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Bring a good appetite to this book

"In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite," by Melissa Clark. Hyperion, $27.50.

Melissa Clark may not be a chef, but as a food writer, she's not exactly an amateur cook. Her training includes culinary school and time spent in a restaurant kitchen, and she has picked up a few hundred tricks from the pros. At the same time, she has an uncanny knack for understanding the abilities and desires of home cooks who want to make fantastic meals, but don't have all day to figure out what to have for dinner.

It's no wonder that some of the country's greatest chefs, from acclaimed restaurateur Daniel Boulud to White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, have sought out her skill at translating their restaurant dishes into recipes suitable for the home kitchen.

In her weekly New York Times recipe column, "A Good Appetite," Ms. Clark gives readers a peek into her marvelous brain, transforming the path from idea to finished recipe into a delightful narrative, full of obstacles and moments of inspiration and, always, with a delectably happy ending.

"In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite" (Hyperion, 2010, $27.50), Ms. Clark's 29th cookbook, expands upon this theme, with 150 recipes and stories, some old favorites from her column, but many more entirely new. The recipes are divided into sections with clever titles such as "Things with Cheese," and (my favorite) "I Never Was a Vegetarian." The recipes are so clearly written and easy to follow that I didn't even mind the lack of pictures. What sets the book apart are the stories behind the recipes, each one artfully demonstrating how food is tied to our emotions and memories.

This book would make great reading in bed -- except for the fact that within five minutes you'd be too hungry and too excited to cook to sleep.

A take-out container of Tom Yum inspires a recipe of fish gently simmered in an aromatic bath of tomato, coconut milk, lemongrass and herbs.

A yearning for braised meat and the limited contents of her freezer lead Ms. Clark to braised pork chops with tomatoes, anchovies and rosemary -- all the flavor of a traditional braise miraculously compressed for the weeknight cooking schedule. Who needs a pressure cooker when you know how to substitute?

This book even may have solved the major conundrum of my holiday season: Cheesy Baked Pumpkin with Gruyere Fondue sounds like the perfect vegetarian entree for Thanksgiving, impressive and delicious enough to share pride of place with the turkey.

Ms. Clark typically relies on relatively basic kitchen equipment, and even her most exotic ingredients (orange blossom water, lemongrass, squid) can be found at many mainstream grocery stores these days. Not every recipe can be made in 30 minutes or less, but those that can't are well worth the extra effort.

For an impromptu Rosh Hashanah dinner I roasted boneless, skinless chicken thighs (a favorite of Ms. Clark's and far superior to their white-meat counterpart) with apples, gin and coriander. I served it with Crunchy Noodle Kugel a la Aunt Martha, a classic interpretation of a sweet noodle kugel, cooked in a rimmed sheet pan to increase the crispy crust.

A hint of cayenne and a generous topping of flaky sea salt are the secret ingredients in Kate's Impossibly Fudgy Brownies, making the chocolate flavor that much more intense.

In Ms. Clark's world, there is clearly no such thing as a secret recipe. She blithely shares everything from her method for five-minute preserved lemons to her salted maple walnut thumbprint cookies, the pride of her holiday cookie tins. That kind of generosity pays off. Many of Ms. Clark's favorite recipes originated in the homes of family and friends, though she generally can't help tinkering with them until they are distinctly her own.

Greek feta cheese torte, discovered at a dinner party, proved delicious and impressive, so why not expand upon it? She created a sweet version, substituting ricotta for the feta, toasted walnuts and honey for the dill and Romano cheese. I hesitated before tackling it (I've had bad experiences with phyllo), but I found Ms. Clark's original skepticism comforting, and it proved just as straightforward as she'd described.

The recipes I tested (nine in all) were consistently successful, in part thanks to directions that seemed more accurate than the average cookbook. But if I choose to make some changes, substituting for what I have on hand or adding a new twist, I know I have Ms. Clark's blessing.

I could say that "In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite" has found a permanent home on my bookshelf, but at least until I've cooked my way through it, it will more often be found open on my kitchen counter.

Roasted Chicken Thighs with apples, gin and coriander seeds

PG tested

The ideal ratio of work to flavor makes this recipe perfect for one of those nights when you really wanted something delicious for dinner about 20 minutes ago. It comes together and cooks in just about the exact amount of time it takes to cook a pot of white rice.

-- China Millman

  • 1 large or 2 small apples
  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch strips
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon white vermouth
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons gin
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, dill or parsley, divided
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Core apples and slice as thinly as you can without getting out (or buying!) a mandoline (between 1/8 and 1/4 inch is fine).

In a 9-by-13-inch pan, toss all the ingredients except 1 tablespoon cilantro (or dill or parsley). Spread the ingredients out into one layer in the pan. Roast until the chicken is cooked through and the apples are softened, about 20 minutes. Garnish with the remaining tablespoon cilantro, dill or parsley. The sauce will be thin, so serve with crusty bread or over rice.

Serves 2 to 3.

-- "In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite" by Melissa Clark (Hyperion, $27.50)

Sweet Phyllo and Ricotta Cheese Torte with Honey and Walnuts

PG tested

I don't have a great history with phyllo dough, but my own uncertainy was tempered by Ms. Clark's skepticism. I don't have a food processor, so I just mixed the ingredients together in a bowl. It almost seemed too easy as I stuffed the phyllo into the Bundt pan, poured in the ricotta mixture and drizzled on the butter. But the results were just as promised -- impressive and delicious.

-- China Millman

  • 3 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 4 cups ricotta
  • 1-pound box phyllo dough, defrosted
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup your best honey

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Into the bowl of a food processor, combine the eggs, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon and pulse to mix well. Pulse in the ricotta just enough to incorporate it; the mixture should still be chunky.

Taking the sheets of phyllo two at a time, drape them over a Bundt pan, poking the center through the sheets and pushing them down to line the pan. The edges of the sheet should hang over the edges of the pan. Sprinkle 1/4 cup of the walnuts into the phyllo-lined pan.

Scrape the cheese filling into the phyllo-lined pan and fold the edges of the dough over the filling, sealing the bottom of the torte. Using a sharp knife, poke at least 20 holes in the dough that reach all the way from the bottom to the top of the torte; slowly pour the melted butter over the torte; some of the butter will seep through the holes and some will remain on top of the dough.

Place the Bundt pan on a baking sheet, and bake for about 11/4 hours or until the torte is puffy and golden brown. Allow the torte to cool in the pan for 1 to 2 hours before inverting onto a plate. Drizzle the honey all over the top and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup walnuts.

Serves 10 to 12.

-- "In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite" by Melissa Clark (Hyperion, $27.50)

Kate's Impossibly Fudgy Brownies with Chile and Sea salt

PG tested

After I served these at the office, more than a dozen people came up to me to tell me they were the best brownies they'd ever had. Need I say more?

-- China Millman

  • 2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne, optional
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • Maldon salt, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a rimmed 9-by-13-inch baking sheet with parchment paper.

In the microwave, or in the top bowl of a double boiler, melt together the butter and chopped chocolate, stirring until smooth. Meanwhile, combine flour, kosher salt and cayenne in a medium bowl.

Transfer chocolate mixture to a large mixing bowl, and whisk in the cocoa powder and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla; whisk until smooth.

Fold in the dry ingredients, and continue folding until no lumps remain.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan, and smooth the top with a spatula. Sprinkle all over with Maldon salt. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until the edges just begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top is set and shiny.

Allow the brownies to cool completely in the pan before cutting. Makes 24 2-inch squares.

-- "In the Kitchen With a Good Appetite" by Melissa Clark (Hyperion, $27.50)

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow her at twitter.com/chinamillman. First Published September 30, 2010 4:00 AM