Most cookbooks fall into one of two camps -- a devotion to a single ingredient (tomatoes, coconut) or type of food (pie, muffins); or more industriously whole meals meals are covered, with chapters devoted to starters, soups, sides, entrees and desserts.
The Cook's Book of Intense Flavors: 101 Surprising Flavor Combinations and Extraordinary Recipes that Excite Your Palate and Pleasure Your Senses (whew! -- Fair Winds Press, $26) is arranged according to types of flavors. The whole idea throughout is to combine ingredients in unexpected but harmonious ways. Chapters are grouped according to "timeless," "unexpected," "complex," "bright and light," "sweet and sour," "exotic," and "decadent" flavor combinations.
So in the table of contents, you see not recipe names, but lists of three ingredients -- "chestnut + miso + orange," say, or "watermelon + cheese + vinegar" (both from the "unexpected pleasures" chapter). This makes the table of contents feel like a glorious playground.
For each flavor trio, a page is devoted to discussing why the ingredients should work well together. One actual recipe follows, but other options are suggested -- this is a dessert recipe, but you could also go the salad route, that sort of thing.
I loved the focus on flavors as the building blocks of a dish; it was freeing to think about dishes that way, without getting hung up on "the recipe." That focus makes it a fun cookbook to read, not just consult, and the text should prompt anyone who likes to cook to start dreaming and scheming about ingredients. The design of the book is uncluttered and appealing, too, and the photos well done and professional.
Most of the trios are fun: apple + horseradish + vanilla; radish + peppercorn + rose hip; currant + chile + vinegar; salt + fennel + melon. And good news, fennel lovers, there are plenty of combos featuring this hot ingredient of 2010, including candied fennel atop a Meyer lemon parfait that I can't wait to try.
Sometimes, though, the actual recipe presented can feel confining -- you may be intrigued by the matchup of tomato + fennel + mustard seeds, but not as psyched about applying it to braised lamb shanks. But authors Robert and Molly Krause, who operate two restaurants in Lawrence, Kansas, offer plenty of other ways to experiment. In fact, the whole book is an as-you-like-it proposition: "Let your mood guide where to jump in -- the book has no real beginning or end," the Krouses suggest. What a great way to start the new year.