Richard Blais’ Try This at Home: Recipes from My Head to Your Plate is the first cookbook from the Top Chef: All-Stars winner and general man-about-TV, bringing his odd and slightly twisted take on cooking to the masses with appealing and mostly easy-to-execute recipes. It’s well-written for a cookbook, with clear steps and plenty of side explanations of ingredients or techniques, as well as some appealing photography that also helped me envision some of the dishes as I cooked.
Blais succeeds most with dishes where he takes something familiar and adds an unexpected element or step, something best seen in his recipe for roast chicken, a standby dish for any home cook (especially if you value meals that produce leftovers or ingredients for the next meal) but one Blais takes in a new direction by adding spiced lemon curd. After brining the chicken, Blais rubs the curd on the chicken skin and between the skin and the meat, which adds flavor and fat to keep the breast meat moist and infuse the chicken with a slightly sweet lemon twist. Lemon curd is actually pretty easy to make, a simple custard boosted with butter rather than cream, and it’s an important technique to learn if you haven’t done it before. There’s nothing in this recipe a home cook can’t do, but the results are stellar – and the dish just keeps on giving, providing meat and juices for Blais’ Chicken Terrine (pressed into a mason jar, served cold or lukewarm with grainy mustard, pickles, crusty bread, and a little aioli), while also giving you the bones to make a simple stock that I used for a quick tortellini in brodo.
Another huge hit in our house is Blais’ Arroz con Pollo, which he says was inspired by his wife’s Honduran family’s cooking. It’s one of the few recipes in the book that’s “normal” – there’s no huge twist or unusual technique, just chicken thighs, vegetables, rice, and seasonings. Blais uses packaged seasonings that include MSG, because glutamates are the compounds responsible for the savory flavor called umami, although he explains how to make the seasoning mixture at home if you want to avoid MSG or just don’t like buying prefab seasoning mixes.
My daughter and I both loved Blais’ Sweet Potato Gnocchi, which he serves with kale, sage, and balsamic brown butter, although I steamed the sweet potatoes rather than baking them because it’s faster (about 20-25 minutes, versus 60 to 75 in the oven). The dough was easy to work with, and the basic formula and concept apply to just about any vegetable you can puree – I made a version with fava beans – and that offers a little sugar to caramelize when you finish them in the skillet. The gnocchi also freeze well.
The book includes a number of whimsical recipes, as you’d expect given Blais two turns on Top Chef, such as a potato chip omelet (which looks a lot like a Spanish tortilla), English muffin pizzas with a variety of toppings, and the French toast lollipops he made on “The Sunnyside Up Show” on PBS Sprout. I particularly appreciate the way he builds recipes with a core formula, such as the basic pickling brine; followed by a number of direct applications, like pickling peaches, radishes, and strawberries; and then several recipes that include the basic items you just made. He does the same with mustards, aiolis, vinaigrettes, and so on. He includes a recipe for the goulash he made for Wolfgang Puck on Top Chef: All-Stars, as well as a lengthy section of seafood dishes I haven’t tried because of my wife’s shellfish allergy (and just general distaste for items from the sea).
One reader asked if the book was appropriate for inexperienced home chefs, because it seemed like many recipes required advanced techniques or specialized equipment. There are a handful of recipes that call for a sous vide machine, but not enough to bother me (I don’t own one, and have no plans to get one), and a number that require something like this iSi whipped cream dispenser, which I do own and love. I think the bigger leap for the novice cook is Blais’ adventurous taste level – this book will challenge your palate, as he combines ingredients you wouldn’t always put together, or presents familiar flavors with new textures. I need books like that, because I enjoy novelty in cooking and in eating, but your mileage may vary.
Full disclosure: I’ve eaten at Blais’ restaurants, once at his invitation, and received a free, signed copy of this book after I’d already bought one (I gave the unsigned copy to one of my editors). I’d recommend the book even if I didn’t know Richard at all.