The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 24, 2009

Book review: ‘Top Chef’ host offers sumptuous cookbook

‘Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet’

By Padma Lakshmi

If you’re a fan of the Bravo series “Top Chef,” then you’re familiar with its host, Padma Lakshmi. I must admit that, although I enjoy most things culinary, I rarely watch that particular show, as I have little tolerance for Lakshmi. Her presence among the knowledgeable chefs and food critics is jarring, and I tend to regard her as lovely but bland window-dressing in a low-cut dress and high-heel boots. (And don’t even get me started on her recent Hardee’s commercial. You know which one I’m talking about.)

Prior to “Top Chef,” I’d only known of Lakshmi as the model/actress ex-wife of writer Salman Rushdie, not as a foodie. So it was with some skepticism that I picked up her new cookbook, entitled “Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet.”

Much to my surprise, I actually liked it. The book is undeniably gorgeous and as sumptuous as its title, brimming with recipes and colorful photos rich in shades of red, yellow and green.

Its subtitle — “A World of Recipes for Every Day” — fulfills the book’s promise. Recipes range from the exotic — lobster bruschetta, green mango curry, lychee granita — to the familiar — grilled cheese toastie with portobello and bacon, creamy broccoli soup, krispy fried chicken. As I scanned the table of contents, the more playfully named recipes enticed me to look them up just to see what they entailed: two hens laughing, green dragon curry with shrimp, fiddlehead ferns in glassy onions.

Some of the more complex recipes are not what I’d deem “for every day,” unless you happen to have a few hours to prepare them. But the majority seem easy enough to prepare after a long day spent at work or chasing the kiddies around the house. Ingredient lists aren’t too long, nor are they too unusual. If an item is very specialized, Lakshmi helpfully suggests a more common substitute.

My one complaint about “Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet” is that, as a longtime vegetarian, I don’t have much use for lamb meatballs simmered in creamy spinach sauce or BBQ Korean short ribs. With her Indian heritage, I would have expected Lakshmi to be a little more vegetarian-friendly, but that is a small and personal quibble. The book contains plenty of salad and vegetable recipes, and I have enough skills in the kitchen that I can make meatless versions of many recipes.

I’m not sure if Lakshmi had help writing the book, but some of the prose is a tad purple. Witness the introduction to the recipe for basil and blood orange salad: “The salad is not only glorious to eat but beautiful to look at. The glistening oranges, jeweled with dried cranberries, sit regally in a luxurious bed of dark green spinach that’s laced with the spiky fragrance of basil. The nuttiness of the pepitas completes the odyssey of taste and texture.”

If I were her editor, I would have cut her off after the first sentence.

However, when she turns to her background, her writing becomes more relaxed and personal. She describes living in South India, moving to New York City with her single mother, and traveling abroad as a student, model and actress; photos of family and friends add to the intimate tone. Through her life experiences, she has soaked up a variety of cuisines and cultures: lingering in the kitchen while her Indian relatives cooked, grocery shopping in New York City’s Spanish Harlem and Chinatown with her mother, absorbing the tastes of Spain, Italy and France.

“No one I know eats one type of cuisine all the time,” she writes in the introduction. “Our lives have been touched by the many cultures that coexist among us. The way we eat now is a reflection of what America has become.”

Remember that next time you’re in your kitchen making tacos or spaghetti or stir-fry. And if you run out of fresh ideas, take a peek at Lakshmi’s “Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet.” I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.