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Comfort basics

(article, Christina Eng)

Jamie Oliver is, as my best friend puts it, a culinary rock star. The British chef, TV personality, and cookbook author has charm. He has charisma. And he has, of course, plenty of loyal fans. 

Nicknamed "The Naked Chef," Oliver shot to fame in the U.K. and the United States a decade ago. On television shows such as "Oliver’s Twist” and in cookbooks such as The Naked Chef, he stripped food of pretension in favor of practicality. Like his contemporaries Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson, Oliver called for fresh ingredients and simple techniques. The philosophy struck a popular chord. 

Other projects followed, including a Happy Days Live tour in 2001 and 2002. Held in part to promote his book [%bookLink code=078686852X "Happy Days with the Naked Chef"], the concerts had Oliver cooking on stage in front of eager audiences. Set to music and special effects, Oliver's routines featured singing and drumming, with songs about lamb curry and fish stew. Cheeky rock star.

These days, he uses his influence and celebrity to champion pet causes. Oliver is a vocal critic of unhealthy, processed foods in British schools, and has worked to help improve the quality and taste of school lunches. Fifteen, the apprenticeship program he founded for underprivileged young adults who want to break into the professional food industry and the namesake London restaurant he opened in 2002, continues to thrive. There are now Fifteens in Amsterdam, Cornwall, and Melbourne, too.

Oliver’s new cookbook (his seventh) is titled Cook with Jamie: My Guide to Making You a Better Cook and tied to his recent nonprofit endeavors. At more than 400 pages, it's ambitious and comprehensive, accessible and practical. In addition to recipes, the book includes primers on kitchen essentials, pantry staples, and food-handling precautions. 

[%image feature-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo © Culinate" caption="Oliver specializes in you-can-do-it-too dishes, such as a simple pasta with sausage."]

“In a funny sort of way I feel this should have been my first cookbook,” Oliver writes in the introduction, “where I take you on a journey through the basics of food, shopping and cooking with great ingredients, a bit like the Fifteen students when they start on day one of their course.” 

With a nod to nutritional eating, Oliver's new book begins with a section on salads. He talks about greens, herbs, and dressings, including simple homemade lemon oil, balsamic vinegar and creamy French dressings. He provides recipes for an Amazing Potato and Horseradish Salad with Fine Herbs and Bresaola (cured beef), a Crunchy Raw Beetroot Salad with Feta and Pear, and a Warm Salad of Crispy Smoked Bacon and Jerusalem Artichokes, among others.

“Like any other dish,” he points out, “a great salad is only as good as the quality of its ingredients. Buy whatever is fresh and colorful and in season and then think about working all the flavor sensations together: salty, sweet, sour, bitter . . . And what about playing with different textures: a contrast between soft and crunchy, rough and smooth ingredients?”

Chapters on pasta, gnocchi and risotto, and meat feature many of Oliver’s go-to dishes, foods he is perhaps most comfortable cooking. 

He touts the convenience of dried pastas, using sheets of lasagne for a Fantastic Fish Lasagne, for example, and fusilli for Proper Blokes’ Sausage Fusilli with dried red chiles and Italian sausage. But he provides directions and photographs as well for preparing fresh pastas, using pappardelle and ravioli in a decent selection of inviting entrées. 

Oliver explains in detail popular cuts of beef, lamb, pork, and chicken before offering recipes for items such as Melt-in-Your-Mouth Shin Stew, Lovely Lamb Shank Pie, and Overnight Slow-Roasted Pork.

Venturing past the standard fish and chips, he also devotes a significant number of pages to seafood. He talks about the types of whole fish and shellfish available, and ways to shop for them. “Buying fish isn’t rocket science,” he writes. “It’s about having a bit of knowledge and trusting your common sense.”

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He pan-roasts salmon fillets and serves them with steamed broccoli and an anchovy-rosemary sauce. He char-grills tuna steaks and sets them atop peas and fava beans. He marinates cod steaks for a day in the refrigerator before placing them under a broiler briefly. He proves how versatile seafood can be. 

He takes some of the mystery out of food preparation and provides instruction without intimidation. His tone is encouraging, casual and conversational, his dishes for the most part satisfying. He presents modern riffs on traditional British and Italian fare, creating items that should not only taste splendid, but look splendid, too. 

By pairing everyday cooking and shopping information with innovative recipes, Oliver delivers a useful kitchen resource certain to be loved for years to come.  

Proceeds from the cookbook, by the way, go to the Fifteen Foundation. Rock star doing good.

p(bio). [christina_eng@hotmail.com "Christina Eng"] is a writer in Oakland, California.


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