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Saturday
Jul022011

Jonathan Waxman's Italian, My Way

My husband received a copy of Jonathan Waxman's new book, Italian My Way from the publisher and he asked me to help him test some recipes for his upcoming review on BookSlut.com. I had become fond of the charismatic Jonathan Waxman while watching him on Top Chef Masters and I've never had the pleasure of dining at his NYC restaurant Barbuto therefore I was really looking forward to this challenge.

The press release claimed,

"Italian, My Way" breaks down the culinary lessons of Italy into plain English, helping you sweat less in the kitchen and enjoy cooking more. After all, simpler recipes mean less time planning meals-and more time enjoying them."

"It's food you cook for friends and family with music in the background and a glass of wine in hand…"

Less sweating in the kitchen, listening to music and drinking wine while you cook - as the Barefoot Contessa would ask, "How bad could that be?"

Drab photo of lemon raspberry crostata featured in the book on the right

Our initial glance through the book proved disappointing as legendary food photographer Christopher Hirsheimer's gorgeous photos are printed in black and white on low-heft paper. Considering the book retails for $32, I would have expected color photos and better quality paper.

The recipes range from, why does this even need a recipe (prosciutto wrapped around asparagus) to there's no way we're making this (fresh rabbit with white wine). Charles and I decided to make the JW Chicken, spaetzle, pizza Margherita and for dessert, a lemon raspberry crostata.

PIZZA MARGHERITA

Flattening of the beer

Good pizza begins with an excellent crust recipe so let's start here. The dough called for a sponge to be made 24 hours in advance using stale beer. I don't know about you but I don't keep stale beer handy on the off chance I need to make pizza dough. I even joked with my husband, "Hmm..how do you make stale beer on purpose? That wasn't on my Master Sommelier exam." We opened a bottle of Stella Artois and let it "go stale".

Our ingredients are sponge worthy

Chef Waxman highly suggested we use King Arthur's organic all purpose flour as, "it is perfect." Another key ingredient in the recipe was unprocessed honey and the stuff in my pantry was most likely heat-treated so raw honey was procured as well.

Charles, deep in thought, at the Whole Foods wondering if he can no longer trust our tap water

As for water, Chef Waxman wrote we must use fresh water and if our water was too hard or suspect to use bottled water. We drink tap water at home but should I now be suspicious of my water? I'm even not sure if it qualifies as hard or soft but it does taste funky at times so we decided to get bottled water too. 

The pizza sauce recipe required heirloom tomatoes but since the season for them is not until late summer, we opted for Chef Waxman's suggestion to use beefsteak tomatoes. Two curious additions to the sauce were rosemary and lavender. My grocery store was out of lavender so I purchased a small lavender plant instead. In place of plain old mozzarella, Chef Waxman's Margherita features luxurious burrata. 

The pizza was disappointing. I didn't care for the crust as it was tough and the pizza sauce was watery and bland. I've used dough recipes that are far less of a hassle and yielded a more flavorful and chewy crust. We were also not given specific instruction as to where to place the pizza in the oven - top, middle or bottom - and I feel this is an important detail in any recipe.  

JW CHICKEN

Herzog Restaurant Supply on Madison

On to the chicken now. This is perhaps one of Jonathan Waxman's most famous dishes and understandably it is a popular entrée at Barbuto where it is made in a wood fired oven. I've heard it described as the juiciest, most flavorful chicken you'll ever eat with an unbelievable crispy skin to boot. In order to replicate the effect of the wood fired oven at home, Chef Waxman suggested we purchase oval sizzling platters from a kitchen supply store as a way to fire up the heat potential during the cooking process. I wanted crispy skin so a visit to the local kitchen supply store was added to the list. 

The butchers at Paulina Meat Market are always so friendly and helpful

As for the chicken itself, Chef Waxman suggested we use a free-range organic chicken – fresh only!  I initially planned on purchasing a chicken from the farmers market but after the vendor we visited at our local market said he was only allowed to sell frozen chickens, a visit to a specialty butcher shop joined the schedule.

The instructions on how to get the chicken ready for roasting were not exactly clear. I was to remove the backbone of the chicken using kitchen shears and then cut out the breastbone using a chef's knife. I figured this meant separating the entire breastbone from the chicken, which is what I did.

These platters are going to be perfect for making restaurant style, sizzling fajitas

The chicken was not browning properly so I followed Chef Waxman's advice to turn it over so the skin was facing down. This made matters worse as the juice from the Meyer lemon steamed the skin rather than crisping it. I ended up broiling the skin side up for 5 min towards the end to get it to brown.

Ingredients used to make the salsa verde. Note the sparkling wine.

Chef Waxman did say this was food you cooked with a glass of wine in hand!

The salsa verde that accompanies the chicken includes 7 different herbs, capers in salt and anchovy filets. The capers needed to soak for 1 hour. The anchovies required a 15-minute soaking and then I was instructed to remove the bones using tweezers. Let me tell you, yanking teeny-tiny bones out of teeny-tiny fish has to be right up there with surgery on delicate nerves – nearly impossible.

The chicken came out moist but a bit bland. The skin, despite my attempts to crisp it under the broiler, remained flaccid and chewy. The chicken was too much work for somewhat mediocre results and not nearly as tasty as my usual go-to recipe. However, the salsa verde was really quite nice and I may make this again for other recipes.

Wondering if I had done something incorrectly with the JW Chicken recipe, I decided to do some research online and found this promo video for the book featuring Chef Waxman demonstrating how to make it. Much to my surprise, the recipe on the video was vastly different from the one in the book. Different ingredients and technique for making the salsa verde, breast bone cut in half and not removed and no Meyer lemon. Most importantly, the video recipe appeared easier to execute.

 

SPAETZLE

The spaetzle was a disaster. The recipe included organic flour, sea salt and sparkling water, which we purchased – Italian sparkling water mind you. We were instructed to push the spaetzle dough through the holes of a colander suspended over boiling water – a very difficult and nearly impossible thing to do, especially if you happen to have just two hands. We managed to get some of the dough to go through but the spaetzle was a gloopy, gelatinous, inedible mess.

LEMON RASPBERRY CROSTATA

And now for the dessert, which was spectacular. This recipe featured one of the most delicious tart crusts I've ever made – almost like a rich and buttery shortbread cookie. The lemon custard was tart and tangy with that distinctive aroma only Meyer lemons can provide. I'll definitely make this again.

CONCLUSION

I'm still a fan of Chef Waxman and I appreciate his fresh approach to seasonal cooking but Italian, his way will not become Italian, my way. I much prefer books by Lidia Bastianich, Marcella Hazan and even Mario Batali. Their recipes are easier to execute, the ingredients are far easier to find and the results are more to my liking.