Hello, and welcome to the “But Does It Work?” collection, in which intrepid non-professionals take newfangled diets, cookbooks, DIY crafting manuals, self-improvement guides, and the like for a spin.
For the first entry, I’ve asked my parents, Nancy and Jim Druckman, to spend some time with a new release from the people behind a local New York City restaurant of which I’m quite fond: Franny’s. Located in Prospect Heights, the Brooklyn canteen is beloved for its brick-oven pizza (the clam pie, especially), and its pastas and salads. (Don’t miss the panna cotta for dessert.) Initially, I proposed they assess Molly Katzen’s forthcoming vegetarian volume. The thinking was that Mom loves vegetables and Dad believes the vegetarian life not worth living; if they could find enough to cook (she) and eat (he) in this book, we’d know it was a winner. Mom refused. It turns out, she believes a vegetarian cookbook not worth the considering.
I then proposed restaurateur Francine Stephens’s and her husband, chef Andrew Feinberg’s, cookbook debut, Franny’s: Simple Seasonal Italian, which they co-wrote with one of the country’s best food scribes, the New York Times’s Melissa Clark, whom my mother thinks is the cat’s meow. (Full disclosure: I know Melissa, admire her work, and count her as a pal.) At this suggestion, Nancy perked up. Yes, she very much wanted to get her hands on this book, start planning a menu, and prep her mise-en-place.
If either of my folks had a Medium account (that’ll be the day), they would have filed this report themselves. For now, I’m acting, editorially speaking, in loco parentis. What follows is lifted, directly, from a series of emails sent to me by my mother after she made my father (and herself) Saturday night dinner from the book in question.
This cookbook is not for a novice. You would, first of all, need to be a Franny’s fan. Maybe it would appeal to those who live in Brooklyn, where the restaurant is. I found the variety of recipes lacking.
As a point of comparison, here are my benchmarks: For Italian cooking, I go to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table and The Italian Country Table, along with Mario Batali’s and Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks. Overall, Ina Garten does a good job, and Melissa Clark is excellent. Amanda Hesser’s New York Times book is where I can find many of my favorite recipes — the ones that are in my files, torn from previous articles. Suzanne Goin’s book is another one I use a lot; Sara Jenkins’s, too.
Back to Franny’s. There were too many crostinis — twenty-three pages of them — that seemed too obvious. Everyone else has done all of those little toppings already. What a waste. There are tons of pizza — thirty-three pages worth, and that’s what Franny’s is known for. But how many people are going to make pizza? You need to want to eat pizza, crostini, and pasta, if you can find one of those you actually want to cook.
And then there’s fritti. I don’t do fritti.
There’s a salad section. Everyone else has done a red cabbage salad, tomato salad, and burrata, too. I’m set there.
I came up with a soup or two I might make. One was the broccoli soup; I liked the technique. In the dutch oven, he [Feinberg] basically browns the broccoli first, which sounds like a good idea.
As far as the layout is concerned, that was fine. I just didn’t like what they laid out.
I had a really hard time choosing something I would like. “Where’s the beef?” I thought, and then looked for chicken and veal, and there was none.
I decided to make the “Sugar Snap Peas with Ricotta, Mint, and Lemon,” “Farro Salad with Favas, Sopressata and Pecorino,” “Seared Shrimp with White Beans, Olives, and Herbs,” and “Pistachio Cake.”
The snap pea salad was fine, saved by the ricotta.
The farro salad was tasty. I don’t know, I’d never made farro before, but, like he [Fineberg] does with the broccoli soup, he toasts the grain before boiling it in water. When you cook farro, most people tell you to cover the pot. He doesn’t. I don’t know if that’s because, after browning it, he doesn’t find that necessary.
The shrimp recipe calls for head-on shellfish, which my fish market, Dorian’s, does not have, and she [Dorian] says it is not something that is available at this time of year. My friend Alan found many head-on shrimp at Chelsea Market the same day I was looking for them, but they could have been frozen, as Dorian suggested. I used jumbo shrimp with the shells. If one follows the timing of cooking the shrimp, one might deem them underdone (Dad), or fine (me). This dish was also tasty; however, all these recipes I made are finished with a drizzle of olive oil, so how bad can they be?
There is one thing that must be addressed: That pistachio cake was a disaster. And I’ve baked a lot in life. At first, I thought the pan wasn’t going to be big enough. But when I put it in the pan, it was fine, and the batter tasted great. After sixty-five minutes, as recommended, I used a cake taster, in the center, and it came out clean. Then, I let the cake rest for fifteen minutes. I did everything I was told. It tasted great when warm, and, because it exploded, we got to taste the drippings. The middle collapsed; it looked like a huge crater. After it cooled, it was overdone on the outside and totally raw inside.
I put the icing on afterwards, which only added insult to injury. The “golden hue” they described, I might add, was nowhere in sight. It looks moist and, yes, “golden” in the book. Mine looked dry and raw.
I consider myself a decent baker and have never had such a catastrophe. There is something wrong with that recipe.
All this was time consuming. Starting Thursday night, I soaked the beans. Friday morning, I started with the shrimp recipe and cooked the beans and used the designated amount in the puree. Then, for the farro salad, I shelled, blanched, shocked, and peeled the fava beans. I also ground all the nuts for the ill-fated cake, and chopped garlic and scallions for the other recipes. Friday night, I drained the ricotta, and remembered to take out the butter for that cake. Saturday morning was set aside for baking the cake, toasting — then boiling — the farro, cooking snow peas, and more chopping (of olives, mint, etc.).
To quote Dad’s post-dinner assessment, it was “Much ado about nothing,” followed by, “Bland and banal.”
On the one hand, I don’t think I’m being fair to this book, because I didn’t make pizza or crostini. On the other, I’m sorry, a book that doesn’t have any chicken, beef, or meat and isn’t a vegetarian cookbook doesn’t work. (There is some roasted sausage.) Why not specify the book as a pizza-focused project from the start? The cover says “Simple. Seasonal. Italian,” and there’s a photo of a salad.
Now, because I cooked up a whole pound’s worth of dry ones and only used a quarter of the yield for my shrimp, I’m stuck with those beans. I may use them to make that warm salad with pancetta on the cover, and then discard the book. I guess I could try a crostini, too, but you know that’s not going to happen.
Postscript: Two nights later, I made that cover salad — the one with controne beans, radicchio, and pancetta. (By the way, I couldn’t couldn’t find controne and used the suggested alternative, cannelini.) Dad says it was lackluster, but better than the other recipes. Must admit I added pistachios. Considering it is on the cover, the authors must like it too.