[Ed. Note: Andrew Chalk reviews The Family Meal, a cookbook recently released by Ferran Adria and the other chefs at elBuli. He is in the process of cooking his way through the book. However, Chalk found a mistake in the recipe for mackerel with potato stew. He notified the publisher who acknowledge the faux pas and the recipe will be corrected in the next printing.]
Until it closed on July 30th of this year, El Bulli was not just a three-star Michelin restaurant, it was the three-star Michelin restaurant. Located on the barren Catalonian coast north of Barcelona, El Bulli was only open for half of the year. There was just one seating of 50 customers per night. Over the past decade, El Bulli averaged 250,000 reservation requests a year. That translates into fewer than 3% of the requests actually getting a table. (Those odds make scoring a weekend reservation at Lucia a piece of cake). Maybe the other 97% of us should form an “El Bulli Rejects Club” complete with our own t-shirt and secret handshake. I mean El Bulli was the only place to sample the unique cuisine. You couldn’t cook the food at home. It involves liquid nitrogen, Pacojets, tons of exotic ingredients like pine needles, and a Ph.D. chemist on staff. I guess those of us in the 97 percent club will never get a chance
Jump for the juicy stuff.
Wait, there is an alternative! The genius chef/owner of El Bulli, Ferran Adria, has written a book of El Bulli recipes that you can make at home! The book is called The Family Meal. The recipes are accessible because they are not the path-breaking exotic creations that he served to the lucky guests who made the trek to Roses. Rather, these are recipes that he, or more literally his head chef Eugeni de Diego, served to the 75 staff at El Bulli every night before service. That is the ‘family’ referred to in the title. Examples are Caesar salad, cheeseburger and potato chips, and chocolate cookies. Same stuff you’re used to. The difference is that these recipes and techniques have the imprimatur of Ferran Adria. He and de Diego developed them together over a three-year period and, when the decision was taken to close El Bulli, they decided the recipes should not ‘gather dust in a drawer’ but, rather, be published.
When I learned about the book, I sent off a copy to review. I am glad to say that, far from my fears being realized, the execution of this book has the fingerprints of the late, great Steve Jobs all over it. By that I mean: remember how clever so many of the design features of the iPod/iPhone/iPad seemed the first time you used one? Remember how different an Apple store was from any other consumer electronics store? Well the same kind of inspiration and fanatical attention to detail ooze out of this book. It is like Steve Jobs planned a cook book. I should say that all this comes is with one caveat, one that I will come back to below.
The book is organized around three-course meals. It contains the recipes for 31 menus of them (i.e. an arbitrary month of meals). Central to the menus are a core set of sauces. You make large quantities of these ahead of time and freeze them. All of the ingredients of the recipes are intended to be easily obtainable globally – such is the scope of Adria’s reach and presumably the intended publication orbit of this book. The cuisine has a Spanish slant, reflecting the author’s origins, but as the text points out, El Bulli had an international staff and many other influences creep in. That said, I found virtually nothing in it from the vast range of cuisines in Asia, but it does encapsulate the major forces of Western cooking: Spanish, French and Italian. I agree with the author’s claim that the ingredients are readily available although, ironically, Asian stores were the best source of some things (e.g. mackerel is a popular fish and, in Dallas, readily available and cheap at Chinese markets but rarely at mainstream supermarkets).
The level of discussion is deliberately designed to avoid leaving the beginner cook in the weeds. However, it cleverly does not talk down to the accomplished home cook. There is a photo gallery of key pieces of kitchen equipment used in the recipes (it is on the level of, e.g., a hand-held blender, flat griddle, mandoline, etc.). There is list of all the spices used in the book (separate lists for fresh and dried). Tricks to make the most of ingredients “After making tomato water…the leftover pulp can be used for sofrito or tomato sauce. This operation can also be reversed: if the pulp is needed, the leftover water can be made into a refreshing drink.” And “when making chicken stock, the chicken meat can be shredded for use in a salad.” I found myself treating every ingredient I handled in this way. There are buying tips such as recognizing freshness. There are cooking tips that amount essentially to a Sherman’s March through professional cooking technique. It is brief, even terse, and does not cover every technique, but it applies to what is in the book. For example, egg cooking is reduced to frying, boiling, and poaching, with meticulous instructions for each. There is also a list of the essential pantry ingredients.
All of this is accompanied by ample first-rate photography. The description of the family meal at El Bulli has close ups of the actual meal process as it occurred. These are a timeless portrait of the restaurant. Each recipe’s instructions consist of up to nine rectangular, identically-sized pictures per page. There are almost as many pictures as there are words in the instructions for each recipe. This was clearly a deliberate pedagogic technique. In fact, it is puzzling why this publication is on paper at all. Cookery is one of the things that would benefit most from multimedia. Instead of reading how to make a given recipe you would watch a video, and be able to replay, freeze frame, etc. Search for recipes would use Google instead of a hastily slung together index. As a result ‘mushroom recipes’, for example, would not entail cumbersome cross-referencing French, Italian, Vegetable and Mushroom cookery books. All would be in the Google search result. Nonetheless, given that Adria used paper, he found a very effective way to convey the message.
Does It Work?
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I got to work testing some of the recipes with the help of some guinea pigs. I started with Meal 2.
Mackerel & Potato Stew
Except I omitted the cookies, leaving me with a two-course meal. The book gives ingredient quantities for 2, 6, 20, and 75 people. I first made this for two. The other person, let’s call her Female Taster 1 (FT1), could have a significant effect on my life, so Ferran’s shit better work or he would need more than three stars from a tire company to defend his reputation.
My first job was to prepare the Bolognese sauce. This is an example of one of the sauces you prepare ahead and freeze (for up to six months). The book offered ingredient quantities for 10 cups or 2 gallons. Since I did not expect the sixth fleet, or similar, to come to dinner within six months I chose the first option.
Bolognese sauce is very simple and all the ingredients were available from the supermarket. I fried ground beef, added pork sausage and fried that and then seasoned it. I finely chopped more carrots and celery than I thought possible and then fried that combination. I added the meat to the vegetables and added chopped tomatoes and tomato paste. Seasoned again and let the whole thing simmer for 90 minutes. The result was a glorious rich sauce, most of which would be cooled and frozen. The rest would be the sauce component of my Pasta Bolognese. Now, the Pasta Bolognese recipe specified ‘pasta’ but not what type. The picture nailed it, but it really didn’t matter. Penne rigate or the old standby of spaghetti would work. When I got to the store they had a special on angel hair pasta so I went with that. One visual high point was that this comes in little bundles, likes bird nests, and each guest can have their own little coil next with the sauce on top. I topped the pasta with finely grated Parmesan cheese and served it to FT1 (along with a fruity Tempranillo wine). In case it didn’t work, and in order to get an honest opinion, I deftly acted all casual and steered the conversation to subjects other than food. A couple of mouthfuls and, you know what, she like it! Phew. Aced that one. Can a man who can cook pasta Bolognese be far from his first Michelin star?
Turns out, I was almost on top of my first Michelin flat tire. Full of hubris, I set to work on the Mackerel and Potato Stew. The ‘sauce’ in this recipe is aioli (described earlier in the book). I made it exactly as described, before I realized that I was getting enough to supply most of the restaurants on the Costa Brava for a week. Luckily, Ferran has three recipes that use it (and I wonder if it goes with roast turkey)? The good news is that his aioli method seems foolproof against the emulsion breaking.
The Mackerel and Potato Stew is a traditional Catalan fish stew and basically involves sauteing garlic and chopped tomato, stirring in lots of paprika, bathing chopped potatoes in the resulting red mass and then adding fish stock to braise the potatoes. While that is going on, you toss in some lengths of mackerel torso, the idea being that each one stay in one piece during the cooking process. When the potatoes are soft you thicken the soup with corn starch and a few dollops of aioli. Then sprinkle chopped parsley on top and adjust the seasonings before serving. The result is a hearty, chunky soup ideal for imminent cold weather. The problem was, it had the texture of unset road tar. I could see it was heading this way during the cooking and, absent mackerel having the unusual property of spontaneously releasing liquid late in its cooking process, this recipe was wrong. It asked for ¾ cup of fish stock for 2 people. For six people it asked for 5 cups of fish stock (six times as much for three times as many people). An email to the publisher confirmed the error but I worried: is it just this recipe or is this a big caveat to the care put into other aspects of the book?
For breakfast, I made Adria’s Potato Chip Omelet. Circulon had sent their 8½” French skillet to review, so this was a test of the ‘metal utensil safe’ non-stick finish. It turned out to make the tricky part of turning the omelet over a breeze. Adria’s technique for making an omelet is very standard. The potato chips (I used Kettles’ Sea Salt) are added to the mixture before cooking and retain their crispness at service. It is interesting to have a crunchy omelet but this is hardly my favorite filling.
Pork Loin with Roasted Peppers was a winner and straightforward to make. Roast red bell peppers to render them easier to peel. Parboil some garlic cloves to soften them. Make a sauce by blending the garlic with oil and parsley (kind of an abbreviated chimichurri). Saute thin-cut pork loin chops in a pan. Plate the chops, cut the peeled peppers into slices and place them on the plate, lap the parsley sauce over the chop. It worked great but was kind of odd as a main course. There seemed to be a vegetable missing. The staff at El Bulli must all be very skinny.
This book has made me better at cooking things with sauces and devising ways to use general purpose sauces stored in the freezer. I am not sure about the aioli though. When I made the stew for six people, the other couples each got a complimentary jar of aioli to take home.
I am continuing to work through the menus but can say, based on this early experience, and subject to that messed up recipe, that this is a fun and instructive cook book. It has become one of my go-to books for everyday meals. Plus, FT1 still has a pulse and sounds approval, so nothing has gone too wrong so far.