Food & Drink The gonzo gourmet

Fired Up! is a messy romp celebrating 20 years of fearless cooking and whimsy

The first thing I noticed when I opened chef Jeff Blank's Fired Up!, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of his restaurant, Hudson's on the Bend, was the eclectic design, a jumble of brightly colored elements - photos, song lyrics, quotes, anecdotes, recipes - competing for the eye. Although the recipes should have been the winner, my gaze was drawn to a painting in the upper left-hand corner of the page, a Rubenesque blonde reclining on a purple chaise lounge wearing only a toe ring and an apron, her ample bosom pouring out the sides of the bib.

She's not an employee, she's Antoinette Amusé, the ultimate food tease, one of eight whimsical kitchen characters invented by Shanny Lott, Blank's wife, to preside over the eight chapters of the book. Antoinette is appetizers, of course.

Once I got over Antoinette ("Pace yourself," Lott warns, "this is only the first course.") and started reading the anecdotes and recipes, I found that while it is rough hewn and perhaps a bit hammy in places, Fired Up! makes up in character and go-get-'em what it lacks in suavity.

Hudson's, located in Austin, is best known for its self-described fearless regional cuisine - there's a kind of abandon-all-cooking-you-have-known call to action in the book - and its use of non-traditional ingredients to create big, hearty taste. Fired Up! is filled with recipes like the Chicken Fried Antelope with Red Eye Gravy, a roux of Worcestershire, coffee, and Tabasco. For those of us who don't have antelope at our local grocery, there's a resources page, but each recipe also offers variations. In the case of antelope, you might substitute "venison, elk, wild boar, or even beef."

As cuckoo as the page design is, Blank has succeeded in making the book accesible and utilitarian, with recipes that list tools, optional garnishes, variations, and timing, which tells you when you should put dessert in the oven relative to dinner, not how long it will take to make the recipe. He has also included an extensive glossary at the end of the book and a well-organized index.

Fired Up!

By Jeff Blank with Sara Courington
Ten Speed Press
$35, 200 pages
ISBN: 0976651807
The recipes seem easy enough to follow, although many contain multiple steps - the Giant Rabbit Ravioli in Garlic Sage Ancho Butter is actually four recipes in one. There are simple recipes. I made a Peach and Dewberry Cobbler that came together in 15 minutes. It suggested blackberries as a substitute for the dewberries, but I had blueberries. The result was a delicious, gooey mess with sweet dough dumplings in the center and a crunchy crust on top.

The anecdotes are not beautifully written, but they are heartfelt and funny. Some are universal - the prep cook who went out to get his hat and never returned - and others are inside jokes, such as the hostess who went to get the mop to clean up an overflowing toilet rather than delegate the task as the male host was known to do, and found it under the furnace on fire, thus saving the restaurant from an untimely demise. My sense is that Fired Up! will be a treasure only for regulars of the restaurant and folks who have worked there, but for the rest of us it's still an amusing read and good food.

By Susan Pagani

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