Cooking to Impress Without StressBy Annabel Langbein
Graphic Arts Center Publishing, 2003
978-1558687721160 pages, 85 color photographs
Back in the days when I used to run a touring theater company, cast parties were not only frequent in number but also easy to plan because (1) everyone brought something and (2) everything bought at a grocery store was thrown into the oven, taken out of the refrigerator, or tossed onto a serving platter.
Such a cavalier approach to home entertaining, however, didn’t lend itself as easily to the orchestration of formal dinners or holiday gatherings for relatives. The amount of time I found myself deciding on the perfect menu was matched only by the amount of time I spent away from my guests doing the preparation and serving.
No wonder I was always exhausted and fading out by the time the dishes were finally cleared!
While New Zealand author Annabel Langbein’s latest release came out 30 years too late for me to effortlessly dazzle my former in-laws and long ago business associates, “Cooking to Impress Without Stress” is a welcome addition to the cookbook collection of anyone in this fast paced day and age who wants to be able to participate in and enjoy his or her own dinner parties.
“Feeling relaxed and comfortable in someone else’s home and enjoying the food they have prepared (no matter how simple) is one of life’s great pleasures,” Langbein begins. She follows this up with what she calls The 12 Commandments of getting organized, setting the scene, and choreographing a memorable brunch, luncheon, dinner or special event. Among them:
Cook in your comfort zone
Know your audience
Don’t fall into the gravy
How many cooks have you known, for instance, who use their guests as unwitting guinea pigs for a complex and untried recipe, aren’t aware if their visitors have food allergies or dietary restrictions, chase helping hands out of the kitchen, or consume one too many adult beverages in order to calm their nerves? Langbein’s dozen commandments alone are worth photocopying and taping up in sight.
She also emphasizes that “elevating an everyday meal to a special occasion doesn’t demand a departure to complicated dishes…it’s the ambience you create that allows people to feel relaxed and spoilt.” To that end, she introduces a number of eye-catching and savory starters that set the scene for a dining experience that will be long remembered. The recipes throughout the text are designed to accommodate 4-6 people but can be adjusted up or down depending on whether you’re dining intimately with your significant other or having friends over for an after-concert buffet or show-stopping desserts and coffee. It’s also interesting to note that Langbein includes metric measurements and displays cooking temperatures in both Fahrenheit and Celsius.
What I especially like about this book is that it is written to be sensitive to the amount of time the cook actually has to prepare the meal. Regardless of the length of time involved in assembling the ingredients, however, all of the dishes are readily approachable. A quick dish, such as the Pasta with Salmon, Capers, and Arugula (page 100), for example, can be fixed in less than 15 minutes but promises to be a delightful and flavorful meal that will look as if it took much longer.
Langbein also introduces a Fish and Scallop Pie with Creamy Lemon Sauce and Caper Crumb that can be assembled up to 12 hours prior to the arrival of one’s guests, then slipped into the oven for baking. And let’s not forget the obvious bonus that all evidence of that preparation will have been run through the dishwasher and stored away long before the doorbell rings! On the other end of the spectrum, the almost decadent Roast Leg of Lamb with a red currant or quince jelly jus is remarkably easy to prepare even if it takes hours to cook.
In addition, the author provides the cook with creative options for side dishes and preparation of the main meal that encourages experimentation and variations on the central theme. The above referenced Roast Leg of Lamb, for instance, contains recipes within the margins of the same page that will turn it into a Moroccan-style feast or a North Indian Cardamom and Chilli dish. Various sauces, dips, and preparation pointers add a wealth of opportunities for preparing that special meal and contribute greatly to this being a top shelf resource for your cooking education that doesn’t require you to go strictly "by the book."
A resident of Auckland, Langbein is the author of ten prior cookbooks including the popular Savour series. If the rest of them are as inspirationally tasty and fun to read as this one, you’ll want to add them to your library. They’re guaranteed to make your dining room the most comfy and inviting restaurant in town!
Reviewer Christina Hamlett, a former actress and director, is an award winning author and script coverage consultant for the film industry. Her credits to date include 22 books, 118 plays and musicals, 4 optioned feature films, and columns/interviews that appear throughout the world. She and her gourmet chef husband, Mark Webb, reside in Pasadena, California.