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Stacks: The Art of Vertical Food
By Deborah Fabricant, Frankie Frankeny (Photographer)
Ten Speed Press
Review by Mimi Hiller
One look at the cover photos and you have the feeling that you are looking at designer treats created by some four-star chefs, the kind of thing you wouldn't...or couldn't...make at home. But you would be wrong.
So, what is stacked food? Basically, it is an individual portion...an appetizer, a salad, a dessert, etc....which has been molded in an attractive display. Molds of varying shapes may be purchased (there is a list of resources in the back of the book), but the author also offers suggestions for making your own from soup or tuna cans, even PVC pipe.
"Stacks" are created by layering ingredients in the mold, pressing to consolidate, then either refrigerating to set properly, baked, or simply unmolding onto individual plates. Ms. Fabricant patiently explains each step of the process, and as you read through the various recipes, you realize this is a technique you can do on your own. And how impressive the end results! My personal advice: Never reveal to your guests how really easy these are to prepare.
In the "Getting Started" chapter at the beginning, you learn about portion control, as well as a description of some more unusual shapes you can create, such as squares, triangles, even pyramids. Beautiful photos show you the step-by-step process, from packing the mold to unmolding it.
There is also "The Stacks Matrix," several pages of mix-and-match lists of items that work well together, each section corresponding with the recipe chapters. The column headers are:
The idea is to select items, one binder and any combination from the other columns. There is also a final column labeled "Favorite Combinations," which corresponds with some of the recipes in the book.
The author has laid out the roadmap beautifully for you, and then encourages you to strike out to come up with your own creations. I guarantee, you will want to run to your kitchen and start putting together something very special.
The recipes. Each is prefaced by comments pertinent to it. In the case of Fruited Saint Andre Stacks, the reader is warned not to buy "Saint Andre cheese if it is overripe or smells slightly of vinegar or ammonia."
There are instructions for planning ahead and advance preparation, allowing you to make the recipe up to a certain point, if necessary. In some cases, there are tips for unmolding and serving, and in many recipes, there are shortcut suggestions. In one recipe, you can follow instructions for making salsa, but the shortcut section suggests you use purchased salsa. In another instance, you might substitute a bottle of dressing instead of making the one she gives you.
My only complaint about the book is that there was not a picture for each and every recipe, which I would personally find helpful, even entice me to try something I might otherwise pass over. I realize that photos are an expensive proposition for the publishing industry, but when you are presenting a unique concept in food design, it would really help.
I tried several of the recipes. The Tomato-Blue Cheese Stacks were a wonderful way to highlight the summer's garden bounty, with sweet, juicy slices of Beefsteak tomatoes taking center stage. These are layered with blue cheese (I chose Roquefort), mesclun and slices of English cucumber. The unmolded dish is then drizzled with a sundried tomato-balsamic vinaigrette. The marriage of flavors was excellent, and the dressing would be a real treat on a simple green salad, too.
The Panzanella Stacks are a take-off on the very popular Italian bread salad many folks are enjoying and another presentation for the luscious Beefsteak tomatoes. Combine these with Italian bread, English cucumber, sweet onion, roasted red pepper, artichoke hearts and basil, dressed with a red wine vinaigrette. This is definitely a "company" dish.
The Swordfish-Rosemary Polenta Stacks layer the fish with lovely slices of parmesan-flavored polenta and Ratatouille. Very yummy, and easy to put together at the last minute if you prepare the swordfish, polenta and ratatouille ahead of time. Once assembled, they need only bake for ten minutes. Could anything be easier?
Then there are the Italian Chicken Stacks. (Click to see the recipe.) These contain layers of chicken with a tomato sauce, ricotta, Parmesan cheese, pesto, and pine nuts for a luscious main course dish.
I think my favorite, though, was the Grilled Chicken and Couscous Stacks with Parmesan Cookies. There were four aspects of this recipe: the chicken and vegetables, the couscous, the sauce and the parmesan cookies. With a subtle flavor of curry, and a wide variety of other tastes and textures, this is truly a winner. I wouldn't hesitate to make it again.
Finally, what is a meal without a great dessert. I drooled over several before I yielded to the S'Mores Stacks for Rosie O'Donnell. Definitely not a campfire dish, but a classy version of the same. A graham cracker crumb cake forms the basis of this delight, followed by a ganache-type of chocolate-peanut butter filling, miniature marshmallows, praline ice cream and ground English toffee.
You may wipe the drool off your chin now and head for the kitchen.
This is a must-have cookbook, friends. You will enjoy reading the recipes, poring over the photos, and designing your own creations. It should also be noted that many of the tips Ms. Fabricant offers are very useful in everyday cooking.
Click here to order this cookbook.
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