A Review of Philip Johnson’s e’cco 2

If you casually flip through this book in a shop, you may well be tempted to leave it alone for fear that the dishes are too fancy and fussy for your tastes. That would be a mistake. This is food that looks and tastes like the sort you would get in a quality restaurant, but is very easy to prepare. The starters are all inclusive, with sauces and accompaniments built in, and can easily be served as main courses. The desserts are terrific, and many are so simple, they can be done regularly. e’cco 2 is a great resource for the simple chef, who likes to occasionally show off without spending a day in the kitchen.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Ecco 2: More recipes from an Australian bistro
by Philip Johnson
Random House
ISBN 1 74051 114 X
2002

I’m a simple cook by necessity. When we invite friends over for lunch or dinner, the meal tends to be two courses only, maybe with some cheese later on. e’cco 2 is all about starters and desserts, and the recipes are so fresh and innovative, it has me completely rethinking the way I entertain. Author and chef Philip Johnson runs e’cco, a very well known Brisbane based bistro famous for its focus on fresh seasonal ingredients put together in unusual and delicious ways. HIs first cookbook, e’cco was much more traditional in its focus, while e’cco 2 encourages home cooks to break away from tradition, and experiement witht he smaller quantities and freedom offered by starters and desserts – the kinds of food that draws us to restaurants.

The book is divided into three sections, one on starters, one on desserts, and one on basics. The starters are fancy looking, and have been designed to be impressive without being difficult. One of the joys of cooking this way is that the starters here are all inclusive, that is, they contain all the elements of a full meal, and if you just ensure a reasonable quantity (and are, in any case, serving a rich dessert), you don’t need to fuss with additional accompaniments. There are a very wide range of diverse dishes, ranging from vegetarian tarts, salads (both terrific for luncheons), meat dishes, poultry, pastas, fish and seafood, with influences spanning French, Asian, traditional Australian, and predominantly, Italian. None of the recipes are anything like as fussy as they look, with very good quality ingredients, and careful attention to presentation being the key. A simple goats cheese tart is accented by a delicate salad of rocket and pear, the Middle East is conjured up by chicken fillets with saffron couscous, almonds, currents and wilted spinach. Sounds fancy, and looks and tastes great, but your guests won’t guess that the whole thing takes only about 20 minutes (not including marinating time). A dish of “Atlantic salmon, hokkien noodles, pak choy, asian mushrooms, chilli, ginger and lime” (no need to check out the ingredients list – it is all there in the title!) requires the making of your own stock for simmering the noodles, but again, the meal is quick and rather easy, relying more on the quality of the fish and the interaction of the flavours, than any detailed preparation. If you really want to impress your guests, you can serve one of the quail, rabbit, or duck dishes, or some of the more exotic seafoods, like sauteed cuttlefish, sand crab, seared bug tails, or scallops. My favourite though is a simple meat and potatoes dish – “Eye fillet, garlic & herb mash, caramelised red onions & wild mushrooms”. It is really no harder than what you might make for the family, but presented so beautifully, especially if you follow Tony Waller’s gorgeous photographs, that your guests will think you’ve slaved for hours. Perfect.

As for the desserts, again, there are a broad range of fruit dishes, tortes and cakes, ice creams, parfaits, mousses, and cheesecakes. None are terribly difficult, but all are impressive, and new, and as a follow up to one of Johnson’s starters, will leave your guests (or family…mine love dessert and I hardly ever make it for them…) seriously impressed. Apple, pecan & pine nut torte comes with homemade gelati. Sound impossibly hard? It isn’t. The gelato requires an ice cream maker (or a lot of regular stirring), but takes about 3 minutes to do in a blender (you don’t even have to peel the apples). The cake takes about 20 minutes plus cooking. Couldn’t be simpler, or more delicious. How about an Espresso cheesecake with Kahlua muscatels? You’ll need to soak the muscatels and make (or buy) a shortcrust pastry, and then the whole thing will take about 10 minutes to prepare, another 25 minutes to cook, and maybe 5 minutes to “plate up” before your guests are asking you how you find the time to fit in gourmet cooking with all of your other responsibilities. The honey roasted pears with warm gingerbread and Greek yogurt is as easy as the banana cake you might occasionally make for the kids (but a lot more impressive), and the Macademia Tart with Vanilla Cream can be made the day before in about 20 minutes, and is stunning.

The Basics section is exactly what it suggests, although it does contain recipes for some dishes which would be classed as other than basic. There are recipes for pastries, clarified butter, mayonnaises, chutneys and jams, oils, stocks, dressings, sauces, polenta, ice-creams, and a few non-essential fun things like duck confit (!), homemade ice cream, biscuits, and simple cake.

If you casually flip through this book in a shop, you may well be tempted to leave it alone for fear that the dishes are too fancy and fussy for your tastes. That would be a mistake. This is food that looks and tastes like the sort you would get in a quality restaurant, but is very easy to prepare. The starters are all inclusive, with sauces and accompaniments built in, and can easily be served as main courses. The desserts are terrific, and many are so simple, they can be done regularly. e’cco 2 is a great resource for the simple chef, who likes to occasionally show off without spending a day in the kitchen.

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