There are times when you pick up a cookbook with a strong connection to a certain restaurant and you know it’s all about promoting that venue. Other times? It’s all about the food. Gjelina: Cooking from Venice, California (Chronicle Books) is in the second category: it’s a book that enhances our food knowledge and abilities. It is also beautiful; richly illustrated, generously produced. It is a joy to leaf through, to read and — yes! — to cook from.
I have not had the pleasure of a visit to Venice, California-based Gjelina, but there’s no doubt my feet will take me there next time I’m in the vicinity. This is the sort of evolved cuisine that goes quite beyond fusion. A comfortable incorporation of technique and ingredients from many of the world’s classic styles for a very fresh and modern rendition of California cuisine. That said, one is reluctant to boil it down that neatly because this is thoughtful, creative cooking that respects both ingredients and the person who will consume it. From the forward, in Lett’s own words:
These recipes are a refection of the changing dialogue about what we eat. People just want to know that someone cares at some point in the process of creating food, that someone is concerned with the big picture. It’s not too much to ask.
Letts is right, of course: it’s not too much to ask. And yet it’s not an easy combination to find. Lett’s own recipes are, for me, reminiscent of those by Yotam Ottolenghi, who combines flavors and textures in ways that are both new and largely tradition-based.
A few of my own favorites from Gjelina: the Roasted Cauliflower with Garlic, Parsley and Vinegar is light years beyond what you will expect from reading a list of those ingredients. So much so that it almost does not make sense! A few ingredients. A simple technique and the creation of a vegetable dish that can stand alone or is happily accompanied by a good cut of meat.
Geared that way? A Charred Blade Steak with Green Peppercorn and Sherry Pan Sauce would not be a bad choice at all. Or, from the fish chapter, the Sardines Baked in Tomato-Pepper Sauce are both surprisingly easy and deeply satisfying.
But though the meat and fish recipes are excellent, vegetables take center stage both in Gjelina the cookbook and, apparently, at the restaurant. From starkly simple dishes, like Baby Radishes with Black Olive and Anchovy Aioli (so simple it’s almost not a recipe at all), to more complicated productions like Potato, Leek and Chard Gratin with Taleggio, you will find here ways of putting vegetables together that are new, fresh and deeply satisfying.
Rounded out by sections on pizza, dessert, soups, salads and a truly amazing chapter that supports the rest of the book on condiments and pickles, Gjelina is one of those cookbooks: a must-have foundation book that you will be referring to for years to come. ◊