There are two kinds of cooks in this world — those who learn at a parent's (or grandparent's) knee, and those who learn out of necessity. Robin Donovan is the former; Juliana Gallin the latter. The pair met in a communal house while attending UC Santa Cruz, where meals were prepared en masse, to a wide variety of qualitative results. Donovan eventually became a food writer, now living in Albany. Gallin became a graphic designer based in San Francisco, and the pair stayed in touch. A realization by Gallin that sometimes the best food is the easiest to prepare inspired the two to create The Lazy Gourmet, a cookbook whose release will be celebrated on Thursday, June 2, at Diesel (5433 College Ave., Oakland).
"We want people, especially those who might not be super experienced or comfortable in the kitchen, to feel empowered to make these recipes their own," the two cooks wrote in an e-mail. "In this spirit, we offer 'change it up' points — suggestions for ingredient substitutions — at the end of many of our recipes. We hope these help the reader feel more relaxed about preparing the dish — the world won't come to an end if the recipe is not followed word for word. In fact, the dish might even turn out more suited to the cook's tastes, and he or she might become a better, and more relaxed, cook from having exercised some creativity."
In order to ensure each recipe's ease of use and relative merit, Donovan and Gallin enlisted more than fifty "regular home cooks" to try making the recipes; the testers then filled out detailed feedback forms allowing the writers to alter and, in some cases, 86 dishes entirely — panna cotta, goat cheese-stuffed chicken breast, and steak with rosemary-red wine reduction were a few that didn't make the cut. The key criteria they established were: easiness ("Our designer did a great job typesetting the book in a way that's easy on the eyes. And all of the recipes fit entirely onto one page — or if they're longer, one spread — so that the user doesn't have to keep turning pages back and forth"); impressiveness; and that ever-elusive "x-factor, something that made it stand out. That could be an unusual flavor combination (like watermelon salad with feta and pickled onions), an unusual cooking technique (like trout baked in a crust of coarse salt), a simplified version of a dish known to be very complicated to make (chicken mole or prawns romesco), a dish cooked and served in individual ramekins (flourless chocolate mini cakes), or even, in some cases, just a fancy French pedigree (like steak au poivre or cherry clafoutis)."
This writer is a hesitant — and yes, lazy — wanna-be foodie who can say, with certainty, that the shredded Brussels sprouts with horseradish cream; pasta with asparagus, leeks, and chèvre; above-referenced lemon-herb salt-baked trout; and particularly the caramelized fennel are that rare combination of tasty, simple, and fancy-schmancy. (Seriously, people, caramelizing is the holy grail of pretending to know how to cook.) The publication party will include a reading and some samples of blue cheese and pecan shortbreads with fig and onion jam, white bean spread with parmesan and mint, and other tasty treats. 7 p.m., free. 510- 653-9965 or DieselBookstore.com