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November 2, 2009 7:13 PM

Eye, Fashion

Testing the 'American Fashion Cookbook'

The cover of the "American Fashion Cookbook: 100 Designer's Best Recipes," published by Assouline in conjunction with the CFDA, shows illustrations of two chicly dressed and very slender women. One is holding a glass of wine; the other, a platter...

The cover of the "American Fashion Cookbook: 100 Designer's Best Recipes," published by Assouline in conjunction with the CFDA, shows illustrations of two chicly dressed and very slender women. One is holding a glass of wine; the other, a platter of fish. Neither is eating or drinking. Nor do their reedy figures and model-esque poses suggest an air of hunger or appetite.

That message doesn't bode well for a book that is ostensibly about the ingestion of food. So I was ready to be disappointed when I cooked a meal using its recipes.

The menu was an eclectic one: I choose Tagine of Chicken with Preserved Lemons and Olives by Yigal Azrouël because it seemed full of flavor and, as a one-pot dish, would be easy to pull off on a weeknight. I followed with a dessert -- Mrs. Clotilde Zucchelli's Torta de Riso, a rice tort whose named seemed to promise a vetted but sophisticated Italian treat. Plus, it hails from Italo Zucchelli's family, so it was easy to envision a kind of tapioca you'd eat on the Italian coast.

I invited a fashion-minded friend to join in. She brought the wine and the skepticism.

I started with Norma Kamali's Olive Oil Popcorn, which I served as an hors d'oeuvre, partially because it espoused the whole high-low thing so popular in restaurants these days, but also because Kamali suggests the oil from the popcorn, once slicked all over your hands from eating, also doubles as a good moisturizer. That seemed like an appropriate insight for a cookbook authored by designers.

Slashed with strands of olive oil and sea salt, the popcorn met unimpressed mouths at first, but it proved addictive, and the big blue bowl was licked clean by the time dinner was ready. If you plan to wear Kamali's swim suits any time soon, stay away from her popcorn.

At table, the chicken, spiced with cumin, coriander, paprika, saffron, ginger, cinnamon and cloves and served over couscous, was savory, surprising and satisfying. It called for a preserved lemon sliced thin, which I didn't have, but a regular lemon peel worked fine and managed to brighten the sauce's earthy spice.

"He's good-looking and he can cook," my friend said.

A glass of sauvignon blanc later, I looked in on Zucchelli's torta. After an hour in the oven, the custard, made of eggs, rice, milk, sugar, lemon rind and butter, had barely begun to set.

"I'm not eating that," my friend declared.

"Let's give it more time and crank up the heat," I offered.

Another 40 minutes and 100 degrees later, results appeared vastly improved. The top had browned beautifully, and the batter had risen in what seemed to foretell a creamy and delicate rice tort inside.

As we cut into it, we sung praises of Italian dessert culture. Mild, fruity, subtle. So unlike the gloppy chocolate sauced conventions of American sweets. Italian style in desserts, as in their clothes, far outpaces our own, we concluded.

Perhaps we spoke too soon.

I knew the dessert would be restrained, but the torta was uncompromisingly bland. It was watery in flavor and the texture, which I had expected to be like a lemony Mediterranean cloud, was soggy yet tough.

My friend took a bite and then pushed her plate away.

I fully accept some operator error here. I didn't have regular rice, so I used Arborio -- the rice used to make risotto -- which holds more water than conventional versions, and that water likely leached back into the pan during baking. Also, in turning up the heat, I may have caused the eggs to rise to the top and scramble a bit as opposed to surrounding the rice evenly.

But either way, we agreed the torta needed more sugar and perhaps some vanilla to amp up the flavor.

"That's a little too sophisticated for me," my friend observed.

Mercifully, there was a bit of wine left. So we drank our dessert and ranked the meal. Two out of three dishes were winners. I'll certainly have nights on the couch with Kamali's popcorn in my future. And I'd make the chicken again in a heartbeat.
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