenever they can. "The idea of this book truly spoke to me and I was quite excited about it," Arjo said.

While the book was a struggle to get through -- "it did overwhelm me initially," Romika admitted -- the food it resulted in was nothing short of astounding. Arjo says the pasta and roast chicken they made from this book was the best their family ever had. Romika appreciated the way Waters' explained beans, and the family made delicious hummus and dips as a result. "That's where this book is revolutionary," Arjo said. Thanks to this book, the family now has a new rule whenever they enter the kitchen. "Think about the main product you are dealing with first, make that the priority, and everything else should enhance that."

However, it took awhile for them to get there. You can't just grab The Art of Simple Food and go when you want to make a meal, which is difficult for a working family with young kids. Recipes aren't logically organized and the book is loaded with information. "It's almost as if it's a course, it's not a classic cookbook," Arjo commented. Romika agreed. "I think of this book as an instructional how-to book."

As a result, The Art of Simple Food wasn't as great as it could have been. By trying to be both a reference text and a recipe book, it failed at expertly executing either. ""If it went with just being a simple reference manual...I think it would have been a much more powerful book," Arjo said.

That said, the book changed the way the Muhkerjees approach food, from farm to kitchen to table. And that alone made the read worth it.

Potato Gratin


I like this best when the potatoes are sliced quite thin (a mandoline makes this easy): that way the potato slices are less likely to curl up and burn on the edges. Yukon Gold and other waxy, yellow-fleshed potatoes keep their texture in a gratin; floury potatoes like russets fall apart.

Rub a 9- by 12-inch gratin dish with:

  • Butter
  • Peel and slice about 1/16 inch thick:

  • 4 large yellow potatoes(about 11/2 pounds)
  • Make a layer of potato slices in the gratin dish, overlapping them slightly, like shingles. Sprinkle with:

  • Salt and fresh-ground black pepper
  • Continue to layer the potato slices, seasoning each layer, until the potatoes are used up. You should have two or, at the most, three layers. Carefully pour over the potatoes:

  • 1 cup milk
  • The liquid should come up to the bottom of the top layer of potatoes. Add more if necessary. Generously dot the top of the potatoes with:

  • 3 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
  • Bake in a 350°F oven until browned and bubbling, about 1 hour. Halfway through the baking, take the gratin dish out of the oven and press the potatoes flat with a metal spatula to keep the top moist. Return to the oven and keep checking. The gratin is done when the potatoes are soft and the top is golden brown.


    • Peel and smash a garlic clove and rub it all over the inside of the gratin dish before buttering it.
    • Use duck fat instead of butter.
    • Use heavy cream or a mixture of half-and-half and cream. Omit the butter.
    • Substitute celery root, parsnip, or turnip slices for up to half the potatoes.
    • Add chopped herbs such as thyme, parsley, chives, or chervil between the layers.
    • Sprinkle grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese on each layer and sprinkle more on top for the last 15 minutes of baking.

    Excerpted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters Copyright © 2007 by Alice Waters. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada , Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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