The title of the latest cookbook from Bryan Voltaggio, the "Top Chef Masters" finalist who now has two restaurants in Baltimore, suggests it's full of recipes for family meals. Some of the notes accompanying his recipes in "Home" contain fond references to Voltaggio's children and home-cooked meals. But the recipes in "Home" are geared toward special occasions (the book is divided into chapters such as "Super Bowl Sunday") rather than any casual use for a home-cooked meal. Many of the recipes require hard-to-find ingredients, extremely long marinating times, rare specialty cooking tools, or some combination of those three, making it next to impossible to cook anything without significantly planning ahead. Given that, it seemed to lend itself well to planning for a dinner party, so that's what I decided to do when I received a copy of the cookbook in the mail to review.
The week before the dinner party, I did a test run with the cast-iron pan-fried Brussels sprouts with pickled raisins and sunflower seeds. The recipe calls for you to pickle golden raisins in a concoction including honey and rice wine, and while that made for a slightly more interesting take on golden raisins, the effort of pickling them certainly didn't seem worth the final results. Maybe I'm just lazy, but I've made Brussels sprouts with cranberries many times before and thought that cranberries are far more complementary to the flavor of Brussels sprouts than golden raisins, pickled or otherwise. He also wanted you to find unsalted raw sunflower seeds and toast them yourself in a homemade "Pimenton oil," but as it turns out, unsalted raw sunflower seeds are damn near impossible to find in normal grocery stores, so I caved and just got already-toasted ones. But overall, the recipe made for a pretty good dish.
For the dinner party, I decided to start with the sweet potato biscuits. It was a relatively straightforward recipe—your usual buttermilk biscuit recipe, plus sweet potatoes that had been baked, then grated—but the final product made a big impression with my guests. The biscuits were delightfully buttery and had the perfect texture, with the sweet potatoes adding just enough flavor and moisture to make them stand out from any usual biscuits.
Next up on the menu was barley with asparagus. This recipe seemed relatively straightforward—until I realized Voltaggio wanted you to smoke pecorino cheese yourself in your handy-dandy stovetop smoker with wood chips. I own many, many kitchen gadgets, but a stovetop smoker is not one of them, so I had decided to forego the smoking process and just asked a friend to pick up a block of pecorino cheese at Whole Foods. Which is how we discovered a weird oversight in the recipe: "It turns out," my friend announced when she showed up at my apartment, "that 'pecorino' cheese is just any kind of cheese made with sheep's milk, which means that if you ask for pecorino cheese at Whole Foods, they're going to look at you like you're an idiot." Given how picky Voltaggio seemed to be about all of the ingredients in his recipes, it was strange that he would be so imprecise about what cheese to use.
It would prove to be an omen of things to come for the dish. The recipe said to cook the barley, then mix it with both a cup of buttermilk and some lemon juice—which as someone pointed out seemed more like a recipe for curdled dairy than anything actually edible—before adding in cooked asparagus. My roommate and I dutifully followed the recipe and passed out spoons for people to taste-test it out of the bowl.
Our instincts about the questionable combination of barley and buttermilk turned out to be spot on. "It tastes like wet cardboard," one friend said. "It tastes like someone put yogurt on wet cardboard," another corrected. No amount of cheese, smoked or otherwise, was going to save this dish. Someone suggested we order a pizza, but I still had hope for the chicken wings with a kimchi caramel sauce.
Voltaggio had said that the wings should be tossed in a marinade of egg whites, baking soda, and sea salt, then set on a wire rack to "marinade" for 14 to 18 hours. How the wings were supposed to marinade in a small amount of egg whites when they were placed over a rack that allowed all the marinade to drip off, and how that marinade was supposed to in any way improve the flavor of the wings, went unexplained. And the recipe failed to include instructions on what to do with the kimchi caramel sauce once that was cooked on the stove top, so I had to guess that one was supposed to toss the wings in the sauce, which was more a watery drizzle than a caramel, before putting the wings on a wire rack on top of a baking sheet and placing them in the oven, as he instructed.
After 10 minutes, I pulled the tray of wings out of the oven to turn them over, as Voltaggio instructed, and let out a shout of dismay: The caramel sauce had dripped off the wings and started to burn on the baking sheet. We abandoned the wings, ordered two pizzas, and went to the liquor store to get enough alcohol to forget about the failed entrees. I had earlier mixed dough for his lemon cookies (which, surprise, needed to sit in the fridge for at least four hours before being baked), but at this point I didn't have the heart to go on cooking.
I had thought about making the chicken pot pie fritters—which, if they were anything like the fritters served at Family Meal, were bound to be a treat—but they required you to poach an entire chicken. Voltaggio promises in the note accompanying the recipe that poaching a whole chicken is worth the effort, but at this point, I don't think I trust his judgment.