I can’t tell you how hopeful I was when I picked up this book. I’ve always heard enthusiastic praise of Patricia Wells and feel a profound spiritual kinship for anyone who is living my dream of running away to Paris. I am also a huge advocate of salad for dinner (in contrast to my child, who is a huge advocate of pancakes for dinner).
The pictures are lovely, the recipes sound wonderful, it all promised to be a match made in culinary heaven, and all in time for the warm months ahead.
So what went wrong?
It could be that recipes that sound good were added under the influence of a “how bad could this be?” thought process. Whatever the reason, somebody was not paying attention.
My first problem with the book is the surprising amount of specialized equipment called for. Especially surprising for a salad cookbook. Why, for instance, only mention a deep-fat fryer for making potatoe chips when none of these things work? Cook’s Illustrated’s comprehensive testing found that most fryers did a ridiculously poor job at achieving or maintaining proper temperatures or had other serious flaws and even the best of the bunch didn’t perform as well as a dutch oven which, of course, has many, many other uses. So why not offer the option of frying them in a pot you probably already have? Several recipes include smoked fish or poultry and recommend buying a Camerons stove-top smoker, which didn’t look like a bad item and not too expensive but…really? I also don’t have a 10″ and a 12″ crepe pan, thank you very much.
But these would have been forgivable work-arounds if the recipes had been worth it.
I made six dishes from this book (not counting the salad dressings) before I reluctantly admitted to myself that it was probably not going to get any better. There are too many good cookbooks out there to spend more time with one that isn’t.
The Curly Endive Salad with Bacon and Poached Egg (page 72) was ok (and I finally decently poached an egg — yay!) but utterly lacking in memorable qualities or a lot of flavor. I’m not a huge fan of an all-endive salad in the first place and none of the other components were offering any assistance here. The Thin Bread Crisps (page 274) were nothing more than bread toasted in the oven. It’s a bit of a stretch to offer it up as a recipe.
A Deconstructed Club Sandwich Salad with Purple Potato Chips (page 80) sounds amazingly good but is poorly thought-out. The slices of sourdough toast are very awkward to cut and the whole time I struggled to eat it I kept thinking how much easier it would have been to eat as a sandwich. The dressing for this (as for several of the salads) was a Creamy Lemon-Mustard (page 325) consisting of only light cream, lemon zest and juice, salt and mustard and was about as interesting as it sounds. The potatoes also didn’t work; some browned too quickly, some remained chewy in the middle. This recipe also seemed suspiciously similar to the Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato Tartines (p. 83). What’s up with that?
Perhaps the biggest failure was the Quinoa Salad with Spinach, Parsley and Spring Onions (page 58). So uneccesarily complicated, it’s a recipe that just didn’t know when to say when. I tasted the quinoa by itself and it was pretty good but Wells has you then toss it with a bitter dressing made primarily of parsley and then later with a Creamy-Lemon Chive Dressing (also made mostly out of light cream). Way too many steps, way too many ingredients and all for a dish that was nearly inedible.
The only recipe that was even moderately successful was the Chicken and Soba Noodles with Ginger-Peanut Sauce (page 192). We love this type of cold Asian salad and this one was pretty good although the sauce was a bit gloppy and salty (despite using low-sodium soy sauce). I would not buy this book for this recipe as you can find it done better in many other places.
Coincidentally, it turns out that I had already made the Zucchini Carpaccio with Avocado, Pistachios, and Pistachio Oil from The Essential New York Times Cookbook and found it great conceptually but lacking in flavor.
It is with deep regret that I tell you that I cannot recommend this book. I can’t believe it is representative of all of Patricia Wells work and I hope to find a spectacular cookbook of hers to tell you about some day.
In the meantime, I remain unwavering in my commitment to salad as a meal!
Try “Raising the Salad Bar.” No funny stuff and seriously good. The black bean and sweet potato salad blew me right out of the water.
Thanks Mary, I’ll check it out!
Mary, make that “I just ordered it.” You recommendation along with 27 five-star reviews convinced me. Plus the descriptions of the salads sounded right up my alley.
Patricia Wells; “My Life in Provence” is a treasure. I highly recommend this one. Or check it out of your library.