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Cookbook Review

Fine flavors, without fancy ingredients

The Young Man & the Sea: Recipes & Crispy Fish Tales from Esca, By David Pasternack and Ed Levine, Artisan, 252 pp., $35

I might as well be the first to admit it: Sometimes I'm wary of cookbooks written by famous chefs. I've been let down more times than I can count by people whose immaculate, well-staffed kitchens bear no resemblance to my own and whose books have just about lost their toehold in reality. There's the "army of prep cooks" problem of the chef who has forgotten what it's like to peel fava beans. There's the "equipment disconnect" problem of the chef who has two ovens and a salamander. And then there's the "Aleppo pepper" problem, which manifests itself in one impossible-to-find ingredient after another.

That is what I feared I would find in "The Young Man & the Sea," by David Pasternack, chef of Esca, a temple of seafood. My first attempts at Pasternack's recipes were a catalog of all my worries. Black cod was out of season, but striped bass and peekytoe crab weren't yet in. The folks at my fish counter did their best to keep me up on the latest catch, but much of the time the missing ingredient wasn't even the fish.

I was thrilled when soft-shell crabs finally became abundant and tried Pasternack's fried soft-shells with ramps. But by then ramps could no longer be had. No matter. I made them with scallions, which were meltingly delicious with the fried lemon slices and crisp crab.

Then there was the tagliatelle with shrimp and peas. I couldn't get fresh tagliatelle unless I made it myself (no time and no inclination) and I can almost never get slab pancetta. I used dried fettuccine and thinly sliced pancetta and it was simply great.

Blood oranges in Massachusetts in July? For grilled snapper with almond-oregano pesto, I had to go with regular oranges. The pesto didn't look right -- soupy and oily rather than thick and green. But its woodsy, nutty taste married beautifully with the tender flakes of snapper flesh. Meyer lemons, too, were not available for a dish of cod with lemon jam. Fingers crossed, I threw regular lemons, pith and all, into the blender as instructed, and added miles more sugar than called for. If the resulting yellow marmalade was a little bitter, it still stood up well to the mild sweetness of fried cod.

There were a few simple dishes for which I easily found everything. Sea scallops with asparagus and sugar snaps were lush and buttery, the gilded crust and sweet interior of the scallops set off by herbal vinaigrette. Trout "almost amandine" with pistachios, topped with lemon, burned inexplicably in the broiler (obviously my fault for not watching it more carefully), which was especially sad because you could still taste how good it might have been. Bluefish tartare was an example of the crudo (raw) dishes that Esca has made famous; the oily decadence of the fish was cast into relief by bright lemon, chives, and mustard.

Perhaps my favorite of Pasternack's recipes didn't even have anything at all to do with fish. His corn salad with walnuts and goat cheese was a masterpiece of robust flavors, tied together with rosemary oil and nestled in arugula. I was supposed to use dried, aged goat cheese, but -- of course I couldn't get it. We used fresh, without a trace of regret.

Sometimes the road to a good meal doesn't run smoothly. In this case, I sometimes ended up with restaurant-size portions of sauce for person-size servings, and sometimes prep times stretched on and on as I hunted down secondary recipes (the "see Page 93 " problem).

Occasionally, cooking times needed a bit of adjusting, but the basic flavor palettes were so fresh and inviting and the textural principles so sound that the dishes worked anyway. Like a big fish in a small sea, ideas this good are just hard to hide.

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