In hailing Rocco DiSpirito as "America's Most Exciting Young Chef," Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl commented that Rocco thinks "of food in ways no one else does."
A glance at DiSpirito's cookbook, Flavor (Hyperion, 2003, $35), supports that description.
Here is a chef who combines unexpected flavors: calamari with pumpkin seeds and a butternut squash, chicken coated with miso and marmalade, panna cotta with caramel popcorn. Rice pudding is elevated to a white-chocolate risotto. Nutella is turned into a gourmet dessert.
DiSpirito, who became something of a star last year with an NBC reality show about the opening of his new restaurant, calls his cuisine "global fusion." While it is sometimes difficult to say where he is going with his recipes, it's fun getting there.
His cookbook covers the gamut of dishes from appetizers to dessert and contains a number of handy devices to help the reader thumb through the more than 300 pages. The recipes are accompanied by photographs of main ingredients; flavor guides that spell out whether ingredients are sour, salty, sweet or bitter; prominent labels that list the time that a recipe takes, its level of difficulty and recommended wine.
The book is full of photographs of dishes and of DiSpirito frolicking with friends and family.
Most of the recipes are quite doable, even for beginning cooks, although some dishes will require a trip to a gourmet store or ethnic market. The Quick Miso Chicken, for example, contains only six ingredients, but I had to stop by an Asian market to find "medium-colored miso."
Quick Miso Chicken
4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, about 6 ounces each
2 tablespoons medium-colored miso
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
salt and ground pepper to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable, canola or corn oil
Place chicken breasts between two sheets of plastic wrap or wax paper, and pound thin with a mallet. In a small bowl, whisk together miso and orange marmalade. Sprinkle chicken breasts lightly with salt and pepper, and brush all over with marinade. Let stand 30 minutes.
Warm a nonstick saute pan with the oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chicken. Cook on the first side 3 minutes. Flip. Baste tops with any remaining marinade. Cook on second side 3 minutes or until meat is no longer pink. Flip, cook 15 seconds, and transfer to plates.
Per serving: 256 calories; 35 grams protein; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 9 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 94 milligrams cholesterol; 401 milligrams sodium