The Best of Chef at Home: Essential Recipes for Today’s Kitchen

By Chef Michael Smith

Published by Whitecap, 2009; softcover, $29.95; 258 pages.

Michael Smith is one of those people you wish was  your friend, or at least your neighbour. The mild-mannered Food Network star has no need to shout, eat questionable things or set fire to whatever he’s cooking. He’s like the Mr. Rogers of the kitchen, and that’s a good thing.

When Mr. Rogers, er, Mr. Smith wanders on set in his popular Food Network Show, Chef at Home, he brings with him an air of friendly excitement and discovery about what he’s doing (“Oh good, there’s some fresh rosemary in the fridge. I can use that!”), but it’s never in your face or scary, just comfy enough that you want to stand next to him and watch what he’s doing and hear what he has to say about it.

This same jolly ease comes through in his latest book, which has been on the B.C. best-seller list for a number of months now.

“A best seller?” I wondered as I first opened the book and began reading through recipes for grilled cheese and tuna fish sandwiches and cheddar cheese omelettes. “Who needs recipes for such things?” But as I wandered further into the book, it occurred to me that Smith was doing a Mr. Rogers on us, gently leading those of us who do not feel totally at ease in the kitchen into the sometimes frightening territory of “cooking it yourself.”

So it’s not all home-made popcorn and steamed broccoli. Smith does offer more sophisticated fare such as Thai Curry Coconut Soup, Grilled Leg of Lamb with Tomato Mint Tapenade and Cornmeal-crusted Salmon with Basil Mussel Broth, and most recipes include suggestions for variations. So if you want to serve more than a basic fruit crisp, for example, Smith has ideas on how to jazz things up with different fruit combinations, unusual spices or even wholewheat flour and oil in place of the usual butter and all-purpose flour. He further expands the recipe repertoire with multiple variations on  the following: Ten Salad Dressings; Steamed Mussels Ten Ways; and Twelve Grains (and how to cook them), so there’s value here if you’re looking for basic cooking info. Here’s an example: I’ve been cooking for a long time, but I have not made many prime rib roasts in my day, so when a sudden urge to do so hit me recently, I had to call my sister-in-law (who grew up in a household where such roasts were regular Sunday and holiday fare) for advice. Had I opened Smith’s book before my moment of roast-a-phobia, I would have found a recipe for classic Roasted Prime Rib with Horseradish Sauce.

But since it’s salad season, we’ll enter home-made-dressing territory. Once you taste your own dressings, you won’t go back to store-bought, Smith promises.

TEN SALAD DRESSINGS

Master Recipe

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup any vinegar, lemon or lime juice

1/2 cup honey, maple syrup or jelly

1 heaping tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 heaping tbsp. of any fresh herb or spice (optional)
A sprinkle of two of sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Simply decide which ingredients you’d like to use and then measure everything into a Mason jar and shake vigorously until combined. Your personalized dressing will stay fresh in your refrigerator for several weeks, if it lasts that long.

Freestyle variations:

1. Sherry Maple: Sherry vinegar and maple syrup

2. Fennel Balsamic: Balsamic vinegar, honey and ground fennel seed

3. Raspberry: Red wine vinegar and raspberry jelly

4. Italian: Red wine vinegar, no sweetener, minced garlic, oregano and thyme

5. Caesar: Lemon Juice, no sweetener, 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, 1 tsp. minced garlic, 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

6. Caribbean: Lime zest and juice, honey and shredded coconut

7. Southwestern: Lime zest and juice, honey, cilantro and hot sauce

8. Vanilla: White wine vinegar, honey and pure vanilla extract

9. Goat Cheese: 1 small (5 oz.) log of goat cheese, 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, 1/2 cup olive oil, 1 tbsp. honey and a sprinkle or two of salt and pepper, puréed until smooth.

10. Tomato: 1 large ripe local tomato, puréed with zest and juice of 2 lemons and 1/2 cup olive oil, seasoned with salt and pepper.

-From The Best of Chef at Home