December 17, 1999:

Cooking Fearlessly: Recipes and Other Adventures From Hudson's on the Bend

by Jeff Blank and Jay Moore, with Deborah Harter

Fearless Press, 180 pp., $32.95

In both style and content, Cooking Fearlessly -- the new cookbook from chefs Jeff Blank and Jay Moore -- is anything but minimal. It presents the restaurant's signature wild game dishes in 180 pages of full-color glossy artwork -- with a good deal of philosophy, tips, and extra information thrown into the mix. As much a coffeetable book as a workaday cooking resource, Cooking Fearlessly lets you see through the eyes of the Hudson's chefs as they preach their own culinary philosophy.

According to Blank and Moore, "Fearless Cooking" uses nontraditonal ingredients and techniques to create dishes with bold, multi-layered flavors. The kitchen staff at Hudson's often use native and exotic game meats -- pheasant, caribou, ostrich, and elk to name a few -- to jazz up fusion standards, and the authors do their best to encourage home cooks with this spirit of experimentation. "[Cooking Fearlessly] is about throwing out conventional wisdom concerning what you ought to eat, what tools to use , what goes with what, and even what might be edible," they write. "Who's to say what goes with rattlesnake, anyway?"

But philosophy aside, the primary purpose of a restaurant cookbook is to showcase the eatery's signature dishes for loyal customers. It's a chance for diners to see behind the kitchen door, glean a few secrets, and maybe re-create their favorites at home. Local fans of Blank and Moore will be glad to see step-by-step instructions for such menu standouts as pecan-crusted red snapper, corn pudding, and venison backstrap stuffed with smoked lobster.

The book's 130-odd recipes are split into eight categories -- appetizers, salads, soups, seafood, poultry, meat, vegetables, and desserts -- and on the whole rank fairly high on the complexity scale. In keeping with the Hudson's tradition, many of the entree dishes involve grilling or smoking, and the authors give hints on how to efficiently smoke in the home kitchen. Others involve a multi-stage preparation of complex sauces -- such as the White Chocolate Tomatillo or Guava Sour Cherry variations -- which require their own prep processes. (And in a convenient cross-sell, Moore and Blank offer shortcuts in the form of Hudson's on the Bend prepackaged gourmet sauces.) A quick note to the heart-healthy crowd: These boys believe in the redemptive qualities of butter, cream, and other rich foodstuffs, so consider yourself warned.

Each of the recipes comes with a flurry of information meant to put the dish in more of a home-friendly context. The authors suggest substitutes for hard-to-find ingredients, set out any problematic timing issues ("soak beans overnight"), and list required tools that might throw a kink into a cook's experience.

And then there are the pictures -- tons of culinary beauty shots, candid photos of Jeff and Jay teaching cooking classes, and copious printings of artist Shanny Lott's series of "Fearless Chef" paintings (all of which hang in the restaurant). It's a full-color Hudson's family album and a glossy tour de force. But with all the room for photos, the authors seem to have skimped on pictures of the actual cooking processes in favor of "finished dish" shots. This could be a potential problem for less-experienced cooks, but a boon for fans of restaurant presentation.

As for Blank and Moore, they seem to have a great time hamming it up in print and leading their readers through "the Fearless way." They're at their best when explaining helpful techniques and ways to develop a dish. Unfortunately, some of the most helpful information (ways to maximize flavor from a stovetop smoker, for instance) gets buried under layers of anecdote, musical suggestions, and punmanship. Here and there, a little less ham would have definitely been more effective.

But overall, Cooking Fearlessly is a good bet for Hudson's home crowd, fans of inventive regional cuisine, or anyone who's ever asked themselves the twisted question, "Wonder how many lobsters I can stuff inside this deer --"

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