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`amuse-bouche' by Chicago Tru restaurant owner / chef Rick Tramonto is all about a newly trendy corner of French cuisine which arrive before the appetizer, are generally offered for free by the restaurant, and are `Little bites of food to amuse the mouth, invigorate the palate, whet the appetite...' as stated by author.
The value of this book is based largely on the fact that, to my knowledge, there is no other book on the subject available in English which even addresses this subject, let alone does it as well as Sr. Tramonto. The primary value of `amuse-bouche' to the average amateur cook / entertainer is that it gives one the chance to present a small amount of relatively expensive ingredients such as caviar, truffles, foie gras, or sushi grade tuna in a dramatic setting. The dish has the added virtue of challenging the host's ingenuity in presenting these `little bites'.
The disadvantages are that for a single bite of food, these dishes can be a lot of work. As Tramonto prepares them, there is a relatively large amount of pureeing, straining, blanching, grinding, mixing, and reducing going on to distill the ingredients into a powerful taste which has but one chance to make an impression. Compare to this the utterly simple composition of many antipasti, often based on nothing more than a joining of bread or cured ham or olives or fruit or cheese with one another, possibly with the addition of olive oil, a tapenade, or a pesto. The problem lies in the fact that the flavors and the presentation of the amuse-bouche must be exceptionally strong and unusual. The great tripod of antipasto flavors of salty plus oily plus bitter just doesn't cut it, if only because they are so familiar to experienced eaters already.
For the professional chef, this book is probably one of the most interesting and useful they can get if they are interested in boosting the cachet of their restaurant. The book presents nine different types of dishes. These are:
Soup. This is a type of bite where you get lots of bang for the effort you put into the preparation. On the one hand, almost all these soups are creamed, requiring lots of pureeing and straining, especially of ingredients that were not necessarily created to go easily through a strainer, such as the fibrous parts of asparagus. On the other hand, you get lots of economies of scale. With a single run through, you can make enough for eight or sixteen with the same effort as it takes to make one.
Vegetables. These give more work per serving, as you have the job of creating both a sauce and a finely cut or grilled vegetable to lay on top of the sauce. Many are based on terrines which are easy for a trained chef, but which may be a bit much for the amateur.
Pasta and Grain. The heavy lifting here comes from skills needed to pipe sauces into hollow pasta shapes. There almost seems like a special effort is being made to turn a frittata, a very easy dish, into something difficult, which, due to its small size, creates very few servings from a style of dish which is famous for creating easy tapas and antipastos.
Fish and Seafood. This is probably a category where the strong tastes of the fresh ingredients will do most of the work for you. For most people, a single bite of raw tuna, nicely dressed for the evening, is about all they will want. But, even these get their share of aspics, flavored oils, and sauces, which are a breeze to whip up when you have a battalion of sous chefs.
Meat and Poultry: The realm of forcemeats, mousses, foie gras, and cured hams. Many dishes familiar to fans of hors d'ourves everywhere.
Forks and Spoons. More of a method of presentation than a class of ingredients. These recipes involve combining purees or soups with a spoon and long stringy things with a fork, or integrating the utensil into the presentation as the obvious means to eat the food.
Juice. This may be the simplest variety, as all you really need is a good juicer, the primary fruit or vegetable, and the appropriate spices.
Foam. This is the land of the famous Spanish chef Ferran Adria of Barcelona. Having never actually used a foamer, I have no idea how hard it is. I saw Masaharu Morimoto use one on `Iron Chef America', but then he has probably done it a thousand times over, so he will make it look easy. I can tell from the recipes that in order to foam, you must first puree. No free lunch here!
Sorbet. More specialized machines, as in order to create a decent sorbet, you need some kind of ice cream machine. Take my word for it, sticking sugary fruit juice in the freezer doesn't do it!
The last chapter contains basic pantry recipes for intermediate ingredients such as stocks and flavored oils or tuiles and crackers to build presentations.
I generally put little value on photographs in a cookbook, but in this case, they are essential. Half the value of spending all this time on a single bite is to load it up with all the bang you can muster, including dramatic presentations. These do not have to be expensive. I was particularly impressed by the one done using little paper cups commonly available at fast food outlets for condiments. I was also especially fond of the miniatures made to look like something else. Thomas Keller has based much of his reputation on such clever presentations. It is easy to miss, as it is done with light pastel lettering, but each dish is labeled by the best season for it's principal ingredients.
I think this book is a must for chefs and foodies. This is not a subject you get on the Food Network, except as dishes on `Iron Chef'.
Highly recommended for all `haute cuisine' lovers.