Four years ago chef Diane Forley was cleaning out the walk-in refrigerator in her Manhattan garden restaurant, Verbena, when she spotted an aging salsify root that had sprouted. As she was about to pitch it, Forley observed that the budding leaves looked a lot like endive, and she said as much to a farmer who was delivering potatoes that day.
The similarity was no surprise to him: salsify and endive (as well as daisies and sunflowers) belong to the botanical family Compositae and so share the same flower structure of a circular center surrounded by tight rings of petals. The farmer then explained to Forley that the potatoes he was dropping off belonged to the Solanaceae family, plants with five-petaled tubular flowers; Europeans, he explained, were initially wary of the potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes early explorers brought back from the New World because the flowers resembled belladonna, or deadly nightshade, a member of the same family.
The conversation triggered a fascination with botany that prompted Forley to write this unusually cerebral and lush cookbook. Studying plant families from both a botanical and a culinary perspective, Forley found that some of her favorite food matches were in fact marriages between awfully close botanical relatives. The family Liliaceae, for instance, includes leeks, chives, garlic, and asparagus. “I realized that asparagus and leeks are a favorite pairing of mine,” she writes. “I remembered leek chowder with asparagus and pea shoots and a fricassee of asparagus, leeks, and snow peas served with lemon porridge. My cooking, it seems, was one step ahead of my learning.” (That porridge, by the way, is an inspired cheeseless risotto that Forley punches up with lemon and basil and thickens with eggs, like the Greek soup avgolemono. For those who want to gild their Liliaceae, she suggests adding lobster or lump crabmeat.)
As much an egghead as a cook, Forley excels in explaining the logic behind classical French cooking techniques. A chapter called “Vegetable Studies” includes instructions for both braising and steaming artichokes, and suggestions for slicing their hearts into gratins or griddlecakes, or just mashing the meat with olive oil, garlic, and tarragon and smearing it on bruschetta.
The Anatomy of a Dish was a finalist in the 2003 cookbook awards sponsored by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. (Another finalist was In the Hands of a Chef, by Jody Adams ’80, but both Forley and Adams lost out to Judy Rodgers’s Zuni Café Cookbook.) Anatomy of a Dish won this year’s James Beard award for cookbook photography, thanks to Victor Schrager’s stylized still lifes, which open each chapter. The book is also liberally illustrated with botanical drawings and a series of charts detailing plant families and the flavors of their various parts. All this abundance ultimately overwhelms the book, though; it feels both overdesigned and overconceived. In the end, the relationship Forley tries to draw between botanical families and flavor, however conceptually interesting, doesn’t really bear out in the kitchen.
What does bear out is Forley’s immense talent—both as a chef and a teacher of cooking—and her commitment to coaxing from each ingredient the full range and depth of flavor it can offer. Her pickled beets are seductively complex, simmered in red wine and vinegar spiced with cinnamon, black peppercorns, thyme, and bay leaves. Sweet and sour, earthy and bright, they’re an instant staple for salads, even if you’re too timid (or lazy) to put them in her formidable ruby-red risotto with beet greens on top. Sometimes the parts are as good as the whole.
Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM’s managing editor.