Bistro Fare with Pacific Northwest Eyes

Ever take one look at a cookbook and just know you're going to take it home? That's what happened when I spotted
Caprial's Bistro Style Cuisine.

Portland chef Caprial Pence presents her version of French bistro food with a Pacific Northwest, and, even at times, a Pacific Rim flair. Salmon, wild mushrooms, hazelnuts and berries are showcased in the book. In her introduction, Pence says her goal is "to help home cooks build a repertoire of quick-to-make, sophisticated, down-to-earth dishes..." As a working mother of two, she knows what it's like to have to find time to cook dinner. I think she's done a very nice job.

Pence includes a "Glossary of Terms and Ingredients" that she uses frequently at the beginning of the book. It's not rocket science - the terms include butterfly, caramelize, julienne, prosciutto and wasabi - but they show she is really reaching out to the average cook who wants to make very good meals. Side-bars appear throughout the book with tips on using herbs, buying vegetables, understanding the differences among rice varieties and even coffee info, to name a few.

Appetizers

Updated versions of bistro classics: pissaladi
ère; mussels with Vietnamese sauce; crab cocktail with chipotle sauce. All very solid, can't-fail recipes that could easily be served as an entrée. Add a salad to any of these, and it becomes a meal, but they are great for sharing too.

Salads, Soups & Sides

You'll think of these dishes very differently after reading this book. The chowder is made with smoked salmon and pepper bacon. Ever think of combining roasted garlic and blue cheese to make a bisque? Pence suggests things that never crossed my mind: mashed celeriac with mascarpone instead of mashed potatoes, cauliflower with tahini-yogurt sauce instead of cheese sauce and warm potato salad with apple-curry dressing.

Entrées

There are 52 different dishes divided into two sections: entr
ées (with 28 dishes) and vegetarian entrées (with 24 dishes). That's one new recipe a week to try for an entire year. No matter what the dish, I'll guarantee you that Pence will have an interesting variation in her repertoire that you won't expect.

Take the pepper-encrusted salmon for instance. Coating food in a cracked peppercorn mix before sauteing it is a method I've used often. (Jacques P
épin makes his steak au poivre this way to eliminate the calories added by the cream and brandy.) But Caprial serves the salmon with a green sauce made with coarsely chopped parsley, basil and mint. Talk about an explosion of flavors in your mouth! Total time you'll need to make the dish: 20 minutes, maximum.

I can't resist telling you about the lasagne either. It's a polenta and pesto one. Yes, I said polenta and pesto lasagne. Pence uses homemade polenta instead of noodles and fills the sheets with homemade pesto, ricotta cheese, blue cheese and parmesan. The dish is a relatively no-fuss, no-muss dish with a reasonable preparation and cooking time.

Desserts

They all sound yummy. Unfortunately, I think most of the recipes are too complicated and time-consuming for a busy person to make for nightly dinner. Don't get me wrong; the Caramelized Banana Cream Pie, Strawberry-Chocolate Linzertorte or Fresh Fruit Tart with Lemon-Almond Pastry Cream would be hits anywhere, anytime. But they and most of the other dessert recipes need to be saved for that extra special occasion, or at least for a day when you've got time on your hands.

Basics

There are 18 pantry items in a section called "Basics." Again, there's no rocket science here, but there shouldn't be. I can make chicken stock in my sleep, but there was a time when I didn't. And in those days, this was precisely the kind of gentle guidance that I needed. One unusual tip, how to skin hazelnuts: wrap them in a towel, and vigorously rolling them between your palms.

All in all

Quick to make? Yes, except for the desserts. Sophisticated? Yes. Down to earth? Yes.

The book has a pleasant demeanor, gives straightforward directions and uses items most people already have in their kitchen or can easily buy. It's an excellent book for someone who wants to make quick, interesting meals on a more consistent basis. And, it's a nice read for the experienced cook who just wants to absorb new ideas.