When I first got my hands on this new cookbook from Iron Chef America’s Michael Symon, I was skeptical. According to the publisher’s promo copy, Symon showcases the “heritage” food based on the recipes beloved by his Greek-Italian-Eastern European family and also tells the story of his meteroric rise to fame from working-class Midwestern boy to Iron Chef superstar in “Live to Cook: Recipes and Techniques to Rock Your Kitchen” (Random House). That’s a tall order for just one book.

After all, how many more stories can we read about the American dream coming true? But the book cover did this cookbook no disservice. Not only does his personal story ring true with anecdotes about his humiliating mistakes and his mother’s home cooking, his cooking philosophy also shines through and through.

Symon is adamant about using only the best ingredients, seasoning foods properly, and cooking at the right heat. Sure these are tips we have heard before but where others have sounded patronizing, Symon’s words are motivating, inspiring even. Keep a highlighterhandy, you will need to mark his “Symon Says” tips on cooking like a pro: He recommends salting vegetables that are to be grilled or sauteed about thirty minutes in advance while salting seafood right before it goes into the heat.

He also extols the virtues of the lowly coriander seed, an oft-neglected jar in my spice cabinet, and defines the differences between sweating (cooking it gently until becomes translucent) and caramelizing (cooking veggies until they brown). This isn’t a cookbook aimed at winning over the domestic divas or burnt out moms or even “good food fast” gourmandes.

Rather, it is evident this is a passion project for Symon, a real chef’s chef, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, with whole chapters dedicated to pickling and charcuterie, and recipes such as Poached Foie Gras Bratwurst or Braised Rabbit Thighs with Olives and Orange or even Pickled Lamb’s Tongue.

Sure, some of these recipes may not be standard dinner fare but he also offers down-to-earth recipes such as “Mac and Cheese with Roasted Chicken, Goat Cheese, and Rosemary” that will win over your most picky family members.

Quick and dirty reviews of recipes I tried:

Mac and Cheese with Roasted Chicken, Goat Cheese, and Rosemary: Oh. Em. Gee. My favourite part of this recipe was buying the ready-made roasted chicken. This recipe literally took minutes and even won over my husband, who doesn’t like goat cheese on the best of days. Don’t serve this to any guests who are on a diet. It is rich, it is decadent, it is comfort in a Dutch oven. And don’t be surprised if you stand over the stove top shovelling it into your mouth before it’s even had a chance to cool.

Red Pepper Relish: Be warned: This will only yield a small amount of relish. But the good news is that every teaspoon packs a flavourful punch, so it will last you a while. Good thing, too, because it takes longer than you might anticipate to make this relish. Fortunately, I already had two red bell peppers, cored, and seeded in my freezer after a marathon roasting session during my prenatal nesting phase this summer. And the effort paid off. I’ve used this tangy, sweet relish since in sandwiches, alongside shepherd’s pie, on top of cheese and crackers…you name it. Symon recommends using this to liven up eggs, sandwiches and for grilled fish.

Veal Chop Milanese: Sure, this is a traditional recipe and purists may scoff that it is hard to mess up frying meat coated in bread crumbs. But Symon elevates this dish by using panko crumbs (which are now readily available at any supermarket) and using both olive oil and butter to fry the chops. This turned out to be maybe the most tender, but crispy piece of meat I have ever had the fortune of frying.

Keep reading to find a recipe from Symon’s book for Roasted Dates with Pancetta, Almonds and Chile, courtesy Random House.

 

Roasted Dates with Pancetta, Almonds, and Chile These are incredibly simple—sliced almonds and red pepper flakes are added to sautéeing pancetta and then spooned over roasted dates—but so addictive. The beauty of this preparation is the intensity and concentration of all the flavors: the sweetness of the dates, but also the savory saltiness of the pancetta, nuttiness of the almonds, and spicy heat of the chile. It’s the perfect balance of the taste elements I love. Your mouth will just pop with these flavors.
At Players restaurant, my first restaurant after culinary school, chef-owner Mark Shary used to stuff a date with an almond, wrap it in bacon, and roast it. These morsels were served on toothpicks. This is my interpretation, turning a little snack or hors d’oeuvre into a bona fide starter. Leftover dates can be puréed and used as a spread on croutons or served as a condiment with a cheese course.

Serves 4 to 6

Ingredients:
2 cups pitted dates
3 ounces pancetta, finely diced (1/2; cup)
1/2; cup sliced almonds
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 cup Chicken Stock
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Put the dates on a small rimmed baking sheet and roast in the oven until heated through, about 5 minutes. Turn off the oven but leave the dates in there while you cook the pancetta.
In a medium sauté pan over medium heat, cook the pancetta until it is three-quarters crisp, about 5 minutes. Add the almonds and continue cooking until they brown, a few minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so. Add the red pepper flakes and stock and bring to a simmer, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter, stirring continuously until the butter is melted. Stir in the lemon juice and parsley.
Add the dates to the pan and swirl and toss them in the sauce. Divide the cooked dates among four to six plates and spoon the sauce over them.

Excerpted from Michael Symon’s Live to Cook Copyright © 2009 by Michael Symon with Michael Ruhlman, Foreword by Bobby Flay. Photo by Ben Fink. Excerpted by permission of Clarkson Potter, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. All rights reserved.