The Crappy Kitchen Cookbook

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Is your kitchen smaller than Snookie's brainpan? Do you barely have enough counter space to spill a can of Bud? Does your refrigerator wheeze like Kirstie Alley running a marathon? Is your stove something Neanderthal Man would have used to roast a hunk of woolly mammoth? 

If you answered "yes" to these questions then, you, my friend, have a crappy little kitchen. 

But you probably don't have crappy little tastebuds. And that's where Jennifer Schaertl comes in. The former restaurant chef and occupant of several crappy little kitchens has written a cookbook for those of us without granite countertops and U.S. Ranges, SubZero fridges and marble pastry boards. . . in other words, those of us who to make do with cooking in our own crappy little kitchens. 

It's titled, appropriately enough, "Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens."  Before you get too freaked out by the word "gourmet," it should be said we're not talking Thomas Keller here. In fact, "gourmet" may be overstating things a bit, at least if you're looking to recreate the food of high-end restaurants in your dark, dank kitchen-cum-broom closet. But since most of us don't have the skill or training to pull that off, it's not much of a loss. Instead, Schaertl dishes up 136 recipes for starters, soups, salads, entrees, desserts and sauces that might be more accurately dubbed upscale home cooking that doesn't require a culinary school degree to execute. 

Some of the recipes are fairly mundane--curry chicken salad, spinach and artichoke dip, wine-braised short ribs. Other show off some nifty crappy little kitchen tricks, like veal and pork meatballs that are baked rather than pan-fried, goat cheese soufflés that hold their shape rather than deflate, and a whole chapter of one-pot dishes.

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I put two of Schaertl's recipes together, one for sweet potato gnocchi, the other for gorgonzola and walnut sauce. The gnocchi recipe is pretty untraditional; you fold the roasted sweet potatoes, flour and egg together  like a soufflé instead of knead like a dough. The result is fairly light, not gummy and really pretty impressive, though you do have to boil them carefully and sauté them before adding to a sauce as they have a tendency to fall apart with rough handling.  

The blue cheese sauce is richer than Goldman Sachs, but it's hard to go wrong with all that butter, cream and blue cheese. I added some coarsely shredded prosciutto for heft (the gnocchi recipe makes rather small portions) and for the meaty saltiness to balance out the pungency of the cheese and sweetness of the gnocchi. This isn't the recipe for the novice cook but with a little experience and a big appetite, it should definitely go on your "make it again" list.  

A couple of dings. Most of the sauces are of the heavy, old-school, lotsa butter-cream-roux-demiglace version. It would have been nice to see a greater emphasis on lighter and more contemporary sauces--inventive vinaigrettes, aioli, salsas and veggie purees. Then there's Schaertl's propensity to give dishes annoyingly cutesy names; after reading through a half-dozen of them I was ready to hurl my "hunka hunka monkfish." 

Still, if you're an amateur cook who's not comfortable diving into the deep end of more demanding chefs' cookbooks, you may want to bring Schaertl's tome into your own crappy little kitchen.

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