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The Right Ingredients 

Our food critic test-drives two cookbooks created by New Orleans chefs

Two recently-published New Orleans restaurant cookbooks passed from test kitchen to national circulation to smudge-stained in my own home this winter. Commander's Kitchen by Ti Adelaide Martin and Chef Jamie Shannon of Commander's Palace -- and Dominique's Fresh Flavors by local food writer John DeMers and Dominique Macquet of Dominique's Restaurant in the Maison Dupuy Hotel -- are something like oil and water, as they say. More specifically, they are the story of an institution versus the legend of a man, both told through a medium most professional chefs rarely use: the recipe. In order to assess the pros and cons -- the tender roasts and the fallen souffles -- of the books, three recipes from each were put to the test. Many cookbooks are more than collections of foolproof recipes in these days when chefs reveal their personalities and recipes summarize entire worlds. But a cook who refers to books regularly can tell after a few experiments which tomes will continue to deliver the goods, which will leave her weeping in her onions and which ones she'll arrange face-out on her bookshelf to impress the dinner guests. Dominique's is one of the latter.

Dominique hails from the island of Mauritius, "a speck in the Indian Ocean off the eastern edge of Africa." Between Mauritius and New Orleans he cooked the globe over, chronicled in the book's inter-continental scope. The subtitle, Cooking with Latitude in New Orleans, summarizes his enthusiastic philosophy, that even on the hardest days, his restaurant kitchen is "about having, claiming, taking and giving the latitude in which great new ideas in food can happen."

For Dominique, "each plate is actually carrying everything you've ever pieced together and called your life." Page through the book. He's not kidding.

The concept is refreshing and his energetic writing is encouraging. But Dominique's latitude can turn the home kitchen into an island of frustration for the novice cook. Conch, ostrich, kaffir lime leaves and Kobe beef are some of his difficult-to-acquire favored ingredients. Meanwhile, rendered duck fat and habanero vinegar are two of Dominique's reasonably complex "Basic" recipes in the introductory chapter. One of the book's simplest-sounding recipes, Roasted Eggplant Soup, calls for duck stock, crab stock, and juicer-extracted ginger and jalapeno juices. It's all possible, but one look at those ingredient lists and the average home cook is going to hang up the apron and pick up the phone for a reservation.

After research revealed the price of Kobe beef at between $40 to $60 per pound, I ferreted out recipes possible to shop for at any well-stocked supermarket.

Dominique's Grilled Sesame-Crusted Chicken -- a legacy from his stint in Beverly Hills -- was the largest success in its vivid colors, Asian flavors and crunchy textures. Bold print in the ingredient list was helpful, but given the minimal instructions, I predict frustration for the cook who hasn't considered a julienne of baby bok choy, or for the religious recipe follower who will sit down to rare chicken.

The idea behind Sweet Potato-Crusted Redfish with Kumquat Beurre Blanc is that sweet potatoes fried, whirled into flakes and sprinkled on the fish before a hot trip into the frying pan will create a sweet, chippy crust. The book's suggested 1/4-inch potato slices, however, were too thick to crisp entirely before burning, which meant they turned to mush in the Cuisinart. Incidentally, the kumquat beurre blanc is a recipe worth dog-earring.

Finally, unexpected guests devoured the unusual Avocado Mango Mousse, a tribute to Dominique's tropical roots. But even after following the very brief directions meticulously, I had no clue (and still don't) what the mousse should look or taste like. Hints about temperature, timing and consistency -- all essential details when working with gelatin and egg whites -- were slim to none.

Dominique's Fresh Flavors is a book written by a chef for other chefs who have equal accessibility to some of the world's most exciting ingredients, and the skills to make a bone-marrow flan happen without much hand-holding. It's also for the food enthusiast for whom perusing the book is a pleasure trip through Dominique's kaleidoscopic culinary visions. Oenophiles also will fantasize about sipping the fine wines Dominique pairs with each dish.

Commander's Kitchen, on the other hand, is an epic based upon a restaurant and a cuisine that resulted not from traveling the world necessarily but upon the congregation of many worlds in one New Orleans stockpot: Creole cooking. Chef Jamie Shannon, who has worked at Commander's Palace for the past 16 years, shares dual responsibility for the book and surely sweat his body weight during its production. Still, the end product is about the restaurant.

In her introduction, Ti Martin compares New Orleans cooking to jazz, recounts her life as a child in the Brennan restaurant clan and provides histories of both Creole and Cajun cooking. She also summarizes what might be the Commander's Palace credo: "The key word is evolution. The food of New Orleans is a living, breathing thing, a work in progress that is difficult to catch, analyze, describe or put down on paper. And because it is constantly evolving, Creole cuisine is timeless."

Echoing the Creole theme in his following introductory ode, Chef Jamie writes, "Once a cook becomes Creolized, he or she can progress through the stations of the kitchen. This is where the passion takes hold." Chef Jamie's Tips, an invaluable tool repeated as an addendum to every recipe, reveals his own passion for food and teaching. Among countless particulars, the tips serve to clarify difficult instructions, to provide ingredient substitutions and cookware suggestions, and to guide the cook through the steps of proper seasoning.

His well-written recipes and accompanying tutoring succeeded at pulling me by the apron strings into the restaurant's Creole universe. The famed Bread Pudding Souffle with Whisky Sauce produced more than the recipe's predicted six ramekins, and a step suggested to keep the raisins from burning wasn't entirely successful. Nevertheless, it went over like a sno-ball in July when I served it to a former Commander's employee.

The recipe for Onion-Crusted Fried Chicken Salad served on Bibb lettuce with blue cheese dressing was flawless in instructions and resulting flavors. New Orleans neophytes might be confused by the "fried" and "salad" paradox; they also will need to invest in an oil thermometer, an essential tool throughout the book.

Lastly, I experimented with one of the book's mere nine vegetable dishes. The noodle-less Roasted Vegetable "Lasagna" was labor intensive considering the somewhat slippery and waterlogged result. Tasty straight from the oven, it was more manageable after it rested in the refrigerator overnight.

In the end, Commander's Kitchen will become one of those tried and truest for the Creolized and the Creole wannabes, for its recipes and also for the literary "Lagniappes" scattered throughout. The lagniappes are dedications to pertinent Brennan family moments and Commander's Palace history, like Louis Armstrong's solo performance in front of Brennan's Restaurant, and like young Ti Martin's embarrassment when her aunt Adelaide decided to paint the brown mansion Commander's signature aqua blue shortly after the Brennans took over the restaurant in 1974.

While Commander's Kitchen and Dominique's Fresh Flavors both are inspiring works by dedicated professionals, the former is more a restaurant's working manual and the latter an individual chef's autobiographical collection. Go ahead, turn both face-out for the dinner guests.


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