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The Lesley Stowe Fine Foods Cookbook

by Lesley Stowe

A boom in fine dining in Vancouver over the past 15 years has spawned a small library of excellent cookbooks from master chefs like Rob Feenie, John Bishop, and Karen Barnaby. This fall, two more top Vancouver chefs aim to join that list.

In 1994, Vikram Vij opened his restaurant, Vij’s, which he runs with his wife, Meeru Dhalwala. One of North America’s best Indian restaurants, Vij’s eschews the standard Indian repertoire to offer original dishes inspired by cuisines from across the subcontinent.

Vij’s, the book, has two sections. The first is a digest explaining numerous ingredients from Indian cuisine, including ghee (clarified butter), dal (lentils), and 28 herbs and spices. The second section presents over 80 recipes from the restaurant, including Prawns in Coconut Masala, Coriander and Black Cardamom Lamb in Buttermilk Curry, Grilled Sablefish in Tomato-Yoghurt Broth, and Bitter Melon with Paneer and Raw Sugar. These precise, accessible, and informative recipes are virtuosic in their use of ingredients and flavours. Emphasizing freshness and correct technique, Vij’s is born of a profound culinary artistry that should impel readers to cook.

Having catered in Vancouver for 20 years, Lesley Stowe opened a retail branch of her company in 1990. Her inspiration resides in the mainstream of contemporary gastronomy. The Lesley Stowe Fine Foods Cookbook offers over 125 recipes, including Roasted Pumpkin Soup with Cumin Cream, Peking Duck Risotto with Chive Crème Fraîche, Balsamic Short Ribs with Sautéed Spinach, Sugar-Smoked Tuna with Papaya Lime Salsa, and Death by Chocolate, the famous dessert Stowe developed for John Bishop’s restaurant. There is considerable versatility here, yet the recipes occasionally feel trendy, lending the book a commercial timbre that robs it of soul. Unlike Vij’s, it does not always inspire one to cook.

Both of these books aptly illustrate the maturation of Vancouver gastronomy. Both also reflect a movement toward higher production quality in Canadian paperback cookbooks. Oversized, with excellent colour and black-and-white photography throughout, both employ design styles informed by their subjects. Both books are beautiful, but it’s likely only Vij’s will join the canon.