Formulas for Flavour - Cookbook Review
How to Cook Restaurant Dishes at Home
By John Campbell
(Conran Octopus, 2001; New Edition 2010)
If you've ever wanted to wow your guests by cooking dishes they've never eaten or dreamed of, then follow the complex but clearly described recipes in acclaimed chef John Campbell's Formulas for Flavour. One of the UK's finest chefs, Campbell is also principal author of the massive cooking textbook Practical Cookery, now in its eleventh edition.
Formulas for Flavour illustrates Campbell's statement that 'the primary factor influencing my dishes is flavour.' His aim is to 'coax as much flavour from an ingredient as possible', whether by isolating flavours or encouraging them in relation to other ingredients. Thus, Campbell's introduction to each dish highlights the balance of flavors involved or how best to achieve the flavors desired. In his foreword to the book Heston Blumenthal draws attention to the fact that flavor is not merely experienced as a physical sensation, but that there is a 'link between our brain and palate.'
With three-course dinner parties in mind, Campbell provides planning instructions and divides the recipes into starters, main courses, and desserts. These 'Thinking ahead' paragraphs include advice about when to buy or order meat and fish, which components can be made days or weeks in advance and possibly frozen or refrigerated, and which should be made the day of serving. This practical tone of the book is set in the introduction, which provides advice about sourcing ingredients, seasoning, and kitchen appliances. Campbell even includes such obvious advice as 'clean up as you go.' Following the recipes is a further practical section entitled Foundations, which covers such essentials as baking your own bread; explains basic vocabulary like braise, blanch and beignet; describes generally how to make soufflés and risottos; and provides basic recipes for things like chicken stock, pasta dough, and tapenade.
At the outset John Campbell admits that his recipes 'can be time consuming to produce.' Few if any of the dishes can be prepared in a single day. Even 'the easiest recipe in this book,' chocolate and griottine clafoutis, requires one to make cherry batter, chocolate batter and chocolate sauce. Or try other 'simple' recipes like the bitter chocolate tarte with parsnip ice cream, or the panna cotta with raspberries, which requires the preparation of five different elements in order to make the finished product: panna cotta, sweet wine jelly, lemon and raspberry powder, raspberry sorbet, and raspberry and black pepper tuile. The desserts all look and sound absolutely delicious, but their multiple components mean that few home chefs will have the time to make them.
The largest section of Formulas for Flavour is rightly that of main course recipes. Many of these feature uncommon meats and fishes, like ox tail, venison, rabbit and turbot. Some of the more complex recipes require the juxtaposition of meat, vegetables and fish, or the preparation of meat, pasta, couscous and sauce — all on the same plate. Take for example the Barbary duck, vanilla-lime mash and jus. For the vanilla sauce alone vanilla beans, corn oil, mirepoix, red wine, port, brandy, armagnac, lamb jus and vanilla extract are required. Besides the duck, you must also cook spinach, mashed potato and roast parsnips. Other dishes like the sea bass, crab beignet and fennel seem to contradict Campbell's own advice that 'when designing or composing a dish, a key skill is knowing when to stop adding ingredients.' In addition to the sea bass, crab, and fennel, this dish is further complicated by a tomato fondu, caper dressing, asparagus, green beans and shiitake mushrooms.
John Campbell's Formulas for Flavour certainly evidences his flair for creating new dishes that combine unusual flavours and for putting new twists on familiar dishes. His recipes are so well-described that even novices can make them, but they do require a substantial investment of both time and money. Those looking to create unforgettable dinner parties would be well-served by cooking up one course from the recipes in Campbell's book; however, it is unlikely that they would be able to make use of his recipes for all three courses. A surprising omission in Formulas for Flavour is any advice on food and wine pairing. The final Foundations section, with its practical advice on so many basic aspects of cooking, is perhaps the most useful in the whole book.
Reviewed by Barnaby Hughes