When Mark Bittman, a.k.a. "The Minimalist" and author of How to Cook Everything, one of the best cookbooks in recent years, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, four-star chef and restaurateur, team up they form a simply spectacular culinary combo. Their latest joint venture, aptly titled Simple to Spectacular: How to Take One Basic Recipe to Four Levels of Sophistication , takes the recipe-and-variation format to new heights. These aren't the add-on alternatives so often found as sidebars or after-thoughts; these variations are part of the main event. Remember, these two great cooks have very different styles - Mark, the patron saint of simplicity, likes to strip recipes down to make them easy for a simple cook in a simple kitchen. Jean-Georges is always looking for ways to enhance recipes and bring them up to his multi-starred standards. Here, we're offered the best of both: there are 50 groupings of five recipes; each grouping starts with the basic dish - the creative springboard - then four, increasingly complex and sophisticated variations follow, all based on the same techniques you've seen in the first. Slow-cooked salmon, sprinkled with parsley and capers - a true Bittman bonanza - takes on tempting Thai tastes with crunchy lemongrass, classic French flavor with herbs, mushrooms and tomato fondue and finally becomes a most elegant entree topped with coriander-scented mussels. The 250 recipes in these sensational scenarios cover the gastronomic gamut from soups to desserts, demonstrating how well this dynamic dining room duo balances innovation with careful instruction, and pleasing ease with the joy and excitement of experimentation.
Sybil Pratt has been cooking up this column for more than five years.